The words "fun run" make me shudder. Even now that I have discovered that running can indeed be quite fun, it is a term that I refuse to use. It's one of the reasons I was reluctant to enter the City to Surf for the first time. Happily, I discovered those tens of thousands of people who enter the world's biggest road race year after year are onto something – and I'm all set to run with next week.
It's a great course: Hyde Park to Bondi over 14 and a bit kilometres with a couple of hills and knockout harbour views on the way.
When Sydney dishes up a sunny winter morning, it's hard to top. I have edited those few weeks of heavy June rain out of my winter running journal and enjoyed perfect running weather over the last few weeks – so here's hoping for more of that on race day.
I'm also looking forward to checking out the oompah bands on the nature strips in North Bondi and to the fist-pumping, loud puffing and general drama that gets people up the stretch from Rose Bay to Vaucluse, aka Heartbreak Hill.
My regular running route overlaps the course and I've been seeing more runners than usual out training on New South Head Road. Most of them look fitter than me and very determined. This year lots of runners seem to be sporting fancy compression garments, not just leggings but shirts with a sort of cockroach-style armour breastplate insert. By contrast, there are noticeably fewer barefoot runners treading lightly on the pavements.
The City to Surf is a Sydney running institution. It's meaningful to all the runners I know in different ways: they used to run it with their dad, it was their first road race, they ran their fastest time ever in 1992, that sort of thing. It's been going since 1971 and gets bigger each year. The distance is far enough to feel like a bit of an achievement, but not enough to ruin a weekend.
There are seriously fast elite runners in the field but it remains a very friendly, chatty event – fun, even. If you run even part of the way, you're unlikely to finish anywhere near the back of the field. This is enormously reassuring to me.
My own City to Surf history is pretty patchy. I moved to Sydney in the 90s but the first time I ran the race was in 2008 and I've missed two since then (ankle injury; rain, hangover). So I've actually only run the City to Surf three times. For years I lived in an apartment in Kings Cross near the start of the course. That was in my pre-running days and I was not pleased to be woken by the sound of tens of thousands of pairs of feet pounding the asphalt, along with sundry whoops and cheers.
If you've never run in such a huge event before, the sheer physical presence of so many runners can be overwhelming, especially if you're used to training alone. It takes a while to find a place in the field, and throughout there's a lot of hopping and dodging required to overtake people and find a straight path. Drinks stations are surprisingly chaotic: the noise generated as plastic cups get chucked onto the ground and squashed is tremendous, and the road is left sticky with Gatorade residue for a couple of hundred metres. It's stinky, of course, loud, and with plenty of elbows.
I've given up on trying to find anyone at the start and will run alone this year. Fine with me, because there is plenty of quality eavesdropping to be had in the muster area. I love overhearing people getting revved up about PBs and when to down a gel and all that kind of crap. Carb loading, Dencorub, post-race beers, it's all going on.
I've never been one for group glee but can't deny that the atmosphere at the start of the City to Surf is pretty magic.
And then it starts. With timing chips this is quite an odd experience.
A gun goes off somewhere in the distance, there's lots of cheering – and then five minutes later you begin to shuffle toward the actual startline.
The clock is set when your foot crosses the time pad. From then, there's lots of shoving and jostling up William Street, through the tunnel, past Rushcutter's Bay Park – and all the way to Bondi. This week the route will be clogged up with the usual buses and tasteful silver cars, but come the weekend a great heaving crowd will take over – and I'll be part of it.