Running Like A Pro

Loch Ness Marathon

Marathon-photos startPhoto: Tim Winterburn

Only three weeks prior I’d been here. Well, not here, but in the same general area – when I say general area, I mean the Highlands. I know, a bit like an American saying that all other parts of the UK are just extensions of London. I’d visited earlier in the month for the Ben Nevis Race – this time was longer and flatter. Or so I thought.

I’d been invited to cover the Loch Ness Marathon for an online blog. Actually, the offer was a bit like being a child again, as Rose was given first refusal, and did just that. And so, with little protest, I accepted the running version of a hand-me-down jumper, and packed my bags for Inverness.  After an early start to Manchester airport I boarded the twin-propeller plane where nearly everyone was reading a running magazine. The flight took less time than the drive to the airport from Leeds.

I’ve never before arrived at an airport where my name is held up on a board by a taxi driver. Unfortunately my bag was last off the carousel, so the smug impact in the arrival lounge was minimal.  I stopped my swagger and took off my designer sunglasses.  From the foyer I followed Dougal, my driver, to the car.  He seemed a little surprised that I was in town for the marathon.  And clearly thought I was delusional when I responded to his question of a predicted time. “ I think you’ll find it harder than expected…there’s a few tricky hills…and the weather’s supposed to be unseasonably warm tomorrow”.

I was a little early for my hotel check-in – on the banks of the River Ness, and approximately mile 25 on the marathon race route – so I walked the short distance into town. I had some urgent business with a mobile phone store. *insert paragraphs of frustration, cursing and eventual explosion* Several hours later, I collected my race pack at the Sports Expo and returned to my hotel, to mentally prepare for the race: I ate a 12” pizza on the bed while watching Wales vs England in the Rugby World Cup.  Mo Farah dos the same, right?

Race day alarm: 5:15am. Ouch.  A continental breakfast was served by the hotel for marathon runners. First mistake of the day: I ate everything, except what I would normally. There were no Weetabix so I had porridge. With dried fruit. Then toast. Yoghurt, croissants and then a bit of flapjack. Plus coffee. And orange juice. Just in case, I parceled up some more flapjack for the bus journey to the start.

The Loch Ness Marathon (LNM) is linear, or point-to-point. The race organisers therefore have the logistical feat of ferrying 2500 runners from Inverness down to a remote wild spot at the far end of the loch. Close your eyes and imagine every coach in the northern highlands, packed full of trainers, nerves and smelling of deep heat. At dawn I was whisked down to the start of the bus queue – VIP treatment, no less. Before I could say ‘Do You Know Who I am?’, the coach fired up and began heading south. The journey took less than an hour. For novices – the miles, expanse of water, more mountains, more miles, still more water – it must have been a tad terrifying. The views were simply stunning. And more was to follow.

The LNM start. It really is in the middle of nowhere.  On a single lane tarmac road.   Surrounded by moorland, conifers and rows upon rows of portaloos.  Ok, so the latter isn’t always a feature. Nor is the public announcement and music system.  Or the baggage drop lorries.  Apart from these, it’s basically like the start of a fell race. Looking north, the sun was just cresting the mountains to my right.  Somewhere, up there, approximately twenty-odd miles away, was Inverness. Butterflies suddenly appeared.  Or maybe it was the porridge.

A pipe band walked and played in formation towards the start line. The runners flanked and clapped. Maybe it’s being Scottish but I get very emotional when running and hearing bagpipes. Perhaps it’s a genetic thing and my DNA is actually sending out alarm signals that I’m required for battle? I didn’t share this thought with any runner nearby – firstly, it seems a bit stupid, and second most were English and may have taken my comment as a sign of territorial hostility.
Marathon-photos greenPhoto: Tim Winterburn

Dougal, the taxi driver, was indeed correct. I had overestimated my abilities and expectations. For 13 miles I was fine and bang on schedule. And, another 6 miles up to the wee village of Dores all was splendid. The sun was warm, I was drinking adequate, taking in the lochside views and thanking marshals/ supporters. Then whack! The long incline out from Dores is a real energy sapper – almost a mile of gradual depletion. At the far end comes the hill. I’d guess it’s no more than 500 metres in length but, at this stage of a marathon, the gradient is a real leg-buckler. The final 4 miles from there were a physical vs mental fight; ignoring obvious signals of pain to shuffle on. At 20 miles I was still averaging just over 8 min/ miles; I eventually finished the last 6 miles in just over 55 minutes.

The greatest compliment I can attribute to the LNM is that is a big race which somehow manages to maintain a low-key atmosphere. I crossed the line, reclaimed baggage and collapsed on the grass in the sun. I waddled to the hospitality tent when I eventually thought I’d actually be able to take advantage of my VIP ticket. As the principal sponsor, Baxters certainly make every effort to be generous and nutritious hosts. Before I took my leave from the marquee, to meet up with Twitter contacts from other sponsors, I was offered a complimentary hessian bag. I peered inside – there were half a dozen preserves and sweet condiments from Baxters. I smiled, and said thank you very much to the lady who’d been very generous to me. Only later did I discover this was Audrey Baxter, Executive Chairman of Baxters. Again, the event displays that it is not above itself, and just like a local community fete.

The following day, in the taxi to the airport, I was asked by a new driver what I thought of the event. The weekend had been great. The obvious features of the scenery, excellent organisation and challenging route all contributed. But, overall, the LNM has something else that understandably attracts runners back – year after year. I just fear that success will inevitably lead to an ugly monster. I hope that the event manages to avoid the same intensity that deters me from participating at other large race events, such as VLM. I’d recommend heading north and running it while it’s still simmering.

I sheepishly confirmed to the driver – in case he later spoke to Dougal – that the route was hillier than I’d expected, and perhaps I’d been caught out by the surprisingly warm weather. Yes, I had enjoyed the race, the hotel and the VIP treatment.  I couldn’t swagger so staggered towards departures.  I could get used to running like a professional.

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