You know you are an ultrarunner when… …you wonder if it is too soon to sign up for another race two weeks after your last ultra, and then think «nah, it is only a marathon». And so I signed up for the first ever Vanguard Way Marathon, indeed the first ever marathon in Croydon, organized by the 100 Marathon Club. I was coming over to the UK to attend a running instructor certification course anyway, and the race gave me an excuse to stay some extra days in London to shop, meet friends, and eat vegan cupcakes. It also gave me an opportunity to meet new people, explore unknown trails and visit Croydon.
The final preparations for the race were not exactly textbook: In stead of resting I walked close to 10 miles around London the day before, elected to race in brand new never-worn-before shoes (having left my trail shoes in Norway), and upon arriving in Lloyd Park in Croydon I realised I had brought two right socks. The latter may not sound like a problem, but when the socks in question are Injinji toe socks it is. There was only one thing to do; squeeze my big toe into the tiny tube meant for the pinky toe and hope for the best. Despite this I was in good spirits as the start neared, I am even pictured doing a little dance on the starting line in the Croydon Advertiser. Must have been the awesome pinkness of my new Haglöfs.
At 9 o’clock on Saturday 1. August, in slightly overcast and windy conditions, 100 (ish) runners set off from Lloyds Park to run 13.1 miles along the Vanguard Way and then back again. Thirty seconds or so later Dave led us astray. I know it was Dave who was to blame, because half the runners started shouting «Dave, you’re going the wrong way. DAVE!!!» I was amongst those who had followed the leader and therefore got lost even before leaving the park. This was a foreshadowing of events to come, getting lost turned out to be the theme of the day. If you cannot be bothered to read the whole report, here is the abridged version:
Got lost. Got lost. Electric fence. Barbed wire. Got lost. Backtracking. Bulls! Got lost. Hills. Dehydration. Yay, drinks! One mile left. Lost again. Sprint to the finish.
After leaving the park we followed a nice and even trail through a residential area, and I thought this would be typical for the scenery and surface the rest of the day. I was wrong. After crossing the tram lines and a couple of roads (after one of the crossings all the runners in front of me set off down the wrong trail and the race marshall had to abandon his post to retrieve them) we were running through a wooded area, simultaneously looking out for the orange paint arrows and tape showing us the right way and tree roots to avoid falling. Then we were running along fields, and I suspected that the trail we were following was actually a drainage ditch. My legs were stung by nettles and scratched by thorns. I was running the first 10k at a pace slightly faster than I was comfortable with, but I tried to follow the guys in front of me, afraid I would get lost it I ran on my own. Shortly after that we were lost having run too far down a country lane. I jokingly said that the places probably would get decided by how many times you got lost, not your pace. I hit the nail on the head there!
After the race I saw that the organizers had promised the local paper beforehand that there would be a few surprises along the course. A lot of those surprises came shortly after the first drinks station (10k), where we encountered a mini obstacle course: first crossing a lumpy field with horned cattle while angry farm dogs barked furiously, then scaling an electric fence before plunging downhill, climbing a stile, and running uphill. Halfway up the hill we realised that we were on one side of a barbed wire fence while the course markings were on the other side… (Too look on the bright side, we definitely got our money’s worth for the £12 starting fee – a marathon/obstacle course/adventure/orienteering/ultra race) The next few kilometers were uneventful, except for the beautiful countryside and the glorious sunshine. Another steep downhill gave us a fantastic view from the top (towards Sussex?) , unfortunately I had left my mobile in London and therefore could not take any pictures along the way.
After monster hill number two the weather started to get very hot, and I was nearly out of water. Luckily we were nearing the half way mark and therefore another drinks station. Then we realised we were lost. Again. One of the guys had uploaded the course to his GPS watch, and it said we had missed a left turn. Four or five elected to press ahead, hoping they would find the right trail further down, three of us backtracked until we found the markings again. We should have left the trail and climbed a stile to cross a field. Backtracking meant running uphill, so when we found the correct route I was feeling quite exhausted. A sign warning us of bulls in the field and telling us to «walk, do not run» was quite welcome. In another field shortly after we started meeting runners coming the opposite way, indicating we were nearly at the half way point. Another welcome sight, despite the fact that many of the runners we met had been far behind us. I was so tired I could not keep up with the two guys I was running with, but a glass of cola and a gel at the drinks station half had an amazing effect. For the first mile of the return journey I felt I was flying. I also felt sure that the second half would be much easier, despite having to climb the two monster hills. At least now I knew the way. I actually found navigating much easier when running alone, but of course I, and everybody else, kept getting lost on the way back too.
At various points in the race I had been 1st, 2nd and 3rd female, moving into the lead when those in front got lost, and being overtaken again when I got lost and so on. When climbing the monster hills I slipped into 4th, and after the last drinks station I lost sight of the 3rd female. I was tired, and decided I would be happy with fourth. Then about a mile from the finish I caught a big group of runners, including females number 2 and 3, who had stopped at a road crossing, not sure whether to turn right or left or continue straight ahead. They had tried all three options without finding any course markings, and were now very tired and frustrated. Having finally found the correct route the group ran en masse to the finish, and so I suddenly found myself sprinting to the finish line to claim 3rd place, despite having been so exhausted I had to walk for several minutes just two miles before. My time was 4.26. something (forgot to stop my Garmin), a new personal worst at this distance.
As the runners finished the big conversation topic became how many times we had been lost, and how many extra kilometers we had run. Everyone I spoke to had set a new PW, with several sub 3 hour marathoners taking more than 5 hours to complete this course. However, the frustration we had felt out on the trails was soon forgotten as we enjoyed the sunshine and compared our Garmin stats. The gentlemen I had been running with just before halfway had ended up running 49k, winning the unofficial «who clocked up the most bonus kilometers» competition. An hour after finishing I reluctantly said goodbye to my new friends and headed back to London. The day ended, appropriately enough, with me getting lost in Camden while trying to find a shop selling vegetarian shoes.
Despite getting lost, dehydrated and exhausted I had a good time. It is the races that do not go swimmingly you learn the most from, and I definitely learnt a lot during this inaugural Vanguard Way Marathon, e.g.:
- If using toe socks always check that you have both a left and a right sock.
- Do not trust the runner in front of you to know the way or find the correct markings.
- Do not make the mistake of assuming that the trails will be nice and even or the course pancake flat just because you are on the outskirts of London. This was an unexpectedly tough marathon.
However, the most important thing I learnt was that even in Central London you are only a short train journey away from great trails and beautiful countryside. It is very tempting to return next year to have another go at navigating the Vanguard Way.