A tale of two marathons – Brighton and Manchester 2015


I didn’t really plan to do a two in two weekends challenge; actually, mum and I had planned to run Brighton together for CLIC Sargent in 2014, but mum suffered a series of injuries which put her out of action for almost eighteen months, so she deferred and I did that one on my own. While picking up my number at the expo I was seduced by the early bird rates and signed up for 2015 there and then, so that we could still run together when she was fit again.

A few months down the line I was going through the Chasers race calendar – still hoping for the outside chance of a ballot spot at London – and noticed that the club’s target spring marathon this year was Manchester, and that there were around twenty Chasers already going. After checking the actual day of the event in my diary and noticing that it was free – because clicking on the weeks either side would have been TOO MUCH effort – I got all trigger happy with the application form and I was in. Then I noticed Brighton the week before, and London the week after. Ah, the trusty leap-first-look-later approach. Fuck it, I thought, I’m doing it now.

So there we are again, traipsing round the expo at the Brighton Centre, spending money we don’t have on kit we DEFINITELY need, and somehow managing to buttonhole Jo Pavey and her family (to mum’s delight and my horror). Creatures of habit that we are, we found the same Italian restaurant that we ate our pre-race dinner in last year, at the same time as we found it last year, sat at the same table and were served the same meal by the same waiter. Honestly, that is the very definition of happiness to me.

Disappointingly we couldn’t make it three for three by booking into the same hotel – by the time we were certain that mum could race everything had been booked up as far as Three Bridges – so instead we stayed at the Gatwick Airport Travelodge and took the train straight to Preston Park on race day morning. Gatwick Airport Travelodge: I challenge you to find a more depressing collection of words in the English language. This, dear readers, is the reason for booking first thinking later.

As we prepared I could see in mum what she must have seen in me a year before: excited but nervous, fidgeting and squeaking, freaking out about tiny details to avoid confronting the huge task. I remembered panicking about how I’d get hold of a coffee and had I chosen the right kit and where were all the toilets. With the benefit of the experience I’ve gained over the last twelve months I now know that, unless your margin of error is measured in seconds not minutes, nothing you do the night before makes a damn bit of difference anyway, but nobody could have persuaded me of that without me experiencing it for myself. And nothing I could tell mum would persuade her either. I just had to let her ride it out.

The last few months have been hard on us as a family; between ill health and upheaval and loss and more loss, there’s not been much time to draw breath. To me, running has been an invaluable diversion from this, but for mum – despite her low boredom threshold and voracious appetite for challenge – training for a marathon effectively from scratch was not the piece of straw the camel’s back needed. She’s borne it all with incredible good humour and if she ever felt that she wasn’t up to the challenge, she never let on. At least, not until we were sat on the seafront on Saturday afternoon, enjoying a coffee.

In the run up we’d talked a lot about tactics and how I would pace her, how much her preparation had improved on that of Edinburgh’s, how she had done so much more training. We had focused so intently on her physical preparation that we’d completely taken her mental readiness for granted, and as we sat stirring lattes she finally, tearfully, admitted she wasn’t sure if she was up to it. I knew she was more than capable – we’d run a comfortable Wimbledon Common Half together in the run up and barely broken sweat, and she runs at least four times a week – but in that moment she seemed powerless, broken. This is my mum. She’s not meant to be vulnerable. I was so, so scared.

The race day morning went off without a hitch, despite the awkward logistics, and we were even treated to a man with a leprechaun costume and a mobile PA system dancing a jig from Preston Park station all the way to the pens. Mum was smiley and chatty at the starting line and high-fived Jo Pavey on the way through, but something wasn’t right.

Brighton 2

Still though, we managed the first 10k without pausing once and with a good pace – too good a pace actually, but trying to persuade her to slow down was like trying to tell the Saharan sun to tone it down a bit – and took a tactical decision to pause for the loo just after mile 9. We’d probably chosen the worst possible loo to stop at, as ten minutes passed and still we jigged about in the queue, but it had got to the point where waiting for the next one wasn’t an option. When we finally got going again it took forever to regain our rhythm, and the undulating seafront road hit mum like a ton of bricks.

The sun was warm and strong, but not strong enough for the brutal sea wind that followed us along the coast. Our pace slowed, the crowd thinned out, and every step felt like treacle. And then, just before mile 11, mum suffered an excruciating groin strain and burst into tears. Where’s that camel, I’ve still got a bundle of straw…

From that point on the race was an exercise in damage limitation. Even as early as mile 14 the thought of not finishing entered both our minds, but we put it straight out; with all the money mum had raised it simply wasn’t a viable option, and besides, I’ve never seen her give up on a race yet. Instead, we took it step by step. Just get to the next speed limit sign. Jog to the traffic lights. Walk as far as the pier. By the time we made it to the CLIC Sargent cheering point there were only a couple of people left, and no sign of her club, Petts Wood Runners. For someone who thrives on the atmosphere of a big race, it crushed mum.

Then, a brief ray of light as Jo from PWR called out to mum from the side of the road. Even I nearly cried a bit when I saw them go in for a hug, and for the first time all day mum smiled with her eyes as well as her mouth. We found out later that they had been there all along, waiting to video her coming through, but in her exhaustion mum couldn’t see or hear them calling her. Jo’s hug was enough to carry her as far as Hove, put the frustration and pain of yet another injury out of her mind and pull out the aeroplane arms again. There were only a few people around the residential streets but they were as warm and welcoming as anyone could hope and they offered an endless supply of orange slices which mum munched through gleefully. For a little while at least, we were back in kid mode.

Eventually though we had to get back to the seafront, and without the pace to keep me warm I felt my body temperature dropping drastically. Luckily I was carrying my new Salomon race vest stuffed full of spare clothes and food, as I was planning on using the hours on foot as training for August’s 100 miler, so I fished out an extra layer, but I could already feel my lips turning blue and my fingers were so frozen as to be useless. The sun’s rays were completely unfettered by clouds and I ended up with ridiculous tan lines, but it didn’t stop the windchill doing its thing. I could barely speak for the last six miles.

Brighton 3

The boring power station section passed, the coloured huts left behind, we finally crossed the line in a little over seven hours. I felt shitty for failing my mum as a pacer, I felt shitty for being snappy with her, I felt shitty for not noticing sooner how much she had struggled with the last few months, and I felt shitty that she felt so shitty. As soon as we got home we ran ourselves the hottest baths we could stand, the better to wash away the day.

Six days later I was back in an Italian restaurant, this time in Piccadilly Gardens and at a table with seventeen other Chasers, fizzing with anticipation for Sunday’s Greater Manchester Marathon. There was cautious optimism, a party atmosphere, wine and beer flowing already. Everyone wanted to know everyone else’s target time. All I knew was, there was a homemade pacing band in my hotel room with a 3:44 target, a long time ambition to get a London Marathon good for age qualifying time, and I had absolutely no idea whether I’d be wearing a realistic goal or a really crap novelty bracelet. I answered conservatively that sub four would be nice but frankly I’d be happy to finish. If you don’t have a plan then things can’t fail to go to plan, right? Maths.

I’ve been running eight and a half minute miles comfortably for a while now, which would be enough to hit my target, and the Thames Riverside 20 had shown me that a little bit of discipline and steady pacing goes on a long way on a flat road race. In theory, that was all I had to do for mile after mile. But all week my feet had been heavy with the effort of seven hours’ plodding in them, my lower back was screaming and right up to bedtime on Saturday I was battling a niggly left ankle that couldn’t take my full weight. It was either going to happen, or it really wasn’t.

There’s a phenomenon in my industry known as Dr Theatre – no matter how ill or hungover or injured a performer is, they always mysteriously pull it out of the bag on the night. Seriously, I’ve worked with dancers who turned up to work ashen-faced with the Norovirus, floated gracefully onto stage, did five pirouettes, leapt into the wings and immediately threw up into a sand bucket, only to do it all over again two minutes later. No-one in front of the curtain is any the wiser. Dr Theatre was there, tapping on my shoulder as my alarm went off on Sunday morning. Up you get, you lazy moo. Your ankle’s fine, stop bitching about your back, and the quicker you go the less your feet will hurt.

Manchester 2

I know I always say I’m not a city marathon person – and trust me when I say there are few places in the world I like visiting less than Old Trafford – but I fell in love with Manchester almost immediately. The weather was perfect, the route was entertaining if not exactly picturesque, the crowds were encouraging, and I could barely keep up with the number of kids holding out their hands for a high five. There’s a particular brand of understated Northern hubris about the event – a Bet Lynch lookalike called out “Come on love, chips for dinner” and at least three banners told me to run like I stole something – that made me feel like I was running through the set of Coronation Street. I can see why it won the award for Best Marathon yet again this year.

As excellent a turnout as it was for the runners, much respect goes to the Clapham Chasers support team who came all the way to Manchester with a blow-up doll just to cheer us on. It took a good few miles for me to notice that, between looking out for the faster Chasers on the switchbacks and looking out for Ingrid and the cheering squad, I’d barely had my music on for the first half of the race, something I usually rely heavily on. In fact, I’d barely noticed we were at halfway, and I was still really comfortable with the pace.

Cat – herself going for two in two weekends and a PB – had put up a Steve Prefontaine quote on the Facebook page earlier in the week: “The best pace is suicide pace, and today looks like a good day to die.” Grr. As I ran along, listening to party punk god Andrew W.K. and repeating the quote to myself, I drowned out that voice that barters with me to take it easy, that says finishing is a triumph in itself. Of course it is, but I’d come too far to give up the chance of a good for age place I now knew I was capable of, and I knew I should have had more faith from the beginning. I know it’s not exactly in keeping with the whole This Girl Can ethos, but I channelled that testosterone-filled chest-beating machismo and started reeling people in. Club vests disappeared in my wake. Every kid that high-fived me felt like a Super Mario 1-Up.

Andy puts up with enough from me without being dragged to every single race, so we have an understanding that he only comes to Big Races, like city marathons close to home or races with a big goal; since I’d be surrounded by Chasers at Manchester and had persuaded myself not to get too excited about the good for age time, it didn’t qualify as one of them, not to mention the fact that it was in bloody Manchester. But as I approached Stretford I desperately wished I could see his face in the crowd. It was the point at which I knew I was going to make it, and I wanted him to see me do it. What’s more, I wanted mum to see just how much fun running should be.

I crossed the line in front of the Old Trafford Holy Trinity statue with a chip time of 3:41:22, elated and mildly surprised. At least two-thirds of the Chasers running that day got PBs, and the party was nowhere near over. It would have been nice to stay in Manchester for one more night and celebrate with them, but frankly I was ready for home. For me, crossing that line wasn’t the end of three hours and forty one minutes, or the conclusion of a tiring eight days, or the culmination of a few months’ training. It was curtain down on a year-long performance that saw every extreme of tragedy and triumph, and a good deal of comedy for good measure. It’s not the final performance though, not by a long shot.

See you in London…

Manchester 1

P.S. Mum spent seven hours insisting she would never do another marathon. Two weeks later, I got a text from her pointing out that her birthday falls in the same week as the New York Marathon. So…

Larmer Tree Marathon


In my quest to run at least one marathon every month this year, March (not traditionally a marathon rich month) threw up only a few options that appealed to me. Some were too far away, some clashed with other events, but one stood out; being on a rare free Sunday, set in one of my favourite parts of southern Britain, promising a view of some real live peacocks and run by the same organisers who do the legendary Giants Head Marathon. And when the email came through with the race instructions for the Larmer Tree Marathon, I knew I’d chosen wisely.

Never before have instructions made me laugh so hard that I sprayed my PC screen with coffee. Under Weather was the comment “We won’t be cancelling the race if there’s inclement weather. We will be sitting in the warm by a fully stocked bar.” Under FAQs: “Q: Is there a Costa Coffee or a Starbucks nearby? A: No, this is the countryside.” “Q: Do I have to enjoy myself? A: Yes, it’s the law.” And my personal favourite, “Q: What time does the bar shut? A: When we all go home.” A race with its own bar. White Star Running sound like my kind of people.

After various last minute dropouts, team Clapham Chasers consisted of me and Robert H taking rooms at an inn a few miles away from the race HQ in Larmer Tree Gardens, and Karina and Rob staying with family nearby. Poor Robert had not only been kind enough to wait until late afternoon on the Saturday so I could make 75 minutes of Crystal Palace v QPR before driving down to Wiltshire – what a waste of 75 minutes that was – but he also had to hang around for me after the race as I was the only Chaser mad enough to do the full marathon distance, with the other three sensibly plumping for the half. I made it up to him by forcing him to do a cheesy grin photo by the Start/Finish line. Pretty sure that helped.


All three courses – full marathon, half and 20 miles – plotted a route around the beautiful Rushmore Estate, and as race director Andy proudly announced at the briefing, the starting line straddles the counties of Wiltshire and Dorset. We picked up our numbers from the main café in the centre of Larmer Tree Gardens, where there was also a stall selling fresh pastries, tea and coffee and another for merchandise. The same room would be converted into a food court later on with lasagne, macaroni cheese, burgers, pizza, salad and all kinds of hot food being served. I was looking forward to seeing that room almost as much as I was the peacocks.

We started off by following a path around the grounds that led us downhill and across a road towards the main trail. I settled into a nice easy rhythm early on, enjoying the slope and using it to find myself a good position in the throng of runners. This is fun, I thought. What a nice way to start a marathon, I thought. Then I heard a lady nearby say “I’m not looking forward to coming up this hill at the end,” and the penny dropped. The finish line is the reverse of the start, which meant we would be finishing on an uphill climb. Ah well. Worry about that in 26 miles’ time.

With my partner Andy’s parents living in Salisbury we find ourselves in and around Wiltshire quite a lot, and I have a great affinity with the area. Whether it’s the pagan influence, the beautiful countryside or just the fact that I’m either running or eating good food whenever I’m there, I always feel right at home. This race was no different; I had a dopey grin on my face most of the time. Added to this, the ground conditions were perfect – a nice mixture of cushioning on top and firm ground underneath, with neither boggy mud nor slippery chalk to contend with – and the weather held out with a cool calm air temperature and no wind or rain to speak of. As one would expect in such a mystical area, it was as though all the planets has aligned. I settled into a rhythm and zoned out.

At the beginning of the race, not really knowing what to expect but sticking with my trusty walk up/run down tactic for hills, I had estimated around a five hour finishing time. I didn’t care particularly, to be honest; still winding down from a busy winter and preparing for the North Downs 100, I just wanted to get some steady miles under my belt. As usual though, when I’m not stressing about my time I seem to fly. At the halfway point I was just within two and a quarter hours, and still feeling pretty strong. I had no idea what terrain was ahead of me though – other than the climb at the end – and couldn’t be sure that the second half wasn’t all uphill or through bog or under water or something ridiculous. So I put all thoughts of a four and a half hour finish out of mind and listened to my audiobook. Stephen Fry, reading one of his own novels. I’ve never felt so English in all my life.

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There are a generous number of water and aid stations along the route, but the most important one is the Lovestation at mile 20. I came tearing down another gentle incline to find a marquee sheltering two trestles full of home baked food, a couple of chairs for runners to pause and rest, and a man in a kilt – Uncle Kev, apparently – waiting at the bottom to catch all the runners and give them a big sporrony hug. I think I was laughing too hard to answer when he asked me how I was doing, and he nearly didn’t let me carry on. Uncle Kev’s role is more than mirth and mischief; the point of the Lovestation is to do a health check on the runners as they come through and make sure no-one is suffering too badly to continue. And, you know, hugs.

Whether it was the hug or the whole bag of jelly snakes I’d eaten, or whether I’d just managed to pace myself properly for a change, I left the Lovestation feeling stronger than ever; just in time to hit Tollard Park and Tollard Green, the boggiest and most uneven stretch of the whole course. It’s a bit cruel plotting such tricky terrain in the last five miles of a marathon, but all those miles along the North Downs finally paid off and me and my gorgeous Salomon Fellraisers fairly danced through it. I felt effortless, my pace quick and my feet light, and I must have overtaken a good twenty people in the final 5k. All that hippy one-with-nature tranquillity went right out of the window. The audiobook was swapped for Gold Dust. Game face.

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As we crossed the road and reached the hill up to Larmer Tree Gardens at the end, I dug in for the climb. It was longer than I remembered from the start, and I paced myself by chanting “don’t go faster, slow down less, don’t go faster, slow down less,” all the way to the top. I turned onto the final straight, seeing the clock pass four hours and thirty minutes but knowing I’d been at the back of the pack and would still just be on for sub 4:30. I hadn’t cared about times at all until I crossed that road, but as soon as I saw the clock I couldn’t resist. A sprint finish, and I just about made it.

I wobbled into the café to find Robert, who hadn’t been expecting me for another half an hour, and claimed a steaming hot plate of mac and cheese. I was just in time for the awards too, and to pick up prizes for Karina and Rob who had both placed second in the half marathon. And just as I packed up my things to hobble back to the car, I remembered one last very important errand. He refused to do his tail display despite my pleading, but I did at least manage to get a photo of him strutting around, being ostentatiously disinterested.

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Robert and I talked a lot about running on the journey back – surprise surprise – and it was fascinating to hear about his career and how the standards have changed so much over the years. He told me that he was plum last in his first marathon, and his time that day still beat mine at the Larmer Tree by over half an hour. I know I’m never going to be a fast runner, but being so much more confident over rough terrain now my trail marathon times are fast catching up with my road times, even though I’m not speeding up overall. It really helps being around such quality runners in the Chasers, even though it can be a bit intimidating at times, because you can’t help but be carried along. More and more I appreciate the importance of being part of such a fabulous a running club, to share my highs and support me in my lows, and to know there’s always someone willing to offer advice or a lift or a hug. Sporron optional.

Thames Riverside 20 – Race or Pace


For months I’ve been waxing lyrical about volunteer, marshals, pacers and race directors, all those good sorts who give up their day (and often a lot more besides) to make it possible for us selfish runners to do our thing, and making grand pronouncements about doing my stint one day. So when the call went out to the Clapham Chasers Facebook forum for people to help run our annual race, the Thames Riverside 20, I’d sort of run out of reasons not to. 

Since my role at the Monday social runs has gone from struggling backmarker to regular pacer and novice group leader, it seemed like a natural progression to offering my services as a pacer for the 9:30 group. I’ve got to admit, this was another one of those things that I merrily signed up for with my worry-about-the-details later head, and felt fine about, until my details-and-doubt head started to ask questions. Like: Jaz, are you sure you can maintain a steady pace for twenty miles? Your Garmin readouts look like Pinocchio’s lie detector test, and other people are relying on you now. Can you even run twenty miles at 9:30mm? The last time you did that you couldn’t walk for a week. You’ve got a race every single weekend for five weeks. Are you sure you won’t crash at mile 16 like you usually do? It’s an 8am start, the day after QPR v Spurs. Since when have you been a morning person, let alone after a home game? 

Thanks, doubt brain. The very definition of a self fulfilling prophecy, I got about four hours’ sleep on the Saturday night, and what little sleep I did get was punctuated with anxiety dreams about waking up late and missing the start or losing all my kit or fucking it all up. The one saving grace was that I would be paired with Cat, stalwart of the trail club and Monday night social run, a lady well used to picking up after me when I fell to pieces. 

Mildly surprised to discover that there was more than one six o’clock on a Sunday, I got to Fulham Palace Park just as the birds were waking up and spent some of my nervous energy helping the HQ set-up team, until Sham told me off for getting underfoot and I had to find another way to amuse myself. Eventually we got our briefing – “Run at your pace. Run at exactly your pace. Don’t stop for anything.” – and lined up for the off. The pace groups were set at half minute intervals from sub 7:00mm to 10:00mm and would set off in ascending order with two minutes between each start, so Cat and I had a good twelve minutes to piss around dancing jigs and taking silly photos. Ok, not Cat. Just me. 


I never get bored of the riverside, or how lucky I am to live so near the Thames path. When we finally got our starters orders the first half mile took us over Putney Bridge to the south bank, and we all marvelled at the sight of the tranquil river in the hazy spring morning. The first sign of the tireless support we would receive was just on the other side of the bridge, fellow Chasers Alex and Frankie cheering like loons as Sunday morning strollers and Saturday night walk-of-shamers looked wryly on. I’m sure everyone who passed us thought they and they alone were the sane ones. 

Our group was only about twenty people to begin with, a mixture of experienced runners and first time marathoners on their last long run before London or Paris. For most people, today’s run was the long run in their training schedule and for some it would be the longest they’d ever run before. For all the pressure that piled on us as pacers, it was actually a huge privilege to be helping someone towards such a significant milestone. To me, the Thames path means spring and summer long runs and marathon prep with my mum, so it’s seen a lot of milestones passed in my running career already; I love that it now has a whole new layer of meaning to me. I loved hearing that mixture of trepidation and resolve in the first timers with us; they all joked that they didn’t know if they’d make the finish, but their eyes said quite the opposite. 

Joking about the first timers making it to the end was something of a front for my own worries about being able to finish. I normally run to effort; I’ve never run at such a consistent pace before, not even on flat ground. Only eight days after another attempt at the Moonlight Challenge, my thighs were sore and hamstrings nowhere near loosening up as we saw the front runners pass us going the other way around mile 7 (or mile 13 to them). They looked so strong, and I still didn’t have a rhythm or another gear to move up to if I’d needed it. I mean, the whole point was I wasn’t meant to need it, but I’m not used to running with basically no margin for error. I concentrated on making sure the Garmin stayed happy and tried to pretend I didn’t want to stop and stick my face in a bowl of ice cream.

Then I saw something that was both heartbreaking and which spurred me on. At the third water station in Richmond, just before the 10 mile turnaround point, there was Diana – trail club regular, tough as nails diminutive Latvian lightning streak who has gone from strength to strength this last year – folded up in a sorry looking little bundle on the ground. Having been cruising along in the 8mm pacing group and feeling fresh as a daisy, apparently she had felt her hamstring go twang (luckily not too far from the aid station) and that was that. It was gutting to see her like that, grimacing not so much with pain but with frustration. I had to resist the temptation to dart out and give her a hug, check she was ok, but of course she was already in the safest hands possible. Besides, this was not my race – the most useful thing we could do at this point was keep our group at a steady pace and make sure there weren’t any other blowouts. 

Thankfully the next sign of life we saw was the turnaround point, with an exuberant Naomi dancing and singing at the hairpin bend. Seeing her meant that we were past halfway, that there was always less left than we’d already done, and that we were technically on the home straight. Being the second to last group it occurred to me that she must have been keeping up her energetic little jig for AGES. I’d definitely rather run for three hours than dance and be cheerful for three hours. What a ledge. 

One thing I always forget about the towpath is just how stony it is in places, even though I think of it as a relatively low impact surface compared with road running or flat compared with trails. It’s hardly time for the Hokas, but around Kew Gardens on the return journey I was starting to feel real soreness in my toe joints and became aware of just how hard I was having to work not to turn an ankle. It’s brilliant for training on, but not as fast a racing course as you might think. I realised that for the first time since Istanbul I was seriously pushing myself just to maintain the pace. I have so much fun when I’m out on trails – no weight of expectation, no sense of chore or effort, beautiful scenery to drift off into – there’s a distinct possibility that I’ve become a lazy bastard.

We had started to lose a couple of our group by now, some because they were gently ramping up the pace and leaving us behind, others unable to keep up. The closer we got to the rowing clubs at Putney, the fewer in number we became. It’s hard to resist the temptation to drop back and keep the stragglers company – as hard as it is not to open up the throttle as Putney Bridge loomed into view – but the reward for consistency soon became obvious as two of the group, first timers who had only ever done eighteen miles before, celebrated their furthest distance at mile 19, high fived us, then asked permission to go on ahead. I’ve never heard anything so charming in a race; someone asking permission to go faster. And as Cat and I reached the bridge, we found ourselves totally alone. 

I couldn’t resist challenging her to a sprint finish at the entrance of the park, since it didn’t matter any more, just so I could do my Mo Farah impression. I hit my Garmin as I crossed the line, but I already knew what my time was and straightaway went to find Diana for the hug I’d been saving for her. It felt weird not to have to check for my chip time or placing. It felt weirder still not to have my hear bursting from my ribcage at the end of a race. Is this what consistent pacing feels like? 

I learned new metrics for judging success that day: it came in the form of pride in a stranger’s achievements; in joy at seeing our average pace over the twenty miles was 9:29 minutes per mile, bang on target, not too fast; in finishing twenty miles without succumbing once to the temptation to walk, and still feeling like I had a strong final 10k in me; and in knowing I did my best without letting anyone down. It wasn’t a PB, or a podium finish – I didn’t even get a bloody medal. It was just a job well done. 


Istanbul Marathon 2014


Istanbul is one of my favourite cities in the whole world. Where London likes to think it’s edgy even though the bars all close at midnight, Istanbul is buzzing and full of life right through the small hours – and not just nightlife as you might expect, but everyday life like cafes and snack bars and parks and shops too. It’s a truly 24 hour city. And of course it is a city at the crossroads of a number of cultures, spanning two continents. Historic monuments sit side by side with modern architecture, the old and the new nestled in together, East meeting West. Istanbul is awe-inspiring, vibrant, feisty, charming… and completely bonkers.

I’ve been promising Andy for years that I would take him to Istanbul and show him round all the wonderful sights my father showed me. We’d think about booking a weekend off, then there’d be an away game, then I’d have a freelance job, then we’d be too knackered. So when I finished my last freelance gig – one that very nearly killed me and which made me decide to end my career as a production manager for good – I got straight onto teh interwebs.

September – too soon. October – big project at work, I’ll never get the time off. November – that could work. Wait, doesn’t Istanbul have a marathon around that time of year?

“Andy, I’ve had an idea…”

So poor sod, he finally got his holiday to Istanbul at the expense of watching me run yet another race. The deal was we get two full days of sightseeing, marathon on Sunday, home on Monday. Not a great deal of time, but if we just did the European side we’d be able to do most of the old town and the cultural attractions, maybe get a night out in Taksim Square and definitely a boat tour of the Bosphorus. And obviously we’d eat our body weight in amazing Turkish food in the meantime.

I signed up on the official race website, paid the measly £16 entry fee (still can’t quite believe that wasn’t a typo) and pressed send. The message that came up simply said thank you for your entry, don’t expect any emails from us, see you at the expo. That was that. No confirmation, no booking number, nothing.

Not entirely convinced that I was signed up, I freaked out for about a week, printed off absolutely every bit of info I could find (including directions to the expo centre which would later turn out to be useless) and eventually forgot all about it. That is, until about three weeks out when I got my one and only bit of communication from the organisers. An email to all overseas entrants, explaining that as part of the marathon festival a peace garden would be created to celebrate all the countries represented in the race, planted with trees and plants native to each country. A wonderful sentiment of community, togetherness and sportsmanship, with one minor logistical hurdle. So, would all overseas participants mind bringing an indigenous sapling with them?

I have no idea how many people actually carried a sapling with them on the plane to Turkey, but I’d love to have seen the looks on the customs officers’ faces as runner after runner walked through the Nothing to Declare line carrying a potted rosebush or a sprig of holly. Like I said, charming but bonkers.


The marathon route actually starts on the Asian side and finishes up in Sultanahmet, the heart of the southwest peninsula which is home to the Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque and the Grand Bazaar to name but a few of the wonderful sights. This means that technically this is the only marathon in the world run over two continents, although you barely even cover a mile before you’re on the European side. Nonetheless, you’re rarely going to find a race with a more stunning first mile. Running over the Bosphorus Bridge, if you look to your right you can just about make out the Black Sea in the distance and to your left stretches the Bosphorus itself, straight towards the Marmara Sea, both shores dotted with higgledy piggledy cottages and luxury waterside summer homes.

Once on the western side the route carries on through the new town along the coastline, crossing the Golden Horn via the Galata Bridge before turning right to continue hugging the water’s edge up towards Eyüp. As I rounded the corner I spotted Andy frantically waving my QPR shirt like a flag, looking as English as it’s possible for a man to look, and gave him a whoop and a cheer before turning towards the first of two main switchbacks. I personally don’t mind switchbacks and I understand their value in a city run, where fewer roads closed off are better for everyone and supporters get to see you more than once without travelling too far. Apart from anything else, you really can’t get too bored of the view here.

We had been spoilt for views thus far though. Having lost the 10km and 15km runners we were on our own now, the field thinned out and finding its rhythm. Andy had challenged me to get under four hours and smash my marathon PB, so with my 9mm pacing band on my wrist and perfect weather conditions behind me, I did exactly what I shouldn’t have done. I raced the 3:45 pacer up to the half marathon point and very nearly beat my Ealing half time. And then I burned out. Just in time to turn onto the carriageway for eleven featureless, monotonous, out-and-back miles.


It sound churlish to complain about a marathon route being boring when you’re in one of the most enchanting cities in the world, but oh my god do I never want to see Kennedy Caddesi again. Like much of the course it runs alongside water, peaceful and serene, but just when I needed some inspiration to get me through the deadly halfway point and keep up a good enough pace to hit my target I found myself staring at Tarmac and bugger all else. Time for the audiobook.

At this point I was watching the 3:45 pacer slip away, and mournfully reminding myself that four hours was still a good 70 minutes faster that I’d ever done an official marathon before. It still smarted though. Like I always do, I’d gone into the race with a reasonable aim and a plan to execute, and like I always do I got carried away immediately and persuaded myself I could go a step further. I always knew I couldn’t maintain that pace, and my thigh muscles were already beginning to shred, but I was still a little deflated. I had forgotten how painful road running could be.

So I started to break down the remaining distance. Stay in sight of the 3:45 pacer until 25k, then you can have a walk break. You can’t walk on a downhill slope; keep going until an uphill then you can walk. You might as well keep going until 30k now, keep up your margin over the 4:00 pacer. If you can run 30k, you can run 35k. Hold a steady pace until 39k (I like numbers divisible by 3) then you can ramp up for the finish. With my 3:58 pacing band racing to catch up with me, I knew that I couldn’t blow it for the sake of a bit of discomfort and Lord knows if I’d ever have the chance to go for sub 4 again. Bit by bit I nursed my screaming muscles and creaking joints towards the finish line.

Then, disaster. Less than a couple of miles from the end, someone plunged a carving knife into my lower right abdomen and twisted it; or rather, that’s what it felt like. For the first time in the race I stopped running. Bent double, gasping for air, hacking sobs both in agony and despair as my goal time slipped away. Despite being on the home straight every runner that passed me stopped to ask if I was OK, but I knew the only thing I could do was bring my breathing back under control and hope the pain would go away quickly, so I waved them on; I might be about to jeopardise my own target finishing time but I couldn’t do it to anyone else. Every breath twisted the knife further, and when I lifted my shirt I found a huge bruise forming just above my stitch. So of course I assumed it was appendicitis and mentally drafted a will.

Step by step I urged my feet forward. Walk while you can, trot a few paces, never stop moving. Gradually the pain faded away and I could fill my lungs again rather than snatching shallow snappy breaths. The end was in sight. So I took my last mile song, Gold Dust, out of its glass case, and went for it.

For the final stretch we turned off the highway and into Gülhane Park – a beautiful route, but almost entirely uphill. And that was it, a half mile long climb all the way to the end over sheer flagstones made slippery with drizzle. I wanted to throttle whoever designed a marathon that finishes on an uphill, but when I looked up I could see why. After miles of seafront and Tarmac, the lush greenery made for an uplifting view to come home to. Passing through the park gates on the other side, we found ourselves running along the tram tracks towards Sultanahmet, where the finishing straight was lined with hundreds of spectators cheering us on, and as I spotted Andy waving my QPR shirt among them I couldn’t help but grin. We couldn’t be far now. I MUST have done it.


I sprinted over the line with the clock in the 3:58s, knowing for sure that all that pain had been worth it. Face numb with cold and brain fried from the effort, I allowed a goody bag to be thrust into my hands and looked around for Andy. He found me hobbling, dazed and struggling to speak, but happy. Somehow he’d managed to get a good photo of me grinning on the finishing straight and another posing with my medal – I’ve no idea how, I could barely control a single muscle in my body – and we wobbled around looking for the bag trucks before the walk back to the hotel. A random local man grabbed me and asked if he could get his photo taken with me; I don’t know if he thought I was someone else or was simply conducting a study into the mentally unhinged.

Learning lessons from previous races, I had chosen our hotel based on its proximity to the finish and to the sights in Sultanahmet, and frankly I still can’t quite believe how little we paid for such a prime location, let alone the magnificent service. It was worth every penny in the end. I slumped down onto the bed, aching and still slightly delirious, but really bloody proud.


I’m done with roads for the meantime, I think. I wanted to see if I could get under four hours and I did, just. But I can see why road runners have to plan their seasons to allow recovery periods while trail runners tend to go on and on. I’m infinitely less mobile now than I was after Beachy Head, and it’s frustrating, not to mention pretty dangerous to the old waistline as two weeks on I’m still constantly hungry but unable to run too far without pain.

I’ve never really enjoyed road running or racing for a time and that hasn’t changed; I set out with a specific target this time and I accomplished it, but despite the spectacular surroundings and the unique nature of the race I can’t say the experience was wholly enjoyable for me. It was a bucket list race for many reasons, and I’m thrilled to have done it, but road running just isn’t my thing. I miss running for the sake of it, dancing around tree trunks and scree and mud puddles, shaking out my limbs and letting my worries melt away. Istanbul is a weird and wonderful city and I love it dearly, but for now I’m looking forward to getting back on the trails.


Beachy Head Marathon 2014


During my first attempt at the 50 Mile Challenge back in July, I got chatting to a few of the other runners (as I often do) and asked them the question I like to ask all runners: what’s your favourite race?

Independently and without prompt, they all said Beachy Head.

So, assuming they weren’t on some sort of commission or a wind up (and after checking that it was listed on the 100 Marathon Club website as a viable race), I signed myself right up. Hills? Love ’em. Mud? The more the better. Beautiful scenery? That’ll do nicely, thanks.

My nomadic childhood has left me with a sketchy understanding of British geography, so it took me a few checks of Google maps to be sure that Beachy Head was in Eastbourne and not Devon as I’d originally thought, and that it was indeed the right place to look for hotels for the night before. A quick scout around teh interwebs came up with the Alexandra Hotel right on the seafront, one of the many charming converted townhouses just a mile’s walk from the start line. Not glamorous or chic, but friendly and clean and adorably chintzy. The landlady was a bit horrified that I would be leaving too early for breakfast in the morning and actually offered to run out and buy me cornflakes, bless her. Yeah, I thought, this’ll do fine.

I laid out my race kit on the chair, and nipped round the corner for a pre-race pasta meal. Not a minute’s walk away I found a family run Italian restaurant – and by family run I mean I’m pretty sure I was sitting in their living room – and gorged myself on delicious spicy seafood linguine, garlic bread and olives, Sauvignon Blanc and tiramisu. What they must have thought of the greasy looking woman who turned up for dinner at 9 o’clock at night, alone and in jogging bottoms, and wolfed down a meal that would make Mr Creosote look like Twiggy I daren’t speculate.

It was amazing though. God, I love good food. I don’t like to think of food and exercise as two parts of a punishment/reward cycle because there’s no version of that which is good for one’s mental health, but I have noticed an undeniable link between trail runners and foodies, and between enjoying a hearty meal when you know you’re going on a long run compared with when you aren’t. The more I try different foods in preparation for and during long runs, the more I’ve discovered that gels and energy bars just don’t hit the spot like proper food does. Of course, it’s impossible to carry a four course meal with you for every marathon – unless you’re Dean Karnazes and you run while eating a family size pizza rolled up like a burrito – and the fact remains that you need the requisite calories, minerals and proteins to keep you going in as portable a form as possible. I’m just saying that as long as I’m not an elite runner nobody is going to make me feel guilty about a pre race tiramisu and wine.

I have hit on something that ticks all the boxes though, and that is a recipe for a ginger and honey cake which I bastardised by adding dried fruits and salted nuts to, as a quick boost energy cake. I’m no Mary Berry but even I couldn’t get it wrong, this thing is so easy to make (insert your own piece of cake joke here). With my additions it slices up into 12 easy-to-carry loaf slices worth about 345 kcal each, is moist enough to chew even when I’m dehydrated and tastes delicious. I brought two slices with me, one for breakfast and one for mid race as needed.

The next morning I was up before the sun and out of the hotel while the sky was still inky black. The walk to the start line took just over twenty minutes, mostly due to me stopping to take photos and take in the scenery, and by the time I reached the school where we were to register and start from morning had very much broken. I picked up my race number, a good 90 minutes before we were due to start, and waited for a good moment to drop my bag.


Being situated in a school, the facilities for the start and finish area are luxurious in comparison to most races. There are clean, warm changing rooms given over to the runners for the day, plenty of loos (not that that made the queues any less frenzied than normal) and joy of joys, a canteen serving free tea, coffee and squash. Somewhere comfortable to wait and free coffee? It’s like the business class lounge of trail races. It’s almost cheating.

I suppose I ought to clear something up here: I’ve been referring to it as a trail race, but that’s not how it advertises itself. It’s run almost entirely on trails around the South Downs, and with 1000m of elevation in total it’s no walk in the park. But it also doesn’t really feature on trail calendars in particular. When you ask past participants about it, they either say it’s the best race ever or it’s the hardest race ever (not that the two are mutually exclusive) which makes me think that you have to be switched onto a certain mindset to enjoy it. Which is to say, if you turn up expecting a marathon version of parkrun you’re going to have a very tough day. If you turn up expecting a trail race, you’ll be wondering where the rest of the mud is. The most concise description I can think of is that it’s a hill race, and I think the reason I enjoyed it so much is that is exactly what I had expected it to be.

Lining up at the start, the first thing you see in front of you is a steep vertical climb, the ground already churned up by the long distance walkers who complete the same course but start an hour earlier. Photos do not do it justice. This is the beginning and the end of the race, and it’s the very embodiment of the course. I stared up at it, awestruck, when the chap standing next to me said “That’s quite a hill, isn’t it?”


We got chatting and it turned out this was his first marathon of the year, and only his second ever, his first being London a couple of years ago. We were expecting similar finish times but very much aiming just to finish, bearing in mind the course profile. Paul was wearing a cap with a photo of his baby boy on the front, his inspiration for running, and with another one on the way his training regime was limited to one run a week, which is remarkable. It made me feel very lucky to be able to fit five runs a week around my hectic, but comparatively free schedule.

The first couple of miles are all pretty much uphill, and based on distance and gradient I had judged them to be like running up the road I live on twice. In reality, where I’m usually cursing and grumbling by the time I reach the summit at home the narrow path and foot traffic forced us to go much more slowly, and I was at the top before I even realised it. In fact, almost every ascent became a walk up/sprint down affair. It’s almost as if the course wanted me to do Phoebe running and aeroplane arms.

With my progress based on even effort levels and Paul’s based on a steady pace, we kept finding each other at the flat stretches, he having overtaken me on the uphills and me having screamed past him on the downs. Eventually we met up again at the 12 mile checkpoint and kept pace with each other for a few miles, each urging the other on at their weaker moments. It was perfect timing, having someone else to chat to just as we came up to the flattest and most boring stretch of the course. Churlish as it is to say that, this race does spoil you for views and fun terrain. Two years ago I’d never have thought I’d be looking wistfully toward the hills hoping for more climbs to do.

Eventually I peeled away to leave Paul to his steady and sensible pace, having been strengthened by Bourbon biscuits and orange squash and the desire to throw myself into some more mud. All the checkpoints were well stocked with comforting if not entirely nourishing food, adding to the playground feel of the whole day. Bourbon biscuits and orange squash, just like mud and grazed knees, remind me of being 8 or 9. They make me feel as strong as I was when I was 8 or 9. And they contributed to my belief that the soul needs as much nourishment to finish a marathon as the body does. Other than the boring flat stretch where I was merrily chatting anyway, I don’t think there was a single yard of this course that I didn’t have enormous fun running on.


Much of the route had been either scree, grass or chalk, so my trail shoes proved themselves to be absolutely the right choice despite my fear that they would hurt my feet before 20 miles. My toes did receive a bit of a battering, especially on the downhills, but with my trusty gaiters over the top keeping out grit they were in relatively good shape. I throttled back for another climb on the way to the Seven Sisters (or as one runner I met calls them, the Seven Bitches) knowing that I would need the energy and the gumption to keep going over the trickiest part of the terrain, and watched the sheep grazing languidly beside us.

And then I started to notice a girl in front of me, similar height and build, wearing some striking tights with a tiger emblem down the side, jogging steadfastly along at a regular pace just as Paul had done. Just like Paul, I noticed that she was beating me over the uphills only for me to overtake on the downs. And then I got my competitive face on. I do love racing people who don’t know I’m racing them.

Eleni, it turned out, had been doing the same thing with me and within a few minutes we were happily chatting away and laughing, another person to help pass the trickier sections with. She turned out to be a financial journalist from Maryland, USA, now living in Hong Kong but visiting friends in the UK for a few days. She and her boyfriend – also competing but easily an hour ahead of us – had a hobby of finding random marathons and trail races whenever they were abroad and for some reason Beachy Head popped up on their radar. Proof, if further proof were needed, of the draw of this race. We shared stories about past races and the miles melted away behind us.

The Seven Sisters are by no means the hills with the highest elevation – if anything they’re among the smallest – but they are a dizzying up and down routine over three or so miles and the point at which they hit you is just when you start to run out of energy reserves. I tackled them the only way I knew how – by turning them into a game. I kept pace with Eleni slowly climbing the uphills and freefalling the downhills, but she eventually struggled after about four or five and I ploughed on. I wasn’t really aiming for a time, but I knew now that sub 5 hours was possible, and I decided to go for it.


As it turned out, the final hill was the toughest of all and not just because it came after 10 or so other hills. With the sea on my right, I knew I was heading in the right direction and roughly how many miles were left, but with only a steep incline in front of me I had no way of judging how much ground I had left to cover. I let go of my time target, and slowed down to a walk.

Although it was undeniably the toughest part of the race, I didn’t feel down or like I’d hit a wall. I was tired, certainly, and starting to feel soreness in my legs, but with the beauty of the South Downs all around me and the knowledge that I was about to finish one of the toughest marathons on the calendar I still felt mentally pretty strong. Let’s be honest, I was never likely to win this one; even a PB wasn’t on the cards. Just over 5 hours is still not a bad time for a race that goes up and down like a horse on a merry-go-round. So a few more minutes don’t count for much.

Just as my good mood started to wane I reached the crest of the hill, and there I saw it: the finish line. I freewheeled down for a short while, enjoying a quick blast of Gold Dust for a sprint finish, then realised than the descent was only getting steeper and steeper. Of course it was – how could I forget the nearly vertical climb at the start? It’s the same piece of ground, you daft woman! And with that, I let myself go completely. If my feet ever touched the ground in that last few hundred yards, it wasn’t because I had control of them. I felt like I was 8 years old again.

In fact, even after I crossed the finish line my momentum carried me forward so fast I nearly crashed into the marshals handing out medals and goody bags; I’ve never had to use emergency brakes at the end of a race before. The crowd were tirelessly cheering on all the finishers and I looked backwards to see what they all looked like. Just like me, hurtling uncontrollably, a mixture of fear and joy on everyone’s faces. What a set of photos that’ll make, I thought.

The race management is not as high tech as others I’ve done, but it’s definitely the fastest confirmation of an official time I’ve ever had – at the end of the finishers’ tunnel was a man with a laptop and what looked like a receipt printer, uploading the chip times straightaway and handing out printouts to anyone that asked for them. I don’t know what this system is called, but it’s brilliant. I can’t believe I’ve never seen it before.

So that was me done: 5:03. Shortly afterwards I found Eleni, less than five minutes behind me, and we had a big squeaky girly congratulatory hug. She asked me if I was disappointed about the three minutes; normally it would grate but honestly, I couldn’t have cared less. Two weeks after getting a PB in a road 50k and three weeks before a sub four hour marathon attempt, I took away much more than a finishing time. I took away a renewed love of running just for joy, like a child playing a game with no rules. When you don’t care about the numbers, they don’t care about you.

See you again next year, Bitches.

How to prepare for a marathon


If there’s a textbook definition of how not to train for a marathon, then I’ve got a well-worn hardback copy with margins full of notes. Thanks to a combination of two jobs, the QPR fixture list, family and friends who don’t remember what I look like any more and a troll brain keeping me awake at night by listing all the things I haven’t done yet, finding time to train not just sufficiently but smartly is a perennial challenge. Generally speaking, I transition swiftly from “Fuck it, I’ll just enter and worry about it later” flippancy through the “I’ve got ages yet, I’m sure I’ll be fine” phase to the “JESUS TAKE THE WHEEL” climax of marathon preparation, and end up at the starting line relying on adrenalin and stubbornness to carry me through.


I can’t make excuses for my lifestyle: it’s my choice to watch QPR in all corners of the country, it’s my choice to drink lots of gin to make up for them losing, and sheer necessity to hold down two jobs to pay for this habit. I’m not giving up on either QPR or running though, so I have to regain control of the situation somehow.

How do I do this? The same way any rational person does. Lists.

After the Edinburgh Marathon last year mum and I listed everything we’d do on our next marathon, and thanks to the wonders of technology (specifically, my iPad mini and Evernote) that list – as does a new one for each event – goes everywhere with me. Whenever I do a race or try out a new tactic in training, I make note of what I discover – what are the best kinds of food on the run, what picks me up at the end of a race, which vest is most comfortable to spend ten hours in. Although the term “diary” gives me Judy Blume nightmares, I suppose that’s what my lists have, in effect, become – my training diaries. I review and refine them, have little ticks beside them so I can check off items as they go into my race bag, even separate them into sections for before, during and after the race. And I always keep the old ones so I can look back at successful (or not to successful) strategies.

Sadly mum had to drop out of the races we’d planned to do together this year through injury, but she’ll always be my support crew and I learn as much from her experiences as I do from my own. When she said she wished she’d had a tuna sandwich at the end of Edinburgh – very specifically that – I laughed, until it made me realise what I had been craving but been unable to articulate; that is to say, salt and protein. I couldn’t stomach tuna, but a sausage roll or a ham sandwich would have gone down a treat. When I left her all my ibuprofen and Vaseline for Brighton thinking she could give me some at the last cheer point to save me carrying it, it took me until mile 20 to realise that a) I needed it immediately, not at mile 25 and b) I had a perfect ibuprofen and Vaseline shaped pouch around my waist all along, and I’m an idiot. On the list.

Obviously the contents of everyone’s list will be different – what’s good for the goose sometimes gives the gander a dicky tummy – but I like to think that there are a few key questions you can ask yourself during race preparation to point you in the right direction.

What do you need before the race?
What do you need during the race?
What do you need after the race?
And how much of that can you get rid of?

That’s right. Whatever you think you need, you probably only really need half of at most, especially if you’ve got an overnight bag and public transport – not happy bedfellows – to think about on top of everything else. What’s more, most races these days are well stocked with water, snacks and energy supplements, so although you should never run a race assuming you can rely solely on checkpoint provisions you don’t need to carry enough water to cross the Sahara. This is one situation where my pervading fear of other people (zombies) actually puts me at an advantage. Like doomsday preppers, I always try to pack my raceday bag like I have to make a sudden getaway. Andy is such a lucky man.

As I write this I’m in a hotel room in Istanbul, preparing for the marathon on the 16th November. Packing for the whole weekend was a three week operation of written and re-written lists, bits and pieces stowed away in the suitcase for safe keeping, changing my mind between using new minimalist kit and tried and tested favourites. I’ve broken my usual holiday packing rule and taken two options of most items with me, just so I can leave the decision until the last possible moment. 22 hours out, this is what my race looks like:

Nutrigrain bars (breakfast)
Joggers and running jacket over race kit
(15 mins yoga warm up)

Running bra
Istanbul Marathon shirt
Running shorts
Marathon socks 
Peaked Buff
New pink running shoes
Pacing band
Handheld with Shot Bloks in pouch
iPod shuffle and earphones 
Race number (on shorts)

In bag/for after:
Directions to start
Recovery drink and bottle
Nutrigrain bar
Silver foil blanket 
Joggers and running jacket again
Raceday pouch – safety pins, hair grips and hairbands, Imodium and ibuprofen, antibacterial gel, Vaseline, lip balm, tissues
QPR shirt

In recent races and long runs I’ve worn my trusty ultra belt and that’s been fine, because I’ve either been running ultras or trail races, so I’ve needed plenty of space to carry energy bars (well, cake). This time though, it’s my old nemesis: the city marathon. What’s more, it’s a potentially flat and fast one, and the first time since April I’ll be able to find out for sure how fast I can finish, so I want to be as light as possible. The weather forecast promises perfect running conditions. And Andy has challenged me to break 4 hours. Eep.

So as usual, I’ve prepared for it by throwing everything I know about race prep out of the window. Three days in Istanbul prior to race day may turn out to be a mistake, because Turkish food and wine is fucking amazing, and I’m wearing a top I’ve never tried before and a handheld bottle I’ve never raced with before. This is where I fall back on my raceday list, the psychological anchor in my anxiety storm.


I could probably halve this list again if I needed to, but sometimes it’s the little comforts at the end that get you through the last few miles, and my QPR shirt and flipflops are two I can’t really do without. Some items are a practical necessity, some a requirement of the rules; some are purely because you know they’ll make you feel better. And at this stage, the truly valuable preparation has been happening for the last six months, not the last three weeks. Now it’s time for me to stop obsessing over which t-shirt to wear and get on with it.

So how do you prepare for a marathon? If anyone cracks it, do let me know…

Royal Parks Ultra 2014


I hate Facebook. I stick with it because it’s the only way to keep in touch with some of my family and friends, and because my running club, Clapham Chasers, use it in lieu of a forum so it’s the only way to get hold of news and plan trail runs. But wherever possible I steer well clear of the bloody thing. Photos of babies, posts about guardian angels “and if you don’t share in five minutes your angel will die”, those bastard water bucket challenges. BAH.

But then, one day recently it came useful.

I knew about the Royal Parks Half Marathon from colleagues who had done it in previous years, and I knew you usually needed to raise money for a charity to get in, but I had no idea there was a 50k course until the Runners Need page threw up a post saying they had a number of places to give away. All you had to do to be in with a chance of winning one was click on a link and enter some details. I’d sell my own mother for a shiny doubloon, so I gave them everything – address, phone number, daily schedule and list of fears – and forgot all about it.

Then, one day about three weeks out, my mobile phone rang. Being the charming, antisocial sort that I am (and working in a concrete bunker with no signal) I let the call go to voicemail, but when I listened back it was someone from Runners Need called Kirsty saying that a place had become available and did I still want it? Within a minute I was jigging around in the fire exit, trying to get enough signal and yelling “YES PLEASE ME PLEASE I’LL TAKE IT”.

It’s a London race so it should be easy enough to get to, I thought, and from the finish in Bushy Park it’s a single train home. Lovely stuff. Yeah, not so much – thank you TfL. Two hours and three buses later I finally reached the Runners Need stall to get a group photo and pick up my race vest, and it would be a twenty minute hobble to the nearest station at the end followed by a replacement bus service. If I had known quite how bad the transport situation would be I’d have genuinely considered running to and from the race.

Both the half marathon and ultra courses are designed to take in the greenest areas of London, starting in Hyde Park, skirting Green Park and St James’ Park and picking up the river at Westminster. There a nice sweeping stretch going east as far as Blackfriars, where the half marathoners turn back and the ultra runners cross the bridge, turning west on the other side to follow the Thames Path pretty much the whole way home. The three parks and Blackfriars section happens to be the route I run with my work running club, the Thames path from Waterloo to Wandsworth part of my run home and everything west of Wandsworth my favourite easy Sunday run route, so I pretty much knew the whole course already. This is my territory, I thought.


Maybe because I hate being anything less than 2 hours early to a race start, maybe because buses freak me out, maybe I’m just a spanner – but I found the race village in Hyde Park confusing and difficult to navigate and got myself into a right flap. I walked the length and breadth twice following conflicting instructions for the bag drop, until it became clear that the ultra runners were operating out of a separate tent for pretty much everything. With all the banners advertising the half marathon and its innumerable sponsors, and only the odd arrow pointing on the general direction of the 50k start, I began to worry that I’d come to the wrong park. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Eventually though I lined up among the other 500 or so runners, with two empty water bottles I’d forgotten to fill in my flap, and took off towards the river. The course is relatively flat apart from a couple of bridge crossings and an incline in Richmond Park, so I let myself settle into a comfortable pace slightly faster than I would normally risk, and immediately felt calmer.


The first 5k went in no time whatsoever, so I took advantage of the first checkpoint to stop and fill up my water bottles. By this point we had crossed Westminster Bridge, turned a hairpin and come back across it again, and I could see the National Theatre across the water waiting for me to pass by. Being my workplace, I see that huge angular behemoth almost every day; its washed out grey concrete usually looks stern and humourless under the crisp LEDs that usually illuminate it. Under the soft warm Sunday morning haze though, it looked beautiful.

I fell in step with a chap called Tanbir aiming for around 5 hours in his first ultra distance, and still feeling comfortable I ended up spending a good 25k with him, chatting all the way. We trotted through Battersea Park, hugged the south bank of the river around Wandsworth, fired up the old glutes with two bridge climbs in quick succession through Putney, and gossiped our way past Hammersmith, separating only temporarily while he stopped for a comfort break. We were looking at Barnes Bridge just after mile 15 before either of us even noticed that familiar tightness in our hamstrings, and like that the easy chat turned to awkward small talk, skirting around the sharp realisation that we had hit halfway.

I hate halfway. Up to halfway I’m not thinking about what’s left to do, I’m just enjoying myself and letting the miles fall away. After halfway, however tired you are, you know you’ve got less left to do than you’ve already done. But at halfway, neither thought consoles you. As though I’d had been gently stretching an elastic band and suddenly let it TWANG and fly from my grasp, my muscles suddenly seized up like quick drying cement and I felt heavy.

At this point, we started to take the run in small chunks. Keep going until we hit the 30k checkpoint. Then we can stretch. Then push on until the marathon. Then another stretch. Then one final push and we’d be done. Little chunks. Easy as that. Every time I allowed myself to throttle back and slow down the cement began to harden around my muscles. As long as I kept moving they couldn’t set. With the ground becoming more gravel and less pavement, we ploughed unsteadily on.

The 30k checkpoint – generously stocked with crisps, Percy Pigs and Lucozade jelly beans – came just in time, but after a quick pause to inhale some junk food we realised we needed to push on. Tanbir was suffering much more than me though, and eventually he let me go on ahead while I still could, assuming that we’d catch each other eventually. I should have been appreciating the stunning surroundings, particularly as I approached Richmond Park, but I missed the company so switched on my audiobook.

Every day’s a schoolday, they say. I learned something just before 40k. I learned that audiobooks are brilliant for long runs, but never underestimate the fragility of your disposition when exhausted, and never listen to graphic or upsetting stories when you’re 40k into a run through woodland. To be fair, I thought that Haruki Murakami would be a relatively safe bet, but after three minutes of a graphic and detailed account of a man being skinned alive, I nearly threw up into the Thames. I don’t know why, but it immediately made me think of my boyfriend Andy, and oh god what would I do if that had happened to him, as if something like that ever would, and how much I wished he was with me, and then I nearly threw up again. And then I switched to music.

For me, a good litmus test of how I’m holding up mentally is by testing my mental arithmetic skills – converting my pace in minutes per mile to minutes per kilometre for instance – and quite often, even when I think I’m ok I find myself unable to remember what number comes after 12 or how to multiply by 20. I stuck to Tanbir’s plan – to keep going until the marathon mark and then allow myself a walk break – but I forgot that I was meant to be looking for a marker saying 42, not one saying 26, so I’d convinced myself I still had a while to go. When the marathon marker did eventually sneak out from behind some bushes, I was stunned. I checked my watch – 4 hours 11 minutes. A full hour faster than my time at Brighton Marathon back in April.

Relieved to finish the first 26 miles I slowed down to walk and ring my equally surprised boyfriend – who hadn’t been expecting a call from me for another hour – but it wasn’t until after the race was done and dusted that I realised what I’d achieved. At that point I just wanted to hear his voice and be reassured that a Mongolian warrior hadn’t skinned him alive in my absence. I did however have the presence of mind to work out that a sub 5 hour finish was on the cards. Love and kisses, phone back into my belt pack, game face on.

Despite much of the first half being run on pavement and footpath, the towpath that replaced it was getting gradually more and more gravelly and the stones underfoot bigger and sharper. My light soled road shoes had been the right call to begin with but my toe joints were now bruised and painful, and every time I landed I had to hope it wasn’t on another pebble. I listened to a playlist of ska punk tunes to keep up my spirits and sped up in the hope that it would mean less time on my feet.

The final section through Bushy Park is somewhat easier underfoot, but without the Thames as a guide it’s difficult to judge just how far you are from the end. Every time I pushed on, I turned a corner and found another stretch. Every time I slackened the pace, I saw a marshal urging me on. And I had no idea how close I was to a 5 hour finish.

And then, there it was – the home stretch. The marshal directing us in was shouting that we were nearly there, but I’d heard that said so much in the previous half hour I nearly didn’t believe her until I saw the arch. Uneven ground, soft mud and stones be damned, I lifted my knees for a sprint finish and threw myself across the timing mat, shaking and sobbing. My watch told me I was within a minute of the 5 hour mark, but I didn’t believe it until a moment later a text message popped up on my phone to confirm it – impressively quick result reporting, given that I was still gasping for breath. 4 hours, 59 minutes and 18 seconds. I had beaten my marathon PB with my 50k time.


I got my grubby little magpie fingers on my medal: a wooden one shaped like a leaf, which I thought Andy would like since it wouldn’t be as noisy at the metal ones. The goody bag was deeply impressive too – a little canvas bag full to bursting with a packet of spicy chickpea snacks, a sachet of porridge and a box of single serving cereal, a peaked Buff style headband from Crewroom, a set of short stories commissioned by and written about the Parks, deodorant, a bag of sweeties, a water bottle and a partridge in a pear tree. In fact the bag was so full of stuff I somehow lost my voucher for a free hot meal to its Mary Poppins carpet bag interior, but after being shaken and run ragged for five hours my stomach wasn’t up to much anyway.

Apart from the kerfuffle at the start – and despite the best efforts of TfL – it was a well organised and logistically sound race. The checkpoints were generously stocked with treats and snacks, sponsored as they were by Marks and Spencer (hence the amazing goody bag at the end) and the field was of a manageable size so it never felt like a scramble. Even better, the support was fantastic considering it was a long point to point course; although it wasn’t exactly a throbbing party atmosphere and quite often race participants were outnumbered five to one by Sunday joggers, everyone we passed from Putney to Bushy Park seemed to know what we were doing and cheered us on.

For a race I wasn’t even expecting to do, it was something of a triumph. I’m right at home with the 50k distance, and for the first time during a long run I barely walked at all. The Thames is often my running guide, and if I’d been asked to design a 50k course this would basically be it – no further East than Blackfriars and plenty of the South bank.

When I finally made it home I just sat on the sofa staring at my Garmin readouts. If someone had challenged me to beat my marathon time at the marathon point I couldn’t have done it. If someone had challenged me to beat my marathon time with my 50k time I’d have laughed. But now, there’s a whole new set of possibilities.


Sweet charity


It’s that time of year, if you were one of the people who applied for a London Marathon ballot place back in April, when you find out if your 12 to 1 shot was successful. Which means odds are you got home this week to find a copy of Marathon News with “Sorry!” splashed cheerfully across the front cover.


You might have had a particularly stressful couple of weeks: an overwhelming workload or bad news from your family or disquiet in your social group or another abject loss for your football team. You might have run home from work that day, hoping to shake out your worries, been just about approaching normality again, then seen the parcel on your doormat and your heart might have sunk once again. Maybe that’s just me.

Alright; I am overdramatising the situation somewhat. Not getting into London for the third time in a row is a bit disappointing, but if I’m going to hang my chances of happiness on something, a 12 to 1 shot is a poor choice. In any case I have my health, and plenty more going for me besides.

Compare that with the thousands of families affected by cancer or heart disease; or the children born deaf or blind or both; or those afflicted both by mental illness and the stigma attached to it; and my disappointment at not getting through a marathon ballot is pretty pitiful. That said, I could do something about my disappointment AND help the less fortunate by taking up a charity place. Or could I?

My reasons for wanting to run the London Marathon – and I only really want to run it once – are entirely personal: because it’s my hometown event and because it’s an experience like no other. I want to tick off another classic race on my list, not to test myself or to break a new boundary. But if my only chance of doing it is by asking my friends for sponsorship again then I’m effectively asking them to subsidise my hobby. I don’t feel right about doing that.

Many of the charities offering places for 2015 require a minimum donation target of £1800-£2000 per person. This is for very good reason – the event represents a huge opportunity for income (not to mention publicity) for these charities, and the London Marathon has a strong tradition of fundraising, fundamental to the ethos of the event ever since its inception in 1981. Not everyone can finish a marathon, and let’s be honest, sponsorship isn’t just for the 26.2 miles at the end but the 6 months of training leading up to it. It’s a no brainer really.

But – and I’m going to sound awfully arrogant here – what if finishing a marathon isn’t that much of a challenge to you? Obviously it’s a challenge to any human being, but surely more so to a first timer or someone not obviously athletic than to a regular long distance runner. It can of course be a challenge for other reasons; more and more now we see people running dressed in outrageous and bulky outfits, or while knitting at the same time, or carrying an actual fridge on their backs. But if I just want to run a marathon, is London the event for me?

My first marathon, as I’ve mentioned here before, was Edinburgh in 2013. I had set myself a challenge to raise money for a charity – specifically, Macmillan – to repay the wonderful work they did caring for a friend of mine who had died of cancer a few years before. Mum and I had applied to the ballot for London and failed, were afraid of not being able to reach £4000 in sponsorship between us, and so decided to do Edinburgh instead. Even though our minimum target was a much more achievable £750 each, we got pretty close to the £4k between us anyway. It was easy because I was passionate about the cause, and because I was passionate about the cause I could drag myself out of bed and onto dark streets to train even when I wanted to be curled up in bed with a packet of ginger nuts.

The next year we failed to get into London again, so we signed up for Brighton which runs the week before. This time I was raising money for the other charity who had nursed my friend through his final months, CLIC Sargent. I felt as strongly about this cause as I had Macmillan and I had always intended to do two marathons so both charities would benefit, but this time I struggled even to make my £400 minimum. Was it because it was so close to London, and everyone who was going to sponsor someone had given all their money to the higher profile challenge? Was it because I was running alone this time with mum pulling out injured, and missing out on support from her friends and family? Or was it simply harder to persuade people to sponsor me to do something they already knew I could do?


The thing is, despite the reasons for doing Edinburgh the first time round I now run long distances for me. I run them because I love them, because they give me freedom, because they give me the headspace that is so rare in this 24-hour constantly-connected age. That’s what they mean to me. That’s what I mean when I say it’s not that much of a challenge; not that it’s not difficult, but that there’s no hardship involved for me. By the same token, there are some for whom the challenge of finishing a 5k is the equivalent of climbing Everest. My finishing a marathon today doesn’t deserve anywhere near as much recognition as that.

Of course charities don’t see it that way, and likely as not neither do my friends – they’re a pretty generous bunch – so I realise this is basically my capacity for overanalysis exceeding itself once again. I could suck it up and do it for a charity anyway, put that extra bit of hard work into the fundraising effort and make a crucial few hundred quid for someone who needs it, because at the end of the day it’s not about me. Following that logic, I probably don’t deserve a ballot place anyway. London is all about community and inclusivity and bringing the sport to more and more people each year, which is precisely why the applications outweigh the available places by larger and larger margins each year. Soon enough, even the charity route will become a lottery in itself, so oversubscribed the event has become. This is a brilliant thing. There SHOULD be thousands of people clamouring to raise £2k each for charities who rely on the spare change in our pockets. There are plenty of other marathons out there that don’t require runners to fundraise. And anyway, aren’t I always going on about big city marathons not really being my thing?

I just can’t let London go though. However selfish or facile my reasons for wanting to do it, the only person I need to justify them to is me.

So, I’ve decided not to enter via a charity again this year; I can’t run with a fridge on my back and I’m not sociable enough to organise coffee mornings or raffles. Those places really should go to those who will make the best use of them. I will however do the one thing I can do, which is offer my services as a marshal or bag handler. If one day I am lucky enough to get through the ballot, well, I’ll run my bloody heart out. But for now I’ve got five other marathons lined up to prepare for. I’m pretty lucky even to be able to say that.

Salisbury 5-4-3-2-1 50k


A day after completing 39 miles of the 50 Mile Challenge, I was straight back on my laptop looking up trail marathons and ultras that fit around the QPR fixture list. Like a kid in a sweet shop, I wanted one of everything and like a kid my eyes are usually bigger than my belly. And then my eyes landed on the Salisbury 5-4-3-2-1, and I knew I’d found the sweet for me.

So named because the route covers five rivers, four hills, three country estates, two castles and one cathedral, runners can choose from 10k, half marathon, 30k, marathon and 50k distances, all taking in the beautiful scenery of Salisbury and a perfect balance of mixed terrain. Salisbury isn’t exactly local to me, but luckily it IS local to Andy’s dad and stepmum who kindly put me up for the night before, provided an amazing pasta dinner (and two glasses of champagne – hic) and a roast turkey sandwich after the race, not to mention lifts here there and everywhere. Very favourable reviews expected on Tripadvisor.

The start and finish is at the fire station on Ashley Road, where runners and walkers can pick up their race numbers, drop off bags, buy t-shirts and queue for portaloos while hiding from the rain. That’s right; rain, in the middle of a heatwave. The forecast for the week was sun-sun-sun-APOCALYPTIC RAIN-sun again. Ah well; it’s not a trail race unless you get good and muddy.

Thanks to the staggered starts, the fact that there were large numbers of participants all doing different races didn’t affect the morning running smoothly, crammed as everyone was in the small footprint of the station while avoiding the rain in the forecourt. Certainly when I was waiting for my 9am start the queue for the portaloos was nothing like your usual M25 style tailbacks, and I had my number in my hand and my bag stowed away within about three minutes.

For the first time I was trying out Event Clips rather than safety pins, in an effort to save the fabric of my clothes. They are incredibly fiddly, and you do have to punch holes through the Tyvek number otherwise they don’t work, so I’m not sure they served the purpose I bought them for, which was to make it easier to swap my number between t-shirts when I got too wet. Luckily though, I came across a much more brilliant solution that I can’t believe I’ve never employed before – fixing my number to my shorts instead, so that it wouldn’t matter what top I was wearing or even if I had my jacket on. Once again, the simplest solution turned out to be the best. And I lost one of the clips on the way round anyway.


While trying for the first time ever to take a pre-race selfie (I am SO 21st century) I bumped into a lady who thought I was a race photographer – what a poor lookout for the art of photography that would be – and who turned out to be from Witney Road Runners (although originally Holland). Aukje was doing her first ultra to raise money for the Teenage Cancer Trust as her own 16 year old daughter is currently fighting the disease. Remarkably, her training for this event had all taken place on a treadmill at home because she was unable to leave her daughter to go on long runs, which puts into perspective every time I’ve chickened out of a training run because of three drops of rain or a y in the day. She and I took each other’s photos by the starting clock and jiggled about nervously waiting for the off. I couldn’t keep up with her and lost her before the first corner, but I emailed her after the race and of course, she nailed it. Even though I never run for charity now, it reminded me of why I decided to do my first marathon last year; to raise money for two cancer charities who had helped a friend of mine and to repay their kindness. That race feels like so long ago now.

The extra distance making up the 50k route is actually a northbound loop tacked onto the beginning of the marathon route, joining up again at Old Sarum – after that the two groups stayed together the whole way round. Psychologically this was really helpful, as long as you knew that you were actually ahead of the mile markers (marked for the marathon route) and not making up the distance at the end. Plus, the 50k runners got to run through something the marathoners wouldn’t – a gorgeous farm with cows, sheep, donkeys and a camel. An actual live camel. I tried to get a photo but he wasn’t having any of it. The donkeys meanwhile were amusing themselves by running alongside us, getting to the end of their enclosure, trotting back and doing it all over again with the next set of runners. You don’t get that on city marathons.

The trails just before and after Old Sarum were very narrow – literally wide enough for one foot in front of the other, which made for a comedy bit of mincing – as well as rough underfoot and cambered, so it was important to concentrate. Picking my way between rocks and hidden trenches I was still feeling pretty strong at that point, and I tried also to remain aware of my posture, keep my shoulders down and my core strong. It’s moments like this that I find yoga practice has been particularly useful for, maintaining balance and developing a good economic running form. And what’s more, it meant that I wasn’t hunched over by the time I got to the top of the hill like I used to be, and I got to see some breathtaking views.

Salisbury cover

There is one slight drawback to the staggered starts, although I can’t see how you’d get around it or if it really makes that much difference; because the marathon runners start half an hour after the 50k runners, there are some slightly hairy overtaking moments just after Old Sarum while the faster runners in the second group try to get past the slowest ones in the first (i.e. me) on the narrow twisty trails. That being said it was all terribly polite – “Excuse me, pardon me, could I get by please?” – and soon enough I was able to recognise the sound of much faster feet about to crash into me with enough time to dive into the bushes. To be fair it’s not a PB course, as if that weren’t blindingly obvious.

After the next aid station and on the way up another grassy hill I fell in step with another runner and we began chatting away. Although originally from Salisbury, Claire turned out to be representing Ealing Eagles RC who organise my favourite half marathon, the Ealing Half, which we’d both be running for the third time in a month or so. We shared stories about previous races – remembering that in the first year the goody bag included a can of London Pride, probably the best thing I’ve got from a race other than a medal – and for the second time in two races I found myself thoroughly enjoying the social aspect of long distance running, debunking the myth that it’s a lonely sport. It’s certainly peaceful, meditative and quiet if you want it to be, but I’ve learned more chatting with fellow runners at organised events than I ever have from magazines or social media.

I found the variation between road and trails just right – as soon as I found myself tiring of the uneven terrain, a paved section popped up and usually took us to a beautiful stately home or picturesque village; before the flat ground threatened to become boring we were back in the woods or tiptoeing around bulls in a field. I didn’t even put my iPad shuffle on until somewhere around mile 17, and nor did I miss it until then. With my Garmin running out of battery around mile 19, the major technological break rough for me turned out to be investment in a pair of gaiters – I had gambled on my road shoes, having ended up with blisters from the trail ones last time out, but bought a pair of Inov8 gaiters to go over the top and keep out stones and crud as well as wick away moisture, and they worked an absolute treat.

Salisbury 3

The eerily lit but picturesque Great Yews Wood was a highlight – I entered it just in time for the sun to come out and dry up the latest downpour, which shone through the thick canopy and made the wood glow green. I felt like a character in Wind of the Willows – probably more Mr Toad than Ratty, but hey – and was having so much fun I very nearly missed the timing mat at the 32k split point. One thing I definitely didn’t miss though was the homemade flapjack being handed out just afterwards. If the race is this well catered every year I’m never bothering with a backpack again.

After leaving the wood we turned north again, towards the next checkpoint at Coombe Bissett (or as Andy’s niece and nephew like to call it, Coombe Biscuit). By this time I was beginning to tire – not helped by wading through newly softened ground and trudging up some fairly relentless hills – and had to walk a fair bit of this section. Unlike previous long runs though I knew it was just my body complaining – mentally I was still feeling fresh and enjoying the day. So I took stock, recognised that I was hitting my wall and allowed myself to walk for a bit.

The thing about the wall, I’ve learned, is that once you get over it there’s usually more road on the other side. I think it’s one of the reasons I prefer above marathon length distances. Think about it – in marathons, I usually hit the wall around 20 miles so by the time I cross the finishing line I’m still recovering and probably a little demoralised for ending on a low note. As long as I was stopping at 26 miles I never got the exhilarating feeling of coming out the other side, and so I never knew there was one. For me, fatigue isn’t a linear progression – i.e. the longer you run the more tired you get. It’s more like a sine wave with peaks and troughs. Yeah, this bit feels horrible, but be patient; eventually your muscles will loosen up again and you’ll get your next wind. Three years on from my first jog to the end of the road I don’t know that my body has got stronger, but I know that my mind has, all thanks to this simple truth.

Back onto roads temporarily, I trotted up to the Fox and Goose checkpoint to take advantage of the jelly babies and an opportunity to stretch. There was an uplifting hubbub and lots of friendly chatter between runners, marshals and pubgoers, bringing us back to society temporarily after a long stretch through fields and woods. It started to spit so I got my waterproof out, only for it to ease up within minutes of leaving the pub, forcing me to pause and pack it away in my backpack again – I ended up doing this five or six times and I don’t think it helped my momentum. I’m still trying out options to find the race kit that suits me best, and on this day I was wearing a hydration backpack with enough room to carry my spare top and socks, waterproof jacket and food – unfortunately it meant stopping to unclip the pack, take it off and rummage around every time I needed something. Of course what I really want is one of the super awesome Ultimate Direction race vests with everything to hand, but since I don’t swim in gold coins like Scrooge McDuck I think I’ll make do with my belt pouch and water bottle next time.

Salisbury 4

I continued to struggle for the next couple of miles, up to and through the racecourse, and stuck with my program of walking when I needed to and trotting when I could bear it. The iPod came in very handy here, taking my mind off the pain – I’ve discovered that podcasts are absolutely perfect for long runs, not having a beat to throw off your rhythm and providing just enough distraction. I had downloaded a handful of Freakonomics podcasts which are both fascinating and thought provoking – I figured I’m doing nothing else with my brain for a few hours, so I might as well learn something.

Fuelled by more orange squash and homemade baked goodies – amazingly juicy bread and butter pudding this time – I started to loosen up again and by the time we reached Wilton and turned east for the final stretch I was almost feeling strong again. The sun was drying up the last of the rain showers, and since the rain had washed the salt from my face and my muscles were feeling refreshed I could have believed that I was back at the beginning of the race, not twenty odd miles into it. I became aware of the mechanics of my body again; the rotation of my hips, the power in my thighs, the balls of my feet pushing off the ground. I was over the wall.

Without my Garmin to tell me how fast I was going I relied on how I was feeling to gauge pace. I came across the 22 mile marker, meaning presumably that I was four miles from the end, but by this stage I was reluctant to believe the markers. This was at 2.55pm – so I didn’t think I could be far off my target of seven hours even if there were more than four miles left. It gave me the drive I needed to push on.

Despite a couple of wobbly moments where the arrows seemed to be for marathoners rather than 50k runners – further fuelling my distrust of them – I kept up a comfortable but raceworthy speed. Turning into a park I passed one other 50k runner who asked me how far away I thought we were. For some reason I still had four miles in my mind, whereas he was expecting the answer to be nearer one, so we went our own ways having thoroughly confused each other. I hadn’t seen any mile markers since the one at 22 (26?) and I didn’t see any more before the finishing line. I just gently ramped up my pace.

Coming through Salisbury Town Centre I knew we couldn’t be far from the end, although for some reason I’d forgotten than we’d end up where we started and that I should have been looking for the fire station. I was flying now, darting between pedestrians and skipping over the many little bridges, somehow managing to overtake about 5 or 6 runners on the way. Every time I overtook someone I felt a rush of adrenalin, followed by a pang of fear that I’d get lost now I didn’t have anyone to follow. My podcast playlist looped back to the beginning and I just ignored it, chanting “I must be at the end now, I must be at the end now” over and over. I didn’t know what pace I was going but I knew there was air turbulence cooling my face even though there was no wind, so I must have been under 9 minute miles albeit briefly.

Finally the fire station appeared on the left and with it the finishing clock. I sprinted to the timing mat, watching the clock hit 15:36 just before I crossed it. Six hours and thirty six minutes. Not bad for a slow runner.

It took me a good week to work out that I’d done the last four miles in forty minutes including stopping to ask for directions and doubling back twice (unnecessarily). Considering I was struggling to walk not a few miles earlier, a 10 minute mile average at the end of a 50k was almost as much of an achievement to me as the whole race. Yet again I’d proved that I could recover, and yet again I’d finished on a high. Another return for next year’s calendar, I suspect…

Salisbury 5

50 Mile Challenge 2014


Almost as soon as I’d yanked off my running shoes at the end of the Brighton Marathon this year, I was looking up my next race. There wasn’t much point in looking around though. I already knew which one I wanted to tackle next.

Back in February I had entered the Moonlight Challenge, a race of up to five laps each measuring a quarter of a marathon, on a farm in Kent, in the middle of the night. Race is a misnomer actually; it’s called a challenge, because that’s exactly what it is. Finishers get a medal and a certificate regardless of the distance they complete, and there’s no award for coming first. I had both massively underestimated and missed the point of the challenge at the time, entering it in the hope of finishing my first ultramarathon before my 30th birthday in March but being forced to call it a day after the fourth muddy lap took the last scrap of energy out of my tired legs. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks after that I began to appreciate this fantastic event for what it was, and to stop measuring success by dates and times. I had any number of excuses handy for why I hadn’t finished the fifth lap, but they never gave me anywhere near as much freedom as just getting on with it would have done.

So here I was again in the middle of July, with a double or quits challenge to complete eight laps this time. The 50 Mile Challenge is actually a double marathon or 52.4 miles, with a very generous thirteen and a half hours cutoff point for the final lap, and is run on the same course starting at 6am instead of 6pm. As usual, I had barely done any training thanks to work commitments – both a full time job and a freelance project that nearly killed me – and the day before travelling to the race I would be flying back from a holiday in Menorca and hoping that there weren’t any Icelandic volcanoes planning a surprise eruption. Details, details.

Team Mum and I stayed in a Travelodge a twenty minute drive away and test drove the route to the starting line the day before so that I could pick up my race number. Good job too – driving there just five months beforehand did not prevent us from getting lost again and nearly throwing the satnav out of the window. Nor, unfortunately, did it mean we made it on time the next morning for the 5:45am briefing. In fact, we drove up just in time to see the rocket set off for the start at 6am, me in the wrong shoes and still changing them as the other runners set off. All captured for posterity on the DVD of the event, including a soundbite of legendary organiser Mike Inkster telling me not to look so scared. Not an auspicious start.

In a funny sort of way though it was the perfect start. I’ve said before the reason I love these sorts of events is the lack of fanfare and buildup, and to all intents and purposes I could have been setting off on a Sunday training run, except I was in a farm in Kent – and I keep saying Kent and not being more specific because I still don’t know where exactly in Kent we were. So off we plodded, me more ploddy than most as I spent two full minutes trying to get signal on my Garmin to record the first lap. Even the bloody Garmin didn’t know where we were.

The course was exactly the same as it was back in February, with the one distinct difference that it wasn’t a bog. Nonetheless prepared for the worst and wary of weather reports forecasting a storm, I had my new trail shoes on – last time I’d learned the hard way that the only way to get a foothold in the boggiest parts was with some sort of foot armour. It was a risky move as I had only run in them once, for just half an hour, but I had my foam soled Gel-Lyte 33s on standby in case the bog never appeared. The trail shoes were stiffer and heavier than I was used to, but while I was taking it easy in the early laps they handled the terrain just fine.

I remembered how I’d kept my head down last time missing out on both the scenery and the social interaction, and how utterly miserable it had made me. This time I made sure I left out the earphones for a bit and chatted to some of the other runners, and immediately the decision paid off. The first two laps passed in no time at all, thanks to the marvellous Gil: a veteran member of the 100 Marathon Club approaching his six hundredth marathon or ultra distance. We talked about all sorts – tips on quick but nourishing meals (particularly ones you can do in one pan), the best websites for shoes, the best events, the best books. His attitude absolutely changed me; I told him about my experience in February and how I’d like to have gone quicker in Brighton, and he told me that negative experiences are just opportunities to learn, and the most important thing is to enjoy it. It’s really all about joy.

We finished the first half marathon at a steady, almost metronomic pace, under perfect running conditions – warm but breezy, cloudy but not too muggy. Mum had been planning to walk one of the laps with me, so she joined me for the third lap when I could slow down a bit to preserve energy for later. We kept up with Gil’s metronomic pace for a while but eventually let him take off while we enjoyed the scenery.

Soon enough though it became obvious I’d hung onto the trail shoes for a lap too many. With the weather showing no signs of the storm that had been forecast and the ground only getting harder, I could feel blisters forming all over my toes and became desperate to get back to base to change. It was too much for mum though, still injured and not yet able to walk so far without a break, and although she patiently and stoically put up with my impatient grumbling about getting back I could tell she was in pain too. Eventually I had to take the damn things off altogether and do the last mile in just my socks. The rough gravel burned the soles of my feet for a bit, and the chronic pain of blisters rubbing became the acute pain of stones cutting into my skin, but I actually found this much easier to deal with. Plus, running without shoes was surprisingly liberating and had an immediate effect on my posture. Not sure if a cross country run was the best time to try barefoot running though.

Finally back to base my mum collapsed into the car, I quickly changed into my lightweight shoes and petulantly tore off the waterproof jacket that had been tied around my waist so far, annoying me. My muscles were cooling down and I was eager to get out and run again, so I barely even took the time to eat a Nutrigrain bar before shooting off. Back along the road I shot, hoping to get the pistons firing and make up lost time. Guess what happened next?

It turns out that wicking fabric is great for removing moisture from the body, but it has a saturation point. My shorts found their saturation point about two hundred yards into the next lap, when no sooner had I taken off my waterproof shoes and jacket the storm clouds finally made good on their promise and it started bucketing down. I weighed up whether or not to go back for my jacket, but I figured I was already wet anyway, and going backwards not halfway into the challenge would psychologically crush me. Still though, this wasn’t rain. This was Noah’s Ark territory. And with the ground unable to drink it up quickly enough, ankle deep standing water was everywhere within minutes.

I remembered how badly I reacted to the mud and waterlogging the last time and felt much more zen about it this time. There was bugger all I could do about it, and at least it washed the salt from my skin. I kept my pace up to avoid getting a chill, although half an hour later it was still pouring down with no sign of letting up. On top of this, I was wearing low rising sock liners instead of ankle socks so every bit of grit and mud was getting right inside them, causing more friction on my burgeoning blisters. Now I understood why Mike always wears gaiters. They went straight on the shopping list for next time.

It wasn’t all gloom though – for the first time, I realised how much I had developed as a runner mentally, rather than physically. The old Jaz was sobbing and shouting obscenities about mud and bemoaning a lack of preparation; the new Jaz was taking it on the chin and enjoying the cool water, laughing about the conditions with the other runners and the marshals, recognising that it would eventually let up and even if it didn’t it wouldn’t matter. I think that’s my own manifestation of the wall – the feeling that it’s always going to be this bad forever and ever and why bother. Experience teaches you actually it won’t always be this bad, and you’ll feel like a bit of a dick later for having moaned so much. I thought about Gil’s words of wisdom, hoped that I would bump into him again and plugged on.

At this stage I did crack out the iPod Shuffle, which I’d loaded with an audiobook of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. It turned out to be the perfect choice: romantic tales of vagabonds crossing America with nothing but a canvas kit bag and a brass neck, of sunshine and heat and dust and haze. I can see why it inspired legendary ultra runner Jenn Shelton and it carried me through laps four and five.

Eventually the rain did let up, and almost as if it had never come at all the clouds parted to reveal beaming sun to dry me off; even my cotton vest which was so saturated I could have wrung about a pint of water out of it. I got back to base after lap four to find my mum fully recovered and back to her bubbly self, having made friends with the wife and daughters of another runner. She’d also had a costume change into pink trousers and glittery flipflops and they’d set up chairs, tables and refreshments under a gazebo like a makeshift living room. What a bloody legend.

At this pit stop I cleaned and powdered my feet and changed into fresh (ankle high) socks – not much I could do about my trainers still being damp, but it was better than nothing and immediately put a spring back in my step. I also changed into my QPR shirt and took the waterproof out with me this time. Not taking chances again.

Although my mental strength was holding out, my body had started to creak by the fifth lap and I had to take a few breaks to stretch my hamstrings and hips. It was definitely half and half running and walking now. To quote Zapp Brannigan, the spirit is willing but the flesh is spongy and bruised.

Every now and again though I would bump into Mike Inkster running the other way round the course, checking up on the competitors and offering words of support. Mike is absolutely key to the spirit of the challenge, taking care as he does to get to know the runners and their own personal challenges so you feel like you’re always being looked after. I was gutted to hear this is his last challenge; logistical problems and sheer exhaustion after running them for fourteen years mean he can’t do it any more. There is a rumour that it may be taken on by the Thanet Road Runners who also man Jellybaby Corner, but for the moment I had to decide whether or not I could afford not to try the full fifty miles if it did turn out to be the last one.

Lap five was tough – I was glowing with the thought of finally being an ultra runner but my muscles were packing up. The team at Jellybaby corner were egging me on to finish all eight laps but as I rounded off the fifth I knew I’d need a bit of a rest before considering the sixth. Still though, I had always told myself six would be the minimum and so after 15 minutes in mum’s temporary lounge to eat a banana and put my feet up I made for the start again. Mike always says that when you think you’ve had enough you always have one more lap in you, and as usual he’s not wrong.

As she did back in February, mum came out with me for the first couple of hundred yards of the last lap. I almost persuaded her to do the whole thing, but she was still recovering from the effects of lap three and thinking about a three hour drive home via my house afterwards, so she let me go at the entrance to the farm.

I to’d and fro’d about whether I should try for the full distance, but just over halfway through lap six I knew this would have to be my last. It took me an hour and 40 minutes to complete 6.55 miles on the last lap – and that includes running the last three miles when I knew I was nearly home and that with a bit of effort I could get in under ten hours. A little bit of good natured heckling from the team at Jellybaby Corner – whose good humour and boundless patience became a highlight to look forward to each lap – set me off for the final mile and a half stretch on road. I didn’t have my Garmin on GPS mode, just timer, as I knew the battery wouldn’t last otherwise, but a few mental calculations helped me keep my pace steady and I finally sprinted through the finishing area at 9 hours and 58 minutes.

A little part of me still thought about finishing the last two laps, even if I crawled them, but by then I knew that I’d come here to do what I needed to and I couldn’t make my mum hang around for another 3 and a half hours. I got my certificate and medal from the support team, cheered in a few more finishers, and collapsed into the front seat of mum’s little Corsa.

I’d finally done it. I was an ultramarathoner. But this was in no way the end of the challenge for me – all it did was unlock the door to a world I really belong to. Apart from when I got my 10k PB three years ago (which I’ve barely come near since) I’ve never got quite so much joy out of running as I do ultra running. Just to know the experience of the run is half the achievement, that nobody cares what time you do or when you place as long as you’re happy, that if you fell you would always be picked up again: all this convinced me that this is what I was designed to do. So my hamstrings and creaky knees had better get used to it.