I signed up for and took part in, the 2016 version of the above event. This was my first marathon for well over 10 years, so I did have that first-timer feeling (cue Like A Virgin…). Training had gone well, only for me to come down with what appeared to be a standard cold come race day. I judged that it should not be too much of an issue and was proven wrong, feeling weak just six miles in, and ready to quit at the half-way point. I did eventually complete it – about an hour slower than I had anticipated.
Fast-forward ten months and, having survived a 20-mile road race (Berkeley) I committed my details to the on-line entry again. I had one or two races in between March and May and could stick in one or two more long runs – all would be fine. I didn’t count on my knee flaring up during one such race, just four weeks ahead of race day. However, I was determined to be there, and complete it, again.
Over the four-week period I succeeded in bringing my distance up to half-marathon whilst nursing the offending knee. Whilst preparation was far from ideal, I was reasonably confident that I would not be slower than I was last year.
The forecast on race day was for a cloudy morning so – as well as ensuring I had my hydration pack ready (something I was also lacking last year!), plus food (raisins) to drop at specific checkpoints, I opted for a base layer under my club vest. We registered in the (indoor) marketplace and posed for a pre-race club shot.
For a club race series event, there were not many of us. I suspect the combination of the words Marathon and Trail had something to do with it and, just to clarify things, a course elevation profile was available on the race website. There are four significant climbs during the 26½ miles or so (oh yes – as this is a trail marathon, course measurement is not as accurate as for road, so the organisers compensate by ensuring it’s just a little longer then the regulation 42.2k… as far as I’m concerned, that’s dipping a toe into Ultra category) for a total elevation of over 900 metres.
Pre-race briefing done, off we set from the town centre. Ten minutes in, the sun came out. The temperature climbed, coincidentally with the runners (the first climb of the day, onto Rodborough Common) and at the first checkpoint, just 3 miles in, I found it necessary to ditch the layer I’d put on earlier.
I had made a pre-race commitment to walk every climb, the aim being to ensure that my not-marathon-ready legs would survive for as long as possible. Thanks to my knee still being a touch tender, I was rather slow on the descents as well. Thankfully, the first of these (off Minchinhampton Common) was relatively gentle.
This meant that I was in pretty good spirits as we skirted the valley floor towards the next climb, roughly 7 miles in. I caught up with fellow Almost, Andrew Wilkinson, and we decided to run* (* in a loose sense) the remainder of the route together. We made our way gradually up towards the next checkpoint and onto what is called the Heavens, providing a fantastic view of Stroud and its valleys.
From here we dropped back towards Stroud and commenced a 3-mile stretch of canal towpath, which would take us past the halfway point. The next checkpoint was close to the town centre, and opposite a pub, so we were greeted with cheers not just from the generous volunteers, but also from the patrons sat opposite who were enjoying much more tempting forms of refreshment than that I was carrying.
The canal path is a fairly tedious stretch but I was still feeling relatively OK. Unfortunately the same did not apply to Andrew, who went through a rough patch at this point (nothing to do with leaving the unvisited pub behind, of course). Together we jogged / walked to the next checkpoint, taking us off the path, and we refreshed ourselves and prepared for the final 11 miles or so.
It was already pretty warm by this time and I was grateful for the hydration pack which was subject to frequent visits! We doubled back across a few fields and started gently ascending – still following a jog / walk routine – towards Selsey Common, visible in the distance. Checkpoint number 6 (of 8) immediately preceded the next climb – just two more climbs, and checkpoints, to go.
The climb onto Selsey was a tale of two brutal ascents with a respite, in shaded woods, between. On the steepest sections I was finding it an effort just to walk and at one point, for a brief few moments, I went a bit light-headed. As we emerged onto the Common itself, my legs were beginning to remind me that we-have-had-quite-enough-of-this-thank-you-very-much. However, having made it to the highest point in the race (though why I’m referring to it as a race right now is beyond me) I was still at least in a good spiritual state.
A long descent followed, culminating in a road so steep that I negotiated it by jogging backwards for the sake of the poor legs. Another checkpoint later and I took stock. On the plus side, just one final climb. On the flip side, my legs had persuaded the rest of my body that, indeed, this was quite enough. The final 10k would be completed on blind faith.
Somehow I made it up through the steep climb onto Minchinhampton Common and somehow I endured the long drag back (via the final checkpoint) across Rodborough and the descent back into Stroud. We headed for the town centre, and finish – I was at least able to manage a grin and raise my arms, more in a gesture of finally-it’s-all-over.
I knocked a huge amount off last years’ time – all of half-a-minute. Lepha McCartan managed a much more creditable 52-minute PB and Doug Wright – as a warm-up for an Ultra he is preparing for – won the event for the second year on the trot (though the word trot does not do justice to his pace). No pressure for a 2018 hat-trick, Doug.
Kudos to the other Almosts who completed the full distance: Shaun Carr, Dave Rogers (first marathon), Karen Galpin (who entered by mistake), Victoria Kennedy, Debbie Minett and Andrew, himself preparing for the Edinburgh marathon just three weeks later.
I more-or-less collapsed onto a chair back at HQ and took stock. 42-plus-k laterally and almost 1k vertically. Eight checkpoints. Many more cheery and helpful marshals and volunteers. Probably three litres of water taken on board and sweated back off. Several jelly babies and just a few raisins. One Almost for good company. A shade under six hours. Lead legs. Exhausted body. Exhilarated mind. An emerging tan line. Medal. T-shirt. Goody bag. In summary, plenty for my entry fee.
There is a half- and, introduced this year, a quarter-marathon option. Several Almosts took part in the Half but, as the start times were staggered, and I was so slow, I didn’t get to see them. Something for everyone then – unless you are a trailaphobe. For me, personally, nothing both takes and gives quite so much as this marathon.
I think that I may be able to come close to empathy for childbirth. Brutally painful yet painfully beautiful. I just know that I’ll be looking forward going through it all again, every climb foreshortened in my memory, illusions of sunshine without the heat, a gentle breeze always on your face, skipping carefree through the meadows…
… Just never mention stiles.