Fourth marathon of 2017 and another visit to the cross-country trails, a maiden run at the South Downs Trail Marathon. As with my previous three runs, one being an ultra, I was expecting another tough course however this time it was made harder being one of the hottest days of the year and, unknown to me, this is one of the hardest trail marathons in the UK.
The race was 9:30 am on a Saturday, always good as it gives you that extra day of r&r before work on Monday. Out of the Surrey Hills by 6:15 am for the drive to Queen Victoria Park, south of Petersfield, Hampshire (also the finish line location). From there, all runners had to leave their cars then catch a coach to the start line at Slindon College, about 30 minutes away.
Arriving at a bustling college green, full, half and relay marathon runners were going about pre-race prep from bib collection to last minute loo visits. It was a good atmosphere with about several hundred people in all.
With bib collected, sun lotion and Vaseline applied, and bag dropped off I wandered to the start line across the green a bit worried, not so much about the run but the weather. I know from previous experiences I am not the best running in the heat so this was going to be a tough day. With the race MC also stating it will be the hottest day this race has ever been run on I think there was a general nervousness amongst all runners.
Feeling warm already with the sun beating down and without a cloud in the sky we were off – one lap of the college green and then out into the hills and countryside of the South Downs.
The first few miles were actually quite shaded, plenty of tree cover and no major hills to get through, all was good. Carrying my hydration pack I was conscious not to over-hydrate and use all my water before the next water station, roughly 5 miles away (and then in 5-6 miles intervals after that).
Beautiful scenery and a thinning out of runners made for a good first several miles. Feeling good, varying hill gradients and tricky terrain were managed with ease and I was on the ball, switched on, feeling strong and on course for my planned 4:15/30 minute finish.
Water stations were just that – pure water, which I felt was a bit poor. Considering this is classed as one of the toughest trail marathons in the country, the weather as expected was hot, I would have thought there could have been more on offer – energy drinks, gels, bars, bananas, just something a bit more than water.
Rolling on through the countryside it was all merging in to one big blur of trees, bushes, gravel, and tree stumps. Concentration was key and as the race progressed I noted that I should take my sunglasses off when going through shaded areas when transitioning from the bright sunlight to under the cover of trees, as the terrain was tricky.
I passed the 13 mile mark in good time, under two hours, feeling physically good – no major dramas to report. Sun was still beating down and fellow runners all doing the same at the water stations, using two bottles; one to drink and one to pour over ourselves. Legs felt good and I was mentally switched on.
Around the 16 – 17 mile mark was where things started to go wrong. On a gravel track coming down hill, decent speed but in control, there was a sudden dip in the track and I tripped on a rock or something and whoosh I was up in the air flying without wings. Landing heavy on my left hand side with my knee taking the full brunt and elbow/hand sliding on the gravel I was down.
In a flash I was up and jogged on to the water station. Picking up a water and possibly in a bit of shock all seemed OK however on checking myself out and response from oncoming runners all was not well. Hand and elbow gashed and bleeding and the left knee spurting blood out, on time with my pulse. Front left shin completely red with blood, shoe filling up and going a shade of crimson I was leaving a puddle of blood on the grass. Was this going to be my first ever DNF??
With napkins from the water station guys to try and stem the blood I walked on just in case they wanted to pull me from the race. With no medic in sight, which I felt for a tough course like this, was not good to hear. I battled on and just hoped the blood would stop and I could carry on. Suffice to say after a couple of hundred yards of walking and a slow hobbling jog the blood stopped.
Realising I had just under 10 miles or so to go, it was a case of forgetting about finish times and all about the finish line. Monitoring the injury from the knee, to hand and elbow it was a slow jaunt across the continuing hills, rough terrain from gravels to tree stumps and all the while under increasing heat.
Mile 18 marker sticks in my mind for the brute of the hill on a surface which was some kind of white smooth chalk colour. Plodding on, the run now turned into a hobble/walk/photo adventure and all about getting back without falling over again, which I nearly did several more times. Tiredness and the increasing pain, stiffness of leg and body in general did not help.
Coming into the closing miles and water/feeding stations it was clear I was going to make the finish line and, with sporadic drips of blood coming down my shin giving me a cool feeling in my now saturated left trainer, I felt a sense of achievement more than ever, partly due to running this tough marathon under duress.
With the finish line in sight, it was good to see support of crowds after 26 miles of seeing hardly anyone due to the nature of the course. I soaked up the cheers and made it across the line feeling quite proud.
Picking up the medal and walking on through the finishing area I made a quick call to Ro to let her know my experience as I was an hour and a half or so later finishing than planned. From here it was straight to the medical tent to see if the paramedics would clean up my knee, hand and arm. Brilliant as ever, they did a sterling job and gave me a thorough check; heart, blood pressure and wounds cleaned out. However, they recommended I go straight to A&E for stitches. Thankfully the Royal Surrey Hospital is en-route to home.
Still in kit, covered in dry sweat, salty skin and bandages I checked into the A&E at around 4:45pm. By now it was a very long day and aside from the pain I was starving. A protein bar and banana post-marathon was not enough.
Four hours later and I was out with five stitches in my knee and fresh dressing on all cuts. Once done it was time for the last drive back to the Surrey Hills for food and TLC.
All in all what a day. A tough marathon and my first ever real race injury. I was proud to have battled on and finished, in all a 17 hour day.
Next trail marathon I am going to make sure I read up on the details, course profile and check the level of difficulty before registering. Lesson learnt.
Marathon number 19 done. See you at race 20.