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…

Ealing Half Marathon 2014


September is something of a spike in birthdays in our social group – presumably all my friends’ parents had more than their fair share of fun on New Years Eve – and 1984 seems to have been a particularly popular year. Obviously, all the coolest people were born in 1984. Ahem.

So how do we celebrate three 30th birthdays within the space of 8 days? Why, by watching QPR play away of course! Duh.

Which is how I found myself, the day before the Ealing Half Marathon, smuggling four bottles of vodka onto a rattler train from Southampton Central to London Victoria via most of the south of Britain (including a stop on the Isle of Wight, I’m sure of it), accompanied by eight miserable QPR fans all lamenting a poor display by the team and an even poorer one by the fans. St Mary’s is a ground QPR had never lost at before the game and Southampton are often excellent value; not for no reason did they start the day nudging the Champions League spots. Last time we visited St Mary’s we got a stopping service there which took us on a grand tour of the Home Counties, costing less than a tenner for the return fare. We ended up with a win for QPR (one of only four that season), our photo in the local paper with a man in a bath full of baked beans, a disco in the first class compartment, and one of our number spent the night in Paddington hospital. Yeah, we’re that sort of football fans. Sorry.

That was great fun last time, we thought. Southampton are terribly good hosts, QPR have half a chance of getting points, and the two and half hour journey back on a basically empty train will doubtlessly turn into something even the Romans would find OTT. Not so.

Bad enough as it was that QPR lost – despite a swoon-worthy second half volley from Charlie Austin – the day was pretty much ruined when a coked-up meathead two rows away rounded on a guy and his 8 year old kid in the row in front of us – ostensibly for the crime of complaining about a poorly executed short corner but odds are anything would have set him off – and started laying into them. I mean he properly went for them, screaming and throwing arms and everything. And after he’d been removed by the authorities his son took over, shouting abuse at a terrified (now crying) kid and his dad, for no reason. Scum of the earth.

A little shaken by the episode, and having missed about ten minutes of actual football by now, we turned back to the game when an unfamiliar chant came drifting down from the back row of the visitors stand. It had been going for parts of the first half too, but we couldn’t hear then what they were saying over the rest of the cheering. We heard them now. Suffice to say, it succinctly covered every angle of bigotry and violence imaginable, aimed at a black ex player who recently left for a rival club. Never have I been more embarrassed by a QPR fan. Although it has to be said I never saw that cokehead family or the racist idiots make it to Yeovil away or Sheffield Wednesday away (midweek) or Middlesbrough away; there’s maybe a handful among the thousands of decent people, they only really come out of the woodwork for the brief spells QPR spend in the Premier League, and they represent only themselves.

So, Saturday night was not a well slept night. Obviously I didn’t get drunk, I’m not completely stupid – the four bottles of vodka were an ambitious gambit on Andy’s part – and I made sure I was in bed by half ten at the latest. But I still couldn’t sleep for hearing that poor kid’s terrified cries and the racist chants ringing in my ears. Some things cannot be unheard.

I got up at 6.15 on Sunday morning, bleary eyed and heart already racing, and stumbled to the station. At risk of a real first-world-problems moment when I got to Wimbledon and found all the coffee stalls still closed, I rounded the corner for the District line trains and found a bunch of similarly bleary eyed runners and a girl manning the till alone at Costa, somewhat surprised to see so many people before 7.30 on a Sunday, and still trying to find the scissors to open the milk. Insufficient baristas in a coffee shop on race day is like insufficient bar staff on match day: playing with fire.


I’d been looking forward to this race for months – this fixture is always a highlight for me, it would be the first race I’d run for six weeks and it was my first time running a half marathon since Ealing last year – but I was far more nervous than I’d like to admit. Since last year, I’ve lost a fair bit of weight and my form, pace and stamina has improved in leaps and bounds. Question is, how many leaps and how high the bounds? I knew in theory I should be aiming for sub 2:00, which would mean shaving over 8 minutes from my previous time, but was that really realistic? Would I be knackered from the night before (attendance at which, needless to say, was a three line whip), and was I overestimating how long I could hold up a decent pace? I’m not fast, I’ve never been fast, I kept telling myself. Just keep around the 9 minute mile mark for as long as you can.

So I squeezed into the starting pen behind the 2:00 pacers, switched on my iPod, and shuffled towards the timing mat. Ealing is very well organised, but like any large race it takes a while to let the pack thin out through the opening straight. Hovering too near the pacers was a dangerous game, and a game that plenty of others were playing too, so I pulled in front of them into clear air where I could follow them from the front, so to speak, and if I dropped my pace too much later in the race they could scoop me up.

It was a gorgeous day; slightly too hot and dry to be classed a perfect day for running, but just sunny enough to come away with some dodgy tan lines. Feeling strong but not taxed around an 8:30 minute mile pace, I basked in the sun for a bit and enjoyed stretching my legs. Before I knew it, the 2:00 pacers were nowhere to be seen.


Race tactics is a thing you only really learn through experience. How do you strike the balance between going out too hard and leaving it too late to make up time? While there’s anything more than a mile to go, the only strategy I know of is to run easy. By that I don’t mean within my capacity or slower, I just mean listening to my body, allowing my limbs to move the way they want to rather than forcing them into an uncomfortable rhythm or straining to keep pace. Sometimes, that means speeding up when a slow plod is making me feel heavy, or lifting my knees when my feet hit the ground too hard, or pulling my shoulders back when I find myself reaching forward for the next step. You’d be surprised how much faster you can run with good posture.

Another good reason to keep your back straight and head high is the local support. Despite being only three years old it’s clearly already very popular, and although it doesn’t exactly have the party atmosphere of London or Brighton there’s rarely a ten yard stretch without someone clapping and cheering everyone on. In fact I quite like the civilised, genteel applause that follows you round and the dozens of kids eagerly waiting for high fives – although you know me, I’m not exactly a party person. Unless I’m on a rattler train to Southampton.

And then I realised what had been making me smile all the way round. It wasn’t the sun, although that was lovely. It wasn’t the high fiving kids – well, it was, but it wasn’t just them. It wasn’t the exuberant and tireless marshals, or the local residents cheerfully helping out at the water stations so no one would have to wait for a bottle. Everywhere I looked, among runners and supporters alike, I saw QPR shirts. A community of fans wearing their colours with pride; dads and their children in matching strips, a gang of girls with hand painted hooped vests, middle aged men running in their replica shirts, all reminded me of the motley gang of Rangers fans that kept an eye out for me when I first moved to South Africa Road. These are the people I call my fellow fans, not the cokehead clan or the bigoted Neanderthals with their nasty songs. This is West London – not glamorous or perfect, but home to me and home to my team.

Unsurprisingly, given that it’s a London race, there are quite a few switchbacks along the course which means plenty of opportunities to see the elites and faster runners glide by. It also means, on a course with a few short sharp inclines, that what goes up must come down, so it’s rare that you’ll have to climb a hill and not get to freewheel down it later on. In actual fact, the course isn’t quite as hilly as it seems but there’s definitely enough twisting and climbing to keep you on your toes.


I’d been keeping half an eye on my pacing band, but I was way ahead of it by the time I turned the hairpin on Cuckoo Avenue at seven and a half miles and even spotted the 1:50 pacer about 300 yards ahead. Of course, I’ve done this before – ooh look, I’m on track for a good time I KNOW I’LL SPRINT THE REST OF THE WAY oh no crash – so I kept my cool and held my pace steady, reasoning that I could gradually catch him up over 5 miles without too much extra effort. Having run it twice already I knew where the sneaky inclines were hiding and when I could really open the throttle, and when I finally saw the 12 mile marker I switched to my playlist of upbeat music to carry me home.

The last mile wraps around Lammas Park – site of both the start and finish lines – before turning in towards the centre so it’s quite easy to think you’re closer to the end than you actually are. For most of this stretch the route is lined with supporters cheering you on to the end, giving everyone a hero’s welcome. The last two times I ran this race I peaked too soon and found myself tiring before even reaching the final 400 mark, unable to appreciate the crowds, but this time I shifted up a gear and kept an even pace all the way home. I crashed into the finisher ahead of me at 1:50:39, nearly 18 minutes faster than before.

I’m always saying I’m a long runner not a fast one – and I’m under no illusion here, after three years of busting my balls to reach a pace many others start off at – but my improvement didn’t come through a program of intense speedwork, or high-altitude training, or eating only minted peas for a month. It came from a gentle increase in miles every week, drinking a little less alcohol and eating slightly less junk food. The weight loss made running easier, and the running helped the weight shift quicker, simple as that. But most importantly I ran only for enjoyment, not as a chore, and without denying myself the little pleasures that get me through a week.

Last time I made a concerted effort to improve my speed I did too much too soon, became disillusioned with the lack of improvement and almost gave up running altogether. It became an exercise in self-flagellation. I had to convince myself to leave the house, I felt guilty about every pint or packet of crisps and started to compare each lost second to potential culprits – was it that Snickers bar that made me go slower? Did missing that run to go to the football ruin my chances of a PB? I was miserable.

Since Ealing last year, the only sub-marathon distances races I’d run were the Petts Wood 10k and Bromley 10k, and they were both pretty taxing. I knew then it wasn’t the race’s fault, it was mine. I knew I had to change my mindset, incentivise myself with something that wasn’t finite or unsustainable. And I had to stop punishing myself. The 50 Mile Challenge back in July – and the inspirational Gil: “miles mean smiles” – switched on a lightbulb for me.

So, I’ll continue to follow QPR around the country with my obnoxious little band of train yobs, and I’ll enjoy that as much as I always have. And at the same time I’ll continue to run whenever and wherever seems like fun. I’m 30 years old this year. I’m too old not to have fun.


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.

Running Man Memorial Race


Although I often say that I started running in 2011, that’s not strictly true. Not in the sense that I never ran ever before in my life before then; in the sense that I did almost have a running career that for one reason or another stalled, before becoming the lean mean long-distance waddling machine I am now.

My first memory of running is a cross country race in my first year at primary school. I remember being dead excited about the race for weeks, right up until the day before when my teacher explained that we would have our numbers pinned to our chests. Don’t ask me why, but my charmingly literal and slightly morbid five year old brain assumed that meant drawing pins, and that they intended to push the pin straight into our skin. Nightmares about gasping for breath with drawing pins embedded in my lungs, blood spurting all over the field and children dropping dead before they reach the finish line punctuated the night before the race. Still though, I didn’t feel as bad then as I did the next morning, when they safety-pinned numbers to our vests and nobody died and I felt like a div. I think I must have seen the video for The Wall a few too many times.

Fast forward about eight years, and I ended up somehow representing my school in a national athletics tournament. We’d moved to Northern Cyprus by this stage so this wasn’t as prestigious a moment as it might sound, but it was still the only thing I really enjoyed about that school and I threw myself into it headlong, trying out for literally every athletics event. I regularly aced the practice sessions for track, comfortably leading the long runs if for no other reason than I was the only student who took it seriously, but it became clear that I suffered crippling stage fright whenever anyone was watching me (not to mention collapsing from heatstroke pretty much once a week). So, with the national schools athletics meet coming up I was picked only as an honorary third choice entry for the 800m, knowing that there was almost no chance of me competing.

That is, until about 5 minutes before the event when I was sulking at the far end of the stadium watching everyone else having fun, and I heard my name crackling over the tannoy. I sprinted round to the start, heart pounding in my ears, just in time to line up and wearing only a cotton t-shirt and shorts. The gun fired, the heavens opened in biblical proportions, I wobbled around one lap and blacked out, drenched. I was not popular.

So having decided I would never never run again, I eventually ended up in one of the least active jobs I could find manning the stage door of a theatre (read: sitting on your arse for 8 hours a day without even a break for lunch to get up and walk around). By the age of 20 I’d put on about three stone and cut my hair short. My dad started calling me Liza Minelli.

Living back in Bromley by this stage, I started rifling through my mum’s old 80s exercise tapes which I could do when everyone was out. They didn’t seem to be making any difference and I felt like a massive twat even without the leotard. So one October day I decided I might as well walk the mile to the supermarket and combine a bit of exercise with a practical achievement.

Walking up the steep hill to Locksbottom, I passed what appeared to be a man of retirement age running down the hill. I had to stop and watch him. Although he wasn’t fast, his form was effortless, easygoing and he didn’t seem to be panting or straining. Most remarkably though, he was wearing just an old pair of running shoes and some shorts that Kevin Keegan would have been proud of, and that was it.

It turns out this was Dr James Gilson, who would later (unwittingly) become a local hero dubbed the Running Man. He regularly ran between 3-5 miles, always in his shorts and nothing else. I made a habit of my walks, finding the running man all over Bromley and Petts Wood, gliding over the ground like a wizard. Inspired by him to upgrade my stroll to a jog, soon enough I was less Liza Minelli and more Liz McColgan. Well, sort of.

So finding a Facebook page dedicated to him nearly ten years later was both a little surreal and completely brilliant at the same time. All the messages from people who he had similarly inspired, all the sightings keenly reported like a celebrity gossip column, a guest spot starting the 2013 Petts Wood 10k: it was obvious that he was loved. And when he sadly passed away earlier this year, it took almost no time for rumours about a memorial race to circulate and gather pace, and an incredible 2 months to turn those rumours into a race.

That’s how Mum and I found ourselves at the Petts Wood Royal British Legion at 9am on Sunday 29th June, not fully sure of the distance or the course, whether the race would be a one off or a regular fixture, but knowing this was the sort of race where details like that wouldn’t matter. The organisers, headed up by Petts Wood Runners’ indomitable Donna Carroll, had done a cracking job in pulling together race numbers, engraved finishers medals, volunteer marshals and refreshments, not to mention an Aladdin’s cave of raffle prizes donated by local businesses – all through the power of social media and a supportive running community. The £5 entry fee, donations and proceeds from the raffle and refreshment sales would all go to St Johns Ambulance and Cancer Research UK, and with photos of James everywhere and his family at the starting line there was no doubt as to why we were all here – to say thank you.

The course was based on one of his training routes – starting on Frankswood Green (ironically next to St James’ Church), we heard a few words of tribute from his daughters, who explained with amusement that he wasn’t even aware of his celebrity status, before the starting pistol fired and off we went down Southborough Lane. I decided to run at my own pace rather than run together with mum this time; a decision I was uneasy about to begin with but I had lost a stone and a half since my last race and wanted to find I just how much I had improved. Turning left at Parkfield Way, the first mile or so of road turned into the Parkfield Rec and Richmal Crompton Fields, a beautiful and knee-friendly cross country stretch which took us around the golf course and past two schools. By this time the sun was high, the sky was clear and with such a relaxed atmosphere I couldn’t help but smile all the way round.

As we turned back onto the roads and into PWR territory I started to recognise more of the marshals, including the marvellous Anne Dunstan who has been so helpful to my mum and the beginner runners and kept our spirits high during the washed out Petts Wood 10k last October. The route wound around the residential streets, silent but for the sound of feet rhythmically hitting the ground on a sleepy Sunday morning, until the curve of Crescent Drive led us back to Queensway and the finishing straight back to the British Legion. The eggiest moment was a couple of hundred yards from the end, where we had to cross the busy high street to get to the finishing line, but with the help of the marshals and the throng of supporters I was over the line with a medal round my neck before I could even say green cross code.

Selfish as it is, I’m glad I decided to run at my own pace. For the first time in two years, I comfortably averaged a pace of 8:34 to finish the 3.4 miles in 28:51, and suddenly I realised quite how much I’d improved since April’s Brighton Marathon. Obviously the races themselves aren’t really comparable, but having not timed myself since then or had much opportunity to train due to work commitments, I’d lost a minute per mile average pace over the distance simply by losing weight and drinking a few less gins. How could that have so much effect? Try running with 18 pounds in a backpack, then imagine that weight not safely strapped to your back but instead wrapped around your thighs, belly and chest. All because of the football season summer break. Damn you, QPR.

In fact I was feeling so good I ran back along the course until I found mum just 5 minutes behind me, and together we ran the last stretch eyeballs out. Both proudly showing off our medals, we went to the finishing straight to cheer in the remaining finishers including two of James’ daughters and all manner of people aged between 6 and 60, all having immense fun. There was no competition involved (apart from the Lookalike Award, which sadly I did not win), just a fitting tribute to an inspirational man. Donna and the organising team had nailed it.

Mum and I hung around for the raffle giveaway at the end, but half an hour later Donna was still handing out spot prizes (an indication of just how many prizes had been donated) and we had to give up and go home. To all intents and purposes the race was knocked together as a tribute and not expected to be anything more than a one-off, but the prevailing feeling was “we’re doing this again next year, right?”. God I hope so.


Brighton Marathon 2014


As I prepared for my first ever marathon last spring, worrying about being able to finish, I got some words of support from Andy, the leader of the work running group. “Don’t worry Jaz. Distances are your thing. God bless you you’re not fast, but you can go long.”

It sounds like a backhanded compliment but I knew exactly what Andy meant. By this point I was one of the stalwarts of the group, running it when he wasn’t there and encouraging more and more newbies to join. But I was always at the back, and I was happy there. As long as I went at my own pace I believed I could carry on running forever, and Andy’s words carried me for miles.

Mum and I finished Edinburgh just inside the cut off point at 6 hours and 26 minutes – well within my capability, I suspected, but I promised mum I would run with her and I did. She loved the cheering, the live bands and the big city event atmosphere at the start and really struggled with the quieter stretches; miles of road flanked by woodland on one side and the sea on the other which I would have been happy to trot through and enjoy but which she found demoralising. Meanwhile I found the crowds distracting, piling on extra pressure and sometimes just plain annoying. I decided the low-key no-frills gigs were more my thing.

So when mum had to pull out of this year’s Brighton with a hip injury, I was suddenly faced with my first “proper” marathon – that is to say, my first time running a road marathon on my own at my own pace. And it was going to be in a big city event with cheering and live bands and crowds and pressure. It would have to be my thing now.

Whatever I thought a big city marathon meant, at the very least the experience would be invaluable. We’d made a couple of mistakes in our preparation for Edinburgh last year and we weren’t going to repeat them. The first big surprise – although probably only a surprise to a rookie like me – was that race numbers needed to be collected from the expo on the Friday or Saturday before, rather than being posted out. A bustling expo in the Brighton Centre, tightly packed stalls, queues and crowds everywhere? Not exactly my cup of tea.

As it turns out those folks at Brighton Marathon HQ do know what they’re doing. Once we’d got through the terrifyingly tight revolving door the expo was well laid out inside, with an army of sports masseurs on the lower ground and sponsors’ stalls upstairs. We’d been planning a surgical strike: get my race number, find my charity if they were there, and get the hell out of dodge. An hour and a half later, we were still darting excitedly between stalls and eventually came away with a box full of my favourite gels, a new gel belt and pouch (best investment EVER), a 5hr15 pacing band, early bird entry to next year’s marathon and unbridled enthusiasm. Ah, so THAT’s why they have marathon expos.

Having completely screwed up our pre-race preparation in Edinburgh by first missing the pasta dinner we’d booked, then making do with a greasy takeaway pizza long past bedtime, we made sure that we were comfortably nestled in a nearby Italian restaurant before five o’clock and in our hotel room by six. Another lesson learned from the year before, mum had booked us a room overlooking the finish line rather than nearer the start, meaning we had a gentle warm up walking the 2 miles to the start line and a 2 minute stagger home at the end, not the other way around. The Ritz it wasn’t – by which I mean our room had no surface other than beds, the bathroom was a cupboard with a shower in it and the floor sloped so badly I had to hang onto the dado to take my shoes off – but after the two hour bus back to the hotel post Edinburgh, I’d have taken a scabby mattress in a tip so long as it was near the finish. And besides, quirky hotels are half the fun of travelling to races. No clear floor surface? Do stretches on the bed then, much more comfy than the ground. Sloping floor? No need for those cushions to elevate my feet at night. And now I’ve got some great ideas about how to use that alcove space that doesn’t seem big enough for furniture.

Races are all about the mindset and I tried to set my mindset that Sunday morning to “This is really your first marathon. Enjoy it. Finish it. Find out what you can do.” Unfortunately that mindset was somewhat drowned out by an internal monologue of “THIS ISN’T LONDON – WHERE WILL YOU FIND SOME BREAKFAST. SCULL A COFFEE. OH NO THERE’S NO 3G. PAULA RADCLIFFE IS WATCHING, DON’T FALL OVER.” for the full two mile walk to the start line and my poor mother – who not content with the agony of giving birth to me has become my unthanked and unpaid support crew – suffered it all with a smile and a plaintive declaration that she loved me. So, another first. Starting a marathon without any form of food in me, under gloomy grey skies but resolutely wearing a redundant (and frankly, hindering) pair of sunglasses in the hope that no-one would see me weep.

I’ve said many times before that big crowds and occasions only serve to make me more nervous, and that I prefer the no-frills gigs. As exhilarating as it feels to be cheered literally every step of the way, I had to keep my earphones in – I think if I’d heard a single person call my name I’d have fallen apart. The first couple of miles constitute a loop back around Burgess Park where the race starts before turn south towards the coast, and even though we’d arranged not to see each other again until mile 14 I secretly hoped my mum would see me on the other side of the loop. God bless her there she was; tucked in among the journalists taking photos of the man with the tiger on his back (not a euphemism), excitedly screaming my name not a mile into twenty six, and I suddenly appreciated how heartbreaking it must be for her to watch me run when she couldn’t, and how gracelessly I would have behaved in the same situation. I kicked it up a gear.

Which, without wishing to sound even more graceless, eventually became my downfall. Planning to run a steady 12 minute per mile race, I was comfortably mooching around 10 minute miles right down to the first time I saw the coast and emboldened by my comfort, decided I would not walk until after the half marathon mark. Cocksure, but not clever, as strategies go; nonetheless, at the time I felt great. Although I’m no Mo, I’ve learnt that long distance running is really only a balance of physical and mental strength. If mental strength wasn’t a factor, I could happily plod along for hours until the job was done without worrying about going insane in the process. On the other hand, if my physical strength could hold out I could sprint all 26 miles and never suffer the internal voices pleading with me to give up and crumple in a heap with a jar of peanut butter. But endurance sports are so much more complex than that, and the desire to limit the time on my feet – not to mention my eagerness to see my support crew at mile 14 – overruled my pacing sensibilities and I foolishly kept up an unsustainable speed.

Brighton Marathon route map

The beautiful Sussex countryside was the one thing that slowed me down a bit; not just because of the incline, but because of the view of the lush green hills dovetailing gently into the coastline, the marina and the frothing English Channel. The course had been altered from previous years as I understand – this stage of the race apparently used to be far hillier but had been updated in favour of a flatter, faster route while still taking in the rural area and part of the village. This was my sort of race – too remote for the charity cheering points or for supporters not local to the area, it was peace and quiet and natural beauty, and it was joyful to run through. I briefly reflected on the Edinburgh Marathon of 11 months ago, and how this section would have been torture to my mum. I on the other hand barely checked my Garmin for distance or pace, enjoying the scenery. Which in hindsight probably contributed to my woefully optimistic pacing.

After turning the hairpin and coming back to the city centre I had to take a walk break at the twelve mile mark – not yet tired, but finally conceding that I’d pay for it later if I didn’t. And it was my last chance for rest before the CLIC Sargent cheer point where my long suffering mum had been joined by my partner Andy, and neither deserved to see me anything other than sunny. So when I saw them I took in a mini sprint, grinning from ear to ear and trying to hold back tears of joy as I saw them wielding pink and purple batons, and Andy immortalised the moment in a grainy iPhone picture of two heavy legs and a Cheshire Cat grin bounding towards them. Since Brighton I’ve often come across advice against employing friends and family as support crew because the economy of strength during marathons or endurance sports does not contribute to politeness or good relationships, but at the time I was so happy to see them I could have started the marathon all over again. I want to say I told them this; what I actually said was “IBUPROFEN IBUPROFEN IBUPROFEN.” And the lesson I learned not four miles on was: keep the damn ibuprofen on you. It’s too late at mile 25.

me at Brighton

Everyday’s a schoolday, and this was no different. My iPod playlist – so far something I can’t get more than a few miles without unless it’s a trail run or obstacle race – was a tried and trusted mix of pub rock and heavy metal classics on shuffle. I love this playlist, because it absolutely complements my running philosophy which is something akin to that of Phoebe from Friends: it’s only worth doing if you’re having fun, and who gives a shit how cool you look. Over two hours in though, I needed a little change from Ozzy Osbourne and James Hetfield, and switched to my running playlist full of upbeat pop songs (that is to say, the twelve songs I know from this century). Partway through the residential area and a mile or so before the switchback to the 18 mile point, which marked the onset of the ubiquitous Wall, I ran into trouble; literally. The Gods of shuffle threw up my Kryptonite, my sprint finish song: the DJ Fresh mix of Gold Dust by MS Dynamite. I can’t help but go all out when this song comes on, not least because the beat matches perfectly my cadence when sprinting and the tune is anthemic and exhilarating. I went for it.

Like I said, I’m never going to be fast, but running to this song makes me feel like I’m flying. I can run at a speed that actually causes wind turbulence, ruffles my hair and goes some way to cooling me down, instead of my usual pedestrian trot. I know I can’t sustain it, not even for the length of the song, but it gives me the feeling of being a proper racer just for a minute or two. The reality (I now understand) is that all I was doing was using up the last of my energy stores and leaving nothing for the last seven miles. And those last seven miles hit me like a ton of bricks.

Having built myself a comfortable twenty five minute cushion on my target pace for 5hr15, I allowed myself a little breathing space into mile 18 as we wended our way up a slight incline towards the power station and final switchback. Slight though the incline was, I could already feel tightness in my thighs and knew they would be shredded within a couple of miles. For once, the relative peace and quiet did not help – when all you have to look at is wasteland and both directions feel like they go uphill, any sense of joy is lost and there’s nothing to take your mind off the slog. I fell to pieces, and had to walk. I told myself over and over it was too long, too steep, too painful, I’d never make under five hours now. Everyone else was doing better than me and I should probably give up running altogether. But for a well-timed text message of support from my mentor at work, I was considering giving up and sitting on the kerbside to wait for gin.

The psychological turning point for me was when I stopped caring about my finish time. I hadn’t even realised I cared so much until then; particularly as I hadn’t set myself a goal time until the expo the day before where I picked up a 5hr15 pacing band because a) it was in my capability and b) it was a nice shiny silver. I knew with every walking step I was jeopardising that potential sub five hour finish – a time I had never even been aiming for and really shouldn’t have persuaded myself I could do – and when I finally accepted this fact, I stopped hurting quite so much. By this point I was twenty four miles in and running between the pretty shingles and the multicoloured beach huts. Suddenly there were people cheering again, and god bless them them all cheered like their lives depended on it. I was told to hurry up, no walking, I’m nearly there. I’m pretty sure I told more than one person to fuck off but a combination of obstinacy and pride refused to allow me to walk in front of them, despite the searing pain in my thigh muscles, and amid their irritating cheers I plugged on towards the seafront.

me at Brighton 2

At mile 25 I was planning to see my mum and the CLIC Sargent gang one last time, but my Garmin had run out of juice even before I had and I lost all sense of judgement for distance. What seemed like hours passed between the beach huts and my mum’s outstretched arms offering more ibuprofen, by which time it was far too late to be useful and I made do with a kiss and a promise to see her at the end. And I picked up the pace.

By this point I decided the quicker it was over and done with the better, and dug deep for the final mile. I can’t tell you how long it actually took me but it felt like 5 minutes compared with 15 for the mile previous, and I can’t pretend that had nothing to do with what remained of the crowds. What you get over five hours into a marathon, when faster runners have finished and their supporters gone home with them, is a small contingent of die hard nutters who cheer and scream as if they’re ten people each. These are good people, wonderful people, and if I believed in heaven they would be first in the queue. There’s nothing to be gained from cheering in a marathon apart from the knowledge that you’ve made a complete stranger’s day slightly more bearable, and I’d far rather run for 6 hours than cheer.

Despite the pain, the grumps and the desperate thirst (having lost my temper with the fiddly Iqoniq water pouches two water stations back) I couldn’t resist sprinting the final 400 yards. I don’t believe there’s any point running that far if you have anything left in the tank at the end, and finally Gold Dust came good. Squeezing inside my original target and beating my wristband, I crossed the line in 5:11:02. The song has since been removed from my running playlist and put in a playlist of its own, like a priceless jewel in a glass case. You don’t bring out the diamond tiara for a night down the Tiger’s Head, and I won’t play that song until the end of a run ever again.

My mum and Andy had been tracking me on the hip and groovy Brighton Marathon app; which, as long as you know a runner’s number, tells you at their chip time at each 5k checkpoint and uses this data to give an estimated finishing time. Apparently – and boy am I glad I didn’t know this at the time – I was on course for a 4:45 finish at the 30k checkpoint before hitting the wall, adding nearly a minute per mile to my average pace over the last 12k and skewing the estimated finish time so much my mum began to wonder if I really had given up and gone to find gin. The app is a fantastic idea and runs on technology already available at most large races; the only slight problem is that Brighton’s seafront is notoriously bad for mobile phone and data reception on a good day let alone when there are 30,000 people all trying to use it at once, and that having a hip and groovy GPS app to track people running around Brighton is like buying a plasma TV when you live in a tepee.

Unlike the previous year’s dash trying to find a taxi driver to bribe after two hours on a stationary bus, our journey back to the car from the CLIC Sargent finishers’ tent took all of five minutes including the time spent getting my mum and her dodgy hip up the steps from the promenade. I tease her, but despite injury and exhaustion she covered over a half marathon distance on foot herself that day and still managed to drive first us home to south west London then herself onto deepest darkest Kent. As I curled myself up in the back seat of her car, cradling my hip flask full of cherry brandy and feeling my muscles slowly seize, I thought just one thing: when’s the next one then?

Crowds and atmosphere may or may not be my thing. Speed may or may not be my thing. I know what is my thing though. Running.

Brighton Marathon medal

Moonlight Challenge


“Two things must ye know about the Wise Woman. First, she is a woman. Second, she is-”

I’ll leave you to work out the two main things you need to know about the Moonlight Challenge. The date is fixed each year as close as possible to a full moon, and this year it certainly didn’t disappoint; for some stretches of the route the moon was so bright I didn’t even need my head torch. And if you find the course anything less than a challenge you’re probably one of those people who thinks of a military assault course as a gentle warm up.

The race started at 6pm and the challenge was to complete as many of the 5 laps as you could handle, as long as you started your final lap by 1am. The course is a 6.55 mile – or to put it another way, a quarter marathon – hourglass shaped route around Chislet Marsh run partly on road, partly on farm tracks and occasionally directly through fields. I knew it was going to be a tough course, and an email on the Thursday from the organiser Mike Inkster reported that the course was “Somme-ish” thanks to recent flooding in the area. Not an exaggeration, it turns out. On a weekend where the political leaders of Britain found themselves standing around like one o’clock half struck wearing brand new wellies and pointing at floodwater, it did cross my mind that the race could be postponed; although that was largely because my mum asked me if I was sure it was going ahead about five times during the two hour drive down through relentless storms and hailstones. And then the first runner we met was wearing waders over trail shoes. My poor road shoes suddenly did not seem like such a good idea.

MC marquee

But sure enough, half an hour before kickoff, the skies cleared and made way for an absolutely stunning night to run through. A field of just 65 runners, and probably half as many again in supporters, organisers, volunteers and film crew, huddled together at the start/finish point at dusk on a Saturday evening, settling in for up to 8 hours out in the Kent countryside. The “base camp” consisted of two portaloos, a caravan for the film crew, a van full of food and support supplies and one marquee (“the other marquee blew away”) – not glamorous, but a perfect balance of necessary and concise. Considering the complexity of the challenge it is brilliantly organised by the ever-present and stoic Mike; the base camp, through which each runner has to pass on each lap and register their progress, has heaters and lamps and a stove keeping warm a huge cauldron of soup, and the route is punctuated by 5 or 6 separate stations variously offering direction, water, hot drinks, sandwiches, biscuits and jelly babies and raucous cheering. Bearing in mind that the route is only a little more than 10k long, that is excellent value for the £45 entry fee.

It’s very much my cup of tea, this sort of race – no frills, no corporate banners, no loudhailers, just a bunch of good natured lunatics trying to challenge themselves – but it won’t be everyone’s. You don’t get the adrenalin rush of a crowd cheering you on or the thumping bassline from a Ministry of Sound ‘running trax’ compilation. Neither is it really a testosterone pumping obstacle course like a Tough Mudder or a Hell Run; the course is what it is, not cultivated for pitfalls or demonic terrain. You are literally running through a farm in Kent, in the middle of the night, in February. That’s it.

Moonlight Challenge map

The course sets off along a road for a few hundred yards, then turns abruptly right to first of the farmland stretches forming the crossover between the two loops which is run twice on each lap, going in both directions. This section was very unstable underfoot, more like skidding or skating than running, and it wore me down so much simply knowing I’d have to do it twice on each lap; the first time I really understood that the challenge is more in your head than your feet. In the first two laps when I had the energy it was actually easier to run it as fast as possible and therefore limit my contact with the ground than to slow down and trudge through it; by lap 3 I had no choice but to slide through, hanging off the branches of overhanging trees to avoid going on my arse. I couldn’t help but feel a bit stupid for all the bitching and moaning I did over a hundred yards of slightly muddy field in January’s Bromley 10k.

Turning sharp right, the next area was straight up flooded and impossible to get through without being ankle deep in water. I actually didn’t mind this so much, as at least the ground underneath was much firmer and eventually dried out. For about a mile I was in and out of tree cover, between pitch darkness and bright moonlight, and I found myself able to completely switch off in this section and listen to my iPod, until the last lap when my audiobook ran out and I realised quite what I had been missing by not taking in my surroundings. A race like this is not run for PBs or competition or glory. Nobody cares what time you do. At that point I was glad I had more than one chance to look around – I’d never be able to remember it now otherwise.

The next stretch is a paved track running alongside the dual carriageway and therefore lit by the spill of the sodium lamps. Other than the stretch of road that brought me back to base it was the fastest stretch on the route for me, but as much of a relief as it was on my limbs it wasn’t exactly an enjoyable bit; I felt a bit fraudulent running beneath streetlamps on a moonlight run. It was, however, manned by a single volunteer with a trestle table and some hot drinks, perfectly timed for those emerging from the woods. I think I thanked that man just for being there every time I passed but I don’t think he heard.

Turning left off the road, the route takes you back into the farmland and straight back into unstable bog. Again, I found that keeping my pace up on the first couple of laps helped hugely, but I’m ashamed to say I gave up a bit after that and just walked it. On top of everything, the track here was wide open and a strong crosswind teamed up with the slush underfoot to make for a very wobbly group of runners. Back in with the iPod. Always forward. And forward takes you straight back to the crossover, which only got muddier, wobblier and skiddier as the 65 runners pounded it over and over again. I think by the third lap I was actually crying at this point.

After this I know there’s another mile of farmland and mud, and I only vaguely remember flashes of it, although I remember it being easily as bad as the crossover. But for some reason, it didn’t feel quite so apocalyptic. It could be because I knew I only had to do it once a lap, that there was solid ground and roads at the end of it, that I didn’t see anyone else successfully run through it for very long, I don’t know. I suspect it helped that unlike the crossover, this section had far fewer trees and much more clear sky, making it less claustrophobic than the previous stretch. All I know is that when it finally turned into road, I saw a gazebo with no fewer than 5 people huddled around it at any one point, stocked like a kiosk on match day. I can’t say I appreciated their good humour or cheering at the time but I will never cease to be amazed by good people like these who give up their evening to stand around in the cold for hours. I would rather do this race twice over than marshal it.

At this point it was all road on the way back to base camp. Up until about midnight the route here takes you through a beautiful country village and past a pub, which for some people is a carrot and for others is a stick. Some supporters choose to wait outside the but I would only recommend that if your runner is either not planning to run all five laps or is Superman – it’s a deceptively long walk back to base when it’s closed and for the first time there’s an actual hill. But it’s impossible not to sprint this bit, even underestimating the amount of time before to check in again, and that’s because you run the best part of half a mile with the moon on your left, guiding you back to base.

At the end of the third lap I was in pieces. Unable to eat but clearly lacking energy, unable to swallow but needing water, unable to do anything to make my trainers more comfortable because they were so heavily caked in mud, I stumbled into the check in area where my mum was waiting for me and sobbed “THERE’S JUST SO MUCH FUCKING MUD!” – not my proudest moment, but all caught on camera and available on DVD. I’m not proud to admit it but it was the mud that did for me. The distance doesn’t scare me; the evening start suited me perfectly since that’s when I mostly run anyway; and the only preparation I’d do differently is to get proper trail shoes next time. It was exactly what I thought it would be – a mental challenge, not a physical one. Bless my mum, she walked me out onto the fourth lap as far as she could safely go without a torch – she literally put me back on track again – and for a couple of miles I convinced myself I could finish it. But by the time I’d reached the crosswinds again, I knew I couldn’t manage a fifth lap. I put everything into a sprint finish, and finally got my certificate with a time of 6 hours 45 minutes for 26.2 miles.

MC finish

I had gone into this race intending to finish all five laps because the goal I had set myself was to finish an ultra before my birthday. It was the wrong thing to do. Had I done my research properly I’d have known that it wasn’t that sort of challenge – runners are openly encouraged to do as much as they can and their distance is recorded as well as their time, so there is no such thing as not finishing. So I came away disappointed that I hadn’t completed my challenge, that I’d only managed a marathon, that the time was abysmal. I came away convincing myself I’m a wimp for letting mud get the better of me again. I sulked for the full 2 hour drive home.

The reason I’m writing this three weeks after I ran it is because it took me three weeks to fully appreciate the Moonlight Challenge for what it is. It’s not a race. It’s a challenge, and it’s in moonlight, and that’s about the long and the short of it. Quite apart from anything else, staying on your feet for nearly 7 hours is a feat in itself. Even my Garmin gave up after 6 hours, hence the finish point registering as halfway round the course. Now I know when I run this next year I’m not competing against the distance or the time or the other runners. I’m just trying to see how far I will get. And I’m definitely running it again next year.

MC certificate and medal

Bromley 10k


me at Bromley 10k with medal

I’ve moved around a lot in my not quite thirty years – started off in South Yorkshire in three separate places with ‘field’ in the name, thus having a smartarse reply handy whenever my mum said “Close that door! Where you born in a field?”. Taken a tour of north west Kent, meanwhile furnishing myself with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the bus network. Upped sticks to North Cyprus for four years, and learned how people lived before electricity – doing homework by the light of an oil lamp is not as romantic as it sounds. The relative civilisation of West London, where I fell in love with QPR and doomed my bank balance never to see black. But here’s a fact I don’t like to talk about much – for a good 6 years, like my mother before me, I was a Bromley girl.

So it seemed like entering the Bromley 10k, situated in Norman Park a 5 minute walk from my old stomping ground, was a no-brainer. Originally it was supposed to be one of the training races in mine and mum’s marathon schedule, but with her still recovering from an injury and me itching for another medal to add to my middle distance wind chimes I decided to go it alone.

The race is billed as the first in a series organised by MCC Promotions, the rest of which can be found behind the linky. The entry fee of £14 covers a medal (yessss), timing, a cotton t-shirt, a water station and a handful of plastic cones to mark the course – not to mention a very reasonable start time of 11am which suits my night owl nature. The course starts and ends on the athletic track but for the most part is run in a similar way to the Norman Park Parkrun, for those that know it – laps of the perimeter path with a switchback across the field to make up the distance. The Parkrun had actually been cancelled for a few weeks due to flooding (including the run due to take place 6 days after this race), and as soon as I saw the ground I could see why – that being said, I could also see why it wasn’t quite bad enough to justify cancelling a paid up race. With a field of around 350 runners, I imagine it was neither in danger of inflicting too much damage on the ground nor a small enough group of people to disappoint.

It’s worth noting for future reference that the athletics track entrance isn’t terribly obvious if you don’t already know it, and it would have been nice to see a few signs to point runners in the right direction. Then again, it’s likely that everyone who runs the Bromley 10k knows Norman Park and therefore already knew how to get in, so I followed the crowd that looked more like runners and less like hungover dog-walkers and eventually found it . It’s a tiny point, and churlish of me to mention it when you consider that the first thing you see when you enter the track is a pavilion, with a proper indoor changing room and proper toilets. I’d have paid £14 just for that. Race numbers were to be collected on the day rather than posted out beforehand, and with a small field there was not too long a queue. I should mention however that the bag drop consists of someone keeping half an eye on them under a gazebo, so don’t take valuables if you can help it.

Bromley 10k plan

The starting point is halfway round the track, of which three full laps are completed before peeling off to run four laps of the park next door, and back again for the final 300m to the finish line. The track makes for a gentle warm up to the race and a welcome flat finish and the design helps break up the monotony in a very compact and repetitive route. I spent the first kilometre trying to shake off my nervous pre-race jelly legs and didn’t really get a grip on the ground until we entered the park – by which point there was little ground to get a grip on. I don’t know if it was the effect of Christmas food, the elevation (which felt like Everest at times but according to my Garmin barely fluctuated) or the ankle deep bog swallowing my every footstep but even on solid ground I felt like I wasn’t making any progress. Judging by how badly I dealt with the not-quite-cross-country Petts Wood 10k back in October, the answer is probably just that I need to eat fewer mince pies and toughen the hell up.

Bromley 10k elevation

The course markings were pretty sparse and not too stringently adhered to in my stretch of the field – presumably accounting for the route coming up slightly short on my Garmin – but the marshals were very present in all the right places and as helpful and vocal as ever. Particular thanks goes to the chap who smiled wanly at me as I plodded towards him through the mud whimpering “Oh for fuck’s sake, please no more.” At the time it felt as though I was knee deep in bog, I was Atreyu trudging through the Swamp of Sadness – I was very nearly the bloody horse that drowned in the film and gave me nightmares for about a year. For the first time ever, I considered giving up on the race three laps in when I figured that I wasn’t even going to get a respectable time, let alone a PB, when I had nothing left in the tank and my ankle was asking me if I had left it in the mud half a mile back. The sight of my poor long-suffering boyfriend cheering me at the end of that lap spurred me on to finish – given that I’d dragged him out of bed on a Sunday morning to watch me in the freezing cold three trains away from home, I at least needed a medal to show for it. So finish I did – to my surprise, not only did I finish well within the hour I’d resigned myself to, I even managed a sprint finish and a time 4 minutes faster than Petts Wood – 56:49 by my watch.

0 3

So why on earth did it feel like a failed race? Even as we walked back through the course to get to the bus stop the ground looked nothing more than slightly squelchy. Has my perception of my effort levels changed so much that I can’t pace myself any more? I was obviously doing much better than I thought I was, and I wasn’t out of breath at the end – just stiff as a board. Is my warm up routine still not up to scratch? I walked a mile to get there, stretched, jogged, stretched again. Maybe I was using muscles I hadn’t properly prepared? Certainly felt that way later in the day – on reflection, my glutes must have been working bloody hard to lift my feet out of the mud time and time again and they wasted no time telling me so. Or was I simply being a drama queen?

I think I’m left with a feeling of having done well on paper but not in practice. I should be pleased with my time given the conditions – even excepting the conditions it’s not bad for me these days. I shouldn’t have been focusing on a time at all, given that I’m supposed to be preparing for a 32 mile run through similar terrain in 5 weeks’ time and just want to finish. Maybe that’s what niggling at me – so you did OK this time, but next time you have to do this 5 times in a row and you have to do it on a farm in the middle of Canterbury in the middle of the night in the coldest month of the year. Stop making a fuss and get on with it.

Not on the level of a Tough Mudder or a Hell Run, but not exactly a walk in the park either. Maybe I should just take the medal and bank it 🙂

Leatherhead Fire Station 10k


The Leatherhead Fire Station 10k on Remembrance Sunday coincides with the anniversary of the running club I belong to, Clapham Chasers, and is often well attended by the club members. This year was no exception, with a staggering 88 of the 338 registered to run wearing the blue and green strip. Although I’ve been with the Chasers on and off for 18 months now, it was the first time I’d entered a race wearing the strip and travelled with the club. What an occasion to choose.

Leatherhead medal

The race itself is charmingly unfussy, impeccably run and set against a stunning backdrop of the Surrey countryside. Picture postcard thatched houses snuggling up against the still green hills, all backlit by a bright, low winter sun. It’s probably no more remarkable than any other pocket of suburbia but to a perennial city-dweller like me it was breathtaking.

Organised by the fire station where the race begins and ends, there was a feeling of being in very safe hands. In comparison, I’d managed to make a complete mockery of the word ‘organised’. I’d been forced to unpack and repack my bag about ten times the previous night, spooked by a last minute weather forecast check which had the temperature during the race as low as 3 degrees. And I still managed not only to leave important gubbins behind but also to end up with a bag too small to hold my warm clothes while I ran. Having been focused on marathon and half marathon training for most of the year I had all but forgotten how to pace myself for the distance, and it was also the first race since I short-sightedly threw out my old long sleeved running tops in a tidying fit. Ice that cake with the fact that South West Trains weren’t running between Clapham Junction and anywhere useful to me, and you’ll understand why I was so jittery.

The race started a little after 10am with a minute’s silence for Remembrance Sunday. A couple of parish notices about a car that was blocking the path and the arrangements for the race start were delivered by one of the firemen calling down from the top of a tower. No PA systems, no cheerful pop songs I don’t recognise or poorly balanced dance music, no sponsor’s messages – just a gentle hubbub and birdsong. Wonderful stuff. Other race organisers take note: Radio 1 wannabes spouting hyperbole might stir up a bit of last minute adrenalin in some runners apparently not excited enough about a 10,000m race, but they don’t do it for me. On the other hand, if a firemen tells me to start running I run. I don’t even wait to find out which direction to go.

The Arctic chill I was expecting never really materialised – in fact I’d go as far as to say it was perfect running weather. Lovely bright sunshine in a clear sky (definitely needed the sunglasses more than the earwarmers), crisp cool air and not a raindrop in sight, it was the sort of weather that smells cold but doesn’t really feel it. Within half a mile I’d relegated my thin running jacket to my waist and by halfway my hands, usually bereft of circulation even at the height of summer, were too warm in my light gloves.

We’d been warned that the course was pretty much uphill for the first 5k, and after talking to a couple of people who’d run it before we had to abandon the hope that that was an exaggeration. The first time someone asked me what time I thought I’d do, I gave a tentative “56 minutes would be nice”. The second time I’d downgraded it to “Erm, I’d take 58 and change.” The third time – well, I’d given up on finishing at all and just asked that my remains be returned to my loved ones if I dropped down dead by the side of the road. For God’s sake, I even filled out my next of kin info on the back of my race number.

Either because I was expecting Kilimanjaro, or because of the hill sessions I’ve been doing with my mum, the treacherous terrain turned out to be pretty manageable. Don’t get me wrong, they’re not lying about the hills; but by starting on them you are forced to take a steady pace and are more likely to end up with a negative split overall. The second main incline – I don’t know why I’m differentiating, it’s just one enormous incline that gets steeper faster instead of levelling off – was so severe at one point that I actually resorted to marching up it, and in doing so went faster than I would have running. A tactic to remember for future races.

Then, rather wonderfully – and I really think this was the psychological turning point – we went back down the hill. Sounds obvious, and it stands to reason that on any course set in a loop what goes up must come down, but I have run races where the downhill travel after a steep hill gets somewhat absorbed into a longer, shallower, less satisfying descent and you end up wondering if you’re on that optical illusion spiral staircase, destined always to climb. Not here. Despite being mostly solid ground underfoot it felt very like fell running, where the art of the descent is in retaining enough control to land safely on uneven ground – less like running and more like tumbling. I tend to run hills according to effort rather than speed, meaning I plod going up and freewheel on the way down like Phoebe from Friends, keeping my heart rate as level as possible. It’s not necessarily the most sensible tactic but in this race it worked just fine.

In keeping with the no frills nature of the event, there was just one water station (trestle table) just after 5k, manned by two dedicated and no doubt freezing souls handing out plastic cups. Even with the narrow lanes there was no crowding and it was incredibly easy to pick up a cup of water, swallow a few gulps and drop the cup in a bin a little further on. No fear of tripping over hundreds of bottles or skidding about in a lake of Highland Spring.

From then on the course largely flattened out, save for a couple of hillocks and the odd bridge, and after levelling out the effect of first trudging up a hill then falling down it, it was easy to fall into a nice regular rhythm. Your classic race of two halves, to borrow the football pundits’ favourite cliché. Which set me up for a massive surprise – and a fit of nerves – when I did a bit of mental arithmetic and arrived at the conclusion that I was on course for closer to 55 minutes than 58. It didn’t seem possible given the slow start, but I was surprisingly comfortable in an 8:15ish pace and unwilling to let a runner from Wimbledon I’d spotted just ahead of me leave my sight so I stayed with it. Before long it turned out I had peaked a little too soon, my breathing suddenly so ragged that I failed to notice a marshal helping people cross the road up ahead and instead blundered out into the middle of three lanes of traffic where I had to wait a good 30 seconds to be let across. Slightly startled by the incident and about to succumb to the jelly legs I usually get when I reach the end of a race, I didn’t realise I was on the final stretch until I saw a clutch of supporters cheering me on with the blue and green flag of Clapham Chasers, and gave a bit of a sprint kick to prove I wasn’t giving up. And then I saw the clock – just ticking over 55 minutes, knowing that I passed it about 30 seconds after the start – and stunned, wrung out the very last of my breath to get across the timing mats. Thank God there wasn’t anyone taking pictures at the finish line – I must have looked like Munch’s The Scream.

We were greeted at the end by off duty firemen who took our timing chips and gave us our medals. There was no goody bag but frankly all that meant was that there would be less crap for me to take home to my poor long-suffering boyfriend and our full-to-bursting spare room. I’m a big fan of the less is more approach – so there weren’t any free granola bars or post run massages and the roads hadn’t been closed, but they were well marshalled, I got my nice shiny medal (I’m such a magpie), and I got a nice warm changing room which is a luxury in itself. The £15 entrance fee was very fair, and the small field made it very friendly to a crowdphobe like me. All in all a pretty idyllic race I would heartily recommend, and will definitely be running again.

My Garmin and my official chip time agreed on 54:45, which is the second fastest 10k race time I’ve ever done and the fastest in over two years, last set on a much flatter course. My achievements turned out to be nothing in comparison to those of Clapham Chasers as a club however; prizes for second and third men and the top three women all went to Chasers, as did the men’s team award. I’m more determined than ever to make up for the training time I lost when it was too cold or too wet or too dark to join the Chasers for the weekly social run, since my improvement rate when I run with them is unquestionable, and I will no longer persuade myself that I’m “just not a fast runner”. I’m not the fastEST runner, but if was 3+ minutes wrong about how fast I could go on this race then who knows how much more wrong I could be next time?

Leatherhead elevation