Last October, having failed to make the lottery for London, I suggested to three of my friends, while drunk, that we should all pledge to run the Loch Ness Marathon. This we did and two of us, while sober, actually signed up.
I did my first marathon in Edinburgh in 2009 in a respectable time of 4:12. On the one hand I was quite happy just to have finished a marathon at all but on another I really felt that I had a sub-four hour race in me (somewhere).
Bill and I took an Easyjet flight up to Inverness, sadly missing all the lovely scenery that we would have spotted from the train. It did, though, mean that we could get into town with plenty of time to dump our stuff at the guesthouse and then get to the start and register for the event. Picking up our bib numbers and timing chips we had time for a quick photo with ‘nessie’ next to the finish line and the ‘Ness’ river that runs through the town and down to the Loch.
The organisers had offered a ‘pasta party’ but looking in the tent this didn’t seem that fun so we decided to look for our own dinner. We controversially avoided a few italian types places and pasta all together and ‘carbo loaded’ on good old fish and chips at the classy sounding ‘Vegas Chip Ship’. They even had a ‘gourmet menu’ of things like scotch pie and white or red pudding.
With nothing much else to do, especially as drinking beer wasn’t on the cards we just went back to our guesthouse, prepared our things for an early start and were in bed well before 10 o’clock. Such good boys!
This will certainly count as one of the most interesting and bizarre starts to a running race that I’ve done. The general plan is that we meet at 7am at the ‘finish’ in Inverness and get bussed to the start out beyond the other end of Loch Ness and run all the way back.
It certainly did no harm to my morale that it was a glorious morning as we walked to the coaches at Bught Park. What did make us a bit nervous was that the driver stalled the coach a couple of times on steep rises when we neared the start. Would we even get there?
When we did arrive, we did the usual pre-race routine of a long queue for a portaloo (there is never enough), followed by hanging about in the chilly, pretty moorland for the race to start. It is, in fact tricky to think of a more picturesque start to a race than this.
Start to Halfway
This race felt very much like three distinct parts so i’ll break it down that way.
Going into the race and even up to the start i’d been very unsure what sort of plan I should go for. I didn’t think my training had been nearly good enough, so should I still aim for a sub-four hour pace? If I tried, would I blow out and not finish at all? I’d be more upset at not finishing than the time goal but it seemed wrong to not try. I was confused!
What I did know was that the race started with several miles of downhill and as the gun went off and we went over the line, I thought that at least I should make hay while gravity was on my side and go fast in the early stages.
The course undulated slightly but the general trend was down hill and the first few miles I did blisteringly fast (by my own standards). In fact they were literally blistering as I found to my extreme consternation that I had started developing a blister at about mile 7. This was not good and I don’t know why as I hardly ever had any blisters on my training runs? Same shoes and socks, a mystery?
The road soon joined the Loch and we got occasional stunning views, though most of the time it was behind a treeline.
When things (sort of) flattened out I found myself still keeping up a fastish pace but at the time it felt a bit unnatural to have to force myself to go slower. The miles ticked by, my foot was getting sorer and the views still good. As might be expected, the further along it went, the runners got increasingly spaced out. I never found myself alone but soon there were no problems overtaking slower runners.
I kept to my water and food strategy – accept all ‘normal’ water, pour some over my head and drink the rest. One energy gel each hour (I had three). I didn’t accept any of the energy drinks or other gels or shot blocs on offer.
When I saw the 13 mile marker hove into view, I was both glad and worried. Getting past half-way makes me feel it is metaphorically ‘downhill’ from then on. On the worrying side I was already feeling quite tired. Had my pace just exhausted me? Was I going to finish?
Thirteen to Eighteen miles
These five miles were very tough for me. I was feeling increasingly tired and to cap it all there was a short but stiff hill at the 18 mile mark. I knew I was technically ahead of a four hour pace so decided to just walk it and conserve my energy. I hate having runners stream past me and I had to remind myself that I was competing against myself and not them.
I still had eight miles to go and at this point I really wondered how I was going to do it. My legs felt like they had very little left. Very definitely my lowest point of the race.
I told myself to keep plodding, one foot in front of the other. It also occurred to me that this was just another hour and a half of my life and I could put up with some discomfort for that long. The idea of being able to put up with pain if I give a time limit seemed to work. Somehow I was able to continue.
Nineteen miles to the finish
Both my feet hurt but one was excruciating. I listened to music for the whole of the event and for periods this may have helped distract me from the pain.
I plodded along for a few more miles until another climb around the 20 mile marker. Again I walked the steepest bit but did get running again near the top. The good news from this point was that there were no more hills, just slightly down or level. It also cheered me up to know it was ‘just’ a 10k to go. This distance feels very achievable!
The other morale booster was that despite a couple of very slow 1km split times on the hills I was still on for the sub-four hours. My addled brain kept trying to do the maths on my slowing pace against the distance to go and I convinced myself that it was still possible. All I had to do was keep going. No stopping or walking any more.
My legs could have easily and at any point now have just given up and stopped. My head was the only thing keeping me going. Each time a mile marker went past, I tried to re-calculate my projected time. It was going to be close, but I was still on for my projected time.
When I went through 23 miles I think I just knew I could do it. My legs were on total autopilot, in fact I could barely feel them anymore. The soles of my feet were agony. Despite this, I knew that if I kept going for just 30 more minutes I could stop.
The last few mile markers came and went and we entered the outskirts of Inverness and finally with 1 mile to go, the riverbank. The route cruelly makes you pass the finish on the other side of the river before crossing the bridge and coming back. I realised now that I could walk that last mile and still make it but this was not the time for walking.
I did find that a lot of other runners still had the energy for a sprint finish and dashed past me over the last few hundred meters. I was content just to run over the finish line at all!
I had done it. Not just finished, not just beaten my personal best but also smashed through the four hour time I’d set myself last year. I was delighted, relieved, happy and incredibly proud of myself.
Position: 700 of 2414 finishers
For some fun, this is my pace against elevation:
I stumbled through the finish line, got my medal, t-shirt and goody bag and accepted any other items offered such as bananas or energy bars. I was done for and could barely stand. I did manage to take the selfie with my medal and send it to facebook with the message ‘Fucking smashed it. Sub Four hour time’. As you can see, I was a bit emotional!
I phoned Deborah to tell her the good news and reassure her that I was (just about) alive.
I picked up my bag and went to have a bite to eat in the Baxters tent. The food was pretty average but I was extremely grateful for it. A band started up as I was eating, giving a very good rendition of Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling good’. This almost made me burst into tears, I WAS feeling good.
I took the seemingly vast walk (of a few hundred meters) to the showers and got myself cleaned up. I even showered wearing my medal! It was here I discovered that one foot was mostly unscathed, the other, however, had an enormous blood blister. If you are curious and not squeamish, here it is.
I then went back to the finish, just missing my friend Bill cross the line. He also beat his goal of getting a sub-five hour time. We are both heroes!
He went for a shower while I had a coffee and monitored all the likes and comments following my sweary Facebook post. If you were one of these people – thank you, it means a lot!
All that remained was to find something ‘proper’ to eat (burger for me), drink several pints of water and finally a beer. Bill and I just sighed and groaned almost constantly throughout the evening.
Just for fun, we had booked the sleeper train back to London. What you need after a tough physical day is a tiny cabin with no room to swing a mouse (let alone a cat). Actually I was pretty happy to lie down for a few hours and go to sleep at 9pm.
Thanks Loch Ness marathon it has been amazing and emotional! I can now retire from marathon running (for a few years at least) and do some new things!
Kayaking course starts next week….