I woke up in the morning feeling less than refreshed having suffered from a stomach bug that had left me kind of empty since my return from Kenya. This gave me an instant niggle in my head for the race ahead. It is really difficult to find summer marathons so this was a Godsend and especially as it was only £10 and started just 9 miles from home in South London.
The Vanguard Way Marathon was organised by the 100 Marathon Club so I felt would be a well organised race. Phil Beecroft and I were using this as a training run for the upcoming TM60 on Bank Holiday weekend so it was also a good opportunity to discuss race strategy and the event. We didn't really do a lot of this as the event unfolded for reasons that will become clear. At the start it was nice to catch up with Peter Bowles (on his 99th marathon), Mal and James Elson who had just come back from running the South West Coastal Path that I ran part of in the winter. I was surprised not to see Jerry there as on our runs he often muses about the Vanguard way. Off we went, Dave Ross heading off the front like a bat out of hell, followed by a select group of others whom I did not recognise. Hilarity ensued as a lap of Lloyd Park in Croydon was followed by a screeching wail of "You've gone the wrong way!!!!" as all of the front runners ran the Park Run loop instead of following the signs for the VGW. Once over Coombe Lane it was time to follow the trails, firstly in and out of suburban roads and then onto the trail for real.
The VGW is not the easiest trail to follow. Never mind the 5 different signs that were to be followed but the location of such signs, on sides of bus stops or the infrequence of finger posts made it difficult to follow. Not to worry though as the trail was exceptionally well marked for the first 4 miles. Then nothing at all from Farleigh Down to about mile 8. Phil and I were bimbling along at 8.15s for those first miles and all of which were on an incline. We soon hooked up with a runner called Susan, once of Striders, now of Orpington who was well aware of those now infamous Union Jack shorts! We ran together for quite some time as, with a bunch of 50 runners all stopped at a 4 way road crossing with 3 paths to choose from, there were no markings, signs or finger posts to follow. 23 minutes (yes!) of deliberation, some choosing some path and returning and lots of huffing and puffing later and we chose our path with a group of about 10 runners. Wrong one. Navigation by compass and a really poor photocopied map found us back on trail, although 2 miles extra and a vitally missed check point 1. Low on water now on this 25 degree day. No matter, as we ran on, chit chatting along the way. Phil asked me to check the pace as he felt we were running too hard at this early stage. I had not realised it but I had been chatting away with Susan about the Croydon ultra and other events and Phil had dropped back. I then dropped back. The wooded trail opened out to the vast expanse of the North Downs at Limpsfield. A ferociously steep descent after another poorly marked turn and another half a mile out of the way was then met by the massive rise up to Botley Hill and on down to Oxted Down. This was the maximum altitude on the course of 875ft. Phew! We started meeting runners coming back at us on the out-and-back course through the Titsey Estate. The path underfoot was rutted, cracked and quite dangerous, so we slowed right down. The peaceful Surrey air was then punctuated by the evil snake of traffic commonly known as the M25. After traversing this, a gentle incline followed by a bizarre moment. "Run 20m past the check point, turn at the road and then come back" was shouted at the runners! I grabbed 3 cokes, a jaffa cake and a gel for later. Phil was about 5 mins back, so I waited for him and said farewell to Susan. I was met with a confused and almost concussed look as Phil departed for a nearby gate to puke. Oh dear. As we were on a training run, I vowed to stay with him. To be honest, he should have bailed at this point.....but there was no where to go, we were in the middle of nowhere!
I suggested a run-walk strategy. I was hoping of more run than walk but checking the Garmin this morning, 6 miles of walk and 7 miles of run enabled us to get home safely. He did look a mess to be honest, his eyes were rolling like some running fruit machine. There was no pinpoint as to the problem but I was not going to leave him under any circumstances. Phil then wanted to bail at the final check point, stating that I could bring his car back to pick him up. After a DNF for him at the Heart of the Weald (well actually he won the 21 mile race!) I was going to safely beast him to the finish. I think the banter worked. Well perhaps Phil was sick of my incessant cajoling and musings about all sorts of bollocks, suffice that he finish and be done with the sight of me! However after a banana and a water refill at the 20 mile CP, we managed to mainly run (slowly) towards the finish. I gave Phil the rest of my water and gel. A small detour through Selsdon woods on the way back added another half mile owing to not seeing the markers/markers removed by people/course not marked and it was nearly the finish. Across Lloyd Park again and to the finish, we crossed the line in 5 hrs 36 mins and 21 secs. Looking at the splits we spent 31 mins not moving (i.e looking for the route markers or at CPs) and about 6 miles of walking at 18 min miles. Slowest marathon to date but it was good to get Phil back to the living.
Peter Bowles managed a 4hrs 40 and he is a sub 3 so I didn't feel too bad. We caught up with other runners at the end and received a medal and a t-shirt. All of that for a tenner. We vowed to come back next year to beast the course and go sub 4. Possible? Maybe. All in all, a long day out on the trail and 2650ft, it was no cake-walk at 28.5 miles. We will return to this to exorcise those demons.