Day 1 – The Silver Phoenix Ultra Marathon
One of my current challenges is the completion of 26 ultra marathons in 52 weeks. I’m still just within target so, no matter the heat, Saturday would need an extra lap thrown in to make the race into a short ultra.
The course is a 5.3km loop up and down the Thames Path, so the race would be just short of 48.5km. Naomi was running the Saturday too, although a nice 10km run before the following day’s marathon.
The weekend was all set to be a scorcher and the sun was beating down long before the race start.
Naturally I set off far too fast. I was running next to a guy I hadn’t seen before but we were chatting about running generally and I was happy to settle into a natural pace next to him. Up along the Thames, over the blue bridge of death (I swear someone comes along and raises it higher each lap) and to the turn point at just over 2.5km.
At which point he carried on straight and I realised he wasn’t part of the race. He just so happened to be passing through the start area as we were setting off.
In for a penny, in for a pound. So I kept up the pace and shot back along the other direction. Back passed Naomi in the other direction and giving her a high five. It was early enough in the morning that the tow path was yet to fill up with pedestrians so I thought I’d make the most of the clear space.
Back along to the checkpoint and there was only one person ahead of me – he’d call it a day at I think around half marathon distance. Straight back out I went and back along towards Walton.
At this point I was starting to notice the heat but I was enjoying myself. There was a little part at the back of my brain saying “You’re supposed to be running an ultra today so maybe chill a bit” but the rest and more stupid part of my brain ignored it.
Looping back around and through the checkpoint for just over 10km I had a small drink and pressed on. Up, down and back out yet again. The distance disappeared behind me and I wasn’t even bothering to count laps.
And then it hit. 38km in and with 10km to go everything blew up at once. My legs turned to lead, my head started pounding and I felt sick. In short, I’d been stupid.
I’d not respected the heat and, even though I’d taken on fluids, I hadn’t taken on enough salts to manage the hydration. I was still moving but I fluctuated between running and jogging.
In the space of a few minutes I’d switched from flying around the course to just seeking to get to the end. I staggered over the bridge and slogged my way back up towards base camp where I stopped to pause and drink.
I’d completed marathon distance and only had a 5.2km lap to go. There was nothing I wanted to do less. But I’m still on target for my 26 ultras in 52 weeks so I forced myself back out, this time with a combination of jogging and walking. Calling it running would be generous.
Eventually I made it around but I’d dropped serious time. It didn’t matter in the slightest but demonstrated just how much I’d blown up on the course. I did however finish in first place from those who ran the same distance as me.
Naomi was at the finish line as always, with a table outside at the pub. I spent the next hour with my head on the table, refusing to move while she tried to (worriedly) force feed my hydration tablets. Sorry about that little one – completely not fair on you!
But it was done and with plenty of time to recover before the next day’s marathon, the whole of which I’d be running with Naomi. I got more fluids and salts down me and by the time I went to bed I was feeling absolutely fine. Bring on (a more sensible) day two!
Day 2 – The Golden Phoenix Marathon
Come the morning I was back at Walton with Naomi and ready for day two. This was to be Naomi’s second ever marathon (after I’d paced her around her first marathon in Brighton in April) and the sun was going to make it a difficult one. Having learned from the previous day, we had come prepared. I’d gone for the shirt and sleeves combo to protect myself from the heat and a whole tube of hydration salts were waiting at the turnaround point.
The Sunday was a “marathon-only” distance event, so went the other way up the river from Saturday’s race – from Walton to Hampton Court and back. A loop of just over 10km. Four laps for the full marathon.
The start came and Naomi and I set off, taking it easy and setting out at a gentle pace. Naomi didn’t want to focus or dwell on times, so I’d confiscated her Garmin and was managing the race for us. The goal was to finish standing in the heat – not knocking down times.
The route headed up along the river, through Sunbury Lock and along through an area of shaded trees, offering some slight relief. The track for the first half of the course is fairly uneven, with tree roots and stones jutting up and across the path which can make a smooth run difficult.
Approximately 3km along the route opens up onto a large park area, with people swimming in the river to cool off. I was jealous. More so for those lining up at the ice cream van. On through and across the rowing club’s slip into the water, dodging members carrying rowing boats and oars over their shoulders. At the end of the footpath was the turning point. Around we went and powered back to the other end.
For some reason on this course, the reverse direction seems to go by so much faster. I’m not sure why (technically it’s up-river so must be uphill, albeit only marginally) but Naomi agrees so I can’t be crazy… The route back was uneventful and at the checkpoint we paused to hydrate and take on salts.
The next lap was much the same but with the sun continuing to makes its presence felt I let the pace drop off slightly. Reaching the Hampton Court end, we paused briefly to grab some water and the marshals gave Naomi a tangerine from the cool box. Sometimes the smallest things make the biggest difference and Naomi was up for pushing on.
Approaching the lock on the return journey I noticed something hopeful. Lot’s of runners coming the other direction were carrying lolly sticks…
We passed one runner who called over to us. “Ice lollies at the checkpoint.”
At this point Naomi started chanting a little mantra: “Ice lollies and squash. Ice lollies and squash. Ice lollies and squash.”
Emerging onto the path by the pub, the race director Rik was standing to the side, ice lollies in both hands and handing them out to everyone as they went by. I don’t think either of us have ever tasted anything so good.
Lap 3 was mentally difficult. The heat was sapping all energy away and both of us were finding it hard going. We slowed to a fast walk a couple of times for recovery, but no stopping. All forward movement is progress. Before long and after a bit of shade under the trees and we were running again. As usual, the way back seemed quicker.
Along the way we came up to Simon who was sitting by the river. Simon was on the return leg of his final lap but was dehydrated and had blown up with about 3km to go. I gave him water and got him on his feet and moving but had to keep going with Naomi to get her around. At the checkpoint (and start of our final lap) I filled a second bottle with hydration salts and out we went.
Once through the lock I went on ahead, gave Simon the extra bottle (who by this point had picked up another group of runners who saw him back) and then let Naomi catch up before we carried on out. Naomi had been struggling a bit, thinking she was going too slowly regardless of what I said about the heat. I think seeing really experienced ultra runners and 100 Marathon Club members struggling gave her back some confidence that, actually, she was doing great.
All the way to the top with much more frequent walking stops. I tried to time the walking periods so that we walked in the shade and ran in the sun to maximise the relief.
Then started the conversation:
Naomi: “Marathons aren’t my distance.
Me: “You said that about half marathons when you started those.”
Naomi: “Yeah but I actually mean it this time.”
We’ll see… She was also severely underestimating how well she was doing. “We must be over six hours now?!” I checked my Garmin. “About 4:45 actually.”
Suddenly she was smiling. “Oh. Well that’s ok!” The little impetus drove her on and we covered the ground, slowing where necessary to recover but always moving on. We reached the lock – 400m to go. And Naomi stopped.
The combination of pain, heat, exhaustion, pride and relief that it was almost done was just that little bit too much. And the tears started.
A quick hug and a gentle push and she was moving again. Through the last of the trees and on to the road which leads by the pub and the final stretch. I took her hand and we crossed the finish line hand in hand in 5:21:59 which was an amazing run by Naomi.
Her second ever marathon, in sweltering heat and only 7 weeks after her first marathon. I have to keep reminder her that hardly anyone will run a single marathon and those that do run a second normally do it the next year or beyond. Spending so much time around me and those I often run with warps perception and makes it seem like multi-marathons are somehow the “normal” (I’m guilty of exactly the same – if I have a weekend without a marathon or ultra I think I’m falling behind and then remember that actually, that’s insane).
I am so, so proud of her and so glad I get to run them with her.
I now have three days off to recover before, on Thursday, one of my hardest running weekend begins.
Five ultra marathons – four days. Thursday, Friday, Saturday morning, Saturday afternoon and Sunday. Should be fun!