On Sunday, I ran the Strathearn Marathon. It turned out to be a challenging day. I’m still disappointed with how it all went down. That said, I’ve gathered some thoughts now that my head is in a (slightly) better place than it has been.
First off, it needs said that the Strathearn Marathon is fantastic event. I cannot fault any aspect of how the Strathearn Harriers organise this one. It has the friendly vibe of a smaller club race, but there are many perks that you wouldn’t get at a big city marathon for a fraction of the entry fee. In addition to a man-sized squirrel, there’s a personalised drinks service! It’s a rare chance to feel like a pro as a volunteer calls out your name and hands you your bottle as your run past. There are bagpipers on the route who offer a shot of inspiration on the early hills (or, depending on your perspective on bagpipes, impetus to run quicker to escape?). The home baking and sandwiches at the finish were delicious. The marshals were stoked to be there, genuinely helpful and encouraging. And, as I found out, the first-aid team were attentive to struggling runners.
The course begins and ends at the Cultybraggan Camp (it held WWII POWS — a fascinating history). It’s a unique and slightly surreal setting for a race. The Perthshire scenery is stunning. It’s one of my favourite places in Scotland and the B roads look even better on foot than they do through a windshield.
As for the course, it doesn’t exactly lend itself ultra-fast time because it takes in 450m of climb (1,500ft for you who deal in old money). With the considerable ups and downs, this marathon gives runners a course that needs to be run on its own terms. No doubt the experience returning runners bring to this one will pay dividends.
It all started so well. I had completed the training programme without injury or illness and felt great on the morning before the race. I ran comfortably for the first half. More than that, actually. I felt like I was running well within my limits and quickly slotted into an effortless rhythm after the initial hill. The kilometres started ticking by at satisfyingly consistent intervals.
There is a killer of a hill at 24k. Looking at the route profile is one thing, but it’s another thing to experience the thing in real life. I thought the earlier hills would be tougher than they actually were, but this one felt ridiculously steep. At this point I was still feeling fairly confident and took the hill sensibly given the gradient. It was on the descent that things went awry.
On the way down I felt excruciating pain in both of my legs, which came out of nowhere. Not localised pain, just all over. Everything began to cramp. My toes started curling and I had difficulty just moving my legs, leaden and stiff. I’ve never experienced anything like it. I took the pace right down, sucked a gel that had salts, but to no avail. And that was the story for rest of the race: a painful and stiff-legged 19k slog to the finish. I had to slow to a walk regularly, even though my “run” had slowed to little more than walking pace shuffle. Apparently my stagger looked so bad that a concerned fellow racer told a marshal to come to my aid. The kind first-aider on a bike gave me some water and a gel and suggested that I pull out of the race. Or that if I decided to plod on, “Just don’t do anything stupid, pride isn’t worth it!” I was tempted to give up. In retrospect, that might’ve been the wiser option? With all my goals having quickly evaporated at this point, I gave my self a revised target of simply getting around before the 6hr cut-off. I honestly wasn’t sure if I’d make that, but it got me moving my dead legs in the right direction.
The final few kilometres were agony. The cheers from the folk in the Cultybraggan Camp gave me a boost and it was great to see my wife at the finish line. My kids apparently wanted to run over the finish with me, but I took so long that they got bored waiting so were playing football in the field! I was a wreck coming over the line, physically and mentally: mildly pleased that I managed to finish, but bitterly disappointed with how badly my race had unfurled.
It was hard to accept well-meaning congratulations from friends after the race. “It’s still an accomplishment!” “You managed to push through the pain and finish!” I’m sure it is an accomplishment. But it really didn’t, and still kind of doesn’t, feel that way. I’m disappointed and that’s that (even though I know that nobody else is disappointed). When I was less fit last year, I ran the marathon distance during training run that was quicker. I went into the race knowing that I could run a marathon. The goal was to run the thing well, not just finish; I already knew I could do that. Part of me feels like the commitment to training, the hard early morning runs, lung busting speed sessions, just evaporated. All the hard graft, all the post-race pain, but without any of the satisfaction to make it feel worth it.
When I ran my 50k, I just did the thing for the craic. I had no expectations, just to cover the distance in one go, to see if I could cover the distance in one go. Preparing for Strathearn was totally different. I had an tangible goal in mind (a 3:30hr to 4:00hr window), one that I knew would be more difficult than just being a “finisher.” I was well on course for that until the cramp hit. If I had set an easier goal (say, 4:30hr), maybe I would’ve achieved it. But there’s little satisfaction in reaching a goal where there’s no risk involved. It’s a gamble I willingly took and it didn’t work out the way I planned.
Of course, all the training hasn’t been for nothing. Through the process of marathon training, my running has improved drastically. I’ve dropped over a minute off both my 5k and 10k PBs. This isn’t nothing. I also have a better idea of the kind of pace that I can sustain and perhaps a more realistic understanding of my limits.
I don’t want to make excuses. There’s no doubt that I didn’t manage the weather well. 96% humidity isn’t a thing to be scoffed at and, in retrospect, I should’ve taken the pace down a few more notches. I trained in warm weather, but not that kind of thick muggy stuff. Who knows, even with pace adjustments, maybe the outcome would’ve been the same. That’s the thing: there are an infinite number of irritating what-ifs swirling about in my head.
For now, I’ll focus on what went well and learn from what went wrong — once I properly figure out the reasons for that! The first half of the race was a cracker. The scenery was stunning. I’ll never cease to have my faith in humanity restored by other runners – so many people gave me words of encouragement and water or slowed down (sacrificing their own times) to check if I was okay.
Training for a marathon is a strange thing. There’s a considerable time commitment that creates this tunnel-vision focus over a 12 week training bloc. To train well, it’s inevitable that the race gets blown a little out of proportion – it’s constantly there on the horizon. Generally speaking, waking up for a 3hr long run along the canal at 6am in the rain isn’t number one on my list of fun morning activities. But I went out and did it because I know it needed to be done. There’s also a balancing act of pushing oneself, but also not over doing it. That meant opting out of other things (like a number of hill races) for the sake of the marathon.
In reality, my “target time” is just an arbitrary number and not particularly impressive in any objective sense. On a perfect day, a flat course, and without injury, I still feel confident that I could run 26.2mi in 3:30min. The Strathearn Marathon is not flat and Scottish weather is seldom perfect in June, but I believe a sub-4hr time on that course remains a reasonable goal.
At the end of the day, it was my first road marathon and 4:45:49 is my new marathon PB. One that shouldn’t be too difficult to better in the future.
I’ll just have to go back next year and see what happens…
Since writing this, I’ve received some encouraging comments from one of the coaches at Springburn Harriers and my pal Mark (an accomplished sub-3hr marathoner himself), which are worth sharing:
Damian: “…That is beauty (and pain) of marathon running for you – you’ve got to put all your eggs in one basket ( that 1 race day) – when it all works brilliant – when it doesn’t – get to the finish, recover for a few weeks and plan the next one!”
Mark: “…it’s wonderful to run a race and see all your targets smashed, but there is a sense in which the accomplishment of finishing when it goes horribly wrong, when all your erstwhile targets are laughing at you and telling you it’s no longer worth it, finishing without ego basically, is even greater. And it’s only really marathon distances that can humble even the well-trained and experienced in this way. As for doing another, it would surely be a shame not to apply such a gruelling education ;)”