Before the race started as we stood on the beach admiring the view, a runner asked us where the start of the race was. We pointed at a hoarding hammered into the sand – it was a beach start. He seemed surprised so who knows how he got to hear about the Round the Island Race – all the publicity mentioned the challenging sections on the sand and shingle beaches.
I knew about the beach bit but I’d guessed that the majority of the race would be on concrete sea walls and country lanes. I was wrong – it was mostly on beaches and long stretches of uneven coastal paths which sapped the energy out of my legs as I scythed my way through the long, coarse grass.
I’d chosen this event partly because I like half-marathons, but was a bit nervous about doing a normal, full-on race because I didn’t want to be too rudely reminded that I wasn’t nearly as fit as I’d been last year before my little lay-off. This was 12.2 miles on all sorts of terrain and so long as I finished, it was going to amount to some kind of a personal best and something to spur me on for the future.
I’ve also got a fantasy about one day travelling to the Caribbean to do the Nevis Triathlon – a swim in the warm sea followed by a little cycle and run around an island under the shade of palm trees and avoiding the lure of the beach bars. In the meantime, here was a chance to run around an island an hour’s drive outside London, although the prospect of sunshine, let alone palm trees, was remote.
However, the sunshine duly arrived and the race started off with an immediate kilometre or so trying to find which part of the beach, the damp sand or the loose stones, gave the most traction while the sun beat down. It was immediately tough, so I took it easy.
There were then stretches of road, my attempt at relaxed breathing undermined by then occasional whiff of tired sea food and then it was those coastal paths. Every time I thought I’d got into my groove, the organisers insisted on throwing in the small matter of another stretch on the beach which became harder and harder so that during the last couple of miles, although I kept on running, I was barely lifting my feet and managed to stub my toe on some of the thoughtlessly placed stones I’d failed to spot.
I got the chance to remind myself of the thought that goes through my head during every longer race: those last couple of miles seem to go on forever. So I had to try to will myself on by comparing the distance to go with something more familiar and reassuring (“Only a parkrun to go….on sand”, “it’s just like that bit you do for the first 5 minutes of every run at home, except your feet hurt, the grass has made your legs itch and you desperately want to walk”).
Finally the pastel beach houses which told me that the end was near loomed into view, and after my traditional “false finish” (where you think the finish line is just around the corner but it turns out you’ve got another 300 yards to go), I turned a sharp right and managed a “sprint” to the finish line.
Unlike the more urban races I normally do, I had the chance to slump under the welcome shade of a big tree and watch the remaining runners stopping their personal clocks while I assessed the damage: two blisters, bruised middle toe nails and a particularly attractive tan-line from my ankles up.
There’s nothing quite like the Round the Island Race. Big skies, constantly changing scenery, clockwork organisation, friendly locals in a classic English seaside resort. All trying to cover up the fact that for me (and many of the other runners I spoke to), it’s quite a challenge which I just about overcome. I think I might come back next year.