North Downs Way Marathon
Today I ran my first with-other-people marathon, along the North Downs Way. Actually I ran a bit more than a marathon due to taking an unplanned detour, so it was more like 45km in the end - but at least I learned a valuable lesson to follow the course rather than follow the guy in front of you.
I have been anxious about the race all week, with this training block not having gone how I’d planned it at all, and waking up in my hotel room in Reigate this seemed to reach a climax. Looking outside to see the pouring rain, only an hour before the race was due to start, I suddenly felt very strongly that I did not want to do this and would much rather get the next train back to London. I had told plenty of people that I was doing this race though and didn’t fancy sheepishly telling them all that I’d pulled out at the last minute, so I figured I’d better at least start - if it really came down to it, I could drop at halfway. Fortunately some of my anxieties seemed to be calmed once I put my vest on - apparently that was the signal to my brain that it was show time.
Lining up at the start line, it had just about stopped raining after the deluge in the wee hours, but it was very foggy, and we could only see about 20 metres in front of us - kind of a bummer given one of the big appeals of the race is its stunning views. My plan was to start slow, and walk pretty much all the uphills, knowing that I needed to have plenty in the tank for the tough climbs, and that if there was any opportunities for heroics they would come in the last 10k and not the first. I knew that being excited at the start of a race is a classic rookie error and I was determined not to make it.
The course was muddy. I do not mean just the odd puddle and surrounding mulch - the trails were all completely sodden and the majority of running was through the mud. There was no skirting around it or jumping over it, it was unavoidable. Fortunately it turns out my trail shoes were an amazing investment, and this was probably the biggest piece of luck I had all day - I’d only tried out the shoes once previously and that had been in bone dry conditions.
The race was a double out-and-back, which meant that it was quite easily to mentally divide into sections. The first quarter actually went pretty great, and I arrived at the aid station feeling strong, on a good pace even though I’d been taking things fairly relaxed. I was enjoying it a lot, despite the adverse conditions - the fog had cleared and I could make the most of the views. I was excited as I turned back to begin the second quarter, and was again making good time, even thinking that I was potentially on for sub 5. At about 18k in I found myself thinking how great I felt, surprised at this given my perceived poor training, and still thoroughly enjoying the experience. I was following somebody in front of me who was going a little faster, in my own little world, until I realised I hadn’t seen any markers for a while. The course was very well marked, so this was strange, but the guy ahead of me was still going so I figured he was right.
He was not right. I ended up adding an extra 3k to the route, and then it started showering heavily. I got absolutely soaked while making my way to the start line in order to begin my second lap, 20 minutes later than I had been projecting. I knew that I couldn’t fixate on getting lost or let myself be annoyed, I had to put it out of my mind and keep going or I was going to think myself into DNFing. Similarly when I got to the aid station at the turnaround, I knew that I couldn’t stop or spend any time milling around, I had to just get another water bottle and leave immediately - which I did.
Before the race I fully expected the third quarter to be the worst, and it absolutely was. My legs felt heavy, I was wet, and the idea of doing the same distance that I’d just completed for the second time seemed brutal. But I also felt like once I got to the final turnaround point that psychologically I’d feel a lot better, I would be on the home straight, and now I wasn’t focussed on a time, I could pretty much walk an entire quarter and still make the cutoff.
The mud was a lot worse on the second lap too - 600 people had trudged along the footpaths turning the puddles and mud into one disconcertingly light-brown homogenous goo. I stuck to the plan - walked the uphills, pushed on the downhills. I tried to enjoy it as much as possible, because otherwise what was the point?
And I really did - the third leg was an emotional one. I was so happy to be out there on the trails, in nature, pushing myself. I thought back to just a few years ago, when I couldn’t run 5k, when I weighed a lot more, when I spent all my time on my computer and was an incredibly bitter person. To have made such a big change in a relatively short time, to be doing things like trail marathons, to be sharing words of encouragement with everyone that passed by, to feel true, in-the-moment joy when the past and the future was almost overwhelming. There were a few points where I thought I was going to burst into tears. I never doubted that I would finish either. I was scared that I might have to dig really deep in order to do so, but I knew that I had that in me if necessary.
As it turned, I didn’t really need to. The final leg felt good, even with the extra distance in the bank. I was amazed to find myself still flying down hills after 40km - although admittedly I was walking even the smallest of uphill gradients. I endured a lot less suffering than I had anticipated - in fact I suffered a lot less than during my road marathon. My hydration and nutrition were good, I was really happy with how I handled that throughout. My legs were tired, but far from shot, and I certainly had more in them - the mixture of uphill, downhill and flat meant that different muscles were being used and so some others got a break. Surprisingly I had no real issues apart from the wrong turn - my feet are fine, my legs are fine, and my soul is fine as I didn’t have to tap into any dark places in order to finish the race.
It was such a fun adventure, and I’m so proud of myself for getting to the starting line, let alone the finish line. Having had so many struggles with training, and wondering whether or not I enjoy running or want to continue doing it anything other than socially, this really reinforced to me that I love it, and I love what I can do because of it. I’m already incredibly excited for the ultra in September.