Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Paul Grinham reports from the North Dorset Village Marathon

Hills, Australia, Lady Gaga, Paper Cups and 42k!

By Paul Grinham 

Event: North Dorset Village Marathon
Location: Sturminster Newton, Dorset, England
Date: 6 May 2012

This time last year, I had never run further than 4 miles. At the end of May 2011 I entered a major city centre 10k race with some work colleagues to raise money for Cancer Research. I was hooked and signed up for the half marathon at the same venue in September.

Having completed the half, my first though was “could I run a marathon?” I figured that I was part way there already and if I was ever going to do it, now was the time to step up the training further and give it a crack. My first thought was the London Marathon in April 2012, the only event I was aware of, until I realised that entry is via a ballot carried out a year in advance! I could have maybe got a charity entry, but was daunted about how much sponsorship was required and was worried in case I found that I couldn’t cope with training.

Disheartened, I searched online for other events and suddenly realised how many marathons are held each year. I found the North Dorset Village Marathon listed on the Runners World Website. It had only been running for 3 years, but had fantastic reviews and it was held relatively close to where I live, so travel wouldn’t be an issue. The entry fee was very reasonable, so I had nothing to lose and no excuses…. I signed up on the spot.

Race head quarters were located in the High School at Sturminster Newton, a historic market town in the county of Dorset in South West England. A rural area, surrounded by rolling green hills and farmland. The race would take us through the countryside, via an undulating course of mainly quiet country roads, finishing with a mile and a half of trail, which was previously the location of the towns railway. We would be running through 10 different villages along the course, each unique and containing a mixture of traditional thatched cottages, slightly more modern homes, manor houses and farms. However, much of the course was lined with trees, hedges and a number of bridges. One of which still bears an original 19th century sign proclaiming that “Any person wilfully injuring any part of this County Bridge will be guilty of Felony and upon conviction to be liable to be Transported for Life (be deported to Australia!)” I did wonder for a moment if it was still valid!

We were welcomed to the pre race briefing by a Town Crier, in full traditional costume calling “Oyez, Oyez, Hear Ye, Hear Ye!” Very rousing at 8.15am on a chilly Sunday morning! The town crier read out some pre announcements such as congratulating a couple of runners who were starting there 100th marathons this morning and then handed us over the race organisers for some final details.

The 400 runners were then walked down the road to the start line. This was when the pre race nerves really started to kick in. Being a relatively small field and a qualification event for the county championships, I had worried that it may have been a bit “clicky” and full of super fast club runners. Whilst there were a lot of serious runners, the banter was good and there was a very friendly atmosphere. I bounced around to keep warm in the chilly air and found a place near the middle of the pack. Suddenly the Town Crier rang his bell again and we were off! What a great way to start the race, makes a change from a starting pistol!

The first mile and a half took us north up a steady incline, past the high school where the race head quarters were located. I darted across the road to wave to my wife, children and other family members, then got back amongst the pack and enjoyed the thrill of finally getting started after all the months of training through the cold dark winter.

At 2 miles, we turned off the main road into the country lanes and after a sharp corner I found myself at the crest of a hill with a stunning 20 mile panoramic view across the county. Looking down the hill I could see a human snake of runners winding down the hill into the distance. This one of the things I love about racing and I always find it an inspiring sight.
First Finish!!  Photo by Paul's wife, Suzie Grinham 

After the first 10k the runners were staring to spread out into smaller packs. I was feeling good, although a little faster than my initial plan. My target when I had signed up was simply to complete the course. After getting through the training, some further races and clocking up some 20 mile long runs, I had set myself a goal of getting round in under 4 hours, requiring a 9 minute per mile pace. One of my biggest pre race worries was getting caught up in the excitement and going out too fast. However, I was maintaining an 8.30 pace and feeling comfortable with it, so hung in there and focused on keeping steady. I don’t wear a GPS watch, so the mental arithmetic in calculating my pace helped pass the time and there were very good mile markers along the course.

At around the 8 mile mark I was with a group of 3 other runners, with a large gap before an after us. We rounded a corner and saw the first of the big hills ahead of us, we came at it from an angle and could see people running what looked like a 45 degree angle, about 150 feet in less than a quarter of a mile! We nodded at each other and joked that “this is the start of the hills then!”. Although none of the hills were any higher than this, they seemed to be unrelenting. We were either going up or down, never flat! The few “level” sections all had a slight incline in one direction or the other. I loved the variety, but it subtlety took it’s toll.

Between 10 and 13 miles, I was still running at half marathon pace and I realised I could not keep it up. I wanted to stay with my small group of runners as I thought that if I watched them get ahead, it would crush me and I would start trailing off badly with nobody to keep pace against. However, by mile 14 one of our group had dropped back and the other two had ended up behind me after a water stop, leaving me setting the pace. I slowed to let them past, but they didn’t and in the end, I made a dive into the bushes for a “toilet break” and let them past. I came out behind them and followed for a bit before being realistic and letting them go on ahead ahead.

Mile 14 – 19 were a bit of a blur. There were more open sections with less people out on the course cheering us on. Mile 15 – 17 in particular were quite torturous, taking us along and up Rams Hill. All I could see was a long, open, uphill road ahead of me with individual runners dotted along it. The first of our group who had previously dropped off, came back past me at this point and I lost a couple of other places. This hill was tough, not due to the elevation, it just didn’t seem to end! The skies had also cleared and it was getting hot and sunny.

I think this was the toughest section of the race. I used every trick in the book to distract myself, from counting to 100, focusing on breathing, repeating mantra’s. I even borrowed Coach Kens “Keep moving forward, all day”, although it did mutate into “all f’ing day!!” through clenched teeth!

I don’t wear an iPod when racing, I like to be able to hear other runners, marshals and supporters, and soak up the atmosphere. I ended up singing to myself at times instead, not out loud though! Most of the songs were upbeat rock, such as Bon Jovi and the Manic Street Preachers, but for a good couple of miles, all I could here in my head was Lady Gaga’s Edge of Glory! (Yikes!)

At the water stop at mile 19 I saw the two guys I had been following earlier, looking a bit worse for wear and was glad I hadn’t tried to stay with them. I grabbed some jelly babies and water and carried on.

My fuel strategy had been a gel after 45 minutes and then every half hour. I managed to time it so I could open and eat the gel before getting to the water stop, so I could grab the water and go. What I hadn’t accounted for was how difficult it was to grab a plastic cup of water without it splashing everywhere! Luckily a couple of the water stops had bottled water and I was able to take the bottles with me for the next couple of miles.

The water stations were excellent, being located roughly every 2-3 miles. We had a choice of water, orange squash, flat coke, jelly babies and raisins. Runners were also able to deposit their own water bottles at race headquarters, to be dropped at two of the stations. All the volunteers were excellent, getting water to you as quickly as possible and giving you shouts of encouragement to send you on your way.

Along the course, people were standing in their gardens cheering runners along, or even coming out to the roadside. In a number of random places along the course, children were holding out bags of sweets for runners to take from as we went past, very cute and much appreciated!

Marathon fever!  Photo by Ken Michal
Whilst talking about the people involved, a special mention really needs to be given to the marshals. The roads were not closed for this event, but the marshals kept us clear and safe from traffic, even when crossing a couple of main roads. The runners were given priority at all times and all the marshals were enthusiastic and encouraging. I always tried to give them a wave, nod or a thank you to show appreciation as they were out there a long time. I did notice some runners ignoring them, but karma will catch up with those guys! In some of the more isolated areas, marshals were cycling too and fro along the course to check we were okay and motivate us, this was a nice touch especially in some of the more isolated areas when you are out on your own.

Around mile 20 I started to get past my difficult patch and although I had never considered not finishing, I started to really believe that I was going to complete the course without a catastrophic meltdown. I was catching back up with and passing other runners and this helped boost my confidence and push me on. This wasn’t an ego trip about beating other people and I hope they weren’t having too much of a difficult time out there. I know it is tough when you are struggling and other people are passing you. Even though I was feeling better by this point, someone a lot fresher looking would still come cruising past! Lesson learned, balanced pacing!

Mile 20.5 took us past the ominously named Gallows Corner! Fortunately there was no sign of any hangmen!

The next couple of miles took us along a much narrower road, where we came across some riders leading their horses. Although we slowed our pace, if that was possible! One of the horses got a bit spooked by a group of strange looking sweaty people in bright coloured lycra running towards him and starting bucking across the road. The rider managed to get him under control and we eased passed, apologising and politely pointing out that there would be more like us coming through soon!

This was the last hilly section, again nothing too serious, but a continuous plus / minus 80ft set of undulations. I prefer these to the long, stretching hills such as mile 17. With the short ones, although steeper, you can get your teeth into them, then cruise the down hill, the dig in for the next one, like interval training!

After cresting Gold Hill at mile 22.5, we left the last of the hills behind. I was passing the furthest I had ever run and it felt great. Knowing the end was in sight was exciting, but also disappointing, as it meant the race would soon be over. 

After following some smaller country lanes we left the road for the final stretch, 1.5 miles of light trail. By this point it was very sunny and I had not taken on enough liquid, (squishy cups!). I was feeling slightly dehydrated and stopped twice to relive cramp. I refused to stop for long and pushed on. I usually have a burst of speed at the end of a race, due to the excitement of seeing the finish line and wanting to spend that last bit of energy. Exhausted, I managed what I hoped passed for a surge for the last 200yds, with people lining the side of the course willing us all on for the final stretch.

Crossing the line was emotional and I did start to well up a bit inside. The next few moments were a blur as I had my medal hung over me, a tee shirt thrust into my hands and my wife and children running over to give me a great big hug. I then made a bee line for the refreshments stand for more jelly beans and water. Although, I had slowed in the second half, I had managed to finish in 3 hours 51 minutes, which I was pleased with, but the experience itself was the biggest reward.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. Either you have raced before and know what it is like, in which case I hope it has brought back happy memories. If you are thinking about entering an event, get out there and do it, you’ll love it!

Way to go, Paul on your first marathon finish!!! Glad you didn't get deported to Australia! A little trick with the cups: bend them so they form a point and tilt your head... It's easier to drink this way! Congratulations on breaking that 4 hour goal!!!

All Day!

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