Blagdon Hill Can Bite Me

Marathon Mar 1, 2021

On the 5th February I had my worst experience running a marathon (full write up here); it wasn't just the poor pace and time taken (though they sure were bad), it was the mental break and feeling of hopelessness punctuating the second half that got me.

After a harsh climb, harsher weather and a wet, boggy descent, I had felt my morale drop to rock bottom around 25km in and it never recovered. I'm a classic over thinker, and I'd pulled myself into a vicious circle of checking my watch, feeling exasperated that it had barely ticked closer to the finish, slowing my pace then starting to walk, attempting to muster any energy to keep going. The spiral of over thinking continued right to the end as I dragged (and I do mean dragged) my feet over the line.

It's real unhelpful thinking too, things like "ok so it's 2km till I've got 10km left, at that point that's an hour at normal pace, though I'm going pretty slow so probably more like 90 minutes, so that's how long I've got left, though I'm struggling here, that feels like a long way away, maybe I'll check the map, oh how far have I gone since I last check.... ok so it's 1.9km till I've...", none of which helps your morale, none of which helps focus on the joy of the run 🤦‍♂️.

Today after a month of retooling and training, I went to do the same course again, with a determination to make damn sure I got around it, mind intact.

Pre-Race Training

I'd come to recognise from last time that the biggest issue wasn't physical, I'd trained plenty, had done 3 marathons prior and kept up with the weekly mileage, it was a mental one, I needed to get better at managing my thoughts and emotions when reaching past the mid way point.

So training got kinda weird.

Just to be safe, I upped to 60km weekly mileage and threw a few longer, tougher trail runs in there to gear me towards handling the undulating terrain better.

As for the mental side; I stopped using headphones for the majority of my training, and instead focused on forcing myself to relax and enjoy the moments, even at the end of an arduous session.

I came up with a mantra, "Lose yourself to the adventure", trying to capture both the reason I run (to explore, to get out in nature) and the thing that was holding me back (constantly overthinking things, trying to stay in control over everything).

I stopped looking at my watch, like, at all, during the run. I recognised I got totally obsessed with it last time, and that old adage "a watched pot never boils" is 100% true when running a marathon. For every run I locked the screen so only the time displayed, pulled my jacket over it and tried to forget it existed till I'd finished.

Finally, and probably the thing that helped the most, I started doing breathing exercises, as suggested by Scott Jurek's book Eat & Run. During lighter paces I'd focus on breathing solely through my nose, switching to "the breath of fire" where you breath in through the nose, out through the mouth. This may seem obvious, but I'm nothing if not a mouth breather, and I struggled getting into a rhythm of doing this.

Where the breathing got important was when I'd do it. If I found myself starting to overthink, or spiral a bit, or be negative, I'd force myself to take a deep breath in through the nose and concentrate in on just the breathing, letting my thoughts calm and wander instead. This seemed to work wonders and help me keep plodding along.

Race Day

We've had a pretty good few days of sun here in the South West, so of course the big day held a misty, damp and overcast morning 🤦‍♂️. Test one though, keeping positive in the face of the weather.

Things started strong around Chew Valley Lake, across the country lanes and up to Blagdon Lake, a good pace, the weather cold but holding and the trails a little drier than in February.

The big challenge came at Blagdon, which holds a huge climb from a low lying 47m to a whopping 323m, reaching the highest point in the Mendips, and marking the place where I properly broke the first time. Last time I had walked the hill (just as I would this time!) but pushed quite hard to get up as quick as I could, whilst the rain came over and my legs got very tired.

This time, when I reached this sign (half way up):

I took a moment to swear at it, using language I'm glad no-one was around to hear, then got to it.

So far, I'd not looked at my watch once, and I'd been boosting myself whenever the climb felt hard with a little pep talk, usually out loud.  Not knowing the exact distance done / left helped a lot, and reduced the focus on "god how much longer am I running for".

Getting to the top, I ran into a bunch of wild horses grazing in the morning mist, which certainly served to brighten my mood further.

I got off Black Down as quick as I could, it was pretty windy and cold up there, I needed lower ground stat.

The section through Velvet Bottom and Charterhouse felt smoother this time, less like running through treacle and much shorter than I remembered.

From here it was country lanes all the way back to Bishop Sutton, with one large hill towards the end offering up another 100m of elevation, but ending in this view of the now warming Mendips.

At this point I'd still not looked at my watch once, and had used those breathing techniques plenty of times. I found stopping my thoughts spiralling by focusing on breathing not only helped me stay focused, but also got me back into a rhythm with the feet, letting me keep plodding at a good pace.

From here it was downhill all the way and, giddy with excitement, I crossed the line the happiest & bounciest I've ever been after a marathon.

Considering the 720m elevation gain, I'm pretty happy with that pace and time.

Done

The February marathon held a lot of hard lessons learn in a tough way, I'm glad I decided to go back, try again, and tell Blagdon hill it could bite me.

Tags

Luke Merrett

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

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