They say good things come in threes. I had three surprises on Saturday, big surprises. I ran a trail marathon, I came second in a marathon and I ran a marathon in under 4 hours for the first time in my (very young 😉 ) life. The first of these I had not ever considered doing previously, the second is something that I never thought I would ever experience and, in fairness, probably never will again but it is the third of these, and arguably the least extraordinary, that is the real kicker, which I will get to in a moment. The stage for this little fairytale scene: the Stone Mad Marathon.
Stone Mad was a multi-marathon event and was originally intended to be a 2 day ultra, full and half-marathon event but a couple of weeks ago, the second day was cancelled due to permit issues. The first day’s course took runners straight down along the Barrow river, starting in Athy for the ultra runners, Carlow for the marathon peeps and Bagnalstown for the half-marathoners.
Now, here is the thing you need to understand – around the rivers and canals in Kildare, we have paths. Nice flat, grey (50 shades), generally well-maintained walkways. So I assumed it would be likewise down the country. I was wrong. This, in fact, was a trail marathon and there were no paths, with the exception of the odd short patch here and there. It seems that this was some kind of insider’s’ secret as I have since looked at the race website and there is no mention of the fact that this is actually a trail marathon and the photos are somewhat deceptive. A bit sneaky, folks. I learned this secret from my new friend Michael, who sat beside me on the bus to the start line. I nearly choked when he mentioned it. But in that innate human reflex we seem to possess of instinctively trying to rescue our sanity in the face of impending doom, I pretended I didn’t hear it, thought he could be wrong (even though he’s run 27 marathons since starting running last year…) and just generally didn’t allow myself to think about it.
Alas, a trail marathon it was. We started on the grass alongside the river and I reckoned, apparently very naively, that perhaps in a few miles, we would come onto a pathway, surely. Nope. This was a small race, with between 35-50 doing the marathon and very soon after we started, the bunch split into two groups. The first flew off at a nippy pace with clear intentions as to time, while the second was far more relaxed and looked to have the experience to know what their pace was. I found myself tipping along in the middle of the second group, not sure how this should go at first, but I soon found that their pace felt too slow for me so I moved around them one at a time and gradually moved up to the front. Soon after, I was out ahead of the second group and after about 4 miles, I found I was completely on my own, with the sole exception of 2 ultra marathoners who barrelled past me in the 4th mile. This was an entirely new experience for me in a marathon, to (a) be running along and (b) running on grass so it felt somewhat bizarre. Not bad, just odd.
Without any prior plan as to pace, my aim was to try and run at a relaxed pace and just go with how I felt on the day. Between the grass and the funny running arrangement, I found that I was very distracted but somehow my pace remained fairly consistent for the first 6 miles, clocking in at around 8:50 per mile or a bit less. I am generally not consistent so I was delighted with this. Even better though was that I felt really good, nice and relaxed and remarkably chilled out.
The route continued straight down the riverside, mostly on grass and trail roads, passing through small villages. At one point, I did go wrong however, going straight over a town bridge and continuing on the same side of the river, when I should have actually crossed over the bridge to continue down the other side of the river. Oops. I had to track back, cross over the bridge and correct myself so ended up running a bit longer than planned!
There were 5 aid stations along the route, with water, squash (so Irish!), coke, fig rolls, jaffa cakes, jellies and other stuff to help out the runners. They also, kindly, offered to bring any nutrition runners requested to the aid stations so I was able to pick up a bottle of lucozade at the 12 mile point, which was great. In terms of nutrition, I also had my water bottle on my back, clif shots tucked into my shorts, jelly babies and Honey Stinger energy chews in my backpack. I took clif shots at 45 minute intervals with water, then had my lucozade spread out over about 2.5 miles and after that, I survived on the jelly babies and Honey Stinger chews, which turned out to be great. I will definitely be using these again. It was a very humid day so despite being a moany cow about having to carry a water bottle along the course, I was grateful in the end.
I continued to just keep ticking along at the same pace without pushing on in the hope that I would have something left in my legs by mile 20. Usually, I can go great up until mile 20 and then it all falls apart and I typically slow dramatically in the last 6 miles, with those last 6 seeing out any chance of breaking 4 hours. So it was on Saturday that I thought when I got to mile 20 at exactly 3 hours, I kept saying to myself “Ah yeh, here we go. Nothing new there.” And I just waited for the exhaustion to set in and for the miles to get longer and longer. But for some weird reason it didn’t happen.
Now, maybe it was the magic Honey Stinger Chews or maybe it was Michael, who had run 27 marathons (including one the day before!) and had gone out like a shot, who I passed at mile 23 spurring me on or maybe it was the cursed grass that gave had mile by mile, given me extra spring in my step or quietly cushioned my knees along the way without cursing me back. Either way, for the first time in my life, I was running into my 26th mile, clocking 3.45 for 25 miles and boy was I smiling! The scary bit however, came when I my Garmin told me that I had already ran way above 26.2 miles and the finish line looked bloody miles away on the other side of the river. I still had to run down to the end of the river, cross up and over the bridge and run down the other side of the river to the finish gantry. Having not been planning to run for time today, I suddenly found myself staring down the barrel of maybe the only time that I would ever run a sub-4 hour marathon with 4 minutes left and what looked like about a half a mile. I had to sprint. I made it and even better was that when I crossed the finish line, the race organiser came up to me to congratulate me on finishing second! Obviously, I thought I had misheard him but when he gave me a prize (a glass crystal candle holder!), I figured he probably wasn’t joking.
At the finish line, our bags were waiting for us in the scout hall where we were able to get changed into dry clothes and clean up, before heading next door for tea, coffee, sandwiches and buns. The shuttle bus brought everyone, who hadn’t someone lovely waiting at the finish line for them, back to the start point and we were able to make our own way home from there.
I signed up for Stone Mad soon after doing the Dublin Marathon in October last year when I was seeking another marathon event (any) marathon event to avenge my bitter disappointment at having failed to break 4 hours. I had been really focussed in my training last year and worked hard on speed, long runs, blah, blah, blah to ensure I was well-prepped ahead of the big day. Alas, it didn’t work out and I finished in 4.06 ish. Since then, I’ve taken a step back to look at this properly. I had run a marathon and I was disappointed. Now, that is all kinds of wrong. Despite what some sports journalists and critics say, I believe that anyone who runs a marathon is deserving of credit. It is a great achievement and one that should be felt with pride and joy. By obsessing about time, I had let myself miss out on the joy of the experience so I started to think well if I’m not doing it to win it and I’m not enjoying it, then why do it at all? So, this year, I’ve been consciously working on enjoying running again (if that’s not an oxymoron!) and the irony is that since then, I’ve clocked three new PBs in the last two months in the 5 mile, 10 km and marathon. In the words of Pink, who knew? On Saturday, I ran a marathon in 3.58.35, improving on my personal best by exactly 7 minutes.
Great day all around. It would have been nice to know in advance that it was going to be a trail marathon and the race organisers really ought to make this clear on the website, if only so that runners have the option of switching to trail running shoes to mind their wee ankles. Having said that, I enjoyed it and might do this fella again. I might even try the ultra next year if I’m feeling brave… though that’s a leap I haven’t yet even considered.
The unexpected highlight of the day however was meeting lots of amazing people on the run. Perhaps trail runs attract a different crowd but I talked to some incredible people on Saturday, including Michael who I met on the bus to the start line and who, as I mentioned, had not only run another marathon the day before Stone Mad but has run 27 marathons since starting running last year. When I asked him what made him take it up, he said he just enjoyed it and liked to feel healthy. So unassuming, friendly and personable, it was a pleasure to meet him. I also would like to wish my new friend Marie the best of luck with her 100km run in Belfast next weekend. Marie ran her 97th marathon on Saturday and is aiming to complete her 100th marathon in New York in November. A truly remarkable feat for who seems to be a truly remarkable person. An inspiring bunch of people, don’t you think?
What did I take away from this experience? Just enjoy it, all of it and you never know what might happen.