Wednesday 8 December 2010

Endurancelife Coastal Trail Series: Portland Marathon

Another month, another marathon.  That's kind of how I was thinking in the run up to the latest installment of my running challenge.  Having previously given a 5-10 year gap between marathons, three in seven weeks felt like a short step into the realms of madness.  So, I approached the two lap tour of Portland with all of the nonchalance I could muster (i.e. none!).  I must have packed and re-packed half a dozen times in my head before I even approached the suitcase - and two or three times for real!

A last-minute business trip took me to Italy just in time for my carbo-load. Perfect, or what?  A combination of cheap flights and tight transfers meant I demolished my emergency stash of energy bars as meal opportunities slipped by.  Much to my amazement, I managed to spend 24 hours in the ultimate carbo-loading country without touching a plate of pasta.  That said, the pizza was good!  So, with the feed-a-thon put off by a day, I spent Friday eating and drinking healthy carb-filled good-for-me stuff.

The drive down to Weymouth (a causeway away from Portland) was dramatic.  The snow that had closed so much of the country during the week rested beautifully on the hills, but was old enough for the roads to have been well cleared.  When we arrived, even the beach had snow covering it.

Snow at the hotel - it was too dark to get a good picture of the beach!
We headed into town for some pasta (now that I was back in the UK!), picking our way along the occasionally slippery sidewalks.  The forecast was for an overnight thaw, but I wasn't hopeful.  But, on the walk back, sure enough the rain started to fall and the ice and snow began to melt away.  So, I went to sleep on Friday night at least assured that I wouldn't be racing in sub-zero temperatures.

I woke up to find the temperature above freezing and almost all of the ice gone from the roads.  Of course, that complicated matters a little, because now the race conditions were completely uncertain.  Wind, rain, snow, hail, and sun all formed a part of the forecast.  So, I packed a little bit of everything into my kit and we headed for the start.

Registration was smooth.  I managed to be on time and ready, unlike the previous race.  It's amazing how much easier things are when you read the instructions!  We lined up in a rather depleted starting field.  Nearly 100 runners were unable to extricate themselves from the snow to get to the race.  At the sound of the air horn, we gently jogged out of the National Sailing Academy, who kindly hosted our event and will host the 2012 Olympic Sailing events. Now I'll have to watch some of it on TV, so I can point and say "I've been there!"

Ready for the start of this one!

Those at the front of the field eased away as we headed for the first hill - 350ft over half a mile.  The first half was basically runnable at around 20% incline.  The second half was runnable by the leaders, but the rest of us opted for a fast hike to save some legs for the next 25 miles.  After a short flat section we climbed up the wall of a late 19th century artillery battery to the highest point of the course.  This was more of an interesting diversion than an obstacle.  With the next big climb not due for another 5 miles, there was plenty of time to recover.

The flat section on the way to the lighthouses.

The course headed towards the cliffs and down a fairly technically challenging gully so we could enjoy some nice views of the Dorset coast before heading West towards the Portland Bill lighthouses. 

Portland Bill in the "sunshine"

The next few miles were fairly dull, but the sun started to break through the grey to make for some fairly comfortable running.  I kept thinking, "This really isn't much of a challenging course, except for Chesil Beach."  Chesil Beach, Nic has been repeatedly telling me ever since the Gower, was only ever mentioned in hushed tones by anyone who had ever tried to walk or run on it.  But, more of that later.  As the course rounded the southern-most point, we started a gentle three mile climb back to the top of the hill.

The cliffs and the path up from Portland Bill

This stretch put the wind at our backs and saw many runners stripping off their outer layers as the sun continued to try to break through the now dark and defined clouds.  While we sweated in the warmest temperatures any of us had seen for a few weeks (the dizzying heights of 6C!), the footing softened a bit and I began to feel like I had magically acquired ankle weights.  Portland is known for its stone (St. Paul's Cathedral and the New York UN building are two resting points for the final product).  Quarry dust, combined with snow melt, basically results in a fine layer of wet cement. 

Hot and sweaty was a bit of a surprise.

One of the many great cliff views.

With the shoes getting heavier and the course gently climbing along the quarry roads, I started to wonder what the upcoming descent would be like.  The course profile shows something akin to leaping off a cliff, so I feared it would be a nasty old staircase that would have to be negotiated more than run.  Luckily, the wet stone stairs only lasted for a short while before a 30% grade down a grassy slope.  The footing was sure, so I sped down without a care in the world.  I had so much fun I was actually looking forward to the second lap just so I could do it again! Then came the beach...

Just a quick drop down to the beach and then the fun starts!

Was that it? The short sharp descent goes more or less down the centre of the picture.

As I approached the lovely pebble ridge that is Chesil Beach, I did a mental review of the course.  Of my off-road races this year, the course so far was probably the least challenging up to that point.  So, the beach was certain to be tough.  Nic had been whispering "Chesil Beach" at me in her best Gollum imitation ever since the Gower.  Apparently, the runners she had overheard talking about it all spoke with a look of fear and/or loathing.  The course description is no more encouraging:

Expect to develop a special relationship with Chesil beach. This unique natural wonder will push you to your limits as you work your way along its shingle ridge - this is where this race is won or lost - stay positive - mind over matter!

"Chesil Beach, my Precious!"
During the race briefing, we were advised to just enjoy the view and forget about our feet if we wanted to avoid losing the mental battle with the beach.  So, I tried that.  Unfortunately, at about this time the clouds let go with what weather forecasters have taken to calling "wintery mix" - something between hard raindrops and sleet.  Anyway, I donned my jacket and muttered something rude about the stinging drops as they peppered my face.  So much for the sea view!  Looking straight ahead wasn't much better.  The beach section is 1.5 miles straight along the top of the ridge.  Looking up just shows a long line of people moving along into the distance.  The only thing left to do was to convince myself that I was having a good time and to try to figure out how to get through the pebbles without injury.

Luckily, after around 10 miles, I can stop thinking rationally and easily convince myself into believing that I'm having fun.  So, I just carried on, smiling grimly and thinking about how much more this must be hurting all those other poor unfortunates that weren't embracing the stupidity of it all.  I revelled in the fantasy that I was moving quickly and well. 

Eventually, I reached the point to run down the ridge and onto the roadside path.  I saw firm footing and smiled for real, aching to run properly.  Well, mostly just aching, to be honest.  After a mile and a half, it turned out that it wasn't so easily to run.  Every step uncovered a new discomfort as my body readjusted to solid terrain.  We had around 2 miles to recover before taking on the first climb for the second time, so I concentrated on getting back into a proper run.

As I approached the finish line and the start of the second lap, I noticed a lot of people running very quickly indeed. For a few seconds, my befuddled mind had me looking out for the winner, certain that I had been caught.  Then, I checked my watch and realized that I was running much better than at the Gower, and was on for a 2:20 half-marathon time.  Since there was no way I was being lapped, I looked closer and noticed that none of the runners had kit bags.  Then my brain started to function again and I realized that I had finished my first lap as the 10k racers were warming up.  So, I continued on in a relative plod happy in the knowledge that I would not be lapped.

The second lap went much as the first, but much slower.  The big climb went from a run/fast-hike to a moderate walk.  The climb over the battery involved much more care over balance and foot placings, now that 150+ pairs of feet had been over the muddy foot holes (the half marathon had already been through since my last visit).  As I approached the cliffs, the 10k runners started to pass, which pulled me back into a reasonable pace.  I enjoyed the challenge of keeping up with the 10k leaders on the tricky descent, but eased back once the path widened and then they split off - there were still 10+ miles to go and I wasn't going to keep a fast pace for anything like that distance.

Sure enough, the expected bad patch started at around 16-17 miles.  I struggled to have any rhythm or strength on the rocky path.  What was easy running before the beach became an obstacle-filled and hilly torment.  When I crossed paths with Nic, who was walking the course in reverse, I could easily have stopped for a chat and a cup of tea - fortunately she encouraged me onwards and I kept pushing towards the lighthouses.  I shortened the intervals between gels, drank as much water as I could, and hoped that I would get it together again before that final descent.  I really wanted to enjoy that drop down onto the beach, because everything else in the course was going to be deeply uncomfortable.

Feeling tired with 10 miles to go

The final climb - three miles of it, remember - was now even muddier than before.  I succumbed, as we all knew I must, and fell flat onto my right side to add a nice coating of low-grade mud-cement to my attire.  As I jogged along, trying to find new surfaces to wipe my hands on, I began to pick up ground on some runners and lose ground to others. 

Upwards once again
The sight of two runners I hadn't seen for nearly 10 miles encouraged me to keep going, offering a distant target to reel in.  I caught up with them finally at the final descent.  On the first lap, we had started down the stairs together and they took almost the entire beach to catch me again.  This time, I figured I would again see them on the beach, wished them well, and shot down the hill. 

Caution! It's steep and you're tired!
Mentally, I got a huge boost from the descent.  I hit the beach with a real smile on my face, ready to take on the challenge and pick up a few more runners that I could see struggling ahead of me.  I tried walking, to see if it was as inefficient as running had been during the first lap.  Strangely, it was even harder to walk on the shingle than to run on it.  I kept thinking that what I really wanted was snowshoes, or at least bigger feet.  Since I had very little energy left, I tried different stride lengths and speeds to find any way I could to efficiently navigate the beach section.  Finally, I settled on something like a cross-trainer / cross-country skiing motion.  At a run, I kept my strides quite short and concentrated on landing with flat feet to minimize the displacement of the pebbles.  I alternated this with a shuffling walk that was similar but with faster and shorter strides.  Although two runners did catch up with me on this section, I picked off another two who had basically given in to the beach and were ambling to the exit point. 

For the final mile I tried (and failed) to catch one last runner who, like me, was running along the path, but struggling to cross even the smallest of obstacles.  As we approached the sailing centre, my grimace from the chase turned into a grin.  When I saw Nic looking out for me near the finish, I developed an ear-splitting smile.  I was nearly done, I had managed the dreaded beach twice, and I was well ahead of my expected finish time.  I crossed the line happy to have successfully navigated another marathon.  Now, I'm looking forward to a long break until the January event!  A few long runs and a couple of short races will keep me busy until the next one.

Happy to finish!

Weymouth beach on Sunday - go run here instead!  It's nice compact sand.

Once again, the great pics are from Nic.

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