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


  1. Well done!!!! You did it! Nick and I had a VERY slow half, but for a first attempt we had nothing to compare it to and so finishing was the only aim. I think next time a little more preparation would benefit me. Glad it was a good experience and very enjoyable to read about. Take care!

  2. Excellent blog covering a fantastic day, I'm sorry for your loss and hope the day helped you. It was my first one and didn't really do as well as I'd have liked but delighted I finished strongly, where I got the energy to sprint past the finish line I'll never know but I'm so glad I managed it. The entire race the thoughts how hot is this? And I'll never have to do another one again after this rushed through my mind the finish and raw emotion I felt afterwards and the cheering , the volunteers and the locals all helping was so fantastic I'll have to do more.

    Thanks again for a great blog

  3. Like you I ran Loch Ness last year, but have been lucky enough to be able to keep up my training, and I've even ran two Ultra's this year, but that race on Sunday was tough, tough , tough. I can't even beging to comprehend how you managed it on so little training, well done on getting round.

    Thanks for the blog, keep it up.
    Keith Ainslie

  4. Congrats on finishing! I only did the half and was glad to get out of the sun before my shoulder combusted from Saturday's careless sun lotion mishap.
    Sorry for your loss, I'm sure having some time to mull over your thoughts was in some way helpful.