Monday, 28 May 2012

Race Report - Edinburgh Marathon 2012

Hot. Very hot. Hotter than the surface of the sun on quite a warm day indeed.

These are the words which followed us around the Edinburgh marathon and the few panicked days beforehand. Forget the abysmal training regime, the injuries, the sleepless night, the fact that our entire running and supporting crew had their minds elsewhere, it was the heat that really kicked us in the face all the way to Gosford House and most of the way back. But what a kicking. What a run. What a day. What a weekend.

Allow me to introduce the players in this story. You should definitely know the Crew Chief by now – she cheers like an American, crews like a trooper and is generally awesome in many ways. You may have heard of Neil Gray: he was a crucial part of my dress rehearsal disaster, he took a cool photo of some surprising zebras, and about a hundred years ago was an international standard age-group sprinter for Orkney and Scotland.  His fiancĂ©e Karlie Robinson is his own personal crew – and pacer, as it turns out. Finally the inimitable Alex B Dixon, a man of boundless talent and energy, who was there for my first ever Edinburgh marathon relay back in 2008, and was there for the whole thing yesterday too. In a supporting role was Rebecca Schmidt, herself a marathoner but today acting in a professional capacity, cheering from one of the Barnardo’s stands. Neil, Alex and I were running, and Linds, Karlie and Rebecca were crewing. We were all to be very hot.

I’d like to write this post purely about the race, but that doesn’t feel remotely possible. Late on Saturday night a mutual friend of us all passed away in sudden, tragic and unexpected circumstances. The shock and devastation sat incongruously, impossibly, miserably alongside a glorious summer’s day and the pre-race marathon nerves. None of us slept well, and in the morning I would have happily traded anything to be waking up without that news. I lay in bed for an hour or so as the early morning light crept into the room, too sad and angry to imagine running a marathon.

But a marathon is what we had signed up for, and no good would come of us abandoning our endeavours. No-one spoke a word of dissent as the early morning preparations unfolded. Perhaps I was the only one who doubted whether we should be doing this. Perhaps everyone did.

Our plan started to falter immediately. Living just a couple of miles from the start line, I guessed that we could easily call a cab to shuttle us from the flat to the off. Amazingly, one or two other marathoners had the same idea, and as the clock ticked to 9:20 (for a 9:50 start!) there was still no taxi to be seen, evidently busy ferrying others around. We gave a small sigh at our atrocious failure and started to walk there, eventually hailing a cab for the last mile or so, and arriving at the start line with about eight minutes to spare.

Back when I registered for this race, hot on the heels of my 3:49 PB in ‘the race even marathoners fear’, I had optimistically put 3:40 as my target time for ‘the fastest marathon in the UK’. Seven months later, with a wrecked ankle, an aching oedema and having run less than 200 miles in training, I knew I would be nowhere near that so positioned myself at the very back of the London Road start. Neil and Alex, who had predicted finishes of 3:59 and 4:05 respectively, were starting from Regent Road, and it was for this reason that I loitered outside Holyrood Palace, less than a mile into the race, waiting for Neil to arrive. For those few early miles together nothing could have been better. A beautiful day, out for a run, with my mate and 12,000 others, having some headspace to try to unpick the sad events of the past 24 hours. Marathoning isn’t therapy, it’s just time, space, and the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other. Which is what we needed.

We ran to mile three together, already sweating heavily through our factor 50 sun cream, where Neil left me to pursue my run/walk strategy. I planned to walk the first 30-60 seconds of every mile, running thereafter, in the hope of staving off serious fatigue until later in the race. Which sort-of worked. Around mile 5 Alex overtook me too, and I kept him in sight for the next four miles or so, letting him slip away as I walked then catching up to within a few feet on the runs. Crowd support was much better than in previous years, and even early on people were out in their gardens launching sprays of water across the course. No hosepipe ban for us.

Of course, as I’ve mentioned before, at mile 7 or 8 you really aren’t in Edinburgh any more, instead running through small coastal towns in East Lothian. By the time I reached Linds and Karlie’s cheer station in Musselburgh, just before mile 10, I felt good and strong, ready for more. Unpressured by time or racing, I took in the luxury of stopping to chat to them, wolfing down Haribo and reassuring them that the heat wasn’t getting to me just yet. However, the blistering was. Though I had no complaints from my awful ankle, the balls of my feet were starting to blister. At mile 11 I ran into a first aid tent, and with very little haste a well-meaning but possibly rather simple volunteer taped some padding to the underside of my feet. I reapplied socks and shoes, and wondered how on earth I was going to cover another 15 miles on these uncomfortable things...

With very little shade and having already stopped three times, I thought it best to push on for a few miles and make some good progress. But by the halfway point, clocking around 2:08, I was starting to feel the energy sapped from my muscles and was having difficulty balancing between taking on water and staying cool with it. I did not want hyponatremia for my trouble. But the heat was serious, and I probably saw at least 10 runners being tended to at the side of the road, some on drips, others with oxygen. I counted my blessings and thought of other things. For a mile or two it looked like a haar was coming in off the sea, but sadly it never materialised and we continued to roast in the sun. I struggled to maintain enthusiasm and focus as I passed such delightful landmarks as Cockenzie power station and bland featureless roads, but unconditionally adored the enthused crowd support in the pockets of civilisation, and sporadically remembered why I love this sport so much.

Between 16 and 18 I gradually felt my strength rebuilding, and on one of the switchbacks, impossibly, I saw that Neil was behind me by around 40 seconds. Enthused by this miraculous turnaround I pushed on into the grounds of Gosford House, where I paused briefly to give a TV interview to a woman who told me it was ‘only 6 miles to go!’, which was an outrageous lie. I suspect that I may have been too rude for transmission. Some small respite from the sun came in a wooded path, and it was here that I stopped for a while to help a woman who had tripped over her feet and landed nastily, cutting her knee and hand. I walked with her for a while as she got over the shock. We ambled and talked and eventually she disappeared back into the crowd. I saw her briefly a little later as she sailed past me looking strong and determined. I was genuinely delighted for her.

And from here, it was a struggle. I ran/walked/hobbled/walked/power-walked/ran in intermittent bursts, going as fast as my cramping, popping muscles would allow. I chatted to some people, remarked that it was really rather warm and generally enjoyed the atmosphere and banter. I made a point of running past the bloody awful power station, wanting it out of my sight as quickly as possible, but otherwise chose my pace according to hills, company and the whim of the universe. It felt like it took weeks but eventually, by some miracle, I loped into mile 25 where Linds was waiting for me. Karlie had left with Neil about 10 minutes earlier, incredibly, pacing him to the finish line in her flip-flops. With two bags and two folding chairs to carry, the Crew Chief declined to pace me home, so I jogged as much of the last mile as I could manage before finally turning into the park and the finish line, crossing in a spectacular PW of 4:44:15.

Me, Alex and Neil with our impossibly enormous medals.
Despite the trademark Edinburgh Marathon disappointment of the reunion areas and general finish logistics, we eventually found each other. Neil finished in a solid 4:33, and Alex ran a stonking 4:14. Both will improve massively on a cooler day, and I look forward to writing about their next accomplishments one day soon. We lay on the grass under a cloudless sky and thought about things. After a small period of regrouping, swapping war stories, stretching and admiring sunburn we hauled ourselves up a 900-mile hill to the shuttle bus departure point. We joined the back of a queue of 1.2 million people and eventually got a bus back to the city, and another cab back home. We talked about our day, and our weekend, and what it meant to us. We laughed. We had a lot of food and a small amount of beer, and eventually our day was done. I was asleep just before 10pm.

Never again will I run a marathon without adequate training. I enjoyed this experience and the opportunity to take time over things, and being released from time pressure meant that my head was clearer to just have fun with it. But the constant feeling that I could have done better was nagging me all the way round, if only I had done some training.

Quite separately, painful thoughts affected all of us throughout the day, and in a way I took strength from an ongoing determination to make this whole mad enterprise worthwhile. Neil and I agreed later that if we were going to run a marathon with a lost friend in our thoughts, then we should bloody well do it properly. DNF was never an option.

Happy running, friends. And rest in peace Steven.


2012 to date: miles run - 215.2, miles biked - 52.2, metres swum - 1150, races - 3

Monday, 21 May 2012

Redemption and Urban Zebras

After the dress rehearsal disasters which plagued my mind and feet last weekend, I was a little apprehensive about scheduling another run with my partner-in-suffering Neil Gray. But fortune favours the brave and so we valiantly planned to meet in South Gyle, just to the west of Edinburgh, aiming to run 13 miles. Or 9, or maybe 8, or maybe just for an hour...

The sun blazed overhead as we met in the car park. Neil’s better half Karlie and Karlie’s better half Nic were also there to greet me, and Karlie immediately grassed Neil up: 'HE’S BEEN DRINKING, YOU KNOW!!' she declared with a small amount of incredulous glee. I admitted that I too, had had a few beers and maybe a whisky the night before and only made it to bed around 1am. Neil looked at his shoes and mumbled that he’d only got to sleep at 5. So once again we started a run on the back foot, bemoaning our pathetic inability to stick to a plan.

But after last week’s excessive hype and subsequent deflation, we had abandoned all preconceptions and aspirations about this run. We were just going to go out for a few good miles and to rebuild our shattered running confidence. Heading out of South Gyle at a comfortable trot, we took in old Corstorphine before following the main road towards the city. I had a notion of climbing Corstorphine hill, but had missed my planned turn-off and ended up careering around residential areas before schlepping up the longest, most gradual ascent to the peak.

Neil silently cursed my route planning and I remarked on how my hill-climbing skills had all but vanished since my fitness peak for SF and Loch Ness. The brilliant blue sky and warm sun set a stunning backdrop to our long, slow slog, and the heat sapped our energy just as it had last weekend. In the final few feet before the top Neil managed to slip off the trail and earn himself a few nettle stings, and when we did finally reach the highest point of the hill we found our view blocked by trees. Neil attempted to – er – undo some of the effects of the previous night’s drinking, providing an incongruous soundtrack for our obscured view. We were in danger of not enjoying ourselves again.

But then we rounded a corner. And our fortunes changed.

All of Edinburgh spread out before us. The entire route of next weekend’s marathon stretched out along the stunning Forth coast all the way to Bass rock and beyond, flanked by the Castle, Scott Monument, Arthur’s Seat, Calton Hill, the broad streets of the New Town and everything else about my favourite city in the world, all of it lit up by brilliant sunshine on a cloudless day. The struggle and strife melted away as the rewards for our toil came into glorious, sharp focus. We looked at the view for a while.

After some time of gazing at the incredible vista, I explained to Neil that there were several ways down – I suggested either a route I knew would take us back to a main road on the other side of the hill, or another which I had never tried but guessed was more direct. Enthused and excited, we chose the road less travelled and launched into the unknown.

And then there were zebras.

Neil's photo from his iPhone. Not Attenborough, but proof nonetheless.

Yes, zebras. Just a few feet from the incredible view, we found ourselves on the perimeter fence of Edinburgh zoo, staring at a herd of zebras. The day could surely not get any better. We watched in quiet awe as the animals calmly grazed near where we stood, separated from us by a couple of fences. What luck that we had come this way. What good fortune we were running at all. How lucky that we didn't crawl back to bed and cancel this run, that we didn't choose a flat easy route somewhere else. How lucky that we took up running in the first place. How much better life is when we take the chances the universe has to offer. What an incredible amount of joy that running offers us, and what little it asks in return.

Eventually, we remembered that we had gone out for a run and not a safari, and launched ourselves through the ancient wood that borders the zoo. We could easily have been in the gorilla enclosure for all we knew, such was the solitude and rugged landscape of the place. We ran, hopped and leaped down the steep path as it wound through clusters of trees, under an ancient stone arch and generally through a beautiful piece of wild countryside, deep in the heart of the city.

As the path spat us back out onto the main road and we gleefully trotted back to South Gyle, we remarked that we had no idea what our pace was, no clue how far we had run and no cares about either. We had enjoyed a brilliant run, in glorious weather, and remembered why we bother in the first place. Redemption.

Haven't had one of these in a while: I run because of urban zebras.

6 days to 26.2, and I cannot bloody wait.

Very happy running.


2012 to date: miles run - 185.02, miles biked - 52.2, metres swum - 1150, races - 2

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Dress rehearsal disasters

Having decided that the Edinburgh Marathon is indeed on like Donkey Kong, I have spent the last week working on things which will contribute to me not having a completely disastrous experience during the race. With mixed success.

After a decent 10-mile run last Monday, some time on the bike and a touch rugby game on Tuesday, I went to see a podiatrist on Wednesday night to talk about my left ankle issues. He gawped at the nasty way in which I roll my ankle and ascribed the pain to me chipping away at the ball joint with every footstrike. He didn’t seem too disturbed by my plan to run Edinburgh despite terrible gaps in my training and general injury failings, but did point out that an inverse taper would be a pointless exercise, since I could do nothing to improve my fitness in just 2 ½ weeks. Quite the opposite – I risked doing myself an injury which might rule me out of the race altogether. Interesting. He made me a pair of custom orthotic insoles then and there, and I left his office satisfied though £70 poorer.

I took his advice and binned my scheduled runs for Thursday and Friday, focussing instead on the planned course recce set for Saturday with fellow Edinburgh marathoner Neil Gray. We would take the train from Edinburgh Waverley to Longniddry, a station just ½ mile from the furthest reaches of the route. From here we could run all the way back to my flat, totalling something like 14 miles, which we intended to run relatively slowly so as to get a good opportunity to explore the course.

Things went wrong from the beginning. Driving into Edinburgh, Neil’s car suffered the automotive equivalent of an enormous blood blister and left him on the side of the motorway, frantically changing the tyre. We were only half an hour late to Waverley station, but this made us feel a little thrown off our meagre plan. I had a social engagement to keep in just a few hours’ time – there was little margin for error. As the countryside flew past we realised that our route would take us a very long way indeed. Fear and doubt planted seeds in our minds.

Nothing seemed to go right. We got a bit lost just trying to get to the sea, necessitating an unplanned cross-country sprint across the fairway of Longniddry golf course, eyes to the sky in case of deadly white projectiles. When we did find the coast a cruel headwind beat us back wherever we went. In choosing routes along the sea we seemed to perpetually make the wrong call and veer down pointless diversions or on trails made of loose sand. Neil struggled in the heat whilst I cultivated an enormous pair of blisters from my new orthotics. Neither of us could get anywhere near a sense of flow or settle into a rhythm, and our complaints were exacerbated by the knowledge of one another’s problems. Things looked bleak, and got even worse when Edinburgh’s skyline appeared in the distance. The very distant distance.

Just over 8 miles in I had to make a pit-stop to swap the orthotic for a regular insole as the blister had become unbearable. The slight pain in my left ankle which was the root of my troubles had inexplicably got a hell of a lot worse. As I delved into my rucksack for the replacement insole, Neil stretched out his prematurely tired legs and finished off his water bottle, beetroot-faced and sweating. An air of resignation gradually crept over us both. We told each other that it was time to abandon the run and chalk it up to experience. Neither of us needed much convincing. An exceptionally rude bus driver took my money and we wallowed in our failure as the number 26 bore us back into the city.

Even RunKeeper seemed to be struggling – check out the route it first produced for our run:

2:46 minutes per mile. Excellent.
The corrected version is available here.

Needless to say, Neil and I were a little disheartened by this experience. We had cheerfully thrown ourselves at the course and been found sorely wanting. But as time has passed and I’ve had a little time to analyse what happened, I am less worried about my prospects for the full race. We put on a terrible dress rehearsal, which in theatreland means we can expect a great show (I acknowledge, of course, that this is marathonland and training is pretty bloody important, but shush now). From here on I’ll only be using the orthotics for short distances - as I was told to in the first place - and I’m sure Neil will have plans to address his overheating problem (hint, mate: drink more water).

10 days to 26.2.

Happy running


2012 to date: miles run - 175.5, miles biked - 52.2, metres swum - 1150, races - 2

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

It's on like Donkey Kong

OK, you’ve done it. At the whim of the populace, I am committing, here and now, to run the 2012 Edinburgh Marathon in 19 days’ time. Thank you for your responses, I enjoyed them all immensely. For those of you who missed out, I posed the ‘to run or not to run’ question in this blogpost, and received the following smorgasbord of advice...

Marc: Very difficult question indeed. My inclination is that you should do it, but make it about something other than the time. Find a slower friend and pace make for them, or just try to run every mile the same speed, or intervals, or something. Anything to create a 'different' challenge from running the whole caboodle as quickly as you can. You love running, and I can't see you not enjoying it some way. But BE CAREFUL.

Dave: Thank Marc, I agree with all of your points. My ‘different challenge’ might involve a run/walk strategy, I might have a go at a charity chaser challenge, or I might take my iPhone and attempt to blog live through the event. All to be decided.

Iain: As the result of playing cricket through an injury (a pain in my left hip) I am now off for (yet more) MRI scans, I would advise against running a marathon at the best of times let alone when injured!

Dave: Iain, we have been friends for about 15 years and you’ve been injured for about 14 ½ of them. As such I should probably take your advice. But I am an idiot so I won’t.

Clair: Hi Dave, Sounds like you have a 'sportsmans hernia'. I say run if it feels ok and you feel ok, but if its just going to end up causing you more pain then what have you gained from it? You've already achieved great things so if you feel like passing on this one, I don't think anyone would question your decision. If however you decide to do it (I personally would err on the side of caution) the I'm doing the half! Wave as you fly by! :)

Dave: Clair, you are ridiculously kind to write such nice things about my achievements. I have been back and forth with the NHS since November in an attempt to determine whether or not I have a hernia of any sort. The diagnosis is that I have something called a perisymphyseal oedema, which I don’t fully understand, but apparently am allowed to run on if I take an enormous pile of anti-inflammatories too. I feel OK, and I’ll run gently... Good luck with your half!

Katie: Ask yourself: What would Jedward do? Then do the opposite.

Dave: Well there goes my don’t-run-and-then-lie-about-it-afterwards plan.

J-Mac: Defer your entry until next year. No shame in that!

Dave: J-Mac, you are so wise but the Edinburgh marathon is so stingy that if I did that I would just have to pay again. They would defer my place but keep my cash, hardly an incentive in a first-come-first-served race that’s easy to access...

Latterbarrow: Do it! - with a chest infection, and knowing I had little or no chance of completing, I travelled to Yorkshire and started the Three Peaks Race. For me, the old cliche of 'taking part..' is true.. (I got three miles, spewed up, and spent the rest of the day recovering in the pub)

Dave: This is full of mixed messages. Maybe I should just go straight to the pub?

Simon Freeman: I'd echo what Marc wrote and say that if you can find another reason to run, it might be one of your favourite races. While I was flogging myself to a 2 minute PB in the London this year, my wife was studiously ignoring her PB and jogging round, enjoying the day and treating the London as a training run (with a medal at the end) for the ultras she is doing in 2012. She loved seeing a different side of the race.

Dave: Simon, you sound like a clever man. Your wife sounds even cleverer.

Training plan: a Martin Yelling inverse taper.
Race strategy: banterous chat.
Predicted finish time: absolutely yonks.

It’s on like Donkey Kong.

Happy running.


2012 to date: miles run - 164.3, miles biked - 50.2, metres swum - 750, races - 2

Thursday, 3 May 2012

To run or not to run? That is my question.

Should I run the Edinburgh marathon, just three weeks away on Sunday? I cannot make this decision on my own.

  • It would be my 5th marathon in three years (which is awesome).
  • Loads of my friends and colleagues are running one of the events over the weekend.
  • It’s local.
  • I’ve paid for it.
  • It’s a downhill/flat course and hence not too challenging.
  • I will feel massively left out on the day if I only spectate.
  • I could just jog round and enjoy it.
  • I am severely under-trained. I haven’t run more than a half marathon since October.
  • I am carrying two injuries; in my left ankle and in my abdomen/groin.
  • I am definitely not going to get a PB, in fact I am very likely to get a PW. Possibly by a long way.
  • If I do start and things get really bad, I might DNF. The shame, the shame...
  • If I pig-headedly struggle through it I could exacerbate my injuries and make things worse in future.
  • I could just jog round and hate it.

So I leave it up to you lot. I shall make my decision based entirely on the tone of responses written in the comments box. Over to you. Don't let me down.

Happy running


2012 to date: miles run - 150.94, miles biked: 46.2, metres swum: 750