Marathon writeup

Game Day has ARRIVED! Three months of “religiously” sticking to a training schedule, reccie runs, hill work, long runs, tedious stretching sessions, recovery runs, tempo runs, schedules, logistics, kit - It all came down to today. The goal was 5 hr 00 min, the high performance goal was 4 hr 45 min and the secret dream goal was 4 hr 30 min. Race start was scheduled for 9 am so the alarm starting ringing at 6:30 to allow time for some light breakfast, coffee and transport.

Quietly creeping through a house of sleeping supporters, we contained our nerves and scoffed a bit of toast and coffee in preparation for the 45 minute drive to the “Red Squirrel Campsite” start line. Our amazing support team included a volunteer driver to get us to the start line, before returning to pick up the rest of the supporters, so it was a small group of three who climbed into the “race vehicle” for the spectacular drive through the Scottish highlands just as day was breaking over the horizon.

The ride was serene but the excitement in the car was palpable as we began to approach the start line and understood that the efforts of the past three months were about to be realised and we had such a spectacular day to do it. The weather was clear and crisp - a balmy 7ºC. We arrived at the campsite and bid our driver farewell before making our way through to the morning check-in for the run. After picking up a welcome cup of hot coffee from the organisers and completing some pre-run stretches we began to wander about and take in some of the amazing scenery around the start line as the 9am deadline grew closer.

We had finally decided to split the difference between our “suggested” start waves, from Tell's wave B and Pierre's wave E (we didn't coordinate our estimated time on registration), we headed off in wave C, so a 9:10 start was on the cards and we nervously waited as the first hundred runners took off on this legendary course. To the sound of ceremonial bagpipes we shuffled forward as our wave was called and then… we were off!

The first stage of the run along the road was comfortable and easy we kept pace with the bulk of the runners in the wave and climbed up the single track road to the first crossing - off the tarmac and onto the dirt - where we encountered our first problem… 1 km in!

The initial start was good and with a wide road we were able to set our own pace and overtake runners as necessary. However, once we crossed onto the single track of the off-road course it quickly became evident that passing people along this part of the course was going to be very difficult and, with some people ahead running at slower speeds across the initial puddles and mud-traps, a long queue began to form and pace slowed to a near walk. However, we found a few opportune passing places and by the 5km mark we were back on track making good time at our target pace (6:00 min/km).

As we pushed along the right-side of the road we realised the reccie had thus far been fairly accurate and the wet, slightly muddy terrain was perfectly within spec for the shoes. We were making good times and at 5 km it was time for the first gel-boost. Despite the fact that neither of us felt particularly taxed at this point, or even hungry after the breakfast and coffees, the plan was the plan, and so we “gelled” at 5 km on the run. No real drama and as the sun started to break through the run started to feel good. As we crossed back over to the left side of the road and thus began the journey to the Devil’s Staircase in earnest, the mud and heather section of the course offered both opportunities for making up lost time and the potential for disaster. This section of the course had hidden “mini-sink holes” and as we went passed one fellow runner whose leg disappeared deep into the mud we realised just how treacherous this part of the course could be. Nonetheless, with some careful stepping and blind luck, we managed to avoid the majority of these obstacles and had hooked onto a runner - “the ghost” - who looked like they were setting a pace similar to what we wished to achieve, while also appearing experienced in the art of off-road running. So we set about following the ghost through this section of the course and she managed to drag us through the trickier bits of the course with a minimum of fuss.     

By the time we reached the Devil’s staircase we were on target and the ghost was only a 100m ahead. The sun had broken out and the day was warming up. We gelled at the start of the staircase and began the climb. The climb was steep and we acquiesced to the majority view of a “quick march” up this section of the course, with short sections of running along the flat - again, the ghost was a good guide here and where she ran, we ran, constantly trying to not let the gap between us open up too much.
We crested the staircase and felt good. The “hardest” part of the run was behind us and we began to tackle the descent. Previous experience from the reccie came to hand here and we pushed hard on the downhill sections to regain time lost during the earlier part of the race. We were making good time through the downhill; sections and the glorious weather and dry summit made the running easy and free.

We were making good time and as we descended into Kinlochleven (the halfway point) we realised that we were making better time than expected and had to call ahead to inform the support cars to get to the meeting point earlier than expected. Pierre - the only man who can text, video, photograph and place phone calls while running down a mountain at pace - made the call and after some initial discussions a meeting point was set up as we entered the village. With near perfect timing the support cars arrived just before we reached the second climb heading out of Kinlochleven and we stopped for a fuel pitstop.  

As welcome as the pit stop was, we had managed to catch the ghost down the mountain to Kinlochleven and now she had pulled away up the mountain during our re-fuelling session. So we began the climb with the aim to try to make up time on the ghost. An ambitious goal that would unfortunately, never be realised. She was too quick. However, the ambition was a good motivator up that second big climb out of the village and we managed to run large sections of this, despite the need to walk the steepest segments. 

After the main ascent the course settled into a series of rolling hills across a fairly consistent and wide beaten path. This was one of the mentally challenging parts of the course, while it was a relief to be able to see the course ahead, it also appeared endless. Moreover, the relative “flatness” of this section of the course meant that we should be able to make good time across this section, so the need to push along a never-ending trail required some motivation… running with a friend is definitely the way to go for this course! Fortunately, the quality of the day helped - we were in the highlands, in early October, with brilliant sunshine and warm weather - the decision to not wear skins was starting to pay dividends. 

The heat and pace through this section of the course (The Mamores) was mercifully broken up by the presence of a fuel station where we able to break, refill our water bottles, gel and try to scoff a bit of muesli bar! After the fuel station Tell was feeling good, but Pierre started to feel “the wall” for the first time. Enter the Power Song - Bodysnatcher by Radiohead. 7 minutes of inspiration andPierre was back on track. Powering along the path and feeling good. We were 31 km into the run and starting to feel cautiously optimistic about our time...

As we continued along the path and past a few sheep we kicked over the 32km point and realised there was only 10km to go. At 3 hr 30 we only needed to maintain 6 min/km and we could be into secret dream goal time. We were both feeling good and starting to get excited about pushing through the last 10 km. If it continued like this - how bad could it be?!?!?!

The course was heading downhill from 32-34 km and we were making good time. But then the struggles began. At 34 km, we started another ascent and this time, it was Tell who met the wall and there was no 7 minute song that could help. An ascent, a descent, an ascent, a descent, an ascent, a descent through a forest, an ascent… 4 km of hard graft, followed by false hope. Pierre was feeling ok and thankfully dictating the pace to keep things on target - left alone at this point, Tell would probably have been walking!

With one final push we climbed the last ascent and hit a wide winding gravel road that set us up for the fast 4km descent to the finish line. We were still making good time and looking like 4 hr 30’ish was achievable. We picked up the pace and were running 4:30 min/km through this final section to try to make up some lost time from the struggles.

At the end of the gravel path was a small forest section and the finish line was in site, one final push, one last mud section, one last bog, and we were there!  

After the run we met our support team at the line and all the pain evaporated and was replaced with pure joy. Months of training and planning had come to fruition, we smashed our best goal time and managed to complete the marathon in 4 hr 34 min. Slightly longer than the secret dream goal, but incredibly pleased with the effort.

Finally, we went for a cool down swim in the river - it was freezing - to wash the shoes and legs before the drive back to the cabin for some much deserved food and champagne. An amazing experience and highly recommended!  

Final Note on Pierre's Chocolate Bar: I wouldn’t say there was any anxiety ahead of using the first few gels over the training period but I was pretty satisfied to realise that they were going down quite well at our defined pace of one gel per 5 km. Even in our 30 km run, the 5th and 6th gel at 25 & 30 km had been almost tasty. 

Somehow on the day of the marathon I could tell that already the 2nd gel at 10 km wasn’t quite so enjoyable… Delayed the 3rd one to 17 km and the 4th one to 24 km. That one took a very long time to flow down my throat so I planned to use my special treat: the chocolate bar that I was only having from time to time during training as a special reward. 

I cracked it open around the 30 km mark, very worried that if I didn’t take energy in at some point I would be increasing chances of “hitting the wall”. And because our time was looking promising, I really didn’t want to ruin it all. So I tried my hardest to have it. Bit by bit. It was an interesting mind battle. To get from the open package to my tummy would be broken in the following steps: wait with full bar in right hand… motivate myself hard to break a small piece with left hand… wait with small piece in left hand… motivate myself hard to take piece to mouth… wait with piece in mouth not chewing yet… motivate myself to chew… wait with piece chewing in mouth… motivate myself to swallow… swallow… Start again the same loop a few minutes later. 

I must have had that bar for over an hour in my hand when I crossed the finish line and I’d only ingested less than half of it. That bar and the focus on trying to eat must have somehow contributed to taking my mind away from other pains. I couldn’t believe I struggled to eat such a small thing that I liked so much, even after crossing the line. So I took that photo and thought you should understand the story of it!