Wednesday 22 August 2012

Phill's Northumberland Coast Trail Marathon report

Like Coniston previously, I entered Northumberland Coastal Marathon purely as a training exercise, 26 miles in my legs in race conditions in preparation for the Hardmoors 60. From my training runs I knew I had been running strongly but as in all trail marathons you are experiencing for the first time I had no idea what the terrain would be like so making a firm prediction or indeed any prediction was simply pointless. Indeed after spraining ankles in my two previous marathon outings my real focus here was simply to run well and most importantly to avoid any further injury. A sprain just 5 weeks out from Hardmoors would 6 months work ending in failure and a gutting DNS. As this was primarily a training run I decided not to employ a long taper, my plan was to essentially train through. With this in mind I did a final long run of 22 miles the weekend before and then two steady 7 mile runs midweek before the race. Even after such a short taper I felt really fresh and was chomping at the bit come race day.

This was my first time running on the Northumberland Coast (bizarre given I live just a few miles away) and why oh why have I not been up here before? Alnmouth and the race route up the coast was utterly stunning but its beauty masked what was a seriously tough marathon course. The mixture of running surfaces ranged from soft sand to narrow single trails full of rabbit holes, tree roots, random rocks to packed gravel sections, welcome areas of tarmac, grass, oh and the now obligatory scrambling over rocks. We started out at 9.30am on Alnmouth beach just as the sun broke out from behind the clouds, it was the last time there would be any cloud cover, something I had not factored in to my planning and something that resulted in some of the worst sunburn I have ever experienced. It is now 3 days post race and I have still not been able to sleep under the bed covers ha ha. 

As the race started I set out steadily and settled into an easy rhythm at the back of the leading pack of around 15 runners. Other than a couple of whippets making an early push the pace was very comfortable and the groups stayed together for the first couple of miles on the beach. As we scaled the steps onto the cliff top the group soon became split as the trail became a single track and far more technical. This first cliff top section was a bit of a navigation nightmare as the trail split on numerous occasions and offered various route alternatives. As it turns out most of these route options eventually converged back onto the same track but one of my few criticisms of this fantastic race was that a couple more markers would have been a major help. Thankfully the guy running directly behind me had run the course previously and was like a Sat Nav with his route commentary, this was hugely appreciated and definitely saved me making a number of wrong turns. The route is an out and back route that simply follows the Northumberland Coast north out of Alnmouth for approximately 12 miles and then incorporates a 2 mile(ish) loop at the top before heading home. While the course was tough and the sun burning hot, glances at my Garmin suggested that I was running really strongly, not only that but despite the miles rapidly ticking by I wasnt feeling any drop in my energy levels. I spent the first half of this marathon running with a group of around 6 runners, all of whom were making light of the terrain and were moving quickly and easily through the miles at an even pace. I had pretty much made up my mind to complete the race in this group as the company seemed to be making the time and miles fly past. To my great surprise though the group began to splinter as one after another members of the group fell away. After a while the group of six became a group of two and I ran with the leading lady Melanie Horan between 13 and around 21 miles. I really enjoyed this part of the race as a battle ensued between Melanie and the top female runner from the Plodders running club from Sheffield. They had a real battle royal upto 20 miles before the Plodders runner succumbed to Melanies strong pace and she put some distance between the two of them. 

Now this is where things got interesting for me, 21 miles is normally the point I start to suffer, often struggle with hypoglycemia and as a result my pace drops away.....Today however, despite the heat I felt on top of the world. I had decided to run with no gels as I had a feeling they were responsible for making me sick in previous races, instead I had taken flapjack with me but had tried a piece at 13 miles and simply spat it out as it was too dry to eat. So my calorie intake during this race was nil. The aid stations provided Orange Squash and I consumed 1 to 2 small plastic cups of this at each station and this seemed to get me through the race without my energy levels bombing as they normally do around the time I would expect to hit the wall. Today there was no wall and from 21 miles to the end I gradually pushed on and began to catch and overtake other runners. We had been told at around 14 miles we were 13th and 14th in the race and i knew nobody had passed us so I became aware that not only was I running well for me, I was also getting stronger compared to other runners the longer the race went on. Was this indicative that the endurance training plan I have been using for Hardmoors ultra is actually doing its job? It would certainly suggest this to be true. 

With the progress I was making I became aware that this training run had now taken on a totally different complextion. If I continued to make the progress I was and run at this pace I was looking at both a huge marathon PB but also a top 10 finish which is something I had never even come close to achieving before. All of a sudden after over 3hrs of running the race became serious for me and I dug in deep to open up a gap between myself and those behind me and to chase down those infront of me. At 23 miles an old adversary reared its ugly had as I rolled my previously injured ankle on a rock. I yelped in pain as I came to an abrupt halt cursing my luck and simply shouting NO NO NO! as my best ever marathon performance now seemed in jeopardy. I put my weight on the ankle and took a few steps, half jogging, half hobbling and the pain began to subside, the ankle roll was not bad and I knew that with the flat beach section to come if I could get there it was unlikely to turn again.

As I hit the beach I had two runners infront of me, this was great as by focusing on catching them it motivated me to keep my pace up and ensure that there was little chance the people I had passed previously were going to get back on terms. The beach seemed endless but I finally saw the finishing flags, unfortunately the last 200 meters were back on the soft sand and after 26 miles the last surface that any runner wants to see is surely soft sand. Every last bit of energy I had left was sapped by that sand and as I crossed the finish line I collapsed to the ground. 

I finished the race in 3hrs 42mins smashing my trail marathon PB by 19 minutes. I had finished in 9th place overall and was 2nd in my age group missing out on winning my age group by just 4mins 30 seconds. I am absolutely delighted with this performance and it has given me a huge confidence boost before Hardmoors after a hard summer training programme and substantial weight loss. The only slight regret I have now is that I hadn't realised before hand how strongly I would run in this race as I ran well within myself for the first 8 miles or so and could I suspect have been very close to making up that four and a half minutes. Given my aims for the race however this is certainly not something I intend to dwell on. 

In conclusion this was the first North East Marathon Club event I had taken part in and I was hugely impressed. The club specializes in putting on inexpensive, "no frills" marathons in the North East and I have to say if this race was indicative of their events they will be selling out their races in a few hours as I cant believe anybody who ran this race will not be back next year. Huge thanks to the organisers, volunteers and incredibly supportive runners for creating a great race experience and I will definitely be back next year to run this fantastic course.

Tuesday 21 August 2012

Northumberland Coast Trail Marathon

Hopefully the grin on my face says it all. A big thank you to North East Marathon club for supporting marathon running in the North East of England and for hosting such a fabulous trail marathon in a very beautiful part of England.

After running my first ever marathon at Kielder in October of last year and laughably now thinking that a couple of runs a week would see me right on the day. I turned up to my third marathon with a lot more miles under my legs and after running a sub 3 hour marathon at Sunderland I even privately harboured hopes of finishing in the top three positions and possibly winning my age group.

We started the race in a very sunny Alnmouth and it was beginning to look like it was going to be a warm day. Once underway I decided to hang back front the front a little given the warm conditions and try and keep the leaders in my sights until the half way point. Two runners from Porter Valley Plodders disappeared into the distance within the first couple of miles though and it would towards the half way mark that I would see them again.

I must also speak about the route a little. I have lived in the North East for the last 15 years and have visited some sections of the Northumberland Coastal route before. I had never been to Alnmouth before though and will definitely be returning to not only take our dogs for a walk on the lovely trails there but also spend some time on the great beaches. I also was really glad that this was a trail marathon as I much prefer running on trails to tarmac. The route itself was a great combination of hard packed trails to very soft sand. I found those small sections of soft sand very tough! The lack of mile markers was also great as pacing effort was going more by how I felt rather than letting the mile markers remind me of any pacing strategy that I might have been trying to follow.

As we moved off the beach and onto the trails it became less obvious how far in front or behind I was in relation to other runners. I was slowly passing people though and was in third position by the second drinks station. It was also beginning to really warm up now and the drink stations were a very welcome sight. Thanks to all the volunteers at the drinks stations (I look forward to joining you next year at one the NEMC events as a volunteer myself). The views of Dunstanburgh castle seemed to help the miles ease by on this section of the course. On reaching the beach at Embleton (Been here before and it is a fabulous beach) I got my first proper glimpse of Portal Valley runner(Martyn) who was in second position at the time and with the long view across the sand I could tell I was making ground on him. I think that by the time we left the sands at Embleton I had passed him and I got my first view since the start of the Porter Valley runner that was in the lead (Simon). He was at least a minute in front though and moving well.

On turning at the half way point I could now see Simon, but on hitting the sand at Beadnell Bay he seemed to start accelerating away. I decided that I was going to hang in there and also picked up my pace to keep him in sight. By Embleton beach I could tell I was starting to make some ground back. Simon must have also started to develop some issues as he had to walk and stretch a little. So by the time we left the beach I had passed him for the first time. The fact that I was in the lead in a race was also a very strange feeling. Having the castle to look at kept my mind of these things though and I pushed on trying to hold a good pace. The drinks stations were also becoming even more precious, although it was starting to get a little cooler the very warm start to the race was starting to take effect. The undulations of the trail were also starting to seem more pronounced then on the way out :) Being in front with no one to track and chase was a strange feeling for me. So I tried to blank out times and distances and just run without looking backwards. The final drinks station was a very welcome site indeed. Then it was onto the beach at Alnmouth for the run in. I started to head for what I thought was a large yellow flag and the finish point. As I got closer the flag it became a tent and a family enjoying the great weather. My mind then started to play tricks with me as I could not see the Start/End point and I began to think it was in the next bay along that looked as least a mile away! After running for another couple of hundred metres I noticed some yellow flags at the river mouth round the corner and very helpful member of the Porter Valley Plodders support team shouting this way! My spirits lifted again and I headed for the finish line. I can not really explain how I feel about winning the race. I refer back to the photograph for the answer to that one.

Post race issues were not the normal tired legs and muscles but major sun burn!

Also thanks to Jo(for putting up with all my training!), everyone at Sunderland Strollers (my main running club, I choose to represent NEMC when running their events though) , Porter Valley Plodders who added greatly to the atmosphere of the event and my running buddies Phill and Alistair.