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Clarendon Way 1999
A sunny Sunday in early October; lost souls in track suits stalk the streets near Winchester College; curb-crawlers lean out of car windows and ask:
Wheres the Start?
There can only be one explanation - its the morning of the Clarendon Way Marathon.
My wife Penny, brother Mark, boys and myself all arrive early. And its just as well, for as we stroll into College Street we see runners drifting this way and that, cars stopping and turning and drivers studying maps, but there is absolutely no sign of the Start. We are soon accosted by a succession of runners who mistake us for seasoned fountains of wisdom. Their pleas are always the same: Wheres the Start? But we dont know either. There are no clues and we are forced to enquire at Winchester College, where an employee sets us straight. Not, however, before our ever increasing party has swollen to comic proportions.
A few minutes walk and, at last, we arrive. Beyond the gates of Winchester Colleges New Fields Sports Ground we enter the world of running: safety pins, petroleum jelly, black bin-liners, discussions of what to wear, skinny legs and plump legs, they are all there.
We locate the registration tent, where Mark and I collect our numbers.
The Clarendon Way is not an easy marathon (this years winning time was only seconds inside three hours) and, since the course is narrow in parts and the entry over three hundred, to prevent congestion the runners have been divided into four groups. The groups start at five minute intervals, fast runners first, slow runners last. All the race numbers are colour-coded to identify each runners start group: orange, blue, green or yellow.
I have the customary round of conversations with those I mostly see at races and reminisce on past glories and disappointments. I believe that on my entry form Id estimated a time of 4:15 but, mysteriously, Im allocated to the orange group -- the fast group. Steve Churcher suggests Id written 3:15.
Were all somewhat apprehensive and feel compelled to justify a poor performance that may never happen.
Im going to walk and jog this one with some friends. -- Noel ODowd (3:31);
Ive never been so undertrained for any race. -- Frank littler (4:09);
And me? Well, I can only dredge up the fit as a languid sloth excuse too.
Conversation passes the time quickly and soon the race organiser makes an announcement: Will all those with the orange numbers, thats numbers one to a hundred, please make your way to the Start.
The orange group slowly assembles and so do a few renegades with blue, green and yellow numbers -- oh well, so much for the race results!
Ewan Thomas had been booked to start the marathon but is still in Australia and so the announcer introduces his replacement -- Eastleigh MP, David Chidgey.
Boo! bellows one of the runners.
The announcer promptly chastises this dissension with an interminable list of thankyous: Id like to thank Winchester College, Wyvern Girls School, the Winchester Rotary Club, the Hampshire Chronicle, our sponsors Tesco, Nice Day, NTL, Win 107.2 and Wilds Sports Shop, the Hampshire Constabulary, the British Red Cross, Salisbury Fire Service, Sir John Moore Barracks Army Training Regiment, the weather, my mum, the cat... You get the picture?
Yawn, yawn, yawn...
We begin to believe well never start, but ten minutes later were off. Over the first 150 metres I rapidly drop to the back and am last out the sports ground by several seconds. For a moment I fear I might lose sight of the pack completely. Nevertheless, I wont be goaded into running faster than planned. Start slow, run long, finish strong is my motto and Im gonna to stick to it!
The second wave, the blue group, which contains my brother Mark starts next. There are only five minutes between the two groups so, if Mark starts faster, he has a chance to catch me up.
Now, it must be said, the course was extremely well marked -- all except for one spot: at two miles the race turned a sharp right down a road but the path continued straight-on.
I reach this spot.
Hmm, could do with a marker here, I think, as I jog past.
Unbeknown to them most of the blue group would come to think likewise and when Mark reaches the heinous spot he instinctively turns in the correct direction. He runs twenty metres or so down the road, but looks back over his shoulder only to see that no-one has followed him: the runners are streaming straight across the road and down the narrow path on the opposite side. Mark hesitates.
At times like this one needs to consult -- I. M. Baffleds, Principles of Trail Running. In its pages will be found the sage advice: When in doubt, do not trust the crowd -- they know not what they do. Unfortunately Mark ignores this dictum and his instincts and follows the crowd, who are of course lost. Meanwhile, I jog on unaware that a quarter of the field have decided to stamp their individuality on the race.
We cross a golf course, where I take a drink at the first checkpoint, then descend into Pitt and cross a main road. The police have stopped the traffic for us.
At three miles -- first contact! I am swiftly overtaken by two runners, both wearing blue numbers, and then another runner also wearing a blue number. And then, well, no-one. It is several more minutes before I am overtaken again. This time by runners wearing green numbers, then yellows. I am, however, enjoying my run too much to give any thought to the absence of our blue friends.
The sky is clear and the sun bright; it is a good day for a run. Even my habitually troublesome feet do not object, despite the large chunks incised from the soles in my shoes... but thats another story. As I reach Farley country park I sight Penny, who has some water ready. I take a quick drink. And, no, I dont need a change of shoes (the other story), say good-bye and jog on.
On an exposed stretch through the country park a stiff headwind buffets me from the West but Farleys woods offer some shelter. Hark, is that the sound of bagpipes? Another corner, follow a dirt track, through some trees, turn. But which way? Black arrow on fluorescent yellow. Ah, that way! The sound again. Yes, its definitely bagpipes. The wailing comes and goes, more frequently now. But where is the piper? I jog on, amazed at how far the wind has carried the pipers sound. Into some trees, still no piper, out of the trees, still no piper, across open grass-land and over a road. At last, I see him. Hes standing at the checkpoint in full Scots livery. I am reminded of the piper at the Severn Sisters Marathon. The same man, I wonder. I expect so.
I take a drink. Orange this time. Yuk! Too sweet. Quick, wash it down with some water. Jog on. Short climb; narrow steep descent. Path not too muddy here. Good. It could have been worse. Got to watch those ruts though. Sharp bend, up a hill, through some trees, along a farm track and then I sight a marshal who directs me into another wood. And just in time as we narrowly avoid a massive puddle.
You havent seen the puddle down here yet, jokes a runner from behind.
I laugh. Im having a good run. My pace is slow and steady and Im still being overtaken now and then. I think about the next checkpoint (at Kings Somborne), where I expect to see Penny and get news of Mark. Id like to know how hes doing.
Oh dear, bladders full, Ive drunk too much, quick pee in hedge, lose a few places. Never mind, I think, Ill make them up later; much better to be hydrated. We descend a steep slope towards the village, which has just come into sight. Out onto the main road where a policeman halts the traffic.
I glance down the road. No Penny, but I sight the checkpoint.
Avoid that orange, I think. A boy hands me a cup of water. I walk a few steps while I drink, then discard the empty cup. Why do I always feel guilty when I do that? I know the helpers will pick it up later.
Jog on, round a bend and down a side road. Theres Penny and she looks worried. Im quickly told why.
I havent seen Mark, she says. I dont know whats happened to him. He might be injured.
She tells me that she waited at least twenty minutes at Farley and saw no sign of him.
I saw Frank, she adds.
We both know Frank started after Mark.
But Frank hasnt seen him either.
Im a little worried. Im having a good run; is Mark having a bad one?
No time to discuss the possibilities. Jog on. I wonder whats gone wrong. Aha! Enlightenment! I know whats happened. I look at the numbers of the nearby runners to check my theory. Not many blue numbers. My theory checks out. I think back. Yes, I know exactly where they went wrong and am thankful that I wasnt in the blue group.
Confident, I start to spread rumours: A large group of the blue runners have gone wrong. I tell everyone I chat to. Very soon people are telling me the same story.
Cross a river and reach another checkpoint. That was quick. I feel good. I pointedly ignore my watch. I dont want to know the time, but Id like to know the distance. Thats a good question, where are the distance markers? I havent seen any yet. I drink some water at the checkpoint. There is a small group there already.
Were not stealing your water, were the walkers, I hear one of them say.
Walkers? I didnt know there were any walkers. They must have started well ahead.
Jog on, along a road, turn right, down a farm track, then, wow! That tractors wide. And its coming right at me. This is going to be dodgy. The tractor pulls over to a standstill to make room for the runner 30 metres ahead of me. I breathe a sigh of relief and watch as the runner squeezes past. He makes it. Im almost at the tractor when it starts again. What? I cant believe it. Didnt the driver see me? Well, I am not stopping. Death or glory! The tractor slows, pulls over -- slightly. Worse! Suddenly I realise its got a trailer thats wider than itself. Shit! I speed up as the trailer trundles dangerously by. Watch that footing, must be careful, Im past, phew!
I overtake a couple more runners and catch up with a lady whos wearing a blue number. She confesses to starting in the orange group and promises to declare her error at the finish. Jog on. One by one I pass runners. Must be half way, I imagine, as I arrive at Broughton. Penny is waiting at the checkpoint. I can also see Franks wife, Jean. I say hello to them. Penny is eager to tell me about Mark and the lost blue group.
I know, I say. And, Yes, Im ok -- doing fine.
Privately, I pray Ill stay that way. Im well aware Ive not yet reached the danger zone. I eye the food laid out on a long table. We are admirably catered for. Must decide what to have, quick: I dismiss the energy bars, have a drink. And, ah! bananas. I break one off a bunch.
Round a corner and down a lane. A group of girls sitting on a wall give me a cheer.
The supports good. I recall how cheerful the marshals have been, too. I finish the banana and throw the skin into a hedge -- well, its biodegradable; Im not feeling guilty about that one.
Im running smoothly, but I wonder for how long. How far have I run? I dont know. I think about my finishing time. Before the start I would have been pleased to finish in 4:15 but now I hope to break four hours.
I reach a checkpoint, have a drink and accept a sweet. The checkpoint is manned by two friendly ladies.
Thatll give you energy, says one.
I expect shes right, but how much, I wonder, and will it delay The Wall?
My fingers are unsteady as I struggle with the wrapper. Is this The Wall? Maybe. I chuck the wrapper into a conveniently placed bin and pop the sweet into my mouth.
Now Im passing people I havent seen since the start; I cant remember when I was last overtaken. This realisation gives me a lift. Were a cruel species. My conscience is troubled, yet I still get a psychological boost from the suffering of those around me. I dont know why, but the effect is very real. There is no denying it.
I reach Winterslow. Suddenly I spot Penny and the boys. Pennys put her fleece on. It makes me realise that the skys clouded over, and its somewhat colder. Im glad I decided to wear a T-shirt and not just a vest.
Penny asks me how Im doing.
Fine, I say, and try to look better than I feel.
See you in Salisbury, she says.
Surely I cant be that near the finish already? I wonder what the distance is. No time to chat. I wave good-bye.
I cant believe Im that close to the finish. I know my watch will give me some idea of the distance remaining but, superstitiously, I dont look at it. If Im six miles out, I figure, then Ive an hours running left. I desperately want to know the distance and ask a marshal as he directs me up a track. My question takes him by surprise. Im ten metres past when he shouts:
About eighteen or nineteen miles -- I think.
I wave a thankyou.
Should I believe him? I dont know.
We cross a field. The wind is strong into our faces. A voice from behind surprises me.
Hello, Derek, says Noel and bounds past like hes just started.
So much, I think, for the walking and jogging. Briefly, I try to shelter behind Noel but cannot keep up. I watch him disappear into the distance. He is overtaking everyone. I wonder how he does it.
I am tiring but I still keep jogging. No walking for me now. Theres a faint drizzle in the air. If it rains harder Ill have to run faster. I pray that the rain holds off. The drizzle stops. Fifty metres in front is a runner who overtook me several miles back. I try to keep him in sight. I maintain the gap. Together we are slowly overtaking those around us.
Dont slow, dont shuffle, stretch those legs, stride out, use different muscles, keep jogging but dont walk. Never walk.
I have walked some of the steeper hills, I admit. But I dont want to walk now. Well, if I hit a steep one, then maybe. But thats all right, isnt it?
Into the village of Pitton.
I ask a helper at the checkpoint, How far?
About three and a half miles, she says.
Good. Pity its not shorter.
Down a road.
Theres Penny! I am surprised. I try to look good.
I took pity on you, she says as I reach her.
See you in Salisbury, she says.
The Wall has bitten. Im shuffling now. Mustnt shuffle, stride out, use different muscles, thats it. But a few metres later Im shuffling again. Into a wood. The ground is very slippery here -- like ice. I pray I dont fall. My tired legs make the going even harder. My feet are continually slipping back.
At last, Im through the wood. Jog on, down a lane. I spot a man who has some white plastic cups of water standing on his car bonnet. I take a drink and ask him how far to the finish.
About two and a half miles, he says cheerfully.
Please let him be right. Pity it isnt less. Thats about twenty-five minutes at this pace, I figure.
All the time I want to walk, I want to walk, I want to walk; but I dont. I am passing others who are walking. I dont join them. I know their agony will last longer than mine. I press on. I wonder if Noels finished yet. Probably not, I think, but Ill bet hes very close. I wish I could have stayed with him.
Suddenly, I see a marshal whos standing next to a distance marker. The first marker Ive seen all day. It says 25 miles, in large hand-written numerals. Ten minutes of pain left, I think -- if I dont walk.
Up a slope.
Not much of a slope really. Its hard work -- very hard work. The slope levels but the running gets no easier. Walk; DONT walk; walk; DONT walk. The battle rages in my mind. I try to ignore the arguments. I pass one runner -- slowly -- then another.
Half a mile to go, says a chirpy chap whos jogging towards me.
I had thought, hoped, prayed, it would be less by now.
Walk; DONT walk; walk; DONT walk. Ill be damned if Ill walk! Not this near the finish. Never! The arguments rage, as tenacious as any runner. The Wall does not give up easily. Ahead, I sight a metal kissing gate and hope it opens easily. It does. I stagger through. My legs are about to give way. Shit! This slopes steep.
Suddenly, I hear the sound of clapping carried on the wind. I know Im close now, real close. I look to my left and see the finish down below. Its in a school playing field, perhaps a third of a mile away. It looks small from here but there couldnt be a more welcome sight.
The finish spurs me on. The final part of the course is all down hill. I increase my pace, being careful not to stumble. My legs are still very heavy. Determinedly I try to stride out. My pace increases, though perhaps not as much as I think.
Running now; not jogging.
Downwards. The finish disappears from view, but the clapping gets louder.
I spot my son, Adam, who is waiting at the corner of the playing field. He cheers and claps as I turn into the field. I am running faster now, but my young son easily keeps pace. I darent look at the finishing clock, but I do. It says three-fifty-something. I feel a mixed sense of achievement and disappointment, though mostly achievement I think; I always want better. Three-fifty-one and twenty-four seconds, says an official as I cross the line.
Ive stopped my watch. I look at it: yes, 3:51:24 exactly.
But the days excitement is not quite over. Penny hands me my sports bag and I head for the showers. To my pleasant surprise the showers are warm. And the company hots up too when the men are joined in the showers by the ladies. Well, what did you expect? It is a friendly race!
Shower over, I return to the finish and chat to Penny and Jean while we cheer in the other runners and wait for Frank and Mark. Frank soon lollops home. And he is shortly followed by Mark (4:25) who fortunately was not perturbed by his extra mile.
I intend to be back next year.
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