Wednesday, 25 June 2014

The Picnic marathon across the North Downs

Happy to have finished
"4 weeks to go. That will give me enough time to get some training in" I promised myself and others. "Plenty of time to get lots of hill reps in, some longer runs and get my legs ready for the hardest marathon in Britain". However, after checking my calendar, I realised the race was in fact just over a week away! But quite frankly, knowing what I'm like, I wasn't all that surprised.

The Picnic - the hardest marathon in Britain

sparkly-filtered start
There's an allure to tough races. Knowing that you went harder, higher, longer or further and on less is pretty darn cool. And that's what this marathon is about, everything about it is harder than your average. 6,000+ feet in elevation, hot June temperatures and no flat ground in sight. And those steps!

Trionium put on a lot of tough races, but this one is the toughest they offer and they only offer it once every two years. It's quite possibly the toughest event I've ever run and most certainly the toughest marathon. In comparison a 50 mile event I ran in April was significantly easier than this event.

For the uninitiated, the pointy bits
are bad (and there's 20 of them!)
The course elevation outline from my Garmin tells you enough about what the event is really like.

The calm before the steps

I really love the first hill on the course. It sets you off on a steady upwards plod, where you don't need to work too hard, but you can still feel some good effort being put through your legs. At this point and at no other point on the course will you feel this fresh. I savoured it, but perhaps a little too much as I forgot to wish my running cohort, Justin Bateman, good luck.

The view from the start
'The steps' the sub-title refers to is the first and last challenge of the event. 275 steps down and 275 steps up, with 7 or 8 stepping stones across a tormentingly cool-looking river; and you'll repeat this 4 times. These aren't your regular stair-steps either. These steps were made for odd-sized giants. The height between them varies, the depth even more so and often at funny angles from your direction of travel. And the condition, well that ranges from solid and unforgiving to outright decaying. It's no wonder I tripped once and flew through the air. Thankfully a person in front of me was, albeit unknowingly, polite enough to catch my fall. Ta muchos!

The route takes in some beautiful views of the Downs and I can't help but feel that I want to run the event with a camera and allow myself time to absorb and enjoy them. But more often than not, it's head down or up and focusing on the coming trail.

But that's where the marathon is slightly more forgiving than the half-marathon event. When the 'halfies' came thundering down the steps whilst I was going up them, they looked like a collection of roaming wilder-beast vying for space and risking life and limb to dash around each other. I did it last year and it was a lot of fun, but you certainly lost the time and the inclination to take stock of where you were and how beautiful it all was.

Thanks to my wife for the support and the photos
I'm not saying that you have time for tea and cakes on the marathon and to daze off for an afternoon kip, but the marathon gives you more time and you travel at a more civilized pace.

So what's the course like?

First of all, it's all trail.There are grassy bits which are nice to run on, but otherwise it's either muddy, rooty, rocky or a combo. And all of it, bar some very small sections, was either up or down a hill.

There are two sets of steps and both of them are equally steep. There's a long downhill, much like the starting hill, which you go up and down 4 times. There's a wonderfully long-section on a downhill leg that's a blast and then equally there's a horribly long section on the way back which is a drag. Everything is done 4 times so you get quite familiar with it all.

There are plenty of drink and snack stations along the way, but they don't provide any salts (the crisps sadly didn't help much) which was the only thing missing. Otherwise, the enthusiasm and chat from the volunteers was as always admirable and excellent. It was great to thank them for the day on the last leg of the course. A massive thanks too to Rob the organiser for such an awesome event. I saw him after the event running around closing the event down and could only think that he must be running on pure passion for running and stale jaffa cakes. Top guy.

Unexpectedly there were loads of supporters out on the course. Either friend or family or just caught unaware as they took their dog for a walk. Many of them offered smiles and words of encouragement. "Nutters" was called more once too. It was great to see them and it was genuinely nice to hear chants and claps as you ran by. Thank you!
Not taken on the day, but this is the view from near the view-point


I loved that every-so-often I ran past Justin. We'd tried the ubiquitous high-five in previous events and it was all very amateurish. We either missed completely or only a sole finger would connect. It looked like a couple wanting to simply make physical contact with their loved one rather than two running mates wanting to make physical contact with their loved one. Er, I mean running loved one. But this time, we nailed it. On reflection, I can only really put this down to the much slower paces we were both going at. But still, I counted 6 successful high-fives!

But after reading Justin's blog of the day, perhaps I really shouldn't have been so keen to make hand contact.

Justin finishing The Picnic
Go on, have a read, I know I've piqued your interest.

If you didn't read his post, then suffice to say there was poop everywhere. I hadn't seen him in a while and was beginning to grow concerned. Usually it was 20 minutes before I'd see him, but this time it was a lot longer. When I met him heading down the long downhill to the turn he wasn't feeling so well and was expecting a much later finish then expected, so when I finished I tweeted his non-running love, Cate. Ruth (my wife) and I waited for his return to ensure he was safe. I was really proud of him that he finished and glad he pushed through too (I'm sure there's a pun in there somewhere).

Will I run The Picnic again?

Oh yes. Next year it will be the half (will try and get a sub-2 hour) and then in two years time I'll be back for the full marathon. Can't wait.

Coming back up the starting hill
at the half way point

5 things I learned from this event

  • Salts on a hot day are invaluable (and that I must make sure I bring some!)
  • You can run a marathon on little training
  • Walking is easier when you're low on energy (usually walking is a killer for me)
  • I don't need a water-bottle when there's water every few miles
  • I need 5-7 energy gels for a tough marathon to stay in the zone, but can survive on 3 and a few jaffa cakes
  • Bonus learning: cutting your toe-nails before the run can prevent them falling off!

What's next?

Whenever I do an event I always get the bug as soon as I get home. What can I do next to feel this wrecked again?

And I think if I actually train and prepare properly, then I the sky's the limit. I'd love to run the Centurion Running Winter 100 and I've already added my name to the wait-list. Otherwise, I'll be back at the Trionium Greensand marathon for sure.

Great out and back route done twice for the full marathon

Garmin data for the nerds.