Autopsy of a Trashed Marathon

Marathon Feb 6, 2021

On Friday 5th February I set out to attempt a new marathon route, one which would incorporate more elevation and trail running than I've previously done for the distance.

It did not go well.

Here's the story of what happened, how it impacted me and the hard lessons I learned

Tapering, Loading & The Run Up

It all started on the days running up to the race: I'd been sensible, doing a tempo 5k on Monday, an easy 5k on Tuesday, then no running until the big day on Friday. I'd eaten more carbs and filled up on Nakd bars, along with chomping some of the running energy bars too.

A few days before I had heart burn 2 nights in a row, something I've not experienced before. I wondered if it was due to eating so many carbs without the usual burn off I do when running, or the increase in eating running bars when not actually running.

I was also struggling to see whether I was eating too much or too few carbs before the race, sometimes feeling like I'd had too many, sometime too few.

On the day of the race itself I wasn't feeling particularly energised, and I definitely feel this is down to what I'd chosen to eat that week.

Sunny, Picturesque Start

The route was around Chew Valley; inspired by a back and forth with a colleague on Strava Route Planner, ending up with a tour that hit both lakes, the beacon and Charterhouse, looking like this:

The start was good, despite the stomach feeling I felt strong as a nice mild morning rolled in, setting off just before sunrise from Bishop Sutton.

The segment from Chew Valley Lake all the way to Bladgon village was utterly gorgeous, as the sun rose the clouds turned pink and gave me some cracking shots.

It mainly consisted of country lanes interspersed with some wet trails

The running felt good, I did however have the odd stitch, something I'd rarely had before, and never so early on. But ultimately it was a great start, and I was riding high.

Then I hit Bladgon...

The Climb, Oh God The Climb

Bladgon village starts at ~50m above sea level, just south of the lake, then climbs, and climbs, and climbs up to ~200m before the bottom of the hill to Beacon Batch. That hill climbs another 120m to a point ~320m above sea level.

Needless to say incorporating that into the route was a mistake.

As I got into the village clouds were forming and a light drizzle set in, adding to the cold of the winter morning. I was under no illusions, I was walking that hill, there was no way I could jog it, so I set out on 3km of trudging, with a break down a boggy country lane in the middle separating the two hills.

By the time I hit the top my morale had hit rock bottom, I was cold, exhausted, yet also felt like I was going too slow.

Drenched Descending

Those that know the beacon above Bladgon and the surrounding marshes know that in winter is it very sodden, covered in these puddles, patches of mud and rocks.

So even though the next bit was a good descend, it felt tiring, both physically and mentally, to try and return to a decent pace whilst staying upright.

This energy sapping I had not counted on, and it's one of the big lessons for me for future trail marathons; it's easy to get into a rhythm on the road and converse energy, but much harder to do that when you have to be alert and avoid obstacles.

Second Wind

Once the descent was over however, there was a smooth quiet lane to progress along, leading to  a peaceful section of Long Woods above Black Rock.  The woods were so gorgeous it was hard to stay tired, and I hit a welcome bit of second wind traversing the rustic trails.

It wasn't to last though...

Wading Through Treacle

The woods end in the Black Rock trail, which then cuts off into Velvet Bottom: a soft track that leads through Charterhouse towards Compton Martin.

I think due to a combination of the exertion of crossing the valley after Bladgon, a lot of clock watching (those clicks were going down especially slowly) and general morale dip, this was the point where I hit my second low, and never really recovered.  There was still 16k to go here, so I was in trouble!

I took my final photo on the admittedly lovely lane leading down to Compton Martin, then settled into a long slow slog.

Mistakes Were Made

So I'm tired and really could just do with a long straight road to get into a good rhythm again and zone out.  I had 10k remaining, my headphones were in now, and all I wanted was to not think and get those clicks done.

However I made a large error in judgement, when hitting West Harptree the road I was due to go up looked especially busy and not particularly safe to jog on. Having had to dodge cars already to get to that village, I wasn't keen on repeating that soon.

I did however see a farm lane that lead to a trail which took me the same direction but skipped the busy road.  Score.

Score..

Well, it turns out the lane was churned up something fierce, with deep unavoidable puddles of mud the whole way downhill, leading to a sodden field to cross.  As with the descent from the beacon this sapped lots of energy, soaked my shoes further and lead to a slower treacle feeling section.

Ending

Once I'd returned to a country lane, I was a painful sight.  Alternating between a slow jogging pace, walking (lots of walking) and constantly checking my watch to see a disappointing distance had been covered since last I checked.

Coming back into Bishop Sutton I was totally spent, there was no big finish or strong last km, just a slow sludgy crossing of the line.

I ended up taking 05:08:00 to complete the marathon, slower than my first marathon by 10 minutes, which isn't terrible considering the elevation, but the sheer amount of walking and mental breaking felt like a massive step back.

As a final kick in the teeth, Strava gave me a very low relative fitness score, lower than last weekends half marathon, which is unheard of, showing just how slow it was!

Lessons

So, what went wrong, why was this one so different from the other marathons I've done? I've had a long think through it and here's what I came up with.

Firstly, the nutrition on the lead up, it wasn't right at all, I need to eat less Nakd bars and none of those carby running bars during the week, in fact I think those running bars especially were the wrong thing to eat, I haven't done that before (opting instead to just have big meals and lots of varied snacks when tapering) so I think it was a factor. That nutrition led to heartburn a few days before and then stitches on the run, making it difficult to get into a rhythm

Next; that Blagdon hill was a straight up terrible choice for the route, impossible to run, felt super slow and sucked my morale right out. If I was to repeat the same route again I'd focus on being much more realistic in that climb, not try and do it quickly but accept it will be a slow gradual ascent. In reality though, I think any future route will avoid it like the plague.

A third failing was that I massively underestimated hard muddy trail sections and farm tracks, they take so much mental and physical energy to navigate, I think trail marathons are much harder than I realised, especially in wet winter conditions.

One thing I usually do anyway, but was especially detrimental this time, was the obsession with the watch, constantly looking at the distance left, and how far I'd gone since I last looked. It was unhealthy, and sapped my morale almost as much as the climb did, as each time I looked it just made the finish line feel even further away.

Finally; I've trained physically and, as this was my 4th marathon, know I can do the distance, however mentally I need work, I need more grit and techniques for dealing with those walls and low points.

Final Thoughts

All accounted for and said, I am glad I did it, I learned a lot from what went wrong and still got to experience a beautiful route on an unusually pleasant Friday in February.

Running a full trail marathon (with as little road as possible) is one of my goals for the year, with the Gordano Round being my main candidate. I feel like I've got a bit of a way to go before being able to do it confidently now, which is a lesson I'd rather learn now, than half way along the round!

Tags

Luke Merrett

Ex smoker and couch potato turned manic trail runner, wannabe ultra runner & proud Dad

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