Saturday, 18 January 2020

Devon: Plym Trail Winter marathon race recap

Devon, as you may know, is very far from Liverpool.  Approximately 300 miles away in fact.  What I've noticed is as this challenge progresses is (unsurprisingly) I've gradually ticked off all the nearby counties leaving all the travel-intensive ones.  January is also not a good month for marathons generally - there's not many on.  So when I found this one, it was the double-whammy, gold star, perfect timing race that I couldn't possibly turn down.

On a more personal note, my boyfriend Ian and I recently got back together and he kindly offered to do all the driving.  This makes a huge difference - a marathon is easy, but a marathon combined with ~13 hours driving is another thing altogether.  So big thanks to Ian - it also made it a lot more fun.

The race started at an incredibly civilised 9:30am.  We were staying 5 minutes drive away which meant I got a pre-race lie in until 7am, a pre-race breakfast of porridge and a croissant at the hotel, and still had loads of time.  On arrival, the race start was in a picturesque little village.  It was cold but bright, with quite a lot of ice on the ground.  Not as bad as the start of Oulton Park though.  I'd somehow forgotten to pack a jacket - lucky it wasn't raining!

I was feeling strangely cheerful.  I'd just come off a couple of 'easy' weeks of training, I felt fresh and ready to go, it looked to be a beautiful course and it was two out-and-back half marathons with very little navigation required.  Some days I have to force myself to run marathons - this wasn't one of them.
There was a 5 minute race briefing - mostly comprising warnings about the ice - and we set off.  To my surprise we set off up the icy hill - I hadn't realised there was a small loop to do before starting the out-and-backs.  It was a bit skiddy but OK, and after the turnaround point I got my phone out to take a picture:
The chap behind me said something about instagram, and I explained I was taking pictures for my blog, and then he asked about my blog and we got chatting, so I asked what he was training for (nobody runs marathons in January as a one-off!) and he said he was planning 12 marathons in 12 months.  He was hoping to do a sub-4 hour one sometime during the year.  I gave him my usual spiel about taking it easy because the most important race is always your next race.  We ran back to the start and turned onto the 'Plym Trail' after which the marathon is named.  I found out his name was Shaun and we had a nice chat before I had to let him go as he was much faster than me.  He soon disappeared off into the distance.

Shortly afterwards I saw this tunnel appear.  Nobody had mentioned a tunnel in the race briefing and there was nothing in the notes either.  How exciting!  Love a good tunnel!  Turns out it was a pretty long tunnel, probably a couple of hundred metres long.  On googling it's called Leighbeer Tunnel, designed by the main man Isambard Kingdom Brunel and apparently it's haunted. 
It's pretty long and pretty dark and it goes round a corner.  It was lit but only dimly.  I thought of the Tunnel Ultra whilst I was in there - a race devised by the evil genius Mark Cockbain, which involves running back and forth through a 1 mile tunnel 200 times continuously.  No thank you!
I came out the other side into glorious sunshine.   Autumn leaves clustered on both sides of the path.  The trail reminded me of the Ralla in Liverpool, only with less litter, less motorbikes and significantly less weed being smoked. 
There were a couple of bridges around this point and some beautiful views of Dartmoor.  I stopped to take this picture - you can still see the frost in the valley.  The path was not very icy any more and it completely disappeared within the first hour or so. 
I soon came to the first checkpoint.  I didn't stop as I was only just getting warmed up, but I was a bit worried because I'd agreed to meet Ian at Bickleigh which was where the checkpoint was.  I ran on, fumbling with my phone to call him, when I came round a corner and saw him.  I stopped briefly to say hi and said I'd see him in another 12k or so.
Shortly after this, I overtook a woman who asked me where I'd got my leggings from.  I was wearing my new Lululemon ones that I'd got for Christmas so I enthusiastically extolled their praises and we got chatting.  Her name was Caroline and she was from Cornwall.  We ran together for the next 10k or so and during that time she helped me choose a suitable race for Cornwall (the Roseland August Trail aka The RAT) - sadly when I checked later the date for this year clashes with Mendip Marauder.  But 2021 - for sure.  She also gave me some top tips for driving home - don't stay on the M6, turn off towards Shrewsbury and cut through Wales.  In case you're reading - cheers Caroline, this tip was awesome and made for a much prettier and more relaxing drive home!

Caroline had done the Arc of Attrition and the Lakeland 50 and most of the 100.  She was a much better runner than me but patiently put up with all my questions.  She told me about her daughter and her job - as usual, these races are all about the people.

As we passed these gates for the first time, a man running by informed us that last year they had opened to let a train through and added a couple of minutes onto his time.  As a result I was a bit paranoid and got a wiggle on every time I approached them in the hope of beating any trains!  Also love the sky trails in this pic which I didn't even notice at the time!
We got to the checkpoint at the far end and I was very surprised to find they had fruit teacakes made into cheese sandwiches, apparently this is a Thing.  Caroline also told me about fruit cake and Wensleydale (I was highly suspicious!)  I lost Caroline somewhere on the return journey but continued to run well.  I hadn't put my headphones in as I was enjoying just being out in nature.  At one point there are high walls on both sides of the path.  I stopped suddenly to take a close up photo without paying much attention and a bike curved around me - I apologised but the girl didn't seem to mind.  Everyone I met was super-friendly and easy going.

I stopped at the checkpoint on the way back and commented on what a lovely selection they had.  Basically it was the perfect checkpoint:  squash, water, Coke.  Chocolate biscuits, jaffa cakes, jelly babies.  Crisps, peanuts, cheese-y fish crackers.  Everything you could ever really need!  

This is the view from another of the bridges I passed out over Dartmoor.  Beautiful.
I reached the start and turned around without really stopping at the checkpoint.  I checked my watch and I'd done a half marathon in about 2 hours 10 minutes.  This is pretty good going for me and if I managed the same thing again, I'd have beaten all my recent times by a considerable margin.

On 1st January this year I'd run a marathon in Liverpool (just for fun as I've already done Merseyside) in 4 hours 28 minutes, which was my quickest time since May 2019.  But I was on track to go a lot faster than that.  And I was feeling good!  As I turned around, I wondered if I might be in the top three women.  That would be quite an achievement, wouldn't it?!  I started paying attention.  The first lady came past me when I'd not long started the second loop - she was incredible - running at way faster than my 5k pace! I picked up the pace and overtook a few people including a lady who'd been ahead of me for most of the race so far.   The lady in second place passed me maybe 10 minutes before the turnaround point, and the third maybe 5 minutes before.  Oh well.  I would be fourth then.

I took a picture of this bit of path because I thought the flooded bit next to it was kind of cool, there were ducks on it a bit further down but it was only a couple of inches deep:
Shortly after this I reached the turnaround point.  To my surprise, Shaun was there.  I hadn't seen him since the very start of the race but he'd hit the wall.  He was stretching and trying to take on board food, I suggested more sugar as he'd had lots of gels.  Meanwhile the volunteer dug around in the boot of the car after telling me they'd run out of Coke.  This is always disappointing but miraculously she found another bottle (this never happens) and gave me some.  I felt amazing and raced off.  I had about 10k to go and I could see I was definitely going to get a good time as long as I kept pushing myself.  For someone who doesn't like racing, I can get extremely competitive (with myself) once I know I'm in with a chance and the switch just flipped.  From kilometre 29 onwards, every kilometre took less than 6 minutes.  I didn't stop at the checkpoint.  I didn't stop to talk to Ian.  

Ahead of me I saw the lady in third place - she was walking.  This was the incentive I needed and I stepped it up a gear.  At kilometre 39 I cracked out a 5:26!  By that point I was huffing and puffing.  There was a very unwelcome hill in the last kilometre that nearly killed me but I knew I was on for a good time and there was no way I was letting that go now.  Randoms walking past, alarmed by the sound of my breathing, said, "well done!" - you know you're working hard when that happens.  I crested the hill and bombed it back down the other side towards the finish.

I finished in an official time of 04:16:40, third lady, 10th overall.   My best time for almost two years.

I was chuffed to bits.  We stood around for a while chatting to the race director, who told us the winner had been the speedy girl who finished in 3:09 - inspiring stuff!

The goody bag had a banana in it which I ate, along with a cup of tea with sugar from the village hall which tasted fabulous. I reckon I'm getting faster because I'm building up my mileage for Hardmoors in March.  The last time I got anywhere near this pace was when I was building up my mileage for Convergence two years ago.  I can see I busted a gut from the heart rate data from my Garmin - my races NEVER look like this - I usually hang around in zone 2-3:
I knew I'd be sore so I did some stretches (rare for me!) and while I was there I bumped into a Scouser, what are the chances of that!  He'd lived in Devon for years but had been back to do Rock 'n Roll a couple of times so we had a good chat.  
It was both a beautiful day and a beautiful place and I was feeling fine so Ian and I decided to go for a bit of a hike on Dartmoor.  I'd planned a route for tomorrow morning but it was too lovely to wait so we went there straight after the marathon.  Unfortunately the route I'd planned went straight through a river (seriously ... this navigation course I'm doing can't come soon enough, lol).  We made a detour... then we made a detour from the detour... but it was all good.  Stunningly beautiful part of the world.
The next morning, Ian and I ran 8k of the route again so I could show him how pretty it was, then we drove back to Liverpool.  Pretty amazing weekend!

Edited to add: Do you remember Tim, the juggling runner from Rutland marathon?  Well he contacted me recently to report that his zombie running blog is up and running.  It is bloody brilliant and you should definitely read it:

Sunday, 1 December 2019

Cheshire: Oulton Park Running Grand Prix marathon race recap

I had planned to do a Christmas-themed race for December (Rayne-deer run in Essex), but then sadly didn't actually enter it, and by the time I tried it was full.  Damn!  Cheshire is the last county vaguely near where I live in which I haven't yet run a marathon, and this looked easy, and there's not many marathons around in December so I figured it would be good to get one last county checked off this year.

Also, this would be my 20th marathon this year (always nice to finish on a round number) and the mid-point in my counties challenge (24 marathons completed out of 48).
So I really needed to do one last race and this seemed like the obvious one.

So - ten laps of a Grand Prix race track.  Let's do this!

Somewhat inauspiciously, my Garmin decided to die the night before the race and refused to come back to life, so I had to use Strava on my phone to do the recording.  I was a bit worried my phone would get a bit stressed out doing that AND taking pictures AND playing music so I tried to keep the other stuff to a minimum, also each lap was surprisingly similar to the one before (!) hence there aren't as many photos as usual.

It was an extremely cold day, even by December's standards, and I had to de-ice the car before setting off.  It was a short journey and I arrived about 50 minutes before the race started.  I parked and went to fetch my number from the race start area.  It was pretty small so I wandered over to the race track first to take a look:
Hmm.  Health and safety?  That is the actual surface the 2000-odd runners are going to be running on.  Oh well!  I wasn't overly concerned as my trainers have good grip.  I wander over and collect my number from some very cold volunteers and bump into a nice man called Matt, who asks if I've ever done a marathon before.  I explain...  We have a chat and he asks for my details because he thought my story was sufficiently interesting to be featured in their newsletter - fame at last!
I head back out to find the loos and discover there is a whole warm cafe full of tea and clean toilets on the other side of the car park.  I lurk here for the next half an hour, feeling quite chilled, before returning to the start.  They announce that the course is marked in descending order e.g. "26 miles to go, 25 miles to go, 24 miles to go" which is strange and confusing.

Then they shamed us by asking everyone to make their way to the start line in finisher order: "will everyone planning to complete in 3 hours please make their way to the start?  3 hours 15?"  The floor suddenly becomes very interesting.  I lurk resolutely.  Eventually I shuffle to the start in the 4 hours 45 minutes category.  Ouch!

The race begins.  It is a beautiful, crisp winter's day, and there's frost on the grass making the track look stunning:
The course curves around corners and the runners soon stretch out onto the horizon.  After ten minutes or so, it loops back on itself so you can see the fastest runners coming back towards you.
There was still ice on the tarmac in places, but some bits had been gritted and others were rapidly melting with the footfall.  The signs showing how much distance there was left were deeply confusing - as you would obviously see all 26 signs on every loop of the circuit, so you also needed to remember where you were up to for these to make any sense at all.  Maths was an important part of this race - if you knew you'd done 3 laps, and each lap was 2.62 miles, you could work out roughly how far you'd gone (7 and a bit miles) and then deduct that from 26 (19 and a bit... or is it 18 and a bit) to try and work out what signs applied to you (so you're looking for the '18 miles to go' sign.  Or possibly 17)...

Although my watch was in kilometers, so then I just needed to convert that into miles, 10 km is 6 miles, so six threes are 18 miles so that makes 30km to go... and so on and so on.  This kept me busy for most of the race.
I didn't realise when I signed up but race tracks are not completely flat ... not sure how I never knew that.  It turns out there were 2 hills - a smallish hill and a biggish hill.  These started out runnable but became increasingly problematic!  There was also one section with a really hideous camber - I wouldn't fancy driving on that, nevermind running it, and after a few loops I found I was getting weird pains in my calves.
I ran behind this little group for much of the race.  They are just approaching the biggish hill in this picture, this must've been taken on around loop 4 or 5.  They were a bit faster than me, but the tall man in the middle got horrendous cramp on loop 8 and I overtook them.  I saw them at the end with medals so he must've overcome it, but it looked incredibly painful - kudos to him for sticking it out.
As the day progressed, it got gradually warmer.  There were multiple races running simultaneously so gradually we were joined by the 20 milers, half marathoners, 10k'ers and 5k'ers.  There was a band playing on one part of the course.  There was a single water station, offering plastic bottles of water to runners.  I was loathe to take them, but as I was wearing my rucksack and not my vest I did need to.  I asked the volunteers if I could leave the bottle in a specific spot and keep reusing the same one - they said yes, then remembered me and retrieved my bottle and handed it to me on each loop.  I named it, "Alice's special princess bottle" and thanked the volunteers profusely each time.
Here's a photo of the dreaded camber!  It doesn't look that bad but it really was horrible, I remember thinking cars weren't supposed to cross the white line but you were almost being tipped into the ditch as you went round.  By the halfway point my calf was really quite sore.  I was also very, very, very bored. 
By lunchtime, all the ice had melted.  I met a girl called Kate at the water station and we got talking about how surprisingly hard/boring it was.  I mentioned I'd run a six lap race a few weeks before and she asked which one - I said Durham - turns out she'd run that one as well - what are the chances?!

We ran together for half a lap or so which was nice as I hadn't had much company, however we soon realised that I was a lap ahead of her and she needed to slow down a bit.  On another race I might've slowed down with her but I was keen to get this one finished as soon as possible. I got my speaker out for the last couple of laps, which helped, as there were increasingly fewer and fewer people left out on the track.  Even the band had packed up and gone home!
It's a rare day I stop to take a photo of a mile marker, but I was just soooo glad to see this sign (for the 10th time).  My legs were aching, I was really bored and I couldn't wait to have a cup of tea!  Although I have done quite a few road marathons lately, they're often in glorious countryside which distracts from all the ... road.  I was genuinely surprised at how tough I found this race considering it was just loops.
Here's a finish line picture I wasn't even aware was being taken.  I don't look all that happy!  The race provided free photos (always nice) so that's where this came from:
And here I am looking slightly happier now I have a medal round my neck!  There was a decent goody bag and a van in the car park selling tea, so I didn't hang around for long at the end.  I did some stretches (rare for me, but I was sooo stiff I thought I might seize up in the car!)
I met a guy in the car park who told me this was his first marathon - yuk!  I told him his next one would be a lot easier!  Here's the elevation profile, actually not that much total height but all grouped into that one steepish hill repeated 10 times.  I think I'd rather just climb a single 300m hill...

My Apple Watch battled through it, managing to not run out of battery by some miracle and rewarding me with a dazzling array of badges:
And here's the really quite nice medal you get at the end.  My eventual finish time was 4:40:17 which wasn't bad considering.  Definitely not a race to underestimate - much harder than it looks!

Sunday, 10 November 2019

County Durham: Remembrance Run marathon recap

There's not a huge amount of marathons in County Durham and it's also quite far away, so I'd had my eye on this race since the spring. After much careful organising, I booked a cheap hotel and went down the day before.  Iz, my daughter, was going to an open day in Leicester and came up by train later that day, unfortunately delayed by flooding.  We had dinner and stayed in a hotel in a place just outside Durham called Brandon.  The girl who checked us in advised it would be cheaper to leave the car at the hotel and get a taxi to Durham in the morning, and there was even a guy there (Barney) who ran a taxi firm - sorted.

The next morning we had a great breakfast and then got into Barney's Taxi.  Unfortunately, Barney turned out to be a bit of a con artist and the meter was already up to £12 before we'd even arrived.  In the end I got him to turn around and take us back, paid him £25 for taking us absolutely nowhere (!) and then drove into Durham and found free parking not far from the venue.  Sigh.  I arrived stressed and flustered with little time to spare, ditched my bag, got my number and headed to the start line.  Meanwhile, Iz headed off into town to do some drawing.  There was just time for a quick selfie:
The race began on time at 9:30.  There were 450 people there and the race was loops of a course, which had been changed at the last minute to avoid a flooded section that was deemed unsafe.  The marathon had been advertised as 7 loops of a 3.8 mile course.  Boring maybe, but oh well.
We all set off together, and shortly came to the first bridge over the river.  There was a tight right hand turn and then we continued on the other side of the river.  I could still see people behind on the other bank, and rowers in the river.  It was a cold and crisp day and perfect marathon weather. 
This was taken a bit later on, after a slightly wooded section, where you came back out.  The sun was out but it was still pretty nippy and I was glad I had gloves and a couple of layers on.
After this there was an out-and-back section, followed by another bridge crossing.  This bridge was really icy, slippery and LOUD, especially when bikes crossed it.  It was my least favourite part of the course.  Later, a runner told me they run across it at Parkrun - the noise must be horrendous!
After the bridge you ran alongside the river again  - this was probably the prettiest section:
After that the route goes through some trees, then across a car park, then does a loop around a field before coming back into the start from the opposite direction.  These pictures weren't all taken on the same loop which is why the weather keeps changing!
It took me the whole of the first loop to stop stressing about my transport to the start, and by the time two loops were done I was starting to settle in.  However my watch was saying 2 loops was only 11km, which suggested 7 loops weren't going to be enough (7x5.5km= 38.5km - it needs to be 42.2km to be a marathon).  This was a bit annoying as mentally I'd prepared myself for seven and didn't want to have to do an extra one. 

The interesting bit of this race was the 2 minute silence at 11am to honour people who have died in wars.  Personally, I'm not a big fan of wars, but I understand it's important to those who've lost relatives so I always try to be respectful.  The race was stopped at 11am by people blowing airhorns all around the course and we all stood still in silence for 2 minutes.  Unfortunately the people playing rugby in the field behind that hedge didn't stop, so it was punctuated by their shouting.  Oh well.  It's the thought that counts, right?
The race organisers deducted 2 minutes from your eventual finish time to compensate you for the stop, which is kind of sweet but (in my case) totally unnecessary as I wasn't bothered about my time anyway.

The other thing the race organisers did was put posters up around the course with various facts and quotes about war.  (Click on the photos to make them bigger)

These meant I spent quite a lot of time thinking about war during the race.  It's pretty crazy how many people died in WW1, I mean I knew it was a lot but that's insane, especially compared to how many have died since*.  I thought the quote was interesting, but discussing it later with Iz, she was unconvinced.   "What if Hitler had just shot everyone else though?  Then we'd all be under Hitler!" Good point, well made.

*I have not fact-checked these statistics and like all statistics, a lot depends on how they were gathered and whether they're comparable.  I notice they don't quote their sources....

The race continued.  I shed a layer of clothing (luckily my bag was very close to the race start), I went to the toilet (not at all close to the race start, costing me way more than 2 minutes), I ate snacks from the extremely well equipped snack table.   It was a cupless event so you just left your cup on the table and when you arrived back at the start, you could fill your cup with any of the drinks provided.  This worked really well and is a great way to cut down on plastic waste.  I also met a woman at the drinks station who recognised my Penny Lane Striders top and said, "Are you from Liverpool?  My brother in law is in your club!" Later I saw her husband running and he called out, "Go Penny Lane!" Aww!
I regretted having forgotten to pack my headphones as loops of the same course get a bit boring after a while.  Until the fifth lap, where I met these two: Andy and Neil.  Neil was a physio and I think he might have been Andy's coach; Andy was attempting Couch to 50k.  Yes you read it correctly - 50k!  Having done C25K earlier this year, he'd just kept on running and today was attempting a new 'furthest distance'.  There was a time limit of 7 hours, and I hoped to finish my marathon in under 5, so this seemed quite achievable.  On discussing with them, they felt the marathon would be eight laps and the 50k ultra would be nine laps, which seemed believable.
We ran the whole lap together, I told them about my challenge, they told me about their running, it was fun and the lap whizzed by.  When we finished the loop, I grabbed some drink and fetched my speaker to jazz up the next lap, but Andy was stretching as he seemed to be having some pain so I said I'd catch up with them later.  The out-and-back sections meant I saw them several more times.
 The speaker kept me entertained on lap 6 and I passed a few runners who seemed to be enjoying the blasting of Abba, A-ha and the Eurythmics.  There were a lot of young people on the course who were on their way back from rugby, rowing etc who also got really into it, singing and dancing or mouthing the words as I went past them which raised a smile.  On Lap 7 I left the speaker behind as it's heavy! But I picked it up again for the final lap:
I had only got a little way when I spotted Iz sitting on a bench by the river.  I skidded to stop, gave her a hug and told her I had one loop left and that she could meet me at the finish line in 20 minutes.  I set off with a spring in my step, and she later showed me this picture she took of me from the other side of the river.  She said she could still clearly hear my music even when I was over there ... haha!
The last lap went pretty quickly and it wasn't long before I was at the finish line.  There was a lovely medal and a goody bag with actual goodies in it: Coke, chocolate, Mini cheddars, Haribo.  My kind of goody bag!  I saw Andy and Neil just setting off for another lap (I accidentally said 'only one more to go!' to them before they corrected me 'two' - whoops!  somehow I must've managed to lap them as we were on the same lap when we ran together).  Unfortunately neither of them are showing up in the results so I'm not quite sure how that story ended...
We also had a nice photo together - note how she is wearing my coat as she FORGOT TO BRING A COAT, it was 5 degrees in the morning, ahhhh teenagers!
And that was it.  The journey home was awful, less said about that the better, so let's end with one of the three lovely drawings Iz did during her day in Durham.  Isn't she talented?