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?

Sunday 22 September 2019

Rutland: The Rutland Marathon race recap

Rutland is the smallest county in England, a fact I didn't know until I began this challenge.  When I came up with the idea, the first thing I did was check that there were marathons in all the counties that might not have them: Rutland, the Isle of Wight, City of Bristol etc.  Last year it clashed with something so I put it on my 'definite' list for this year, just in case it was discontinued!  The week before the marathon, Rutland was in the news for being the only county in England not to have a McDonalds.

I went down the night before and stayed in a very weird B&B.  On arrival I realised I'd forgotten to pack a technical t-shirt - oh dear.  I had to laugh after last week's snarky comments about people wearing the race t-shirt before they'd run the race... my best option was to beg the organisers to give me the race t-shirt early so I could run in it.  Either that or run in my sports bra... hmm... no.

In any case, I got up the next morning, put on a hoody and a raincoat and made my way to the race.  The forecast was for rain showers but pretty much as soon as I arrived at the venue there was torrential rain.  I had my trusty Goretex but I was still feeling pretty soggy before I even got to registration.  The race was around Rutland Water, here's my first view of the lake:
I hid under a tree and checked the weather forecast.  Still says showers, but with a 97% chance of rain at the start of the race.  Hmm.   
I made my way over to registration and explained the t-shirt problem.  The girl doing the registration didn't know and fetched one of the organisers, who said I couldn't have the race t-shirt early because it was "a surprise".  I resisted the urge to mention that a) I'd rather be comfortable than surprised and b) I was going to be wearing a jacket and a vest over it anyway.  She said she'd see what she could do and went and rummaged through a box.  First she produced a non-technical t shirt and said, "I've got this," which I wasn't exactly thrilled with given the weather conditions but beggars can't be choosers, but then she said, "oh hang on... there's some of last year's technical t-shirts here... you can have one of these?  I've only got large though?"  I gratefully accepted and put it on.  It was vast, but I tucked it in and got on with sorting out my race number/drop bag/running vest etc.   This race also had a very cute idea of a "Runner's Needs" bag which you would get at mile 14 and 21 so I dropped that off too.  Then I got a cup of tea because I was cold, and hid under some trees waiting for the race to start:
By the time they called us down to do the (very brief) race briefing, the rain was starting to ease off.  It's never great starting a race when you're already wet and cold, but I was hopeful conditions would improve as the race went on.
The race began on grass as you left the registration area but quickly turned a corner and ran along a path interspersed with huge puddles alongside the lake.  The competitors were all bunched up here but it was already obvious it was going to be a very pretty race.
I had to stop three times in the first couple of kilometres - to do up my shoelaces, take off my jacket and have a wee.  I found myself running alongside a local man who only ran one marathon a year - this one - to support his local race.  His daughter was at Liverpool Uni and he'd been considering the Rock and Roll which I encouraged him to do.  We ran together for a mile or so before I lost him.  The scenery was very pretty:
One of the things I LOVE about running marathons is that there's always a new surprise to be had, something unexpected and brilliant.  It's happened so many times that you almost expect the unexpected.  I was running along minding my own business when I caught movement behind me out of the corner of my eye.    I glanced over my shoulder.  Was that man ... juggling?  REALLY?  I pulled my phone out to take a photo:
As he got nearer I said, "I've run a lot of marathons but I've never seen that before!"  He seemed slightly surprised by that, as if juggling whilst running was pretty bog standard.  He asked me how many marathons.  I told him 41.  He said he'd run 46.  I didn't find out until later that his name was Tim and he meant 46 marathons whilst juggling the entire time.  He'd done more than that but didn't count the non-juggling ones.  OBVIOUSLY.  

We then spent the next 20 miles talking about all the races we'd done, comparing notes of the best bits and the worst bits, ones to recommend and avoid, figuring out which races we'd both done.  We talked about juggling (he's been juggling for years and it's second nature), we talked about our running ambitions - he is going for 100 juggling marathons - there's a guy in Chicago (Perry) who is doing the same but he's slightly ahead at the moment.  I'm running Chicago next month so I will have my eyes peeled for another juggler. 
I soon caught on that other runners/spectators are amused/amazed by the sight of a running juggler.  You can see the people coming towards us in this picture smiling and giving a thumbs up.  Every other person makes a comment, many of which are similar, "are you going to do that all the way round?" as well as loads of generic, "that's awesome" type comments and Tim has a range of stock responses, "I'm just doing it so I don't show you up", "I thought I'd let someone else win today" etc.  It reminded me of when we had our giant dog Ludo and random people constantly said, "Is that a dog or a bear?", "You could put a saddle on her," etc etc.  

Sometimes when I'm running with someone (usually someone fairly new to running) who finds out about my counties challenge, they ask me a gadzillion questions and I get a bit embarrassed going on and on about myself.  It feels like bragging and it makes me uncomfortable, after all I'm just shuffling round various places on a Sunday, it's not like I'm some kind of superhuman athlete.  Anyway I've discovered the answer is to run beside a juggling runner.  Nobody takes a second glance at you, nobody asks you any questions, Tim was basically my human shield for 20 miles! 
He was also really friendly and the miles just disappear when you've got someone good to talk to.  He let me try his super-tasty snack bars (Lucho Dillitos) which I'd never heard of.  We talked about stupid fancy dress costumes we've worn whilst running, we talked about his fundraising (he is raising money for Wildcat Conservation - here's the link:
If you can spare a few quid, why not bung it in his direction?!
So yeah.  We did some running.  The race was sponsored by Gu so I kept picking up gels even though I don't really use them, thinking they might come in handy in future (I do sometimes have an expresso one in night races to help me stay awake).  The race did an out-and-back, then went past the start again and headed out towards the peninsula.  There were a few forest bits:
The longest road section was on the way out towards the peninsula.  Somewhere along here Tim dropped a ball, something he only did three times throughout the 20 miles I ran with him.  The whole race was amazingly well marked, with marshalls anywhere you might get confused, and excellent medical support all the way round.  There were regular, well-stocked aid stations and friendly volunteers.  Surrey could learn a lot from Rutland....
This was the view back across the lake once we got onto the peninsula.  There was a little uphill section which we walked up whilst eating (both of us had done enough ultras to value a hill in a non-hilly race!)
This bit was probably the prettiest section of the whole race.  The rain seemed to have given up and I was feeling pretty cheerful at this point.  Tim and I were talking about blogs, I was telling him about how mine are really long and waffley and epic tales, whereas his are 3 lines: "Got there, ran it, went home".  He is writing a book, and we discussed how he could use his imagination to spice up his race reports - zombie sheep, killer geese, things slithering out of the bushes.  It was highly entertaining.
Around this point we bumped into Helen when she overheard me ranting about the dreaded sign at New Forest marathon.  She joined us and we soon found out she's another one of our sort (she's run 6 marathons in 6 months) despite various health challenges - total respect to this lady, she's not had it easy but is so determined, and has two young children to fit in around her running (or maybe it's the other way round...)  I love people like her and we had some really great conversations, including about her work as a breastfeeding counsellor - she's got a car full of knitted boobs in all shapes, sizes and colours! 
It was on this bit that the sun finally came out.  I remember this bit because the three of us all agreed that this was the BEST way to spend a Sunday morning - out on the trails, running, chatting with people we'd only met today.  Despite the fact my entire weekend often has to revolve around my races, it's worth it for these bits.  It was one of those lovely 'runner's highs' where everything was alright with the world.
We finished the Peninsula and got back to the 21 mile feed station, where I got my hands on my previously-provided "Runners Needs" bag.  I guzzled my lovely Coke and Kendal mint cake, which gave me a massive sugar/caffeine boost.  This sign was right by the aid station and I was a bit like 'WTF?  WHY?'
I stayed with Helen for the rest of the race.  She said I helped her but it was definitely mutual!  Tim likes a sprint finish so we lost him somewhere in the last few miles.  Helen and I agreed we definitely had no intention of anything resembling a sprint finish so we chugged along chatting.  All was well until about a mile before the end, when the rain returned.  With a vengeance.  It's difficult to tell how bad it is from photos:
The lake just looks pretty in the above pic, but we were getting absolutely hammered, you can sort of see it here but you'll have to take my word for it that it was like getting in the shower fully clothed.
However luckily we weren't far from the end so we just gritted our teeth and got it done:
Lovely finish line pic!  Well done us.  Not the easiest race weather-wise, but lovely scenery and brilliant organisation.  The medal was good too - it has a cutout of the shape of Rutland Water which was a nice touch.  After crossing the finish line you walk round the corner into a tent where you're greeted by this joyous sight:
I ate about 4 slices of cake and got one of the volunteers to take this horrible photo:
Then I had a (free!) post-race massage.  I explained to the guy that I had to drive back to Liverpool (>3 hours) and couldn't be arsed with stretching or foam rolling, what did he suggest?  He did something which didn't really feel like much - just sort of pressing rather than massage - getting me to push against his arm with 10% effort.  I don't know what he did exactly but I had the best recovery from a marathon ever so whatever it was it totally worked - thank you so much dude! He also gave me twice as long as everyone else which was super-kind of him and much appreciated.