Race report: The Zurich marathon

Zurich marathon

I’ve harboured a desire to improve my marathon time for the past few years, and I’m going to put that out there before starting this. As a runner I don’t like to pigeon hole myself and, while my preferred race is something you’d probably class as ultra-trail, road running inevitably features a lot in my life. I live in London and run everywhere to fit in the majority of my training so, to be honest, I consider it to be pretty invaluable.

On one hand, I like that ultra running isn’t all bragging about your road PBs and boring people with your race splits, as is maybe a stereotype of road running. It’s more about the experience, running wild, views over times, etc etc. But it’s also glaringly apparent to me that most of the UK’s (and world’s) top ultra runners are also pretty speedy on roads too. Your Sally Fawcetts, Sophie Grants, etc, have fast marathon PBs, plus I’ve watched friends I admire edge closer to the magical sub-3 mark (Sorrell, Kate). And, you know, Spartathlon.

So that’s how I found myself at the start line of the Zurich marathon, wondering if this would be the race to beat my longstanding PB. The last six months of training had gone well. After the Autumn 100 last October, I’d had a few weeks off then pretty much commenced Grand Union Canal Race training while I still had the miles in my legs. I sketched out a 6 month training plan, peaking at 95 mile weeks, which initially looked daunting. But consistency paid off and my legs felt good throughout – I kept my weekly mileage increases small, with a few cutback weeks. Call me a traditionalist, but I’ve always been a firm believer in big mileage, and wondered if this would also pay dividends for a marathon PB. With regular trips to track for speed work, mixed with a couple of long marathon-paced runs (plus a lot of fannying around on the North Downs Way and Lake District, which I classed as  cross training), come Zurich my legs felt in great shape.

As well as good physical conditions, mentally, having my family around me was always going to be a big positive too. Zurich would be my Dad’s Z race in his alphabet challenge, plus my brother Edd and husband Jon would also be running. Edd probably won’t thank me for saying this, but he possibly signed up in the very early stages of my Dad’s challenge three-or-so years ago without necessarily giving much though to actually running 26.2 miles. But, being the good big sister I am, I wrote him a training plan for Christmas. We were in this together.

I had the splits for an evenly-paced 3:15 finish committed to memory: 7:20-25 min/mile average pace, 45 minute 10k, 1:36 half. Even so though, I couldn’t resist lining up in front of the 3:15 pacers. I’ve run enough marathons to know my tendency is to go out a bit too hard (then struggle after 20 miles), so when, after 5 miles, my watch showed an average pace of 6:55 min/miles, I was a bit worried, but figured it was all bankable. I reached the halfway point in dead-on 1:33 feeling  comfortable – the sun was shining and physically and mentally, everything felt great.

There’s a lot of ritual and superstition involved with my marathon racing strategy, from pre-race breakfast to fuelling during the race. I don’t think I’ve ever exceeded three gels; despite wondering if a fourth would be beneficial, my stomach always tries to dissuades me. I had a SiS electrolyte gel after 50 minutes (because, heat, sweat), a caffeine one at half way (because, caffeine), then an orange one (my favourite flavour which I know wont make me want to hurl when I’m tired and potentially grumpy) at around 30k. There were regular water stops at every 3k – just enough to grab a bottle at each one, but not too many that you were constantly dodging swerving runners and bottles.

The route took in a couple of loops around the city, then headed along the side of Lake Zurich and back on itself. There’s just something about out and back courses that I love. I got to cheer on the elites ahead of me, then see my Dad, Edd and Jon on the way back. I waited and waited for the inevitable fade to come, but it didn’t. I found myself overtaking runners ahead of me, and wasn’t sure if it was them slowing down or me speeding up (I’ve since been reliably informed by Strava that it was the former).

The last five or so kilometres were back through the city along streets lined with people cheering. From experience, those final few miles can seem torturously slow, so I pledged to myself not to look for distance markers, just to smile and run strong. I couldn’t resist glancing at my watch though, which was hovering around the three hour mark, as though time had slowed down.

The home stretch came as a surprise, hidden around a corner. As the finish arch came into view, I could just make out 3:05-something on the clock, and I had what can only be described as an ’emotional moment’, where the bittersweetness of the heartbreak of a failed PB attempt three years ago,  combined with knowing I’d put my life into  running for the past year, all came together. 3:06:14 on the clock.

One of the first things I did after crossing the line was buy some roaming data for the day to upload my run to Strava. Best £3 I ever spent. My Dad crossed the line soon afterwards in 3:57, my brother five minutes later, and Jon, who’s been nursing an Achilles injury, not long afterwards. My mum also deserves a medal for supporting my Dad on so many of his races.

If you want to read more about my Dad’s phenomenal achievement of running 26 marathons through the letters of the alphabet, his blog’s here: notjustanotherrunningblog.wordpress.com/

Zurich marathon
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What happened at Trans Gran Canaria

It’s about eight in the morning and I’ve just arrived at checkpoint four in Fontanales. I’ve been running since 11:00pm the previous day, have missed a night’s sleep and have covered a marathon distance in the nine hours since the start. I grab a ham and cheese sandwich and sit by the side of the road for half an hour, contemplating the future of my race.

I am on target to complete the race in 25 to 30 hours; what I’d estimated it’d take. But fatigue has started to set in, my right hip hurts and I’m having minor stomach issues. A small ziplock bag of painkillers in one hand, I ask a marshal what the process is for withdrawing. Then Lucja comes around the corner and into the checkpoint. I tell her I’m not sure I should continue and we agree to take the next stage easy together. I remind myself that, in the final few hours of darkness, I’d promised myself to stick things out until daylight, at least.

I think back to the first 20 kilometres of the race, which had been positive. The first ten kilometres, hiking in procession with hundreds of flickering head torches stretching into the night like a string of fairy lights up the mountain. After over 1,000m of climbing, we reach the first checkpoint, then descend steeply down the mountain on the other side. The trail is rocky and crooked, and I am grateful that the darkness hides the steep, exposed drops below. By 4:00am, the novelty of running at night starts to wane. Checkpoint two and another steep ascent; the lack of sleep starts to kick in and my eyes hurt from focussing on my footing in the dark.

Daylight comes and I’m running through a pine forest with a soft carpet of needles underfoot. I eat regularly: cold pizza, kinder chocolate, bananas. Just hours before I’d turned off my head torch and pulled up by the side of the trail with the onset of an upset stomach, so resolve to eat small amounts as often as I can.

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As Lucja and I make our way out of Fontanales into the Cararian countryside, the path turns from soft trails to hard, rutted concrete. We are some of the very few runners without hiking poles, but this doesn’t really concern us, as neither of us have used them before, so don’t know what we’re missing out on.

My stomach and hip check in with me at regular intervals. My feet feel good and the sun is shrouded in cloud, making the temperature much more bearable than it could be. We are moving slowly, but considering the steep gradient of the hills we’re climbing, this is to be expected. I try to mask my tiredness with strong, sugary coffee from the aid stations and return to my mantra at increasingly regular intervals towards the latter stage of my race. It’s an adventure. I’m out in the wild, doing something I love. But another voice in my head reasons that an adventure is not a 30 hour death march, nor is it something that should jeopardise your chances of being able to run for the rest of the year.

We make a steep, rocky descent into checkpoint eight at Tejeda, alongside someone else who is wondering if they should continue on. Lucja is strong and I tell her to go ahead. I am devastated not to be able to run the last 60+ kilometres, but another twelve hours of pain is not my idea of an adventure either.

I think every runner that drops out of a race questions their decision to do so, and wonders if they could and should have dug a bit deeper. In fact, I doubt most of us would make it to the start line of extreme events like Trans Gran Canaria if we weren’t the sort of people always striving to walk the line between our every day lives and one where our emotional and physical selves are pushed to the limit. In the next few hours after dropping I am very sick and I realise I’ve come a bit to close to the barrier that normally stops me from getting injured, from being logical, for seeing things for what they really are. My time spent in the medical tent in Garañón, next to someone who has clearly become very disillusioned about his limitations and what his body is capable of, makes me even more aware of this. He hasn’t eaten for 12 hours, is vomiting and is sure he wants to continue, but somehow the medical staff convince him otherwise.

I spent a lot of time during the painful few hours before my DNF, and during my time in the medical tent afterwards, contemplating the future of my running, and questioning whether I could complete the 100 mile race planned in August. But after a good night’s sleep, I resolve to channel the lessons learned from Trans Gran Canaria into facing my next challenge head on. It might take a while for my body to heal, but when it does I’ll be stronger and better prepared for it.

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Race report: The Atacama Crossing

Atacama tent mates

It has taken a while to settle back into the real world after the Atacama Crossing and it’s been even harder to find the words to describe the race.  A year of meticulous planning, several months of training, a week bumming around San Pedro in the name of acclimatisation, and then it’s all over in a flash. I guess it’s not surprising that the post-race blues have probably been the toughest part to deal with.

The sense of detachment in the lead up to the race was there for a reason: so I didn’t have a total meltdown even before getting to the start. The day before, competitors gathered in the race hotel for check-in and pre-race briefings. I shared a room with Tash; we’d met before in San Pedro and really hit it off. We spent the night sharing ultra-running tales and obsessively cutting weight from our packs, shedding excess food and other non-essential items. We both agreed we couldn’t survive for a week in the desert without eyeliner, so added this post-kit check. My bag had weighed in as one of the lightest, 5.75g before water, and I figured an extra ten grammes was worth it.

In the afternoon we were bused to camp 1, Rio Grande, at an altitude of 3,200m. The air instantly felt cooler and much thinner than in San Pedro: would the extra time spent at altitude pay off? Camping conditions were rudimentary and cramped, with ten in a tent. The first of the six sleep-deprived nights felt the coldest and most uncomfortable; even with  a warm sleeping bag and mat, every stone dug in and the temperature dipped to nearly freezing. But I don’t think we were expecting anything five star.

On paper, day one didn’t look too daunting. It was the shortest stage, 22.5 miles, with 700 metres of descent overall. We set off at 8am, the pace seeming frantic. Rolling hills and a few gorges to navigate, the first 10k completely floored me and I felt exhausted and nauseous. There was soft sand and a never-ending plateau pebbled with rocks. I’d trained to run, not walk, and did what I could, but the path was so technical and it was a huge mental effort to scan the ground both ahead and directly under your feet in order to keep up the pace and avoid twisting an ankle. Power-hiking for five kilometres of gradual ascent before the final four kilometres into camp. I tried to stay positive, but in the back of my mind were huge doubts about the week ahead. I questioned my preparation and training: it hadn’t seemed hard enough. I’d thrived off the buzz of casually telling people I was travelling to Chile alone to run a self-supported, 250k race across the desert. I’d enjoyed training and the ultra-distance training runs with a weighted pack.

Day two was the most beautiful and it was impossible not to fall in love with the scenery, despite the course being brutally hard. My race tactics, to cover as much ground as possible before it was too hot, weren’t much use: the first 10k took in multiple river crossings, with water up to waist height. Several kilometres of ascent, some ridge running with spectacular views across San Pedro, then a descent down a massive sand dune. It was an adventure, not a race, and this mantra carried me through the day, albeit not very fast, but I was happy just to finish the 27.9 mile stage. I reasoned that I hadn’t paid a small fortune to suffer and not enjoy the scenery. I wanted to compete, but I didn’t want to spend six days suffering.

Cat River crossing

Stage three was 25 miles and was rumoured to be the hardest. After a five kilometre march across dusty, uneven ground, we came to a flat, straight road and it was a relief to finally have some runable ground. Emily, Ruthann and I, the top three placed women, came out together and we had a brief ‘girl power’ moment. At no point did it feel like we were competing – we all got on so well and I teamed up with both on several tough stages. For the next 20 kilometres, I kept with the lead pack, as I figured this would motivate me to run more as the temperature rose, rather than run-walking. It paid off and I caught Emily, the lead female, as we came to the final checkpoint.With ten tough kilometres to go on difficult terrain, we agreed to stick together and help each other out. We power-hiked across the sand and rocks and scrambled up a massive dune, not saying much but knowing we were stronger as a team than alone. This final stage took an eternity and finished with a sadistically steep climb into camp. We hugged and I felt very emotional about the enormity of what we’d just achieved: joint 1st place and 13th overall. We were about halfway through the race and had just conquered one of the toughest stages. I felt exhausted, but deep down, ready for anything else that was thrown at us.

Stage four. Legs were working on autopilot, I’d lost my appetite and with The Long March looming on day five, people were nervously conserving their energy for the stage that would be double the previous days. But first, there were 27.5 miles over ‘The Infamous Salt Flats’, with a section described as ‘extremely difficult’ in the course handbook. Crunchy, sharp, not the sort of terrain you want to misplace a foot on. On reaching them, we were met by a wall of heat: the white salt flats reflected and amplified the midday sun (which reportedly reached 42C). While approaching the ominous crusty terrain, two Austrian competitors approached at speed from behind, and I made a snap decision to join them. I ran the entire length with them, not looking up, only focussing on the feet in front of me, and before we knew it, the next checkpoint was in sight, then camp five.

The Long March had been looming for five days now. We’d come so far, yet there was still nearly 50 miles left to run in one stage. I wanted to finish in daylight, but had learned over the previous stages that nothing was a given. I teamed up with Ruthann and James, both experienced ultra-runners, and we agreed to stick together. We set off strong with the lead pack, but were split up after about 10 kilometres when Ruthann was struck down by nausea. James and I pushed on; I felt bad for leaving her, but there was still a long way to go. I’d been running without a watch since mine died early on the first day and it wasn’t until over half way that I discovered what good progress we were making. There was another climb up a massive sand dune, but we got our heads down and made light work of it; we were just focussed on reaching the few remaining checkpoints. Our goal of finishing before sunset seemed within reach. James and I maintained a consistent run-walk strategy and we picked up Emily at the last checkpoint for the final nine kilometres into camp, through the Valley of the Moon. We shuffled past the first tourists we’d seen all week and down into the final camp, finishing hand-in-hand, in ten hours 55 minutes, joint sixth overall, Emily and I joint first females.

And then there were tears and more tears.  Elation, exhaustion and the realisation that the race was nearly over. After spending the week in a state of limbo, wishing away the pain on one hand, but wanting to savour the experience at the same time, this was when the achievement really hit home.  The following day would be a rest day, where competitors compared blisters and fantasised about the food we’d eat when we reached civilisation, followed by a short ‘fun’ run, around 10k, into San Pedro on the final day for the awards ceremony in the evening.

So many superhuman feats were witnessed over the course of the week: blind athlete Vladmi and his guide Erin, volunteers who gave up their time to support the race, competitors sacrificing their own race to help out others. As you might expect, life back in the real world looks and feels a bit different after experiencing an event like the Atacama Crossing. And while I’m sad it’s over, I’ve come away with friends, memories and strength that’ll last a lifetime. And one eye on the next adventure, of course.

Atacama top 3 women

Emily (1st), me (2nd), Ruthann (3rd)

Photos: Racing the Planet, Vladmi Virgilio

Race report: The London Marathon

I ran the London Marathon last week. My legs weren’t really very happy about that. It was only a week after the South Downs Way 50 miler and they were in unimaginable pain for a couple of days after the race. I couldn’t physically lift them into my standard ‘legs up against the wall’ recovery position. When walking they occasionally buckled underneath me, which made for an interesting few days in Paris when I joined Jon after he ran the marathon, the day following the SDW50.

By Thursday, they were starting to feel better. On Friday, I went along to the tenth anniversary of Nike Free, did a five kilometre jog led by Paula Radcliffe (which I’ll report on separately, as I quizzed her about ultras and had an interesting response), and thought, ‘this marathon thing will be fine’. After heading to the expo in the evening, picking up my stuff and eating all the Clif bar samples, I started to feel very excited about running London again, but this time without heaping lots of pressure on myself and trying to run ridiculously fast.

The goal was to run a sub-four hour marathon. Somewhere between 3:30 and 4:00 seemed realistic, considering I’ve run marathons (and more) under tough conditions in the past. Like three 30-ish mile races over three days at The Toad Challenge and a 3:33 marathon two weeks after running 44 miles at The Country to Capital ultra in January. Just saying to put things into context – while running on tired, damaged legs isn’t something I’d advise, the plan was to take London easy, soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the experience.

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After meeting Laura and Cathy at the green zone and a very understated race start, we shuffled along through the masses for the first three miles, before getting split up. I spied Jon and my Dad at mile eight, ducking across the path of runners to stop and say hi (note to self and others doing London in future – ask your supporters what side of the road they’ll be on).

Everything held up pretty well for the first 12 miles, but after that point it all got a bit painful – a loo stop after seeing Liz and her megaphone at 12 miles (the two events weren’t in any way connected) and a painful stitch after that for the rest of the race. The crowds were great, and I tried to smile and thank those that shouted encouragement when I switched from running to walking in parts. But, to be honest, I missed the peaceful tranquility of running out on the South Downs with just myself and the occasional other runner for company. London was a bit claustrophobic in comparison.

There were many, many moments when sub-four hung in the balance, but I genuinely think the prospect of getting to the twenty five mile mark on the Embankment, where my brother was waiting with a beer for me, spurred me on after the 3:45 pacer overtook. Beer makes a lot of things more fun and I’ve known that for a long time, but only recently discovered that it makes the prospect of running a marathon in a lot of pain more bearable.

Photo via my brother, Edward

So there you have it. Another marathon (which I finished in 3:54), another lesson learnt and passed on. A massive well done to all my pals that ran (Laura, Cathy, Kathleen, Melissa, Soph, Lorna x2, Sarah, and many, many more). See you again next year (although I might be cheering this time instead)!

Race report: The South Downs Way 50 miler

It’s taken a while for the events of the weekend to sink in and it was hard to know where to start with this. Although I like to think I can do most things I can put my mind to, running fifty miles on Saturday was no small feat. I was pretty shit-scared the week leading up to the event and genuinely wondering if I’d bitten off more than I could chew this time around. Training had been a mixed bag, which I’m going to bullet point to save waffling:

Good: running my first long single day ultra in January (Country to Capital) and finishing in a pretty decent time.
Not so good: the fact that my legs were in agony for the last ten miles of this race and mentally losing the plot towards the end.

Good: running a strong race at the Seville Marathon in February and pushing the pace more than I though I could.
Not so good: this was my longest training run during my SDW50 block, and as a flat road marathon, it didn’t exactly replicate the hilly conditions of the South Downs Way.

Good: having a decent taper period and going into the event feeling well rested.
Not so good: a few training wobbles, aborted long runs and heavy legs on off-road, hilly runs. Not getting to recce the course. A head full of self-doubt the week prior to the race.

A lot can happen over 50 miles and a race goal was hard to set. Based on my C2C time (6:56 for 44 miles) and the SDW50 female course record (8:23), I aimed to finish in as near to nine hours as possible, but nine hours thirty would be fine. I wanted to run (well, shuffle) as many of the hills as possible; the course was such that walking all of them would add on too much time. Not a lot of hills had featured in training, but I’d been doing regular threshold sessions in the hope that the mantra, ‘hill training is speedwork in disguise’ was true in reverse.

After the mandatory kit check and pre-race brief, we were off at 9am. The first six miles before the course joined the South Downs Way were hilly, and by about 13 miles, my legs were already starting to feel a bit knackered after powering down a few hills in an attempt to maximise the effect of gravity and make up for time lost going up.

The first two aid stations were a blur and I pushed through; stopping at checkpoints isn’t something I like to do, as it’s easy to lose time and rhythm. But, on arriving at the third at 26.6 miles, five minutes ahead of schedule, I had the urge to stop, refuel and chat to my Dad, who was informally crewing for me. Knowing he was 100% behind me made me feel immensely grateful, strong and positive.

From that point on, I stopped for a couple of minutes at each aid station, and I’m pretty sure it did my race the world of good. They helped me to refuel both physically and mentally and I didn’t experience any wobbles or feelings of self-doubt. There were long, flat stretches across the tops of the Downs, with clouds rolling over the hills, where reining in the miles with the Sussex countryside set out below was one of the most liberating things I’ve ever experienced. Why had I been so nervous about doing something I loved so much?

When I came through the next checkpoint at 35.5 miles, the though of running another 15 didn’t phase me one bit. My Garmin read about 6:30, and finishing in eight hours and 30 minutes seemed a possibility. Ten miles later and we hit the final descent into Eastbourne, down a slippery, narrow track, and on to tarmac for the final few miles. My watch read 8:20 and I pushed on, sub-eight minute miles feeling comfortable. I was completely focussed on getting to the finish line, following the orange arrows on the pavement and not letting up on the pace.

I arrived at the athletics track for the race finish just my Garmin died a death on the final lap. Crossing the finish line in eight hours and 33 minutes, as the fifth female finisher, nearly half an hour quicker than my goal time, I felt broken but elated.

On hearing how other ultra friends got on, I was truly blown away. There were some fast times run out on the Downs on Saturday, and to have trodden in the footsteps of some extremely talented runners made me feel very excited indeed. I really feel like this scene is a great place to be right now and I feel very privileged to be able to call myself an ultra-runner too.

 

Race report: The Seville Marathon

When you’ve run all your quick marathon times paced by fast boys, it’s nice to finally be able to say that you’ve held your own. It’s reassuring to know that, when things get tough, you’ve been able to find the strength to dig deep and push the pace more than you thought you were capable of.

The plan for Seville was to use it as a training run for the South Downs Way 50 miler in April. Jon and I flew out the day before; he’s run the event three times so we didn’t bother to check details like where the expo was. On autopilot we trekked out to the Cartuja sports stadium west of the city where it had been previously, only to find it had moved to an exhibition centre ten kilometres away in the north east of Seville. Great start.

After navigating the local bus system across the city, we arrived just in time for the pasta party which was extremely generous and practically worth the €30 entry fee alone. The goody bag was also substantial and included a vest (that actually fitted) and a (very short) pair of shorts; both New Balance and good quality. We forced down a second dinner a couple of hours later and went to bed feeling bloated, but that’s all part of the pre-race experience, right?

Race morning came and we walked to the start, cutting things a bit fine, but the less time hanging around the better; February mornings in Seville are chilly affairs. We squeezed into our start pen with not a moment to spare, surrounded by runners in an array of bright kit. European runners, particularly Italian and Spanish, seem to have a penchant for techy running gear, and for the first few miles I was swept along in a sea of compression socks.

The goal was to run roughly a 3:30 marathon, with the first half paced slightly faster to allow for an emergency loo stop. At the eight kilometre mark we ran under a flying camera snapping away just above runners’ heads. Jon and I laughed at the novelty of having a drone race photo, then a couple of minutes later he upped the pace and sped off into the distance.

For the next 13k I maintained a steady but comfortable pace, passing the half way point in 1:41, feeling strong and grateful my stomach was behaving. With this extra time in the bank and a faster finish time a possibility, my head said ease off and be sensible, considering the long-term goal at stake. But with the opportunity to practice mentally digging deep and holding on to a faster pace, I ran the final half with absolute conviction. All that mattered was getting to the stadium where the race finished in under three hours and 25 minutes.

I made a promise to myself not to have a single negative thought and ran with tunnel vision, through streets crowded with cheering supporters, past the Plaza de España, into the stadium, speeding up around the track to just dip in under my goal time, finishing in 3:24:54. I can honestly say I ran 100% with my heart and it was my proudest marathon achievement to date, running a predominantly solo race at a 7.44 minute mile pace over 26.2 (26.5, according to my Garmin) miles and maintaining a metronomic pace for both halves (consistent pacing isn’t my forte).

Post-race celebrations were a bit of a write-off: Jon and I were both exhausted (he finished in 3:17) and after a few beers and plates of tapas sat out in the afternoon sun on Alameda de Hercules, we were ready for bed by 8pm. But it was worth it, to go into my longest race yet with belief in my heart I can run strong and the mantra, ‘remember, Seville’ guiding the way.

 

Race report: The Marrakech marathon

Entering a marathon two weeks after a 43 mile ultra probably wasn’t my best idea ever. Despite having spent the last couple of weeks resting pretty hard, by mile eight of the Marrakech marathon my legs were already starting to feel a bit sore.

But mentally, I was flying. You see, Morocco has always held a special place in my heart and this was no less than my fifth visit to Marrakech (two of these were to run the half marathon). There’s just something about it that keeps drawing me back.

To be honest, the race is pretty shoddily organised. The expo is awful, there’s no bag drop or portaloos at the race start, or energy drinks on the course (just water, oranges and dates). For the €70 entry fee (€50 for the half), that’s pretty piss-poor. But if you can forgive these shortcomings then Marrakech really does make the perfect race-cation and minibreak. After all where else, for a three hour Easyjet flight, can you run through orange groves, palmeries and see camels against a backdrop of the Atlas mountains and terrocotta walls? Magical.

The race started early at 8am to avoid the heat of the sun. I’d read Sophie’s blog about the Dubai marathon while getting ready and, with mosques on every street corner in Marrakech, #mosquewatch seemed like a fun game to play. But the route took us out of the city and into the surrounding countryside, where mosques weren’t quite so ubiquitous, so Jon and I reverted to playing #camelwatch instead. I counted 131 in total and even stopped for a quick camel selfie at mile 18. I’m not normally a fan of selfies, but it was too good an opportunity to miss.

There were a few moments where I was convinced the race gods had been sent to test me; the first involving the dreaded runner’s tummy. Despite having hung around in the riad until the last possible moment to make the most of having a toilet (there were none at the race start or on the course), four miles into the race my stomach felt a bit churny and I knew there was no way I could last another three-plus hours without stopping. Fortunately, we were passing through some orange groves at the time so I was able to duck behind a tree. Not great, but I felt much better for it.

The race continued on long, flat stretches of road which felt great, psychologically, and I was really able to get into my running groove. But around the ten mile mark I started running alongside a guy with his Garmin on that setting where it does a little tune if you’re running above or below your target pace. It was excrutiatingly annoying, and to make matters worse he was wearing headphones so couldn’t even hear the damn thing. I tried to imagine what Sakyong Miphan, the zen master and author of Running With the Mind of Meditation would do. He’d probably manage to feel kindness rather than rage towards the dude. But I failed miserably and ended up angrily gesturing to him as I sped up to overtake. I’d make a really shit Buddhist.

The temperature had picked up by this point and had probably reached the mid 20s. There were a lot of (relative) downhill stretches in the second half and I overtook lots of people, getting my usual second wind around the 16 to 22 mile mark. I was fuelling on a hotch-potch of shot bloks left over from C2C, fruit-based jellies from the Venice marathon and a salted caramel Gu (tasty, but I find Gu gels way too thick). I was aiming for a sub 3:30 time and thought this was in the bag until the last few miles. But if I’d known I wasn’t going to run this sooner on in the race I’d probably have taken my foot off the gas much sooner, and as I crossed the line in 3:33 (AKA a half Satan), I was pretty damn chuffed all the same.

There was a serious lack of water at the end of the race, but plenty of satsumas, which tasted heavenly. Hobbling back to our riad, we grabbed a load of 3 Dirrham (about 25p) chocolate milks. In the afternoon we managed to find a roof terrace bar for well earned beers (in a country where it’s easier to buy hash than booze, that’s quite an achievement).

Marrakech is definitely a race I can recommend, with a few caveats, like bring your own fuel supplies. A visor or cap and/or sunglasses come in handy, as the sun is pretty strong. And don’t be too proud about having to crap behind bushes.

Race Report: Country to Capital ultra

Entering an ultra race a couple of weeks after over-indulging during the festive period is a great idea, right? I’m sure there were others questioning their decision to sign up for a 43-ish mile race as we gathered in a pub car park in Wendover, ready to tackle what was expected to be a very muddy course.

And it was. I spent most of the journey to the start trying to make an informed decision about footwear. The 7:12am country to capital express from Marylebone station was packed out with runners and smelt of deep heat, and after several changes between road and trail shoes, I opted for what I thought would be comfiest – road shoes. Plus, with so much mud anticipated, trail shoes would probably still be slippy and not best suited for the second half of the race along a canal path.

I had some vague race goals, mainly don’t face-plant in the mud or fall in the canal, but also:

A goal – run roughly 9 minute miles and finish in about 6 hours 30 minutes (after a 35 mile training run in 8:40 min/miles this didn’t seem wildly optimistic)

B goal – finish before it gets dark in around 7 hours 30 minutes

C goal – finish in time to have a quick shower in Paddington station, next door to the race finish, before heading over to a comedy night in Camden at 7:30pm – 8-plus hours

The race can be split quite nicely into two parts. The first half was hilly, across fields and trails through the Buckinghamshire countryside. There was a lot of sliding around in the mud, running through waterlogged fields and a couple of flooded roads. This served the purpose of washing the mud off my trainers, ready for the second half of the race along the Grand Union canal into London. Very nice.

Photo credit: Dad

I didn’t get lost on the first half of the race, which wasn’t due to any skills on my part, but by just happening to follow people that knew where they were going. I’m pretty sure I could have navigated if I wanted to though. Honest. The hills made it hard to maintain a steady pace and some really muddy stretches meant putting in double the effort. But overall, walking up them probably helped save my legs for the second half, which was  along a flat, straight canal path. It was impossible to get lost on this, although slidey in parts and I nearly fell in a couple of times.  When I tired towards the end, I wondered if that wouldn’t be such a bad thing, as I’d have a valid excuse to DNF, which seems a little extreme now.

It was easier to get into a rhythm and zone out for this part of the race. At the 35 mile point, when the runner ahead of me took a phone call (as you do while you’re running an ultra) and told the person on the other end that he’d be another hour and a half, a part of me died inside: I was feeling tired and was in denial about how far was left.

But fortunately, it didn’t take that much longer. There were a couple of killer bridges just before the end, which I walked over. My Garmin decided its laps database was full and wouldn’t show me the time for the last few miles. So it wasn’t until I crossed the finish line, when someone handed me a piece of paper with my time and position on it, that I realised I’d finished in 6 hours 56 minutes, in seventh female position (that was after getting a bear hug from my sports masseuse extraordinaire Simon Lamb and nearly breaking down in tears out of relief that I’d made it).

And what a long, fun, slightly painful journey it was. It was great to finally meet internet buds like Paul, not to mention other familiar faces on the ultra circuit. With the longest stretch of the Atacama Crossing being a similar distance, it was also good to get a feel for this. And while it felt pretty effing painful, if it was easy then the beer waiting at the end wouldn’t have tasted quite so good.

Race report: The Valencia marathon

Travelling abroad to races is a lot of fun, but after a while you come to know what to expect from certain countries. Hopefully this won’t read like a xenophobes guide to marathons, but northern European races (such as those in Germany and Scandinavia) tend to be organised with military precision, but with a high price tag and less frills (so no free race Ts, pasta parties or quirky goody bags). Southern European races, including those in Spain and Italy, are generally less well organised but compensate for this in part with cheaper race entry and generous race goodies.

But sadly Valencia was a bit of a let down. On arriving at the expo early on Saturday afternoon, Jon and I queued for about 20 minutes to collect our race numbers. We then had to pick up the rest of our race packs (which was essentially just a technical race tshirt) from a different area of the expo, and after queuing for another 20 minutes we discovered that only extra large t-shirts were left,which for the €60 entry fee was a bit disappointing.

So we stropped over to check out the paella party, but on discovering a queue of people buying €5 tickets to this, we stropped off to town to find something else for lunch. Fifteen minutes into the journey we discovered that we’d had vouchers for the paella party all along with our race packs, so we cheered up a bit and made our way back to the expo to wait in yet another queue for paella. In fairness this was pretty good and there was beer thrown in too. But all that queuing? Funny, because that’s what Brits are famed for…

On race morning, I’d heard rumours of free churros and chocolate for runners, but sadly didn’t find these. It was a cold start with a lot of weaving around slower runners, who had presumably been slightly ambitious about their finish time and started in earlier pens. After an emergency toilet stop at the ten kilometre mark Jon and I were back on the road, aiming for sub 3:30 times on one hand but trying to run a fairly relaxed race and enjoy the sights on the other.

But sadly the route wasn’t as scenic as the last few European races I’ve entered (such as Budapest and Venice) and my legs decided they didn’t particularly want to run 42.2 kilometres, so it was one of those ‘try to stay focussed and hang on in there’ days. I found that chanting ‘strong body, strong mind’ helped me to stay in a positive place, but my stomach felt sloshy, my quads ached and my brain kept reminding me about the time I’d spent drinking cider, jagerbombs and gin two nights previously. Jon was in an annoyingly good mood, which in my grumpy state I found highly irritating. At the 38k mark he bounded off, when the 3:30 pacemakers started breathing down our neck, and without any distractions I somehow managed to dig deep enough to pick up the pace for the last few kilometres, by just enough to squeeze in in 3:29:38.

The finish line

The race finished at the futuristic Ciudad de les Artes and Ciencias complex, on a specially constructed platform over water, which was pretty special. We collected our medals, a bag of satsumas and a selection of pastries, then headed into town for beers and tapas.  The event was, on the whole, an enjoyable experience, despite some of the organisational short comings. It was completely flat, there was plentiful water, energy drinks and gels, and bananas and dried apricots at regular interval around the course. The support around the route was great and the medal is one of my favourites. But all things considered, I can’t help but think that there are better Spanish races out there.

Guest race report: The Athens Marathon

Last Sunday, my Dad (that’s Keith to you folks) ran his first marathon in Athens and for such a momentus occasion for him I asked him to write a guest race report, so here it is (I must confess the last paragraph made me shed a little tear):

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I’ve spent the last few years entering races with my daughter and son-in-law, but doing the shorter version of the event (ie the half marathon), while they ran the longer one. On most occasions I still picked up the same medal and t-shirt but this made me feel like a fraud, having run a lot less miles to achieve mine than they had to for theirs. So Athens was my chance to match their achievements, in distance if not speed.

Of course marathons are not meant to be easy. It is not just simply two half marathons back to back. It isn’t a given that just because you can comfortably run a half you can turn up and know you can complete 26.2 miles. Even seasoned runners who have completed many marathons know it’s a distance to be treated with respect.

I had reservations about entering Athens as my first race, given its reputation for being a tough one. Add to this the fact that a stress fracture (which I’d stupidly run two half marathons on) had meant nine weeks of enforced rest prior to the race, the prospect of running 26.2 miles was doubly daunting.

The coach journey from the centre of Athens to the start line in Marathon, along the route we would be running, confirmed what I had suspected –  42.2k is A LONG WAY. Two hours before the race start the sun rose into a clear blue sky and it was certain that the expected temperature of 22°C would be the minimum we were likely to encounter.

Other runners taking part were a very friendly bunch and the fifty-ish minutes I had to wait around in my start pen before taking my first steps into the unknown flew by. Would I finish? Not a given after the previous nine weeks. Would the whole experience be such that it would be my first and my last marathon?

I need not have worried and I feel the injury actually helped me. I ran at a conservative pace from the word go and actually enjoyed the running, even at the infamous 20 mile point, where I had read that the effort really can suddenly start to become too much. I suppose I never really believed I wasn’t going to make it.

Even though a lot of the run was along uninhabited stretches of main road, whenever supporters were present the noise they made was amazing. The final few kilometres through the streets of Athens into the Olympic stadium were lined with clapping, cheering locals shouting out your bib name. What an amazing place to finish my first marathon, hopefully the first of many.

Although Pheidippides would certainly have been faster than me 2503 years earlier, his marathon would have been a trail rather than a road run and without water/electrolytes/gels and sponges every few kilometres. But at least I have survived to tell the tale, and only 5,219 of the 12,000 registered entrants were in front of me!

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So thank you to everyone who encouraged me and wished me well before the start. Cat – your belief was unwavering and reinforced to me that I could do it. And although maybe you would have liked to have been at the finishing line, I am pleased that I crossed it, even if it was with just my own thoughts. I do hope and intend that we can run one together; maybe not at your normal pace, but at one that doesn’t slow you down too much.

Keith/Dad normally blogs over at http://notjustanotherrunningblog.wordpress.com/