Oh boy, that was a tough one. I crossed the line and then nearly cried into Sye’s shoulder as he hugged me. That marathon pretty much broke me. Despite hitting both the goals I’d set, it was too tough to feel like a victory.
The plan for the run was just to go easy and enjoy it, and try for a negative split if I was feeling good halfway. I’d been nervous about this first marathon of 5 in 3 months, and a few days beforehand decided I needed a time-goal as well. I settled on 4:15 as a reasonable slow marathon time, but it was probably a mistake to set one at all.
Last year I ran the half marathon version of the Boundary Run, so I was familiar with the course and organisation. Put on by the Cambridge University Hare & Hounds, it runs all the way around the boundary of Cambridge (hence the name). Some 870 people had entered the half and full offerings, making it my smallest marathon so far. It’s a very chill vibe, and at only £14.70 to enter, a very affordable option.
I knew that the water stations along the course would provide cookies and sweets for the runners, so therefore decided only to take a few gels and see how I’d go running on ‘real’ food for a change. I also opted not to take a hydration pack, even though the water stops were typically 7-8km apart, with none after 34km. Seeing as in my long runs lately I had been doing fine without much water, I figured I could be ok.
This is a much more serious run than a marathon like London – the university students come out to prove their speed and endurance, and the rest of the field is made up largely of 100-marathon-club members and hopefuls. My outfit therefore needed to be as bright and stand-outish as possible! A pink tutu and patterned leggings did the trick along with my trusty fluoro orange shirt. A lady beforehand called me ‘brave’. I just thought it was fun 🙂
At the start line I just had enough time to say hi to Phill from StupidWay, who I had found online a few days earlier. He ran the marathon last year & wrote a blog post about the experience which I found helpful in knowing what to expect. He’s trying to raise £10,000 for 3 charities by doing a whole bunch of ‘stupid’ activities (like running a marathon!), and it was great to meet him in person at the start line. He ended up running a cracking time, and bettered his time by some 6 minutes, so well done to him.
The first part of the run was magnificent. The sun was shining and we were running through green fields. It was so lovely that I probably should have stopped to take a photo. I did notice that it was very quiet, but at the time that just made it feel peaceful.
I was surprised by how well I remembered the course from the year before, and how quickly it moved past. Last year felt much longer, probably because there wasn’t as far to run. My pace was slow, though I had to keep pulling myself back as I would have happily run faster.
After a few watch beeps I switched the screen over to just show the time, in an attempt to let myself just enjoy the run. That didn’t quite work, as I kept switching it back to check I wasn’t going too fast. That time-checking habit then took hold & stuck for the rest of the race.
Before I knew it we were already at the first water station at ~7.5km, so I stopped and had something to drink. Knowing that there weren’t many opportunities throughout the course I wanted to make the most of each break. This one didn’t last though – the squash was very sweet and there was no food, so no reason to linger.
At 10km the course runs along Cambridge’s guided busway. I found myself running next to a lady, and made a comment about how lovely the day was. We ended up chatting our way up & over a bridge, about her work as a primary school teacher and the ‘real’ Cambridge half marathon. At the end of the bridge I scared both her and the photographer by trying to jump, that was fun!
After the bridge came a muddy section which I had struggled to run through last year, and was the reason why I decided to run this marathon in unsupportive trail shoes. Of course, despite the rain the day before, it wasn’t very muddy at all. I was still having an easier time navigating the terrain than others in road shoes. Perhaps all that cross-country made a difference after all.
The wonderful Sye had come up to Cambridge for the day to cheer me on, so my next goal was just to get to him and have a hug. He was waiting just before mile 12, and I felt so special and lucky to have him there. I got my hug and we spoke for a few minutes before I had to head off again, but it was a real highlight. The rest of the run I now had to do alone.
I could feel myself wanting to push the pace but I kept pulling back throughout the whole second 10km. I’d managed 10.3km in the first hour, and was looking good for something similar in the second. Around this point I started to think that a ~4:00 time was in grasp if I managed the negative split, and with how I was feeling that was definitely a good possibility.
Halfway. A few hundred metres before the sign my watch had shown 2 hours for ~20.5km, so it seemed a bit short. The full marathoners had to continue over the road to the aid station, where I stopped for a few minutes and stocked up on jelly babies, hot cross bun and biscuits. (I also managed to pour squash in my eye and on my face – classy!) By the time I actually headed off again & reached 21.1km on my watch it was 2:05.
Negative split time – and I was ready to rumble. I sprinted across a road where people were waiting patiently waiting for the light to change, and all of a sudden was on my own. Before there had been plenty of people to follow and therefore no need to pay attention to the arrow markers on the side of the road. A good chunk of the field had now finished their half-marathon race, and there were very few people left – and seemingly none in front of me. I was starting to think that I would have to navigate the second half all by myself when I spotted some people up ahead. With my increased speed I caught them easily and thankfully was rarely alone again.
Increased speed, yeah. I was hoping to smoothly transition from 5:45s to 5:30s, so when my watch beeped a 5:15 I swore at myself out loud and told myself to calm the speed down. But really, I was having fun! I kept catching up to more people, and felt good in my pace and body. When I stopped at the 27km water station I also got great comments on my tights from the volunteers, so that was cool. I didn’t know how long this feeling would last, so said to myself to try and keep the pace until 30km at least. Because of the long water station breaks sub-4 wasn’t going to happen, but a little over was still likely.
30km came along a forest-y stretch where I galloped around trees while passing people who gingerly picked their way along the dirt trail. The 3-hour mark came shortly after at just shy of 31km, then another off-road patch. The course description had said 30% off-road for the half and full, but this second half definitely felt like it had much less road in it. Despite running it more easily than others, I could feel it was more difficult to run those sections. Some guy I chatted to said that ‘the last few miles have a lot of off-road too’ – oh great.
Around 32km/20 miles is where it started to get mentally tough (doesn’t it always?). There was a water stop coming at 21 miles, but I decided to have my first gel, a GU with caffeine in the hope that it would give me a kick. I don’t know if it worked, because I got a nice distraction of a different kind. It came in the form of Budi, another keen marathoner from Australia living in London who I had met after Florence marathon. I had no idea he was doing this race (his 36th!), and we had a nice chat for a while. He’s also running Barcelona in two weeks, so I’ll probably see him again there. Just after I left him came the final water station (which we were reminded several times). I took what I needed and set off for the final haul.
But lordy lordy it got awful. I’m not sure exactly when, but at some point I was running across a field into a headwind, and that feeling of getting nowhere so completely matched how I felt about the race at this point. My pace was keeping fine but every kilometre seemed to drag on forever.
I had read beforehand about a hill at mile 24, but didn’t realise that the hill would be in a field, and the path up it would be made of mud. I tried, and ran as close to it as possible, but could not run up it too. As I walked I sent a text to Sye – my reward for getting through the last 4km. “4 and a bit to go, fuck this is tough. Walking up that hill I told you about. I hope this is that hill. Fml”
It wasn’t that hill. Or at least, there was another hill a few corners later which I ran half of before walking the rest. It wasn’t worth it any more.
The uphills did mean downhills, and with the end within reaching distance I flew down them all. Emotionally I had nothing left, all I could do was numbly move myself towards the finish line as quickly as I could. My last 2km are my fastest splits. It had to be over.
I crossed the line in 4:06:20 on my watch (4:06:00 official, 3:59:31 on Strava which ignored the water stops), with a distance of 42.14km. I had succeeded in running a negative split, and come in under time. I lifted my arms, but it didn’t feel like a celebration.
I’m not quite sure what broke me, but there are certainly things I can identify as possible causes. For one, the off-road terrain which I’m not used to running. Also, the small field size and hence lack of support and cheering on the course. All my other marathons have been big city events, where you can draw on the energy of the crowd to get you through the worst its. This time there was none of that, just me and the marathon. And that distance is hard.
But it’s probably again due to my competitive nature and stupid obsession with time. Even once I knew I would be over 4-hours, I still had to try and beat my Dublin time. For no reason. I could have slowed down, chilled out an enjoyed myself more with less stress, but instead I put stupid arbitrary pressure on myself. For what? All I felt was empty, not proud nor elated.
Afterwards I got my medal and lay on the ground for a while before hobbling off to have a shower. 6 down, 20.2 to go, with only 2 weeks until the next one. Oh boy.