Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Portsmouth Coastal Marathon

Hurrah!  2011 is almost at an end and I’m feeling greatly relieved to have reached the end injury free with my marathon challenge behind me.  As has already been pointed out, it is a good job that I can run better than I can count.  I have completed 16 marathons in one year after originally intending to do just one a month.  My average time for all 16 was just under 3 hours 30 minutes, ranging from 3 hours 3 minutes in London to 4 hours 14 minutes for the Shillington Shuffle.  I ran 6 pure road marathons, 5 trail marathons and 5 marathons that were a mix of road and trail, and 5 of the marathons required a degree of self-navigation.  So, my choice of marathons was reasonably diverse, which certainly helped to keep the challenge interesting throughout the year.  I’m not sure it would have been as enjoyable if they’d all been large scale road marathons like London.

My last marathon of the year took place from Portsmouth on Sunday 18 December.  I saw a few familiar faces.  First off was the legend who is Steve Edwards, who makes my marathon exploits seem feeble.  He has already become the youngest person to run 500 marathons (I was told this by another runner, and it’s not a fact that I have checked with the man himself).  He is now on a mission to run 500 consecutive marathons in less then 3 hours 30 minutes (this is true).  Talking to him on Sunday I got the impression he was slightly disappointed at only running 25 marathons in 2011 with an average time of 3 hours 10 minutes.  There were a couple of people who I’d seen at Broad Meadow the previous week, one who is closing in on his 100th marathon one who already has 411 marathons under his belt.  I also met up with Ian Berry once again, who I ran with on the Pathfinder marathon and in the New Forest, along with his girlfriend Sandra, who ran with their pet husky (who was the only runner to complete the marathon and not be given a medal).  I also chatted briefly with a runner I met at the Bedford Clanger and Shillington Shuffle (unfortunately, I’ve forgotten his name). 

A few runners warm-up at the start of the Portsmouth Coastal Marathon
In total some 640 runners took part on Sunday, quite a large field for a December marathon.  However, it was clear why the marathon had such a large turn-out.  The organisation was immaculate and the route was very simple but at the same time sufficiently varied and scenic to make it an enjoyable event.  From Portsmouth Promenade we headed east all the way to the south-west tip of Hayling Island, which is connected to the main land by a bridge.  We then followed the same course all the way back to the start/finish. 

Hitting the beach at mile 2
At the 2 mile point we found ourselves leaving tarmac to run on the first stretch of beach.  We ran around the top edge of a bay that would be under water at high tide.  I was informed that slower runners got very wet feet at this point last year.  The marathon has an unenforced cut-off point at the half-way mark.  If you don’t make it to half-way before the cut-off you can guarantee getting wet feet on your homeward run.  Shortly after this I almost lost my cool with the only idiot runner I’ve met all year.  We were running along a narrow footpath with a fence to a caravan park on one side and a narrow concrete sea wall on the other side.  There was clearly no option but to tuck in behind the runner ahead of you and not even consider any overtaking moves.  However, someone behind me had other ideas.  He got so close to me that he caught my heels twice, and I could feel his breath on my neck.  I was about to turn round and tell him to back-off when he literally pushed past me and tucked in between me and the runner ahead.  I thought he was about to clip the heels of the next runner, but instead he jumped up on to the sea wall, which was about 6 inches wide, and sprinted past the six or so runners ahead of me.  I could tell by his body shape that there was no way he was going to beat me to the finish, and I wondered to myself why anyone would risk falling off a reasonably high sea wall on to shingle at the 4 mile point of a marathon.  Sure enough, once we reached the end of the footpath and were running on a reasonably wide section of tarmac, I found myself passing the sea wall sprinter within a mile of his passing me, and then never saw him again.  He also made himself fairly distinctive by wearing a Santa hat.

One small section of the route was alongside a very busy road, but for the most part we stayed very close to the coast running on a mixture of tarmac, gravel and mud paths, which were frozen on the way out but completely churned up and slippery on the way back.  There was one other beach section to contend with, this one with very loose shingle underfoot, which is energy sapping to run on.  Fortunately, it was no longer than, maybe, 100m.

At the halfway point I was just ahead of Ian, Sandra and their dog.  Sandra and I kept passing each other over the next few miles.  Typically Sandra would be ahead of me and I’d catch her at each water station, whilst she made sure her husky had enough to drink.  Ian must have been just behind me the whole way.  With 8 miles to go the wind seemed to pick up.  With 6 miles to go I started to feel drained of energy and found it very hard to maintain a decent pace.  With 4 miles to go I was caught by both Ian and Sandra.  I decided to try and keep with them to the finish.  I then realised that Sandra had mud on her T-shirt and was running with a limp.  When I asked what had happened she told me she had managed to sprain her ankle with 9 miles to go, but was determined to carry on.  I was really struggling at this point but I thought that if she could run with a sprained ankle I should be able to keep up with her.  I was also sure that if I was in as much pain as she was I’d have given up entirely, or at least decided to just walk to the finish.  I was also amazed that Ian hadn’t tried to convince her to stop.

Whilst running with Ian and Sandra my right hamstring started to cramp, sending sharp pains down my leg.  I felt forced to slow to a walk, leaving the other two to go ahead.  Watching Sandra limping off on a sprained ankle whilst I walked to nurse my hamstring made me feel like a complete wimp.  I managed to start running again, but if I tried to push hard off my right leg my hamstring would complain.  So I had to run with an almost entirely straight right leg for the last 4 miles.  This meant that I was passed by several runners, a situation that is the reverse of what I’m used to in the closing stages of a marathon.  At that point, I have to say, I wasn’t enjoying my marathon experience.  I felt as if I was attempting one marathon too many, or that’s what my brain seemed to be telling me.  I even questioned why I’d want to run 26.2 miles at all.  I then thought about Sandra limping some distance ahead of me and told myself not to be such a wimp and to just get on with it.  Even with a hamstring in spasm I was able to complete each mile in about 8 minutes 30 seconds, or thereabouts, and I reasoned that many of my clients would be happy with that.  I was glad to reach the section of beach again and to then find myself back on Portsmouth Promenade with just 2 miles to go.  I could see the pier in the distance and knew the finish line was just beyond it.  For what seemed like ages the pier never seemed to get any closer.  I probably had to walk about three times over the last 2 miles.  I couldn’t quite believe this was happening to me.  I don’t think that I’ve ever felt so relieved to reach the finish line of a marathon.  I was also amazed that I had some how managed to do it in just under 3 hours 20 minutes.

Thumbs up for the 16th and final marathon of the year
Of course, a few minutes after finishing, once I’d collected my medal and event T-shirt (only the second technical running T-shirt of the year – the other being from Loch Ness), any pain in my leg seemed to have completely subsided.  I chatted with a few other runners, all of whom said they found it tough, despite being completely flat.  Even Steve Edwards admitted to finding it quite hard, due to all the different conditions underfoot.  I then sat and chatted with another runner on the promenade, sheltered from the wind whilst eating our complimentary soup, bread roll and mince pie.  We watched many other runners on the last few hundred metres of the marathon and cheered them home along with a handful of supporters. 

Runners approaching the finish line
I then left when I noticed I was starting to feel the winter chill seep into my bones, and realised how little clothes I was wearing for a winter’s day.  I headed back to the car and started thinking about a hot bath and a big Sunday roast waiting for me at home.  I wondered if I’d ever be tempted to top my challenge.  For now I am looking forward to a few weeks off and not running another marathon until Paris on April 15th.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Last Long Training Run and Broad Meadow Marathon

I know, I know, I haven’t been doing a great job of keeping my blog updated of late.  I put this down to being generally very busy at work and Christmas preparations (feeble excuse) getting in the way.  I’m going to try and keep this brief, but may well get carried away.

First off, I completed my final long, 19 mile training run on Sunday 27 November, two weeks after marathon number 14.  I was joined on this run by various friends.  We all met in the car park of the Plough Pub in Fen Ditton at the civilised time of 10am.  Just as well as I had been out for a few drinks the night before (as had others – it is the build up to Christmas after all).  Jamsheed had agreed to run the whole 19 miles with me, whilst Tony, Dan, Megan and Lynne had agreed to see us off and then drive to the 5 mile point.  We were also joined by Steve at about 9 miles.  It was a glorious day; clear blue skies, slightly cold, but not bad for late November, as you can see from the team photo. 

Me and the Amsterdam Team: Dan, Steve, Tony, Lynne & Megan

The rest of the gang, with the exception of Jamsheed all ran in their Amsterdam T-shirts, which made me wish I had joined them on that run, rather than running in the Lincoln Spires & Steeples marathon that took place on the same day.  Oh well, maybe another year.  Unfortunately, Lynne had to pull out half way as her knee suddenly became painful.  We all decided to put Lynne on a bus back into Town and to, hopefully, see her at the finish.  The rest of us continued on our way around the outskirts of Cambridge, through Grantchester then around the backs to follow the River Cam back to Fen Ditton.  It was a highly enjoyable social run at a very leisurely pace and I was very grateful for the company.

On Grantchester Meadows after Lynne's retirement

Tony & Megan alongside the Cam

Friday evening I drove down to Stratford-upon-Avon to spend a night in a Travelodge Inn.  I’ve long since given up on trying to convince Ruth to join me on my marathon weekends away, plus she also had a college reunion to attend in London, which was tough competition.  So I spent a few lonely hours wondering the streets of Stratford before having a meal for one in Bella Italia and returning to the Travelodge for an early night.  This is what the loneliness of the long distance runner should be about.  The running bit is very sociable, it’s the night away on your own before an event that isn’t.

When I left the hotel I think I experienced the coldest morning of the year so far.  My car thermometer told me it was -1oC.  Was I being optimistic planning on running in shorts?  There was still an hour before the run started, maybe it’ll warm up a bit by then, I thought to myself. 

The race HQ for the Broad Meadow Marathon was in the Carriage Café at the end of the Greenway, a disused railway line that is now a leisure walking and cycle route.  In my opinion it was strange that the marathon itself didn’t make much use of this bridleway.  We were all given our numbers, directions and a cup of tea in the café before setting off at 9am.  I glanced over the race instructions and found the route description confusing.  For a start I couldn’t tell which direction we were supposed to leave the car park.  I checked with a few other runners, who seemed just as confused.  Many people were wondering how they’d manage to follow the instructions for all 26.2 miles.  Whilst waiting to set off I also decided to change into running leggings.  The thought of getting my bare legs out on such a cold day was too much.

Race HQ in the Carriage Cafe

Come the appointed hour the race organiser set us off in the right direction, after reciting a shortened version of King Henry V’s “Once more onto the breach” speech.  About 50 people set off at the start.  I soon found myself in a lead group with seven other runners.  I was grateful to note that we had a runner from the Stratford running club up front who seemed to know the route well.  He was the only person without the race directions in his hand.  This gave me and the others in our group a lot of confidence.  We maintained a pace that I was very comfortable with and one which I knew I could sustain to the finish.  I knew I’d be o.k. so long as our Stratford man really knew the way and didn’t decide to speed up.

Unfortunately, the Stratford runner was probably over confident of the route.  At about 5 miles he seemed to suddenly doubt his directions.   We asked a local dog walker to point us in the direction of a road mentioned on the instructions.  When we reached the junction we met a group of runners who should have been a long way behind us coming from a different direction.  It seemed we’d gone about half a mile out of our way.  I decided that whilst the local knowledge had served us fairly well to this point, I would start to also try to follow the directions myself.  However, we did go wrong a further two times because the Stratford runner insisted he knew the way, whilst the rest of us were trying to piece together the instructions in front of us.

The marathon route itself was very scenic.  The first quarter was mostly over rolling countryside, passing some quaint churches and a war memorial on top of a hill with great views.  The second quarter was nice and flat following the canal on an out and back route, which meant we could cheer on the slower runners as we passed them whilst returning to the halfway point.  The halfway point itself was back at the Carriage Café where we’d started.  We were due to pick up the second half of the race instructions at this point, but we had a forced stop as the instructions weren’t immediately available.  Someone had to rush off and collect them from the boot of a car. 

Being checked in at the third checkpoint

As we had to wait for the 2nd set of instructions there was time to pose for a photo

The second half of the marathon then mostly followed the river out to the village of Welford-on-Avon.  Returning from Welford gave us another opportunity to cheer on those runners behind us and for us to appreciate just how much of a margin we had over the other competitors. 

When we were in Welford our Stratford guide picked up a hamstring pull and decided to withdraw from the run.  At this point our original group of eight was reduced to six.  We weren’t quite sure what had happened to the other person in the group.  We continued as a group all the way to the fifth and final checkpoint, which was just 2 miles from the finish.  I’m sure others in the group were wondering if we’d end up having a sprint finish to the line.  We all knew there were prizes up for grabs for the first 3 runners.  It was certainly going through my mind, but I kept telling myself I wasn’t bothered about getting a prize.  The idea of turning the last few miles into a race certainly wasn’t discussed.  However, with about half a mile to go the youngest person in our group clearly fancied his chances and started to speed up.  Someone else then started a pursuit and I decided to have a go myself.  With about 200m to go I was in second place, but I was aware of someone closing in on me fast.  I felt as if I was close to my limit, I could have gone a little quicker, but to do so might have resulted in me spilling the remnants of breakfast over the finish line.  I reasoned that coming second really wasn’t that important.  With less than 100m to go to the line I was passed by the runner who clearly wanted the second place a lot more than I did.  I was very happy to come away with a third place finish. 

Marathon number 15 completed

My finishing time was 3 hours 46 minutes, not particularly fast, especially as the course wasn’t that difficult.  It’s indicative of how much you slow down when you have to follow instructions.  We six leaders congratulated each other at the finish.  Once we’d stopped running we quickly became cold, so we retreated into the café where free tea and sandwiches were laid on for us.  Chris, the organiser then turned up to give us our mementos: a T-shirt and an engraved shot glass.  Everyone seemed delighted with the shot glass.  It’s certainly not a memento that I’ve had before.  We were then asked to hang on for the prize giving ceremony, which would take place when the first three ladies arrived.  Other runners slowly trickled in after us.  Over 20 minutes went by before the next finisher arrived, and we had to wait almost an hour until the first three ladies were in.  However, given that I’ve never, ever been involved in a prize giving ceremony before I was certainly not about to rush home and miss it. 

The third lady turned out to be Lisa Barry, who I ran with on the Pathfinder marathon back in August.  She was taking this one easy as she was running another marathon the next day.  The prize giving ceremony was held; we were applauded by about half a dozen hangers on, said our goodbyes and went our separate ways.  And what was my prize?  A fairly decent looking bottle of mulled wine (very seasonal) and a £10 gift voucher.  For an £18 marathon entry fee I had come away with a decent amount of goodies and had a very pleasant run with a nice bunch of guys.

Now I just have one final marathon to run this year.  I really hope it is on a marked course and that I don’t have to follow instructions.  I’ll find out next Sunday.

At home with my booty: T-shirt, engraved shot glass, gift voucher and mulled wine

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Kettlebell Challenge for Children in Need

Of course, the running continues.  In fact, only this morning did I complete an interval training session consisting of eight sets of two minute pieces.  I haven't put myself through a hard interval training session for some time, as I've never felt that I'd recovered enough since the previous marathon to run hard.  However, this morning I was feeling up to the task and curious to see the effects of running 14 marathons in 11 months.  I wasn't quite as quick as at the start of the year, but not a million miles away.

What I really want to report on today is the Cambridge Kettlebell Challenge.  One of my clients had the idea of holding a mass kettlebell class to raise money for Children in Need.  I developed the idea and mentioned it to other clients, who were mostly really keen to be involved.  The aim was to run a class on Saturday 19 November from 10am to 5pm.  24 people got involved, most people did 5 minutes at a time of kettlebells and 5 minutes either instructing or shaking the donation bucket.  No one stayed the whole 7 hours, but most people did a one and a half hour stint and worked in relay throughout the day.  One person (John) did about four hours in total - big up to him.
Kettlebell Challenge - I'm the one with the bucket.
I mostly kept an eye on everyone from a distance whilst shaking a bucket.  I also spent most of the day shouting "spare any change for Children in Need", and "help us complete our 7 hour kettlebell challenge.  Give it a go if you think it looks easy".  By the end of the 7 hours we had two very heavy buckets, and I was a little hoarse.  My expectation was that we might collect between £300 and £400, but on the day we managed to raise £980.  We've also collected £1,382 via a JustGiving page (, which, with Gift Aid, has brought the total raised to £2,665.  Pretty amazing, heh?

It was very gratifying to turn something I do to make a living into a charitable event and a cause for good.  Everyone who came along also really enjoyed themselves.  So who says exercise can't be fun?  Of course, they might not have enjoyed it as much if it had been pouring with rain.  Fortunately, we had fantastic weather.

I'm now off to do some kettlebelling myself.  My next big run will be this coming Sunday, when I intend to do an 18 mile training run around Cambridge.  I should be joined by quite a few friends, at least for the last 13 miles.  Should be fun.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Shillington Shuffle

This oddly named marathon was another low-key event organised by the Long Distance Walker’s Association.  Distances on offer were 12, 17 and 26.5 miles.  As is the way with these events, there was no mass start.  We could start anytime between 8am and 9.45am.  It wasn’t in the interest of faster runners to set off too early as it would have been quite possible to reach the first checkpoint before it opened.  With this in mind I went out to the pub the night before with a few friends and allowed myself to indulge in the sinful act of drinking two pints of beer.  What a relaxed approach I have to marathons these days.

Sunday morning came round and I was up at 7am and out of the house 45 minutes later.  The drive to the starting village of Barton-le-Clay took about an hour.  The car park was a short walk from the official starting point at the village hall.  After stripping down to my running gear, making my way to the start and checking in, it was 9:05 when I eventually got going.  I had no idea of how many people were before me, but over the first few miles there were plenty of walkers and runners for me to chase down and follow.  Despite this, I still managed to miss two turns early on going a short way off course.  This was my fault for not paying close attention to the race instructions, which we had to run with.

After less than 2 miles we had our first gruelling climb to contend with.  Just south of Barton-le-Clay is a ridge of hills that suddenly jump up out of the ground and seem almost man-made in the context of the surrounding gently undulating landscape.  Our route would take us up a steep gulley to the top of the ridgeline.  I ran past a few walkers on the lower slopes of the hill, but soon gave up on my exertions and walked along with everyone else.  From the top of the hill we had fantastic views of the surrounding countryside in the early morning mist.

First steep climb of the day
Most of the run then continued on footpaths, bridleways and farm tracks.  There were several sections were the organisers had secured landowner permission for us to run along the edges of ploughed fields.  However, as there is no official right of way, the running on these sections was tough and on some occasions almost impossible, you had to tiptoe your way through clods of ploughed earth.  It also seemed to me that if there was the opportunity to run up a steep hill then the race director didn’t want us to miss it.  For example, we ran up and over a hill with a trig point, which I mention as an illustration of how high it must have been.  I can now see on the map that there is an alternative path that goes around the hill that wouldn’t have made the route any longer or shorter overall.

Just after the second checkpoint of the day in Pirton, the route passed through the village church ground and past the very pretty little church.  I reached this point as a memorial service was taking place and just at the point that the congregation were having a minute’s silence.  I respectfully stopped to a walk and continued through the church ground in complete silence.
Pirton Church
Just over half-way through the run I was brought to a complete standstill and left scratching my head as the directions seemed unfeasible.  I reached a way marker post where the instructions told me to turn right and head towards a farm building.  The only problem was that turning right meant running through a field of cabbages with no sign whatsoever of a footpath.  There were very clear paths going ahead and left.  Where the instructions wrong?  I could see another runner approaching so I decided to wait until he reached me so we could decide on a course of action.  To my good fortune the runner behind me was the race organiser. What were the chances of that?  He confirmed that the instructions were correct and that there was a right of way through the cabbages.  He also told me that he had recently met with the farmer who had assured him the footpath would be reinstated before the event went ahead.  Naughty farmer didn’t keep his word.  The two of us ran through the cabbages, trampling on several and getting very wet feet in the process.  I only hoped that we were making enough damage so that other runners would be able to follow our footsteps.

By the time I reached the final checkpoint in Shillington itself I was feeling completely knackered.  I was very slow over the previous section as on many occasions I had to stop to read the directions and then check them again to make sense of them before proceeding.  I think that I was getting so tired that simple instructions weren’t making sense.  Fortunately for me, just after the final checkpoint, and whilst I was scratching my head once again, another runner caught up with me.  It turned out to be someone I’d run with on my third marathon of the year.  The two of us then continued together to the finish, chatting all the way.  He was able to make much better sense of the instructions than I was, so I left him to it and just followed. 

When we reached the finish we were informed that only one other person had completed the full marathon course ahead of us.  My partner had actually started 4 minutes ahead of me, so at this stage I was actually second.  However, it’s quite possible that there were runners who started later than me and completed the course in a quicker time.  Time keeping on the course wasn’t exactly accurate so I can’t really claim a second place finish with confidence, and there won’t be any published results at all.  The best I can say is that it’s another marathon completed this year and I now only have two to go.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Update For The Last Three Weeks & Rutland Water Marathon

The last 3 weeks has been a busy period for me.  First I was contacted to ask if I'd try a new pair of running shoes.  I was quite excited about getting a free pair of running shoes in the post to road test.  However, the shoes weren't for me.  I was asked to test the Sketchers Prospeed.  The shoe is designed to encourage a mid-foot strike, rather than a heel strike, and it does this very well. 

When I first went for a run in the shoe I started by running normally, but as there is no cushioning in the heel, you immediately have to adjust your running style as the impact feels quite uncomfortable.  So, whilst the shoes are very good at promoting a mid-foot strike, I didn't quite feel they were right for me.  After each short run I did with them I felt that I'd been for a hard run, even though my speed indicated otherwise.  The shoes are supposed to promote a more efficient running form.  It could be that I need to stick with them for a longer time period, but I ended up thinking that my running form doesn't seem to be broke in the first place, so why try to change it.

Ruth and I also went on a short holiday just over a week ago.  We spent 5 glorious autumnal days walking in the Peak District.  We couldn't believe how lucky we were.  First we spent a couple of days with our dear friends, Kate and Ron, who have fantastic walks (and runs) right from their front door in the charmingly named village of Tintwistle.

Just a short distance from our friend's house
... and slightly further away.
Ruth and I then spent two days walking from a base in the centre of the Peak District, where we did a couple of really long days walking.  Ruth was pretty much finished off at the end of each day, and it took me a lot of persuasion and prodding just to get her up to go out for food in the evening.

Ruth on Stanage Edge
Our last day was a little more relaxed with a walk around the gardens of Chatsworth House, which I'd highly recommend for nature and garden lovers.

Chatsworth House
Emperor Fountain

Autumn Colour

Kitchen Garden
Following our few days in the Peak District we spent a couple of days with Ruth's parents in Nottingham.  We returned to Cambridge last Saturday so that I could get in a 13 mile training run as preparation for this weekend's marathon.  It was quite nice to have a few non-running days, but I did also enjoy going for a run along the Roman Road bridleway close to home.  A run I've not done for some time, as there hasn't been the need to do a long run from home whilst I've been entering marathons every other week.

Last week was work as normal.  It was a busy week, made even more so by the fact that I'm now also organising a 7 hour kettlebell relay event in aid of Children In Need on Saturday 19 November.  I just hope it doesn't rain on the day, as I have set myself up to be on hand for the entire 7 hours.

And so to today.  I was slightly apprehensive about marathon number 13.  I am in no way superstitious, but so many other people made comments about hoping I wouldn't have bad luck and twist an ankle that I actually started to fear the day, especially as rain had also been forecast.  Fortunately, the long term forecast was characteristically incorrect and the weather on the door was fantastic, although quite cold with temperatures at the start of just 7 degrees Celsius.

For a £25 entry fee the start line was very low key.  Okay, so we did have chip timing, but there wasn't a single portaloo at the start.  Instead, all toilets where at the two car parks which were each a 20 minute walk from the start in either direction.  Thankfully I had made use of the facilities in the car park, but I had also expected there to be loos at the start.  You would have been in a tight spot if you had walked form your car to the start to find no toilets.  Would you walk the 20 minutes in each direction to use a loo?  Unlikely.  A bush is fine for a number 1, but... need I say more?

The race apparently had an entry limit of 1000, but I'd guess that there were less than 300 people lined up at the start.  Once we were underway the line of runners quickly thinned out into a long string of runners in single file.  I did find myself running side-by-side with a few runners, with whom I would try to strike up a conversation, but for most of the run I was running alone.  I spent a couple of miles running with a marathon first timer named Matt.  We had a pretty decent chat. 

Rutland Water itself is a reasonably large reservoir with a long peninsula that juts out into the lake like a tongue, making for a U-shaped body of water.  The route of the race started near the dam to cross the dam wall at the furthest distance from the peninsula.  We made our way counter-clockwise around the lake and had to run two laps around the peninsula, which had a timing mat at its end to ensure no one could cheat by only doing one lap.  On my second lap I found myself overtaking slower runners on their first lap, which must have been dispiriting for them.  I tried my best to cheer them on as I passed by.  As I passed one group of female runners I shouted "cheer if your having fun", to which they mostly all responded with a whoop, so I hope I brightened their run briefly.

It was a welcome relief to finish the second lap of the peninsula and turn left for the final eight miles, rather than right for another lap.  I was feeling really good at this point and overtook several runners in quick succession, including the first placed lady.  However, at mile 22 we reached a reasonably long and steepish climb that reduced me to a walk.  The first lady caught me again at this point and passed me with ease. 

Over the last four miles the terrain was very undulating with the odd short steep uphill climb.  I kept finding myself catching the first lady and going past her, only to be passed by her a short while later.  We kept this up all the way to the finish.  With about half a mile to go we were running side-by-side and the finish line was in sight.  I decided I'd just keep alongside her all the way.  With only about 200m to go we reached the final short climb, which reduced my running partner to a halt, I turned and shouted at her "you can't walk now, we're nearly there".  She groaned, then pulled herself together and started running again.  At that point I was determined to cross the line together, I didn't want to beat her as I felt she had run a much more consistently paced race than I had.  But with about 100m to go I suddenly realised that a sub 3.15 time was possible, and so I found myself sprinting for the line.  According to my own time keeping I crossed the line in 3 hours 14 minutes 41 seconds.  The first lady was then just a few seconds behind.

I collected my medal and finishers T-shirt and made my way to the bus stop to catch the free shuttle back to where I'd parked about 3 miles away.  However, once I got to the bus I realised I hadn't taken my customary finishing photo, so dashed back to the finish line to have my photo taken.

On returning to the bus stop I realised I'd just missed the bus and then had to wait about 40 minutes for it to return.  I have no idea why it took it so long to travel 6 miles.  If I'd known I was going to spend so long waiting by the side of the road, getting cold, I would have walked the 3 miles to the car park.  Once I reached the car I departed as soon as I could put on long trousers and drove for a good 20 minutes with the heater on full blast to thaw out.

Now I'm home and looking forward to a roast dinner for supper.  I definitely need the calories.  I'll be eating well this week, as I have another marathon to do next weekend, my second back-to-back marathon weekend of the year.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Spires and Steeples Challenge (or Lincoln to Sleaford Marathon)

Another weekend and another marathon completed.  This time it was the Spires and Steeples Heritage Trail Challenge. This was another low key event that was also advertised as a long distance walk as well as a running event.  The organisers were very keen to point out that it wasn’t a race, and there was no timing involved and no published results.
A cold autumnal morning outside Lincoln Castle
The marathon started from inside Lincoln Castle, just outside the very impressive law courts, and finished outside The Hub in Sleaford, which is the National Centre for Craft and Design.  The race (sorry, challenge) started at 9.30am for runners and 8.30am for walkers.  We runners got ourselves ready, stripping off outer warm layers and pinning numbers to vests on what was a cold, autumnal morning, with clear blue skies and a very low sun in the sky.  Everyone seemed to be in good spirits, and there was a lot of chit chat amongst complete strangers.  I talked to several runners, but only found one person who had done the event before.  Some people were concerned as to how clearly marked the trail would be.  The race instructions said the trail would be marked, but recommended that we also carried the two page description of the route, just in case we got lost.  It turned out that this was unnecessary.
Runners getting ready in front of the law courts in the grounds of the Castle
Probably the hardest part of the run was the very start.  We all set off from inside the castle.  Once through the gate the course made a right turn to run down a steep cobbled street towards the river.  This was one descent where I didn’t feel that it would be sensible to let gravity do its work.  The cobbles felt quite slippery underfoot, and were also really uncomfortable to land on at full pelt, even with almost new running shoes.  At the very bottom of the hill we had to cross a river bridge and then a pedestrian bridge over a dual carriageway.  After this the route of the challenge was mostly along footpaths and bridleways through Fen like countryside and passing through several nice villages.

There were probably only about 100 runners attempting the full marathon distance.  After a mile the line of runners had already become quite dispersed.  I found myself running alongside a young male runner who looked like a novice.  I tried to strike up a conversation only to discover he was French.  Now, I’m almost ashamed to admit this, but my immediate reaction was a desire to trip him up, due to France’s win over both England and Wales in the rugby world cup.  I have to admit that England deserved to lose to France, but I’m sure that almost every rugby fan in Britain felt that Wales should have come away with the victory over France and that if it wasn’t for a poor referee decision they would have won.  Of course, moments later I realised that the young French runner alongside me could not be blamed for the outcome of a rugby match.  I kept pace with him for a short while and I wished him luck as I sped up, leaving him to eat the dust kicked up by my shoes.

After about five miles I could only see about four runners ahead of me.  They didn’t seem that far off, and we all seemed to be running at about the same pace.  At one point I looked over my shoulder and I couldn’t see any other runners behind me.  It seemed that we were leaving the rest of the field a long way behind.  Just before reaching the first checkpoint we started over taking a steady stream of walkers, who were all very obliging by stepping to one side to allow the runners to pass.  I continued to overtake a steady stream of walkers all the way to about the third checkpoint.  Walkers also had the option of only doing half the course and starting a little later in the day from the third control.  This also meant that we runners had even more walkers to pass on the second half of our run.

There were five checkpoints on the course, and at each one we had to hand in a wristband with our competitor number.  This was so the organisers could keep track of everyone and make sure no one was lost.  Bottles of water were also available at all five checkpoints, and chocolate bars were also being handed out at the third.  It almost seemed that each village was asked to round up volunteers to man each of the checkpoints.  Some just had a few adults, whilst one in particular seemed to have a whole infant school of children handing out water bottles and doing a very good job of cheering each runner on as they came in to view.

As I approached each of the checkpoints I seemed to almost catch two of the runners ahead of me, but I seemed to take longer than them over stopping for a drink and chewing doing an energy gel, so they managed to put some space between me and them again.  I was caught by another runner as I was finishing off my drink at the third control and the two of us then ran together, chatting all the way to the next feed station.  I stopped to take on some water, whilst the other runner didn’t even reach for a bottle.  The truth is that I also felt that his pace was a little too fast for me and I was happy for him to carry on without me.

Just before the final checkpoint I finally caught up with the two runners who had been just ahead of me the whole way.  I was starting to feel in a lot of pain by this stage, but the two of them seemed to be fairing a lot worse.  We ran as a group of three very briefly, but I was eager to get the last few miles over and done with and was clearly able to maintain a faster pace than the other two.  So I turned my back on them and ran on alone, even though I was very aware that I was only slowly edging away from them.  The last few miles were horrible.  The ground was flat, and mostly on a flood bank alongside a river, very much like running alongside the River Cam to Ely, but the surface was as rutted as anything and baked hard.  If you can imagine what mud would be like after horses had walked through it and then baked by the sun you’ll have a good idea of the ground conditions.  My legs seemed to almost buckle with every stride.  I overtook one final runner at this stage, who had been in sight for a while.  I didn’t think I was going to catch him, and certainly hadn’t made it an aim, but he was doing a mixture of jogging, hobbling and walking, and going through that cycle every 20 to 30 seconds.  As I passed him I asked if he was ok.  He grunted some response, which I didn’t make out.  I then just responded by saying the last few miles were horrible, to which he agreed.  I then left him behind to hobble towards the finish.

With about half a mile to go I spotted Ruth waving at me.  I was actually surprised to see her, as she has only seen me run in three marathons so far this year.  I was glad to hear her confirm that I didn’t have far to go.  Sure enough, soon after passing Ruth I reached the edge of Sleaford and was running on smooth tarmac once more, which instantly made my legs feel better.   The finish was as low key as the event itself.  We turned to run over a bridge, and then made one other turn to suddenly find that we were in a finishing funnel edged with plastic tape and directed towards a table with three event organisers.  One took our final wrist band, one handed out a medal and the other gave all the finishers a certificate.  We were then told to help ourselves to a bottle of sports drink.  And with that another marathon was completed.
Final river crossing
As I waited for Ruth to make her way to the finish, I congratulated a few other runners and waited for the three guys I’d overtaken in the last few miles to finish.  Once Ruth got to the finish line it was time to take a few photos, including a staged photo of me running across the last bridge to send to my charity.  Apparently I’m going to be the cover star in their next biannual publication. 

12 marathons completed and original target achieved, but I still aim to do 4 more
Ruth and I then had a quick meal in a greasy spoon café before the drive back to Cambridge.  I wasn’t sure if I could face a full meal, but once I had a plate of pasty, chips and peas in front of me I seemed to have no trouble polishing it off.  I now have two weekends off before my next marathon on November 6th.  Ruth and I will be having a short walking holiday in the interim.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Loch Ness Marathon - Full Report

On the last day of September I found myself flying to Inverness by myself.  Ruth was supposed to have gone with me, but with Cambridge forecast to be blisteringly hot, compared to a weekend of rain in Scotland, I was told that I’d be going on my own.  Ruth had no intention of standing at the finish line of a marathon in the wet waiting to see her dearly beloved cross the line when she could have been sunning herself at home.  I was, obviously, a little disappointed by her lack of commitment, but also realised that I didn’t have a hope in hell of persuading her to change her mind and come with me, even though I’d already paid for her flights, a double hotel room and pre-race pasta party meal for two.

As there is only one flight a day from Luton to Inverness, I was expecting to see several marathon runners on my flight.  However, I only managed to spot maybe 3 or 4 likely contenders, none of whom I was sufficiently confident were runners for me to approach and ask.  So I kept my nose buried in my book whilst waiting in the departure lounge and for the duration of the flight.  An ex-client bought me a copy of “The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner” as a goodbye present a few months back and I’ve finally got round to starting it.  I would have thought that this would have made me stand out as a runner to any observers.

Once at Inverness Airport I made my way to the city centre by bus, from where I only had a short walk to the Aberfeldy Lodge Hotel, which I’d booked months ago.  I presented my hotel accommodation voucher to the hotel owner, who studied it thoroughly before telling me that the voucher didn’t mean anything to her.  She went off to make a phone call, and when she came back she informed me that I’d been the victim of an internet scam.  I’d handed over just over £170 to someone who had set up a bogus internet site pretending to be a hotel bookings agent.  I was absolutely gutted, to say the least, and realised that the weekend was going to end up costing a lot more than I’d bargained for.  The owner was very helpful.  She didn’t have a spare room herself, but managed to find me a room in a nearby B&B which proved to be excellent.

I ended up staying with Sergio in the Averon House B&B (Tel: 01463 232469,  If you ever find yourself needing somewhere to stay in Inverness then I would highly recommend it.  Sergio is a perfect host and went out of his way to ensure I was comfortable and had everything I needed.  The breakfast was fantastic, if anything there was way too much of everything, which can’t be a bad thing, unless you’re on a diet.  I did have to insist that I only wanted porridge on the Sunday morning before the marathon, and I think Sergio felt he had to make amends for only giving me a measly breakfast by offering to make me sandwiches and to cook me pasta the night before the marathon.  I refused, even though the offer was genuine.  The B&B itself is located just behind Inverness Castle and is just a 5 minute walk from the centre of town and about a 15 minute walk to the marathon event village.

Inverness Castle and the River Ness

The Marathon Event Village - open for registration.
The event village is where I had to go on the Saturday before the marathon to collect my race number and to attend the pasta party.  I always have high expectations of so called pasta parties, which are never realised.  What should have been a fun gathering of like minded people sharing anecdotes of previous marathons, training disasters and narrow escapes from the jaws of menacing dogs, turned out to be a massive marquee that was less than a quarter full, a band playing folk music on a small stage at one end, small pockets of runners dotted here and there and a less than generous serving of pasta for which I’d paid £10 in advance.  I managed to find myself sitting close enough to solitary female runner that I was able to start a conversation.  I think my opening line was built around a moan about the size of the portion of pasta, to which she agreed.  From this we got into a conversation about all the usual sorts of things runners talk about; how many marathons have you run before, what’s your best time, what are you aiming for this time, etc.  Then we exchanged names and asked where we’d travelled from.  Coincidently, it turned out that Jenny lives just up the road from me in Huntingdon.  I considered asking her if she wanted to hang out together for the rest of the day, given that we were both on our own.  I thought that maybe we could catch a movie and go out for pasta together in the evening, but I decided that it might sound too much like a chat up.  Instead we finished our meals, wished each other good luck for the marathon and went our separate ways.

Given that I had pretty much fully explored Inverness on Friday, I did decide that I’d kill my afternoon with a trip to the cinema.  I went to see The Debt, which I really enjoyed.  It’s not exactly a barrel of laughs but it kept me off my feet the day before the marathon.

The previous evening I’d had no problem finding somewhere to eat in Inverness.  The night before the marathon was a different story.  I headed to a well known pasta chain for 6.30pm, thinking I’d beat the rush, to discover a queue of runners outside the door.  I joined the back of the queue to patiently wait for a table.  Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long, mainly due to being a little brash.  I spotted a single male at the front of the queue being shown to a table for two.  I asked the people ahead of me if they had any objections to me jumping the queue to see if I could join who I assumed was a single runner, just like me.  They didn’t, so I barged on in, tapped the guy on the shoulder, asked if he was running in the marathon (he was), told him I was doing the same and asked if it would be ok for me to share his table.  I was very grateful that I was able to drastically reduce my wait time, even though my dining companion, Andy, wasn’t the most talkative chap in the world, and when he did talk in his broad Glaswegian accent I had to ask him to repeat himself.  I found myself wishing I had asked Jenny out.  Once we were both full of pasta and garlic bread, we wished each other luck (I think that’s what he said), and went our separate ways.

It had rained in Inverness pretty much all day on Saturday, whilst the whole of England basked in sunshine.  However, the weather forecast promised dry weather with sunny spells for race day.  When I awoke and looked out the window I saw the same old dreary drizzle that I’d seen all the previous day.  At breakfast I discovered another marathon runner had checked in the previous afternoon.  Matt was running in his first marathon.  The two of us ate our porridge and then walked to the marathon village together.  We were instructed to be at the village by 7.30am to get on a bus that would then drive us to the start of the marathon 26 miles south west of Inverness.  The marathon was due to start at 10am and we both couldn’t work out why the buses needed to depart so early.  Surely it doesn’t take that long for a bus to travel 26 miles! 

At 7.45am a long convoy of assorted buses, from luxury coaches to Stagecoach double deckers, left Inverness with some 3000 runners onboard.  It was quite a strange sight to see so many buses travelling in convoy, with police escort.  Whenever the buses needed to turn right, the police would set up a road block so we could carry on unimpeded.  This must surely get full marks for organisation.  Just over an hour after leaving Inverness we were still on the buses, driving slowly along winding country lanes, with lots of well hydrated runners writhing in their seats with tightly crossed legs.  Someone on our bus begged the driver to stop so we could jump off and then jump behind a bush.  The driver refused, but a few minutes later it become apparent that someone on the lead bus was in a similar predicament and the whole convoy came to a halt.  One by one we witnessed bus doors ahead of us opening up and streams of runners jumping off to relieve themselves in the wide open Scottish air.  Our driver grudgingly opened the door, but shouted at us that she’d leave us behind if the convoy moved on before we were back on the bus.  We eventually reached the start at 9.40.  We were all at a loss as to how it took so long to get to the start of the race.  We must have taken a massive long detour.

Baggage trucks at the start
At the start it was very cold and damp.  This made it difficult to decide what to wear for the run.  I opted to wear a T-shirt over my running vest with the intention of discarding it somewhere on route.  There wasn’t much at the start other than a few portaloos and baggage trucks.  Starting zones were marked according to predicted finish times on boards along the side of the road.  Once everyone was in position a troupe of pipers made their way through the entire field from the back to the head of the line of competitors, which made for a very atmospheric start.  Once the pipers were at the front of the field there was a lot of cheering, clapping and hand shaking amongst the crowd of runners.  A few seconds later we were off.

Pipers at the start of the marathon
Loch Ness is probably one of the easiest marathons I’ve run.  The first 10 miles is predominantly downhill.  To some extent this makes it hard to judge how fast you should be running.  Clearly you can go faster than on the flat, but how hard should you push it?  I was running at about 7 minutes per mile for the first 5 miles, and wondered if I was going too fast.  I was aiming to finish in around 3 hours 30 minutes.  I feared that any faster would be too much given that I’d only just run a marathon the week before.

At times we’d come to short sections of quite steep descents.  I employed the just let go and let gravity take you technique, which requires turning the legs over very quickly and almost leaping large distances.  Most runners around me were using way too much energy breaking themselves and fighting against gravity.  Running fast downhill is a skill worth learning.

Last view of the Loch before the hill at mile 18
Miles 10 to 18 are then mostly pancake flat and right alongside the shore of the Loch.  I reached the halfway point in 1 hour 35 minutes, 10 minutes faster than I’d planned.  Still, I was feeling pretty good and wasn’t too concerned with being ahead of schedule.  At mile 18 the course starts to go upwards.  Many runners at the start were talking about the ‘big’ hill at mile 18.  When I got to it, it was nowhere near as bad as I was expecting.  It did go up for the best part of two miles, but the gradient wasn’t severe.  It was possible to maintain a comfortable pace all the way to the top.  There was then one other smaller and slightly steeper hill at about mile 22, but once over this it was mostly down or flat all the way to the finish.  I was amazed at how good my legs were feeling.  I decided to increase my pace, and each mile got progressively faster over the last 3 miles.  I passed dozens of runners, and I felt as if I was having the best run of my life.  There were a reasonable number of spectators lining the course over the last two miles.  I got several shout outs which helped spur me on to catch the next runner ahead of me.  When I got to the last 100m I even had enough left in the tank for a sprint finish, a definite first for me.

I hung around at the finish to greet a number of runners that I’d chatted to on the course.  This was then how I managed to orchestrate my customary finishing photo, by roping in Ross, who finished his first marathon in an incredible 3 hours 17 minutes.  I mentioned in my previous post that I finished in 3 hours 14 minutes, a time that I’m very happy with, and one that deserves a second mention.

Tired runners in the finishing funnel collecting medals, goody bags and drinks
Nessie keeping an eye on the finish
Once I’d collected my medal and excellent quality race T-shirt, I headed to the baggage trucks, got my stuff and had a quick bite to eat.  I then started to slowly walk back to the B&B, periodically stopping to stand and cheer those who were still running. 

The following morning I opted to wear my race T-shirt for the journey home.  I wanted as many people as possible to know what I’d just done.  After breakfast I said goodbye to Sergio and made my way to the airport by bus.  Inverness airport was a very funny sight.  It was clear who had run the marathon.  Bizarrely, the vast majority had opted to proudly wear their race T-shirt, just like me, but many were also limping around as if they’d been wounded in a hideous accident.  I’d say a third of the people at the airport had run in the marathon.  This time I wouldn’t have my head buried in my book in the departure lounge.  I found myself sitting next to a couple of runners who were only to happy to exchange stories.  Everyone seemed to agree that it had been a fantastic event.  I’d rate it in my top 4, which I’d say are London, Snowdonia, South Downs & Loch Ness, but in no particular order.

Despite the distance from Cambridge and the fact that there isn’t a whole lot going on in Inverness, I would definitely run this marathon again.

I’ll be writing more either later today or tomorrow with other news from the past week.