So yes, the not very well concealed rumours are true; I ran the 4th Milton Keynes Marathon on Bank Holiday Monday last week and have been wondering what to say about it ever since. As is ever the case, I only entered the race about 5 weeks beforehand and made the decision while warming up for the Parkrun back in March. Rich “Ultra_Stew” Stewart wanted to transfer his place before the deadline (he was wussing out to do the Thames Path 100 instead) so I obliged by taking his entry. I’d be telling a fib of sorts if I said I hadn’t been preparing for it though as I had been working on a 4 month training macrocycle which quite conveniently happened to draw to a close on that weekend – almost as if it had been planned that way. As Milton Keynes is just up the road, it seemed like the obvious choice.
I probably should have written a little more about my preparation because, unlike London last year, I actually did some. Much less winging it this time! I had the course map printed out and pinned up next to my desk. I had analysed the elevation profile and made some calculations regarding the gradient of one or two of the hills and I had even planned a nutrition strategy involving the use of energy gels. Hell, I’d even practiced with gels to not only make sure I could run with them but also make sure I actually liked them. Not that it mattered as my local sports shop had a massive choice of one (SIS gels if you’re wondering). If the race was going to be a disaster, it wasn’t going to be because of piss poor planning!
Incidentally, if you’re ever thinking of driving to a race like the MK Marathon, I strongly suggest not leaving your parking arrangements until the night before.
Hope does not park your mother-f**king car!
The start of the race is at MK Stadium, home to a football team that I’m not going to mention as many of my relatives are fans, part-owners and otherwise involved with AFC Wimbledon. Under normal circumstances, I’m not sure I’d even betray them by going to the the stadium but this was a running event and so had nothing to do with foot-the-ball anyway. The event organisers provide a lot of parking on the day, all at the extortionate price of £7 if you pre-book. For those not in the premium parking, there remains the option of parking in the local Asda (2 hours free before clamping), Ikea (2 hours free before clamping) or any of the local, free short stay car parks in Bletchley (2 hours free before clamping). After a bit of late night Googling, I discovered that the multi-storey car park at Bletchley Leisure Centre is free and open to anybody, even if they’re not using the facilities. So I left early enough to beat traffic and get there only to discover it was closed. Not a problem as I recalled there was another car park nearby and on arrival, found loads of empty spaces. And one good thing about the short stay car parks is that they’re unrestricted all day on Sunday. I parked up with plenty of time to get to the stadium and try to ignore the fact that I’d have over a mile to walk back to the car after the race.
Five minutes later, I suddenly clicked why there had been a council parking inspector checking the cars and headed back to move my vehicle. The short stay car parks are free all day on a Sunday but it was a Monday. There was fortunately an adjacent long stay car park (on Denmark St, FYI) so my increasing accumulation of stress dissipated pretty quickly.
Don’t worry, we’ll get to the race soon.
I joined the rest of the competitors in a large hall under the Stadium. A fenced off area surrounded the baggage check in which was well labelled by race number and a local physiotherapist company had set up some tables for pre and post race massages (about £10 a go I believe but could be mistaken). There was a small Sweatshop stand as well as a couple of charity stands but other than that, it was just a hall. Full of people – or at least those not in the lengthy queues for the toilets. I sorted out my kit, dropped off my bag and then warmed up before heading out at the allotted time to the race start near the stadium.
The MK Half Marathon takes place on the same day and shares the Marathon route so all the runners go off together. There are staggered starts though, with each group setting off 2 minutes behind each other and somehow I had ended up in the lead group but I don’t know if this was by design based on a predicted finish time or just a random separation of runners. I had taken a spare t-shirt to wear over my vest and dump at the start (a charity collects all the discarded clothing so I felt that was worthwhile too) and was glad I had as it was overcast and not very warm. We had half an hour to kill before the start so there was the usual banter coming over the microphones and lots of people jostling for position while standing there shivering. Easy to remember why the start is the bit of a busy road race that I dislike the most because of the noise and the proximity to other people. Finally the gun went and we were off.
There and back again
The new town of Milton Keynes is renowned for a few things – concrete cows mainly – but being scenic is not one of them. Developed as it was in the late 60s, most of the buildings are the type of structure you might imagine concrete breeze blocks expect to be when they grow up. The road layout is famously grid based and I would honestly not be surprised to find out that the parks and green spaces are human-made as the landscape feels lacking in any natural randomness. Which is a circumlocutious way of saying that I can’t really bring myself to describe the course as inspiring. Practical, yes, but not inspiring.
The first seven miles – no, scratch that – the first ten miles is very “in and out” or “back and forth”. All the runners head north up Saxon Street towards the
City Town Centre and once there, are directed down one of the “H” roads for half a mile or before turning around and coming back up again. It would certainly be a fine way of seeing Milton Keynes’ notable landmarks if, you know, it actually had any. In more practical terms, it means a lot of mileage is made up in a small area. I’m not a big fan of races over 5/10km that are made up of loops but what was actually nice about this was feeling part of the crowd and seeing other runners ahead and behind you (which also made it easier to wave to friends who were running as well).
At the 10 mile point, the marathoners broke away from those on the half marathon and we headed south to where we hit the Redways, Milton Keynes’ bespoke network of pedestrian and cycleways which were so named because they are largely made up of red concrete and the Milton Keynes town planners were obviously an imaginative lot. What seemed odd was that the route took us through several suburban, residential areas and it felt like were on a running tour of local housing estates. At least it made a change from the straight roads and roundabouts.
Despite the snark, I have to confess that I was enjoying the race. The sun had come out for a start and the blue sky definitely added some colour to the proceedings but more than that, I felt like I was running really well. I felt strong, steady and comfortable. The only downside was that I was running faster than planned and seemed unable to hold myself back to my target pace but rather than worry about it, I went with it and decided to see how it all panned out. I had stuck to my nutrition schedule too, quaffing – or, rather, choking – on a gel every half hour or so. I refused to worry about people passing me like I was standing still as I knew a lot of them would be doing the half marathon although I was a little jealous as by mile 9 I was feeling that I could totally rock that 13.1 mile distance on the MK course. As it happens, I passed through the marathon halfway point in 1:42:00 which was faster than my official half marathon PB and well on target for a respectable time.
I knew I wasn’t going to be able to hold the pace though.
The wheels on the bus are going to fall off…
Every picture tells a story and this particular picture is my pace throughout the race
As you can see, it’s a relatively steady line for the first 16 miles where I managed to keep my pace between 7:30 and 8:00 per mile. But at 16 miles, I had to take my first walk break. Luckily I waited until after we’d passed an activity centre by Willen Lake where there were loads of supporters and onlookers. Unluckily, as I slowed down, the 3:30 pacer came by cheerily shouting “16 miles and we’ve got 3 minutes in hand!” followed by a group of runners who looked remarkably better than I felt. I knew that giving myself a walk break at this point meant that I would be starting a run walk strategy from this point on because it’s definitely a truism to say that as soon as you start walking, you find it harder to give yourself a reason not too afterwards.
I resolved not to stress about it. I could feel the ache in my quads and I doubt I could have sustained an 8 min/mi pace at that point. Not only that but I was beginning to feel cramp in my stomach and the words “gastrointestinal distress” repeatedly surfaced in my head. Not sure why, I just like the amount of syllables I guess. I knew there wasn’t far to go to mile 18 and the second of two drink stops where they provided more gels but more than that, the Redways became far more scenic – or at least tree lined – which provided shade and a feeling of being away from concrete.
Oddly, I don’t remember much about miles 18 to 21 apart from slogging onwards. I know we passed through another residential area where there was a band playing outside a local pub and beer drinkers lining the route. I briefly considered grabbing a pint from one of them but decided it would probably end in a fight and that would be hard but original way to explain a DNF. I think at that point I just phased everything out because I knew that the next drink station at 21 miles marked not only the turn south but also the beginning of the descent towards the finish through a small woods.
There was only one last challenge (aside from a bastard foot bridge that involved a bastard climb and challenged my bastard vertigo so much that I pretty much sprinted across the bastard thing, looking straight down at the ground and trying to ignore the two lanes of traffic beneath me and not fall over) and that was a hill section that went up by the hospital (that even has it’s own Strava Segment). In my pre-race analysis of the segment, I had calculated the gradient to be similar to a hill near where I work and while I was glad I had, I knew that facing that slope after 24 miles would be tricky. Luckily, I had fucked up the calculation and the slope was nowhere as near as bad as I had anticipated – not that I was going to be running up it as my calves had started to sympathize with my quads and had unilaterally decided to reject any proposal my brain may have made about doing more than walk up the hills.
We’re in the pipe, five by five!
After Hospital Hill, we rejoined the road back to the stadium – the road we had already been up and down once but had taken on a new sweetness as it was leading in to the last mile and a half. I fell into pace with a local runner called Mark (from the MK Redway Runners club) and we chatted for a bit while jogging but between stomach cramps and aching legs, I made my apologies as I stopped for a walk break, while desperately planning to at least run the last half mile. I caught Mark again a minute or two later as he was trying to gee up another runner who looked to be in a bad way and we once again fell into pace. We both knew that we were on for a PB at that point – his course PB and mine overall – so were in good spirits. The sight of the stadium as we came around the corner was relief and a blessing although in true course fashion, the course didn’t take a direct route but went around the car park and up the final slope before descending through the tunnel and into the stadium itself.
The last 250m or so was around the outside of the pitch and entering the stadium we were assaulted by the noise of people cheering from the barely full stands. I can’t imagine what it would have been like if the place had been full! Normally, the idea of sprint finish around a track would be fantastic and if I’d stuck to the half marathon then maybe it would have been doable but there was no way I was going to manage it this time. I ran with Mark as best I could, my legs throbbing in agony and feeling like I wanted to throw up but I was determined not to take a final walk break this close to the finish and in front of all the spectators. As we came around the last bend, I could see the clock ticking up towards the next minute and with a cry of “gotta keep it under 42!” I unleashed one last burst of speed across the line to claim my finishers medal.
Official finishing time: 3:41:37 – a new PB. Good enough for a well deserved beer when I got home.
So a week on, what are my thoughts? Well, I enjoyed the race and I probably would consider do it again. The marathon isn’t cheap though and factoring in an increase in price, I expect it will probably be a little over £50 next year. It is a good alternative for people who didn’t get a ballot place for London and there were only about 1500 marathon finishers (and 1600 half marathon finishers) which is a good number from my perspective as an asocial runner. The course is more hilly and challenging than I expected; despite not having a massive elevation profile – less than 200ft between the lowest point and the highest point – there are a lot of underpasses along the route which are quite draining. I’ll go into more detail about that in a follow up post but, on reflection, I don’t think it was a bad course at all and it appears to be a very good course for spectators and supporters. I saw one person four times at different points during the race which is partly possible because of the back and forth nature of the first 7 miles and also because it’s not difficult to get from one side of the town to the other.
The checkpoints were every three miles and mostly stocked water with every other one after 10 miles having Gatorade (I only remember the first because I got hold of a cupful and promptly failed to get it in my mouth, ending up with a face covered in sports drink. Turns out I’m not quite skilled enough to run at 8mph and drink from a cup at the same time). I was very grateful for the two stops that had Hi-5 gels which I now know I like more than SIS gels but not quite as much as Hi-5 Isogels which are more liquid and very tasty and will become my gel of choice as and when I feel the need to use them. (Many thanks to Claire for generously giving me her last few gels before the race!)
I can’t personally fault the organisation – in fact, it seemed so seamless that I was hardly aware of it which is not a bad thing. The bag handling was good and I didn’t have to wait long to retrieve it after the race. The only thing I would note though is that after finishing, you have to walk from the pitch back up the tunnel to the main hall and the slope up the tunnel is unpleasant with knackered quads.
Oh – and parking over a mile away from the stadium was just as predictably stupid and painful as you’d expect it to be.