(Sorry for the grandiose title and if I go on a bit, but I’m feeling fairly epic writing this)
To get the headline stuff out of the way; I managed to complete my first marathon, yay! I didn’t quite get under the 3 hours 30 I wanted, or indeed get anywhere near that. My Garmin had me completing the marathon in 4:02:29, and I covered just over 27 miles in 7 laps of the course in 4:13:12. And I’m happy to say that I’m happy with that!
The weather on the day was a bit tricky, ok bloody annoying, with a really strong wind rattling across Samphire Hoe that got worse on the sea wall. It blew right into our faces for about half of the U-shaped, out and back laps. I know, who would have thought it would be windy under a cliff, on a man-made bit of land stuck out into the sea…? As we drove to the race and through the weather I was already thinking I might have to scale back on my target time, which I hoped was me being more sensible than defeatist. Looking now I think it was; it was draining trying to keep up a good pace into the wind, and at points the gusts brought me nearly to a standstill, even on the first lap. Trying to battle through that at 8 minute mile pace would have knackered me out even earlier in the run.
The other difficulty [excuse] was the hills; the description of the course had a lap’s elevation change being less than 100 feet. Well that was balls. It was nearer 200 hundred feet a lap, and half of that was on one gravel strewn hill. After the first few laps I walked up it (and nearly crawled up the final time), but even then it was thigh burner. And coming down it was pretty painful too.
Looking back now I also made a couple of mistakes. The first was in pre-race prep; the day before me and Claire had the day off work and were going to make a day of it in Dover, at the Castle. Well when we got there and saw how busy it was and the scale of it, we decided to do something a bit calmer and less strenuous. So a nice sit down then, cinema trip, a boat cruise? Nope, we walked around the White Cliffs at Dover for a couple of hours and then topped that off with a hike round Folkestone trying to find somewhere nice to eat. This was harder than you would think, but we eventually found the rather amazing Big Boy Burgers where we had fantastic burgers and lovely cheesecake (Oreo for me, Mint Aero for Claire). We even did a quick recce of the course and did a few miles round the nature reserve so we could see what the route was like, and the journey (which involved driving through a badly lit 200m long tunnel, down through the cliff like we were entering a villain’s lair in a Bond film).
By the time we got to our Airbnb place that night we had covered 7.5 miles according to Claire’s Vivofit, half of it on hills. Bugger. Not the easy day I was thinking of, and far from the ‘feet up/telly on’ that people talk about. It was a good day out mind, and watching Dover port in action from the Cliffs was pretty cool. It made me want to invest in a model train/boat/car/lorry set. And don’t we have a cellar…
The place we stayed in that night was lovely (and we even got the telly to work after fiddling with the aerial and sticking our tongues out and pulling ‘Blue Steel’ facial expressions). Bed time however wasn’t great as we had the world’s smallest double bed and a ridiculous duvet that was as thick as it was wide and appeared to be made of asbestos. It was night then of the ‘too hot, too cold shuffle’ as I alternated between being under, or flopped on top of, the molten duvet. I woke up every hour or so, either sweating or freezing. I was probably never going to sleep well with the pre-race nerves and excitement, but having my own bed would have probably given me a bit more rest.
But that is dangerously close to moaning (which I said I wouldn’t do here). The organisation of the race itself was great and there was a positive and friendly feeling among all the runners, despite the weather. Just before we set off we had the race briefing, which included a little about the Battle of Britain and the sacrifice that had been made by Allied airmen in holding off the Luftwaffe. The pre-race talk also included the assembled runner’s stirring rendition of the national anthem (which got the adrenaline going and moistened a few eyes [mine]) and a presentation to mark a ladies 100th marathon. We ended with a blast of Happy Birthday for a runner and Travis, the lead organiser. It all served to create a festive, low-key atmosphere and almost distracted me from the howling wind and the miles ahead.
And then we were off! The first mile was a little slow as, before we hit the sea wall, we were on a narrow-ish nature path meaning the quicker runners couldn’t get by the steadier paced ones. When things opened out we all got to our race paces and fanned out nicely, and it was stick to the right of the path and get on with it. As I passed on to the seawall for the first time, and nearly went backwards with a huge gust of wind, I pretty much threw ideas of a sub three and half hour time into the sea. I hoped I wasn’t being overconfident with my target beforehand, but I was definitely being humble now and just told myself to keep to a steady pace and keep to a speed I could maintain. I started thinking of getting under the 4 hour mark as my new target instead.
After the first lap I knew the course, and that bloody hill, and just tried to relax and enjoy the view and the encouragement I was getting and giving to the other runners. Being an out and back lap meant you got to see everyone a few times a lap and quite a few people were giving nods and waves and ‘well dones’ to spur people on. I like that kind of thing and it was a nice distraction. Dodging the fishermen on the sea wall also almost distracted from the maddening push of the wind.
At the end of each lap you got given a hair band to mark of each completed lap and access to a table laden with goodies (and my own stash of drink and gels). After one lap though my lovely Claire was meeting me out on the course and dishing out gels and drink bottles so I didn’t have to stop, faff about and lose time. More importantly she encouraged me every step of the way with shouts and even scrawled messages in chalk on the route. I wouldn’t have done half as well without her support. Not many people would wander about for over four hours in that weather, that early in the morning. Especially when I got the grumps later on and wasn’t exactly full of the joys of spring. But Claire kept on smiling and encouraging me (and taking all the great pictures you see here). She’s awesome and I’m very lucky to have her.
After a few laps I had a rhythm and was going ok. It was surprisingly humid though and I noticed I was sweating quite a bit. My eyes were stinging with my sweat despite wiping them continually as I went. I think this is were I made my second mistake, probably the biggest. The drinks I had made up for myself were half Lucozade Sport and half water. That’s fine for getting calories in (along with gels) without upsetting my stomach, but I wasn’t replacing all the salt I was losing. (My face looked like I’d be dusted with icing sugar when I finished!) Annoyingly I had brought some hydration tablets with me, which would have given me the sodium I needed, but… I. Didn’t. Use. Them. What a moron.
The first few hours I was feeling pretty strong though and I went through the half marathon in around 1:48 so was set for a sub 4 hour run. But after about the fifth lap I started to feel what had been aches turn into twinges, and every turn into the wind made them worse. What I thought was fatigue though was actually the early onset of cramp I think brought on from a lack of salt. But it was ok, my body was going to help me understand what was going on.
On the sixth lap I developed quite bad cramp in my right thigh but walking up the dreaded hill on the way back this eased off a bit. But when I started running again my left calf cramped completely. I then made my third mistake of the day; I tried to stretch it out. Oh boy, bad idea. I’m not sure what happened with my calf because I was too busy enjoying the fully locked on cramp in my right thigh and the left hand side of my groin. Yowsers! It was excruciating and stopped me dead in my tracks. I couldn’t move either way, as any move seemed to trigger another wave of cramp. I just stood there waiting for my muscles to relax, gripped in this weird immobile panic. Someone did shout advice as they passed but my brain couldn’t process it and I think I just grunted.
Thankfully after a minute or so the worst cramp subsided and gingerly I managed to walk (and breath again). But after that I was shot. I did manage to start to trot again but I just couldn’t run for any length of time without having to walk and let the cramp subside. Even Claire giving me my music player to try and get me going again didn’t work. My mile times which had sagged to 9 minutes suddenly dropped to 12 minutes odd (the worst was almost 14) and the four hour target suddenly was gone.
I kept trying to run but it was only in patches and even a committed walk was painful. After wrestling through the wind on the way out on the seventh and final lap, alternating between an uncoordinated run and a limping walk, I thought I might get pushed along on the way back to get in under 4 hours for the marathon distance. I could then relax (a bit) and walk all the way back to complete the lap. However it wasn’t to be, I just couldn’t get any speed going. I watched my Garmin tick over past four hours, and was 2 and half minutes short in the end.
I was bit pissed off to be honest – I had tried hard but had just missed out. I was just shuffling at this point (and maybe swearing) and the last time up the hill was hell. But by the time I had pulled myself together and finished the lap and rung the bell, to confirm I had finished, I was already feeling more positive. When I got my lovely medal (which nearly made me fall over, it was so heavy!) and they added a little ‘1st marathon’ badge to it I was feeling quite chipper. And when I got to see Claire, and have something to eat and drink and a nice sit down, I was positively beaming.
It wasn’t the result I wanted but I think I did pretty well, especially for my first marathon (I actually did 27 miles finishing that last lap, so it was technically my first ultra as well!). The conditions were tough and after knowing my original target was gone it would have been easy to just let is all slide, but I kept going and went with plan B. I could have given up on that sixth lap, or just walked the rest of the race but I kept on going and trying and nearly got under 4 hours. I’m proud I fought so hard and it is still a very decent time.
I’ve also learnt a few things, the hard way, so I can hopefully use what I learnt in the next one (rest the day before, replace salt, stretch out cramp early etc.). Oh and there will have to be a next one, I can’t walk [limp] away with those 2 and half minutes hanging over me. It’s time to recover now and then start thinking about the next marathon when I’ve put a bit more training in. Hopefully some where very still, with no hills…