Bath (Hill) Marathon – Race Review

Solsbury Hill

The King of Bath, posing at Solsbury Hill

How hard can it be to run a marathon without really training for it? I’m not saying I’m not a runner, obviously I am, but one that hasn’t really been logging any serious miles of late.

With the Green Man Midnight Express looming just a few weeks away I was mindful I needed to up my mileage a fair bit, so when a friend said he had a spare place for the Bath Marathon I thought, why not?

The thing is it was only one week until the race, but I figured seeing as how I was planning on getting a long run in anyway, and the fact that the organisers were allowing us to switch the names over, I thought why not. It’ll be OK, won’t it?

So having done no specific marathon training (at all) and not having run more than 12 miles since the Hoka Highland Fling in April, I knew that I would be mostly running on mental strength alone. I was fine with that though. If running ultramarathons teaches you anything it’s the power of the mind to keep you going when your body is ready to quit. I was planning on treating this like a short ultra event – slow and steady and with plenty of cake. That and the fact that I’m a delusional optimist.

What I hadn’t factored for though was quite how hilly the course was. I’m not talking a touch of undulation here, but proper Hills – with a big ‘H’. I was talking to a friend at our local Parkrun the day before who is a solid three hour marathon runner, and after recceing the route he said he was “hoping” for about a four and a half hour finish. Uh oh – that sounded bad. Certainly tougher than I expected. But again, how hard could it be, right?

The thing is Bath is a hilly city, that much is an indisputable fact. Nestled in a valley probably carved eons ago by some ice age glacier, or something equally geological that I didn’t understand. This is why the most well-known race in the city, the Bath Half Marathon, runs around some of the blandest parts of the city – in a bid to keep it a flat and fast course.

If you embrace the hills though you can truly enjoy the majesty of the city and that’s exactly what the Bath Running Festival organised by Relish Running Races does, and it does it very well.

The festival is a series of trail runs covering various distances from kids races right up to the mental marathon I was undertaking. All races started and finished at the University of Bath and depending on the distance undertaken, took on a whole range of terrain. Hills are not optional though.

So setting off early we drove across to Bath, arriving at the university ready to ditch the car and collect our numbers. That sorted we just sat about on the grass taking in the sun for a while waiting for the races to begin. First the half marathon runners went off, and there were a lot of them. It was called a half marathon, but to be fair it was about sixteen miles in length, so a touch more challenging than the usual Bath Half Marathon people might have experienced.

Shortly after they had set off, a brave collection of around two-hundred runners lined up ready for the marathon massacre. Before we knew it, the air-horn sounded and into the woods like picnicking bears looking for the best spot we ran. It struck me at this point that I had no idea where the course went. I was going to have to blindly follow people in front and hope it was well marked out.

We looped around the university grounds weaving in and out of woods and fields, only pausing briefly when a group of about forty of us realised we had gone the wrong way. This was only because we saw a similar sized group coming back up the other way, telling us it was in fact the wrong way. Clearly a navigational blunder by all there.

Making our way back up the hill to the stile is where I rolled my ankle – the first time. I yelped as I went over on it and the pain shot up my leg. I stood there for a couple of minutes as people streamed past me asking if I as OK. I wasn’t, but of course I said I was. As the pain eased I hobbled over the stile and walked a little before picking it up into a jog. The pain had faded somewhat but I thought I needed to be careful with that ankle going forward or I could end up in serious trouble.

Fosse Lane

Fosse Lane is a Bitch

After we ran down to and along the Kennet and Avon Canal, past Bathampton Mill and out towards Batheaston we veered off left, across the main road, and started our first real climb of the day, Fosse Lane.

What seemed like a steep little climb at first turned into a never ending battle uphill. Turning from tarmac to gravel and onto dirt it kept going and going.

A group of runners ahead of me battled on and kept running up the lane, but by the time we reached the top, about a mile or so later, they were no further in front of me than they had been at the bottom.

From there we ran across more fields, down some steep woodland lanes before reaching the joy of our next hill. Words kind of fail me when I think about this climb. It was less of a hill and more of a wall with roots sticking out of it. It was like some of the world had fallen away into oblivion, and we had to run up what was left.

There was no clearly defined trail or tarmac road to run up, it was simply a steep mud and rock gully that climbed to infinity and beyond. I took one look at it and decided very early on that this was definitely a walker. I say walk, what I really mean is crawl on your hands and knees. For ages. This hill could best be described as bullshit.

Looking at the GPS data later it seems the climb was only about half a mile long, but with a 24% incline. That’s a climb that would break a Stannah Stairlift.

Bullshit

This hill was bullshit. Twice.

We slowly ambled our way up this climb to the top of the Earth, thankful that it was at least shaded from the hot sun.

With all the dry weather we had had lately you would think that this trail would have been dry, but oh no. It wasn’t that simple. You see there was a spring at the top of this climb, which meant that as we neared the top the ground turned very wet, muddy and slippery, as if somebody had left the tap on. The dust on our trainers turned to mud in seconds.

Reaching the top, eventually, we were greeted by the sight of a wonderful aid station which I can only imagine had been dropped in by helicopter. I had no idea where I was, but it felt like Tibet, only with Jaffa Cakes.

“That’s the last proper hill you’ve got” we were told. That was a lie, but it was a welcome one. It was not long after this, when running through a field on some uneven ground I rolled my ankle for a second time and went down like a sack of spuds screaming like a girl. I rolled about on the floor thinking my foot had been torn from my leg. A few people stopped to see if I was OK, but by that time I was up and hopping towards a stile to sit down.

I thought at that point, only about eleven miles in that my race was over. But I took a couple of ibuprofen, rested it a little and then hobbled off in the direction of the race. What other option did I really have at that point?

We carried on slowly and gingerly downhill through some woods, before having to scramble back up another hill. It was definitely a hill and we had most definitely been lied to. By this time we were on top of Solsbury Hill (of Peter Gabriel fame). Looking out over the city of Bath below I couldn’t actually recognise any landmark I could see. It was all so small and so far away.

From there we ran down a tarmac lane so steep it was painful on the knees and quads alike. But at the bottom of this lane we found ourselves back on familiar ground, at the aid station in Batheaston. It was a welcome sight for sure. We stopped, swigged some more flat coke, and scoffed down yet more flapjacks and jelly beans before ploughing on. By this time my ankle was feeling not too bad. Sure it was sore, but running on it seemed fine. I just didn’t want to make it three times lucky and go over on it again.

With the marathon and half marathon following the same route we had now started to catch people running the half. Brave souls who had battled the heat and the hills up until this point and were savouring in the fact they were only a few miles from being able to stop.

We however had no such luxury. Where the marathon differed from the half was that at the fourteen and a half mile point we had to turn around and go back and take on all the hills yet again for a second time.

Chowing down at the marathon turn point

Chowing down at the marathon turn point

The turning point also had a time cut-off of three and a half hours, which we were told would be strictly enforced, which at the start of the race we had scoffed at.

But now coming up along the canal path with half a mile still to go and the clock showing three hours and ten minutes the smile had been wiped somewhat from our faces.

We collected our bands to prove we had reached the looping point, munched down on some more goodies and set back off along the dusty canal towpath to return to our hilly fate.

However, as with a familiar car journey, the second time around the course did indeed seem shorter. When I say that I mean the hills came upon us quicker.

Once again we walked, climbed and crawled our way back up the hills. The second time around we were chatting to a guy who lived in Borneo. When I asked him if he needed to be careful of the wildlife when running on the trails in Borneo, he confirmed that was the case. “So is it the snakes you need to be careful of?” I asked. “No the snakes are OK, it’s the elephants you need to watch out for. You don’t want to startle them.” Noted. But I’m sure it’s not something I would ever need to worry about on the Cotswold Way.

Slowly and surely we made our way back up the hills and around the course. We had made the cut-off so now it was just a case of making it to the end of the race. At this point, providing I didn’t roll my ankle again I knew we would make it.

The Bling

The Bling

Coming back down to Batheaston we ran along back to The George on the side of the canal, a pub we had run past four times now in one race, the beer garden still full of people wondering what the hell we were doing.

As we reached what had been the turning point of the marathon route we ran on back through the tunnels, and got off the canal path and started making our way up Sham Castle Lane back towards the university.

After all the hills we had tackled a couple more now didn’t really seem such a big deal. We were only a mile away from finishing, there was nothing they could give us now that could be any worse than we had already done. Our spirit wasn’t yet broken and wasn’t going to be now.

We climbed our way back up North Road and turned back into the university grounds before following the looping paths around towards the finish. Emerging through a huddle of trees I spied the low key finishing funnel, pushed my shoulders back and ran strong across the line. The time? Six hours and fourteen minutes. It wasn’t fast, but do you know what, given the hills and the lack of marathon training I was happy with that. I even felt like I could do more. I thought if I was in an ultra and I had to do a third lap then I’m sure I could. It wouldn’t be fast or pretty, but I could do it.

So it was done. Yet again I proved to myself that if you put a positive mindset into things you really can achieve. There was a time when I wouldn’t consider running a marathon without three or four months of solid training, and even then it would floor me for weeks after. How different this had been.

This had been a great race. Incredibly well marshalled and with fantastic aid stations all around the course. Bar the one time at the start, there was no way of getting lost as it was very well marked out too. Well done Relish Running. A great event and one for the diary for next year.

So, how hard can it be? Pretty hard as it turned out. 26.2 miles with 3600ft of climbing. Tough in anyone’s book. But was it OK? Yeah, of course it was.

Next up, forty-six miles of Green Man in the dark. I think I had better do a little more training for that though.

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Running Yourself To Death

Grim ReaperIt is often said (mostly by non-runners) that running isn’t good for you. I think the evidence to counter that is pretty clear, although some people will always be unlucky.

But us runners are a funny bunch, we like a challenge and we like nothing more than when somebody tells us it’s tough. How tough? The tougher the better. So much so that race names that reflect the fact that you might even die are commonplace.

How blatant does a name need to get before you stop and question it? You Will Definitely Die Marathon; Fatal Fartlek Challenge; Pop Your Running Clogs Canter; Death With a Medal?

Here are a list of some of the cheerily named races. Anyone tempted? Know anything worse?

The Terminator

A challenging multi-terrain course of approximately 11 miles with a gentle start across fields and a canal towpath. It then gets serious with several climbs, a sting in the tail and a free shoe-wash.

Web: http://www.pewseyvalerunningclub.org/our-races/terminator/

Hell On The Humber

Hell On the Humber takes place on the world famous Humber Bridge, and is truly an endurance race like no other. Competitors start the race on a Saturday in August and run, jog, walk or crawl their way through 6, 12 or 24 hours of soul destroying and body breaking 4 mile laps of the bridge walkway, racking up as many miles as they can before crossing the finish line at 7am on Sunday.

Web: http://www.hellonthehumber.com/

The Black Death Run

The Black Death Run, probably the toughest off road run in the Country, yet still very achievable for even a modest runner.  It is estimated that less than 3% of last years runners ran the entire course, most walked the steepest hills. So join the crowd, run when you can, walk when you cannot, and enjoy the fabulous surroundings.

Web: http://www.theblackdeathrun.com/

The Grim Reaper

The Grim Reaper is a non-stop race that continues through the night. The route incorporates multiple loops through the beautiful grounds of the Grimsthorpe estate. Solo and Team categories will compete over various race distances (40, 70 and 100 miles) with all categories and distances starting at the same time and all having the same time limit of 26 hours.

Web: http://www.fat-feet.co.uk/running-events/index.php/events/125/

Canadian Death Race

Since the start of the millennium, elite racers have come to the Canadian Rockies to cheat Death in one of the world’s toughest adventure races. The 125 km course begins and ends on a 4200 foot plateau, passes over three mountain summits and includes 17,000 feet of elevation change and a major river crossing at the spectacular Hell’s Gate canyon at the confluence of the Smoky and Sulphur Rivers.  Extreme athletes, individually and in relays, push themselves to the limits of their endurance against the breathtaking background of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Each year, well-trained and totally committed, they battle heat, cold, altitude and themselves. Finishing is the prize.

Web: http://www.canadiandeathrace.com/

Summer Reading For Runners

So it’s summer at last and you’re all ready to jet off on your holidays. Whether that is to some luxury overseas hot-spot or camping on the Isle of Wight you want to occupy your free time sitting about sipping cocktails and beer.

A good book is an ideal way to relax during that precious couple of weeks off work. But what do you read? Well, if you’re into running, here’s a list of some of my favourite books (in no particular order) that I’ve read in the past year or so. Most are available as paperback or ebooks if you’re a techno peep.

It’s very far from an exhaustive list (if you want that check this one out), and they may or may not be up your street, but I enjoyed them. Why not give them a whirl.

karnazes

Ultramarathon Man by Dean Karnazes

This is the very first book I read about ultramarathon running. It was the very book that made me aware that anybody ever ran further than a regular marathon.

It’s a very easy and enjoyable read and tells of Karnazes’ own story of how he got into running such distances. I think this is something of a seminal book of its age, and no doubt responsible for many people taking up running ultras.

Amazon Link

alcohol

Dead Man Running by Billy Isherwood

This book is a brutally honest account of one man’s tough upbringing and alcoholism. By his own admission it’s not the most well-written book, but a perfect example of a good story shining through.

From starting running to tackling the Atacama Desert Ultra, this book tells the whole story. Finding God at the end of the book did slightly tarnish the enjoyment for me, but it didn’t detract away from the tale.

Amazon Link

badwater

A Few Degrees From Hell by Scott Ludwig

The Badwater Ultramarathon is billed as the worlds toughest footrace. If you’ve read a few books on ultras you will have no doubt heard it mentioned in passing. But what is it actually like to run?

This book is a collection of varied accounts from people who ran the 2003 event. What makes this book so interesting is contrast in the tales. A truly brutal race.

Amazon Link

kenyans

Running With The Kenyans by Adharanand Finn

It’s long been recognised that some of the fastest runners, particularly over the marathon distance come from Kenya, and more specifically Iten in the Rift Valley. But what is it like to train there?

That’s the question that Finn asks in this book as he moves his entire family to Kenya to train with the best runners around. Again, it’s an easy read and one that has a nice narrative.

Amazon Link

jurek

Eat & Run by Scott Jurek

Scott Jurek is up there in the ultra running halls of fame with Dean Karnazes and not unlike Karnazes’ book this covers Jurek’s upbringing and moving into ultramarathon running.

Jurek is also one of the highest profile of a number of vegan runners and this book also covers that topic and delivers some of his own recipes.

What I particularly enjoyed about this book was Jurek’s side of the Copper Canyons adventure as told in Born to Run. Always good to get a different perspective on events.

Amazon Link

born_to_run

Born To Run by Christopher McDougall

Born to Run has to be one of the biggest-selling running books in modern times. It is constantly at the top of the charts and has been for years.

It’s a great read that sees McDougall questioning running shoes, science and how we were born to run to hunt before following a story and trail down to the Copper Canyons in Mexico and running with the hidden tribe of running people, the Tarahumara Indians.

It also undoubtably started the modern trend for barefoot running, the merits of which are a hotly debated topic.

Amazon Link

Running and Stuff

Running And Stuff by James Adams

Currently only available in ebook format, but with paperbacks coming along very soon, this book shows just how far it is possible to push yourself once you get an idea in your head.

Adams’ is one of the UK’s most prolific ultra runners who has finished more ultras than most people know event exist. If you can think of a race, Adams has run it and it’s in this book.

This is a brutally honest and funny book. If you want to know just what it is like to run extreme miles then this is the book for you. Here’s a full review.

Amazon Link

ghost_runner

The Ghost Runner by Bill Jones

This is hands down the best book I have read in recent years about running. It is a tragic story of John Tarant, questionably one of the best long distance runners the UK has ever produced. But this is no simple tale of his rise to stardom.

In the 1950s when it is set amateur running was a very different world. This book highlights just how bureaucratic and petty this world was and Tarrant’s battle to be recognised to be able to just run. Brilliant.

Amazon Link

green

Fat Man to Green Man by Ira Rainey

OK, you got me, yes this is my own book. Obviously I think you should read this on your summer holidays. Why wouldn’t I?

What can I say about this book that I haven’t already said before? I was fat, I was lazy, I got a kick up the ass through a tragic situation, and I whipped my slacker ass into shape to run a bloody long way. Lots of people seem to like it. Maybe you will too. Here’s some more info.

It’s a tale of bionics, bumblebees and bears. Go figure.

Amazon Link

Talks At The Running Show

The Running ShowOn Saturday 22nd and Sunday 23rd November I will be giving talks at The Running & Endurance Sport Show at Sandown Park, Surrey. I will be there on both days (schedule yet to be finalised) talking about Fat Man to Green Man, the story behind it, the people in it, and my journey through it.

My talks will form part of a bigger programme of talks and technical seminars being held over two different theatres spanning the weekend covering all aspects of running.

The Running & Endurance Sport Show also will feature the best running kit available with loads of fantastic show offers and promotions. Exhibitors will be offering services including gait analysis, shoe fitting, fitness testing and more. You will also be able to sample a wide range of nutrition and health products. Sunday morning will also feature a series of 1 mile, 5K and 10K races.

The event organisers are offering free entry to all pre-registered visitors for this year’s show. All you have to do is visit their website and register. I’ll see you there.

Website: http://www.runningshow.co.uk