Edinburgh Marathon Festival
Sunday 26th May 2013
In many ways, I'm a simple man; promise me a long weekend and a ride on the nice choo-choo train to a wonderland of pubs and fried food, and there really isn't much I can do to resist. The small proviso of a little run while we're up there rings all the usual alarms, but nothing distracts like the prospect of never-ending full Scottish brekkie and a loch of ale. So once Carmel had the idea of taking a sabbatical from London to foray through the wild border lands to the Edinburgh Marathon, it was really pretty much a done deal. And in all honesty, I wasn't conned (much); Old Reekie is a treasure, with its historic nooks and crannies, hangouts and cafes, and the natural grandeur of its volcanic crags and valleys. Go, if you haven't already, and if you can take in the Marathon Festival, so much the better.
We spent Saturday morning in implausibly lovely Holyrood Park, below Salisbury Crags, watching literally trillions of eager kids sprint fifteen-hundred, or double that, and packs of grown-ups dash, lollop or stagger round the five and ten. Rather undulating is Queen's Drive, circling the old volcano's crinkly flanks as it does, and the continuous sparkle of the spring sun (never yet seen in Glasgow, but not at all unknown in leeward Lothian) really helped bring up a sweat. Not what a next-day marathoner wants to see, when even the thought of trudging back up the Royal Mile in the warm seems all a bit much. Still, when what awaits in town is a bowl of pasta the size of, well, my usual pasta bowl in fairness, it's doable. An afternoon on the tour buses was a grand idea too. Lovely.
Bedtime, and nerves kicked in as the lights flicked off, and to be honest, nocturnal panic at one's impending roadside death in a sticky mound of gel wrappers isn't helped much by Hibernian's first-string night-bigotry squad having an extended and frank discussion outside the window at stupid o'clock, but it's Cup Final weekend and they always lose, every time, without fail, so I thought they could be allowed some fun.
Dawn eventually came, and with the feared clear blue sky. Not likely to rival the 2012 furnace, if the chirpy forecaster could be believed, but bloody-buggery-frig-the-noo anyway. And what's more, for the first time since the great Christmas vomiting bug of 2003, I was too queasy to eat more than a few grimly-forced mouthfuls. This is neither in character nor ideal. Nerves, for some reason.
It was a mile's stroll down to the London Road start (there's one each side of Calton Hill) with our running tribe, against a lesser green-shirted flow forsaking the kirks to catch the footy special out of Waverley. I forced down a banana and tried to hold it down as it fought back. Usual thing with the portaloos - everyone queues at the first block, but there's better pickings further down, and the canny botanist hunts out the tallest cow parsley on the hillside, African elites included, despite dire tannoyed warnings about disqualifications for bush-weeing. The genteel locals of Royal Terrace must love marathon day. Finally, as the gun approached, so did the clouds. Bliss. A merciful start to the day, and once lined up in the pens, suddenly all seemed manageable and familiar. We all know what to do next, and how fast to do it - see you in Musselburgh in three-thirty-something. Maybe. Ten minutes' delay didn't help (a murder near the route - transport chaos to go with it, we found out later), but, anxiety quashed, it's all about taking it easy through some of the city sights before spinning out to the suburbs and the sea.
Amongst the many things to do as you try not to dash off like an excited puppy, gazing at Holyrood Palace and Park rates quite highly, but even so, the clock ticked slower than the mile markers and, though I'd lost Carmel early on, I had reconnected and was marking her at a steady thirty metres. She's a marathon machine, and I seemed to be starving hungry at last. Hooray. Could only go wrong, but I felt fantastic, and as the perfectly-nice-but-a-little-dull Edinburgh fringes gave way to Portobello sea front, I didn't care too much. See what happens.
From here, the marathon takes on its true character; it's not really a city centre race, it's a coast road out-and-back, good but sporadic support and thankfully offering contrast to London's endless, endless being-shouted-at. There's variety, mainly on the theme of seaside peace-and-quiet, and modest communities along the way combine with travelling supporters to give us a bit of a lift. Never been offered so many jelly babies in my life. Musselburgh passed by - just another seventeen miles before we'd see it again - and we paralleled the last section of the half marathon route in time to see the tail-enders home (an eight o'clock start for those poor souls - give me the extra miles any day). And it was round about the tenth mile, moments after I'd finally hauled Carmel in and we'd checked all was well, that my legs started to make clear their urgent disagreement with all this nonsense. Not a welcome development, and I increased my rate of gel-sucking, aided by the excellent abundance of my favourite sticky goo at the aid stations (though one's favourite sticky goo is not at all as nice as, say, one's least-favourite brand of afternoon tea, I should point out).
Next up was Prestonpans, which barely registered but which would be the scene of trials and vexations later on. It's billed as flat and fast, is this race, but it's rarely flat - gentle inclines ripple all the way, and a steady rise and fall carried us to the monumental and monstrous Cockenzie power station, sat amongst the low dunes. Not pretty, but it occurred to me that it would likely rival the Seven Wonders for splendour on the way back. Port Seton, half-way through, on London schedule precisely (oops!), much more lovely, and with a grassy changeover for the marathon relay - all seagulls, kiss-me-quick and ice cream. Nice in different circumstances. And a very welcome cheer from Fiona and Alex, pink and yellow high-vis and sensibly visible to the Leith coastguards should they be swept out to sea. They told me that Carmel wasn't far ahead, and going well. I was glad, but without an electric bike I wasn't going to catch her. The sun was by now fully out, having flirted with clouds for a while. It was getting tough. Pace slowed a little, but no danger of walking it for many miles, and I'd like to keep it that way. The elites and the cream of the club runners had rounded the turn (one in full arm sling), and though most looked fantastic, some were suffering pitifully. Which was nice.
One Port Seton had been distanced, it all got very rural, with the wild dunes of Longniddry Bents competing with the partly-tamed golf links, and the road twisted left and right, up and down. And along the way, two C&C vests locked together, grimly oblivious to all else, either teaming up or engaged in a battle to the death - it was hard to tell. Andrew S and Dave H neck-and-neck at the quick end, on their way back from the turn, and at the scary, sparse end of the contest where there is nowhere to hide. By Musselburgh, Dave's marathon debut 2:52 had beaten Andrew's 2:53 best, and it must have been a hell of a duel.
Doing the maths, it was actually quite encouraging to have got this close to the turn before seeing those guys, and not too long later there was the fine sight across the bay of runners passing the gates of Gosford House. This stately 1790s pile is more-or less the turning point, seventeen miles or so into the race, before heading back towards Musselburgh, and we were due a trot around the leafy grounds by way of reward. A day-glo sign announced the switcheroo, but none came. We sailed on past the grand entrance and along the coast road; Carmel came into view and we high-fived - all seemed well. Eventually the turn and the long-awaited access to Gosford. I perked up a little as I shuffled through the pretty woods, round the grand driveway in front of the house, and past the farm buildings and fields. It may be eighteen miles, but it's not bloody Docklands - hallelujah!
So - repeat the last eight miles in reverse, and happily no sign of a headwind, just a flat calm. A cheery greeting from outward-bound Anne S, going brilliantly after a last-minute sick-bed resurrection, as I hit the road home. Slowing now, and though the 7:25, 11:47, 6:19 mile split sequence that got me to twenty was probably another example of the consistently awful marker placements, I can't rule out some element of the old surge-collapse-surge-collapse. But I was going to run the whole damn thing regardless. Somewhere, I failed to spot Becky W, who executed a perfect race, staying strong and steady to the end - a pretty rare thing on a marathon début.
Under the hour to go - take on water, gels and keep the arms pumping when the legs can't. Just starting to slip down the field now, but the clouds had granted respite. Longniddry, Port Seton, the shimmering classical glory of the lovely Colossus of Cockenzie, and with twenty-four to go, Prestonpans. God, it hurt, did Prestonpans, and I kept to the dotted line to keep furthest away from the encouraging supporters. The pain is private today. Mile times creeping into the mid-nines - almost recovery pace but no recovery here. Last tail-ender in front of the sweeper van heading out to Gosford, with about a lifetime still to race. Wearing a full suit of armour, which, frankly, wouldn't have been my choice. Musselburgh fringes, not much more than a mile. Picked up Paul R about there; a classy marathoner on a bad day. Promised beer at the end but will have to owe you one, Paul. Well fought. Big cheer from Fiona and Alex (thanks guys!), a deafening disco, crowds building, a mighty crescendo, and a bizarre wobbly trip-hazard rubber mat to finish on, race done. Stop. Double up. No more.
Half as bad a blow-up as at London; 3:43:12 - a mere 10 minutes lost in the second half this time, ran the lot, and a far lovelier, cuddlier day all round; Canary Wharf replaced by a leafy stately home; the Highway became the seaside; no Mall and no dusty throngs on Horseguards'... instead some kind of school playing field or sports ground with, mercy of mercies, a beer tent. Carmel met me at the line, having blasted a 3:33 - wow. I shall gain my glory vicariously again - perhaps that's the way to go now. The medal was heavy but not obscene this year, a nice touch to spare the the blushes of the scrap-metal muggers as they pick off the lamest of the hobbling blue-t-shirted herds on the Lawnmarket. I was feeling as sick as a poorly-breakfasted, post-marathon dog again as soon as I'd finished, and a synthetic glucose spew pushed at my oesophageal sphincter, but half an hour of semi-collapse on the grass helped, and the first few gulps of cold, fizzy beer were as effective an anti-emetic as any prescription med; I was guzzling pizza from a box in no time. Rather than anxiety, perhaps it had just been an alcoholic cold-turkey. And a sunny catch-up with Alex, Fiona, Anne and Anne's husband Matt on the playing fields pretty much put the seal on that handy propaganda trick one's mind does when it wants to suppress an awful trauma; it had been an entirely brilliant day after all, and Prestonpans, which surely must be an imaginary name, was just a figment, like the silly numbers between ninteen and twenty-six.
Choose Edinburgh. Choose the marathon. Choose a life-sustaining ale or five. Choose Mexican grub in the Old Town. Choose Hibs losing ten in a row and going home to sulk. Choose a consequently peaceful night. Choose a colossal full Scottish. Choose a long weekend away with your best girl. Choose an ill-thought-out literary allusion to end your report. That'll do me - I'm a simple man.