Race Review : The Vodafone Race to the King Marathon

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Intro

This weekend was something a little different. Well, something a lot different actually. The Race to the King Ultramarathon/Marathon weekend gives the “lucky” participants chance to run or walk a single and double marathon through the South Downs snaking from Arundel to Winchester. And this would become my fourth marathon,  third marathon in three months this year, third without really training (idiot!) and my first ever trail race.

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I had no experience of this kind of race and despite people telling me to forget about time, and to def wear trail shoes, and lots of other advice that I seemed to file somewhere in the back of my mind until I was actually experiencing it first hand, I was still thinking of hitting a decent time. This was, after all, a training run that #UKRUNCHAT superstar Jenni had roped me into to help prepare me better for the 100K in one hit Race to the Stones next month. But to start…

Southern You Suck!

I live in zone 2, I work in zone 1, I do not normally have to travel outside of London until it is to a race so have very few opportunities to experience network rail at it’s best and, in this case, at it’s worst. There were a lot of cancellations on the board. Maybe due to the well publicized lack of staff. My train, the first train from London Victoria to Arundel finishing at Bognor Regis was supposed to split at Horsham, with half the train going on to Portsmouth.  The train sat at Horsham forever with the driver every so often saying that the driver of the other half of the train couldn’t be found. We sat there for an age with no clue if were going to get turfed out or if the train would being going to Portsmouth stranding us, and then, after a coin toss, the train went to Bognor stopping at Arundel and not Portsmouth.

The Southern Logo circa 2016
The Southern Logo circa 2016

On the way back Stevie needed to get from Petersfield to Arundel. But EVERY SINGLE TRAIN was cancelled. The entire route was cancelled.

And then the train home, one each half hour, and one we got on, had no seats at all. So yay! Several stops of sitting on the floor after a trail marathon. Thanks Southern, you suck. I welcome the re nationalisation of the rail network in the new Britain.

Bad Night – Enter Kevin

Now my blood is up let me mention the hotel/BNB I stayed in. Three runners sharing a family home WITH the family there. I had read reviews before booking but staying down the night before was a lot more sensible than travelling down from London in the early morning and, looking back, I do not think I could have completed this race on so little sleep.

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The reviews I read were mostly favourable. But the most recent, also from another runner told of the teenage son of the family coming back at stupid o’clock in the morning, making a lot of noise, swearing and turning the B&B breakfast table into a mess with takeout curry containers, and hollowing out the bread that was left for the guests. But surely that wouldn’t happen.

The owners were lovely, they even swiped their youngest son’s (Cosmo’s) phone charger for me as I forgot mine. The room was comfy and they let me off the change on the bill. They were nice but at 2 in the morning in came the teen terror. Noise, waking the house up. And pizza boxes when I went down for breakfast in the morning.

Ah well, I suppose it is expected when your parents turn two bedrooms of your house into hotel, and you have to carry on as normal.

The Start

The next day started at a quarter to six, with the RTTK guys putting on a 7am shuttle bus from Arundel station to Gaston Farm and the start where a good few thousand (including #UKRUNCHATs Spencer, Emma, Chelsea, and Jenni) mingled, collecting their bibs, race packs and filled water bottles. It was then I realised that I had used too much Milton when cleaning my Camelbak. It tasted of chemicals and so I had to dump it out and rely on a bottle of Lucozade and small bottle of Coke I had in my new Salomon backpack after collecting the awesome race tee (free if you race both).

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The Route

Not sure it would have made any sense even if I did look at the map they supplied because it was a little too ordinance survey for my liking, a little too abstract for me. It started in the farm with all the runners going first then the walkers half an hour later. Queues for loos, water, lots of support staff, cars from the sponsor, and a MC who was funny, joking about one runner having the elevation of the race drawn on his buttocks, with the plan of dropping his shorts at each pit stop.

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No warmup. A few photo ops. And then we were off after a countdown. And it was very soon in that I realised something was off.

Hating it

Struggling through road races with minimal training is ok.  But I had new shoes and had never run a trail race before. Within the first mile, whilst the snake of humans was still 6 wide and slow I was concerned about my footing. Having only just come back from a nasty ankle sprain too, I didn’t want to turn my ankle over on the uneven surface and for it to be ruined.

I saw Jenni who seemed concerned I was hating it. And I spoke to Spencer, again explaining that I was already in a bad place. A couple of fields later and they were way ahead and I was running in a one person wide snake, tired already and having nowhere near anything resembling a stride pattern.

Speeder bikes on Endor

But then something happened. The broken down grass of the fields, and hard chalk paths under sunshine made way for soft underfoot trails under the cooling canopy of the trees through woods. I picked up speed and managed to bash a few KMs out at my normal street training pace. Zipping through the woods, ducking branches, and picking up speed with runners behind me.

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The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Tormented Runners

The soft underfoot paths of the Ewok moon of Endor did not last long though, and were soon replaced with hills. Hills, hills and more hills. There were a few steep inclines, but nothing really of note until I hit the second aid station at half way. Here I ate and drank a lot of Coke and squash and looked out to the vista.  The hill opposite was a monster.

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And it would not be the most difficult either. The next one, at mile 17 or so was a chalk path, steep and me arriving at it coincided with torrential rain. Now we had been warned about the weather. There was such a high probability of thunder and lightning strikes that the organisers sent an email out advising what to do when lightning strikes when you are running. Still, this, plus the thought of Race to the Stones in 3 weeks time, made me pack all I needed for that adventure including, and I am so glad it did, my rain jacket. Oh, that was something new too, I ran with a backpack filled with what I needed for Stones, including spare clothing, medical kit, waterpoof jacket, phone, money, tissues etc.

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The hills are alive…

The hill at the end, long after my GPS (showing the low battery warning) , and long after we had passed 26.2 miles, was so steep people were grabbing branches and taking pauses to “check out the view” when what we needed was a Sherpa or two.

Mud

After the rains had subsided, which was basically on a hilly area leading up to mile 20 or so and another checkpoint where we all sat or stood steaming as if we were on fire, and where I had the best cup of tea ever made, there was a new enemy, a new guest villain – Mud.

Best tea ever
Best tea ever

The mud was something else. As far as I could tell there were several sorts. First there was  standard underfoot brown mud that was churned up by the runners ahead. It was mostly in the woods, on the narrow dark paths,  worried about tripping over roots, and falling into the sea of stinging nettles and thorns either side. And then there was the clay. This was on the paths that had stamped down grass. It was grey, thick and stuck to everything. It was slippery and found on a really long incline through the woods that had us almost skating our way slowly and desperately looking for the exit.

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Talking to People?

And “challenge” is the word. You were being hit with everything: Rain, heat, sun, humidity, exhaustion, mud, different mud, stinging nettles, thorns, inclines, hills, stony chalk paths slick with rainwater, periods alone, and you needed your fellow runners to get you through. You were grateful for their interaction, for a chat in the 6 hours of hell. Not my normal Modus operandi, but was not a normal race for me.

Just the half

We talked about this quite a bit, this phrase took on a new meaning. When the weekend includes a double marathon and you are asked which race are you doing (double marathon in a day, single marathon in a day, double marathon in two days) and you are doing “just” the marathon it became known as “just the half.”

How I did

RTTK

I did not do myself justice, I was wholly unprepared, there were times I hated it, times it was ok, times I really questioned whether I could even complete Race to the Stones, but I soldiered on, through exhausting hills, and somehow I was 7th male, which is funny in itself. And a crazy high five and well done to Jenni Morris and Steve MacDonald from UKRUNCHAT who were 2nd female and male in the marathon. Amazing. Emma finished the double marathon, as did Spencer, both in great times, and unfortunately Chelsea had to retire hurt. 😦

The Finish

Just wanted to say there was no one taking photos of the marathon finishers, there was no crowd, there was nothing, a few tents, a beer tent you needed to pay for, a guy with a mic, but nothing that signalled the end of a marathon to me. I was disappointed as like my finish line photos, it is why I save enough energy to finish running.

The Bling

Unique and am very proud to hang it on the rack. It was the toughest “half” I have ever done.

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Trapped

You would have thought that the nightmare trains, the teenager alarm clock, and the race itself was already the stuff of horror films, and you would be right. And after finishing, grabbing my medal, and meeting up with Steve and Jenni, for some cake and tea around what was 3 o’clock we found there was only one shuttle bus back to Arundel, and that was at 7:15pm. And so we tried the cab companies in the area. ALL the cab companies. The first cab we could back would be at 6. And so we waited, letting Jenni go and pull some strings with the organisers, as we stuffed ourselves with hot chicken pasta, and so much cake from Ministry of Cake.

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Alex to the Rescue

In the end they did pull through. A star in the shape of recent University of Newcastle graduate Alex and one of the RTTK Volvos. We asked for him to drive us to Petersfield, the closest train and 10 mins away, but after finding there were no trains at all from there to where Steve had parked his car, Alex kindly offered to and then drove us all the way to Arundel and back to Gaston Farm.

In Summary

This really was something completely different for me. My 108th medal was truly earned in what was a test of endurance of someone who has barely trained this year. It inspired me to join the gym and plug the gap in my fitness. The camaraderie was superb. The #UKRUNCHAT team was amazing. GO UNICORNS!

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Would I recommend it? If your thing is running on road, like me, then not necessarily. If you like mud, discomfort, a snake of people, and being pushed mentally and physically, then sure, knock yourself out.

Would I do it again? No. The original idea was to use this as a taster for Race to the Stones and I am so glad I did it. I would have been so far out of my depth at stones without this experience. But this was, as we kept describing it when asked, just training for stones. Hence, only doing the “half.”

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Next Up:

Bishop Stortford 10M

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Sounds horrific – well done!!

    Like

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