Edinburgh Marathon Festival
Sunday 31st May 2015
The Edinburgh of the seventeenth century was a foul, fetid hellhole, its exploding population crammed within the defensive walls of the Old Town, jammed in along the sloping tail of the castle crag. The population had no way to spread out, so they built up, towards the ever-leaden skies; as many as thirteen or fourteen dwellings stacked haphazardly, the poorest in unimaginable filth and permanent darkness at the bottom, their ragged equals in precarious wooden fire-trap garrets on top, and the lucky middle classes mid-way, a bearable compromise with fewer torrents of faecal matter from the higher stories and some separation from the awful sewers below. The filth would run, or be shoved or kicked, through the steeply-sloping and narrow closes to the diseased waters of the Nor' Loch, to which many a citizen made their last trip when they could bear their pitiful existence no longer.
But from some blessed places in the town when the weather was fine, the folk of Edinburgh would be able to see through the narrow cracks between tenements, over the Loch and the green hills to the Firth of Forth, and the sea would glitter and the fresh breeze would displace the stench, bringing a whiff of ozone and seaweed. Lord knows what fears kept them in Auld Reekie. They must have ached for escape, to run away to a simple life in the open country, living on what they could gather or catch.
That's the general idea behind the Edinburgh Marathon, of course. Today, many of the old closes are there, in footprint at least; the buildings tower above still, but mainly slightly newer ones with plumbing, and fire regulations, and very little plague. It's a grand old town, a proper UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the streets rarely flow with shit; it's now merely vomit, which the council sweepers suck away before dawn. The street hawkers and their meagre wares are gone too; in their place the boozy cries of the drunkards on stag and hen trips, and the Royal Mile's tacky kilt-and-whisky traps. But even so, that shimmering Firth still exerts a pull, and we fortunate twenty-first century people yearn to put on our running shoes, descend from our towering Travelodges and Ibises and run, fast, hard and free, away from the busy city to the coast, to a better life.
Or maybe I'm reading too much into it.
The marathon assembles in two halves on the fringes of the Old Town and, after a tour of the fine royal park of Holyrood - no more-regal mini-roundabouts will you see anywhere - it's off to the seafront east of the port of Leith, taking in some nice, leafy suburbs. The reward of the Firth comes early on, just before the five-mile point, and the rest is up the coast and back on concrete promenades and back roads, with a finish in Musselburgh. Portobello, Prestonpans, Port Seton and Longniddry are strung out successively along the coast road, in roughly the same places as they were two years ago - refer to that report for the full geography lesson. At the far end is the elegant though slightly grim-looking Gosford House, built around the time Edinburgh's gentry escaped the medieval city to populate the New Town. Cockenzie power station remains colossal and inexplicably un-demolished, and you may cower beneath it or ignore it as you please twice on your run. There's a turn-around too, a simple cone eighteen miles in with the magical power of preventing you from returning to England.
The forecast was appalling - heavy rain all day, with twenty-mile-per-hour-plus winds. Shocking for spectators. But the precipitation held off, and thermometers showed a perfect ten degrees. What's more, though the wind came exactly as promised, its direction meant that cats, umbrellas, toupees, Kansas farmhouses and other such classically wind-borne items would accompany us on the out-run. The eight miles home upwind after the about-turn would have to be a bridge crossed when come to.
It's nice to bump into clubmates before setting off, to swap greetings and sympathies, and I managed that with most of our eight other racers in the large but surprisingly intimate London Road pens. We'd done this before, and bizarrely the start was not delayed by a murder this year, so we were away just a bit late. My intention was to disprove the predictor algorithms and scientific papers by failing to crack 3:30, and I was confident of doing so, even after pushing the pace, by applying characteristic weakness and cowardice in the closing stages. Everything felt great early on, and the GPS was spot-on eights - the Edinburgh mile markers are wildly out and never to be trusted - and the gels were going in frequently and not coming back out. Chatted for miles with Andy from Darlington, in improved seven-stone lighter format when I could only shift seven pounds this winter, worrying a bit that he wanted sub-4 and was on three-and-a-half pace but didn't like to be rude. Lost him around Prestonpans (he succeeded in his quest, happily), and, with hard work kicking in I was lifted by finding Carmel at Port Seton. Sixteen miles in good shape, no problem getting to 20 in 2:40 - that's the easy bit.
Or - maybe not. I edged past first-marathoning Sam Lewsey as the turn approached, all well in both camps, but from then the counting of my wheels started to yield a number smaller than the original total. Oh hell. There were quick people on the other side, heading back to Musselburgh, most seeming to be in real trouble in the headwind. One particularly well-placed speedster collided with a strong gust on an up-slope; a half-pirouette and a dramatic flop onto the grassy verge, spent, no more, please. The excellent Matt Slater was going great guns; I grunted a greeting and got a rousing pep talk back - thanks Matt. Andrew Shields was next, going strongly too but digging deep. But all around were suffering, making baby steps into the gale. Ian Richardson, having a rare off day, was presumably on the Gosford loop, so next was Dan Kitchie, not too far up on me and due to fight a battle in the late stages, but in significantly better nick than me. I was almost gone, and twenty miles on the right pace was not quite on any more, never mind what hell might happen in the last miles. Still, had to try it. Just to twenty. But no, couldn't hang on, and the treat of Gosford Hall went unappreciated as I started to shuffle on the stone-chip driveway. I missed Bernie Shannon somewhere on the park loop, and Sam surged back past me on the way to her impressive début result, but couldn't spur me on. I was done. Out of the park, into the teeth of the storm, and even the lurgy-ridden Anne Schumann's brave example couldn't inspire me. Drinks station, stop, drink, gel, walk for a couple of minutes (embarrassingly though a massively dense crowd of supporters). Slow jog, twenty miles a couple of minutes off the schedule. Plan B.
Plan B was not to walk, and to slow right down if I contemplated walking, and this turned out to mean ten-minute miles to the end. There was little joy in mentally composing a sniffy reply to G. Tanda, Journal of Human Sport & Exercise 6 (3) 511-520 (2011), but it helped a little. It wasn't hell into the wind at least, as the chase was now off. And plenty of others were blown to a halt around me. No idea how the strong survived that, because the weak got absolutely butchered. It was just keep moving and tick off the miles. Past the long-suffering Carmel at 25 miles - she beat me back and she walked it.
The finish at Musselburgh is lovely, a pastoral idyll, a promised land for city refugees where the grass is sweet and green, and it's a fine place to scratch out a life for an hour or so at least until the rain sweeps in. I caught up there with most of those who took the crazy, brave decision to run away, to escape the filth and disease of Edinburgh and to carve out a new life on the coast, where the air is fresh and clean, where the beer comes from a miraculous tent, and where pizzas come in boxes from a large, wonderful van. We were a happy band of peasants, despite the pain, but there was grim news. Poor Chris Hurcomb had succumbed to the plague at ten miles, having made it to Musselburgh with his final step. He did, as Carmel wisely said, look dreadful. These are dark times.