Stirling Marathon Race Report – by Debbie Thain

The Stirling Marathon has been looming on my race calendar since late October last year, having just completed the Yorkshire Marathon and realising my hopes of an Ultra Tour of Arran were unfeasible until I had a bit more marathon experience. So naturally, I signed up for Stirling… aaaand the Ultra Tour of Edinburgh, a relatively ‘sensible’ Ultra of 35 miles I’m looking forward to while simultaneously having no clue how to actually achieve it.

So going into Stirling, I had a few different goals in mind. Ideally, finish under 6 hours and therefore claim a new PB, or if not, just claim a new PB of anything under 6:29:14 (my PB from Yorkshire). I also wanted to try and pace myself a little better, a lesson learned well from the Angus HAM and reinforced by my boyfriend sitting himself down with a calculator one evening and announcing I had to continue at a 13.3333 minutes per mile pace for the entire thing if I hoped to beat six hours.

Initially I scoffed at the idea, but I had one long run to go a week before race day (yes, I should have been tapering at this point but my training plan turned into a comedy of errors which would require a whole other blog post to explain); I agreed to give it a go. And it sort of worked! I ran a whole half marathon relatively easily even though I wasn’t beating any records, and better yet, I wasn’t going so fast that I ended up having to puke in the bushes! It was a revelation, and if I could make it work over a marathon distance then a PB was in the bag.

So back to Stirling. I had been considering running it the year before, due to its relatively flat new course hype and PB potential. The route had been changed this year, but I heard it was for the better, so I went for it. This time it started in the shadow of Stirling Castle, then followed a clockwise route through Stirlingshire, taking you by the safari park, through Doune, Dunblane, Bridge of Allan, a loop around Stirling University, a large rural detour and eventually back to Stirling where the finish awaited in King’s park. I tried not to look too much into the route details running up to the day though, because it even sounds intimidatingly far. So the night before I handed the map to my support crew and let them umm and err over cheering points, and I went to bed.

With my training plan having been a comedy of errors, I probably should have expected the same on race day. We stayed over in a lodge the night before so that we had a mere 20 minute drive to the start line, but despite leaving early on my insistence we got stuck in a tailback of traffic at the final mile on the M10 junction, the cones going up to close the junction just 3 cars ahead at about 7:55. Swearing, I then saw a speedy red bibbed marathoner run down the side of the lane in a desperate bid to get to the start line at 8:20. The doors of the car in front flew open, a hasty change of driver allowing another marathoner to do the same. Decision made, I said my goodbyes and leapt out at a jog, no idea where I was going but determined to get to the start line. No late starts, it had said in the race guide. I wasn’t going to be one of them.

Get me to the race on time!

So I jogged off, grateful to find 3 other runners along the way in a similar position, and one of them even had a vague idea where she was going. I was elated, and we joked about how we’d already be warmed up even if we missed the official warmup. Then our saviour appeared. One lady had somehow made it through the traffic, and she rolled down the window and yelled at us to get in like some sort of getaway driver. I assume she was en route to drop off the runner in the front seat, or perhaps she was just a commuter that was collecting runners along the way and the girl in front was her first addition. Either way, my three new buddies jumped in the car and I hesitated. There was no more seats.

Somehow, they ushered me in anyway and I was practically sitting in the lap of a girl I’d met no more than 3 minutes ago. Our random get-away (get-there?) driver regaled us with the tales of her own half-marathon days and dared the police to try and pull her over for having so many passengers squished in the back without a seatbelt. I ducked as we drove by the police anyway, because we literally didn’t have time to be pulled over and, just like that we were finally at the start line at 8:10!

We showered our random driver with thank yous and runners piled out the doors like clowns out of a mini. We ignored the start line and our newfound little group rushed towards the corral, while also glancing around confusedly for the toilets. A steward pointed me in the direction of the busses at the end of the road where the loos were located…which we couldn’t even see they were so far away. So we jogged again, and our little group started to splinter. One heading to hide behind a hill after seeing the size of the toilet queues (I’d have been tempted too if Stirling Castle wasn’t looming up the embankment, I believe they have binocular things for sightseeing tourists up there too), and the rest of us jumped the wall to save ourselves precious seconds and played the game of ‘guess the fastest moving queue’.

This is how overcrowded our car was

 

I made it out at 8:28 and hopped the wall again. I had missed the warm up, but just getting there had been stressful enough and I had jogged so much that I considered myself warmed up already. The announcer yelled “40 seconds to go” and I hurried along, and kept hurrying as the race horn sounded, the crowd passing through the start line just fast enough that I never got the chance to stand around. I hit start on my Fitbit and we were off.

Miles 1 and 2 were a blur. I took on a steady pace and tried not to let myself get swept away with any start-of-race heroics which I tend to do in larger races when there’s plenty of strangers for me to become unreasonably competitive against. I reigned it in and let them pull ahead. I was trying to go slow now so I wouldn’t be AS slow later, but every position I deliberately lost felt like a little stab to my ego. I was also still going too fast with 11-minute miles instead of my 13.333. Going any slower felt unnatural at this point so I figured the extra time I accrued would make a fine buffer cushion I could fall back on later.

At mile 3, my stomach started feeling odd. I wasn’t entirely sure what it was, since I’d had my usual race day breakfast and hadn’t taken on any extras yet. We’d even brought food from home to eat at the lodge the night before, so I couldn’t blame it on any dietary surprises. My stomach has never agreed with my running, but usually it at least waits until mile 10 before causing me much trouble. I mentally sighed and resolved to keep an eye on it, more distracted with the group of women huddled at the side of the road in matching t-shirts, one of them crying because she was struggling to keep up already. It was at this point it finally sunk in I was running a marathon, and that I still had 23 more miles to go.

Debbie raring to go.

Mile 4 continued alongside Blair Drummond Safari park, where I sadly didn’t get to see any animals but did wave to a guy in a lion costume. I took my time at the water station, given I was already going too quickly, and refilled my bottle and threw some water over my head to the confused looks of the chilled runners passing me by. 9 degrees is warm for me, okay!

Just passed the mile 4 mark I remembered my stomach, now squirming from the additional water, and wondered if I should have used the toilets by the water station. It was too late now though, and no way in hell was I going back, so I told my stomach to give me a break and continued on through the light hills of miles 5 and 6, still slightly ahead of pace and adding to my cushion buffer time.

I didn’t really want to, but I ate and took gels when I planned to, knowing I’d need the fuel for later. In hindsight, I’m wondering if this is the point when things started to go pear shaped.

Running through Doune was like running through a party town, the music a welcome beat in the distance and the cheering of spectators out in their masses despite the cloudy skies and threats of oncoming drizzle. The crowds were thick at some points, and thinner at others, with a random American tourist yelling coaching advice with unparalleled enthusiasm that I wanted to bottle up and keep for mile 22. Doune was perhaps the hilliest part of the course, but with the crowds cheering me on and the Angus HAM’s hills keeping things in perspective, they felt like some of the easiest miles.

The best bit was, the crowds got even thicker after the water station, with more music and ‘well dones’ that had me giving bashful thanks and grinning at my Asics. Feeling heartened, I left Doune at a pace, feeling fresher than I had at the very beginning.

4 hours 45 minutes? No problem :-/

And then things got very very boring. Miles 8, 9 and 10 were nothing but long and boring country roads in pretty much a straight line eventually leading over the carriageway and into Dunblane. The most excitement I had was a game of leapfrog overtaking with an elderly gentleman, each of us graciously handing the lead over to the other whenever our gaits naturally changed. One of the cycling marshals that was supporting the race had somehow managed to connect a portable speaker to his bike and was pedalling slowly, so I kept up with him as much as possible just to enjoy some banging tunes. Alas he eventually pulled away, but not long after mile 10 I saw the sign post for Dunblane and grinned “Yay! It’s Dunblane!”

My breakfast nearly ended up in this…

Over the hill, it seems two spectators must have heard the very same thing from many a runner the year before, what with having a sign that said ‘YAY! It’s Dunblane!’ and I laughed at how appropriate it was and rushed downhill into the town. It had started to drizzle by this point but the folks of Dunblane were unperturbed, armed with jelly babies and anoraks. I high-fived some kids and refused all offers of sweets (even a full-sized Mars Bar! Still not sure why I didn’t take it and keep it for later), well aware that my stomach was cramping up horribly.

I knew the signs and figured I would be retching into a hedge soon, but I resolved to get through Dunblane before I showed the spectators the ugly side of long-distance running by coughing up my gels in someone’s daffodil patch. But Dunblane just kept going on and on, lined on either side by well-meaning and congratulating spectators, then just when I thought I was safe, a little extra loop to show off Andy Murray’s golden post box. I grinned and said my thank yous, internally wailing until the support ceased at mile 12 and I was able to find some thick grass to hack up into.

Fellow runners checked if I was alright, and after assuring them this was a regular but not alarming occurrence I was able to continue, now feeling much better. I caught up with one of the well-wishers and she double checked I was alright, asked if I’d eaten a good breakfast and we launched into the topic of fuelling strategies and what might actually work on my stomach. Unfortunately I’d tried all her fuelling approaches but I was quick to fall into her pace. She was a seasoned marathoner and her times varied between 5:10 and 6:17. All PBs for me so I decided I was going to keep up with her for as long as I could.

Debbie looking fresh faced and keen at the start of the race

That dedication lasted all of a mile, when I realised I was now running on an empty stomach and I would need to eat soon. Eventually, I worked myself up to eating a starburst and two chews in I could feel my stomach lurching. I told my new buddy to go on without me as I rushed for the long grass, and she said she’d see me when I caught up. I laughed/gagged into the grass, knowing she was long gone.

Another runner had seen my plight and was quick to offer me tissues (I really should start carrying some, given the amount of times I’ve been offered them by other runners), and I was off again. My pace was lost though, and I had started to walk and eat into my cushion time. I saw the mile 14 mark and wondered how the hell I was supposed to run another 12 miles without being able to refuel. While nausea has always been an issue, this was the first time my body had outright rejected anything before it even got near my stomach.

I tried to clear my head and resolved to go without any nutrition until my stomach felt up to it. Maybe an hour at tops, I reckoned. I couldn’t fathom it lasting longer, being the sort of person that would happily eat three meals one after the other rather than miss one. I jog/walked into Bridge of Allan, trying to keep a smile on my face and not look like I was suffering for the few people that were still lingering despite the recent downpour that had soaked me miserable. A honking noise directed my attention to the Run4It store and the staff cheering from the doorway did inspire me, knowing they’d probably be delighted to be out and racing today but were still giving support even though they were working.

Bridge of Allan was also where my support crew had tentatively said they’d try and meet me, but with no sign of them I hurried on towards the uni, guessing they’d holed up somewhere with the rain. The loop at the University of Stirling was about a mile long, and extra demoralising as I could see the fresher runners pass by me, just on the other side of the road but simultaneously a whole mile ahead. I gritted my teeth and got on with it. But the loop had one unexpected benefit! Remember the girls I had practically climbed on top of to fit in the car back at the start? Two of them were ahead on the loop and gave me the most epic cheer as we crossed paths, spurring me to jog again whenever I could, even if I was clutching at my belly underneath my bib number. I knew I probably looked daft but at this point I was done caring. I even managed to overtake some people, although I did lose some of the water I’d managed to take in. Again.

The queue for the loos: estimated wait time: 4 hours.

Schadenfreude gave me a horrible sense of satisfaction coming out of the uni loop as it was my turn to see runners suffering even more badly than me. There were still runners behind me! I wasn’t last! I cheered them on while inwardly gloating a little until I remembered there was still 9 or so miles to go. I huffed through mile 17 and then was cheerfully passed by a power walker, grinning from ear to ear and exclaiming that the sun was out and it was a lovely day for walk. Remember the girl crying at the side of the road at mile 3? This was her, now without comrades but with a whole new bright sparkly attitude. She’d already befriended another runner with a limp by the time I caught her up again, and we discovered that the limping guy had pulled a ligament back at mile 11 and was hobbling to meet his girlfriend at Morrisons, and did we know how far it was to Morrisons? Neither of us had any idea and told him not to be daft, and if he going to DNF, at least alert a marshal so they weren’t sending out a search party for him later. We kept him company to the marshal station at mile 18 and a half.

Anyway, it turns out my pal who was having an emotional rollercoaster of a race was actually quite an experienced marathoner, but was suffering from a kidney infection and had resigned herself to a finish of 6 hours plus. But her cheer was infectious and we kept collecting runners along the way, our little group of power walkers picking up strays until there were 6 of us at mile 20 and approaching the water station on the rural loop. 10K to go!

It was at this point people started glancing at watches, trying to work out times and realising power walking wasn’t quite going to cut it. We went our separate ways at the water station, some to refuel, others for the loo, my friend with the kidney infection away from the sound of me retching because it was making her physically ill…Sorry!

I still hadn’t been able to take any fuel on for over 7 miles and was clutching at my belly when no one was looking. Someone informed me I was looking pale and of course that somehow made me feel worse. I fully intended to walk the rest of the way as our little pack broke up, but honestly? I  haven’t trained for walking. I was getting a blister on my heel from walking. My muscles genuinely get more tired from walking, the running muscles having been put through far more vigorous training. So I jogged a bit, somehow felt better and kept it up whenever I could. I overtook some people. I started to wonder if my attempt to go slower at the start had worked! I mean, the plan had been that I wouldn’t feel so awful toward the end, but it was all nausea and stomach issues that were slowing me down, my legs still had some strength in them, and thanks to my walk break, they even had a lot more speed than some of those who were still maintaining an even jog.

Surely it can’t be far now?

The last few miles were an emotional rollercoaster, and somehow left me feeling like I was on top of the world while desperately needing to lie down, all at the same time. My saving grace was a lady I’d seen previously in the uni loop. She’d been a mile behind me, but now she’d shuffled her way in front. Her t-shirt read ‘Walk, Run, Repeat’. And bloody hell was her strategy working. Her watch beeped every 30 seconds or so, and she ran for about 10, somehow overtaking people. It seemed mad, but she’d made up a mile of difference and something was clearly working. I blatantly told her she was the most amazing pacer at this point in the race and I followed her and her friend’s walk/run routine until they chose to walk at mile 23 and I felt like I could go just that little bit faster. I overtook just after finding Morrisons at mile 24 (Found it! Bet that guy with the limp was glad he didn’t hobble that far), and the new semi-urban scenery was enough to keep me amused until the 40k mat at around mile 25.

At this point I looked at my watch and huffed at the 5 hours 58 minutes. Not ideal, but I still could get a PB. I consoled myself with the fact it would have been a sub-6 hour time if they’d not extended the length of the marathon course from 25 miles to 26.2 at the 1908 London Olympics (damn Royals and their viewing boxes) and tried to convince myself that 2 km was only 12 minutes away on a good day.

I wound my way into Stirling proper, the lack of the runners at this point making the route a bit confusing when I was sure I’d left my brains and the contents of my stomach somewhere back at mile 20. But the open roads beckoned and I was overtaken by someone with a thankfully better sense of direction than I, weaving our way down the high street with the yells of congratulations and of how close we were to the finish. I could hear music pounding in the distance and I thought of the finish, sprinting towards it….and finding it was a damn music tent. Practically abandoned at this point (even the one at mile 19 had a marshal in it, although he was sleeping). I rounded the corner to more congratulations and more assurances of how close to the finish I was. I spotted one of my pals from the car journey cheering me on, almost unrecognisable wrapped up in a space blanket. She’d been less than a mile ahead of me so I had to be close.

Were we just running round in circles?

Based on the enthusiasm and assurances of all the passers-by, I must have attempted and failed at least 4 sprint finishes before I gave up. I was re-overtaken by a girl I’d swapped positions with many a time since mile 18, and told her I wasn’t attempting to run again until I actually saw the finish line. No sooner were the words out of my mouth when I finally saw my family cheering me on…halfway up the bloody hill. I smiled and waved for the video I knew they were taking and mentally cried as I cheerfully sprang up the hill, only to find a damn photographer positioned right at the summit. I gave him a thumbs up and jogged by smiling, only to collapse into a hobble the moment after the camera shutter clicked. The sign mockingly said 200 metres to go, a distance I’d have scoffed at a few hours before. Now I was sizing it up and wondering when to start running for a coolish and respectable finish.

Then ‘Run, Walk, Repeat’ lady and her pal overtook me again just as I caught sight of the finish line. I laughed and told the crowd I’d start running again at any second. Of course they egged me on. Turns out that even after 26.1 miles I’m a sucker for a dare, and off I went, praying I’d get through the finish without having to stop and puke in front of a crowd.

I hadn’t intended on overtaking my wonderful ‘Run, Walk, Repeat’ pacer, but somehow I’d caught up with her steady jog in my finish-fuelled sprint and couldn’t resist pushing that little bit extra, speeding over the line before the commentator could even work out my number never mind my name. The clock read 6 hours 28, but I knew I’d taken a few minutes to get over the line and my Fitbit gave me the time of 6:22 something. Honestly, it could have said anything at that point and I’d have been equally delighted to be finished.

I hobbled into finishers’ area with a sense of relief, delighted they still had goody bags with my sized t-shirt in them, and emptied half the bag out right there on the ground to find my medal at the bottom and flung it over my head. It’s at this point that I bemusedly realised that part of my finisher’s bag included a full-sized 500g pack of spaghetti (a new one for me, anyway!), and I left the finisher’s shirt in the bag, not wanting to stink it up so soon after finishing.

I ignored the event village in favour of getting to my family/support crew who I could see near the meeting point flags, but before I got there my stomach decided to have one last rebellion and emptied nothing but water onto the grass. One final hurrah that had people quickly walking in the other direction, all except my boyfriend who tried to keep our daft dog from jumping in front of me as I tried to empty my stomach. I wiped my mouth and showed off my medal proudly. We were discussing what to have for dinner before we’d even left the park. It was the only thing my stomach agreed with all day.

It’s over, I can eat now 😀

All in all, Stirling has taught me a few things. One, is that I reaaaally need to rethink my refuelling strategy. Two, I apparently don’t need quite as much refuelling as I think if I can make it almost 14 miles without taking on anything new. Three, pacing is useful if employed correctly, I just need to get better at it. And four, be early for being early, or you might get stuck in traffic and end up relying on/sitting on strangers just to get to the start line!

My official time was 6:21:59, giving me a new PB of over just over 7 minutes. It was a great day with an enjoyable course, even if my stomach wasn’t playing ball. The junction closure disaster at the start was a bit of a mess, but made for a great story! I just hope that all of the runners made it to the start line on time and weren’t turned away for being late. My spectators reported having a difficult time getting to and from where they wanted to be with the road closures and very little in the way of clear diversions/helpful directions, not to mention the fact that roads were being opened and closed before their very eyes. But Stirling is a relatively new run, and I’ll be sure to mention it in the feedback form so they can hopefully improve on a few things next year. I won’t be doing it again next year as I’m hinging my bets on a London Marathon ballot, but I’ll certainly be back. I can’t wait to see how it improves!

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