Finally. All I can say, is finally!
I first entered the Loch Ness marathon as part of my fundraising challenge in 2014, but injury put paid to my plans that year. Last year I thought it was time to try again…until a hip issue led me to the heartbreaking decision not to run. In 2017 it was third time lucky.
Entering this race is straightforward. I entered back in the spring and it’s first come, first served with no ballots or waiting lists. I received plenty of information in advance via email, although I knew roughly what to expect anyway in terms of collecting my race pack and what the finish area looked like thanks to spectating twice before as well as my experience of running the 10k in 2013.
Since neither of us fancied driving 100+ miles home after a marathon, we opted for the train. This put us in Inverness mid-afternoon with enough time to check in to our hotel and leave our bags before heading over to collect our packs and browse the expo.
Race day logistics involve a bus trip to the start line, which makes for a pretty early start for a 10am race! Luckily our hotel was really geared up for this. There were signs up at reception telling guests to let staff know that they would be running and therefore looking for an early breakfast, which was at 6:30am. My alarm went off at 5:30am so I could take some fluids on and get into my kit.
Heading down to breakfast, we expected some porridge, toast and maybe bananas. Instead, the full breakfast was available. Steve opted for sausages, bacon, etc but there was no way I could stomach that so early so stuck to my usual pre-long run staples of toast with nutella and a bowl of porridge. I also took a pastry with me to eat later on (I’ve run the Paris marathon after these so knew it would be ok).
It was then time for some final preparations before heading to the buses which were on the other side of the park, beyond the finish line. We knew we would be on one of the last buses (it’s quite a fleet to get almost 3000 runners to the start as this is the only way to access the area on race day) and all the race staff we passed were really helpful in making sure we were heading the right way and keeping up a brisk pace. We still ended up in a big queue though!
The bus journey took around an hour. We were a little slower as our bus struggled to get up the steep hills to the start line, however the weather wasn’t so great at this point and it was better to be on the bus than exposed to the elements, even if I was getting desperate for the toilet!
Once there, it felt a little bit like being on the edge of the world as the wind whipped up and the rain came down. We got our stuff organised and had a couple of toilet trips (queues for the portable toilets were HUGE but there were plenty of dense trees and bushes to make a “wild pee” an option!
As late as possible, we put our bags onto the baggage bus and headed to the start area to find a suitable position.
There was the usual music and an announcer getting everyone in the mood, and then all of a sudden we were being counted down and off. I had expected that heartbeat music so de rigueur at races these days to make things tense, but there was no drawn-out ceremony here which was refreshing.
I have to say, a bit of me could hardly believe I was there. After two failed attempts to make that start line, and a lot of stress caused by my cat being very unwell the day before (the emergency vet visit before we left was not in the plan!) I had hardly dared to let myself believe it would actually happen, but here I was with 26.2 miles standing between me and that finish medal. And those 26.2 miles looked like this:
Net downhill, however the hardest part comes around mile 18, just about the worst possible time when all the joy of the downhill start is a distant memory!
The first 5 miles were brilliant. I was running downhill, feeling fresh and surrounded by beautiful Highland countryside. I actually ran this in silence, enjoying my own thoughts and the atmosphere around me. There’s a short climb in mile 6, but this was around when I took my first energy gel so I was happy to have slowed down. The generally downhill trend continued to about mile 10 and my second gel, and as things levelled out I decided to put a podcast on to give me something else to focus on.
At this point I was 2 or 3 minutes ahead of my splits for a sub-4 time, however it had felt relatively easy thanks to running downhill and my hope was to have that time “in the bank” ready for the hill later on.
The next 7 miles are flattish, but there are some slight inclines and declines along the way, in fact the half way point felt on a slightly upward trajectory. I was still counting down the miles, aware that although numerically I was half way, the received wisdom is that “half way” is really 18 miles as you hit the hill.
I lost a little time in this section, but was only a minute or two down on where I wanted to be, which would still have bagged me a PB. But then I reached Dores and THAT hill…
Race organisers had included some helpful signs: “slightly steeper bit ahead”, “wee bit hilly” and “keep calm and tame the monster”. Huh. But I trained on hilly routes and tried to include a hill towards the end of my runs. I was ready…or so I thought. I began the plod up what seemed the longest hill in the world, until I realised that I could probably walk just as fast. The hill beat me and I’m not ashamed to say so.
When the top of the hill finally came (after a false summit or two) it was great to point myself downhill again. By now I was way off the pace I wanted, but hoped I might be able to reclaim a bit of ground.
But it was not to be. On reflection, I think the hill was only part of it. The stress of a poorly cat on Saturday had affected my nutrition and hydration plans, not to mention the impact of feeling stress so close to the event. I hadn’t realised quite how much of an impact it had until I needed to tap into some energy that just wasn’t there. I’d had a gel with caffeine at mile 15 (double espresso, yum!) and had two gels left to take – miles 20 and 23.1 – but they just weren’t doing enough. I rallied a bit on some of the downhills, but as soon as it was more level or uphill, even for a short time, I just couldn’t sustain my pace. Still, there was nothing for it but to keep moving forward.
Finally, I was back in Inverness and the finish line was getting closer. Just before mile 25 you can hear the announcer on the opposite side of the river but I was prepared for this. Time for a final push to the line as the crowds thickened and you just HAVE to keep running: past the footbridge that would be a shortcut to the finish, over the main bridge, past the hotel and digging deep to find that last “sprint” to the finish.
Once over the line I needed to take a moment. I wasn’t sure how I felt – well, physically I felt tired and sore and as if I’d just run 26.2 miles, but I wasn’t sure where my emotions were. I leaned against a railing to compose myself then headed around to collect my medal, goody bag (the most Scottish goody bag ever – Baxters soup, Walker’s shortbread, Highland Spring water) and T-shirt before joining Steve who was watching out for me.
I was soaking wet so opted not to hang around taking photos and instead shuffled over to collect my bag where I had some warm layers. There was a changing tent and I sat in there for a bit getting myself organised and sending some messages to say I was finished. Feeling better, I rejoined Steve to go and get our complimentary post-race meal: soup, casserole and bread.
Having refuelled and composed ourselves, we did get some photos before heading back along to the hotel for our bags (and I had a change and freshen up in the toilets so I felt a bit more human before the train home).
Soon after crossing the line I got a text with my official time of 4:18:10. It might not have been what I was looking for, but knowing that the marathon is a tricky beast, I had set 3 goals. My A goal was the PB/sub-4, my B goal was sub-4:20 and my C goal to be faster than in Paris back in April. B goal achieved and that is still something to be proud of (and it finally got me on the Marathon Talk podcast podium with second place!). I may still have a tantalisingly-close PB of 4:05:07 to beat (Paris 2014), but since then I’ve not exactly set a blistering pace with a 4:40:02, 4:43:39, 4:38:38 and 4:32:07. Bizarrely, that PB is a bit of an outlier in my marathon history, and until now that 4:32:07 from Paris this year was actually my second-fastest time. Other than my PB I have NEVER broken 4:30, so to go below 4:20, over a challenging course, is a good sign that the training is paying off. In entering this race I had wanted to see if training through the summer months so I was a) better rested thanks to the school holidays and b) better adapted to warmer temperatures, would make a difference. Added to that, I wanted to see if an elevation profile more similar to what I train on would suit me better, and I think my result is a clear yes.
I was also really pleased with my overall stats:
Position – 1145/2619
Females – 267/1025
Category – 148/484
Overall the Loch Ness marathon is a great race and I can see why so many people rave about it. I may have taken care of unfinished business in finally reaching the start line, but I can see me returning at some point in order to get my revenge on that hill! And my time? Despite what I swore to myself in the last few miles, I’m already plotting my next 26.2 mile adventure, so watch this space…