Monday, 3 October 2011

Race Report - Loch Ness Marathon 2011

I have now run four marathons, in four countries, in the space of 2 ½ years.  And yet I never learn.

My Loch Ness Marathon started like many of my races, as a logistical conundrum. In the absence of the calm reasoning of the Crew Chief (who was heading south on a train to Birmingham), Ben and I were trusted to look after ourselves during our weekend heading north to Inverness. Risky.

The race – much like the Highlands in general – is a little bit oldschool in that it requires registration in person the day before the event. As a result we were in Inverness mid-afternoon on Saturday, having watched the rain lash down on train windows all the way up from Edinburgh. In the first incarnation of our plan, we were to spend Saturday night as guests in a large stately home surrounded by acres of wilderness. In the second, we had bunk beds in a dormitory in a naff city-centre hostel. In the third and final, we lucked out and found ourselves a comfy B&B half a mile from the race’s start line. Like Mystic Meg on holiday, we had found a happy medium. Our attempts to find some dinner were equally haphazard – I should really have anticipated that every Italian restaurant would be fully booked for the pre-race meal. We settled on a bistro/bar place which eventually served us a lasagne that was, confusingly, mostly beef and cheese. How I longed for the military precision of the Crew Chief’s itineraries...

After a night of light sleep punctuated by panicked time-checks, we found ourselves breakfasting on porridge and fruit at 6.30am on Sunday, prepared by Joyce the Landlady at the Macrae Guest House. Her entire guestbook was filled with marathon runners. We were out of the door before 7, heading over the river towards the bus pick-up point on the far side of Bught Park. The start line is, unsurprisingly, 26 miles from Inverness, but this doesn’t mean it’s actually somewhere. In fact we were to be bussed out to an arbitrary point on a single track road somewhere between Fort Augustus and Foyers. I had prepared myself for the psychological torment of being driven along the entire route in reverse, watching the miles stack up from the bus’s window and knowing that I had to cover each one of them on foot on the way back. But we were spared this. The buses took an even longer route to the start in a vast convoy (3,800 people take a lot of moving), which stopped occasionally to allow the less-prepared runners to nip out for a pee in the bushes, a truly bizarre and very, very funny sight.

Hours passed. Or at least, two of them did. Driving in the Highlands is never fast, but a convoy of 50 buses on single track roads which kept stopping for loo breaks (the busses, not the roads) is definitely not fast. But at last we were at the start line – a professional and huge marathon set-up in the middle of nowhere, a riot of colour and noise and busses and portaloos and nervous energy. We stood in the cooling drizzle and low cloud, acclimatising to the air temperature after the dry heat of the bus, and before long we were watching the local pipe band march through the crowds and declaring the race underway.

Ben and I had a plan. Based on his training runs, we reckoned that we should be sustaining comfortable 10-minute miles, and we had prepared nothing more sophisticated than a plan to stick to it no matter what.

We didn’t. At all.

Mile 1 – 8:41
Mile 2 – 9:03
Mile 3 – 8:59
Mile 4 – 8:58

These miles were fast, downhill, full of excitement and energy and banter and people-watching. We were kings among men, we were fulfilling our potential, throwing caution to the wind and spitting on those pathetic 10-minute miles. The drizzle turned to heavy rain, narrowing the road as large puddles formed on the verges, but it mattered not. As we powered on even nature gave way to our superior awesomeness and the rain turned back into drizzle before disappearing completely.

Mile 5 – 9:21

Though there was a little hill at mile 5.

Mile 6 – 9:13
Mile 7 – 8:50
Mile 8 – 9:09
Mile 9 – 9:20
Mile 10 – 8:40
Mile 11 – 9:08
Mile 12 – 9:04

Between about 6 and 12 we hit the ‘flat’ section, still gently undulating but generally quite manageable, alongside the loch and with some fleeting but fabulous views of the water. Unfortunately the road is in quite dense forest for miles and miles, so the view wasn’t quite what it could have been. But what a road – twisting, turning, hairpinning and winding through dense, ancient woodland, it’s a magnificent place to be and a privilege to run on. We went through great water and lucozade stations in the middle of nowhere staffed by wildly enthusiastic kids, and some wonderful pockets of support clustered around wee villages here and there. We kept up with some people, were overtaken by others and overtook others still, notably the seemingly ubiquitous squaddies carrying full packs and speed-marching in heavy boots. But then we stuck behind a man and a woman, too captivated by their conversation to overtake...

Mile 13 – 10:42

Yup, we should have just overtaken them. But they were flirting on the run! They exchanged names, then, for the sake of detail, exchanged surnames and even checked that they had understood the correct spelling of each others’. They chatted about their various sporting exploits, their jobs and family lives, and basically covered all the bases which might lead to a film, dinner, coffee back at mine and maybe breakfast if you play your cards right. It was hilarious. But when we realised what damage our eavesdropping was doing to our pace, we decided it was time to push on.

Mile 14 – 9:15
Mile 15 – 8:54
Mile 16 – 9:09

The hills were approaching. We knew from the elevation chart that somewhere between mile 17 and 19 we were in for a kicking, so we braced ourselves and got our heads down in preparation for some slow, sluggish miles.

Mile 17 – 8:19
Mile 18 – 8:11

Hills!? What hills? OK, there were hills, but for some reason we managed to turn in our fastest miles on what was supposed to be the toughest part of the course. Awesome.

Mile 19 – 9:39

Ah, ok, there it is. Still manageable, though.

Mile 20 – 9:30
Mile 21 – 8:58

Things are still going quite well.

Mile 22 – 10:12

Things are going less well. My feet ache in a deep and agonising way, twisted and broken from the Great North Run. My old trainers are blistering my toes and my ankles are very, very weak. My left foot lands painfully with every step, pointing outwards by 45 degrees. We slow down to a fast walk up the very last hill of the race. We sing ‘Yesterday’ mournfully and occasionally in tune.

Mile 23 – 9:01
Mile 24 – 10:20
Mile 25 – 9:45

Try as I might, I just can’t hold it together. The pain is too much and I have to slow down to an only-just-running death shuffle. Ben is still full of life and laughter, and after much persuading, I finally bully him into leaving me behind and running the strong finish he deserves. He sails off ahead, ginger mop bobbing in the distance as I drag one foot in front of the other for the last few atrocious moments.

Mile 26 – 11:01

The sun is out, the crowds have gathered and the mood is buoyant as I am back in the civilisation of Inverness. I summon the last of my meagre reserves for a proper run down the last 385 yards, returning a smile to the giant inflatable Nessie who waits at the finish chute.

Marathon – 4:04:26

I cross the line some three minutes after Ben, my former hard drinking, heavy smoking reprobate of a friend who has just beaten me in a marathon. I could not be more pleased for him. Ben’s official time – 4:01:06 – is over five minutes faster than my first race in Paris was (Paris being, by far, the easier course). This is a man capable of a very fast time in the next year or two. We change, regroup, head to the train, get the beers in and promptly fall asleep. Some hours later we are back in Edinburgh, struggling up the stairs to my flat. A long, glorious day.

A very forced smile post-race.
So I’ve got another marathon under my belt, but somehow this one feels different. I didn’t build up to this race as obsessively as I did the first three. Instead I approached it with an attitude of nonchalance, deciding that I have reached a point in my experience and fitness at which I can run a marathon without much specific preparation, at a non-ideal point in my schedule and whilst nursing some small injuries. It’s true – I can – but I suffered for it. My nonchalance made me careless, too. I forgot to tape up my nipples, which bled profusely from the friction caused by rainwater. I can’t bear to look at my official photos and see the blood running down my white shirt. Equally, I packed my bag in a hurry and brought old kit by mistake, which has chafed so badly I’m going to throw it away. Whilst my muscles are recovering relatively quickly due to my overall fitness, the acute pain in my feet and the chafing under my arms and in some other important areas will cause me a lot of pain for the next week or so. I never learn.

So perhaps the conclusions are that yes, I can run a marathon more casually than I used to. Yes, I can manage two marathons in nine weeks with an ankle-shattering half-marathon in between, and yes, I can do all this without necessitating 6 weeks of teetotal training pre-race. But a marathon is still a heck of a long way, and I need to respect the challenge as much as I ever have. Complacency could end in involuntary nipple amputation. Which would be nasty.

Congrats, Ben, and welcome to the other side.

Happy racing,


2011 to date - miles: 988.44, parkruns: 6, races: 6, miles biked: 94.42, metres swum: 1225 

P.S. I ran this race with a totally oldschool disposable camera, so when I have the dodgy photos developed I'll be sure to post a few here. 


  1. Ha ha, I re-read this as Nessie is looming closer now. Thankfully, as a woman who appreciates the need for support, sports bras pretty much prevent nipple chaffing problems. And forgive me for actually wanting to see your blood-stained race photos. It's the same freakish fascination with gross stuff that has seen me waste hours of my life looking at cyst popping videos on Youtube. :)

    1. This is a bit weird but I'm going to take it as flattering! And if you know the right places to look you'll find the photos...