Stacey Marston reports: We woke up to perfect, if a little bit chilly, conditions on Sunday for the Abingdon Marathon. I’d had a great night’s sleep in a local hotel, where me and Guy had stayed on Saturday night, a short drive from the start line on the athletics track at Tilsley Park. I felt okay, just the usual pre-marathon nerves and last minute checking that I had everything I needed. We bumped into John McKeon at the car park and also said a quick hello to fellow Tealster, Conor Murphy on his way to the baggage tent. With under 1000 runners, it wasn’t a large crowd and as a race organised by local running clubs including Abingdon AC, it had a competitive feeling around the start area. As I lined up with Guy on the track I looked around me; perhaps it was the 5-hour cut-off, or the lack of the bells and whistles of some of the bigger city marathons but there was definitely a different kind of atmosphere here; more club vests than usual and apart from a Santa Suit (a bit early for that, but it was a World Record Attempt!) it was a different vibe, not unfriendly but more ‘focused’. Perhaps I felt it more keenly because I was there with one goal in mind and just needed to get the job done; the aim was a qualifying time for the 2020 Comrades Ultra-Marathon!
Roll back to 2011, I’d been running on and off for a year or two and was already a regular listener to the Marathon Talk podcast when I heard an episode that would spark an ambition for me to complete the oldest and most famous ultra-Marathon; Comrades. Established in 1921 it is an historic race, alternating between the ‘Up’ run from Durban to Pietermaritzburg in South Africa and the ‘Down’ run in the opposite direction. Both directions contain a fair amount of ‘up’ along the c.90km route including the ‘Big Five’ hills; Cowies Hill, Fields Hill, Botha’s Hill, Inchanga and Polly Shortts. My parents lived in Durban before my sister and I were born and I’d always wanted to visit, but listening to the podcast, especially the start of the race where the traditional miners’ song; ‘Shosholoza’ (‘Go Forward’) is played, sowed a seed in my mind; ‘one day I’ll do that race!’
In between then and now, the Comrades dream has been there in the background and as Guy got into running too it became a shared dream, something we envisaged completing together, although not literally side-by-side (we’ve learnt that running together is not conducive to a happy marriage!) After the 2019 race we started to look out for information for 2020… there were mixed messages – first, you could enter and qualify later, then a worrying development, it seemed that as Comrades ‘Novices’ we might have to qualify first before we entered. Earlier in the year we’d put our names down on the waiting list for the, already sold-out, Abingdon Marathon, thinking it was a flat marathon and would be good to use for a qualifier. Since then my running had gone completely off the boil, but with just eight weeks until Abingdon, a couple of places came up as people began to withdraw. We decided to go for it and just do our best to train enough for a qualifying time.
With a reduced amount of time and coming off a summer of really dreadful running I wasn’t sure whether I’d be capable of completing a marathon, let alone achieving my target of under 4 hours 20 minutes, which would put me in ‘F-Batch’. The starting position for Comrades is key, because it is a ‘gun to mat’ or rather ‘gun to gun’ race. The cut-offs on the course and the overall 12-hour time limit are taken from the starting gun. A 4 hour 50 minute marathon time is enough to qualify for the race, but starting in one of the earlier pens will reduce the time to cross the starting line and with around 23,000 runners it is good to avoid the congestion in the early part of the race. Looking back on my training on Strava, I titled my ‘Long Run’ on Sunday, August 26th as ‘Couldn’t even manage 10 miles’. My confidence was at rock bottom and I wondered where the sub-4 hour marathoner I had been in April was hiding. Somehow the long runs increased from week to week, with a half marathon the following week at Kenilworth; 15 miles the next week; a Kilkenny parkrun + Medieval Half Marathon run for a total of 17 miles a week later; then a 20; and another 20! Then all of a sudden it was time for the shortest of tapers… could I achieve my target off such a small amount of training?
Back to the start line and off we go around the track at Abingdon and on our way out towards town. The marshals shout encouragement, I look around at my fellow runners, wondering if I can chat to someone just to pass those first few miles. There’s just the slightest of inclines, but it’s a really flat and fast course. I’m wondering if it could get a bit boring, but that’s fine – give me flat, boring, 11 degrees, English town and a bit of countryside… this will do nicely. My aim is to keep the pace around 9:30 minute miles, the first mile is a little bit quick but still over my marathon PB pace so that’s all fine, plenty of time to rein it in. Surprisingly as I thought it was all road, a couple of miles in we turned off the road onto a hard-packed trail, which made a bit of a change and I got chatting to some of my fellow runners. We did the usual ‘is this your first marathon?’, ‘are you going for a time?’ etc. It was interesting because I was well under pace for my stated goal time, but others around me were all aiming for even slower times. I was pretty sure that since I wasn’t going too slowly for my target they were probably going too fast. Inevitably I ended up running slightly ahead, as somewhere in my mind I began to chase a faster time; under 4 hours 10 minutes, a whole 10 minutes faster than I needed to be, but within range of my previous ‘Personal Worst’ from my first ever marathon.
I was still ticking along nicely as we passed through Abingdon itself and along a lovely little stretch by the Thames before turning onto the large loop of about 9 miles that we would go round twice. I caught up with two ladies keeping a steady pace and had a bit of a chat to them. We ran through some pretty villages here and there. The roads were only partially closed but really well-marshallled and the whole time I only saw one driver who was inconsiderate of the runners. The aid stations cropped up regularly and were all manned with friendly teams giving lots of encouragement. Both Abingdon and Didcot parkruns provided many of the marshals and aid station helpers and the support and experience of those teams showed through. This really is a runners’ race; you could sense that everyone involved is a runner themselves. Just after 10 miles we ran through a business park for the first time. There were a few supporters banging pans and cheering, the field had become quite spread out so I must admit I found this part a little bit dull and was very glad of the two aid stations. A fellow runner remarked that they ‘would give anything for a bit of a hill’; ‘steady on!’ I thought. My mind occasionally wandered to thoughts of the Comrades hills and the much hotter temperatures I’d be facing there for over twice the distance!
Back to the job in hand, I felt comfortable as far as my breathing was concerned but my right leg began to make a few protests. It started in my calf, quickly spread to my hip and then became quite a persistent cry for attention from my foot. Every step began to feel very uncomfortable. I told myself that there’s always a bad patch in a marathon, and that having one at 12 miles wasn’t the end of the world, I’d run through it… ‘I’ll be fine in a mile or two’. Eventually I passed the halfway point and I walked through a water station to give my foot a bit of relief. ‘Just keep going, it will be alright’. The lead runner cruised past at this point; he looked effortless, although I know it can’t be, somehow those faster runners just make it look so easy. Back off the road onto the pathway, I knew the first loop was coming to an end. Up ahead I could hear some music blasting out and was disappointed to hear Scatman John’s ‘Scatman’; not quite the earworm I hoped for, I think I possibly sped up a little bit here!
I have to say the second loop was hard work. Marathons aren’t easy, even when the time you are going for is not a PB, but I really didn’t expect to find this middle section so tough, given my time goals. I tried hard to manage it mentally; I smiled and thanked all the marshals and absorbed every bit of support I could, but I had this nagging feeling that I was doing some damage to my foot with every single step. At 17 miles I stopped and took off my shoe, gave my toes a wiggle and loosened my laces. I walked for a bit; a 10:36 mile. I bargained with myself; ‘if I’ve done some damage, I will be out for a few months anyway, so I might as well finish the job. I can run another nine miles, I reckon I could run nine miles on a broken toe… if I end up walking I could get a 4 hour 50 marathon and still qualify, recover and train… yes I’ll keep going, just keep going…’
Back through the business park, the spectators bang their pans, the aid station folks cheer me on, ‘go on Bournville!’, ‘You’ve got this Stakka!’ Mile 19 goes on forever, Mile 20 appears and my pace is hovering around 9:30 minute miles, but I’m slowing down a lot now. My whole right leg is locking at the hip and painful. I tell myself, ‘Just a club run to go, you can do this’. Bargaining again; ‘you can slow down, you can even walk through the aid stations, but you can’t quit’. 21 miles: have a final gel. 22 miles: my lucky number. 23 miles: a parkrun to go. I wonder what music that marshal will be playing? ‘Scatman’ again! What? Has he been playing ‘Scatman’ on a loop for over three hours? I’ll ask Guy later, what was he playing when you went past? I’m back onto the path along the river. I’m slow but I’m still passing other people. The marshals are great, I love them all, but I hate running. 24 miles: back in town I’m shuffling. 25 miles: I see a man up ahead who is struggling to bend his knees. I’m wading through treacle. I start seeing other people walking towards me with their goody bags and medals; they’ve finished theirs, exhausted but happy. Everything is familiar but the track isn’t in sight yet. Counting 1 to 100 again and again, closer, closer… and eventually I’m back on the track, less than 400 metres to go. I pass someone who is barely moving but gives me a ‘well done’. ‘Well done you’, I reply, ‘we’re nearly there’. Guy is on the side of the track and says ‘You’ve done it!’ I smile and run for the finish line. Smile for the camera… I’ve done it.
I find Guy for a hug (actually I think it was more of a lean!) He’d got himself a 3 hour 55 minute ‘D-Batch’ qualifier for Comrades, amazing to think how far he has come that it was a relatively ‘easy’ run for him. The post race atmosphere is really lovely. We’re all laughing at each other as we try to sit down, or stand up. There’s a lady with her legs up against the wall making occasional groans between fits of laughter at her predicament. I have a lukewarm tea and some crisps. We find my mate Sarah from ‘Art of Your Success‘ who I have known for a little while since she designed the logo for ‘The Runner’s Bookshelf‘. She’s a member of Abingdon AC and designed the brilliant race t-shirt and medal, and the buffs that all the volunteers were given. One of the many things I loved about this race was that camaraderie between runners and marshals and I think it’s great that they all get a memento too for giving their time to support us all.
Objectively it’s my worst marathon, my slowest time and it’s probably the most painful run, I can still feel a throb in my toes four days later and I don’t feel up to even the smallest run yet. As a race it doesn’t boast the numbers of a big city event, and whilst it’s pretty in places it doesn’t have the most picturesque scenery, but it’s definitely a race I would thoroughly recommend. The facilities are good, it has PB potential for those who’ve trained for it, and for faster runners it’s a very competitive field which I think would spur you on. It’s also got a charming, friendly feel to it, is well-organised and is not too far away.
As we drove back to Birmingham, Guy said ‘you’ll never guess what one of the marshals was playing when I went past?’… Bowie, ‘Heroes’! So, mystery solved, it wasn’t Scatman on a loop, and at least Guy got a marathon-appropriate song. We can be Heroes indeed, and the Road to Comrades 2020 officially begins!