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 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.
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
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.
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.