Edinburgh Marathon race report

Wow. I’ve now completed the Edinburgh Marathon, the culmination of over 8 months of training and more focused exercise than I’ve ever done in my life. Looking back at my Nike+ training shows the last 8 weeks (minus two Sundays while I was in Egypt/Jordan) featured at least one 10 mile+ run, the last 6 weeks all being half-marathon length or longer. Just the thought of doing that kind of training a year ago was nausea-inducing – ten years ago, it would have been nigh on inconceivable. I find it a bit surreal to see how far I’ve come since my colleagues at John Blake convinced me to sign up for the Royal Parks Half Marathon in Oct 2009.

A stunning blue sky over Edinburgh

I have to say, Edinburgh looked absolutely gorgeous when we landed on Saturday afternoon. The temperature was perfect and sunlight bathed the famous castle in a gentle golden glow. The atmosphere was enchanting, full of people sitting out on restaurant terraces having a good time, and I immediately regretted not being able to stay for longer. It was probably in our best marathon interests that we didn’t arrive any earlier than we did – otherwise I would have used up all my energy just wandering around the city.

We checked in at Budget Backpackers, which was the perfect place to stay, really. Cheap, cheerful, and having forked out for a private room (it was still cheap!) we had all the facilities we needed. Getting down from the bunk bed the morning after the marathon was interesting though!

In terms of fuelling my body for the marathon… I didn’t overdo the carb-loading, but my diet before the race consisted of:

Friday night – Spag bol with wholewheat pasta & garlic bread
Saturday breakfast – pain au chocolat (that surely counts as carbs!)
Saturday lunch – leftover spag bol & a bit more garlic bread
Saturday dinner – Jambalaya Risotto from Giraffe at the airport, banana, Twirl bar while watching Eurovision
Sunday breakfast – Espresso, toasted bagel & cream cheese, banana

I also drank a lite Lucozade energy drink on Saturday and tried to maintain my hydration throughout the week (especially considering how hot it has been in London). The hostel really came into its own on Sunday – having our own cooking facilities was amazing as I could prepare breakfast exactly as I would have done if I’d been at home, plus they had a cafe downstairs so I could get a shot of espresso. I didn’t want to have to stop during the race so the espresso was to make sure the digestive system kept on moving!

Before the race, a last shot of a beautiful Edinburgh morning

The weather actually looked slightly overcast as we left the hostel at 8.30am for the race start, but it quickly burned away and was replaced by glorious sunshine. We dropped off Tania’s bag at the big luggage trucks (all very easy and well-organized), then headed up to the corrals. Tania was technically supposed to be two corrals ahead of me, but as her training had been scuppered by an injured ITB band (hip-area), she hadn’t done nearly the amount of training she wanted, so she decided to start with me, horray! One quick pitstop at the portaloos and we were ready to rock. In my pockets were: mandatory packet of wine-gums for energy (only allowed after mile 14 – I’m strict with myself!), tissues in case hay fever got the best of me, my iPhone with motivational running tracks, and bottle of full-strength orange Lucozade in hand. My Lucozade acts as a security blanket over those first 10 miles – I’ve always run with one in training and so can’t imagine starting a race without it.

Tania and I in the Blue starters pen

The atmosphere at the start was brilliant, and I was glad that we could actually hear the race announcements as normally I’m so far back the loud speakers don’t reach me. We all joined in the countdown to the starting gun, although we didn’t move for at least a minute after it went off. When we did finally start to run though, it was a great feeling!

The course itself was stunning – downhill from the starting line and out towards Arthur’s Seat, then along a beautiful stretch of boardwalk-running by the beach. The benefit there, of course, was the sea breezes! Really enjoyed those as it was hot hot hot. For me, the goal was to do 10-minute miles, and I did that pretty well right up to the half-marathon point which I completed at 2hr15.

Starting line – can you see it?

Strangely, mile 15 was my fastest mile of the race. The elite runners had just gone past and cheering them on gave me a bit of a boost. My favourite running track (‘A Matter of Time’ by Foo Fighters) came onto the iPod and I was feeling good. At mile 16 I picked up an energy gel from the station which was a calculated risk on my part – I’d never used them before but I’d heard good things. The taste was pretty disgusting, in my opinion, but I didn’t have any problems digesting it. Others, including my running pal Tania, weren’t so lucky – but more on that later.

Edinburgh Marathon route map

After mile 17 came ‘the turn’. I’ve been reading on several running forums that many people found this the hardest part of the race, and I was no exception! The course turns back in on itself and heads slightly inland at this point – away from the breezes, away from the crowds, away from the water stations. I was in pretty dire shape by the time 18 miles came around, barely able to pick up my feet. Even the prettiness of Gosford House couldn’t distract me from the pain! We then started running through a farm, and thankfully the farm had set up an unofficial water station – which became the first station I walked through. It was only a break of a few seconds but it was enough to make sure I got proper hydration and a boost to keep going. Also it was a bit pongy out in the fields, and the terrain was pretty slippery which required concentration I didn’t have!

Hitting 19 made me feel better again and I wasn’t prepared for the boost I’d get at mile 20. I’d never run further than 19 miles in training and 20 really felt like a massive accomplishment. I was in the “2”-s! Horray! Everyone around me was dying for water and energy by the time we reached the next station at 22. I was also in countdown mode at this point, so 4 miles to go meant all I had left to do was my run to work! Easy, right?

The crowds here were unbelievably helpful at this point. At every mile marker I had done a little jig and cheer, and everyone cheered with me. To anyone who turned on their sprinklers or hoses or even waterguns – bless you! Running through a sprinkler a) released the child within me for a second and b) provided instant relief from the heat. Another thanks to mum & dad who reminded me to take extra water to throw over myself as well as drink! The only downside was I inevitably washed off all the sunscreen on my back, so my shoulders are a little burnt as a result. I also have to shout out to the girls handing out orange slices (so yum) and the man handing out Jaffa cakes at mile 24 – you are a legend as I’d finished all my winegums at that point and was bored of jelly babies!

Mile 22 was also greatly improved by the fact that Lofty’s podcast came on over my iPhone speakers. For my first ever half marathon three years ago, Lofty had made me a radio-style countdown playlist and hearing a friendly voice made things so much better! It also was another reminder of how far I’d come in training and I became all emotional while running. I’m sure that didn’t have anything to do with feeling completely spent and still having miles to run!

The sight of the mile 25 marker was bliss, the crowds were really buzzing at this point. I picked up my pace considerably, finding energy out of nowhere, but that 26 mile marker took FOREVER to appear. Literally forever. I think I was lucky to not start swearing at the crowd as much as I was swearing in my head – Where the *&^% is the end? Even when 26 FINALLY came, I still couldn’t see the finish line. Wasn’t it just 0.2 miles until I was done? What was going on?

Then I rounded the corner into the racecourse and the terrain changed from road to a black rubber, slightly-bouncy surface lined with spectators that made me feel like I was at the Olympics. The finish line loomed large and I only glanced at the time quickly to see that I was still in the 4hour-zone – that’s all I wanted! I sprinted across the line with a huge smile on my face, hands in the air… what a feeling!

Me and Tania, with our medals

I changed into my finisher’s T-shirt straight away, and within minutes of crossing the line I had a text message with my provisional time. Very good service 🙂 I was a bit disappointed with the goody bag – I really could have done with some kind of protein drink at the end, but the medal is lovely. I sat and stretched in the park while waiting for my fellow runner to finish. I’d left her after the first mile as I was aiming for a slightly faster time – and obviously, I had had the benefit of proper training while she had been injured! It turned out that she had suffered a bad reaction to the energy gels at mile 16, and in combination with the heat and lack of hydration she felt really nauseous and had to walk the final 9 miles. She still completed in a remarkable 5hrs 39mins, pushing right on through to the finish. What a champ.

The half-hour walk to the buses back to Edinburgh was aggravating but probably did us both some good as it is always tempting to do absolutely nothing post-run! It meant I was a little less stiff this morning when we had to get up at 4.30am to catch the plane back to London. I wore my medal all day at work – hey, it’s not very often that I get to wear a medal, okay?

Here were my official split times:

Race Number: 9787
Full Time: 04:42:59
10k split: 01:04:01
Half marathon: 02:15:49
30k split: 03:15:45
Overall finish position: 5461

Obviously dropped off a bit between 30K and 42K but having averaged 10.48min/mile over the whole race, I’m very happy. I think I could get sub-4hr30 though… oh god, is this me accepting I’m going to put my body through all this again one day?

In all seriousness, I know I will. Pushing myself to that limit actually proves to me that there aren’t many limits. And now that I have nothing to train for, I feel strangely empty. I’m going to need another goal, another challenge, and pronto 🙂 Although my running watch said I did 27.1 miles – how much weaving and swerving did I do?!

And so for now, I’m just going to allow myself to enjoy the moment. I’m officially a marathon runner!

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All prepped for the Edinburgh marathon…

Well, I think I’m almost there with last-minute marathon preparations. Flight to Edinburgh leaves this afternoon, passport is at the ready, and I’m full of nerves and trying to remain super-hydrated in this heat! But, hmm… what have I forgotten? Probably something important!

Keep on running… Bracknell Half Marathon

So it’s a few days after the Bracknell Half Marathon now (the race was on Sunday 29 April), and my legs have officially recovered. Phew!

It was one of the mornings when you didn’t want to get out from under the covers, let alone put on your running gear and go outside. Heavy rain, buffeting winds, dark grey cloud cover – even hints of a severe storm warning – could I really race on a day like that? Every other race I’ve done has been held on a day of glorious sunshine, so it was safe to say I was not used to it. For my friend Tania, it was to be her first ever race. She obviously looked out of her own window that day and had the same thoughts as me, as a text came through from her: “Are we doing this?”

Tania and I with the starting runners

By then, though, I was already up, having prepped all my gear the night before, and I’d had a shot of espresso and a peanut butter bagel. The adrenaline was pumping and I texted back: “Yes!” There was going to be no bailing now.

The atmosphere at the start of the race was… well, I think subdued is fair to say. Luckily we could warm up inside the South Hill Park Arts Centre before the race, and because of the size of the race (under a 1000 runners in this one, compared to 12,000 for Bath) I didn’t have to start in a timed corral. Horray!

There were also plenty of clothing decisions to make owing to the weather. Running jacket or no jacket? Number pinned outside or inside? Hat or no hat? Gloves? Black plastic rubbish bag? In the end I went without the bin bag and gloves, which I think was the right choice as by the time we lined up for the start, the rain had let up a little and moods started to lift. I’m fairly certain adrenaline is addictive. And there was time for a quick photo before the race began!

I was determined once again to set off too quickly, but Tania and her trusty running watch really helped me pull back to a 9.05min mile (quite right too!). Soon we settled into a rhythm, only occasionally broken by having to duck out of the way of large puddles on some of the lower pathways.

The Bracknell half marathon route is fairly undulating because of the frequent underpasses, but I appreciated the mini-downhills as much as the tough up-hills. There was one tough section between miles 8-9 where we battled through headwinds on a looong incline, but somehow we managed to make up any lost pace on a gentle downslope. Miles 10 and 11 were probably the best I’ve ever felt at that point in any run – I felt like I was literally flying down the road. I also must give credit to the Foo Fighters and their song “A Matter of Time”, which is definitely my running ‘power’ song du jour.

My watch showed me getting steadily faster all the way up until about 12.5 miles, so I must’ve been doing something right! I started to really feel the pain at 12.5, with the finish line in sight, but around an achingly long bend. Still I looked down at my sportsband (less high tech than Tania’s, but still functional!) and was elated to see that I had at least 8 minutes to make that last 1/2 mile within two hours, giving me that last burst of adrenaline to get through to the finish.

And after all the agony of not managing to complete it at Bath this year, I’m so happy to say that I finally burst through that 2 hour barrier, completing the Bracknell Half Marathon at 1:58:04!! Yay!! Tania picked up even more speed at the end than me, and managed to finish in 1:57.45 – for her first ever race this is absolutely ASTOUNDING (not to mention her injuries that prevented her from really training).

With our finisher's medals!

She is coming with me to run the Edinburgh marathon, so all I can say now is: Bring it on!

Running Machine – Bath Half Marathon 2012

Today I’m creaking around the office looking a bit worse for wear, but it’s not just typical Monday morning blues… yesterday I ran the 2012 Bath Half Marathon!

I fell in love with Bath when my boyfriend (who hails from around those parts) took me there to visit the Roman baths and wander around the stunning Royal Crescent with its beautiful golden Bath stone buildings. It’s definitely a city you feel is rich with history and culture, and you can’t help but be enchanted by its warmth and beauty. Plus, Jane Austen lived here for a time, so it has great literary connections too!

Squinty in the sunshine, but raring to go

I doubt Jane Austen debated running 13.1 miles around her beautiful city, but I did it anyway. The morning broke to a misty 6 degrees – perfect weather – but by the time the 11am starting gun went off it was bright sunshine and 15 degrees. I even got a little sunburnt!

Lining up with the rest of the runners in Bath

I set off with a fellow runner who was planning a sub-2 hour pace. I kept up with her for the first two miles but realized she had gone off faster than I’d intended – almost a 8.55 minute pace, rather than the 9.05 I’d wanted. Still, I was feeling good and kept it up until the halfway point, and I crossed the line at 56minutes – on track for a sub-2 time. At around the time I crossed the halfway mark, I was passed by the first set of elite runner – and cheering them on gave me a little boost!

Mid-run... looking a little pained

Unfortunately, a hill between miles 7-8 knocked time off me, and miles 9-10 were sluggish. Now I know why they say not to go off too fast, and those early quick miles were catching up to me. By mile 11, I knew I wasn’t going to make sub-2, and felt really demoralized. Luckily, just after the 12 mile marker I saw my boyfriend and his mum cheering me on, which gave me the energy to get up the last hill toward the finish line. I crossed over in good spirits (yup, there’s a smile on my face!) and gladly received my finisher’s medal!

Crossing over the line - I swear that's a smile on my face 🙂

A few hours later, after a celebratory Ben’s Cookie (soo yummy) and a delicious meal at the Crystal Palace pub in Bath, I looked up my official finishing time: 2:02:27. Okay, so not quite the sub-2 I was hoping for, but the last time I ran this race in 2010 I did it in 2:10:55 – so a good 8 mins or so off last time! One day, I will run that sub-2…

Born to Run: ultra-running and ultra-writing

Okay, so when I said last post that I’d had a ‘word-free’ holiday, I might have lied atinybit. But you didn’t really believe me anyway, did you?

I read the remarkable Born to Run by Christopher McDougall while on holiday. It’s not the kind of book I normally read, but I absolutely loved it. It’s the story of one man’s quest to discover why he was getting so injured while running, even though he wore all the latest high tech running shoes, consulted the best doctors and podiatrists, and followed all the training advice to the letter. When he heard about a tribe of people in Mexico known as the Tarahumara – who long-distance run their whole lives mostly without complaint – he travelled to the Copper Canyons to try and discover their secret.

Of course, being the easily infuenced person that I am, immediately after finishing the book I wanted to become an ultra-marathon runner! One step at a time of course, and the marathon is first! But it did get me to thinking about other ‘extremes’ – what would extreme writing look like, for example? Does anyone have any ‘ultra-writing’ stories they’ve heard from or about famous authors?

Probably the best example of ‘extreme writing’ that I’ve ever read about has stuck with me since high school: Victor Hugo’s writing of Notre-Dame de Paris. I went through a rather extreme French literature-loving phrase after I lived in the south of France for three months on student exchange, and I could consistently be found in the hallways of my high school, back up against my locker, nose in a dog-eared copy of Les Misérables or L’Etranger. (Yes, I admit to being a pretentious teen!) But back to Monsieur Hugo… check out this passage from Victor Hugo: His Life and Work by A. F. Davison:

Thus, with five and a half months before him, Hugo set himself in grim earnest to write Notre-Dame de Paris. Purchasing a large bottle of ink and a thick wollen jersey, he locked away all his clothes to avoid any temptation of going out, and sat down to his writing-table, which he never left except to eat or sleep.
At first it was weary work, this hermit-like seclusion and the oppressive sense of a struggle against time. But soon the author grew into his creation and lived in his characters, becoming insensible to fatigue or cold and working eagerly on with windows wide open to the wintry air. On January 14 the last line was written, the last drop of ink dried up, and Hugo felt as sorry to part with his book as he had been reluctant to begin it. 

I think that’s definitely a story of ‘ultra-writing’ if I’ve ever heard one. But the part that stuck with me the most, is that at the end of his writing marathon, he was so taken by the coincidence that he had written the last word of his book with his very last drop of ink, that he wanted to title the novel: Ce qu’il y a dans une bouteille d’encre (“What there is in a bottle of ink”). Genius.

Why running is like writing (and vice versa)

As I stepped out of the front door of my apartment block this morning, the air was frosty but the sky was bright and clear. The perfect kind of morning to run the four miles in to work rather than cram myself onto a sardine-like train from the UK’s busiest train station. I’ve learned to love running now, but at the moment it’s classified as ‘training’ until May 27, 2012, when I complete the Edinburgh Marathon.

Me running in the Royal Parks 1/2 Marathon in 2009 - my first proper race

In fact, in a lot of ways training for a marathon is a lot like writing a novel. Here are my reasons why…

1. You need the right gear… but gear won’t do the work for you!
Yes, you need the right gear to run. Properly fitted trainers, clothes that wick away sweat, maybe a heart-rate monitor so you can judge the improvements in your fitness… they will all help to better your training. But you can get carried away with gear – Nike+ or a GPS running watch? Barefoot running shoes or comfortable, sturdy Asics? You can get carried away with writing gadgets too. Plain Microsoft Word or Scrivener? Fountain pen or ball-point? Laptop? iPad? Spiral notebook? To start running you really just need a pair of running shoes, some clothes you can sweat in, and the road. Just like all you really need to write is good old pen and paper. You can’t let the pursuit of perfect gear prevent you from starting.

2. There are no shortcuts
When training for a marathon, you gotta put in the miles. There’s just no getting around it. Yes, when I’m running to work I’m sometimes tempted to detour toward the bus stop I know will take me straight to the office. But I know that that’s not going to help me on marathon day. Same with writing a novel – you have to put the words down on paper, or else you’re never going to end up with a finished product.

3. Sometimes you feel you’re not getting anywhere
I’m now running anywhere between 20-30 miles/week but when it comes to getting fitter, sometimes I feel like I’m not getting anywhere. Some runs are just plain hard, and I don’t understand why my body will scream against a 4-mile run when it ran 8 miles the week before. Writing feels like that sometimes. There are times when I feel like my writing is not getting any better (it might even be getting worse!), and the finish line feels further away than it ever did before. The only solution to this, I find, is to switch it up. Instead of a run, I jump on the cross-trainer at the gym, or go to the climbing wall with a work friend. Instead of forcing myself to write another paragraph on Oathbreaker 2, I’ll do a freeform writing exercise, or update the blog, or read a book to get inspired.

4. You need to have the proper fuel
In order to run, you have to fuel your body properly. My pre-run breakfast consists of porridge and a banana – boring, but it works! And for any run longer than about 6 miles, I take a bottle of orange-flavour Lucozade Sport. For this month’s Lucky 13s 13th day post, all the 13ers (including moi) are discussing what they eat and drink to get them through their writing days.

5. There will be pain
I’ve actually been fairly lucky when it comes to running injuries and (touch wood) I’ve never experienced anything that has been completely debilitating. That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been pain, however! Pain in muscles I didn’t even know I had. Soreness that won’t disappear for days, blisters in between my toes, twinges in my knees and beside my shin bone. In writing, there is pain too. The pain of rejection – injuring the pride you didn’t even really know you had – the agony of not being able to solve a plot point in a storyline that you created, the reviews that cut to the bone… oh yes, and the most common of writing ailments: the dreaded papercut! Sometimes those sting really bad, man…

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I haven’t completed the marathon yet, but I have completed a novel and I can imagine those experiences will have some similarities too. Friends, family and complete strangers will marvel, and say that they could never do a thing like that… they couldn’t run a mile, or they couldn’t dream of putting down that many words. But what they don’t realize is that to achieve those goals you just have to put in the miles, put in the sweat, put in the tears.

Or at the very least, give it a go. And if it’s not a marathon or a whole novel yet, start with a 10K race or a short story.

For every writing or running journey, you gotta start somewhere.