Canberra: The biggest “small town” of Australia, and home to beautiful lakes, mountains, bushland… and of course a few politicians who come to visit a few weeks a year. But don’t let the reputation deceive you, with a relatively low population density as well as a comprehensive network of pathways and trails, Canberra is arguably one of the best cities to be a runner in Australia.
The Canberra Marathon is the flagship event of the Australian Running Festival, the largest on-road running event in the ACT. It’s generally held in the first couple of weeks of April across two days, with shorter distances on the Saturday and the half marathon and up on the Sunday. Being early April, the weather can be a little unpredictable – some years have been absolutely perfect, while others have been extremely windy with cold rain. That being said, if you’re lucky enough to be there for one of Canberra’s quintessential Autumn days, you’ll encounter not only perfect running conditions but also incredible views of the most amazing scenery Canberra has to offer. I ran the Canberra Marathon in April 2018 on a slightly overcast and rather windy day, but nonetheless had a fantastic time on a challenging course.
The Canberra Marathon starts and finishes at King George’s Terrace in front of Old Parliament House in the Parliamentary Triangle. For local Canberrans and those staying outside the Triangle, there is plenty of parking available on site, though be sure to familiarise yourself with road closure arrangements to avoid getting stuck! For those coming from outside the city, there is plenty of accommodation available in the area, although being in a premium area, it can be pricey. The closest accommodation option if you have the means would be the Hyatt Hotel Canberra, just a short walk through an underpass to get to the start area, which goes for around AUD$300 per night. For cheaper options, there are plenty of accomodation options in the nearby suburbs of Kingston and Braddon, though you’ll likely need either a car or an Uber to get to the start line, or alternatively you might be able to take advantage of Canberra’s popular hire e-scooters. As with any marathon, I’d recommend getting in early the day before the race so you have plenty of time to familiarise yourself with the course, pick up your bib and check out the festival.
For the 2018 race, I arrived at the festival starting area around an hour before the 6:25am start time. The weather was overcast, windy and a just a little rain here and there, though the weather was quite pleasant. My shoes of choice for the day were the Nike Epic React Flyknits – not the perfect Next% marathon shoe we’ve come to love over the years, but a solid choice for the distance. As I drove in, there was no need to drop any bags for this race. After some warm ups and the necessary pre-marathon toilet break, I refamiliarised myself with the course, checked my shoelaces and lined up for the start line. I tried to position myself close to the 3:30 pacer – I didn’t think I would be in a position to run 3:30, however it seemed like a reasonable pace goal to aspire to. With a running contingent of just over 1,000 runners in the 42 kilometre distance, it was quite easy to seed myself at the appropriate starting point. At 6:25am, after some motivational words from the announcer, the starting gun went off and we started the race.
The first couple of kilometres involved running around Old Parliament House, up the federation mall and around Parliament House before descending the mall again and heading down to the lake. The start of the race being a reasonably steep and lengthy hill, it was the perfect time to get my bearings and take it nice and easy – I’m sure it’s very easy to get fatigued later in the race if you take this section too hard. At the lake we surpassed the 5km mark, then rejoined the road to head out to Telopea Park – a 1km long park that connects the inner-south suburbs of Barton and Kingston. The course takes in the full length of the park along the western side before doing a full loop of Telopea Park School (Canberra’s first and possibly only francophone bilingual school) – another hilly section. Following this, the course heads back to the Parliamentary Triangle to pass the 10km mark right near the start line – a perfect time to take an isotonic gel from Science in Sport, but overall I was feeling quite good with the 3:30 pacers in my sight and an average pace of just under 5 minutes per kilometre.
From there, the course then heads toward Parliament House up Kings Avenue and turns onto the outer ring road around Parliament known as State Circle. Kings Avenue features another hill, though not as steep as the first one heading up to Parliament House, then drops down onto State Circle, followed by a reasonably steep climb to the start of Adelaide Avenue. Adelaide Avenue itself is a gradual downhill (and quite welcome, after that State Circe climb!) before turning right onto Hopetoun Circuit as the course tracks through suburban Yarralumla, the leafy embassy district of the capital. The course remains quite flat, though a little undulating, as we rounded out the 20km with a trip out and back to Weston Park, home of hot air balloon spectaculars and of course, a very popular Parkrun. I took another gel and took advantage of the drinks station at the 20km mark (as I had every 4 or so kilometres as they were positioned) and was feeling overall very comfortable, maintaining my previously established pace of just under 5 minutes per kilometre. We crossed the halfway point – 21.1km – as we ran along the lakeside Alexandrina Drive between Yarralumla and the Parliamentary Triangle.
The next few kilometres continued along the lakefront and at around the 24km mark I saw the sweet sign of Commonwealth Avenue Bridge, in more ways than one signifying the second phase of the race. I say more ways than one because not only did it mean that we would be crossing the bridge and leaving the relatively wind-insulated suburbs of the inner south behind, but this was also the point where the course merged with the half marathon course. Unfortunately for people of my speed, this meant merging with a much slower and more numerous half marathoners – around 7 minutes per kilometre, at first, forcing a lot of swerving to get around them.
I found myself picking up the pace a little without much effort, registering paces in the 4:40s as we approached the bridge. After crossing the bridge, the course dropped down and headed westward along Parkes Way. While I was still feeling good, this was where things started to feel tough. The wind was relentless and in my face for kilometres at a time, and the hills were steep. What’s more, I found myself continually needing to swerve around the slower runners. For the record, I have nothing against slow runners or walk runners, they’re doing an amazing job just by being there, but I do feel like there could be better separation to avoid traffic jams, collisions and general frustration. Nonetheless, I was able to maintain the pace more or less, perhaps dropping do the low 5:00s per KM. The half marathoners did have an earlier U-turn point than the marathoners, so we did have a couple of kilometres with only the full marathoners, but the wind and the hills remained. At the 28km mark, just when the courses separated, I took advantage of another gel, then finally reached the turnaround point at 29km. For the next kilometre I enjoyed the wind in my back (though it is never equally as advantageous as the headwind is detrimental), and finally crossed the 30km mark with an average time of just over 5:00 per km, taking advantage of the drink station as I crossed the mark.
While the difficult conditions were finished and I had survived without major loss of pace, they had certainly caused considerable degradation of my form and this started to show from the 30km mark onwards. I wouldn’t say I hit ‘the wall’ as such, but I certainly found it harder and harder to maintain my pace. Nonetheless, I continued eastward along Parkes Way and registered paces in the 5:00 to 5:10 range along the way to the 36km mark, the next turning point. The 36km mark represents the start of the final “phase” of the race, and certainly one that will make you suffer if you haven’t kept enough fuel in the tank up until now.
At the 36km mark, taking the turn, I took the opportunity to have another gel as we headed up to Kings Avenue Bridge. Between the fatigue, the hills heading up to the bridge, and the degradation of form arising from the tough conditions on westbound Parkes Way, this was where my pace really started to fall away. In a cruel and rather demotivating twist, the 37km mark is just over a kilometre away from the finish line – however the course takes you on another trip around Telopea Park to finish off the 42km. I posted a few more kilometres in the 5:20 to 5:30 range, then dropped down to 5:45 pace for the 40th kilometre. I took another gel before doing another loop of Telopea School at around 5:40 pace, and continued this pace for the last two kilometres as we headed back to the Parliamentary Triangle for the finish line.
The finish line
Finally, depleted, I found myself carrying my body under the bridge and into the finish line zone, managing to pull out a final kilometre of around 5:30 pace. Turning off the road and into the final 200 meters toward the finish, just meters away from the start line that we had left from hours previous, I drew some final effort from the cheering crowds lining the pathway toward the line. I finally crossed the line with a time of just under 3 hours and 40 minutes with a reading of just under 43 kilometres on my watch – I had certainly zigzagged quite a bit along the way! After crossing the line, I was treated to the obligatory finishers medal as well as fruit, water and isotonic drinks – all of which I was very happy to accept.
Overall, the Canberra Marathon is not a big city marathon, and it doesn’t pretend to be. But it is a truly beautiful course, challenging at times with a few strategic hurdles to separate the unprepared from the prepared. In addition, the warmth of the crowds along the way – including spectators watching from their homes in the suburban sections of the course – makes for an excellent experience in this big small town!
Thanks for reading all the way to the end, I hope you’ve enjoyed it. If you did enjoy this race experience, be sure to check out our other running blogs, in particular our Melbourne Marathon experience. Feel free to comment down below with your own experience of the Canberra Marathon, and be sure to like and follow our blog as well as our social media (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook). Bye for now!