Sunday 3rd July was the inaugural Orkney Marathon - or as far as I know, this is the first time a marathon has been run in Orkney. There were a number of factors which added up to my having to do this race, despite no longer having much love for marathons...which might be related to me no longer having any hopes for marathons. Time and times were a theme running through the whole thing.
"Just what on earth are you going on about?"
Well, I'm not exactly sure, and after having another evening of pushing the boat out more than I normally would last night, my thoughts are a bit foggy. But I have a feeling that I want to blog this race before much longer so I'm going to press on even if I can't think properly.
"So just why do you claim that you had to run this race?"
I didn't really have to do it, as you very well know. It's just that the arrow of fate seemed to be pointing that way. I've probably mentioned this but I'm going to be 50 this year. As is everyone I went to school with. It's been 13 years since I was last up in Orkney and I was overdue a trip. A friend of mine, Karen Crichton, got in touch to say that she and her husband Gareth had bought the house I grew up in and we'd be welcome to come and have a nosy whenever we were up. That set me thinking about a trip north. And this getting to be 50 thing does make you think about the past - well it does me - and you get a hankering to see things again...and then I saw there was to be the St Magnus Marathon, celebrating 500 years of something to do with St Magnus, I still haven't figured out what...well I had me and Peter signed up and had some flights booked within a couple of days.
Last year's Edinburgh Marathon put another couple of nails in the coffin of my marathon running career. The whole thing seems long, painful and disappointing. No matter how I try I can't seem to handle the distance on the road any more, and what I used to take for granted ( a whole series of 3.40ish marathons) is now an impossible dream. Even if I could claw my way back to the land of sub 4 hrs - what would it be for?
Still, I gave the training a fair go, and at first it seemed to go well.
I did a few promising longer runs. By promising I mean not terrible. But I got bored pretty quickly. I saw the John Muir Way 50K and thought that would be an interesting ingredient to add into the marathon training mix. It went surprisingly well. I wasn't quick at all, but that wasn't the point. I thought that doing an over-distance run would help build up strength and confidence that I could keep going.
Then we went for a couple of long runs in the Lammermuirs. These were very slow and very hilly but were a good antidote to the tedium of long road running. I thought at the time that they were a bad idea in terms of specificity of training. I had it in my head that the marathon in Orkney was going to be relatively flat and that the chief enemy might be a head-wind. I sent an email to the organiser asking if anyone had run it with a Garmin and if they had an elevation profile of the route - but I never heard anything back and didn't think much about it.
Okay, so fast forward to nearer the marathon. Everything in my legs started to grumble - particularly my ankles and feet, so I dropped my mileage drastically for the last month. Things at work changed radically as they are apt to. I had the opportunity of going on a PG certificate course as day release, so I had to try to cut down my case-load and get things ready for this to start. It took a lot of energy and thinking to do and it was kind of stressful right up to the last moment. The course started on the last week of June and our flights were on the Friday of that week, so there wasn't any time to look ahead or think about the marathon or going to Orkney very much. Some last minute packing on Friday morning and we were off.....
And then we were in Orkney! I've never driven in Orkney before - I only sat my test in 2004 and was last here in 2003. I nervously nosed the brand new hire car out the airport car park - but relaxed into driving it after a while. We took the longer road, through Orphir where I grew up, to Stromness where we were staying with friends Neil and Shona. I kept Peter engrossed and excited by showing him where I had piano lessons, where I used to try and cycle up the hill in the third (and final!) gear of my Raleigh bike, the road end that we used to turn down to go home, the view from Scorradale hill. A common refrain was "there didn't used to be all these houses here". There weren't many houses, but there used to be even less.
Fast forward, again, to the marathon. You might not believe it but I am editing 90% of what I have to say out of this, in the interests of getting out for a run this afternoon. Peter is helping Shona paint some gates, and I'm sitting upstairs on the double bed with a view of Stromness harbour spread out below and the sound of birds cheeping.
Sunday morning we were up and had breakfast. We had a last minute panic, realising in the car that we'd forgotten the tickets for the bus journey back from Birsay to Kirkwall. (I needn't have worried. Nobody bothered.)
We found somewhere to park and got ourselves up to registration. It was cold and a bit showery so people were staying inside up until 10 minutes before the start.
You could tell right away that it was a well-organised race. The numbers were nice and neat and small so they wouldn't catch the wind. The baggage system was smooth. There was a friendly, easy-going feel about the whole thing. We saw a few people we knew. I saw Peter talking to William Sichel under a tree and told him he was a legend. I thought it was best to get it out of the way. He obviously feels the cold because he was dressed up very warm.
It wasn't that clear what to wear. I didn't want to turn out in just a vest in case the wind and the cold was too much. I'd opted for wearing a t-shirt and very light Inov8 ruc-sac which is handy for gels and carrying the camera. Given I wasn't going to break any records I decided to definitely take the camera - it's a nice record and a good distraction.
The buzz on facebook on the Portobello page the night before was that it was going to be a hilly course.
I hadn't really looked at the course in detail before-hand. When we sent round the "wrong" side of the Wideford Hill coming out of Kirkwall it was clear the organisers meant business. I prefer a hilly course to a flat one and I was silently grateful that I'd made those two trips to the Lammermuirs in training. At the time it hadn't seemed that clever.
I can't give you a blow by blow account of the course. I was doing well up to Finstown and 7 miles, although I knew I'd probably run faster than I should. I got there in exactly an hour and just behind Angus from Portobello and his friend. He looked a bit surprised to see me - as well he might and he took off from there, beating me by a healthy 12 minutes in the end.
I was going okay but by about 10 miles I was in a familiar place as far as the running went. My legs were sore and I was bored. I knew what I had to do was just maintain my pace as best I could. The thought of another 16 miles was....well, I wish it was unthinkable. It was thinkable but not a pleasant thought. I reached for distraction as much as I could. The skies were spectacular - the wind blowing different formations of clouds along every few minutes. Everywhere there were fields of buttercups and marsh grasses and feisty looking cattle. My mind produced a series of songs with lines about Time. David Bowie was featuring in there. Songs I don't particularly like from the 80s. Something about time and love kept coming back. I can't remember what it was.
A man from the 100 marathon club drew up for a chat. Sometimes this would be an unwelcome distraction but not now. He asked me if I'd done a marathon before and I told him this was number 13 and maybe it would be my last. He wondered why. "It's just not working for me anymore" I told him, "I used to be excited about marathons but I'm not anymore. And running on the road hurts too much. And there's nothing to be hoped for apart from not having a disaster." He told me he was on something like marathon 169. He is part of a small group who endeavour to run a marathon in every county in the UK. Next week he was going...somewhere else..the week after a marathon in Dundee. He asked me if I knew the course, but I don't. I told him he must be a very patient man, to do all these marathons. I was thinking of my own feeling of bored frustration and pain. He didn't comment on that.
He told me about how he was a baby-boomer and that there was too much competition to do well outright in races, so after he'd gone sub 3hrs for a marathon once he started concentrating on doing quantity. I do admire his effort and dedication, but to me it sounded like an endless treadmill it would be hard to get off - like having completed every London Marathon. How do you decide to stop? He was making my 13 marathons look paltry - all the more reason to stop.
He dropped off on the hills. I'm always stronger on the hills. Belatedly I'm thinking maybe it was growing up in Orkney that contributed to this - because, although I'd flattened out the island in my imagination, it turns out it's a hilly place! The last few miles of the marathon were a continual roller-coaster of ups and downs - which suited me fine. I made my body a promise, which I'm not sure if I can keep, that this would be the last marathon - so all the last painful, unwanted miles would be the very last. "If you'll just do it now, you'll never have to do it again." It sounds uneasily like the lament of the abusive husband. "I'm sorry! I didn't mean it! I love you! If you forgive me this time and take me back I'll never do it again!". At what point will my poor subjugated body decide to walk out and not look back. And then where will I be?
Yeah I know. That's a bit dramatic. Just running thoughts running through my mind as the miles went by.
When there was less than 3 miles to go, my courage returned. I suddenly thought decisively that I was going to make it. There were a few runners up ahead and I was gaining on them - just by a little, but still gaining. I tried to relax into my concrete limbs and run as if I was a proper runner. I passed a couple of people on the way down into the road into Birsay, and then pride dictated that I shouldn't slow down and let them go past again. The course took a turn at the Palace and then went off-road and uphill for a little while. I was pleased about this thinking that it wouldn't suit anyone else but it suited me! We went past the graveyard and then ran down a road and past a cone and back up the road and past the graveyard again. I had time to realise that I'd camped here with my pal Debbie when we were teenagers and she'd told me about the "graveyard rhubarb" which wasn't rhubarb but something else that was poisonous. Graveyards and poison had captured my imagination and every time I saw the "rhubarb" I had a shudder. And there it was, lined up on the other side of the road. Graveyard rhubarb.
It was a short run to the end of the road and then right to the finish. I was running hard at this stage, knowing I could afford to squander the last of my energy, I no longer had to save every penny.
And then I was ducking under the yellow finish arch and getting my yellow goody bag. Telling the organiser that it was good - or it would be later. It was a great course. Gritty. The goody bag, like the rest of the race, was well-thought out and free from superfluous extras. There was a bottle of beer (Swanney Breweries), a medal, a packet of Stockan's Oatcakes, some Orkney fudge, a Mars Bar lookalikee, an Orkney Badge and a puffin key-ring. All the essential of life.
I forgot to tell you that just before the graveyard I saw a lady with long brown boots on, cheering at the side. When I looked again, it turned out to be Peter with his shorts on and his brown holiday legs. I asked him how he'd done and he told me 4th and 1st MV50. I knew he'd be chuffed with that. When I got over the line I saw club mate Angus who was philosophical about "times", knowing he'd run well despite his time being 4hrs 5 minutes - which he would normally beat by a good margin. "You just have to re-calibrate" was his take on it. He'd never been up to Orkney before and he was full of enthusiasm for it. It would have helped that he'd got plenty of sunshine in the last couple of days but it was nice to hear. I felt proud, although I have nothing to be proud about - it wasn't me that made Orkney good... but I like other people seeing it. We hatched a pie in the sky plan for a number of people from Portobello chipping in to buy a club-house in Orkney and using it on a time-share basis. I don't think there would be too many takers for the winter let. Well you might get me. There's nothing like a good old several day Orkney windstorm to put you in touch with the more elemental forces.
So - 4hrs 17 min was a new personal worst, if you don't count the Everest Marathon. A personal worst in time but not in performance. I was pleased not to fall apart - not to have stomach problems or some kind of drama. I felt I made a pretty good job of it.
I don't know if I'll keep to my promise to give up marathons. I swither about it. My mind wants to run marathons but the reality of it is different - and my feet and ankles are not a big fan to be honest.
The organisers got lots of well-deserved praise for the marathon and they're planning on making it a regular event. I'd highly recommend it. But it's tough - be prepared to re-calibrate!
Peter and Isobel Burnett of Carnegie Harriers - 1st over 50s m and f
I ate two of these! Home made pizzas.
Ruth Spence, big sister of Peter who I went to school with.
Post marathon legs on the bus back to Kirkwall.
Gus on the bus (in shades) - I think "ebullient" is my word for him
view from the bus