Running from Shadows

My Marathon des Sables . . . and beyond


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What is it in our lives that prevents us from achieving what it is we really want to achieve? Our minds: belief. Whatever your goal, ambition, desire or need, whether changing your job, losing weight, running a mile, or walking two, add a little effort (because anything remotely worthwhile takes effort) and really start to believe and you can spark a chain of great, life-affirming events that could go anywhere. It’s a theme that I’ve thought a lot about recently, particularly over last Sunday’s inaugural Hoad Hill Marathon in Ulverston, my 48th, as I spent a few hours reflecting on my own changes and those of others that I get to see.

Set in the southern corner of the beautiful Lake District the Hoad Hill Marathon would mean one thing: hills. Oh, and rain.

But I turned up for registration the previous night and the temperature was a balmy 22C at 7pm and a lack of rain for weeks on end would also mean hard compacted trails, particularly as the weather forecast was for sun and warm temperatures for Sunday. So, obviously (duh!), there would be no rain.

Which turned out to be a big fat squishy lie. I should have known: it is the “Lake” District, after all!

I was first aware of my poor race kit choices when the rain started thundering down onto the roof of our B&B in the early hours, and didn’t stop. Groan. It’ll stop, I thought, and I tried to get back to sleep. So the noisy rain continued lashing noisily.

Finally looking out of the window at 7.30am the outlook, weather-wise, was grim: visibility was barely 300 metres, a thick rain-drenched low-lying cloud looked set to stay for hours, rivers of rain running from anything that resembled a slope. I vaguely recalled the event notes mentioning it was possible for marathon runners to drop off and finish at the half-marathon point . . . I think. I would see how it went.

But I was also feeling fresh and ready after taking my training a bit easier the last couple of weeks: my wife suggested I should go for it. “You’re stronger and faster than you allow yourself to think!” she said (something my coach Rory Coleman keeps trying to drill into me).

Was it a desperate plea to save herself from a few hours contemplating Ulverston’s main attraction, The Laurel and Hardy Museum (“PLEASE finish as quickly as possible!”), or did she have a stronger belief than I did in what I could do as I faced the deluge of rain? I was still quietly considering just doing the half-marathon . . .

The B&B was just 200 metres from the race start/finish HQ. Scantily clad in just my socks, shoes, and lycra shorts for my lower half I’d fortunately remembered to bring several tops to choose from dependent on the weather: my beloved Icebreaker lightweight merino wool top would have to do. But in the couple of minutes it took me to jog down to the start for the race briefing I was already drenched through (a saviour though was the mid-teens temperature).

Where I spotted my MdS 2012 tent mate Wayne! He who won The Tent 78 Most Exotic IV Drip Award at that event (i.e., under what must be the only tree in the entirety of the Sahara Desert; mine was in the sedate confines of the medical tent). He was in Ulverston as part of the race crew. Our little group exchanges emails every now and then about our latest escapades and how we’re all doing, but I haven’t seen Wayne since we hobbled off the ‘plane at Luton those years ago.

“Blimey Wayne! How much weight have you lost?!!?” Not long back from his recent Dragon’s Back race excitement he looked positively lean and chiselled. “I finally banned sugar from my life!”, he said, “Bloody tough and a miserable experience. Much better now though.”

More on that another time . . . It was great to catch up with a fellow fanatic of the Doing Stupid Things And Understanding Why Club and we agreed to meet up after the race.


A couple of miles into the marathon strange things started happening: I felt perfectly fine; my heart rate was behaving itself . . . I’ll aim to keep it below 150 beats per minute for as long as I can. By mile 10 it was still there and 1 hour and 40 minutes of positive thinking were seeing me bounce along the trails, tarmac and a cobbly beach with a big grin on my face, despite the drowning rain: I didn’t care. I allowed myself to think that the day was going to be a good day . . .

From that point on not one marathon runner passed me: I was slowly reeling people in as I power walked or jogged the hills, kept steady on the flats, and let rip on the descents. Maybe it was the deliciously small pieces of flapjack or syrup sponge at the few checkpoints . . . or the feel-good energy of a beaming smile returned with a wave to a couple of smiling, waving kids sat squashed up against their bedroom window in their jim-jams alongside their smiling, waving grandparents . . . or the laughs exchanged with a crowd as we passed under a long bridge, a toddler boy yelling at us passing runners “Through there!” (as only toddler boys just learning to yell can do) while waving his arm from right to left with a pointed figure in the only possible direction we could go.

The half-marathon point was after the brutal, zig-zag climb to the Hoad Monument atop the 436 foot (133 metres) Hoad Hill. I didn’t allow myself to follow the half-marathon descent to the finish: completely soaked through as I was my marathon time was on track to be a good one for what was to become a far hillier course. And I just felt great . . . so what can I do today? I wondered. It became a bit lonely from here, as these split half and full marathon courses do, but there were still plenty of people to catch up. The course slogged its way uphill from mile 14 to around mile 20, some of it hands-on-knees stuff. From a high point of the course (but not the highest) I could see several miles away, through what was now a (temporary) clearer view, the Hoad Monument atop Hoad Hill: what had looked a giant before I climbed it not so long ago was now just a pimple.

Not yet at the highest point, but the distant Hoad Monument is on a pimple in the mid right of the picture . . . steep!

Not yet at the highest point, but the distant Hoad Monument is on a pimple in the mid right of the picture . . . steep!

But I was now homeward bound and picked up the pace. 21, 22, 23 miles . . . all at around 9 minute mile pace with no walking save for the uphills.

Eventually, the finish run-in appeared: time for my finishing spurt, the last third of a mile at under 8 minute miling. Job done: 806 metres/2,600 foot of ascent for a marathon in 4 hours, 41 minutes. I was delighted, my fastest in a long time on a hard course.

My wife and I caught up with Wayne for a great chat in the shelter of the drinks tent. A lady came in and plonked herself down alongside us, wet, ecstatic, overjoyed, celebrating with her family. We asked if she was OK and if she enjoyed it.

“ABSOLUTELY!” she cried.

She’d just finished her half marathon, on a course that is already known now as “hilly tough”.

“I kept saying to myself: ‘You keep going! You can do this!’ And I did!” She was absolutely over the moon and her beaming face was an infectious joy to see. The group of us sat or stood around her were beaming too.

“I really did!! I did it! I DID IT!! I DID IT!! I DID IT!!”

Then she fully burst into tears, streaming down her face as her family gave her a hug. Our little group started clapping and the enthusiasm spread, before long the whole of the drinks tent applauding this lady with tears gushing.

It’s completely irrelevant what Iva Barr’s finishing time or finishing place was in what was a tough, tough, half marathon.

What is relevant is the fact that Iva Barr is 87 years of age with dozens of marathons under her belt who has raised thousands of pounds for charity in the process.

And the only difference between when she first applied to run the Hoad Hill Half Marathon and finally sat in front of us crying after she’d finished?


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