The Picnic Marathon - July 2007

Entry to this race was a result of unstoppable human instinct. My every encounter with a wet paint sign has resulted in me leaving a finger mark on the gloss. Every time I hear “don’t touch that it’s hot” usually leads to a date with some frozen peas or a cold tap. So when I discover a website that boasts of 26 miles that make up “The Hardest Marathon in Britain”, well, who am I to deny myself these natural throbbing urges?

I had never seen Box Hill before though I’d heard a lot about it. A friend made an interesting analogy. The difference between Box Hill and a regular hill is like the difference between a box jellyfish and a normal jellyfish. They are more or less the same except that a box jellyfish is about 10 times more likely to kill you.

Before the start we set about constructing a picnic. This involved lugging boxes drink, water and carrots (?) up a hill to the start/finish line. I asked whether the carrots were because we would be finishing in the dark. Leading the picnic building (and the race) was a man in some very suspect Union Jack shorts called Dr Robert. He read out the usual pre-race spiel. There are 32 hills in this race, add 50% to your marathon pb to get an estimated time, last time only 12 took part in this race and no one has returned to do it again. Oh and by the way, of those 12, two of them made it to the top of the first hill and then quit.

The start (hill 1/32) was a grassy face of Box Hill. It took a good 5 minutes to gingerly jog up and onto a 100 yard stretch of flat(ish) trail. Into the woods and then down 190 enormous steps to a stream with some stepping stones. Over we went and around some more trail and then back to those steps.

I’ve never really thought about how to take steps in a race. Maybe there should be a “stepsonsaturday” group or a Greenwich steps time trial to coach us? These steps were big and each would add a teaspoon of lactic acid into your legs. Myself and others crawled up supporting our body weight with our hands on our knees. We accepted the fact that in this case there was no escalator, though I was keeping my eye out for a suggestions box.

After the steps there was a short respite. However, nothing could take my mind of the fact that I was 20 minutes and only 1.5 miles into a marathon and I already felt like lying down and vomiting. And those steps were to return, another 3 times.

The next few miles resembled a fairly tough trail race (think North Downs 30k). This was bliss in comparison to what we’d just experienced. I could finally take my mind off the steps and enjoy the peaceful and serene environment of running in the woods. That is, until my tranquillity was spoiled by a deafening crack of thunder.

The grass turned to mudslides, the trails turned to streams. The steps had sapped my energy such that I couldn’t lift my legs that high. This resulted in me tripping over a few times and spending much of the run on my face.

There was a water stop at about 5 miles where I was informed that I was only about 1.5 miles from the turnaround point. The race consists of running out to a point and then back again and repeating. On the plus side I knew exactly what to expect. On the minus side I knew exactly what to expect – those steps, 3 more times.

Alas it was not true, straight after the water stop we were lead into some woods and hidden by the trees were more spiteful steps. “It hurts up until a point and then doesn’t get any worse”[1]. This is true and I reached that point after 20 minutes. Up the steps I went and then down a really steep slope to reach the turnaround point. People were hanging on to trees like monkeys to stop themselves from just sliding down.

And back again.

The rain continued to pour as we marched towards those steps again. A great thing about this race is that it loops onto itself quite a lot so you can always see most of the other runners. It was good to see that the leader of the race was not that far in front. It was not so good to see that the last placed runners were not that far behind….

The Midsummer Munroe Half Marathon started at 4pm, 2 hours after the picnic. I got to see the leaders sprinting at me with fresh legs and then passed the majority on the half runners on the steps near the beginning. My Gran always said it was rude to cross people on the stairs, but she also said I should never go out in the rain without my coat or to get my feet wet or muddy. She doesn’t need to find out.

Running back down the big hill at the start was quite fun. 2.24 was a fairly sobering halfway split. All that remained for me to do was to turn around, go back up that hill and then do it all over again.

The organisation of this race was superb. Dr Robert had picked a route that got the most possible hills into the 26 miles as possible. There were not a huge number of turns and each one was clearly marked. Jelly babies and mars bars were bountiful and frequent. There were no mile markers, not that it mattered. Pace would alternate between 7min miles and 15.

The website made for some comical if not intimidating reading. It initially suggested that you would not get a medal for finishing outside 5 hours. This was dispelled at the briefing when Dr Robert explained how hard this race was. Most of the other tough marathons in the UK had been completed by some of the runners in this race. Many spoke fondly of Snowdon, Beachy Head, Needles etc as really tough marathons. I think at the end of this race they redefined their concept of tough.

I had the pleasure of running this race as number 2. It’s rare that I get beaten to first place in the alphabet in a small field, though I think the number was quite fitting. Whenever someone would cheer “COME ON NUMBER 2” I’d respond “I feel like a number 2, do I look like one?”

The second half of the race did not feel as bad as I feared, probably because my body was devoid of all feeling. I passed a few of the stragglers on the half, including Ian Sharman who was walking it with his girlfriend. I savored the moment, thinking it will probably be the only time I ever overtake him in a race. He pointed out a slight technicality that we were actually in different races but I didn’t quite catch it all as I sprinted past at about 3mph.

The final downhill at the end was the one time you could truly let go. Having spent 5 hours carefully treading downhill and busting my guts to get uphill it was exhilarating to be able to sprint to the finish and not worry anymore about my legs or falling over.

I finished just over the 5 hour benchmark, though the winning time was 4.23. There was a picnic at the end and the race mementos were quite good, especially the T-shirt with all of our names on the back.

This is definitely not a race you can prepare for. The steps and the slides make it as random a marathon as you are likely to find. There was a qualifying standard of 3.30 in a flat marathon when I entered, however there was a man there who was doing this as his first marathon. I fear than every other marathon for him will now be a let down. I would fully recommend this race to anyone. Unfortunately it is only run every 2 years as it stands.

The t shirt has a quote from Winston Churchill saying “When going through hell – keep going”. I enjoyed it so much I couldn’t really call it hell and I hope I never find out what it is actually like to go through hell, and I hope I don’t have to wait for 2 years to go through this again.

[1] Ann Trason