Looking through my calendar this year, some races have stood out like the big city stations on a stopping train to Edinburgh; there’s your Yorks, your Newcastles, your Birminghams. These are stations that could get you to places other than York, Newcastle and Birmingham, if you so pleased. They’re the ones you could point to on a map, and you know roughly how far into your journey you are when the train pulls in.
Then you’ve got your intermediary stops: Milton Keynes, Newark Northgate, Berwick-Upon-Tweed. You were vaguely aware that the train stopped here but you’d forgotten about it, or it might be an unscheduled stop, so one way or another you’re mildly surprised when the sign slides by your window. Except for Milton Keynes, at least it’s usually a nice surprise.
In my challenge to run at least one marathon a month the North Downs Way 100 was my connection at York; however that ended up more like a train crash, and I ended up losing my momentum altogether, pulling out of SBU35 in the Lake District three weeks later as well. Those were my August fixtures, and September was supposed to be a low key local marathon – a Saturday evening race run in four laps back and forth along the Thames towpath. It was a risk, but I chose it because it was unusual, because lap races and evening races were both good practice for the Moonlight Challenge and because it was relatively close. Then the QPR fixtures list came barging in and I remembered why I don’t usually do Saturday races.
So just a couple of weeks out, I decided to sign up for the New Forest Marathon the Sunday before as insurance and make the call on the Thames race closer to the time. Now that I had my trusty Nelly the Peugeot it was a drivable distance away, a reasonable price and set in stunning Hampshire woodland. An unplanned diversion in England’s beautiful countryside, it would be my Berwick-Upon-Tweed.
I could pretend that the short notice booking meant a good excuse for poor planning, but you and I both know two years of notice wouldn’t have made the blindest bit of difference. I thought New Forest = light trails, so I threw my new Vivobarefoot Trail Freaks in my kitbag and trundled off to Brockenhurst. By the same logic, I also thought trails equals mud and Salomon vests and grizzled old veterans all eating Soreen. Boy was I wrong. This was more like a classic road marathon that just happened to take place in the middle of woodland, with a proper race village set up in the centre of the New Park Farm Showground, local businesses and sponsors popping up in tents around the finishers arch, loudspeakers and coordinated warmups to pumping dance tunes.
Despite all the evidence pointing fervently towards this being more like a standard road race, it didn’t sink in for me until much later than it should have. It didn’t sink in when 200 or so marathon runners huddled in the heavily branded starting funnel, while a local personality tried to whip up atmosphere by listing factoids and cracking jokes to a background of pop music. It didn’t sink in for a good couple of miles, principally because the first couple of miles were over wonderfully responsive sand, gravel and scree, giving my Trail Freaks a great little runout. Still later, as the percentage of Tarmac started to drastically outweigh the unpaved ground, I had a vague idea that it would probably become woodland trails again soon, even as we skirted the edges of a main road. My hungover, marshmallow brain was blithely failing to deal with reality.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it – coming in with no preparation and few expectations, I decided to treat it as a test for my new shoes, to consolidate my comfortable 9mm pace, to enjoy the stunning surroundings and notch up another marathon on my road to 100. It was also a good opportunity to get used to running without music; the race had a policy of no earphones unless they were the Aftershokz brand, which use vibrations through your jawbone to transfer sound to your ears and enable you to still hear outside noises. I was very dubious of this – it sounded to me a lot less of a safety issue and a lot more of a blatant marketing push – but I took it as a good excuse to try weaning myself off earphones altogether.
I can’t speak for the experience of wearing Aftershokz myself, obviously, but the policy did have an extraordinary effect on my fellow runners. A handful of people used them, including one person who seemed to have missed the point and had them so loud (or at least not properly connected with his jawbone) that I could hear his music probably as well as he could. On the whole they seemed to be successful for the few people that had them though. Those that didn’t were divided into a majority of people just not listening to music, a few who brazenly flouted the rules and wore their iPhone earbuds anyway (although to be fair they’re so crap you CAN still hear outside sounds through them), and two people who – and I really can’t understand the logic behind this – just played their music through their phone speakers. Out loud. Like teenagers on the top deck of the number 37 bus.
That said, unpunctuated by the tinny shriek of pop music the race was peaceful, friendly and a nice way to spend a Sunday morning. There were a lot of club vests and ‘plain clothes’ although not so many charity runners, and judging by the callout at the beginning a fair few first timers. The race was back after a year’s hiatus and under new management, who seemed to be keen on slick organisation and a strong social media presence. There were markers every mile and hundreds of signs up confirming to runners that they were on the right track – the route served four separate races: a 5k, 10k, half and full marathons each with their own pleasingly coloured coordinated signage – so I could see the appeal of the event to less experienced runners.
Now I know that I’m capable of sub 4hr marathons, but I’ve also become accustomed to judging roughly what sort of a race I’m running by about four or five miles in, so I rarely sweat it when my times go way over that on a hilly or rough course. I also know that sometimes it’s about consolidating an effort not pushing a boundary, and today was one of those days. It was also my first time running without a belt or pack of any kind, instead hiding gels in my shorts pockets and carrying a handheld bottle. I hate carrying things and being all out of balance normally, but I really want to make handhelds work for me if I can, to give me another hydration option that isn’t too bulky, heavy or slow to use. And also because I want to be Jenn Shelton.
Encouraged by the relatively gentle ups and downs, I decided to try for around 4 hours again, but without busting a gut to get a few seconds under – basically, stay around the 9mm mark, don’t get drawn into any battles. You know what comes next. Falling into that classic trap of “Well I might as well be doing eight and a halfs, I’m feeling fine” I rode the wave of a runner’s high for a good long while, before crashing hard at the halfway point – my old enemy – and eventually having to take a brief walk. As usual, it was the flat ground that killed me, the lugs on my poor Trail Freaks grinding down to a nub and shooting pains up through my hips. And as usual, I had forgotten to take on enough fuel and found myself fighting both nausea and hunger. Lovely.
It didn’t last too long once I toughed it out with a Salted Caramel Gu (god, they are little foil tubes of lifesaver) and allowed myself a walking break – I suspected I was letting the four hour mark go, but I didn’t particularly care. As the route opened out onto another main road, outside of the forest and practically treeless, I picked out the small strips of grass verge wherever I could and found myself settling back into a rhythm.
I think it’s a race with a bit of a personality crisis, if I’m honest. Listed as a “multi-terrain” race (which the organisers are obliged to do due to more than 10% of the course being off road) it gives runners new to the course the licence to read in that what they want to. For me, I automatically assumed (or rather, hoped) that meant closer to a 50/50 split; those more accustomed to roads probably counted every step off road as a step too many. I would have called the course profile gently undulating, but overheard a number of finishers complain about the “brutal hills”. This isn’t a criticism of the course itself, which was nothing short of beautiful, but rather a note on managing expectations. If variation can be described as more than 10%, it is equally true if that variation comes in at 11% or 100%. That’s a big difference, and it plays a part in how much the reality of the experience measures up against the expectation. Or, to put it another way, how much fun it is.
Of course another measure of fun is how many wild ponies you see crossing the road. I’ve been stopped in my tracks by deer (Richmond Park Marathon), played catch with a sheepdog (Giant’s Head Marathon) and been raced by a donkey (Salisbury 5-4-3-2-1) but I’d never before seen wild ponies ambling down the street of a Hampshire village. In my efforts to go streamline I’d also left my phone behind, so I never got a photo of them unfortunately; you’re just going to have to believe that three ponies strolled down the High Street on a sunny Sunday morning, nodded their heads solemnly at the runners going the other way and continuing about their business, like Beatrix Potter characters come to life.
Despite the best efforts of the organisers some cheeky scamp (criminally bored) had obviously had some fun with the mile markers, as I saw 16 turn up half a mile too early, 17 nearly a mile too early and 19 through 23 disappear altogether. I briefly panicked and recalculated my expected finish time, wondering if I was actually on course for a 3:45 and just didn’t realise it, but even my marshmallow brain knew that I should trust my Garmin and more importantly my heartrate, both of which agreed that I hadn’t suddenly become Mo Farah in the last three miles. The fact that the water stations were a pretty reliable three miles apart meant that I knew that my Garmin wasn’t far off track, so I stopped counting signs and dug in for the road home.
The final mile, like many races whose organisers are looking to make up the distance, curled around the showground before leading back into the main race village for one more loop. It meant having to dart by spectators trying to cross the track just yards from the finish line, which is never ideal, but I’ve got quite adept at impromptu steeplechase and I even managed a skip over the timing mats. I got my text message confirming my finish time of 4:04:27 less than ten minutes after crossing the line, while I chowed down on an ice cream from a local creamery (highly recommended in lieu of milk or recovery drink, by the way). All in all it had been a very genteel, good natured sort of day, reminding me that not every race has to have a target.
So, eighteen down, eighty two to go; and with two marathons, the Druid’s Challenge and a CTS Ultra still to do this year I’ll be chugging steadily towards that magic number 100. I’m not sure yet which station race number 100 will be – it’s not a Berwick-Upon-Tweed, but then it’s not a terminus either. All I know is right now my life feels like Clapham Junction…