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Purbeck Marathon – 16 September 2012

A new race … a new challenge. Ian Kennedy reports.

Over the years I’ve completed around 40 races of marathon distance or longer. As time has gone on I have become less interested in the flattish road courses (as the likelihood of PBs recede) and far more up for the demanding off-road multi-terrain races where you can ignore the clock and just use a calendar!

We are very fortunate to live in a beautiful part of England, and one of the jewels in Dorset’s crown is undoubtedly the Isle of Purbeck. When I saw the inaugural Purbeck Marathon being promoted it was a no-brainer … I had to be there. The Purbeck Hills are a fabulous place for training runs and over the years my most frequent companion on long runs there has been Phil Whitehurst. We are both very familiar with the delights and challenges of the likes of Swyre Head, Ridgeway Hill and Ballard Down … so we were heading into this one with eyes wide open.

It’s been a strange (but fabulous) summer for me running-wise. I’ve committed more time to my role as coach and so have been to many track & field meetings supporting the very talented emerging middle distance runners at the club, it has been hugely rewarding. It has meant, however, that I have found it much harder to put in those long steady runs necessary for marathon running.

With no training schedule suited to competing in an event of this kind, I had two aims, to finish, and to enjoy the day. The former was not something I could take for granted. My two previous long races/events in 2012 had seen me fail to complete the full distance. I went years without recording a ‘DNF’ and the thought of a possible three in a row horrified me. In June I was down to do the North Devon Marathon, on the Friday before the race I felt rubbish, I was flu-like with aching joints. On the Saturday morning I was struggling to pick up a full kettle of water to make a cup of coffee, everything ached. I took the Saturday training session and then went straight to bed in the afternoon, when I woke up around teatime I felt significantly better … and so decided I would travel to North Devon. I really enjoyed the North Devon race but prudence saw me take the option to just run and record a time for a half marathon. We’ve had a pretty rubbish summer weather-wise, and as luck would have it one of the few scorching days we saw was when I ran in the Dorset Doddle. I got found out pretty badly that day, a combination of not enough training miles and dehydration after running for 45 minutes after my water had run out saw me pull out having only run the 18 miles from Weymouth to Kimmeridge. I just didn’t have another 14 miles in my legs that day. Although the Doddle was a disappointment I could at least count it as useful preparation for the Purbeck Marathon although I still felt I was going into the race the most poorly prepared I had ever been for a race.

The conditions on race morning were near perfect (sunny but not to warm) for marathon running. I picked up Phil and we headed for the Sandbanks ferry, with Manu Chao and Shantel alongside the Amsterdam Klezmer Band in a Bucovina style bouncing out the car speakers perfectly suiting the mood. Is there any better start to a day when the weather is fine? Parking costs in Swanage are a complete rip-off, but we fluked it and got one of the few free parking spaces very close to the finish line.

We made our way to Peveril Point, the race start was halfway up the hill. All the admin had been done via the internet and so we collected our numbers at the start. Having done many races in Dorset over the years you tend to see many familiar faces – this race was different. We did see a few we knew but it wasn’t the ‘usual suspects’. Fellow WACers Pete Lemon and Jerry Shield were there, and we also spoke to Steve Way of Bournemouth AC who was destined to win his first ever marathon in a crazy time for such a demanding course.

The PA system at the start was blaring out turgid power ballads. I think Bryan Adams was the reason I ran a ridiculously quick first mile – I was keen to leave him behind. For the first few miles Phil and I ran together, but whenever he and I have run together in the hills he has always been much stronger than me. So at around three miles I made a conscious decision to drop back, as I felt if we stuck together I could be comprising both our races – slowing him down and pushing too hard too soon for me. In the back of my mind all day was ‘I have to finish’. I knew nearly all of the route and knew how tough it would be. I’d got it into my head that going through halfway (which was near Tyneham Cap) at 2h30m would be perfectly acceptable.

The route we took didn’t hit the coastpath until Durlston Head lighthouse and off we headed, past Dancing Ledge until we turned inland up towards Worth Matravers. We dropped down towards the coast again until we could see the notorious steps well known to anyone who has run in ‘The Beast’. In the distance I could see a long line of people trudging up the steps, I was reassured by a marshal that we were not heading that way and turned inland towards Kingston. I wasn’t looking at my watch and was running by feel and didn’t pay too much attention to mile-markers – which is just as well as I think they had been sited by the Brothers Grimm (they were, at least in numerical order)!

From Kingston we headed towards Swyre Head, one of my favourite places, the views from here are spectacular. Up until this point I was being steadily picked off by runners, and the last group to catch me went past as we were running along Smedmore Hill towards Tyneham Cap. Near Tyneham Cap I passed the halfway marker at 2h32m. Shortly afterwards I caught the first runner I had seen in trouble (cramp). Knowing the course was a big help I knew to finish the race in some sort of decent nick I had to reach the top of the climb up Whiteway Hill  with plenty to spare, if I was in trouble by that stage, I would have a very tough final 11 miles of racing to contend with.

As we dropped in to Tyneham village I recaught the group that had passed me on Smedmore Hill. At this point there was a mid-race funnel where our numbers were checked off.  Then it was the enormous climb up Whiteway Hill. Before the race had started I had decided that I was going to walk this one. In the event I ran the first 25% and from that point on walked, using it as an opportunity to get a protein bar, some carbo gels and some water down my neck. Having got to the top I was feeling in pretty good shape (considering).

Then came the part of the race I enjoyed the most, running along the top of the Purbeck Hills: counting them down from Whiteway to Povington, West Creech, Ridgeway, Knowle and finally descending from West Hill into Corfe. It was on the hilltops that I started to catch runners who had gone off too fast earlier in the day. On the sharp descent into Corfe I was caught by the only runner to overtake me in the second half of the race.

We ran on the narrow footpath round the back of the castle then through the village and over the main road and across the railway. Facing us was around four miles of steady and largely unrelenting climbing over Ballard Down. This section is from miles 21 to 25 and we were warned that there was no water station on this section. For this reason I had carried my camelbak with me. As it turned out I could have got away without wearing it in these conditions, as at the water station at 21 miles there were bottles of water available (I wish I’d known that in advance).

I was still running pretty well for the first mile onto Ballard Down, still catching rather than being caught. It’s a tough section though as it has many false summits, anyone who was running it for the first time would have been deceived a number of times into thinking that they were about to reach the top. Then, for the first time, halfway along Ballard Down, I felt I was really having to dig in, I was still going better than those around me, most of whom were walking.  There were two guys I had in my sights all the way up and I finally caught them at last summit.

I ran with them briefly and them one of them took off down a quite tricky footpath and I couldn’t stay with him. I thought that would be the last I would see of him. The off-road section finished at a stile to take you onto the Studland-Swanage Road. It was hard work lifting the knees high enough to get over that one.

Once on tarmac I could see more runners to catch and although I was tired I enjoyed chasing and passing them. Approaching the seafront I recaught the guy who had dropped me on the descent. With 400m to go I thought I would give it everything to see if I could catch him, quite why this became important is hard to explain when I was finishing so far down the field … but it was!

As the we joined the Promenade we had about 300m to go, I’d chased my last target, I just had to keep the burners on for another 300m to the line. I didn’t look to see where he was, I took the view that if I was giving it all I’d got it didn’t matter where he was, I’d even got enough left to beat him or I hadn’t. Once I crossed the line I looked back and he was a good 100m away, I think he’d decided that if that one place gained mattered that much to me I could have it!

It took me a couple of minutes to recover from that big effort at the end. I was hanging over one of the barriers gathering myself together, and was asked if I was OK. I was. Somehow though, for once, I just couldn’t face the tub of Purbeck Ice Cream I was being offered.

Phil had been in for half an hour and I had heard him giving me a big shout while I was putting in that burst for the line. Jerry and Pete had both had fine runs and had been in for some considerable time and had already gone on.

The Purbeck Marathon was brilliant – I thoroughly recommend it. It’s virtually all off-road, my guess is that there is only about three to four miles of road on the whole route. Before I ran in it I thought it would be the equivalent of running two ‘Beasts’, perhaps it was, but it felt much harder than that. Phil had worn his GPS throughout the race, it clocked about 2,500ft of climb and 43km. Does that make it an ultra!

I’ll be back.

Ian Kennedy

WACers results:

8 – Jerry Shield – 3:40:38
17 – Pete Lemon – 3:58:11
74 – Phil Whitehurst – 4:54:12
122 – Ian Kennedy – 5:30:26

There were 166 finishers. The winner (Steve Way) ran an incredible 2:56:52. The last runner in completed in 7:11:02.


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