Okay, this was it. After eighteen weeks of training, five hundred miles of running and who knows how many hours, it was time for the Stirling Scottish Marathon.
Engineering work meant that the trains weren’t running today, so I decided to drive in. The day dawned bright and cold
and I had to scrape the car window before starting.
I had got up really early because I was worried about parking. That gave me time to stat my nutrition plan with an Aldi porridge pot – just add boiling water, leave it to ferment and soon you have a pot full of mushy stuff flavoured with Apple and Blackcurrant. Actually, I’m being unfair – it was quite tasty and set me up well for the day. I also boiled some water to put in a flask, so I could make up a second porridge bowl when I arrived in Stirling.
I arrived at the car park in Stirling just as it was opening – I think I must have been one of the first into the car park!
As planned, I made up my porridge and ate it before thinking about getting out of the car. It also gave me some time to think about what to wear. The forecast showed a cold start to the day, but that it would be warm up by the end of the race. So I swithered for quite a while before deciding I would walk to the muster area in long tights, but change into shorts when putting my kit onto the baggage bus.
Eventually I was bored of sitting in the car, and walked to the muster area. This was just below Stirling Castle. A large area off the road had been set up to provide open space for milling around, for the baggage buses to park in, and for dozens of portaloos. There was still a queue, of course, but I commend the organisers on having the start area well set up. I know that people complain about the cost of this kind of event when it is run as a commercial concern, but it does cost a lot of money to provide the facilities we all want on races.
I met a couple of folk I knew, and it was nice to see I wasn’t the only one there who was worried for what was to come. After a time, after I reckoned that I had gone to the loo as often as would be productive, and that it would soon be time to start. I went to one of the buses, carefully noting its number, and stripped off down to the T-shirt and shorts I would be wearing for the run. I then got off the bus and started chatting to Bob and Simon, two friends who were also doing the marathon.
At that point I realised I had missed the group warmup, and indeed the starting gun! People were shuffling through the start funnel, and I had completely missed the 4 hour pacer. Oh well, I hadn’t expected to stay with a pacer anyway, as I was going to walk the water stations. Maybe I had waited too long before getting ready to run – but the point was that the race was now on!
The first few miles of the run take you north east along the A84. There is some pretty scenery, with distant views of Ben Ledi, but the main thing here was to settle in and find a steady pace. I was probably running a little faster than I should have been, somewhere around 8:45/mile, but I was reasonably happy with that. The first water station was at 4 miles, just outside the wonder Blair Drummond Safari Park – there were people in animal costumes amongst the volunteers, and the atmosphere was great!
Along the way I realised that other runners had perhaps not been as assiduous as me in using the loos. Guys going off-road for a pee was fairly normal; I did feel sorry for one fellow who jumped into an adjacent field and was clearly doing what bears do in the woods, bare-arsed and looking somewhat sheepish!
My race strategy was to keep my glycogen levels up by consuming gels on a regular basis. I had had a gel twenty minutes before the start, one at the start and planned one every water station – every three miles. In order to ensure I could consume the gel properly, I planned to walk each water station, grabbing a swig of water and a full gel. By walking I could drink as required, and by keeping it to thirty seconds I reckoned I would have lost fifteen seconds max. So that is what I did at the first water station.
Oh, I also used the loo – that was 40s lost!
Soon after I met up with Bob and Simon – a couple of friends who were also doing the run. I chatted with them for a while, which was great as it took me past an area that had worried me. This was the climb from the A84/A873 junction to Doune. I had travelled the route by car, and this stretch had seemed really scary – there seems to be a small ridge of hills between the junction and the town. But somehow this hill didn’t turn out to be as bad as it had looked, and soon we were heading downhill towards Doune.
The support at Doune was great, with people coming out of their houses to cheer us on. This was around the seven mile mark, which meant another water station. I lost touch with Bob and Simon at this point as I walked the station, checking my time and realising I was ahead of schedule. As we entered the village we got a view of Doune Castle from the Teith Bridge; the castle has been used in numerous films including Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Outlander and (I believe) the pilot of Game Of Thrones.
After Doune, the road climbed. This was a tough stretch. I caught up with Bob and Simon, but I had no wish to pass them and chatted as we climbed towards Dunblane. I would say this was the hardest stretch of the race – it’s very rural, there is a lot of uphill. The scenery is beautiful, but you do need a reserve of self-discipline to keep going.
The uphill stretch to Dunblane is about five miles, with another water station en route. Again Bob and Simon got away from me as I walked the station, again I caught up. Eventually we reached the outskirts of Dunblane. Again, the support here was superb, and that lifted my spirits as they were beginning to flag.
In Dunblane, I had thought that we would simply turned right to enjoy a downhill section. But no, we turned left and went through the centre of Scotland’s smallest (and arguably most attractive) city, with even more climbing required! But after a time we did head south – we went along an undulating dual carriageway to the Kier roundabout, then we started a long downhil section through Bridge Of Allan and Stirling University.
On the first stretch, there were signs for a “pit stop” organised by a local physio. Those who wanted to use it could have their kinesio tape patched up, or a quick massage. Luckily I felt able to keep going and soon got into the beautiful Victorian town itself. Supporters were out in force, everybody cheering us on – it was great!
Then we got to the Uni. The Stirling University stretch is just cruel. A steep uphill section leads on to a University internal road which offers magnificent views over the Ochill Hills, before swinging back round and downhill again to exit by the road you entered the section. Two miles to get nowhere – it’s tough! But the good news is that you don’t go any higher from that point onwards. It’s all downhill from here. Err…
Back onto the road, and this was territory where I had done most of my training. Except we were now 17 miles in where I had started fresh. The next couple of miles are through fairly nondescript urban roads, but with absolutely wonderful support. I don’t think that any shop in Stirling can possibly have any Jelly Babies in stock – everybody seemed to be offering them to us runners! Eventually we leave the urban stretch to turn right onto the A91, which takes us to the foot of the Ochill Hills; a range of 2000 foot spectacularly steep hills that mark the northern side of the glaciated Forth Valley.
At this point (19 miles or so) the rain came on. It was cold, penetrative rain that honestly wasn’t much fun to be out in. I felt naked – every raindrop just went straight through my clothes and hit my skin, where it sapped the heat out of my body. It lasted maybe ten or fifteen minutes, and in that time I could see the strength sapping out of those around me – I am sure they saw the same in me. By the end of it – 21.5 to 22 miles – I was starting to feel pretty tired. I just had to keep going, I knew. I wasn’t going to stop; that wasn’t where my head was at. But I was just – well – not having fun, I was pushing through because I had to.
This stretch was the A91 near the River Forth, then back in towards Stirling through the Sports Village. It must have taken us past the new cinema in Stirling, but I honestly don’t remember that. We were coming up on 25 miles at this point, and I was just running – not thinking. We climbed up and over the railway bridge and into the centre of this historic city. A right turn then a sharp left, and we were on the shopping street. Wonderful support, more and more people cheering us. But the cobbled street that looks so beautiful is not great to run on, and I was tired enough to notice that more than the cheering.
A sharp right, and there was a steep hill ahead. My watch was telling me that I was finished. Believe me, by this point I was counting every 0.1 mile. But I hadn’t hit the 26 mile marker yet – so I kept running. The support was superb, everyone cheering, calling my name and telling me to keep going.
Eventually that blissful sight of the finish line. What a long mile that final one had been! I knew I had started a few minutes after the gun, but the clock above the finish was saying 03:58:50. I knew I had beaten 4:00 in chip time, but I wondered if I could beat it on gun time too. I gave it all I had and got through before it hit that magic four hour mark.
Suddenly it was finished. I was absolutely shattered, but with an official chip time of 3:55:40 I was over the moon.
A well-organised funnel and I was out into King’s Park on a glorious day. I circled back to watch Bob and Simon finish, then went to get some food and gather my stuff together.
It was done. I have achieved a four-hour marathon; something that was a goal without my really knowing why. If I never run a marathon again I shall know that I have achieved it.
But I might just give it another go. Some time.
Max elevation: 85 m
Min elevation: 2 m