Marathon effort on the Gold Coast
On a pre-dawn Sunday, it's a curious sight. Thousands of people, young and old, are packed into a park on a city outskirts.
Spotlights cast an eerie glow on palm trees. Strange noises come from a public address system.
But the oddest thing about the gathering - at a time when most ordinary mortals are still tucked up in bed - is the mood of the occasion. Not your raucous pop concert crowd here. Instead, there's a sense of nervous anticipation, an uncanny feeling of a drama about to unfold. Armageddon? An alien visit?
People are swapping anxious looks. Long queues wait outside the portaloos.
Then, for anyone not aware of what is happening, a voice with an Australian accent makes sense of it all.
"Welcome to the Gold Coast half marathon," it drawls. "There are a record 10,000 of you competing today. Good luck to you all."
The crowd is herded into a line behind barriers. At the front are the lean and mean running machines, tweaking their hi-tech watches and raring to go in their lycra tops. At the back are the wannabe athletes, some counting on a little training and a lot of luck to get them through.
A hush descends for the countdown and the gun goes off. For those of us wedged in the middle of the field, it's an anticlimax. Nothing happens.
Then slowly the mass of humanity shuffles forward, a giant conga of flailing arms and legs. It breaks into a jog then a run. Shouts of "go hard" and "give it heaps" fade as we leave the start zone. As the sun rises over the sea, all we hear is the rhythmic pounding of shoes on tarmac.
For most of us, the next hour or two is a personal challenge, a test of stamina, legspeed and willpower. Many runners will enjoy the satisfaction of a fast time. The Gold Coast marathon, half marathon and 10km courses are all flat and fast.
But others will fall short of their goals, or not make it at all. Of the 10,342 half marathon entrants, 1124 fail to finish.
The faces of the runners betray their feelings, some cool and calm, others etched in pain.
All eyes are on Japanese marathoner Yuki Kawauchi as he dashes to the line, his face locked in a determined grimace - or is it a smile?
He certainly isn't smiling when he sees the time he has recorded - just one second outside the race record and a $5000 bonus prize.
"I pushed myself to the limit," he gasps into the microphones. "I really had to push myself. I will come back to beat the 2 hour 10 minute mark next time."
Kawauchi is in agony; his compatriot, Yukiko Akaba, is in ecstasy. She storms home to break the women's marathon record by more than two minutes. "My aim was to beat the course record so I'm very happy because I beat it by far," she beams.
There's lots of laughter, too, not only from the joy of completing the race but also at the wacky and wonderful sights. There's the guy who sweats around the course in a Superman costume. Or the dapper, straw-hatted competitor carrying a huge sousaphone brass instrument - at the same time playing the theme song from The Muppet Show.
Hordes of runners (27,600 last year) flock to the Gold Coast races. Most travel from around Australia, combining a run with a visit to a theme park or a spot of surfing before returning home.
For the 400 or so Kiwi entrants, the trip over is even more of an adventure - a midwinter escape from the cold at home and a chance to sample the delights of the Gold Coast.
"It's a holiday," says Christchurch runner Bob Fyfe, whose idea of a holiday is a punishing 21 kilometre or 42km race with his mates, followed by a week of playing golf and dining out.
"I've been going there for 10 years, starting with the half marathon. When that got too big, I switched to the marathon because it was less congested."
Another Kiwi, John Shivas, makes a two-week break of his annual visit.
"We usually spend a week after the race on the Gold Coast and a week on the Sunshine Coast," he says. "We have a great time. I love Australia."
Shivas has recorded top placings in his age group in the 16 years he has been competing. "I like everything about the race, the course, the weather, the organisation," he says.
So he may well be a starter again - joining the throngs at another ghostly gathering before dawn in the Gold Coast park.
When The next Gold Coast Airport Marathon is on July 5-6, 2014. The 10km and children's races are on Saturday, the marathon and half marathon on Sunday.
The course The courses run next to surf beaches and broadwater.
The weather Conditions in July on the Gold Coast are traditionally low humidity, little or no wind in the morning with temperatures ranging from 10 to 20 degrees Celsius.
How to enter Register online.
Getting there Direct flights to Coolangatta from Auckland and Christchurch. Other flights into Brisbane.
More information goldcoastmarathon.com.au
The writer travelled courtesy of Gold Coast Tourism. He ran the half marathon in 1 hour 36 minutes.
Sunday Star Times