Having notched up my first three marathons last year I was determined to at least learn from the experience so spent a good amount of time looking at the route and profile of the course to come up with a strategy. It's a tough course, mainly due to it being undulating through country lanes with a few hefty hills thrown in, including an uphill start. I'd been experimenting earlier in the year with an approach of walking steep hills and running flats faster as a way of managing my mental and physical fitness better so resolved to walk the hills at 8, 20 and 21 miles and seek to gain maximum advantage on the downward slopes. As some of you know I was injured in February/March so realistically had about a month to prepare so a PB wasn't likely but I thought I'd try and see how long I could sustain the right kind of pace as an exercise. I also thought I'd experiment with caffeine gels later in the race to see if that helped with mental sharpness.
I decided in the end to stay down the night before and luckily only the week before found a great B&B a couple of miles away for Helen and I and the two dogs. I was umming and ahhing about driving down in the morning but in the end figured that the break would be nice for us anyway and that I could do without the earlier start and stress of getting down there on time. An 8:30am race start means probably 6am to leave home, allowing some contingency. Handily the local pub was well briefed and had a nice selection of carb-heavy dishes for me to get stuck into too. In the event I didn't sleep well, mainly because of worrying about sleeping through the alarm but still, worth staying down if you ever consider doing the race.
So the big day arrived and I headed down to the race HQ at the Sturminster Newton school to pick up my numbers. Unusually, they insist on marathon runners having numbers front and back, but only front for the relay race that runs alongside it. It was steadily raining when I got there, and I just hoped the weather forecast was right and it would halt by the time we got going. Once inside the race HQ I caught up with Michele and the "Robson and the Cougars" relay team which helped take some of the nerves away before we headed for the start line. There's no chip timing, and it was a pretty low key start - basically a chalk line on the road, with a hollered countdown!
The first couple of miles are all uphill and as predicted, a lot of people went off reasonably quickly to get the points on the board whilst they were still fresh. I tried to stick to my "flat" pace to take a bit of advantage of being near the start of the race. Most of the first few miles are down lanes through fields and the occasional built up area. They have nine water breaks, which is pretty impressive and also helps break the race up. I reached the first of my designated walk points at the first major uphill at 8 miles and was glad I did, it just wasn't worth the effort and there was the anticipated payback of a downhill decline afterwards to make back the lost pace (and more).
After that it was pretty solidly down undulating lanes between fields before the next major hill at 20 miles - not a whole lot to look at I must say, so you have to work quite hard to stay focused. The sun had broken through and by about 15 miles it was starting to get seriously hot. Around 17 miles the heat, headwind and relative solitude as the race spread out started to get really had work but I managed to stick to my plan, with the planned walk at 20 miles being my reward when I finally got there. Again, walking the hills proved a good strategy, as the declines compensated for the loss in pace. As I headed off into the final leg after the last two major hills I was still in PB territory according to the Garmin. One other thing I noticed is that they course seemed to be measured a bit long which was slightly annoying - less so at the start but more so when your legs are starting to hurt.
One thing I hadn't prepared for was the course having a long straight with no obvious end in sight around miles 23/24. As anyone who has run a marathon will tell you, those miles can be a dark place in your head and it was there that my lack of training time started to take its toll, my legs seriously began to tire and I had to ease off. I started to regret the caffeine gels as well as I was starting to feel sick which isn't great at this particular stage of a marathon. Feeling a bit down at this, fortunately a passing Hedgie relay runner (Tiggy) raised my spirits and even offered to run with me. I didn't take her up on her kind offer (I didn't want to wreck her relay for one thing) but that meant a lot and gave me a lift, thanks Tiggy.
The final leg of the race is about 2km down a disused railway line which is now a gravel path. Again not the most exciting scenary but by that point the end was in sight. As the finish line came into view I was again lifted and touched by the cheers of friendly Hedgies as I crossed the line. Throughout the race at the relay changeover points I'd been cheered on by our relay team, and there they were at the end - what a great bunch of people to have on your side. Finally over the line, clutching my medal and reunited with the family we set off back to the race HQ (a reasonable walk, especially if your legs are cramping up) for a shower and complimentary hog roast. Amazingly, they also offered free beer and cider but I decided that would probably not be the best way to rehydrate again...
Would I recommend it? Yes, if you're looking for a good test of your marathon running. I'd probably say not for a first marathon - tough course, long stretches without crowds - but still well organised and with a cool medal and nice technical t-shirt. I was really pleased with the first 22 miles and felt that I'd definitely learnt from the previous marathons, just my lack of training time started to kick in a bit at the end. Better luck next time hopefully.
As usual I'm particularly thankful to Helen for traipsing around after me to cheer me on and for the opportunity to train (and run) with such a special group of friends. Special thanks also to Tiernan for his consultancy in my planning, and his motivational pep talks in the run up when doubts were setting in. Thanks to this club I've achieved things I never thought I would do, and for that I will always be grateful.