In summary – I did it and I didn’t die!
“Well done if you make it to the end of this post, its a rather unstructured brain dump of the weekend without much thought towards editing it into something readable!”
For a few weeks I’d been making the “not to die” pun when asked what I was aiming for, as I didn’t really want to put any targets out there, so I could deal with any potential failure in my own head rather than have to touch on it in conversation and dwell on it for longer than I might otherwise do.
I kind of regretted this over the last week, with thoughts of what if I actually DID die? People occasionally do whilst running. People would feel bad, and I’d have failed. But at least I wouldn’t have to talk about that failing…but I eventually came to the conclusion that I’d probably be alright. Most people are. And if I wasn’t, well so be it, no point worrying about stuff you can’t control.
And on that cheery intro, fast forward to last Friday, packing my bags for an early Saturday drive. Somehow a two day stay in Scotland involved more luggage than two weeks in Los Angeles or ten days in Venice that I’d managed this year on hand luggage only. I had everything. And checked three times.
What I didn’t have was “what I’ll be wearing and discarding at the top of a cold mountain at the start”. I’d intended wearing my “you didn’t get into the London marathon training top”, given that I’d entered Loch Ness the evening of not getting into London, it seemed appropriate somehow, but I tried it on on Friday, stuck my hand in the pocket and pulled out a tenner. It was an omen…I couldn’t discard this jacket now!!
Anyway, early to bed, and with little drama I was in the car at 8am on Saturday. Google suggested 6hrs30mins drive, and I needed to be there by 5pm at the latest to ensure I could go and pick my number up in time, so loads of time and a wonderfully leisurely drive passed by totally incident free via a couple of coffee stops. I’ve not been into the Highlands for maybe 12 years or so, but Scotland is a beautiful place and it utterly chills me out. I emerged at the other end feeling as fresh as a twenty minute drive into Town!
Number collected, quick look around the Event Village…beer tents, food stalls, a little fairground, lots of massage tables…it looked a cracking little set up, and then back to my apartment to kill some time eating jelly babies and having just one can of beer!
Sunday then, awake at 6am, I had to be out by 630am…thought I’d have loads of time but having seemingly rattled through everything, double checked my bag, eaten and packed loads more food, I hadn’t stopped for a minute and yet was JUST ready to go bang on 630am. Ideal…no time for thinking about stuff…this was continuing to go really well. I was feeling pretty cool about the whole thing!
Walked down to the Ice Centre where the (lots and lots of) buses were waiting. Frankly outstanding organisation across weekend, it felt like one of those once in a lifetime weekends when an entire village goes to Wembley for FA Vase final and buses are shipped in from miles around, except where did the buses come from, Inverness is far from anywhere, there simply isn’t a nearby place to get them in from! Whilst I marvelled on the buses, I realised I was rapidly at the front of the huge queue and shepherded onto one. It was all getting a bit real now.
I ended up sat next to a lovely Swedish lady also doing her first marathon who seemed to be really going through the mill..her opening chat was along the lines of, “do they physically force you onto the sweep bus if you miss the cut off, I want to finish no matter how long it takes”…”I’ve not really trained properly for this at all”…the journey made it worse, we drove down the north shore of Loch Ness, glancing nervously across the other side we’d be running back along, and it all seemed a VERY long way. I felt a bit sick too.
But, we seemed to bounce off each other and gradually had a sillier and sillier conversation that went via the Drum Takeaway (business is booming) to the prospect of a “Salty Fish Athon” and taking in her handwritten race pacing notes (she was expecting to run/walk in around 5 and a half hours) and by the time we reached easily the most spectacular race start that I have ever seen, I think our pre-race nerves had been eradicated. I laughed a lot on that bus journey, we probably annoyed a lot of people! I gave my good wishes to Anneli, and then like many others set off across the wilderness for a tree line. The queue for the porta-loos was a bit long.
It was very cold, I was glad of my late London Marathon 10 find, as I’d chosen a warmer jacket to throw off. Dumped my “stuff I need at the end” into the lorry in the appropriate numbered cage, and wandered down near the start. Well, about 800metres back from the start…that seemed the appropriate place.
I don’t really remember much about the next 40 minutes or so, I do vaguely remember chatting to a couple of cheery Doncaster Belles, assisting a far too smiley faced runner with her “earphone wire routing”, and providing another expert dose of “nerve removing”, when a scared young fella was asking if there were signs indicating pens for predicted finish times as he couldn’t see them and he didn’t want to get trampled…I mentioned they were on the other side of the track…and as he went to look, added, “Sunday is just ahead, Monday back at the speaker stack, and Tuesday up near the porta-loos”. Just doing my bit!
5 minutes to go, time was flying by…and then we were off…and what a sight. The start is open and downhill and from my vantage a few hundred metres back it was kind of immense, and I was part of it!
It was busy for the opening 5 minutes, just running the pace of the crowd ahead, one chap was running at the side of the road back towards the start…what on earth was he doing?!
After that opening 5 minutes, things settled down, still busy, but you could run at your own pace. A Stainland Lion ran alongside, greeting me with a welcome of “Hello Halifax” and shared a brief conversation before zooming off ahead.
This was all good. I’d studied the race profile so I knew this was the easy bit, and I knew I had to slow myself down or I’d suffer later. My rough plan (sorry, I’m metric) was to try and run the downhill stuff and the opening half around 5m30s per km, and then with an expectation I’d be slower in the second half because of more hills and because of it being the second half, hopefully manage to run around 6m30s/km on average, so I’d end up roughly around 6min/km overall which is about as quick as I imagined I’d be able to run the whole thing, if everything went well.
I didn’t really check my watch at all until nearly 30 minutes (of constant downhill, what bliss!) in, and when I did, I found I was pretty much bang on pace, and feeling really relaxed and comfortable. At this point, marathons were ace!
There was an early brief uphill, but the downhill bit ended around 15/16km in, having past the first group of cheering supporters (barring the odd farmer who had come out to see what the commotion was about) running past a welcome looking pub we kind of landed at the banks of Loch Ness. I’d covered 10 miles already, time was flying by and I knew the next 15km or so was pretty much flat…this was all feeling far far too easy as I continued to run along comfortably pretty much bang on target pace.
The flat bit wasn’t all plain sailing, for ten minutes it absolutely threw it down but thankfully that was soon over, just as I was starting to think it was going to make things unpleasant and the sublime views across the Loch drove me on. Of course, running at this pace for more than 2 hours was also starting to drain me a bit, I could feel a familiar pain burning up in my knees (nothing too drastic, but something which added to the growing trepidation in my mind that things would get difficult soon), but barring that, I was still in fine condition, just a bit tired.
The village of Dores I knew signalled the end of the flat, around 28km in, and this is when it hit me a bit, knowing there was “less than 10 miles” to go…I kind of felt I’d reached the point where no matter what happened, I was confident I would actually be able to finish even if it meant walking. Prior to this, I’d always had a nagging doubt in my mind that maybe I wouldn’t be able to run 26.2miles, its a long way!
With all the numbers and thoughts of “Yeah, I’ve actually got this” swimming round my head, hitting Dores was an incredible moment for me. It was the first part of the course (which is mostly on a road with absolutely nothing but the Loch and woods for company) that is well supported, with seemingly the whole village out to support, raucously. They shouted names, numbers, clubs, whatever they could see written on your vest or shirt, looking you in the eye as they did, trying to get a sense of what you were going through. Folk with clappers, policemen high fiving, little kids jumping up and down with excitement, I’m not quick, how long had they been keeping up this wall of noise, it was frankly outstanding.
I nearly cried! To be honest as I exited the village I had to focus quite a bit to keep my stuff together, I didn’t want to look like a stupid baby, its not as though this was the finish even!
And then we peeled away from the Loch and headed uphill.
I knew the hill stretched for 2 miles, and I knew it was the last challenge, and I knew once I’d peaked it, there would “only” be 10k to go, largely downhill. And, before the race, I’d already decided I was going to walk at least half of the hill…there was no point forcing my tiring body to run and end up wrecking that final 10k, this was a place I was more than happy to drop a few minutes off my pace.
This is where things didn’t really go to plan. The hill seemed much longer and steeper than it had looked on the profile, the walking stints were difficult as the doubts crept in, walking wasn’t as easy as I’d expected, mainly mental drain, and I was noticing an increasing handful of folk pulled up at the side of the road, stretching out or getting medic assistance. Ten minutes prior, I’d decided I’d definitely be finishing this race, now I wasn’t quite so sure.
I tried to get running a few times as the hill gradually levelled out, but I could feel my legs stiffening up now, and as I crested the hill I really felt unable to run at any kind of decent pace, my leg extension was severely restricted as they really started to tighten up (on the bright side, my knee pain had totally disappeared)…I didn’t really want to stop and try exercises to resolve it, as I had the thought I might never get going again, so I just got myself into a cycle of reminding myself to run, forcing myself to pick it up every time I was on the verge of dropping into a walk. It kind of worked, and with “just a parkrun to go” I was reasonably happy again. I was slow, but I was pretty sure (aided by the downhill route) again that I’d actually finish!
Turns out, this horrible slow running was pretty much bang on how slow I’d predicted I’d slow to…if I’d realised that at the time I might not have beaten myself up about it so much (I’d given up looking at the numbers on my watch, the distance didn’t really seem to be coming down quick enough!).
The finish then…we wound in to Inverness on the ‘wrong side’ of the river…another Stainland Lion catching me from behind, she recognised I was struggling and provided a few seconds of encouragement which really lifted me, before zooming off into the distance just like the other Lion I’d seen 25 miles previous!
One mile to go, past a few people sitting outside hotels, then over the bridge just a few hundred metres to go now, I settled into a safe plod and soaked in the crowd and then I’d done. I’d actually done it. I finally looked at my watch and was blown away by the time…exceeded all expectation.
But there was no finishing line elation that others have told me about. I didn’t feel emotionally charged or overwhelmed. Just exhausted…marathons are difficult! Maybe I’d had my “finishing line moment” miles back at Dores? I suppose that ‘lots of nothing and then a big crowd’ might have encouraged that, compared to the constant wall of support at a London or many other city marathons where the finish is the massive culmination of that support?
Then a young chap was putting a medal on me and shaking my hand, as I gingerly shuffled along, doing a mental check that all my parts were in order and nothing was broken or injured. I was fine…banana yes please….and then water…and a bag of something (soup, biscuit, pen, some leaflets), and then a tshirt…it was all really well organised given most of us were in some sort of a daze and not really in a state to be making decisions ourselves!
Then off to the bag collect, which took all of 10 seconds even though my label had been lost in transit (its handy when you can point to the badge on your chest as baggage ID, those Helen Windsor 10k pump bags are ace!), and I was once again taken aback by how downright bubbly and chirpy the volunteers were, they’d been here for hours and had hours to go, and standing in rain is much worse than running through it.
All that was left then was to follow the sign for “runners food”…which took me into a queue inside a marquee. I queued for 10 mins or so, and then started to feel very very wobbly and unwell. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be sick or pass out, but whatever it was I didn’t want to do it in a crowded marquee, so I aborted the queue, and went outside into the glorious rain and sun, and very quickly felt better again!
Having written off the food, I wasn’t really feeling up to visiting the various beer tents, and without really being totally aware of what I was doing, wandered off.
It had taken me 20 minutes to walk down in the morning, it took me more than 40 minutes to walk back! Negotiating kerbs was interesting, and I did wonder if I’d get caught out not being able to cross the road quickly enough at a few pedestrian crossings, all whilst staring at the numbers on my watch, which all looked brilliant to me!
So my targets then, beyond staying alive – were actually to run at roughly 5min30sec/km during the opening half, and try and keep things around 6m30s for the later predicted struggle, to average around 6mins/km overall if things go really really well. I guess they did!
And then I laid down for a couple of hours, on the floor, not really able to move – and sharing some crazy phone messaging pain with a buddy who had ran a different marathon that day (who had also really helped kill the time and take my mind off things the previous evening)!
Eventually I got up, showered, ate some jelly babies, and came round a bit. A few cans of celebratory beer later and all was right again. Sure, I had aches from the natural wear and tear, and I still feel a bit stiff a couple of days later, but there wasn’t any real pain, much like my training, I’d kind of got away with things, avoiding any kind of injury. And that was that.
The whole event was fantastically brilliant, I had maybe half an hour to 45 minutes of real doubt (although it seemed like much longer) where things started to go a bit dark, but otherwise it was just blooming awesome, really incredibly self-fulfilling, and without fail, every single person I had interaction with, competitor, volunteer, or the little old Spanish lady asking me to take her photo outside the Cathedral when I was in no fit state to understand English never mind her Spanglish was utterly utterly awesome.
So I entered it again next year!
* Shared an online conversation with Annali the Swede afterwards, she loved the whole experience, and beat her target – her pacing notes stayed in her pocket after I’d talked about my intention of switching off, going with the flow and not being that bothered about running too quick or too slow.
* I saw the far too smiley faced earphone lady near the end, she was smiling.
* The chap running the wrong way was an absolute legend who had ran the 26.2 miles FROM Inverness to the marathon start, and was then running back again. He finished ahead of me. And was awarded two medals.