Or The One With Highly Questionable Training…
I really had no expectations for this one. I began the year feeling really strong, but a series of disruptions to my training and subsequent decision to build up into the event rather than taking a more traditional taper, meant I really had no idea what was going to happen. Yes, I ran 4:05 last year, but I also have a fair number of marathons under my belt where training was less-than-optimal and I finished in the 4:30s/4:40s. I was getting ready for this one fully expecting a 4:4X finish. And I was ok with that since just a couple of weeks earlier I didn’t think I would be running at all.
I didn’t spend much time poring over the route map. I knew there had been an alteration from last year so that where we finished would serve as both the start and finish lines (so we would basically run a really big loop) but didn’t think much about it other than that. It would be 26.2 miles, most of it would be on the same roads as last year, and I would do my best. I was pretty relaxed about the whole thing which was really nice.
I got my kit all prepared the night before: Tikiboo shorts, Under Armour sleeveless top, Nike arm warmers, 2XU compression calf sleeves.
The weather forecast looked pretty perfect – cool, dry and still, so I thought I would want the arm warmers for the first few miles and maybe roll them down later on.
We were keen to be in Stirling quite sharp (unheard of for perennially last-minute Steve!) as this year the event car parks were going to cost £5 (they were free last year – humph!) but there was a city centre car park really close to the start which would be free since it was a Sunday. So after a breakfast of porridge and coffee, we were in the car and on our way. We did have to take a diversion due to road closures for the races, but we scored a parking space right where we wanted and walked up to the start/finish area at Kings Park. The event area had really only just opened so it was pretty quiet and we had our pick of toilets as soon as we got there. What luxury ha!
I had packed a disposable poncho and since all the benches and the ground itself were wet from the rain the day before, I laid this out so we could sit down and wait until it was time to strip off our warm layers and hand in our bag. This was the only moment when I felt a little emotional and it was all because I opened Facebook. It popped up this memory from last year and although I was feeling calm, being back at the same event reminded me of all those feelings once again.
From my perspective, the start was much better organised than last year. Last year I had to scale a barrier to get into the starting area, but this year, although being fairly last-minute to head over as we wanted to go to the loo one last time, it was pretty straightforward. The start was on the main road and the waiting runners snaked back around the tennis courts into the park. This time both the full and half marathons started at the same time (last year the half was a bit later so a lot of marathon runners ran into the back of the half marathon towards the end). There was a barrier separating the two sides of the road as after about half a mile the routes would diverge so this made sure runners were on the right side of the road and didn’t have to dart about. By the time I reached the start line several minutes had ticked by, but it was chip timed so I was still really relaxed.
I was wearing my Aftershokz headphones but had decided not to switch on anything to listen to until later on. Instead, I took the time to settle into a comfortable pace and enjoy what was happening around me. I was a little disappointed there were no “animals” outside the safari park this time (I even ran on the right side of the road to get a high five!) but I did enjoy the difference between the quiet country roads and the immense noise in the towns we passed through.
As we ran down a short hill into Doune, I could hear some runners near me making some jokes around the name (it’s pronounced “doon” – the same as the Scots word for “down”) – lots of “running Doune the hill”, “heading doon to Doune”, etc. At the bottom of the hill we cross an old bridge and looking to the right, along the water, is Doune castle (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Game of Thrones, Outlander) so I stopped to take a couple of photos. They came out a bit “soft focus”, but you get the idea.
Doune itself was really noisy. There was a pipe band and I think every single person who lived there must have been out lining the streets to support the runners. It was a much-needed boost as much of the road out of there was uphill until eventually a nice long downhill stretch into Dunblane. I STILL didn’t see Andy Murray’s gold postbox (sigh!) but later in the race I overheard someone else saying they thought we maybe didn’t run past it. Maybe it’s not my fault after all!
Dunblane was also really supportive. I saw some older women standing at the end of their driveways enjoying cups of tea and I think if they had offered me a cuppa I would have probably stopped for a chat there and then. I was approaching half way but it was starting to feel hard and I knew it wasn’t good for a marathon to feel hard so early on. Still, I wasn’t massively surprised and interestingly the weary feeling in my legs never got any worse through the remainder of the race.
From Dunblane, we made our way towards Bridge of Allan. I remembered a really nice downhill stretch here, which was just what I was needing, but I was also a bit confused. I remembered from the course map that mile 20 was close to the university, but if we kept on going alone this road as we had last year, we would reach there much earlier. Just as I was puzzling about how this was going to work, the route left the main road and took a right turn onto a narrow, country road for a loop which would bring us back onto the main road just before 19 miles.
I found this stretch of the route quite odd. It was pancake flat, but the road had lots of potholes and rough patches which aren’t great on weary feet. It was also really quiet. It was essentially a farm road and mostly flanked by fields. Those who lived along there were out offering support, but we were at that point in the race where nobody was chatting much anymore and I don’t think I was the only one who started to notice how tired they were at that point. All I could hear was the slapping of feet on the ground and a few weary groans as we approached the business end of the marathon.
I made a decision to take a short walk break when I got to 18 miles. In deciding to run the race, I had considered walking a little as a possibility to help me get around the route so was comfortable with that decision. Just as I ducked behind the mile marker to slow down without getting in anyone’s way, another runner passed by and spoke to me by name. I had actually noticed this runner earlier on when I had been right behind her as she was wearing a top with cutaways in the back which showed off a really cool tattoo. As she passed by, I realised it was Rhona, whose blog Red Wine Runner was one of the blogs which originally inspired me to start this one. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Rhona at a race, so it was nice to see a familiar face. I tweeted her the next day and it turned out she had been running behind me wondering where she had seen “those mad shorts” before, then twigged who it was. Running can be such a small world!
While on the subject of the shorts, I thought I had chosen a fairly understated pair, but they did get quite a lot of attention along the route from both runners and spectators alike! Every shout of, “I love your shorts!” made me smile and gave me a bit of a lift so it was worth wearing them.
Walking for a few minutes really helped me to rally so when I emerged back onto the main road and hit the wall of noise that was Bridge of Allan, I was ready for it. The first thing I heard was the end of a song from The Greatest Showman which really gave me a boost. It was so noisy along there I had to stop the podcast I had started when I began my walk break and didn’t re-start it until I was a bit further along the road again.
Another slight change to the route was around the university. Last year we ran in, did a loop then came back out the same way. This time we still went in (up a pretty steep hill dammit!) but our loop funnelled us out a different way so we were further along the road. It did, however, lead to a nice downhill section that gave me a bit of a second wind for a bit.
From there, I knew I could make it. I remembered that I would have a slight incline (where a photographer lurks!) before arriving in Stirling to make my way through the city centre and up to the finish. With about a parkrun to go, I got a nice text from a colleague to wish me luck and that gave me a bit of a lift just when I needed it. Then once in Stirling itself the crowds were amazing. I’m looking down in the photos because the streets are uneven cobbles and the last thing I wanted to do was trip, but I knew that Steve’s cousin would be out ready to cheer us all on so when I spotted her I waved and she came out to give me a high five. The crowds were roaring their support and since our race numbers were printed with our names on the front, everyone was getting lots of encouragement by name which is always so good through those last miles.
Finally, I found myself at the bottom of the last hill (!!) up to the finish line. I was prepared for it having been there last year and we had actually walked up that hill on our way to the start that morning. Again, loads of supporters shouting encouragement to get the runners up the hill. I began to feel pretty strong as I knew I had it now. I had been keeping an eye on my time and knew that I was actually going to finish sub-4:30, which was a surprise. I even wondered if I might manage 4:25 so as the terrain levelled out and the finish gantry was ahead of me, I kept the pace up as much as I could (I think I even passed someone!) and barrelled over the line with my arms aloft.
Made it! Against the odds, I not only made it to the start line but finished this marathon feeling pretty good, all things considered.
Stopping my watch it said 4:26:01. Ach, that second was a little disappointing but so much faster than I had expected. Even better, when I checked my official time it was 4:25:59. Got that 4:25 by the skin of my teeth!!
I collected my finisher pack and found Steve who was waiting for me just beyond the finish area. I was on such as high as I just couldn’t believe I had run 4:25 when I had expected 4:4X. How on earth had I done it?
I was, however, very keen to sit down so we laid the disposable poncho out again and once I had taken a couple of photos I sat down to enjoy my recovery drink and regroup a bit. Poor, exhausted Steve (who had finished the marathon then dutifully collected our bag from the baggage bus before hanging around waiting for me) had to listen to me yacking on in an endorphin-fuelled frenzy of excitement until I gave him the five-minute warning that we should head off (to give him a head start getting up off the ground – he’s not so good at this after a marathon haha!).
The finisher pack was pretty well stocked – lots of food, T-shirt and medal. My only real complaint is about the T-shirt as it is MASSIVE on me. It’s one of those “unisex” ones (not a thing – women and men are completely different on top) and this is allegedly a small. I wore it in the evening to go for a drink (with a long-sleeved top underneath it) but I can’t see it getting any further use and I took advantage of the post-event survey to let the organisers know my feelings on the matter.
Overall, I’ve found this one a little hard to process. As an event, I certainly recommend it. Plenty of runners, yet it feels small. Quiet country roads, yet roaring noise just when you need it. The route is undulating, but it is Scotland after all and nothing I haven’t trained on. Organisation is good and since it’s close to home it eliminates the stress of travelling and finding food ahead of the race. What I’ve struggled with a little is my own performance. I was so relaxed about the whole thing as I had no pressure to perform, yet far exceeded my own expectations given the training I had put in. I’ve also recovered really quickly which suggests I’ve got more to give. There’s a little bit of me which briefly wondered what I might have achieved if training had gone better, but it’s not worth dwelling on that. It is what it is. Life gave me some lemons and I made some pretty damn good lemonade that day. Marathon number 12 is in the books and despite a few miles of the race where I never wanted to do it again (standard!), I can’t see this being my last marathon. I just hope number 13 is a little luckier!