It’s June, and I’m halfway through my challenge to run at least a marathon a month. So far my race booking frenzy has taken me back and forth along the trails of the North Downs, the north coast of Kent, the plains of Wiltshire, the beaches of Sussex, the streets of Manchester and the Royal Parks of London. And there I am, a scorching Friday afternoon on Glastonbury weekend, sitting in my car on the M3 and moving absolutely nowhere while my temperature gauge screams for mercy. I look at the interminable line of motionless traffic and switch off my engine until another two feet open up for me to crawl into.
To be fair it was my decision to put the costs of all the potential train fares into a secondhand Peugeot 206, and my poor planning that failed to take into account just how many people would be trying to escape westwards for the weekend, so I have only myself to blame. At least I’m in a car, my car, not one I have to return by 10pm, and not on the perennially packed Exeter train with basically all of London, sitting on someone else’s suitcase (or possibly child). But five hours of sitting in the same position with no way of stretching my legs is not ideal preparation for a hilly, rocky marathon.
The good people at the Gamekeeper didn’t bat an eyelid when a) I turned up three minutes before the 9pm cut off for checking in and when b) I asked if I could go for a cheeky ten minute run before tucking into my lasagne and salad, apple crumble and custard and goblet of sauv blanc, long after the kitchen had closed. The owner looked on in awe, or perhaps disgust, for the full three minutes it took me to finish, and nervously asked if I wanted any more wine as if expecting me to swallow him whole too. Just one more waffer thin mint, Mr Creosote…
The next morning I nursed my poor car along the A37 to the parking site just outside Sydling St Nicholas (“in Dorset, near France” according to White Star Running’s excellent race instructions), thankful for the clear signage and straightforward route. I had booked to do Giants Head on the strength of the Larmer Tree Marathon back in March, a rural race with beautiful views, well stocked aid stations and a fantastic sense of humour, and I already knew I wouldn’t be disappointed as I walked down to the race HQ at the village hall.
We kicked off with a race briefing that included the obligatory parish notices – follow the signs, don’t leave litter around, if you see a bull run the other way – a round of applause for all those completing their first, 99th and 100th marathons, and a cops and robbers themed wedding proposal (she said yes). The atmosphere was like that of an egg and spoon race at the village fete; relaxed, friendly, daft, fun. A lady on a horse sounded a bugle and we were off.
In my time-honoured tradition of diving in head first and waiting to see what the race holds in store rather than actually planning a strategy, I attacked the first hill for all of about ten feet, assuming the course would be gently undulating like Larmer Tree, before looking up to see all the other runners already walking. I was still relatively close to the front of the pack too, keen to get a good position on the narrow single track. And then I remembered that very good piece of trail running advice: if you can’t see the top of the hill, walk it. There wasn’t much running to be done after that.
Even knowing that I’d need to reserve my energy and my quads for what would be a tough old day, I couldn’t resist bombing the downhills, arms flailing about like kite lines. My watch told me my second mile was around seven and a half minutes, so I shook it and looked again; it insisted, definitely seven and a half, normally my 5k pace. I had been going so fast I missed the opportunity to get a photo of the naked farmer ringing his cowbell as we passed through the field, and that decided it for me – if the threat of crashing wasn’t enough to rein me in, the fear that no-one would believe my race report without evidence was.
I can see why it’s been voted Best Marathon; not because it’s easy, or fast, or full of gimmicks like DJs and paint and barbed wire and fire pits. The heart wants what it wants, and White Star Running understand that with their slogan Keep Running Rural; this of one of nature’s very own obstacle races. The terrain is relentless, alternating between rocks and scree and waist high reeds and triffid-esque vegetation, none of that soft Surrey chalk or grass to cushion your landing. There’s no zoning out; the race demands your full concentration all the way round. I watched with awe the people skipping along in Luna sandals and flat road shoes; minimal contact with the ground was definitely the right idea, but my little legs just don’t lift high enough. I shuffled along and tried not to break a toe.
Not to mention the elevation profile, up and down like Pinocchio’s lie detector results. When I looked back at the race data afterwards I was trying to work out why I couldn’t remember any flat bits, and found that the simple answer was there weren’t any. I think I’m glad I didn’t know that going into the race; on the other hand, it might have been as well for me to be more cautious at the beginning. But bloody hell was it fun.
Despite the unseasonable heat the aid stations were perfectly spaced out and I never found myself wanting for water or food. In fact I didn’t really need my bottle or waist pack and both returned almost as full as they left. It’s a small point, but a key one, that the stations weren’t just well placed but full of variety, with a basic stock of key items and a different selections of treats at each one, so there wasn’t much danger of growing sick of jelly beans or sausage rolls or never wanting to see a piece of Soreen again. I would never recommend going into a race without your own provisions, but you could have run this empty handed without any problems. In fact I was in danger of grossly exceeding my calorie limit for the day.
I had been listening to an audiobook of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, on and off, being as I am in a phase of reading adventure and travel books for the inspiration to just keep moving. I didn’t want to be plugged in for the whole race but for the sections that just needed a head down and charge attitude it was useful to be able to imagine myself on the desolate open highways, just trying to get from A to B, without the luxury of aid stations and signposts or a medal at the end. One chap ran past me and asked what I was listening to, and I told him. He was a bit disappointed; he told me he was listening to his own personal radio station which consisted of whatever songs came into his head, and when he got bored of them he would ask someone what they were listening to and ‘play’ that instead, like the world’s most low-tech iPod shuffle. Presumably not interested in beat poets as much as groovy beats, he danced off singing Boogie Wonderland. It’s that kind of race.
But as we finally saw the Giant himself appearing over the hill, the low-tech approach revealed its value. Like the tourist that I am I paused at the side of the road a few times to try and get a photo of him, but a 30ft chalk cock is harder to photograph than you’d imagine. Eventually I admitted defeat, said goodbye to him and ploughed on. The race he gave his name to was not quite done yet.
I started to pay for my early enthusiasm just after halfway, having taken a half mile detour around mile ten with about a hundred other runners, and I felt the pressure of two stressful jobs, overtraining and very little sleep weighing heavy on my aching, cramped muscles. Should I be feeling this exhausted with the same distance to go again, and the “killer hill” apparently still to come? Can I actually finish? I brushed the worries aside – I hadn’t been expecting miracles from this race, I wasn’t fully fit, and the whole point was that the hours on my feet (not to mention the hours on the trails) are all part of my NDW100 training. What could be better preparation for pushing my body through extremes of exhaustion than experiencing nearly extremes of exhaustion? Just as long as I still had enough left in the tank for the drive home…
Luckily the Lovestation at mile 20 appeared just in time, stocked with essentials such as water, biscuits and sweets, plus local cider, pink champagne and fresh strawberries. A first in my experience, they also had piles of freshly shorn sheep’s wool which one runner took advantage of for a quick powernap, and a gorgeous sheepdog looking for someone to play catch with him and his favourite rock. I played a few rounds before remembering I was in a race, and had to leave him sulking behind me, but it was just enough to recharge me for the final push. On went the Cardiacs, and my game face.
I say final push, but the final push just kept on pushing and pushing and pushing. I had calculated a half mile extra for our detour and I know better than to expect a trail marathon to be 26.2 miles exactly, but as the Garmin passed 27 yet another steep climb appeared in front of me with no obvious ending in sight, and I realised I’d spent my turbocharger too soon. I tried not to get upset about it, to be fatalistic and just enjoy the course, but I could smell the lotion of the post-race masseurs, taste the homemade cakes and tea waiting at the end, and I just wanted to be there.
And almost as if out of nowhere, there it was. As we tipped back down that final hill the village green emerged with the finishers’ arch and the marquees and hundreds of people licking up enormous melting Mr Whippys. I charged towards the finish line and leapt over the timing mat, and I was done. And I finally got to see the chalk giant in all his glory, engraved on the medal and emblazoned on our finisher’s t-shirt and headscarf.
The masseur who called me up asked me if I had any problem areas I wanted her to work on, and I winced and pointed with embarrassment at my hips. Can you even massage hips without risking prosecution? But somehow she managed it, with dignity and patience and I can only assume black magic.
The whole shebang is really more of a festival than a race. The good ladies of the local WI prepared hot meals for the runners both on the Friday night before and the Saturday night after the race, and you can camp both nights and take advantage of the barbecue, bar (“How long is the bar open until?” “Until it runs out!”) and barn dance. Almost everyone I spoke to asked me if I was staying on Saturday night and when I said I was driving straight back they looked utterly baffled, and I began to think I’d made a huge mistake in not making the most of the weekend. In fact, I began to wonder if the race was just a sidebar to the main event. Naked farmers notwithstanding.
UK’s number one marathon? I can definitely see that. The effort that Andy and all at team White Star Running put into it would make that the case regardless of the course itself. It’s no walk in the Royal Parks, but you come away feeling like you earned that medal and then some. And when all is said and done, there’s a mini Glastonbury waiting to greet you at the end. Except you don’t have to put up with Kanye fucking West. Magic.