It was a fairly early start last Thursday to get down to Samphire Hoe for the Roald Dahl Challenge (to commemorate 100 years since his birth), but as I wasn’t driving I couldn’t complain too much. I was chauffeur driven by Claire down the A2 in Remy (our aged VW Polo) and all I had to worry about was plying her with water and sweets, and fretting over how hot it was going to get for the run. We’d had a heat wave in the south east and on Tuesday temperatures had hit a faintly ridiculous 32 degrees, the hottest in 50/60/110 years (depending on what news source you used). Thankfully it wasn’t going to be that hot, but it was still going to reach the early twenties however, and more worryingly the humidity was predicted to be at around 90-odd% – lovely.
My last run at Samphire Hoe had been for the Battle of Britain Challenge in August last year, my first marathon, where wind, hills, a lack of fitness and not enough electrolytes had seen me fall apart in the final few miles and miss out on a sub-four hour time (and enjoy the excruciating pain of severe cramp in both legs that left my shuffling like a hung-over zombie). I was a bit worried that windy, and hot and humid conditions would see me do the Mr Crampy dance again.
I was also not quite sure how I was going to cope with the marathon distance run; I managed to just squeak under 4 hours at the Kent Roadrunner Marathon in late May, with hardly any training after injury, but wasn’t sure how I would deal with the tougher course and much harsher conditions. I had completed some long training runs in preparation but my confidence in my knee isn’t great as I’ve had the occasional flare up, and the anxiety about it was at the back of my head…
Anyway we got down there in good time, and enjoyed driving through the scary tunnel to get on to the reserve (well I did, I wasn’t at the wheel and so could pretend I was entering a baddy’s lair in a Bond film). After collecting our runner numbers (Claire was running too) we then spent the time before the off trying to get our runner numbers on straight and visiting and re-visiting the facilities – all normal pre-race behaviour there then.
The course was a 3.85 mile out and back lap, the same as when I last ran there, and you had 6 hours to run as many laps as you could/wanted to. After a quick briefing (‘don’t run into the sea or climb over a wall – you’ll be fine’) we shuffled to the start and in nice English fashion we all hesitated and tried not to be at the front of the pack. I kissed Claire good luck and then we were off. Each lap would start, and end, with a small trail-ish section on gravel paths that undulated a bit before heading to the sea and a steep descent to the sea wall and the dead flat, before a steep climb on the way back. After only a few minutes, and at 8:30am the sun not being that high or strong yet, I could feel myself already start to drip with sweat. Nice.
I had entered the race thinking I could get a time under 4 hours and maybe even get close to 3:50/3:45 or so (despite the hill that had to be scaled each lap). With the humidity though I scaled back my ambition almost straight away, and my first mile of 8:50 was as fast as I went and I settled down to mid 9 minute miles in the knowledge that any effort wasted at the beginning would be sorely needed at the end. I tried to maintain a constant, easy effort and not worry too much about my pace and just save my energy for the hours ahead. And I made sure to walk the annoyingly steep hill that you had to face on the return leg of each lap and not do any damage there.
I’m quite proud of that decision because it would have been so easy to go out guns blazing and convince myself I was bottling it but not trying to push the pace, when in fact slowing down for a longer haul was the best way to ensure I got round as quickly (and painlessly) as possible. I took the race element out of my head and fixed on ticking off the miles. I’d worn my running pack so I had access to water and food all the way round, as although the SVN people provide lots of lovely supplies at the race HQ I knew from experience it could be a painful wait for water/sugar/salt if you were trapped out on the course. I diligently kept sipping water every so often to try and stay hydrated, but there was no way I could replenish all the fluid which was pouring off me…
I also wanted to practice carrying my own nutrition as I have taken the plunge and signed up to my first ultra; the Stort30 in late October (gulp). It’s got good reviews and seems like a good ‘starter’ ultra, with just a slight increase in mileage and is on a flat easy-to-navigate route on flat trails by the river, with checkpoints every 5 miles. I had it half in my mind to go for 8 laps at Samphire and try and go ‘Ultra’ early, but ditched that idea as I slowly melted in the sun and just focused on getting a marathon completed and not getting greedy! It amazing how you goals can change over time; just over a year ago I was desperate just to get a marathon done and now it’s just training to go even further…
Anyway I digress (as usual); in terms of the run itself I settled into a comfortable rhythm and took the time to chat with a number of runners. It was great; I always try and say hello and wave etc. as others pass me, but I found myself running with a few different people over the course of the race and had a natter about this and that, a little focused on the magnificence of Crystal Palace football club but the majority was about, you guessed it, running. One guy, whose name I unfortunately didn’t catch despite running with him for 2-3 miles, talked about how he had run 52 marathons last year! He’d run all over the world from New Zealand to Zurich to do it, and was still running marathons to get to his one hundredth. He also mentioned how he had got up at half four that morning and got two buses and a train to get to the race and then talked about the two he wanted to do at the weekend… He’s commitment was amazing, and a bit knackering to even contemplate. It did help while away the miles however and distract from the sweaty heat, especially on the long straight of the seawall where all you had to look at was the sea, some concrete and the odd fishermen.
After about 3 laps I realised that my water bladder, despite holding over a litre at the start, was nearly empty. As I finished the fourth I went through to race HQ (after getting my lap counter clipped) and dropped my pack and picked up a hand bottle from the cool bag we had readied with supplies. It was good to get rid of the pack and get some air to my sweaty back (what a lovely image) and I trundled out again. Claire was already finished, as she was going to do three laps but settled for two as the heat was a bit too much, and very kindly meet me on the seawall half way through that lap to offer encouragement, and more importantly more fluid as I had gone through the bottle already! I had made up hydration fluid for the bottles, to replenish lost electrolytes (something I hadn’t done last time and paid for) and I was gulping it down but still feeling thirsty. At the end of that lap I ditched my t-shirt for a vest and my sunglasses for a cap, hoping to vent some of the heat whilst keeping the sun of my head, which seemed to help.
I think it was at this point as I left race HQ (but I can’t be sure of the chronology, things are a bit hazy…) that I had one of the highlights of the race. I heard a plane engine, and I immediately thought it sounded familiar and scanned the sky. As I crested a small rise I saw a Spitfire flying past in the sky! It was such a shock to see it and it gave me goose bumps then (and now as I type) to see that beautiful machine scythe through the air and to hear its Merlin engine roar along the cliffs and over the reserve – what a treat! Being the nerdy geek I am I shouted out and informed my fellow runners of its presence, quite needlessly, and generally acted like a excitable school boy. It was awesome and a great lift.
After the excitement things settled down for the fifth lap and I trundled on. Claire meet me again to pass on more fluid and encouragement and I tried to stay relaxed and ignore the heaviness in my legs and hip that was beginning to build. I think it was on this lap (again I can’t be sure) that I ran for a while with Jake, who had an awesome Star Wars running t-shirt on. We chatted away and he told me about the runs he had done in America (where he got his t-shirt [fires up eBay…]) and the other runs he had done with SVN including the epic 100 miler that was held at Samphire Hoe. How anyone can run 100 miles, and to do it with 27 laps around Samphire, I have no idea – but he did! (You can read his blog about his running exploits and his Roald Dahl Challenge here)
It was great to have a natter, and kept me to a sustainable speed, and after a mile or so we went off at our own paces again and I was back to skipping along (Ha!) on my tod. At the end of the lap a patch of mist appeared and blotted out the sun, and offered some relieve from its heat, for a bit which was nice but a bit eerie. It came out of nowhere and I thought it was an eclipse at first!
Lap 6 saw me slow a bit further as the heat began to take it’s toll, and I had to walk more (and slower) on the hill and the other rises on the course. But Claire kept me supplied with hydration fluid and Lucozade, and I was poring water over myself at the end of each lap to try and cool down. I kept plugging away and used the opportunity to say hello and encourage fellow runners as a distraction. And then I was on the last lap suddenly (I definitely was NOT going for the eighth and 30 odd miles now!). I slowed some more and my quads were starting to get quite sore (along with my right hip/groin), so I had to take a few walk breaks on the flat to stave off the cramp I could feel building, but I never actually cramped up or felt too bad – result.
Due to the lap length I passed the marathon point just as I hit the bloody hill for the last time and strode my way to a personal worst time of 4:18 something. But I didn’t care, and was actually quite pleased with the time considering the conditions. I managed to trot the rest of the lap (mostly) and even sprint (comparatively) the last 400m to finish the 26.9 miles in just over 4:25 and ring the bell to signal the end of my race. It was a relief to stop and a pleasure to admire my awesome medal! SVN always provide good medals, but this one is their best in my opinion. They had built it up by not showing it until you had completed your run and was a great reward for all the hard work. 38 beautiful colours and its impressive heft make it quite the talking point in the office as I shamelessly show it off/bore my colleagues at work…
I wandered about a bit, drank and ate (mostly crisps and chocolate – for the electrolytes you understand), had a bit of a wash up to get rid of all the dried salt (euurgh) and then sat in the shade to cool. After a few minutes and some more walking to get rid of the crap in my legs I felt a bit more human, if stiff, and went over to speak to some of the runners I had chatted with on the course. I was congratulating Jake when he asked me where I finished, as he thought I might have been fourth or fifth. I hadn’t even thought of it but wandered over to ask how I had done, and got told I’d come 2nd! I couldn’t believe it; that’s the best I’ve ever done in a race, my previous bests being a couple of fourths at deserted parkruns.
The caveats are lengthy however; the guy who won (who’s part of Centurion Running) beat me by well over an hour in a time of 3:11, so was in another league; the race was pretty lightly attended with only a hundred or so runners as it was mid-week; and it was very hot and most people didn’t have the supplies I had or get the support from Claire who was plying me with fluid, spare clothing etc. to meet my every whim; four people ran an eighth lap so went further to 30.8 miles (albeit in a just under 6 hours and over – I probably could have staggered the last lap and still been ahead). But second place, on the podium! Was/am really pleased with that, and with how I paced myself in the heat to finish relatively strongly and make it to the end. I may have done a small fist pump to celebrate…
I’ve had a week to recover since and I’m starting to recover and my legs are coming back. I’ve tried to be gentle with myself (except one fast mile I threw in and shouldn’t have – I never learn…) and plan on ramping up the mileage in preparation for Stort, and get some long trail runs in as preparation once I’m ready. We’ve got a holiday in Crete booked in just over a week though, so will use that as some R&R for my legs and also to ensure I am fully carbed up and hydrated however… 😉
Right, I’ve gone on for even longer than usual so will sod off now and leave you in peace. Thanks for reading and enjoy your running people. Cheers, Adam