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 unoccupied 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 confident 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 timers 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 ran 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 Holly 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.
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, both as delighted with their first marathon time as I was with mine in Athens, and actually 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…
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 we 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.
#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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Well I can now confirm ” the palate burning qualities of the jerk chicken” quote from the afore mentioned Kevin Bonfield.
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.
When I finished my previous marathon, at the end of June, I was sure that the 11 weeks before my next was too long and I needed to enter another long race in July/August. Well it turned out to be not quite long enough, so I’m glad I didn’t find anything else to run. During a training run in mid July, along the North Down Way I hit a tree root (why?) and gravity did the rest. I picked myself up, clearly nothing too serious, certainly nothing broken and I was able to complete another 20k. There was sufficient pain for me to have it checked over the next day, just bruising to side/back/ribs so 6 or max 8 weeks before it would be healed. Well wind forward to the day of the Ostrava (Ostravsky) Marathon and the suggested time was certainly optimistic, I knew this was going to be a difficult run.
The heavy shower at 0900 then sun with cloud for the rest of the day was exactly what the forecast suggested and ideal conditions. Thank goodness things had changed over the previous week, it was in the low 30s seven days earlier so the 1030 start would have meant it being very hot for most of the race. But a westerly wind was forecast to increase noticeably, with gusts up to 40mph, and this was also correct, strange how although very little of the course involved running to the west the wind did seem to be head-on for much of the second lap!,On my walk down to the start I met another senior runner, a Finn, Christer Kallio, who had had a similar rib problem earlier in the year which, if I understood him properly, he sustained in a robbery in his home when all of his running memorability was stolen; I’d never considered that happening, what a loss it would be.
This is the 2nd two lap marathon I have completed, the other was Bermuda. Whereas that was twice around the island, so a very straight-forward route, this one was convoluted, with different loops such that at no stage were we more than 5k from the start/finish and for a majority of the run we were within 3k. There were aid stations every 5k, a useful distance as it made it possible to just imagine you were running a parkrun from one to another. There was water and energy drink at all of them and fruit plus a juice (guava?) at some. The half and full marathon set off at the same time, so as we started on our second lap the field sudden thinned.
The hub for the whole event was Trojhali which was behind the a major shopping centre. The buildings were formally part of a coking plant (Ostrava was formally a major iron and steel city), which have been transformed to produce a new venue for sport, entertainment and culture. The expo was in one of the buildings, the start and finish on the road next to them.
Apart from the approaches to the bridges we crossed the course was basically flat. Before my enforced rest over most of the Summer I had pictured this as a pb run, but on the starting line I knew that would have to wait for another country. My intention was to complete the 42.2k with minimum stress to ribs etc so when I went through half way fractional under 2 hours I was happy and decided to aim for 4:30 by walking/running when things started to ‘tighten’. This was at the 28k mark when I stated to walk one ‘distance’ then run five. My ‘distance’ was either between the adjacent bollards that were used in some places as course markers, or lampposts. This made the 2nd half a relatively comfortable jaunt and I finished a couple of minutes inside my target, despite a brain freeze moment where I took off in the diametrically opposite direction for a couple of hundred metres after crossing one of the bridges.
The whole of the right side of my chest was very uncomfortable after I had finished, so I didn’t hang around once I had picked up my bag. I did know that there were awards for my M60+ age category, but didn’t think I would need to hang around to see if I had managed to get into the top three, I wanted to get back, lie down and have a few beers to ease my considerable aches. Unfortunately I made the wrong decision as I had ended up second, indeed with anything like the run I would normally have had I would have been first. By the time I had seen the official results next day it was too late, I contacted the organisers but the bag of whatever goodies that had collected had been distributed amongst the excellent support team.
So marathon number 15 in country 15 was completed, one that I could have quite easily had to DNS, thus probably ending my whole project if it had happened a couple of weeks later. A salutary lesson for me to be much more careful when running trails, or indeed any run, as something as simple as a trip although producing an injury that ostensible isn’t serious can have a major detrimental effect on being able to run.
Before the start of a first marathon everyone is apprehensive. No matter how much preparation you have done, other races you have run or naturally optimistic outlook you have there is always that thought “Can I actually run/walk and complete 42.2k. Even Grant Schmidlechner who I met in Tromso last week after he had finished second felt this way before the start; but it was his first marathon.
With every subsequent marathon the nervousness might recede somewhat but it always there, 42.2k is a big distance! So 17 months after running my first marathon in Athens, and 12 subsequent ones, you would be forgiven for thinking number 14 would just be routine run without too many pre-race jitters. But that certainly was not the case. On Saturday evening I was ready to embark on a marathon that I wouldn’t have considered was possible for me to undertake at any time since Athens. It is one I had to do, the only sensible N marathon that fits into my project, but it is only one week since The Midnight Sun in Tromso. Two marathons just seven days apart and starting at times when most people of my age are finishing their hot chocolate as Casualty ends before retiring for a long night’s sleep. Or of course they might be down the pub.
So I had all day to try to put the concerns I had out of my mind. When I picked up my starters pack at the ‘expo’ I was greeting by name, I had been in contact with the race director and others previously and I was wearing my Midnight Sun race top.
As I waited at the start, obviously surrounded mainly Serbs (maybe 95% of the runners), I certainly wasn’t aware of any other Brits, I had two aims. Obviously just finishing was the first imperative, but also after Athens I added an extra target to my 26-in-alphabetic-order-in-different-countries; not to run slower than in this first marathon. That aim was intact even after the fun of getting lost in Hageland and running extra kilometres.
The race (I’m actually not sure most of us think of marathons as races, I think of them more as very long parkruns where we are really competing against ourselves) started on the University race track and then embarked on a course Traviss Willcox might have designed., six 7k dead flat loops besides the Danube. At the end of each loop we did return to the running track where the finishing line was situated with the time clearly visible for all to see, unless you chose to ignore it as I did.
I haven’t run a multi-lap marathon before and had thought it would be incredibly tedious going over the same ground time and time again. Actually I didn’t feel that to be the case. I found it very useful to identify key features that we went past (the start of the river path, the athletics track, the fitness park, the rowing club, the large derelict building, the bridge and the turn around point) then look and ‘aim’ for them in the distance.
As at Tromso last week there was also a half marathon, with at ten times as many runners, but unlike last week we all started together. This did cause some congestion for the masses, which of course included me, particularly through a gate near the start. And it did mean we were all overtaken by much faster half and full marathon runners particularly during laps 2 and 3; I was unceremoniously barged out of the way once.
I had a revelation at 22k as I was about to take my first gel; I realised what had caused the toothache I suffered after last week’s run. The dentist had x-rayed and couldn’t see a problem (but he did find two other fillings to do), all he could suggest was that I might be grinding my teeth at night which would cause pressure on the bone and the pain. His suggested cause was wrong but the effect correct. The problem tooth was the one I used to grip the top of the gel before tearing it open. After this revelation it is surprising how difficult it was to learn and remember do that on the other side of the mouth.
I was comfortable enough for the first four and a bit laps but then it became more and more taxing. By the time I was back on the river path with 6k to go I dared to look at my watch to see if I was anywhere achieving the Athens time; I was pleasantly surprised to see 3:42. I could walk it if I wanted. But I kept (very) slowly trudging along, no one coming past me, and after the final turn around I knew everyone I could see on the opposite track was behind me so I started counting. Then, with 3k to go I did something stupid, I stopped for just a couple of seconds. Instantly my right calf and thigh cramped and my leg wouldn’t function. All I could do force the leg straight, increasing the pain considerably, and stretch it. I wasn’t moving forward for 5 minutes and it was another 5 minutes of hobbling before I was back to my pre brain-freeze pace. And you would think I’d have learnt the lesson, but oh no. As I approached the running track at the end, I passed the stage where the presentation to the winners was just occurring you might guess what I did. Einstein suggested that “insanity doing that same thing over and over again and expecting different results” so this was my moment of insanity. As I stopped to applaud the winners the same leg cramped again and I almost fell over. Certainly the most embarrassing moment in my short running career. Fortunately my leg started working more quickly than before and I ran to the end, comfortably inside my Athens time, with 4:39:04. It might have been my second slowest marathon but I was one of the most satisfying.
The reward was a bright yellow technical top with the race clearly identified on both sides and great double-sided medal, uniquely shaped (maybe the shape of the Novi Sad district) with the clock tower of the fort (where Exit is held, what a shame the two events didn’t happen on the same weekend) on one side and on the other the of emblem of Ark ‘Fruska Gora’, the running club that started the marathon 6 the years ago and an inscription telling us how long the Danube is (2860 km). For only €12, amazing value.
All that remained was for me to thank the organisers, collect my bag and walk the 3k back to my apartment at nearly 3.00am on a warm Saturday evening. I managed a couple of days in Novi Sad then Belgrade before returning to the prospect of a strange ten weeks without a marathon after four in the previous eleven.
I have had little choice about some of the marathons in my A-Z project, simply because they have been the only ones possible to fit in during the necessary time period. Edinburgh was one that probably wouldn’t have been on my bucket, where as others, like Istanbul appealed more.
Last year, my son-in-law sent me a link to ‘Ten iconic marathons you must do’.One stood out: The Midnight Sun Marathon in Tromso. I simply had to do it. I’d already pencilled in an ‘N’ marathon in Norway (other options included New Caladonia in the South Pacific, although I considered this possibly a bit indulgent)
I’d originally planned to do a marathon in Mulgi, Estonia, for my M marathon, but now Novi Sad (in Serbia) was a possibility instead, making space for The Midnight Sun. The two are only a week apart, and as I write this on the plane back from Tromso, with just two days at home before flying out to Serbia, suffering from raging runger, toothache and legs a little sore, I am already feeling apprehensive.
No matter how much you read about Tromso (or anywhere inside the Arctic Circle in mid-summer), visiting is just so surreal. Arriving at 10pm, when it would be dark anywhere else, and seeing stunning snow capped mountains in glorious sunshine, was the first clue that this was somewhere special. I was immediately reminded of my trip to Quito just four weeks earlier after running the Lima Marathon.
Quito is surrounded by extinct volcanic peaks, and Tromso by snow covered mountains – both very similar looking. Some sort of weird symmetry in nature struck me, to go from the equator to inside the Arctic Circle, yet have such similar landscapes.
My apartment was on the main street, Storgata, chosen because of its proximity to the start and finish of the race. It turned out to be closer than I realised, about 100 metres away with the start viewable from one window and the finishing sprint from another.
I arrived on the Friday evening and the race began at 20.30 on the Saturday. This was fine for me and the other not too speedy runners, as we would still be running under the Midnight Sun (to me it felt like a bit of a shame that the first couple of hundred finished before midnight).
The expo was not lavish, but I did get to chat to a Mauritian person manning a stall who had also run my R marathon (details to be revealed later on!).
Two months ago when I ran the Kharkiv marathon, I’d found it hard hard hanging around all morning for the 11.30 start in Kharkiv, and as Tromso didn’t start until 8pm, this took the nervous anticipation to another level. What, when and how much to eat was a real dilemma. After a walk around the town, I decided to use a few hours productively and did some on-line exam marking (the way I earn most of what I need to pay for this expensive pastime (obsession I’m sure some will call it!)). There were a whole host of other races taking place before, from toddlers walking 1k holding their parents’ hands, to 10k.
The weather was very kind to us, broken clouds, very little wind and just enough of a nip in the air (surely to be expected at ‘night’ inside the Arctic Circle?) to make me think a thin long sleeved base layer under my sleeveless Lima top was ideal, and it was.
Another dilemma I was faced with was how to run this race. Having another marathon just seven days later had to be factored in, but I also felt I might stand a chance of doing well in my age category. I ended up running with the four hour pacer for most of the time and chatting to many of the Brits who were running along side too.
The only real hill during the race was this bridge, but the steep part (it was surprisingly unsymmetrical) was only just after the start, so it was over with quickly.
But it was on the bridge that the amazing views on course first became apparent, in all four directions. Directly ahead and most spectacular because it was closest with the Arctic Cathedral in the foreground.
There were then three out and back loops, which provided the opportunity to see and cheer the leaders as they passed in the opposite direction. Even the first time, when I was at 6k, the eventual winner was probably five minutes ahead of the next runner (this was an Aussie living in London, Grant Schmidlechner who was running his first marathon with no more than twelve weeks training). I meet Grant and his ‘support team’ on the Sunday evening, and again on the flights back. It seemed he had done serious track running back in Oz but nothing for eight years. Also, on the Sunday evening, in a rock bar I bumped into nearly 30 members of the Breakfast Club with their trainer, Claire Grima, who came in first lady and third overall in a time that earned 15000 kronar.
The one thing that threw me occurred immediately after the first half. We had recrossed the bridge, when suddenly, we were joined by thousands of other runner who were in the half marathon, which started two hours after us, but then ran exactly the same last 20k as us. I went from having plenty of space, to having lots of runners nearby at the same pace and having to watch carefully where I was running and trying to restrain my pace. The reason for it happening was obvious and quite understandable; it allowed many of the runners to still be on the course underneath the Midnight Sun, which was a major reason for my wanting to be there.
The second half, out to the airport (but not via the much shorter tunnel route which forms part of network that runs the whole length of the island) did seem a long way and I was glad I had decided not to push it during the first half. Despite the course being way out of the centre of Tromso, the almost ribbon development meant we were never far from incredibly enthusiastic supporters, with shouts of “heia” (which somehow translates to “go go go”) and Mexican waves from groups as small as three people.
The last few hundred metres down Storgata was packed with cheering crowds (remember this is after midnight) and I had a personal battle against a pair of Brits, who kept drawing level with me, so I increased my pace and we ended up sprinting the final 20 metres. It seems they took pity on me and let be beat them! In the end, that little bit of competition for me might have been crucial.
I finished in 4:04:09.7 (never been timed to the nearest tenth of a second before) but I don’t remember feeling as shattered as I did at the end. I’m sure it was as much down to it being nearly 1.00 am by the time I had collected everything, not just the fact I’d run 26.2 miles. I went straight back to my room, showered and to bed, while I could still hear cheering for other finishers and general partying outside. I was glad I had earplugs, which have now become an essential part of my travelling kit.
The results were on-line when I woke not too early the next morning and I was astounded to find that I had not only managed to get into the top three of my age category, but I had actually won it. I was only 20 seconds than the Spaniard in second. I wonder how important the competition over the last few hundred metres was. So off to the awards ceremony to receive, what? A rather large engraved glass vase type object (the box it came in shows a candle inside, but someone suggested that it should be filled with champagne instead, and I might take up that suggestion when the next race is out of the way!).
It is strange how this marathon took me somewhere I had wanted to visit for many years, but not at the time of year I wanted, nor for the reason. I wanted to go in winter to see the Aurora; well, they have a January Polar Night half marathon so just a thought…
At least 12 months ago, before other marathons had been finalised, I had started looking for a possible L marathon in late April or May. Of the four that immediately appeared possible I dismissed London as I might need an English one later in the campaign, and unlike many runners I didn’t really want to run it even though I could have a gfa entry. Liechenstein would likely be too hilly so the sensible option would be Luxembourg. I jokingly commented that Lima, the other option, would be great to run but surely I couldn’t justify the cost that it would certainly entail. As other marathons were completed and discussions took place, the idea of visiting South America, and adding a continent I hadn’t visited before to my list became compelling. And it seemed sensible to make a proper holiday of it (well just a long weekend was never going to be on) so Quito was added to the itinerary.
Wandering around the open air expo on the Saturday morning, trying to stay in the shade, provided an indication of what could be expected the next day. I have become used to being one the few, or even only, Brit(s) in the race and unsurprisingly this was again the case (but since coming home I spotted on Strava someone else who had run it). One of the pastimes at expos is spotting race tops, and being envious of the people that have taken part in more unusual marathons. The prize here went to The Asunción Marathon in Paraguay; unsurprisingly no one has any idea what my Kharkiv one was although a very well dressed American on a metrobus, who could have been out of a Graham Green book, did ask if it was Russian; there is very little difference in the language between it and Ukrainian.
The race had a sensibly early 07.00 start, so we were on the first metrobus from our apartment and arrived much too early. It did allow us to watch the elite Kenyans being ushered into the VIP area (their men did fill the first three places), and get first use of the portaloos. As is quite common in overseas city marathons that don’t attract 10,000s of runners there was also a half which started at the same time on the adjacent portion of a duel carriageway. As I had walked down the wrong side of the road the only way into the start was back to the intersection at the metro-stop and by the time I had realised this it was close to start time so I couldn’t get to the pacers who all started near the front. But at least their large balloons made it easy to use a sensible pace to catch them; but anyone wanting the 4.30 would have had problems as it sailed up into the clear blue sky before the race started.
I was still winding my way forward when the race started without any noticeable loud announcement, I only realised when everyone started shuffling forward. The course was very runner friendly without any hills or noticeable gradients or so I thought ; since coming home and uploading the race onto Strava I have seen the elevation gain was only slightly less than Istanbul and half that of Jerusalem, it was just gradual and so not at all obvious
Lima is on the coast, a feature that many people I had spoken to before leaving were surprised by, so no altitude problems There were plenty of water/Powerade stations, they started 5k apart and this became every 2.5k over the final third of the race. Of course the major difficulty for everyone was the temperature which was in the mid to high 20s C for the whole race, hence the plentiful supply of water meant I could frequently wash the sweat down into my eyes. Although I had no problem maintaining my usual pace and staying with the 3.45 balloon for the first half my legs were telling me it wouldn’t continue and I ended finding it as difficult as any race I had done, comparable to Edinburgh almost exactly 12 months before, in a disappointing 4:18:12. Although I initially credited the heat with the blame (I did chat to a couple of Europeans, who lived in Lima, during the last 10k who said this and one who was living in Rio and had run the Rio Marathon when it was 35 degrees) but with hindsight I think two other factors that I have never raced with before were the real problem, jet-lag and sleep deprivation. Lima is 6 hours behind London and I flew over on the Thursday. Waking just after 4.00am on Friday and Saturday was a testament to this. On the day of the flight over we were awake for 24 hours, almost all in daylight. Although all of my marathons have been overseas none have involved such extreme changes. I had not considered, or even thought of, the effects that these two time related factors would have and must do some research when I have time.
However when I compare my performance to all competitors I shouldn’t beat myself up too much. I finished 682/1800 of all runners and was 4/18 in my age category.
After getting my first hexagonal medal in Kharkiv 5 weeks ago this was another, not usually it has the course inscribed on it. When registering on line I don’t think I noticed the options, so when I collected the sleeveless technical top I had selected I was pleasantly surprised, it should be useful for a month or two in the UK and many more for overseas runs. However I am always disappointed when the sponsors take up more space on it than the name of the race itself, they fill the whole back of the top while “2015 Lima42k” covers just a fraction of the space on the front top right.
I do think Lima is missing a valuable tourism opportunity with the only sign of Paddington being in the gift shop at the airport where the bears readily fell off the display stand whenever anyone stared too hard at them, never mind trying to remove one to buy it. I did see one visitor take 4 to the check-out.
Although there were local beers, the drink of choice for most of our stay was pisco sour, and with happy hour lasting most of the evening and the drinks not being half strength during that time, unlike for many cocktails in the UK, it would be wrong not to take to opportunity to down a few. No trip to Peru would be complete without Ceviche at least once, and our favourite fruit, custard apple (cherimoya) were huge and so cheap. There was a local delicacy available in Quito where we visited afterwards, but I had better not mention it or say whether it end up on either of our plates.
Just before my last marathon in Istanbul I decided that as it would be almost 4 months before my next I decided needed a run in between them that wasn’t just training. Of course it couldn’t be a marathon or my A to Z project would be spoilt, and I wanted more than a half. Searching around I came across this run/race/walk. I had no previous knowledge of it (nor had my immediate running family) nor of the Long Distance Walkers’ Association (LDWA) who organise it. The Winter Tanners seemed to fit my requirements perfectly, a run that would be challenging yet not too daunting (I had toyed with the idea of Country to Capital but accepted that 45 miles was just too far…at present). It was close to home, would give me hills, tick the ‘ultra’ box I felt I should do and the timing was exactly half-way between two marathons. As one who is used to paying sometimes high entry fees for road marathons, the LDWA events are a welcomed money saver. This would have cost non-LDWA members £20 but after paying the annual membership of £13 it was just £4.
After getting used to road marathons, I was very apprehensive as the day approached. I had no real idea what to expect. Of course time on ultras doesn’t matter (but I did want to finish before it got dark). Weather could be the real problem, two years previously it had to be postponed because snow prevented marshals from reaching checkpoints. A week before this year’s race storms were forecast to cross the country, and it could have been very difficult. However when the day arrived we could not have wished for better conditions, sunny with clear blue skies, little wind and reasonable temperatures.
Having followed my ultra-running daughter Cat at many races I was looking forward to being able to run and eat, but with my gluten free requirements I knew there wouldn’t be a lot available for me. So I made sure I had supplies with me (“he’s got enough food to feed a small country” tweeted my daughter). In the end I ate very little of what I had taken, just a few squares of Waitrose caramel crispy bites. I did grab a handful for jelly babies at the first checkpoint, nachos at the second and a couple of pieces of banana at the third. I was also carrying a bottle with electrolyte and 2 small chocolate milks but only drank a couple of mouthfuls of one of the later. I did have the lemon squash at the first 2 checkpoints and coffee at the third. Also I had none of the gels I would usually have for marathons.
The big difference between this and any other race I have done was the ‘self navigation’. When dropping into the Run to Live shop in Leatherhead a couple of days before the race (I had gone over just to see how easy the instructions were to follow) they did confirm there was no signage on the course, it really was necessary to follow the detailed instructions. This is an example of them for just the first 1.7 miles.
From the pavilion entrance, facing the football pitch, TR twice to pass the pavilion on R & tennis/netball courts on L. At fence corner TL to keep courts on L. In 20Y TR on tarmac path thru treeline then TL along tarmac FP. When tarmac ends TR on XTK (FiPo HAWKS HILL). In 275Y ahd over railway & waterworks drive, & cont ahd across grassy area (shortcutting BW). Join TK from L & swing R uphill. At top of field FL & keep ahd to go thru gap in hedge & TL on BW. In 650Y cross busy RD (A246) WITH GREAT CARE & along drive opp which immed turns R past gate. In 75Y FR to pass small grass triangle on L. Cross concrete drive & tarmac pathway to cont ahd on BW with hedge on R. In 950Y pass brick barn on L & in 40Y ahd over XTK.
Runners were not supposed to start before 8.30 (looking at last year’s results many did start at exactly this time), which was my aim. But there was no official starting gun/klaxon, you just wonder up, present you card to be scanned and begin running. There was no runners waiting when I arrived at the start, so off I went. Cat started running with me, not as part of the race, just to keep me company for a while, take a few photos and do bit of gentle running before Country to Capital next week. Navigation wasn’t a problem before the checkpoint at 7.9 miles, there were always walkers or early departure runners ahead. Cat only ran to this point and my son Ed, who had decided use my run to do a day’s hill work on his bike, was waiting there. I started navigating, when I was ‘alone’ after this point, and was concerned on a couple of occasions when I had runners behind me but not visible in front, in case a took a wrong route, I didn’t want to be responsible for leading others astray. Before navigation became hard I caught up with a group of runners containing Tara Williams. I didn’t know of this doyen of the LDWA but it soon became clear that she was known to (almost) everyone else. Famed for walking every single step of the SDW100 in 2012 in 26:37 and her Harley Davidson passion, because it was my first LDWA event she allowed me a navigation ‘free pass’ so I could concentrate on watching where I was actually putting my feet rather than wondering if they were going in the right direction. Thank you Tara, one day I look forward to being like you!
The second checkpoint at 17 miles came and went, again Ed was waiting for me. The terrain of this first half hadn’t been too difficult, there had been some very muddy stretches and of course some hills but nothing as precipitous as the ones in the second half. The first was 26k in, after turning off Moon Hall Road Ewhurst where the gradient 21.6% and then over the Abinger Roughs at 37k where we hit 26.2%. Fortunately Tara was caring of those in her charge, and readily walked allowing us to keep with her (but she can walk bloody fast) and so not get lost. As the miles ticked by I was more aware that Dave Ross, who I knew was starting after me, surprisingly hadn’t yet passed us. This was a special event for Dave, his 100th ultra and despite his penchant for taking the odd wrong turn I really had expected him to have steamed past before the 38k when he did appear. Bizarrely it was just after this point that we found difficulty with the directions, we certainly did not find the ‘right fork’ only a ‘right turn’. Again Tara knew the trails/tracks so rather than carrying straight onto checkpoint 3 and arriving from the wrong direction, in order that we didn’t miss out on the ‘correct’ elevation we went down and along and up Steers Field to the checkpoint.
Hot tea/coffee and bananas/dates were available at the 25.7 mile mark, then it was the simple and quite fast homeward stretch, passing Tanners Hatch, the YMCA hostel after which the race is named. However my body seemed to know when I was over the 26.2 mile stage, because as soon as we had finished quite a fastish slightly downhill section and began a walking ascent my Adductor Magnus cramped. I did lose contact with the group as I modified my walking style, high steps with the offending leg worked and I was ready to run for the rest of the course and catch up the others. Towards the finish we were travelling back along the route we had started on 6 hours earlier. At the busy A246 I was ready and able to sprint when there was a small gap between the fast moving cars then it was downhill to touch in and finish at the pavilion, and my first ultra was over.
And what did I think? The whole experience was brilliant, running through the countryside that I have lived so close to for 30 years yet never really appreciated. The terrain was fun, the views stunning and everyone I met so friendly; and with the easy pace chatting was easy. I will certainly be running more ultras (wish I had an entry to one day of The Pilgrims), and look forward to increasing my distances.
Distance: 49.1 km
Official time: 6:26
Position: 45/209 starters/200 finishers/but how many of these ran rather than walked?)
Moving time (Strava) 5:59:57)