Apparently only mad dogs and English men go out in the midday sun….. but what about the idiots attempting Britain’s toughest marathon in 30 degree heat? Well they must be a few sandwiches short of a picnic.
With a leg destroying 6000ft of ascent/descent the Trionium Picnic marathon is billed as Britain’s toughest marathon. As someone who can quite happily bimble round a marathon without too much bother I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I liked the idea of something that would potentially chew me up and spit me out, something that would make me work hard for a finish and rather bizarrely, a carrot. This race sounded a little bit bonkers and was right up my street.
With UTMB training in full swing I should have been in peak mountain goat shape as I turned up at the start line, but I’m ridiculously clumsy and had managed to fall over and sprain my ankle just three weeks before. By race day it no longer hurt but it was still weak and lacking in flexibility, not ideal for running Britain’s toughest marathon. With a trip to the Alps and Lakeland 50 coming up I did briefly consider not starting….. but the ability to be sensible always seems to escape me. In the end I vowed to turn up, run carefully, and pray that I didn’t fall over again.
Being a kindhearted wife I’d also signed up my husband. I did run it past him first, but suspect he’d just nodded in agreement without listening to a word I’d said. Anyway, we arrived at the top of Box Hill an hour before the 8am start and met up with fellow Brizzle crew member, Martin. He’d completed the race two years ago and had been stupid brave enough to come back for more, as had a fair few others judging by the number of previous picnic marathon finishers shirts on display. It appeared this race has a bit of a cult following and we were the two rookies surrounded by a load of hardcore runners.
Waiting for the race briefing we joked about our general clumsiness and which of us would be the first to fall over. The Final Countdown played on a continuous loop before Race director Rob informed us about some changes to the route. As the last ever picnic marathon, this would be one to remember. Basically one of the only flat sections had been taken out and replaced with another bloody hill! Now I’m not one to complain about a bonus hill but this made me nervous. There was a 3 hour cut off at the half way point which in theory sounds plenty, but with well over 3000ft of elevation to cover in that distance it’s not quite as easy as it sounds. If I wasn’t sweating before the briefing, I definitely was after. No time to stress about it though, after a quick rendition of the national anthem we were on our way, and within the first 20 seconds, and no I’m not exaggerating, we found out who was going to be the first to fall over. It was Martin.
If the elevation wasn’t bad enough it was the kind of course that can only be described as a total head f**k. Consisting of two out and backs you knew exactly what was coming, four ascents/descents of Box Hill steps for a start. If you’re having a nightmare out there, it would be all too easy to drop at the half way point rather than drag yourself out for another lap in the baking sun. Other than that it was total tree root carnage with the potential to trip and twist those poor ankles with every single step, and if that wasn’t bad enough, there was also plenty of small rocks and gravel to slip/trip/stub your toes on.
Basically the route went something like this…. Down massive hill in the baking sun, round a traffic cone and straight back up and past random man playing bag pipes. Down Box Hill steps (280 apparently) under shade but difficult to see tree roots/easy to fall over, short loop over the stepping stones (possibly the only flat bit in the race) and back up the steps. Down and back up two more massive hills before particularly nasty hill in the baking sun with another traffic cone to go round, and then straight back down. Up a million more steps, probably bigger/more uneven/steep than Box Hill, past another random man with bag pipes (or possibly the same one?) down ridiculously steep hill, grabbing onto trees to stop yourself flying down and into the road, then you’re half way through the first lap. Stop for molten jelly babies and jaffa cakes and do it all again in reverse, and if your legs/head will allow, repeat the whole lot again.
Knowing I’d be even closer to the cut offs than I’d initially thought, I decided to abandon my run sensibly plan. I pushed as hard as the heat would allow on the uphills, and ran as fast as was safe on the downs. Checking my Garmin what felt like every five minutes I was making very slow progress even with this strategy. I reached the turnaround point (just over 6.5 miles) in 1hr 23mins so knew I didn’t have much time to slow down or even stop for a wee. All I was thinking to myself was “please don’t get lost!” I could feel the sun getting hotter and hotter on the return leg and maintaining the same pace was starting to require a lot more effort.
Despite the course being a bit of a head f**k it had the advantage that you’d pass the other runners at numerous points so you could offer support/encouragement and there was a great sense of camaraderie. I could see Chris and Martin were suffering too, we all had our heads down and were doing our best to just grind it out. They were ahead by a few minutes but even they were cutting it fine for the halfway cut off. Going back down the first/last hill I could see it was going to be down to the wire so ran as fast as I could whilst praying for my ankle. I eventually made it up the hill and back to the start with just 6 minutes to spare, it had taken 2 hours 54 minutes to complete half marathon distance, (my slowest ever) and I’d had to work my backside off for it! This race was definitely living up to my expectations.
Not wanting to think about the second lap too much, I filled my bottles and got on my way. There weren’t any other cut offs so I knew I was safe to take my foot off the gas a bit and “enjoy” my second lap. With lots of runners still behind me I could see I was around the middle of the field, so either a lot of people would be timed out or were “just” doing the half marathon.
Lap two passed without incident, well except for the bonus hill I managed to go down (and back up) but its not a run unless I’ve got lost at least once. I’m just glad it happened on lap 2 or I probably would have been timed out. I really struggled with the heat in the later stages of the race as temperatures soared to 30 degrees but my legs felt strong the whole way round. Lugging 6kg of rice up and down the steps outside work on my lunch break is definitely paying off, even if my colleagues think I’m slightly nuts.
I’m pleased to report that after a much more relaxed second lap I finished with both ankles in tact and not a single cut or bruise that I didn’t already start with. I finished in 6:28:55 and 52nd place. Of the 140 that started, just 88 finished. A huge DNF rate for a marathon, something similar to what you’d see at a 100 mile ultra. My slowest ever marathon but as 7th of only 11 female finishers, its one that I’m pretty pleased with.
So, is this really Britain’s toughest marathon? Well, I’m not really qualified to answer that, but of the 50 trail marathons I’ve completed it was the hardest by a considerable margin. Having completed marathons in the Brecon Beacons, Exmoor and Jurassic coast before I was skeptical as I turned up but it definitely lived up to its reputation. Never before have I had to work so hard to meet a cut off in a marathon. A combination of the heat, 6800ft of elevation, time pressure and a recently sprained ankle made for a really brutal race but I’ve been buzzing ever since. Its a real shame this race will never be held again, it’s unique and bonkers, unlike anything I’ve ever done before. I really hope that one day it will be back, but if not, I’ve found another of Trioniums suitably crazy races I quite like the sound of, just let me run it past my husband first…….
Thanks to Trionium and their volunteers for putting on a truly memorable race. Please consider bringing it back one day.
Steve Rencontre for the fab photos.
Likeys and Rockstar for their ongoing support with these crazy races.