Back on the startline
In which I take on a trail marathon uttering those famous last words ... 'just enjoy it'
This newsletter was originially published on Patreon on 10 May 2021
One race in the last 15 months had left me a little out of practice, and so this Saturday’s trail marathon on the south coast of Devon sort of snuck up on me. I hadn’t really trained enough, but having run 100-mile ultra marathons I was of the mind that I could stick it in third gear and cruise around, take in the views, and “just enjoy it”. I never learn. No matter how many times I tell myself to take it easy, it’s too ingrained in me after all these years of racing, that a race is a race is a race. And when you’re in a race, you race.
The night before, I scampered around packing up what I needed. The kit list seemed over the top for what was “only” a marathon - first aid kit, base layers, whistle etc. But then the forecast was heavy rain and 50mph winds along a rugged section of exposed coastline, so I shoved it all in and got to bed as soon as I could. At 5:30am my alarm went and I sat bolt upright. This was it, race day was here again. It’s funny how easy I find it to wake up on a race day, like I’ve been jabbed awake with a cattle prod.
I was getting a lift to the start along with Keelan and Leon, two former classmates of my daughter. Both only 16, they had entered the marathon on a whim, and had done very little training. One of them was wearing tennis shoes and had all his kit stuffed into the pockets of his surf shorts. I feared for them a little, and I felt a harsh awakening was waiting for them somewhere around mile 20, if they even made it that far. I did, however, have a spare running pack, so young Leon could at least lighten the load on his shorts.
Leon, Keelan and me at the start
Due to Covid, everyone’s start times were staggered, and so we set off at about 10-second intervals, one after the other, making it more of a marathon time trial than a race. However, that didn’t stop me almost immediately slipping into race mode, chasing down the runners in front, trying to stay ahead of those behind.
By the end, a runner coming from behind me may have started 10 minutes after me, but I still reacted as though every position counted and rallied to stay ahead of them. “What are you doing?” I’d say to myself. “Just run your own race.” Sometimes I heeded my own advice, getting into a groove, imagining myself in a long tunnel where the rest of the world was blocked out, and I just had to find a rhythm and keep moving along steadily.
After my recent sessions with Joe Kelly, I was enjoying the technical sections, making good progress over the rocky outcrops and gnarly descents. But as always, it was the ascents that were my nemesis. I found myself telling a fellow runner at one point: “I hate hills. I don’t know why I do races like this!”
Strangely, though, every time I started walking, it felt even harder than running, so I did at least run most of the uphills, even if it was only at walking speed at times. Somehow the quicker rhythm of running worked better than the stomp, stomp, stomp of walking.
Overall I was feeling fine and maintaining a good speed, until about 20 miles in, when down a huge descent I suddenly started cramping. It was completely debilitating and I had to stop.
A bit of stretching and self-massage got me going again, but I realised I’d made a rookie mistake by not bringing any salty snacks. I’d only ever once previously had cramp in a race, and someone had given me a salt tablet and it had cured me instantly. I’d vowed then always to carry one with me in longer races, but, out of race practice, I’d forgotten.
Luckily, at the bottom of the hill there was an aid station and they had bags of crisps (potato chips, for any American readers). I grabbed some and ran on. However, they were local artisan, “healthy” crisps, which meant they were very low in salt. Goddam it, I thought. What I needed right now were the full-on junk crisps.
Over the next few miles the cramps came and went and I had about four episodes where I had to completely stop and stretch and just wait for it to pass. The last time was just a few hundred yards from the finish, where I got stuck trying to get up a small step. I just couldn’t lift my leg without it cramping, and I had to stand there helplessly as two runners went by before I could finally haul myself up the tiny step and then down the last hill to the finish.
After 27.5 miles and 4,500ft of elevation in 50mph winds, I guess 4 hours 44 mins wasn’t too bad. Without the cramping I would have finished about 10 minutes earlier, at least, which would have put me as the second male finisher, which would have been a nice result. So damn those cramps.
I say second male finisher, because it would have put me fifth overall. Interestingly, three of the first four runners in the race were women. Although this wasn’t officially an ultra, with all the ups and downs and extra few miles, it sort of was, and it’s becoming increasingly common to see women winning ultras outright. In fact, the tougher the race - think the Spine Race in the UK, or Big Dog's Backyard Ultra in the US - the more likely it is to be won by a woman. Which just goes to show how tough the conditions were in my race on Saturday!
After recovering, I went to see how Keelan and Leon were doing a few miles from the finish. Far from being put to the sword by their epic undertaking, they were still going. Leon came by first in his tennis shoes, still grinning. His mum showed me the video she had taken of him around halfway - doing a cartwheel as he passed her. Then, at the finish, rather than lie there broken, staring at the sky and vowing never to run another step again, he stripped off and jumped into the freezing sea. Still grinning.
Keelan wasn’t far behind. The two of them had run most of the race together, making quite a few videos along the way, before Keelan had hit the wall around mile 24. He bravely shuffled in in just over six hours.
I was quite moved to see such a huge undertaking being attempted and completed so valiantly, yet so casually, with both humour and doggedness, at such a young age. My hat goes off to both of them. Imagine them turning up to school today. What did you get up to at the weekend? Oh, not much. I just ran a trail marathon along the coast path. No big deal.