Race Don’t Race Report #1: Mersea Round the Island Race

The view from the start

The view from the start

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.

Round the Island Race 30-06-2013 jpgThere’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.

The Great Wall of Epping Forest

One mile in - the wall is 7 miles from here

One mile in – the wall is 7 miles from here

I know, there aren’t really any walls in Epping Forest, just a lot of magpies, a few rabbits and the odd deer, but today I think I found one, a small one, a wall-ette.

The omens didn’t look good as I left the house. No food for the past 4 hours, some kind of niggly virus making my throat hurt, but I’m half-heartedly preparing for a 12 mile race at the end of the month so something approaching a Sunday afternoon long run was required.

The weather was finally making an attempt at passing off as “summer”, sunshine and everything, but Epping Forest was determinedly clinging on to it’s “muddy” status. In my head I was planning on 11-12 miles and all was going swimmingly, I did about 5 and turned around to head back home.

About 40 minutes in I’d opened up a Torq gel (Strawberry Yoghurt since you’re asking) the taste giving me flashbacks from last year’s marathon and half-marathons. Despite my efforts to keep things under control, half of the sugary contents oozed over my fingers producing a sticky distraction for the rest of the run. Also, am I the only person who hates running and holding stuff? I watched the Eddie Izzard documentary last week and much as I am impressed by his multiple-marathons, I’m more amazed by the fact he manages to do them holding a little flag. That little flag would drive me to the edge of insanity. There are no bins in Epping Forest and it’s one of the few parts of West Essex that have been overlooked by the fly tippers so dropping it onto the floor is completely out if the the question. So I held onto the tiny but deeply irritating gel wrapper for what felt like a couple of ultra-marathons (probably half a mile), quickly losing my mid-run karma before realising I could tuck it away behind the elastic of my SPI belt (see, those people who say you can come up with all sorts of good ideas while out running are right).

There was also a comedy moment where I squelched through some mud, emerging from the other side wearing only one shoe. Therefore I had to hop back into the bog to pull out the mislaid footwear which took some serious tugging until it released itself with a satisfying mud-fart. About 8 miles in I was feeling very pleased with myself as my mud splattered legs proved themselves strong enough to ease past a middle aged couple on mountain bikes but then the little wall started to rear up in the distance…

The hill I was making my way up seemed to be going on for ever until I realised I wasn’t going up a hill. Lifting up one leg at a time became more and more of a challenge and I started to have flashbacks to mile 20 in Halstead last May. This time was different however. There were no crowds cheering me on, no sponsors to disappoint, no photographers to record the humiliation. Feeling dizzy and somehow managing to stay on my feet, I decided I would stop in a few minutes time when I’d reached the respectable point of mile 10, and walk home. I checked the Garmin – only to see that I would need to keep going for another 15 minutes or so to get that far so I stopped at the less obvious landmark of 9.26 miles and “warmed down” for something like half an hour.

So what caused this mini-wall? Had I learnt anything?

  • I need to eat something at least a couple of hours before embarking on a long run
  • Feeling under the weather and a rarely experienced trail run is not the best of combinations
  • Do gels actually do anything for me? Torq gels come in some nice flavours, don’t mess up my stomach and aren’t full of chemical nasties. But I took a belt-full of them during my first marathon and the effects had seemed negligible as I’d faced an even bigger wall
  • Running in muddy forests is challenging and makes a change. However, it’s much easier to give up and walk home when you don’t have cars passing you by every few seconds. All those trees make for a skiver’s paradise