In preparation for this race I had taken it easy the week before (doing just a couple of small, easy runs) and then watched the David Bowie documentary ‘The Last Five Years’ the night before to ensure I was suitably inspired by the great himself. My legs felt ok but I could still feel the trail marathon I’d run at Ranscombe a few weeks ago and the parkrun I’d done flat out the week before. It might have been a figment of my imagination (Claire thought it was, a product of tapering madness) but I woke up on Saturday with a bit of a cold and sore throat. Normally this would be me getting my excuses in early but as I woke on Sunday morning I was determined to be as focused as possible and not give myself reasons to not do my best.
I made sure to have some hydration fluid and a proper breakfast (and caffeine) so I would be properly fuelled for the morning’s running. I’d sorted my gear, drinks and energy bars the night before and with a very civilised start time of 9:30 we didn’t need to get up too early or faff about too much. Claire unfortunately couldn’t get a place on the race, but she kindly gave me a lift anyway and would use Gravesend Cyclopark as a base for her own training run out to Jeskyns Country Park and around Gravesend.
It was only a 20 minute drive there and we got parked up in good time to collect my runner number and lap counting card, and then admire all the Bowie costumes and t-shirts on display. I had considered going for a Bowie outfit myself but thought it might send me mad having to deal with it over 26 miles, so I settled on a tribute t-shirt instead. Others though had gone for wigs, face paint, inflatable guitars, the full works, including our friend Beccy who looked the bizz in full Bowie get up. Our friend Jon had gone all out too and actually won the prize for the best outfit – a prize winner before he had even started! And this was to be his second marathon in a row, of the 4 he was going to do in 4 days for a ‘quad’… Lunatic!
I also saw Jake, another running friend I’d met through SVN events. He was also doing the 4 in 4 challenge, and kindly talked my through the course and what to expect. The ‘Bowiethon’ (as it was dubbed) was originally going to be run over a 3.74 mile lap, but then when we got the pre-race briefing email this had shifted to a 5.25 mile lap instead. So I was now aiming for 5 rather than 7 laps, which wasn’t an issue (it was the same distance – near enough!) but I needed to think about nutrition as it would be that bit further between pit stops and sustenance.
Jake told me that the first mile and a half was mostly up an incline but then you turned round and got to enjoy that same stretch downhill and then on for another mile or so past race HQ. You then turned round again to go uphill back to race HQ to complete a lap, and get your card punched and grab any goodies you had to hand. Jake was certain it was a fast course and said with the downhills I could push into sub-8 minute mile pace, which would be PB territory for me. With that in mind I decided to go for the marathon and a crack at a fast time, rather than going for 6 laps and my first 50k run which I’d half had in mind (on the basis that my legs might not have the speed, but I could slow down and aim for further instead). The weather on Sunday was also conducive to a faster time being cold but dry(ish) and calm, much better than the day before where Jake and Jon had had to contend with snow storms and freezing temperatures!
Despite already using the facilities I had to run back to the main building at the Cyclopark to use the loo before things started – not ideal! I managed to do the necessary and get back in time to check everything was ready with the supplies I stowed on a tarp at Race HQ and put an energy bar in my back pocket. Claire stayed with me while we listened to Traviss of SVN give the pre-race briefing and congratulate people on lots of milestones (including someone’s 100th marathon, someone elses’ 99th [they got a flake!] and Jon getting his prize for best outfit). We took the now traditional pre-race selfie and I took closer order to the least formal race start line in the world (a traffic cone with some tape on it).
Off we went and I felt nice and relaxed from the off. I was near the front with a handful of other runners and I checked to make sure I wasn’t being silly, but my legs felt fine and my breathing was controlled so I just rolled up the hill. I let the quicker people get on with it and tried to settle in. By the time I turned round at the top of the lap I was in step with a guy called Lance, and that was me sorted for company and conversation for the next few laps! Lance was on something like his 90th marathon and proceeded to talk me through his and his partner’s favourite races, his running club down in Devon and all kinds of marathon and running related topics.
We came back past Claire, who kindly stopped to take the photo below, before she headed off up the A2 towards Jeskyns and her own adventure and we used the downhill to pick up the pace down past the Cyclopark without having to use any additional effort. Lance was chatting away and I was responding but I was keen not to waste too much energy (and oxygen) chatting, so I’m afraid I wasn’t holding up my share of the conversation. Lance didn’t seem to mind too much however. I also kept slowing down on any inclines to conserve energy and he kindly slowed too so as not to leave me behind, and we continued in this manor for the first lap.
With the chatting and the quickish pace on the down hills, the first lap flew by in less than 45 minutes and at around 8:05 pace, and crucially inside the 8:13 I needed to beat my PB (of 3:35:51). We went through the muddy carpark and got our lap counters punched and I took the opportunity to change my woolly hat for a cooler running cap, dump my gloves and pick up a hand bottle of hydration fluid. I did that fairly quickly and on starting Lap 2 thought I’d left Lance behind, but he caught up with me and we started the drag up the hill together again. Looking at the pace we had started with I was worried I was going off too quickly, putting to much effort into the hills and trying to make up time on the way down. My experience of going off too quickly and dying in the last few miles at the Stort30 last year (my first ultra) was firmly in my mind at this point.
On Lap 2 I tried to keep to a more consistent pace and stuck to just over 8 minute pace and tried not to get caught up trying to run at Lance’s speed. I kept an eye out for Beccy, Jake and Jon and said hello as we passed each other, sipped some hydration fluid and opened an energy bar halfway through the lap. I felt cautiously ok, apart from my hands which had been sweaty in my gloves but had now cooled quickly with them off. They steadily became frozen in the wind (and holding the hand bottle) until they became very painful and I began to lose the feeling in them. It was a relief to get to end of the second lap, dump the empty bottle and be able to put my gloves back on and try and warm them up.
It was also good to get to Lap 3 and closer to halfway. There was a bit of drama at this point as Lance’s partner had unfortunately hurt her foot (she was on something like her 194th marathon!) and he was understandably concerned and wanted to speed up to lap her so he could help her get to the finish. At the same time I needed to use the facilities, again. My need wasn’t going to derail my race but I wanted to go to the Cyclopark’s main building at the halfway point of the lap, as it would be quicker to get to the loo’s there than go from Race HQ at the end of the lap. So halfway round the third lap (and at around the half marathon point) we wished each other good luck and Lance speed on while I ducked in to use the toilets. I run through reception to the gent’s, quickly did my business (while nearly dropping my gloves in a urinal) and then ran out again. It wasn’t ideal, but it was a blessed relief and only cost me about a minute or so.
With that though I was on my own. I finished lap 3, took on a large swig of fluid and grabbed another energy bar and was out on lap 4 as quickly as I could. I felt more comfortable now, as I could run at exactly the pace I wanted and crucially at a consistent effort on the rolling course. It might have been the boost of the sugar I’d taken on, ridding myself of the extra weight or the temperature warming up a bit but I began to pick up the pace without seemingly more effort. I floated up to the top of the hill and on the way back down I got another boost with the return of Claire, back from her own adventure, offering encouragement as I went past her.
By now I was feeling pretty good. Apart from some pain in my lower abdomen and a slightly tight right calf my body felt ok, and my breathing felt strong. In miles 19 and 20 I picked up the pace without much extra effort to around 7 minute 30 pace on the downhills, and felt good for it. This is normally the point things start to go a bit wrong; legs start to get heavy, form starts to collapse and it’s a battle to just maintain my speed. Now though I was picking up the pace and my body was responding well. I came to the end of lap 4, picked up another bar and got a kiss off Claire for my efforts before heading off again.
Now I felt confident giving it some on the way up the hill for the last time, and although my legs were a bit sore they felt strong. I was going past quite a few people at this point as I gathered pace and lots of people offered encouragement. SVN seems to attract a lovely crowd of runners; I’d been exchanging ‘well done’s and ‘keep going’s with lots of runners, those I knew and didn’t, and I really appreciated it now as I tried to push on. On the way back down the hill this time I let myself really pick up the pace. As I was feeling so good and my legs so strong I half thought about digging in for an extra lap and the ultra, but with the pace I was getting to I decided to commit to the marathon and hopefully a PB.
As I went past race HQ at the halfway point for the lap I threw my cap and gloves at poor Claire and stole some water from her as I kept going, before chucking the bottle on the floor with a strangled ‘thank you’ and ploughed on. I was now shifting (for me) at under 7 minutes a mile, which I would be happy with at the end of a half let alone a full marathon. It was a bit of blur to be honest, I just concentrated on maintaining my form and using the runners ahead as targets to pull me onwards. At the turn round point, with about mile and half to go, I realised the course was going to run a little long on my Garmin. I knew I was going to beat my PB but my brain was struggling to work out by how much.
Luckily the maths for a sub 3:30 marathon is fairly straight forward and I had worked that out before hand; average 8 minutes a mile or less and you’ll make it. My Garmin helpfully informed me I was now under that at 7:50-odd. I was having to go back uphill at this point however and, although there was only a mile and a half or so to go, I was beginning to finally fade. My legs started to tighten and my breathing and heart rate began to increase. Now the familiar fatigue and pain came, but I was getting closer and closer to the finish. I tried to remember the words to Bowie songs to give me something else to focus on and hopefully inspire me, but I couldn’t get past the opening few lines of my favourite songs (as Claire can attest, I’m rubbish at lyrics and mostly make them up).
I kept pushing myself on and actually passed the marathon mark on my watch at about 3:27. There was still a way to go, including the turn up and through the car park to the finish, but I was determined to get an ‘official’ sub-3:30 time so tried to keep moving. My breathing was coming in sobs now and I could feel my form going to pieces as I desperately tried to speed up. I splashed my way through the car park and heard shouts of encouragement from Claire and the volunteers and runners at Race HQ, who must have guessed I was trying to get under 3:30. I distinctly remember trying to keep my head and knees up to maintain some kind of speed but everything else was a blurry whirl.
Straining and gasping, I fell across the end of the lap; I’d made it! I may have let out an embarrassing roar as I heard my time of 3:29:37 get read out, I’m not entirely sure. I do know I had to hold on to the desk and my own knees to not topple over as I rang the bell to officially finish my race. Luckily Claire was there to grab hold of me and stop me making an absolute plonker of myself by falling over, to complete the spectacle I’d already made of myself. But sub-3:30! I was over the moon (if covered in my own spit and bogey – sexy).
Traviss kindly gave my medal to Claire (and what a lovely one it was too) while I recovered. After a minute’s concentrated breathing I was ok. I was a bit sore, but nothing was screaming at me. I think I was too buzzing to feel the pain. I donned a hat and coat and wandered with Claire to the café at the Cyclopark for a nice seat down and a protein gel. Claire’s mum had kindly come to see me finish so we had a chat, while I grinned inanely and downed a cup of tea and a bacon roll. Lovely stuff. After half an hour I felt ok, quite good even and was still wearing a smug grin. We wandered back to the car and said thank you to Traviss and Rachel and the rest of the SVN volunteers and marshals again. I even got to see Jake before he left, who had completed the 2nd of his four marathons in a row, to thank him for the advice and encouragement. (I’m happy to say he completed his fourth in four days as I was typing this yesterday. As did Jon. And then Jake went and booked his fifth, for 5 in 5, for today! I know some strange people… 😉 )
After I’d got home, had a bath and way too many crisps, I sat around in my pants and recovery socks (sorry for that haunting image) and admired my well-earned medal for my seventh marathon. I was really pleased with the run, and the time. I’d learnt my lesson from Stort and hadn’t gone out too hard, and then been patient and waited until the 20th mile to start attacking when I was already inside my target time. A part of me was thinking with the speed I finished with I could have worked harder at the beginning (particularly the 2nd lap), to have gone even quicker overall but who knows; I might have run the finish out of myself. And I need something to aim for next time!
I’ve been taking it easy the last few days to recover but need to get myself ready for my next two races, which will come round quickly. I’ve got the Brighton Half on Sunday 26th February and then the Dartford Half on Sunday 12th March so may need to sneak in some speed work if my legs can cope. No rest for the wicked… I’m doing both with Claire and friends so they should be fun. I’m also hoping to have a crack at my half marathon PB, well why not?, but will try not to get carried away and will remember to enjoy myself.
Right, I’m off – thanks for listening and enjoy your running. Adam 🙂