Author Archive: 2coldfingers

It ends here, but maybe 26 were just the beginning of bigger and better things.

It all started 1246 days ago in a small town 2338 km away from this one. Very appropriately it was at Marathon in Greece. The conditions were almost identical, the sun was in a clear blue sky, very little breeze and ahead of me waited 42.195 km of ‘running’. The 2 courses were very different; the middle 20km of the first through arid, nondescript wpid-IMAG0145.jpgunoccupied regions, had a continuous positive gradient whereas Zurich was almost dead flat and much run beside Lake Zurich which helped to temper the heat. I studied the Athens course carefully and even saw a video of it at the expo, so knew what to expect but I had no idea about Zurich, I didn’t know it looped back through the start after 10k. I carried, and consumed, 5 or 6 gels and water bottles with electrolytes in Athens but just a few jelly babies and S-Caps in Zurich. (There were water stations situated 3.5k apart.)
One person ran both races ‘with me’, my son in law Jon. In a perverse coincidence, because of an injury I had hardly run for 9 weeks before Athens and Jon had hardly run for a similar time because of injury before Zurich. In between Athens and Zurich I had run 24 other marathons but Jon had run 113. In Athens coaches took the runners from the centre of the city, along the route we would be running a couple of hours later, to Marathon; in Zurich a shuttle bus took us a couple of km from where the expo had been held to the start line.
But this time I had plenty of other support. Daughter Cat, ultra superstar dropping down to marathon distance, son Ed running his first marathon on (almost) zero training, friend Dan and his daughter Beth also running their first marathons but they had trained. When Dan and I were celebrating my Athens run, with my project known, he said he would come to Zurich to run number 26; at that stage neither of us were either confidentVic I would complete the project or if so when it would be; it certainly came around much quicker than we had suspected.  Also Victoria who I met and ran with in Utrecht 12 months earlier, and again in Warsaw 6 months ago was there to run it. Support from my wife Marion and Ed’s GF Holly made up the party.
There is always a huge amount of nervous excitement before the start of any marathon, and that was exacerbated here because none of us could find the meeting point we had agreed on and it was eventually on our ways to the pens or actually in them that we managed to connect and wish each other “Good Luck”; the first bollard1timers didn’t know what to expect, Jon didn’t know if the injury would flare up and make him struggle to finish, Cat had a time she was secretly targeting and Victoria knows the last 5k hits everyone . I was probably the most relaxed of the lot, unless something totally unpredictably catastrophic occurred during the run I would finish and inside the time of the first in Athens, another side target I had set after that race. Actually Ed and I saw what could have been such an occurrence. A guy only a metre or so ahead, just to my right lost concentration for a second and ranJon directly into a bollard and the exact height to cause most discomfort. He did seem to carry on OK, but I do wonder if ‘bollard man’ as I will always remember him was fully intact and functioning in the days and weeks that followed.
Cat started at the front, Victoria, Ed and I with the 4 hour pacers, Dan and Beth just behind us and Jon went to the back. After a few k I said to Ed that the pacers were going too fast and that was confirmed when we went through the half way mark in 1:57 but we were with them. But at the end I was grateful for lack of precision.
Ed and I saw Cat when we were looping back to the start at about 8.5k and she was 2k ahead of us, comfortably in front of the 3:15 pacers. Marion and IMG-20170409-WA0009Holly were cheering us on the out and back section by the lake at 20k then again at 30k where I downed the coffee that was waiting.  We saw Cat looking so strong when we had done 22k, she was 6k ahead of us and nearer the 3 hour pacer than the 3:15. I moved away from Ed at about 24k when he was a bit slower at the water station, although this had happened before he had always made an effort to catch up with me, but not this time. I didn’t see him again until we had both finished. I was around 27k when I saw Jon moving towards the 25k turn around, running much better than he had expected. Dan and Beth were about 3k behind him at that stage.
I had stayed with the 4 hour pacer until well after 30k, but even then they were not moving away from me too quickly. I usually look at my watch with about 5k today, when I can image a slow parkrun finish; it was clear to me that sub 4 was possible, and as I turned the corner into the finishing straight (Strava shows it at 46.6k) with 200m to go, one of the 4h pacers was waiting there encouragingly telling runners they were still inside that time.

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Ed trying

Cat was cheering just before the finishing line, as pleased as I was that even without the chip timing I was clearly under 4 hours for the first time since Kharkiv. As I made my way round to join Cat we both missed Ed finishing in a stunning 4:02:42 “without training”. Jon came in just under 4:30 one of his slowest ever but with the acute tendonitis  inactivity he was very happy and relieved.Dan and Beth were just over 4:50, Dan1both as delighted with their first marathon time as I was with mine in Athens, and actuallybep not very different. Victoria finished a minute in front of Ed, not quite getting her first sub 4 but she was so thrilled with the (I think) PB. And as for Cat, she had been targeting a sub 3:10 and as she approached the finishing line her bottom lip quivered (it actually did, it has been caught on the photo) as the clock confirmed a 12 minute PB, well inside the target. Besides the 3:06:13 getting her a championship place in London next year, it was a second faster than Jon’s PB…

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An emotional Cat

It took us much too long to get our first post race beer, some of the bars near the finish would make a fortune if their service was better, or even existed at all.  But we made up for that in the evening. The most amusing part of the weekend came next day, watching Ed trying to move down the stairs to the train platform for our trip to the airport, and the look when I mischievously said we had to go up and over to a different one.

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Success

I know quite a few of you have followed me throughout this challenge; you may have even read the blog posts on every race. For your perseverance I genuinely thank you. In answer to what I have been asked many times, no, I do not have any idea what my next challenge will be, I cannot do the same in reverse because only China has the X marathon and also with all of the easy nearby countries covered it would take much too long to complete. All of the UK counties, US states, European countries etc have been done so…if you have any possible suggestions do let me know.

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The Simpsons

My charity page will be open until the end of May. Just think about it…nothing is more fundamental than mastering speech, language and communication to an individual’s development. Problems in any these areas will seriously affect everything that we try to do, and anything I might have achieved in my 26 marathon alphabetic challenge is nothing compared to the success Afasic has with youngsters who struggle in these areas. Anything that you can afford to donate via my fundraising page will help them to continue their invaluable work. http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/KeithSimpson26

Next up The Devil’s Challenge on April 29/30 May 1 and Skopje Marathon the next weekend

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The end

 

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Rangoon, thank you for changing your name!

I never seriously looked around for a different Y marathon. As soon as I was definitely running Xiamen, which was as soon as I was sure the project was on, Yangon had to be. Already being out in the Far East was a bonus, and it allowed an extended holiday. The real fear, however was the actual date. Looking at past races Xiamen and Yangon seemed to be on the 1st and 2nd weekends in January. With the 1st of January being a Sunday, and Xiamen seemingly being a Monday race, could they actually be on the same weekend with Yangon on the day before Xiamen?
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The dates were only published in late September and they were in the right order but challenging with just 6 days between marathons and in what would be testing conditions.
The 5am start was facilitated by having my gluten free porridge delivered to our hotel room at 3.45am and a taxi to the National Indoor Stadium. There isn’t much of a running culture in Myanmar so unsurprisingly the entry for a race, although advertised as international, was small, 600 I was told; but as always is the case many more in the HM which started half an hour later, the 10k at 6.45am and the 3k fun run/walk which was still finishing as I did.
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The roads were not closed, just a single lane was coned off for us. Caution was required during the first few km as there was little illumination and the surface was frequently very uneven. The other-than-fragrant smells, so familiar in all tropical cities, were evident as soon as we passed close to populated areas, and a local crossing in front of us with at least a dozen plucked chickens over his shoulder was certainly a unique marathon sight.
It didn’t get totally light until almost half way and I happily plodded along quite regularly passing locals, many of them seeming younger than usually evident in marathons, who had dashed off too fast. At 24k spiderman came past me with ease; it’s always a bit of a surprise when I know my pace isn’t varying but in a small field someone seems to be much faster after well over 2 hours of running.
The 5am start really did prove beneficial as the conditions never really became as uncomfortable as I feared they might, remembering The Reggae Marathon in Jamaica. There was quite a bit of shade, except for along the most scenic section, Inya Lake where the reflection suddenly upped the temperature (and there were steps up and down to the path). It was here that we also ran past the house of Aung San Suu Kyi.
The most unpleasant running occurred during the last few km, where our coned off section was the middle of a 6 lane duel carriage way with heavy traffic going both ways.
At about 36k I spotted spiderman a couple of 100m ahead and I was clearly gaining without increasing my pace. Although in my marathons I usually only really race against myself (the end of The Midnight Sun in Tromso was an exception) a much younger superhero was a challenge I couldn’t resist. When I did pass him, I think the shame of the possibly of being OAPed spurred him on and he immediately sped up. I decided there was plenty of time and distance before the finish line so settled in a few metres behind him until we had past the 41k sign and he commented something like “Here you come again” as I passed him and it was on. We really did race and my splits on Strava confirmed by far the fastest segment of the 42.2k (actually 42.5k). Everytime he draw level I pushed a bit harder; the last few 100m involved negotiating the 3k fun walkers who were still finishing and others who had finished and were leaving, walking towards us, busy on their phones so not looking were they were going, and cars crawling along. My wife will confirm that my skills at squeezing past people on pavements are exceptional so either this or spiderman had decided he didn’t want to join me in a sprint to the line but when we turned for the final 50m to the finish I was clear.
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Marion came down from the stadium concourse were she was viewing the finish, I collected a finishers top (always good to get one of these as well as the runners top supplied at the bib collection) and a souvenir towel. I was amazed to be only 12 minutes slower than 6 days earlier in Xiamen and equally surprised to finish 40th out of 181 finishers, clearly there had been a large drop out rate.
There wasn’t too much to hang around for, the on-stage entertainment was a well known local boy band that were causing an adrenaline rush in the teenage girls that finishing the race had done for me. An added incentive to get back to the hotel was for a 2nd breakfast, another real bonus of a 5am start, followed by beer and relaxing by the pool for the rest of the day, where it really did sink in that I had completed 25/26ths of what started as a bit of a silly idea but could end up as an achievement that will be difficult for anyone to beat.
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X-ing another one off the list and it had to be you

The first question I usually get asked when people know I am running alphabetic marathons is “Where will Z be?” not realising that Z is the easy one to find. As soon as I started looking into possible alphabetic marathons, X was the one around which all others had to be planned, indeed I worked backwards from it. Xiamen in China was the ONLY one, so the first weekend in January was set in stone and no matter what happened W had to have been done and I had to in a fit enough state to be able to run. The hernia op had to be scheduled to give enough recovery time, and when this was arranged I went ahead with the registration. Any hiccup during 2016 would have resulted in a delay until 2018. By allowing the four weeks the surgeon had said was needed between the operation and returning to any sort of running I then had six weeks to prepare myself for Xiamen.
Unfortunately I had missed the early, very cheap entry date so rather than a couple of tens of dollars it was a few hundred dollars, making it more expensive than any of the US marathons and probably the most expensive city marathon in the world! But this conferred special status on me, I was with the elites in starting zone A, and there were Ethiopians!

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Wall of names

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Non-local names

During the time spent in Xiamen before the race, at the expo and before the 8am start non-Asian faces were almost non-existent. Theentrant wall at the expo, with 30,000 names, contained just a few 100 in our roman alphabet and all except less than 10 of these were English written Chinese names

This lead to many requests for photos to be taken with me before and after the race and even selfies as we were running during the race.

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A celebrity before the start

The support was very vocal especially as soon as I acknowledged anyone with thumbs up, it lead to some of the most enjoyable running time I had had during the 24 marathons.
It was a hot run, I used all water stations which were every 2.5k sometimes just to soak a sponge. It was an out and back course around the southern portion of the city with sea views in many places. One of the outstanding sights were the running statues which

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Running statues

stretched out over a couple of km right next to the road we were running along. They were facing in the direction we were running on the way back, and I sure some of them overtook me as I ran that section!

Some features of the race were unique. Spectators handing out sustenance to runners,  jelly babies and bananas are usual; but to see cigarettes offered was a surprise to say the least! As it was a Gold Label race, my first, exceptional organisation was expected but the precision of the signage still surprised. Not ‘water station ahead’ or ‘water station in 100m’ signs but ’99m to water’ or other exact distances.
I’m not sure if the runners wearing tops stating ‘Marathon Police’ were actually present to make sure we were all running correctly, no heel striking or wearing the race top before completing the 42.2k, or were they just a running club (without clubs).
The start was rather frantic, as many of the runners in zone B, designated for 3-4 hours, clearly had faster aspirations, and being very aware of the proximity of my next marathon I had decided before the start to run within myself. This did mean that over the first few km I was regularly being overtaken but as soon as I was in my proper place in the field that stopped. Marion was at the 18k point which was easy to get to as there is an excellent modern bus system in Xiamen which runs on an elevated road built exclusively for it. The plan to provide me with sweet coffee didn’t work as expected as the bespoke flask bought at the expo worked too well and the first sip provided a tongue burning experience; and probably had the same effect as the caffeine would have done.

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Guide at the end

The 6k loop at the end which showed faster runners heading off to the finish was a bit of an unwelcome feature, but marathons aren’t meant to be just fun are they! Over the final km a local, who was running in clothing more reminiscent of what I wear for colder runs at home, decided to accompany me to make sure I didn’t get lost which would have been impossible. Marion was waiting at the final bend and shouted so I knew she was there, I’m not very good at spotting people when the finish line is in view. With such a big race, clearing the finish took quite some time; we exited through the very large hall used for the expo. The medal is probably the most classy I have and a very unusual but great extra item was a beach towel that brilliantly advertised the race, and a plastic banana keeper.

 

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Classy medal

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Beach towel and banana keeper

Wondering about Warsaw

I had spent most of the first nine months of 2016 wondering about Warsaw. In January, after returning from a long and muddy training run along the North Downs Way I noticed a bulge in a place there shouldn’t have been one. A bit of gentle pressure and observation, followed by Dr Google suggested an Inguinal Hernia. With the next 5 alphabetic marathons and my first serious ultra (NDW50 miles) already at different stages of organisation I had two immediate choices.
1 See my doctor, get the self diagnosis confirmed, and be told either that it wasn’t bad enough to need an operation in the coming 12 months so keep on running OR immediate op needed so all planned runs for the year cancelled.
2 Tell no-one, carry on running and perform all actions that could exacerbate the problem with extreme care.
Being a bit of a ‘glass half full’ male, option 2 won.
So before, during and after every run and at times when I might notice the bulge I always wondered, ‘Will I get to Warsaw and be OK to start?’ Well I did
I had met Victoria Tetlow when we both ran Utrecht in March and she said she had already entered Warsaw. Quite randomly we bumped into each other on Friday evening as we walked around the old town, and even with over 6000 runners in the event we met again as we jostled with everyone at the start. We ended up running a majority of the race no more than a few metres apart, but she actually was stronger than me at the end and finished 20s ahead.14484906_10154586566062650_7926712036234374677_n
It is unusual for spectators to be anything other than supportive, especially over the final hundred metres or so of a marathon. However here one spectator, who I think had moved out into the wide road to congratulate someone she knew then decided to return to the side without looking at all, and I ran straight into her…yes I did swear quite loudly and as she was still standing I didn’t wait to ask if she was OK, I was more concerned that I successfully finished!
Without doubt my management of the hernia over the year had been successful, but it also meant that I wasn’t ever going to make good use of a flat fast course. Just completing number 23 was all I wanted, and by being half an hour inside my Athens time, my other aim, to run the other 25 faster than my first, was still being achieved.
Within a couple of minutes of finishing, when my wife joined me I disclosed my secret, knowing that a visit to the doctor as soon as we returned home was essential…14449948_10154586558182650_3920831125660756586_n

#feelthethunder

There are a surprising number of V marathons to chose from, and three years ago I picked Vilnius. As my overall timetable began to take shape, particularly last year, I changed my mind. The sensible option would have been Vienna as it would still have left time for me do fit in one I really wanted to do, The White Nights in St Petersburg. But it would have been a too close to the NDW50 and I also really wanted to complete the continents by running an African marathon; luckily Victoria Falls fitted perfectly (but not The White Nights which was the week before) and it gave me plenty of time to run W without having to do one in my home country.
The 11 hour flight to Johanasburg followed by a shorter one back up into Zimbabwe had the advantage of only a one hour time difference so no jet lag. But the flight was overnight and I do not sleep well, or even at all, on planes and I had 2 nights to catch up before the 6.45 am race start.
Registration, it wasn’t an expo, did throw up the most unusual race  rule I have come across.

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Well we didn’t see any, but the large deposits on the trail at various places were evidence of the elephants; but there were armed around the course, just in case! We did see baboons a few times, and some of the runners were not alert enough to their habits and lost bottles that they were carrying in their hands.

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Baboons on the bridge

Of the two problems I had been suffering with over the previsions weeks, the hip was the one I was most concerned about. Self/Google diagnosed as bursitis it was giving a very sharp pain when first getting out of bed, and different degrees of discomfort during the day; I hadn’t run at all since it surfaced. An ankle problem appeared a week or so earlier, a dull ache inside the heel that occasionally became a very sharp pain during running. The hip was as bad as it had been when I got up for the race, but magically disappear when I sat down for the essential pre-race ablution; and it did not appear at all during the race. But the heel pain was noticeable on the walk down to the 6.45 start, just a short distance from my hotel, and it ended up being the factor that determined my conservative pace right from the starting horn.
The beginning was comical, the inflatable arch collapsed just as the race was starting and we ended up clambering over it wondering if our chips were being registered! The start time might seem bizarre, why not 6.30 or 7.00, but it was clearly chosen to give a view of the spectacular sunrise over the Falls as we ran over the bridge that joins Zimbabwe and Zambia over the Zambezi; I have never seen so many people stop in a marathon to take photos.

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After our detour  over the bridge it was into The Zambezi Nature Sanctuary for most of the two laps. Although the surface we ran over was vehicle accessible, it wasn’t really made for family saloons, uneven, dusty and not made up in the most part. I was the first race that I have done where, apart for the brief time we were in the vicinity of the Victoria Falls township I had no idea where I was with regard to the start/finish. Apart from other runners the only signs of human habitation was the odd lodge. There were aid stations every 4k and every one had Coke as well as water. There was also a half marathon, which started 30 minutes later, which covered most of the first lap.
The course was mostly flat, the few undulations towards the middle section of each lap (but nothing that could be called a hill) which shouldn’t have been of any concern. Even when the sun was up it wasn’t too hot as there was plenty of shade over most of the course. As usual I started off running on my own, occasionally chatting to other runners. Around the half way point I teamed up with Geoff Thomas who had nipped over the boarder from Zambia for the race. It was Geoff’s first marathon for many years and he hadn’t trained much over half marathon distance so endwe worked to keep each other going particularly over the last 10k; Geoff kept me inside my Athens time while I helped him to not walk at all over the last 5k as he suggested he would not be able to start running again if he did.
We entered the last stretch together, for one of those annoyingly long trips around a field after you have passed close to the finish line; Geoff was meet by his family and his three young children ran over the line with him.
The race bib was different to most others in that it had a box for age to be filled in. This lead to me being spoken to quite a number of times by and I was actually interviewed by a US YouTube sports channel who were very interested in my alphabetic quest; haven’t seen if it has appeared yet.
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#feelthethunder is used by the organisers, and when you are standing next to the Falls you can understand the reason for it; even though my hotel was more than 2k from the Falls, at night when there was no other noise, a constant low level rumble is very clear.
This marathon is not one of those were the organisers are frightened to make sure the race is recognised after the event, the race top really advertises it well.dsc_1925

I am so glad I decided to include this in the 26, I don’t expect to do another where a majority of the course will be through a setting where you can loose yourself and reflect on being lucky to be able to run over the ground not too far from where Mitochondrial Eve would have walked.

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Another Impossible Weekend – The NDW50

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Most runners, even those that have run a few marathons, are unlikely to have heard of Centurion Events. My first encounter was when I crewed for my daughter Cat at the SDW50 in 2014; at that stage I had run my first 3 marathons where I naturally found the last 10k difficult and confidently stated, “never” (which my close friend Dan always reminds me about). The same year I watched all of NDW100 runners pass through the Caterham aid station, just 2 miles from my home, and in 2015 I crewed for my daughter as she successfully ran the same race which further enhanced my resolve never to run a Centurion Event. Less than a week after that I was annoyed to only be able to get on to the waitlist for the 2016 NDW50. Nici quickly assured me that I was very near the top of the list so my chances of getting in were very good.

I did realise that I had chosen the most demanding of the 50s, but living so close to the NDW I had started to become familiar with the section from Box Hill and decided that I would prefer to tackle a route where I knew exactly what to expect, and of course there would be the option to drop at Caterham and walk home!

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Looking apprehensive at registration, photo by Susie Chan

Wind forward 8 months and just under 12 hours before the start I was in Farnham with Susie Chan and Shaun Marsden, having cheekily invited myself to spend the night at there place. Although Susie had decided not to race she drove Shaun and me the mile or so to St Polycarp’s where I immediately felt like an impostor to even be in the same room as so many amazing runners, never mind having the nerve to run with them. Although I am comfortable running 4 hour marathons, I have only run greater than that distance a couple of times; The Winter Tanners 30 miles being the furthest, 16 months ago. My three marathons in 5 weeks in February/March disrupted the training I had been doing in the Winter over the Downs, and when I resumed for 3 consecutive up-to-marathon-distance runs over the first half of the course my legs were telling me they needed some recovery time, so I listened to them and did very little running during the 3 weeks prior to this race.

Unsurprising, my number one aim was just to finish inside the 13 hour cut-off. To this end I was tempted to run with Ian Lang, who I had never met but we connected on Facebook because of our other common passion, Leicester City. Ian seems to be an expert on pacing his Centurion Events so that he stays just ahead of the cut-off at each aid station, and finishes with minutes to spare. This had tempted me, but as I was unsure how the last 5 miles would go I wanted to have more than 15 minutes to spare, so I decided to just run at a pace that felt comfortable.

My concern in the week before the run was trail or road shoes (my 67 year old knees thank me for the extra cushioning provided by road shoes). I ran the first half of the course 3 weeks ago in road shoes after there had been weeks of dry weather and the non-road sections were as hard as any road so I then decided that is what I would use. However, the heavy rain during the week before put doubts into my mind. Knowing the 2nd half of the course well I understood how slippery the mud and chalk could be, and that the fields could easily be very sticky. The dilemma really got to me and I had a terrible night’s sleep on Thursday, but on Friday morning immediately decided to go with the road shoes and give the trail ones to my crew and change at the top of Box Hill if the conditions before there made me think they would be necessary. They weren’t and I comfortably ran the whole course in my Asics.

Nutrition/hydration also concerned me. I really suffered during a couple of my long runs when it was difficult to carry enough fluids. On one I had planned, and desperately needed, a large cup of coffee at the Reigate aid station site, but the café had closed just minutes before I arrived. There was no way I would have completed the run to Caterham if a friendly couple hadn’t given me most of one of their very large cups. I regularly swapped empty water bottles for full ones with my crew; my son and daughter, Ed and Cat, who were doing it the hard way on bikes. Whilst Ed had a serious ‘dentist’s bike’, so would disappear off at the crew stations rather than just waiting for me for some extra mileage, Cat was on a single speed bike and I really do think she had to work harder to get up the hills than I did.

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Them Simpson support crew, selfied by Cat.

Being gluten intolerant (not just a lifestyle choice), I couldn’t accept the gift from the famed bacon barge and solid food wasn’t just a matter of grabbing a sandwich or wrap at each aid station. I made up five gluten free fruit-bread and strawberry jam sandwiches, cut each into quarters and stacked vertically, wrapped each slice separately so they fitted into the front packet of my pack. I ate one quarter each 4k and picked up a new slice at each crew stop. It seemed to work fine, but I never want to see another one of those sandwiches for a long time. I downed coke at each aid station and although I was carrying a plastic bag with crushed crisps did eat more at the aid stations. The requested cup of coffee was waiting for me at Reigate; I don’t usually drink coffee but am convinced there is nothing works better for me, and I even had sugar added, which I NEVER have in hot drinks.

Even with my limited experience of ultras I was well aware that hills are meant to be walked, however I wasn’t sure what comprised a hill and whether, at the beginning the rule was strictly adhered to. I knew there was a nasty incline on the road near the start and some uphill trail sections before Puttenham. I needed not have worried though; the sight of everyone walking as both of these sections came into view brought a smile to my face. (I suspect the leaders would have breezed up them and without walking.)

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Early on photo by Cat

I am in awe of people who seem to have a photographic memory of a race, being able to remember every twist and turn and minor detail. Actually because of the spectacular nature of the course I probably remembered more of this race than most others I have run. I dislike the section from Newland’s Corner to Ranmore Common; it seems to go on forever and there is almost no variation in scenery. Also, during training runs I had convinced myself it actually had a slightly uphill gradient; of course it hasn’t and although I still dislike the section I found it easy to run. I had calculated my estimated times at the aid and crew stations, but something had gone radically wrong between 7 and 21 miles and I was way inside my estimates so my crew hadn’t arrived at Shalford or Newland’s, but they did make an unexpected  and very welcomed visit to St Martha’s. After that I was within a couple of minutes at every place, except the end; it wasn’t down to targeted pacing, as I said earlier I was just running what felt comfortable.

The stepping stones before Box Hill terrified me. Every other time I have been here they have been flooded so I had to take the bridge. I decided I wanted a photo and stupidly had my phone in my hand as I crossed. I’m sure we have all been in the situation of being aware that if we dropped the phone it was gone forever; this caused me to make sure I had both feet firmly on a stone before moving onto the next one, no skipping. Sorry to the runner behind in the red top, I must have held you up.

None of the hills came as a surprise, but immediately I took my first few steps up at Box Hill the inside top of my right thigh cramped. It was here I met Steve Navesey who straightway gave me an s-cap. This, and keeping my leg straight for a minute or so, quickly overcame the problem but it did reoccur a few more times whenever I needed to lift the leg higher than it had been doing.

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Reaching the top of Box Hill

As I walked up Botley Hill (which actually is the highest point on the North Downs) I was greeted by Myles, a runner from my local parkrun, who had actually been following me on the live results, calculated when he expected me to be there and came along to lend his support. Seeing him was totally unexpected, and having him to chat to as I plodded up to the aid station was a great distraction. Thank you, Myles, I was genuinely touched to see you there.

I knew that the section immediately following was incredibly gnarly, and with tired legs extreme care was needed, yet a few 100m along the track I tripped. In that second or so between realising I was going to fall and hitting the ground the possible consequences flashed before my eyes, previous falls here had curtailed my running for a few weeks and it was easy to imagine an injury that would mean a DNF. Fortunately my head took enough of the impact to mean my arms and legs were ok, and of course the steps that soon followed caused the thigh cramps again.

With about 4 miles to go I was joined by the extremely experienced Tracey Watson, who had completed the TP100 just two weeks earlier and was in for the double grand slam. She turned out to be just the person I needed over the final section. Most of it is eminently runnable yet it would have been too easy to just accept that I was going to finish and walk a lot. She bullied and cursed me, demanding that I “get a jiggle on”. We passed through a herd of cows together; they seem to have positioned themselves to be as imposing as possible, although they had the whole field to choose from they occupied about 1% of it, directly on the trail. We walked through them, refusing to make eye contact and leaving a good space between us and the one or two that had turned towards us. We walked through them, refusing to make eye contact and leaving a good space between us and the one or two that had turned towards us.

The adrenaline must have kicked in as we entered the last field and I was certain I would get inside my 12 hour ‘impossible’ time, even before we spotted the finishing line in the distance, and we continued to run away from it; the legs were on automatic and were not complaining in the slightest. That changed with a vengeance after I had sat down in the village hall, and again the idea of 100 became NEVER. Thank you for keeping me going to the end, Tracy.

It was great to see my whole family waiting at the finish, and of course the one that has knowledge of running this actual route was the most pleased.

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Celebration photo by Stuart March

The impossible weekend continued the next day when I could drive over 100 miles north so that on Monday the impossibilities of the previous few weekends could be celebrated in Leicester when I was again on my feet for over 11 hours to witness the team I had watched for almost 60 years make an impossible dream come true for more than a quarter of a million people.

Celebration

A different celebration, photo by Andrew

Thanks to all volunteers, I may not have said much as I passed through your aid station, but your encouragement and enthusiasm did keep me going. Centurion Event are awesome, and I do expect to be back running with you in the near future

A stress fracture is a lucky break for the Utrecht Marathon

DSC_1559How many places can you think of that start with the letter U and have a marathon; you’re right there aren’t many. Whenever people hear for the first time of my project they always ask where the Z marathon will be, never where U is going to be. The reason I had to cram in 3 marathons in 29 days was so I could run The Utrecht Science Park Marathon. These three European marathons contrast greatly with my first three last year, where I ran on 3 continents at venues where either I didn’t really want to go, or was told by the government to not to travel to, or by friends that I shouldn’t visit!

The race started unusually late at 12.15pm, there were 5k and 10k races before and the half DSC_1567marathon started at the same time. The location at the Science Park was more than 5k from the centre of Utrecht and the same distance from my accommodation. Although I walked to the ‘expo’ (really just a place to collect bibs and T shirts) the day before I wasn’t keen to repeat that on race day. A free bus was provided from the centre (although when I asked at the expo they didn’t know about it) so I hopped onto a local one to the centre. I then arrived much too early, and the heavy cloud cover plus cold northerly meant that it was sensible to hang around inside until the last minute before walking 1k to the start.
Like quite a few others I wasn’t too impressed with so many runners being in the same starting pen and the lack of visibility of the pacers. It wasn’t until I had been running for quite some time that I caught up with the 4:30 then 4:15 and finally 4:00 pacers (the latter after 7/8k); no balloons just the time written on the back of the 2 runners leading each target time.
When I was running with the 4 hour pacers, a group of a 20 or so including half marathoners, I tucked myself behind them so as to get a shield from the wind when it was in our face. The problem with this was one of the group was clearly using his own form of wind power, farting regularly and producing an atmosphere that he dragged along with him for too far! I don’t know if this affected my eyesight, or I was just concentrating to stop myself clipping any heels but after 10k I didn’t see any distance markers until we had finished the first lap and the half marathon runners peeled off. I am convinced there weren’t any, but they miraculously appeared on the second time round. The psychological effect was surprising, even though I was obviously running slower from 30k to 40k the time seemed to go by more quickly than from 10k to 20k.

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Being overtaken by Victoria Tetlow at 40k

I was more than pleased to finish in 4:09:46, if you had offered me a total under 12:20 for three marathons in 29 days I’d have laughed at the likelihood. Right from the start of this run my legs clearly were not happy with the thought of the 42.2k ahead, thighs particularly felt tight.

dl_rt20x30-512-UMAE8276-C1XYA real bonus, and something I haven’t encountered in any of the previous marathons, were free downloads of  the official photos from Marathon-Photos; OK they are not high-res but at least I have some I can included (my daughter Cat took a break from her ultras and ran The North London Half Marathon on the same day, but the same company did not offer free downloads for that race).

Before I had actually hit upon the idea of alphabetic marathons in different countries my first ever marathon was booked, coincidentally starting with A and it happened to be in The Netherlands. However a stress fracture less than 2 months before the race meant I couldn’t run it but I had by this time decided on the project, booked up my B race and started to plan others. If I had run in Amsterdam I couldn’t have run in Utrecht and I thought I could run The Ulaanbaatar Marathon; but it is now being called The Mongolian International Marathon. I also contacted some running organisations in towns/cities whose name started with U to ask if they would organise a marathon, none would. So the stress fracture I suffered in the summer of 2013 was, with hindsight, a very luck break.

I now have more than three months before number 22, and the plan is to visit a 6th continent. But I do hope to run, probably with a lot of walking, the NDW50 before then.

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The medal is small but not monochrome!

The Treviso Marathon neither starts, finishes nor goes into Treviso!

Just over a week after returning from Seville we were back at Gatwick for our flight to Marco Polo, Venice.

Treviso MarathonI had, of course, booked an apartment in Treviso, where else for the Treviso Marathon? It was the 13th running of the event and in previous years it had started in, or north of, Conegliano (itself 25k north of Treviso) and finished in Treviso. They changed the course this year. It started and finished in Conegliano (the expo was also there) and didn’t come within 30k of Treviso! Thankfully the name stays the same so fits in with my ‘rules’ the alphabetic being the name of the marathon, ignoring sponsors names.

There was no special transportation for the race, but there was a good quick and cheap train service which made it easy to get there for the 9.45 start. The forecast suggested almost ideal marathon conditions, cool with not too much sun or wind. Various items were used for protection before the start, the bin liner that had travelled to five continents with me was finally used and I saw a first, forensic suits.
Even though I started in just my normal top and shorts, many were wearing base layers, jackets, buffs and gloves.

I had a moment of panic as I walked up towards the start. Even with my non-existent Italian I could understand a countdown, but the relay started at the same time as the main marathon and the half at 10.10, could I really have the start time wrong? Of course not, it was the wheelchair and bicycle race starts.
The marathon web site, T shirt and bib state ‘corri nelle terre del prosecco’ which translates as ‘run in the lands of Prosecco wine’ and we certainly did that. In the first 10k we twisted our way through vineyards, more than once I was offered a glass by locals supporting outside their houses and the goodie bag did contain a 375 ml bottle of the sparkly stuff.DSC_1558

I ran most of the way with the 4 hour pacers, it clearly wasn’t fast enough for one of them to sweat out his pre-race liquid as a number of times during the race he quickly ran off in front of the group then veered off the road to relieve himself!
I was confused during the first 8k when on occasions we passed ‘walkers’ that were part of the race and they seemed to be in similar or even identical kit. After the 4th time I was convinced it was the same person each time, but did not know how he had got back in front of us; clearly I had not been observant enough because I did then see him come running past us a little later and he continued with his successful walk/run strategy for at least the first half of the race as we continual swapped places but after that we seemed to stay in front.
We were given a sponge in the goodie bag, and in some races these are very welcomed, but I was correct in thinking that I did not need to take it with me. Quite a lot of runners did have theirs, I saw them being used at all seven of the water baths provided. The ‘refreshment’ stations were every 5k, with water plus energy drinks in the second half; at two of the later stations cups were handed out that contained neither, strangely it was something warm. I have no idea what it was, a had a mouthful but spat if out at the first and just handed it back at the second. Maybe it was the peach tea that we were given in the goodie bag. I wonder if any using the spongers to cool down then used the drinks to warm up.
It was another easy course; Strava shows it having an elevation of just 86m, making it flatter than Seville. The only noticeable rise came after we ran through a tunnel under a road just after 38k, and the descent came in the final 0.5k running over cobbles in Conegiano. As we ran after the 30k mark the paradox of the area became clear, because when the view to the north was unimpeded the snow covered Dolomites rose out of the plain not a marathon distance from us. I did find the whole run as comfortable as Seville two weeks previous, and ended up more than 2 minutes quicker with 4:03:57 and 3rd in my age category.

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The athletes village afterwards had free beer, which didn’t run out and it seems you could keep going back for more. There was also a warm soup provided, and the servers understood the 2 Italian words I had specially learned “Senza gluten” and immediately went to a different casserole to produce something suitable for me.

So just another 2 week recovery before my U marathon, there aren’t too many beginning with letter 21 of the alphabet. Actually I am lucky I was injured before I was due to run my very first marathon as the change to Athens has left this country free.

 

Snaking around Sevilla

Although I have run a number of marathons in big cities, I have run very few ‘Big City Marathons’. My understanding of this phrase is a race with many thousands of runners, all doing the one distance (so not cluttered with half marathon, relay or 10k) confined to the city region so there can be good support all around the course.

My routeSeville ticked all of these boxes. 13,000 were registered for the race and nearly 11,000 finished (809 recorded their run on Strava). The course was well contained within the city, so much so that there are more than 40 turns of at least 90º. Spectator support was great during the whole run and very enthusiastic in the city centre areas.

It started outside and finished inside Estadio Olímpico (The Olympic Stadium) which was opened in 1999 to support Seville’s unsuccessful bids for the 2004 and 2008 Games, but it did host the 7th Athletics World Championships in 1999, the Davis Cup final in 2004 and the 2003 UEFA Cup Final, where 80,000 Celtic fans behaved impeccably and famously drank the city dry.

I had a 30 minute walk to the start, the stadium actually isn’t very obvious but of course DSC_1517
there were huge numbers making their way across La Barqueta Bridge over Rio Guadalquivir, which we crossed again just over 2k from the end of the race. The start was at 9.00am and it was distinctly chilly as we waited. Despite the large numbers of runners the portaloo queues were negligible and even just 10 minutes before the start I had no problems slotting into my starting pen.

The sun was out for the whole race, but even as it climbed higher in the sky there was plenty of shade from tall buildings. Water and electrolyte stations, on both sides of the road but offset, were every 2.5k so no excuse for anyone to become dehydrated. The organisers state that the marathon is the flattest marathon course in Europe.  My Strava record shows an elevation of 142m, just less than Podgorica with 146m; the Nova Sad Night Marathon was of course less, at 66m, but that was just trotting backward and forward along the Danube 6 times.

Under different circumstances I would have tried to make best use of the course to go for a PB; however with an upcoming schedule of my next 2 marathons in 28 days after this one I had to look at the bigger picture and ensure that I would be ok to complete these. So anything around 4;15 would be acceptable, even though I was starting in the sub 4 hour pen. I had forgotten one of the positives of big city marathons, that is even when taking it easy there are many locals running their first (and often last) marathon so it wasn’t unusual to be going past other runners, particularly during the last 10k, and let’s admit it, we all feel good when we pass others (particularly when they are much younger!)

DSC_1500I hadn’t done much research on the city, so didn’t know much about what there was to see. The stunning, Plaza de España, appeared out of nowhere at just after 35k. It was almost worth stopping to admire, but I resisted and came back the next day; I wasn’t the only one, many runners DSC_1530wearing the blue jacket that was provided, rather than a usual running top, were also revisiting.

The next 5k, until we crossed the Rio Guadalquivir, went past key tourist sites such as the cathedral, with the Giraldillo Statue which features on the medal, and The Metropol Parasol. These street were heavily lines with locals and tourists alike who provided noisy, much appreciated support. My wife who I hadn’t expected to see for a third time after 7k and 16k, was also present just before the bridge.

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The whole race went as I had planned and I crossed the line, after half a circuit of the tired looking running track inside the stadium, in 4:06:08. The exit from the stadium, past tables of oranges, crisps and various liquids was easy enough, but after collecting my bag I had no idea how to get back into the city centre. I actually walked around the outside of the stadium twice before I decided to head towards the car park and ask the security. My Spanish is non-existent and so was his English but I knew I had to go past ‘Isla Magica’; he understood these words and his hand gestures sent me in the correct direction. Strava had managed to restart itself so when I reached the apartment is showed more than 6 hours and 48k since the race start!

Bonuses of running overseas marathon are turning a run into a holiday (there were many DSC_1514
Brits around, in their blue tops, until at least midweek), food and different beer. We stumbled across an amazing Tapas bar, Eslava, just over 100m from our apartment. After many innovative dishes and great gluten free knowledge, it will be very difficult to visit anywhere at home for Tapas; and the beer was cheaper than the water!

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The Reggae Marathon, where it wasn’t just the jerk chicken that was hot in Negril

Prelude
This is total madness. Two weeks ago I ran The Queenstown Marathon, then three days later travelled back for 36 hours to London. Six days later, helped by jet lag, I was on a very early flight from London to Montego Bay. Although these two marathons had been in my plans for most of the year I find it difficult to justify at least this one, it is a total indulgence which maybe I could have forgone and replanned next year so that Zurich was still feasible  in April 2017.

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To the expo!

Main Event
3.15 am Up and down to the 24 hour Sportsman’s Bar, I was the only sportsman there but a few others having the first, or last drink of the day. Used their microwave to cook my gluten free porridge as the hotel does not have specific gluten free stuff.
4.00 am Humidty and mid 70s temperature hit when I go back to my room to pick up bag with post race chocolate milk.
4.20 am Free shuttle bus to start about 5k away, bus crowded with Canadian and American ‘runners’.
4.45 am Find a few Brits to chat to before the start, a couple Kevin Bonfield and Nicky Johnson from Paignton who planned to run it together and they did, right to the finish line.
5.15 am Start, at the very back still chatting but proper chip timing so no problem. Spectacular first few 100m as we pass between flaming torches.

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Flaming torches being set up before race.

5.18 am That wasn’t a good idea. With the 10k and half marathon starting at the same time and MANY of those participants (1932 of them finished) intent on walking EVERY step of their race moving forward was problematic.
5.31 am Cleared the walkers and settled into a steady, slow pace.
Many unknown times: Made sure I picked up Powerade and/or water at every 1 mile aid station.
More unknown times: Reggae sounds blasting out at many parts of the course, lost count how many times I heard ‘ No woman no cry’.
Many many more unknown times: The characteristic Jamaican odour was so obvious, now Canadians won’t have to travel down here to experience it!
5.42 First turn around point, 4.5k, Negril roundabout.
6.14 am Past start and turn off point for 10k race, number of runners on the road thins dramatically. Gets brighter as sun rises and we start on the second out and back leg.
Next hour: Starts to heat up as sun appears through and above trees. The ‘mist shower’ about a mile into this leg (and of course a mile before the half way point) but pouring water over head was already more effective. Go past my hotel, plenty of supporters outside but no one handing out free beer and they are probably all ‘all inclusive’. Passed a lady in a top with a long list of sponsors on the back, which I recognised as being the same as mine from Lima; she confirmed she had run it in 2014 (but was just doing the half here).
6.49 Second turn around point at northernmost part, 15.3k, seemed a lot further than the extra 1k from the start than the first turn around.
7.27 Back at the start where all of the half marathoners veer off to finish. First time I had an idea of the time, had no gps watch, either left at home or lost it. Phone running Strava in my pocket. Very hot (low 30s) and the first time in my two years of running marathons that I thought “Maybe just the half marathon would have been a good idea”.
Next hour: Down and back to Negril roundabout again, sun now beating down on us and almost no shade. At least I was more than maintaining my position, and although I expect my pace was dropping I wasn’t too uncomfortable.
8.29 Through the start line again and was greeted by Tita Bonita who offered me salt, which I gratefully accepted without a second thought. After my cramping problems two weeks earlier (and in Novi Sad in the summer when I ran on consecutive weekends) I had intended to bring salt tablets with me, but forgot.
9.22 The final turnaround and things had started to become difficult, but that was the same for everyone in sight. Walking became the norm, for people in both directions and we were all trying to make use of any small amount of shade occasional trees provided, even if this involved running on the ‘wrong’ side of the round of the road and on the outside of curves. This might explain the extra 0.6k Strava suggests I ran.
10.06 The finish line showing a time of 4:51:22 which I expected to be about three minutes slower than my chip time, as suggested when I stopped Strava. The chocolate milk in my drop bag had never been more welcomed.

finished

Postscript
I did manage to come in at 4:48:10 so preserved my aim of not running slower than my first marathon in Athens. It had been touch and go, and I’m sure if I had had my gps watch I would have been more aware of my times over the final 6k and walked less. If I had been told my time before the start I would have been very disappointed. But looking at the overall event results I am now not. I was in the top half of the finishers, 68 out of 158. The average time for the finishers was 5:06:24 so I was 18 minutes faster than that and I was second in my age category.

medal
So a year with some quite extraordinary marathons has come to and end, and I can put my feet up for a couple of months. Most unlikely, I hope to get back onto the NDW for some hard winter running in preparation for next year’s races start at the end of February, with the first three in a six week spell, but all in Europe.
I can’t actually confirm that the jerk chicken is hot in Negril, it couldn’t be guaranteed to be gluten free so I didn’t taste any of it.

PPS
Well I can now confirm ” the palate burning qualities of the jerk chicken” quote from the afore mentioned Kevin Bonfield.

PPPS
I am disappointed to report than 2 months after the race the organisers have not managed to produce photos of a majority of the marathon finishers, or provide a reason as to why this has happpened.