Don’t mention the bunnies! The Portland Coastal Marathon Race Review

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Thomas Hardy described Portland as “the peninsular carved by time out of a single stone” but I think Jonathan Meades was closer with “Portland is a bulky chunk of geological, social, topographical and demographic weirdness. It is the obverse of a beauty spot. ‘Beauty’ in this construction implies the picturesque. Portland is gloriously bereft of this quality. It is awesome. There is nothing pretty about it.” Of course, neither list that it is in the arse end of nowhere. It is a “here be dragons” dingleberry clinging onto the “bottom” of the country at Weymouth.

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Rabbits, apparently, have long been associated with bad luck on Portland; use of the name is still taboo—the creatures are often referred to as “underground mutton”, “long-eared furry things” or just “bunnies”. And upon reading that the Wallace and Gromit movie Curse of the Were-Rabbit was renamed for advertisements on Portland I wondered whether I was heading to Dorset or the dark ages. I also wondered what the ladies of Portland called their favourite battery powered toy. But that is a different conversation entirely.

Long ears? Fluffy tail? No. No idea what you mean.
Long ears? Fluffy tail? No. No idea what you mean.

It certainly would be a lengthy journey, what with Waterloo working on its platforms and cutting services, that would take me over 3 hours there on the train, before a half hour bus ride, and an even longer and fractured journey back that took me to Bournemouth before heading to London. Plenty of time to recover, but also concerns over such a long journey after what would be my hilliest marathon of the year so far. And, to be honest, it did make me question my race calendar choices this year. And the hotel was a concern so I had a last minute change from Aqua to Heights after a conversation with Mike.

When you build a race calendar that covers the whole year there are things you soon find to be getting in your way. 1) the summer only has ultras and you end up running RTTK, RTTS or similar, and 2) the Winter months have trail maras more than road that 3) are in the ar$e end of nowhere like Bovington and the Portland Coastal Marathon.

This would be a test though, after I had passed the Cakeathon test and got my first marathon of the year a few weeks before. Another 6 hour cut off but a very hilly trail marathon. It would be a challenge. And one I would need to pass to see any progression. It was also a week before Bowieathon, another 6 hours and another marathon. Again, race calendar craziness.

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The Why, What, When and How?

Why? Well that is simple, when looking for marathons in February I had already booked up Bowieathon so needed one the first or last weekend and this was the only option. What? Well, it is a very small field marathon. Only a couple of people in UKRUNCHAT are doing it and only one had done it before. Of the 200 people signed up on the website, only half of that number was attempting the marathon, the rest the 10K and half. It was cheap though, £35 for a marathon in the week where Hackney Half jacked up their prices astronomically and upset the community. #jogonhackneyhalf

And it had mandatory kit too. Something that I guess I had at RTTS and RTTK but didn’t really pay much attention to. The mandatory kit for Portland is:

  • Windproof Jacket
  • Water Bottle or Hydration System – 750ml capacity
  • Basic First Aid Kit – (blister) plasters; antiseptic wipes; 1 x wound dressing
  • Emergency Foil Blanket
  • Energy Bar / Snacks – lots of these will be provided on course too.
  • Mobile Phone -waterproofed in a sandwich bag or Gucci case, your choice!
  • Hat or Tech headwear
  • Whistle

This is, of course, fine. I would wear my Salomon vest anyway which would have nutrition in the form of Mint Creams and mini Mars, as well as hydration in the form of two Nathan bottles – one with coke one with water. Mobile phone is always with me now; whistle is attached to the vest so really it is just making sure I have the first aid kit and blanket. Both of which I have run with and neither of which I have ever needed (fortunately).

A note on the website

This is the banner at the top of the marathon page.

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You will note that no one seems to have backpacks, hydration vests, a means to carry the mandatory kit list, and half of them don’t even have hats on. It is very confusing picture they are painting.

Arrival in the Dark Ages

After the success of Cakeathon and my first marathon of the year 3 weeks ago I wanted to come into the Portland Coastal Marathon weekend with the same idea of looooonnnnnggggg sleep the night before, preferably 10-11 hours, and resting in the room with my takeaway dinner after a soak in the tub. The rest, I would hope, would fall into place as it did with Cakeathon, but things never ordinarily go to plan.

Portland is a long way from London and the 3 hour train journey was hampered by a dead animal on the tracks east of Dorchester. The driver did not specify the type of animal, but it would have had to be something substantial to stop a train. And so I didn’t arrive in Weymouth until it was pitch dark. So dark I couldn’t be bothered to find where to catch the bus (a statue of a king apparently) and got a taxi to my hotel that cost an unacceptable London-esque fare. When I was in Athens the taxis were so cheap I got them everywhere. In Amsterdam it cost a packet to get out the airport car park. So you never know how much fares are going to be. From Weymouth to Portland, for the record, they fleece you. And, and this was key, I did take a card from the driver and, as you will see, this was fortunate. But first the car drove up and up around the mountain that is Portland to my hotel. I should probably have guessed that a hotel called The Heights would be at the top of the isle. And so I needed a cab to the start now too. Next time I will check where the hotel is in relation to the start.

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Like Crossroads without Benny

The hotel itself was nice. It was clean. The staff were lovely and I had a great meal the night before, chatting with a fellow runner who had run Comrades before and was there for the fun of the hills (weirdo). The problem I had and have with the Heights hotel, is that it is not very sound proofed. This was to the point where you can hear someone peeing two floors up, after hearing the light switch turned on, the seat put down (or not), the extractor fan, the urination, the flush, the seat put up (or not), the light switch turned off and then the long slow filling of the cistern. At 4am. At 5am. So much so my 10-11 hours sleep turned into 8 if I was lucky and most of that broken.

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Next morning I was up at 8, picked up my “breakfast to go” (nice touch from the hotel as it was included in the room rate) then taxi to the start, albeit unfuelled. Yes, I know I know. I couldn’t stomach the porridge pot as had diverged from my norm (plain and add raisins) by getting the summer fruits one. It was foul. The smell made me gag so I went into this one with just a cuppa in my belly.

I have raced a lot and see how the different companies do it. I am a fan of some (Runthrough) and less so others (Nice Work), and this one was a little different too. It felt like I was at a heavy metal tent at a music festival where everyone knew each other and that I kinda just wandered in from the indie tent next door saying that I like Jane’s Addiction so surely I’d love this. The RD was superb. He kept everyone in check demanding that everyone prove they have the mandatory kit. He told us there was no bag drop, there were lockers but need to pay a deposit and there was no one in reception to take your cash anyway, there were four changing rooms but only hooks and no security so to be safe you needed  to store your bag in your car or they’ll look after it for you. Everyone with a car should put their bag in it, whilst he offered to put mine (if you came by train or camel) in the Bustinskin trailer onsite.

And then came the most sound piece of advice. “The key to not getting lost, was to keep the sea on your left for the first lap and on your right for the second.” He said it was precarious, challenging, dangerous in places. We added the medic’s emergency number into our phones and tested whistles, checking we had medical kits “just in case.”

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With no signal on our GPS watches as we were inside the British Sailing Academy, arms were hung outside and I didn’t get a signal until a couple of minutes into the run as we left the marina and then at 9am exactly all the fun started…

To the Race

Within half a mile, probably less, maybe within 300 yards we hit the kind of hill the Americans would lose hundreds of men trying to take in the Pacific in WW2. It went up and up, to a road, then up and up again. This was the first hill at Beachy Head on steroids. No one was running it. And those that tried dropped to a walk pretty darned quick. I remembered the elevation profile and knew there were a few of these. Someone told me that last year on the way back down people were sliding on their backsides, grabbing brambles to stay in some sort of control. It did not bode well for the rest of the race.

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Once atop the mountain, legs already burning it became mud, mud, glorious mud, nothing quite like it to mess with your chi. You are constantly slipping and the effort to stay upright is tough on the mind as well as the body. My ankles were killing me now, but at least I didn’t fall over. That would have sucked. And not in a good way.

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The mud, and there was miles of it in four or five very long sections, ordinarily next to a sheer cliff, then made way for the sort of quarry the crew of the liberator would transport down to in Blakes 7.

Villa, get us the fuck out of here!
Villa, get us the fuck out of here!

I should have enjoyed it more because then came the most challenging part for me, wet stone steps down a sheer cliff face. You know the steps Frodo, Sam and Golem take in Lord of the Rings? Yes, those. Just without the CGI’d Mount Doom in the distance.

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More mud next and ankle deep puddles with barbed wire on one side and sheer cliff drop on the other and, with a quick check of the Suunto, I was distraught to find I had only run 12K. This was not going well, as I picked my way around dead RABBITS! Yeah! Rabbits! See what I did there, you local freaks! I said the R word. I will come back to the race in a minute but a word on the locals. This is not a normal place. And it is not a normal race in a normal place (for the want of sounding Dr Seuss).

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The locals do not like us. There were very few spectators, hardly any local support, and mostly we got the sort of looks that say it all from the web-fingered mob as we ran by. They do not like us so much that they destroy the signs that are put up. Yes, they rip them off the lampposts and throw them off the cliff so the RD had to spray arrows on the ground or on rocks in areas where the signs go missing. That is who we are dealing with. But, back to the race.

Getting my bib checked
Getting my bib checked

A couple of lighthouses appeared and a rock that I guess is the most southerly point in the UK after more muddy bogland, and then a steep incline up to the highest point before we finally get to descend, but not a gentle descent. Oh, no, who wants this to be easy? You have more wet steps, although paved ones this time, then a muddy hill that takes you back to town level. Thank God!

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As Portland is an isle, it has a long causeway that connects it to the mainland. This is a very long flat road for four miles or so on which you are sideswiped in the face by freezing wind before going under a treacherously slippery underpass, then up the other side and to the start.

Okay, now, take a pause, sit down, make a cup of tea, hold your loved ones close because just think of this…. I was now just half way. 2 and half hours into the race and I was just half way and had the entire thing to do again, albeit in reverse. So those crazy steps, I had to go up. The muddy climbs, I had to go down. It was not something I was looking forward to. The exact opposite in fact. With every fibre of my being I wanted to quit. But then something happened that allowed me to take a pause, resettle myself and head back around the other way.

This was on the way up!
This was on the way up!

I had been keeping up with a lady runner the whole time, we had played the overtaking game and she had tumbled in one of the many precarious parts. As I had overtaken her before that I got to the halfway point first. When she arrived her hand was cut up and, as it was freezing along that flat road stretch her fingers were not as nimble as normal. The marshals there had no medical kit but I did, so we used my kit to patch her up. And it was this pause in proceedings that allowed me to gird my loins, turn around and head back out to run the anti-clockwise second lap.

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At this point I thought I was just about last but as I made the turn I passed a lot of marathoners running the other way. I was not last and I was still going. Some sort of kudos-like thing to me. I kept up with a young strapping lad to the first big climb, the reverse of the paved steps down into town, and for much of the way until both my calves cramped up. I had to start my marching. I had one eye on the clock as I hit the lighthouses and the muddy rabbit (RABBIT!!) graveyard by the cliff. I needed to march, jog, crawl 7K an hour for the last two hours as the lady with the cut hand passed me, as did a couple of marshals. And that is something I really liked about this race. The organisation was superb. The checkpoints, albeit a little samey in terms of JBs and coke, had superb staff. They had to sign your bib to prove you had passed them. There were also, as stated, marshals running it. They were not pacers, they were just marshals on the course. I am a fan of that.

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The stairs to Mordor were as tough going up as they were down and now time was running out. I was keeping up with the cut hand lady (let’s call her Mable) and young strapping lad (let’s call him the stable boy) as we went through the Blake’s 7 location and hit the last checkpoint of 9. It was here that we were told 1) that the course measured over 27 miles (sarcastic joy) and that 2) the cutoff was not as hard as we’d thought (actual joy), a cutoff that was touch and go (pretty much from the first hill) and seeing as were ok as long we made this checkpoint we had time to finish.

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And so limping like Verbal Kint I reached the first big hill, the last three runners who hadn’t dropped out behind me caught up, as did the tail runners who I chatted to about my race calendar for the year as I limped to the finish to a standing ovation, cheers and this photo (free photos – another nice touch. You can use them for free but it would be nice to donate to their charity). I was last, but I did it. I didn’t give in despite really, really, really, really wanting to.

I was last but I made it. Somehow.
I was last but I made it. Somehow.

And then, shower off the muddy boots, change into warm clothes, and work out how to get home. The original idea was the bus, given the £££ of the local Bab’s cabs. But my knee wasn’t happy with me and my PF was acting up so I was so happy I took a card from that first taxi driver, so I could get to Weymouth station on time for my 4 hour journey home.

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The Bling and Swag

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Very nice bling, unique, bespoke, shows the route. Tee is nice too, although not a technical one so I would use as day wear. And the buff does show the nightmare route. I can wear that with pride.

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In summary

This was the most technically difficult race for me. It made Beachy Head look like a bimble around Vicky Park on a midsummers day. I know the fell runners and off-roaders out there will snigger or turn their noses up at this but this was hard for a road runner like me (meep-meep). Mud to a point of not being able to keep your feet, ankle deep pools of cold muddy water dotted amongst the mud, sheer cliffs with no barriers, rocky quarries, wet stone steps on cliffs with a hundred foot drop to one side, and very little support – TWICE!

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Now, I can’t fault the organisers, they were superb. Everyone involved in the race was wonderful, the medal, the tee, the buff, it was amazing. But the route. There is a point before the stairs to Mordor on the second lap where you have run through the quarry and are going down wet rock steps before a sharp turn under a boulder, I slipped and used the boulder to steady myself, and I was walking and slowly at that. If I had gone down there any faster I could have gone right over the edge.

Now some people would love this and I may be able to recommend it in a few days when my legs work again but I would say this, if it had been raining, or more windy, or colder, then it would have been intolerable rather than just horrible. I could not imagine running that race drenched, with the stone steps and mud worse that it was. Saying that, I did it, yay for me! First of 12 marathons or above in 11 months for Pancreatic Cancer UK. If you do want to sponsor me, any little helps, here is the link.

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Would I recommend the Portland Coastal Marathon? I am not sure I would. It had so many dangerous parts that I would be worried that something could happen.

Would I run the Portland Coastal Marathon? No, not again.

NEXT UP

BOWIEATHON 6 HOUR LAP RACE

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