Summer holidays finally here, Lisa and I travelled to the wonderful islands of Orkney last week to celebrate our first wedding anniversary. Completely coincidentally 🙂 we also happened to be there at the same time as the inaugural St Magnus Marathon. It had taken a while to convince Lisa that Orkney (and therefore the Marathon) would be the ideal destination but it did not disappoint with brilliant weather, long days and stunning scenery.
After a couple of days sightseeing we set off early on Sunday morning for the stunning backdrop of St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall. A field of approximately 100 runners amassed giving the race a very different feel to previous marathon experiences in big city events.
The small field meant that there were many nice touches such as the ability to community regularly online with race organisers in the run up to the event and the option to have personal drinks, gels and other food on numerous drinks stations around the course. A privilege normally only afforded to elite runners.
I arrived on the start line in good shape after a number of pbs this year but still doubtful that I could perform to my potential at the marathon distance given previous disastrous experiences at the distance. During training I had significantly increased my mileage, including a good amount of race pace and tempo miles, however long runs continue to be my nemesis. Work, illness and injury meant as usual I had not completed as much of my plan as I would have liked. But I was here and I was fit.
The day before we had driven the route in reverse and although I had looked at a route profile weeks before I was surprised by how undulating the course actually was. Add to this a couple of niggles the week before and it was time to reevaluate my race goals. I decided to set off in pursuit of a 3:30:00 marathon.
Setting off through the narrow main street of Kirkwall I was comfortable being boxed in for the first half mile having learned that a slower start is more favourable to a quick start at the marathon distance. As the route widened I began to move through the field climbing out of Kirkwall Bay. A climb that surprisingly lasted for most of the first 4 miles of the race. Although gradual, the climb put me behind my goal race pace. I was reassured therefore to pick up a couple of runners (Michelle and Neil) from Moray Road Runners who I had earlier overheard discussing a similar strategy to mine. The next mile gave a sharp downhill recovery although I was conscious not to be over zealous in recouping lost seconds.
Even in the early stages there was good support on the course as many runners had their families out and about with the advantage that they were able to drive ahead a few miles at a time and see us at multiple locations. A good local turnout in the race also meant that many Orcadians were out and about to giving great support to all runners. Lisa did a good job of making sure as many people as possible were shouting for me.
A light drizzle fell around miles 5-7 but the scenery meant it was easy to pass the time detracted by the stunning backdrops. Around this point the two Moray Road Runners put a small gap between us and I dropped off the 3:30:00 race target. I could tell that we were gaining on a group of about 8 runners approximately 400 metres further ahead so decided to let a small gap grow happy in the knowledge that I was at least running at a consistent effort if not pace owing to the undulation.
After passing through Finstown I managed 5k at a decent pace on one of the flattest stretches of the course between miles 10 and 13. I opened my legs up a little, was feeling reasonably good and had just collected my first personal drink out on the course. Feeling like a pro I was perhaps over cocky as my gel which had been sellotaped to my drink exploded on opening covering me in the sweet sticky stuff.
A combination of stronger head winds and, albeit shorter, climbs meant my pace again began to drift at this point. A short sharp climb around the half way stage was followed by a good descent in a pattern that marked out the next 5 miles of the route. Thankfully I was still running comfortably and knew that my effort level was probably a better measure of progress at this stage rather than pace if I was to ensure that I did not blow up in the final miles of the race. With the sun out again it was nice to run a short distance with some other runners.
As I neared mile 18 I could tell that the distance and undulation was now catching up on me and I was aware that my pacing had drifted to a point that I would not be able to be made up in the final miles of the course in pursuit of 3:30:00. With goals reevaluated in my own mind I decided I’d be happy with any sort of pb.
Everyone knew that miles 19-23 were to be the toughest on the course and I really struggled, even on the downhill, to maintain any sort of pace around this stage of the race. A short walk up the steepest climb was necessary but gave me enough of a respite to run the final 5km although by now I was slowing with every mile. The thought of the end was all that was keeping me going. Two brutal climbs in particular made this a brutal section of the race on tired legs.
But for once rather than feeling sorry for myself it was time to appreciate my surroundings and how fortunate I was to be able to take parts in events like this. The marshals were great, Lisa was giving enthusiastic support and the views at this section of the course were incredible. I’d almost completed a really tough but spectacular course and a decent pb was still within reach. Summiting the final climb the Brough of Birsay came into view meant the end was in sight.
A final stinger in the tale was half a mile of off road running along a grass path before a short climb to Birsay Hall. But by now I was running with a couple of other runners and I was grateful that I could tuck in behind and follow them home. The look of relief captured as I crossed the line says it all.
On reflection I am glad to have taken on a completely different marathon experience. The UK’s most northerly. Although the course was extremely challenging Lisa and I had a brilliant time incorporating the run into an incredible holiday in a stunning location. Who knows where our second wedding anniversary will take us?
As always thanks go to the race organisers and volunteers who did a brilliant job putting on an extremely well organised event in a stunning part of the world. If you don’t mind hills I’d definitely recommend this one. Make sure you plan a few days around the race to see Orkney though. It’s well worth it.
3:44:42 – 12 minute Personal Best.