Racing the Bard

One sad day in the late autumn, thousands of would-be London Marathoners are branded REJECT. Many no doubt heave a huge sigh of relief that they don’t have to fulfil that drunken bet made months previously, and stagger back to the sofa to recover from the effort of picking up the rejection mailshot from the floor.

But many look elsewhere for a marathon. Some go abroad and race in a big city event elsewhere. Others look to one of the smaller British spring marathons instead - there are at least eight to choose from. One is the Shakespeare Marathon, and half that accompanies it, in Stratford-on-Avon - this year on Sunday, April 24.

Held as part of the celebrations of William Shakespeare’s birthday (he would have been 441 years old in 2005), this event starts at one o’clock in the afternoon, which brings its own challenges: having to prepare and feed properly beforehand; having to battle against thousands of tourists to find somewhere to park and to make your way from the race HQ across the river to the theatre where the races start.

As always in my experience (2000 and 2003), race day was one of the hottest of the year so far; not entirely appropriate for those of us who had trained through a British winter.

A number of Forumites wanted to meet beforehand, so we agreed to wear some green ribbon on our shoulders and meet on the steps beside the theatre. It didn’t help that there were at least three sets of steps to choose from (sorry!) and that not all of us found some ribbon (guilty again). But with 15 minutes to go there was a good group of 15–20 of us laughing nervously in the sunshine.

We broke up our little band to join the 2,500 other runners, going in small groups according to the pace we hoped to run at. There isn’t much space on the road in front of the theatre, and with no visible signs suggesting where runners aiming for specific times should line up, everybody was pushing towards the front.

I’d offered to run at a steady nine-minute mile pace throughout the race to give those going for sub-four a good start if nothing else. I’d achieved this with a measure of success at Abingdon the previous October and wanted to do it again. Even before the race started though, I realised that I should have copied one of the RW pacing “lollipops” because there were simply too many runners for me to be able to rely on my height as a means of being visible.

With no starting pens, there were plenty of inexperienced runners for us to weave our way through. Gradually we were able to run but the congestion was awful for the first couple of miles. As I’d expected, this prevented us from setting off too quickly and was part of my plan. The support was great as we ran around the centre of Stratford before heading for the countryside. We slowly picked up the pace as the crowd thinned out, and after five miles or so the group began to spread out as Rossi, MaryC and SamD gradually pulled away. By this time Apparition had caught us and told us that Little Miss Happy was having a bad time and had needed a walk. Soon all that was left from the group were Loon and me.

It turned out to be a day of mixed fortunes for Forumites. SSING and Matt the Brum ran brilliantly to finish in second and third places in 2:43 and 2:48, even running together between miles four and eight without knowing that they were both Forumites. Others, like KatieS (3:37), Rossi MotoGod (3:56) and SamD (3:58) ran really well and achieved what they had set out to do – Rossi and Sam in their debut marathons.

Loon and I faded in the second half and finished in 4:17 as Loon battled against some awful stomach cramps and the heat. It was still a PB by 23 minutes for Loon, so still something positive to move forward from.

Some found the heat especially tough. Vixx and Running Monkey were amongst many who struggled to make the 2:15 cut-off time at the 12-mile point. But they both did it, and battled on to finish in 5:22 and 5:29 respectively. Two great performances despite their disappointment with their times.

Finally we have to spare a thought for those who had to drop out because of illness or the heat. Haruki, ICRAM and Dragonfly all had to stop some way short of the finish and they were by no means the only ones.

I mean no disrespect to the half-marathoners here by concentrating on the longer race. Running 13.1 miles in any circumstances isn’t easy and you all did just as well as those of us in the marathon.

Personally, I was happy to get my 40th marathon out of the way – and be humbled by the runner who was completing his 300th. I learnt some more about pacing a group, and I think we were all reminded that no matter how much you train, you can’t take account of very warm weather, or an un-cooperative tummy.

Despite my mixed emotions, the Shakespeare Half and Full Marathons are good events, and the marathon fulfils a need in the marathon calendar by giving us FLM rejects somewhere to go.

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What they said:

The Forum at Stratford (click pic to see the original, with names, on RichK's website)

Christopher Day: “Respect to you full marathoners. I found one lap hard enough.”

SSING: “Great race, well organised and the marshals get 10 out of 10. It was a bit hot, but I guess it was better than pouring rain. I managed 2:43, and was surprised to have come second. I’ll be back next year.”

Katie S: “I owe a big thanks to the unknown man who ran the last six miles down the Greenway with me - he kept me going as I began to get tired and might have slowed down. He inspired me to keep going and finish really strong.”

Deadbeat: “A lovely day - I am now done to a turn and my cold bath never felt so good. I thought the marshals were brilliant and the countryside superb (apart from that hill on the second lap!)”

Peaceman: “Just how hot was it? My official time for the half was 1:40:15; I found the last couple of miles very hard. The drinks stations and stewards were fantastic. And the support out in the country was most welcome. We watched many of the halfers finish, and saw the first three in the marathon. The speed they came in at was awesome! I can't believe that the guy who was second is a forumite! Congratulations.”

Vixx, Running Monkey, Eve-T and Rossi MotoGod

Vixx: “At the five-mile mark I pulled my gluteus medius and had to walk for a few steps. Being my first marathon I desperately wanted to complete it; I managed to get going through the pain although my pace was so much slower, and battled to reach the cut off point.
I was on my own at the 14/15 mile point when I remembered I had my MP3 player with me and managed to shuffle/power-walk the rest of the way. I found that in the last seven miles I was overtaking everyone. I even manage to power-walk past someone who was jogging.”

Running Monkey: “As soon as I saw the weather I knew I wouldn't meet my target time. In the end I just concentrated on making it to the cut off, with the hope the second lap would be cooler and easier. Unfortunately, stomach cramps set in. The second lap was a case of running from toilet stop to toilet stop. In the end it was so disheartening running/walking round on my own. If I'd had someone to run with I think I might have been a bit more motivated to run more than I did.”

EveT: “I did it in 4:30 in the end. Not bad if I consider it's my first marathon... how do you avoid hitting the wall after 20miles? Those last six miles were absolute hell! I didn't walk though, and kept on running through the pain :)”

Rossi MotoGod: “Fantastic day, fab marshals, loads of water stations, heat and sun - not good! Huge thanks to RichK and gang - I managed to do 3:56 (unofficial time). I’m really chuffed with that.”

Alan Every: “Boy, was that tough. I managed a very painful 3:31-ish. Didn’t walk at any point but felt like giving up from 11 miles onwards. The steep downhill after that long climb killed my knees. Second time round was even worse.”

Matt the Brum: “Sunburnt, blistered and a bit stiff today. If I take my top off it looks like I'm wearing a white vest! Managed 2:48 in the end which gave me third place.
I saw the fourth-position runner blow up and went past him about mile 22. This spurred me on a bit. I started to feel good again and went into third at 24 miles. The last two miles were the best out of the whole race: I felt great and pushed it all the way to the finish.”

Little Miss Happy and Loon

Little Miss Happy: “Well, a strange day. At mile four I just felt awful, no energy, struggling with the pace even though we weren't fast. I ran and walked as far as the mile seven water station and drank two cups of water, had a gel and suddenly I was off (well, apart from walking up most of the killer hill).
Strangely, I had a great day despite 'failing' so badly. Maybe it was because I really had no choice but to stop - I just had nothing to give, and I was pleased that I was able to keep going.”

LHWMG: “I finished okay, running the second half with an old running pal of mine - Dave Phillips who was running his 300th Marathon - it was great to have a good chat - it was also his 23rd Shakespeare!”

Miss Piggy: “I stormed the first half and then paid for it in the second. I was really worried about the cut off, so went out far too fast. Miles 16 to 19 were possibly the hardest things I've ever done, but once I'd worked out that it was easier to just keep running (shuffling) than to walk and run I was okay.”

Si W: “Like a lot of people I went off too fast and suffered on the second lap. First time round I nearly sprinted up the hill – second it was all I could to shuffle - Oh well, lesson learnt: next time keep to the race plan.”

SamD and MaryC

SamD: “Thanks for the support at the start, it really helped me to calm myself. Officially, I finished 3:58, so now onwards and upwards!”

Rachel O’Neill: “First half was okay, just about on target, but miles 13 onwards were really lonely and difficult to keep motivated. I nearly pulled out at about 19 but picked up and finished anyway thanks to my hubby and some friends I had waiting at 25 miles. I didn’t see anyone else – I think I was too preoccupied with my pain!”

T Rex: “It might be just me, but I don't remember there being any up hills of note, although there was a good downhill about miles eight and 18. I think it's a great course, and the Greenway an excellent section. It's great to hear that 2:40 runners seem to have the same pain as lesser mortals, and even feel tempted to walk.”

Dragonfly: “What a nightmare! My first half marathon... turned into a 10k due to having to drop out with heat exhaustion at six miles. I am soooooooooo gutted. Congratulations to everyone who finished!”

Abigail Scandlen: “Finished in 4:10, 10 minutes above my goal but an improvement from my last one so very happy.”