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Murray Marathon

I just walked 5km today, again with no problems, and even jogged the last 100 metres to see how it felt.  I'm seriously thinking of jogging a few kilometres tomorrow, ever ready to stop if anything feels amiss.

In years gone by, when I couldn't run because of injury, I often tackled other endurance sports.  Browsing through some old magazines, I found this article I wrote for the Victorian Marathon Club Newsletter published in June 1985, about my first attempt at the Red Cross Murray Marathon (now run by the YMCA).


The start of a recent Murray Marathon.

Following my third left Achilles tendon operation in April 1984, I found myself under doctor’s orders to do little or no running for six months, the first two of which were to be spent on crutches.  After these two months, I abandoned the crutches for a bicycle, and after one more month, combined the cycling with a little jogging.  The combination didn't work and I found myself with a stress fracture in my left foot and orders to stay off my foot for six weeks.  So it was off to the Richmond pool for a mile of slow freestyle each morning - terribly boring.

After the required rest period passed I began jogging, but aware of the Byrnes’ penchant for sometimes slightly overdoing things, began to look for some other form of exercise to combine it with.  Then, brainwave (!), I would start canoeing and enter the Red Cross Murray River Canoe Marathon, a long held ambition of mine.  Inquiries revealed that entries for the five-day, 404km event from Yarrawonga to Swan Hill closed at the end of November, giving me a month to decide whether I could do it and a further month after that to sharpen up.

Competitors in a recent Murray Marathon.

By following up personal contacts I borrowed an old white-water kayak (stable, slow, difficult to steer) and entered my first race, a 20 miler, a few days later.  I never discovered where I came but I didn't fall out!  Soon after, Phil Hamer, an ex- Box Hill marathoner, lent me a touring kayak (TK1, unstable, faster, easier to steer) and I plunged into daily training.

Two weeks later I strained some ligaments in my upper back quite badly and had to give away completely all paddling and running for two weeks - I even had difficulty walking.  My illusions of being competitive with the best rapidly faded and it looked unlikely that I would be able to participate at all.  However, frequent physiotherapy got me back on the water and road in time for four more weeks training.  I should admit to falling out of the kayak into the lovely Yarra more than once in that time.

Competitors in a recent Murray Marathon.

Barb and two of her girlfriends agreed to be my land crew (together with one of their two-year old daughters) and we arrived in Yarrawonga ready and rarin' to go at Lunchtime on Boxing Day.  The remainder of the day was spent registering, checking equipment and some practice paddling.  After watching a few of the novices fall out in front of the assembled crowds, I refrained from the latter.  Equipment was in large part dictated by the hot sunny weather and comprised sunglasses, Arab-like headdress, pyjama pants, long-sleeved top and chamois gloves.  Into the kayak went two 2-litre drink containers from which long plastic tubes were connected by safety pins high on my chest so that drinks could be taken without stopping paddling, a mandatory life jacket (not worn) and a container of jelly beans.  My seat had two layers of foam rubber as well as a sheepskin cover.

Day 1 dawned bright and sunny and I arrived at the start with minutes to spare after watching some of the earlier, slower classes get under way.  There were 500 paddlers in 300 canoes, 69 of which were in my class - the Men's Open TK1.  Water turbulence caused by the frenetic early paddling was my biggest problem as the starting gun boomed and I only just avoided tipping out whilst dodging a capsized competitor.
The key to marathon paddling is 'wash-riding', i.e. sitting right on the tail (only inches away) of another competitor and effectively surfing on his wake.  This technique reduces the paddling effort required by about 10% but takes careful concentration and occasional sprints as the leader (who, not surprisingly, sometimes objects to giving people free rides) surges to get away.  I resolved to spend as much time as possible wash-riding and every time a TK1 passed me I would detach myself from one kayak and attach myself to the new one.  By paddling hard and wash-riding I found myself well-placed after 60km when some of the short-comings of my paddling technique began to manifest themselves in my right wrist, which swelled up, turned red and blue and became extremely painful - tenosynovitis.  I struggled on for the last 32km, finishing 14th for the day.

Day 2 was even longer, 96km, and soon after the start I damaged the deltoid muscle in my right shoulder and was reduced to virtually one-armed paddling.  Each day's paddling was divided into four or five checkpoints about 2 hours apart (with a medical post half-way between each).  Just prior to the first of these, five TK2’s (two men) swept past me creating waves which my weakened condition couldn’t cope with and I fell out much to my embarrassment in front of the assembled hundreds.  The day continued to deteriorate.  I felt I had reached the low point of my life - limping from medical post to medical post, administering ice packs, receiving massages, scoffing copious Aspros, falling out and generally wishing I was dead.  Only the embarrassment of sending my caring land crew back to Melbourne after 1½ days prevented my withdrawal.  After 10 hours I finished - 54th this time - dreading the next three days.

Day 3 is a bit blurred in my memory though I do remember falling out once for no particular reason in front of a group of fishermen.  The intensive medical treatment continued, and as I grew gradually used to my disabilities, my average speed improved.  Withdrawing, though pleasant to contemplate, was not an option since ex- Club member Mike Hall and his family and Ray & Marilyn Wilson were expected in Echuca, the stage finish, to see the spectacle.  I was 37th for the day.

Day 4 began with some optimism and I actually chased a few canoes to wash-ride.  The optimism was misplaced.  I strained the ligaments in my back again after four hours and limped across the line 24th for the day.  It was only the conviction of the doctors that none of my injuries would lead to permanent disabilities if I soldiered on that kept me going.

Competing in my second Murray Marathon
(possibly 1986).

I set out on Day 5, the final day, intent only on survival, slowly paddling down the river until, 20km from the finish, the old competitive spirit surfaced again.  In the distance in front of me, I spied another TK1 and set out in pursuit.  Unknown to me, he in turn was pursuing another TK1.  Two hours later, the three of us were together - exhausted- and straining for the finish 3km away.  The last 200m was a mad sprint (I nearly fell out twice) with me taking the silver medal in our little trio.  After 37 hours of paddling I came 32nd in my class and was a physical wreck, unable to even lift a toothbrush with my right arm.  Two and a half weeks passed before I would jog again.  The finish of the race was followed by a presentation and huge New Year's Eve in the Swan Hill Showgrounds.

The Red Cross organisation was superb.  In addition to the medical posts a large medical centre operated at each campsite until 10pm at night and from 5 .30am each morning where queues could be found for massages, physios, doctors and repairs to hands, bums, wrists and miscellaneous.  On the fourth night the team of about 12 masseurs massaged over 400 paddlers.  Including land crews and officials, the camp totalled near 3000 people, yet the special teams of volunteer marshals wearing colour-coded jackets ensured that everything worked smoothly and no-one got lost driving between check points.

To ensure no paddlers missed the start each day (the slowest left first at 7 .00am) the organisers kindly drove a loudspeaker van around the campsite at 5:00am playing 'Morning Has Broken' and 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life to the accompaniment of unprintable shouts and comments from roused paddlers and land crews.

No canoeist could complete the course without the aid of a land crew and I owe a great debt to mine.  The girls nursed me through each day, literally lifting me out of the canoe at check points, filling drink bottles, administering 2-3 Aspros each time and a couple of handfuls of jelly beans, massaging shoulders, offering words of encouragement to unreceptive ears and spending long hours driving and waiting in the hot sun.  Even after they had lifted my disabled body from the canoe for the last time each day they still had to put up the tents and prepare the meals whilst I lay down or sought medical treatment.  I can't say it was a pleasant experience but it was one not to be missed and I will be back - better prepared and more competitive - in a few years time.  Even the land crew said they'd come back though Barb thought it might be easier to be a paddler next time.