Parakeet Marathon Report

Well I?ve finally run my first marathon, and a big thank you to everybody who helped make it such a success. For the background on how and why I decided to design and run this route, read my blog at http://parakeet-marathon.blogspot.com/2011/08/south-west-london-green-spaces-marathon.html and http://parakeet-marathon.blogspot.com/2011/09/wildlife-marathon.html.

After the preceding week?s weather forecast had been so terrible, it stayed dry the whole day. The very first to start out was Dave Wilson, who was walking the route. He began at 7:00am, long before any of the rest of us got to the Park. Nine of us started in Richmond Park, shortly after 9:00am; myself and my brother Paul (also running his first marathon), Peter Grecian, Jason Blair, Grant Davison, Matthew Pritchard, Mike Gray, Derek Summers & Mandy Brown. David Pearce turned up to see us off. I had been toying with the idea of addressing everyone before we set off, thanking them all for coming, blah blah blah, but it all got forgotten about in the excitement of getting the run started.

Jason was running it at his own pace, navigating with the pictures and directions he had printed from my website (http://parakeet-marathon.blogspot.com/), whilst the others were kindly running at my pace. Whilst I was glad that I had the support of the others, I was equally glad that Jason and Dave were proving the route on their own, which would show whether my directions were good enough.

Marlene started us and we set off up the first hill, which got me a few comment about designing it that way, but at least it isn?t a very high slope. Then there is a flat section on the plateau which gives the runners a chance to catch their breath. We made our way through the woods to Isabella Plantation, which was the first test of whether my route would be successful or not. Was it going to be open? The Woodland Gardens in Bushy Park have a notice informing people that they start to be opened from 9:00am, and I was worried that Isabella might be the same, and that I might pick a morning when the park ranger overslept a bit. To my relief, it was open. The next feature on the route was Pen Ponds, and in the weeks leading up to the marathon, there had been earthworks there which blocked the path of the route, requiring a slight detour round. But our second stroke of luck that day was that the earthworks had been partially completed and the path re-opened. Two young does were paddling in the shallow water at the edge of the upper pond, so several of us paused briefly to take a photograph.

We followed the route down to Ham Gate, where we made a toilet stop. Then through Ham and down to the river. When we reached the river at Teddington Lock, my phone rang. It was Ann Bath who was joining us for the remainder of the marathon, informing me that she was at Kingston Bridge, and checking that we hadn?t yet gone past. She had previously estimated that she would catch us up at around the 10 mile mark in the middle of Bushy Park. I assured her that she hadn?t missed us, and she said she would make her way towards us up the towpath.

When I run that section of the towpath I usually start on the upper path and then descend to the lower one as soon as I can. Because others were in the lead along that stretch and stayed on the upper path, I did too. My next surprise came outside the Hawker Centre, at about 5½ miles when we met Jacquie and Joe Chang with baby Jacob, Lizzie Wilson, Kevin Furlong and Maria offering us drinks. Jacquie had also made a cake which looked lovely, but I don?t run well with food in my stomach, so I sadly had to decline. I hadn?t expected to see Jacquie, because she had explained that she couldn?t wait around at a drinks station with a baby in pouring rain, and that was what was forecast for later. Lizzie, I was assured would do drinks on Wimbledon Common even if it rained; I wasn?t expecting any of the others but it was a lovely surprise to see them there. If we had been on the lower path we might have missed them.

Then Andrew Pengelly appeared on his bike, armed with a camera, and he rode round for the next few miles photographing us at various points. You can see his pictures at http://www.flickr.com/photos/69241656@N06/sets/72157628058461462/show/.

We set off again, and met up with Anne and made our way down into Kingston, over the bridge and into Bushy Park. At the entrance to Bushy, approximately 7 miles, Derek and Mandy decided to turn back. Mandy was finding she wasn?t quite over an injury, so made the sensible decision not to aggrevate it any further. The rest of us pushed on into the park to where Karen Hardy was operating a drinks station near the Woodland Gardens, just before the 8 mile point. Andrew was there, and also Kevin Stone. Kevin had been intending to run it himself until injuring himself a week before. Now he was there on his bike, also armed with a camera, photographing the occasion. You can see his pictutres at http://www.flickr.com//photos/stoniek/sets/72157628065195560/show/. I was falling behind the others quite significantly by this point and a few times had to shout to the lead runners to re-direct them when they took a wrong turn. We stayed for a few minutes with Karen while Kevin & Andrew took more pictures, and then continued into the Woodland Gardens. I had marked the paths the night before with flour, and despite some overnight rain and people walking over the arrows, most of them were still visible if you were looking for them. But I must admit they were easy to miss if you didn?t look around on the paths at junctions.

In the first Woodland Garden I tried to photograph a beautiful mandarin duck swimming on a pond, but it was too far away, and it can?t be seen in the resulting picture. In the second Woodland Garden I got comments about how my fellow runners were discovering places they had never been before despite living in the area for many years. That was very pleasing. Then we left the Woodland Gardens and went up to the newly restored Water Garden, which again was new for most people. I have discovered these places because on Friday nights during the months of the year when there is adequate light, I pick my wife up from work and we go for a walk, or sometimes a bike ride, in the parks where I have routed this marathon. It?s a great way to unwind at the end of the week, and start our weekend on the right note.

On coming out from the Water Garden, the most westerly part of the route, we followed the path round back towards the middle of the park, and we saw our first stag sitting down in the long grass. On reaching Chestnut Avenue, we turned right and headed south back to Karen?s water station, which she had positioned where the route crossed itself. The avenue made for some spectacular photographs, which Kevin & Andrew fully exploited as we ran in. After another quick drink we continued round the Diana fountain and out of Bushy Park, across the road and in through the Lion Gate into the grounds of Hampton Court Palace. We ran past the Maze and the rose garden, across the front of the palace and out onto the riverside again. At the back of the palace you pass the formal gardens with their white statuery, obseved through elaborate gilded railings. Marlene rang me to ask where we were at this point, and told me that Paul?s family and my parents had turned up. They wanted to see us coming through at Kingston Gate, but we were still a long way off that, so after a while they went off to Pembroke Lodge to get themselves a hot drink. As my phone rang, some of my companions were amused by the ringtone I had specially selected for the occasion ? A Band On The Run, by Wings.

We entered Home Park, crossing a golf fairway, detouring round some players who were lining up a shot. ?You?d better stay away from that tree? quipped their caddy, indicting one 20 yards off to the right of them, ?That fellow keeps hitting his balls into it.? We made our way to the Long Water, and as we ran down it we found ourselves again being photographed by our cycling companions who had positioned themselves on the other side so they could include some swans in the foreground.

I really wasn?t feeling very energetic by this stage and my gait was more of a trudge than a jog. Although I was enjoying the company and the route and the enthusiastic comments others were making about how much they were enjoying themselves, the fact that I was running so slowly was nagging away in my mind. My companions kept asking what I thought was wrong, and saying that going out to mark the course the day before had probably taken it out of me, but more about that later. We saw a sizeable herd of fallow deer near the Long Water, and 3 young bucks, still with their dappled coats, but starting to sprout antlers, in a little patch of trees near the main park entrance. You often see young deer there.

We left the park knowing we had passed the halfway point, re-crossed Kingston Bridge then down the steps and under it without having to cross a road, and made our way back into Canbury Gardens. There we turned right and embarked on what for me is the least pleasant section of the route, nearly a mile of road running with the gradient gradually increasing, and a wait for the traffic lights to change when crossing Richmond Road. But at the end of it came the reward of getting back into Richmond Park where Marlene had been joined by my parents and my brother?s family. Kevin was there too, making new friends with everyone he met. The temperature had been dropping and. I was starting to feel a bit cold, so I put on my jacket. Mike was finishing his run here, but Grant and Matthew decided to press on and see how much they could manage, and I never caught up with them again. Matthew, Peter and Ann had all done marathons less than 2 weeks earlier, it must be remembered. I was enormously impressed by their performance.

From Kingston Gate there is the longest climb of the route, but I?m used to it by now, and paced myself steadily so as to not be too exhausted at the top. Then there is a long flat plateau where you get a chance to recover before the very steep descent down to Robin Hood Gate. Just before the descent we met Kevin & Neil Parker, who had been doing the Thames Turbo Marathon Relay. They wished us well and we were on our way again. Peter had forged ahead, saying he was going to catch up with Grant and Matthew and then come back to rejoin me. We met up again a bit before Robin Hood Gate, then he, I, Ann & Paul made our way out of the Park and across the footbridge over the A3 and round the Richardson Evans Memorial Playing Fields, past the large War Memorial inside its circular hedge, and finally onto Wimbledon Common proper. This was where I had most extensively laid my flour arrows the evening before, because it is the part of the run where it is easiest to miss the route and get lost. I know only too well. There are far more paths to choose from, and fewer signs to take ones bearings from than in the other parks, and because it is a bit further away from Surbiton, our Club members tend to go there less often for running. The signs were harder to spot than I had hoped, because they had been heavily rained on overnight and people and horses had walked over them. But they were still there if you looked for them, and that was the main thing. Thames Hare and Hounds running club were also there by the memorial as we came through, and they also had laid trails for runners to follow; a series of dots, some made of flour like my arrows, others of sawdust. I hoped that those up ahead would remember that I had said my marks were arrows and have the sense to not be lead astray.

The Wimbledon Common section starts with a nasty climb up a bumpy stony path, then across a golf fairway, before descending a similar bumpy stony path to the Queensmere Pond, then back up, you?ve guessed it, another bumpy stony path, to the Windmill. I hadn?t wanted to design the route like that, but it seemed the shortest way to get in to the Common and visit the more interesting parts. My legs were feeling pretty tired by this point, and I had to stop on the final uphill stretch. Kevin had reappeared, and was trying to get up these paths on his bike. I saw he was taking photos, so tried my best to smile cheerfully for the camera, but apart from that I don?t know how he fared.

Eventually we made it to the top, and I ushered the others round the side of the golf clubhouse to the car park, where Lizzie was waiting patiently for us. I kept my promise to phone and pre-warn her that we were approaching, and it was really good to see her at the top. My parents and Paul?s family had also come, so we had another pleasant reunion before setting out for the first of two loops on the Common, the first to the north, the second to the south. I designed it so that we went back to the Windmill each time, so runners get 3 opportunities to take advantage of the refreshments and toilet facilities there. The first loop starts straight(ish) and flat, across heathland, then after reaching Tibbets Corner at the most northerly tip of the route, turns back into a wooded area. You can really hear the roar of traffic on the A3 as you approach Tibbets Corner, and people may wonder why I put the route there. The reason is that I was considering including Putney Heath in the route, and the underpass at Tibbets Corner links it to Wimbledon Common. Besides, that bit of the underpass makes a definite point for people to loop round, rather than turn and run back the way they came. But I have to admit that running along a pavement and then crossing a kerb to pick up an ill-defined path over the grass is not exactly conventional. I?ll have another think about that bit. On the day I needed to keep shouting directions to Peter & Paul ahead of me.

We passed by Kingsmere Pond, Paul and Peter getting ahead, me slowing to a halt a few times while Ann stuck by me, encouraging me. We caught up with them a few times when they paused, unsure of the route. I got worried at one point because they were out of sight when we reached a junction where it was particularly important to turn left, and I had no idea if they had done so or missed the sign and gone straight on. We stopped and called them and tried to spot them through the trees, but got no response. Then Peter came bounding back along the correct trail, yes of course they had seen the arrow, and they were wondering what was taking us so long. We then had to climb two fairly short but horribly steep slopes in quick succession. I deliberately included this section of the Common to make it a bit more challenging. The joke was on me as I dragged myself to the top, and then had top stop, doubled over and panting from the effort, whilst my companions all managed it far more easily than I. Standing there I recalled how easily I had run up it on my training runs, but now my legs just seemed to have nothing to give. I comfirmed to Paul that we had now done more than 20 miles. We had followed the same training plan, and that was the longest distance we had run so far. We were now into uncharted territory as far as our endurance was concerned.

We resumed running and shortly arrived back at the Windmill. My family had been getting to know Lizzie in the time we had been away. She confirmed to us that Jason had been through ages before, Matthew and Grant had decided to head back to the finish, and her husband Dave was still ahead of us as well. I confirmed that they all knew that next time we passed the Windmill we would be coming from the other direction, so to go round to the other side to see us. I took the opportunity of this stop to refill my Camelback with water. I was drinking from it regularly and didn?t want to have to face the last few miles with it empty. We ran round the southern leg of the Common uneventfully, managing to avoid the worst of the mud on the bridle paths. When we came back to the Windmill for the third time, Paul?s two young sons were ready to join us for the last 4 miles back to the finish. They were young, fit and fresh and far too fast for me.

There was just one more slope to climb as we left Wimbledon Common, and boy did I make a meal of it. In my mind, no longer thinking clearly, we climbed twice coming into the Common, so I expected two slopes to climb when leaving it. After a lap round Queensmere Pond, we made our way up towards the golf fairways, with me stopping occassionally and thinking, ?Yet another of these wretched climbs after this?. Then I got to the top, crossed the golf course, and started down the next slope, when I started to realise that we were heading out of the Common, and all the hills were behind us. That was a relief.

We left the Common and went back round the playing fields, where now several games of football and one of rugby were in progress. Peter had a sprint against the two boys, then Paul sprinted after Peter, with me wondering how on earth he had the energy to do that.

We re-crossed the A3 and re-entered Richmond Park. This really was the final leg. Marlene called my phone and I told her where we were. Fortunately my family and Lizzie had joined her by then, and she said that Grant and Matthew had returned already.

We took the road which goes to the central car park, and branched off it where it it curves right and starts to climb. We joined a bridle path instead, and stuck to the side where it was less muddy. I had expected it to be ankle deep in mire after the previous rain, but fortunately it wasn?t too bad. It had been deep dust when the weather was dry. Going into the centre of the park like this meant that we could avoid the big hill climb and descent we had done earlier.

Off to the left, well camouflaged against the bracken, I spotted a pair of young stags, facing each other, heads down. I watched them as I ran, then stopped to take a photograph as they locked antlers. Paul and his boys stayed watching them longer. His eldest is a very keen naturalist, and told me afterwards how they had fought for a while until a larger, older stag arrived. It was like him and his brother scuffling, and then Paul breaking it up. As Ann and I went ahead for a short stretch, I saw another stag, much closer to the path we were on, up ahead. The others caught up with us as we approached it, and I paused to take one last photograph, before we reached a path that led to Ham Gate again.

I was going to call Marlene when we reached Ham Gate to tell her we were on our last mile, but she called me a bit before I got there. I told her I would call just before we came in sight of the finish line, so she could be ready. That last mile from Ham Gate to Kingston Gate always seems so far at the end of a long run. The boys raced ahead, still full of energy. I called Marlene as promised, and she said my father could see us already, which I considered unlikely. Then I found that he had gone a distance down the track towards us, and Marlene could see him waving to indicate he had seen us. We came up a slight rise and the car park came into view. Ann, Paul and Peter spontaneously came and gathered round me as we ran the last few yards up to the finishing line so we all came in together. Finally I had done it. But boy, was I tired.

Everyone came and congratulated me and Paul on completing our first marathon. I went round thanking everyone for the part they had taken in the day. We lined up for photographs, and then got stuck in to the post-run goodies. To my amazement, Dave Wilson was there. He had beaten us back! I had been expecting to overtake him much earlier in the day. Jason, Grant and Matthew had already left by the time we finished, but Kevin was still there, still recording the day on his camera. I handed out the rebranded chocolate bars I had prepared for this moment, you can see his picture of them at the very end of his set of photos. ?Marathon ? the new name for Snickers!?

Jason finished in an amazing 4 hrs 5 mins. Dave walked the route in about 8 hrs. They have proved that the route can be navigated independently, as long as some sections are marked. I need to have further discussions with everyone who took part to get their views on how the route might be improved.

My time, as Marlene recorded it, was 6 hrs 41 mins. That was much slower than I had anticipated, and we had much discussion both during and after the run as to why it should be that I was so slow, after all the training I had put in. Most people were of the opinion that I must have exhausted myself the night before, cycling and walking round the parks marking out arrows with flour. That might seem logical, but I was in fact careful not to push myself hard when doing it, and when I got home I didn?t feel like I had done anything more strenuous than a normal day in the office. My own explanation why I performed as I did on the day, and I know in my heart that it is true, is that in the 3 week gap between my 20 mile training run and the marathon, whilst I was ?tapering?, I went off the boil, so as to speak, in my readiness for the run. I did a couple of 10 mile runs and various shorter ones during those 3 weeks, but somewhere within me there was a feeling of ?There, I?ve done it, that?s the training out of the way. Now the marathon will be a formality?. We had unseasonally good weather throughout October, most of my long training runs were conducted in lovely sunshine. That good weather lasted until a week after my 20 mile run, and I feel sure that if I had done the marathon that Saturday, then I would have got round within about 5 hours and felt good all the way round. As it was, after 3 weeks of shorter distances, the weather changing to much duller conditions, a sort of anti-climactic feeling which I woke up with on the day, and the mental pressure of organising the day, which meant I was thinking of checklists of things to do, and how to make sure people didn?t get lost, resulted in me just not being in the right frame of mind for running to my full potential. And we stopped a lot along the way. It?s always hard to get going again once you stop . Nobody going for a personal best in the London Marathon would spend as long as we did at each drinks station (7 refreshment stops, 2 toilet stops, 1 stop to talk to the Parker brothers and several for taking photographs ). But I would rather be sociable with my friends who had so kindly given up their time to help, than run on, scarcely giving them the time of day. The proof that it must have been psychological, not physical reasons which slowed me down is that I have bounced back straight away physically. I haven?t had to walk down stairs backwards, my legs haven?t seized up, I haven?t really felt much effect from the run at all. Which means I wasn?t pushing myself hard enough! But enough of that. I?m not going to beat myself up over it. Everyone said they had a great day, and that really was the point of the event. And I can always go back and do it again in the future.