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Friday 1 August 2014

Stour Valley Marathon Race Report: Insane Farm Animals & Toga Parties

Stour Valley Marathon -15th June 2014

As I went to leave Rugby for Essex and the Stour Valley Marathon, I glanced down at the speedo on my car. It read 26.2 miles. This was an omen. Of what, I wasn’t entirely sure. But it was an omen.

I just needed a flock of starlings to spell out ‘marathon’ and a couple of traffic restriction signs rearranging their letters to spell “Run Sarah Run” and I could be sure.

The traffic was light and there were no sign of the lorries that usually blocked up mile after mile of the A14 overtaking side-by-side at precisely 56mph. Apart from one over-enthusiastic boy racer who sped past me at a crazy speed and who I passed a short while later backing his car out of a hedge, everyone seemed to be chilled out and happy. It seemed a bit wrong to be heading down to a marathon without the usual trail of minor calamities ... traffic queues, tummy upsets, lost race instructions ...

I found the Travelodge I’d booked, there was plenty of parking and it appeared that I’d snaffled the best room in the house ... approximately 10ft from the front door. Perfect for someone innately lazy who really can’t be bothered to walk very far the day before a race.


Or so it appeared until on my way out the door to go to the pub with Angela and her husband David. One second, I was in a hotel room, the next confronted by a host of braying people in bed linen. No. That’s unfair. Artfully draped bedsheets. It appeared that there was a toga party nearby and having booked at late notice the guests were congratulating themselves on managing to survive in a budget hotel. These were the type of people with names like Tarquin and Hermione. And they were congratulating themselves very loudly. Outside my door.

I hoped very much that the party would tire them all out and that alcohol wouldn’t make their voices louder and their laughs more braying. I suspected tonight would be a ‘headphones in, pillow on head’ kind of a night. Possibly with the distraction of beating a drunk partygoer to death with a well worn marathon trainer when they wouldn’t shut up in the small hours. I hoped not. I need my sleep. And my trainers.

I gave up. And went to the pub.

One of my big problems is greed. I run because I love it ... but also I run so I can eat massive amounts of food and still fit into my lycra without looking too much like improperly minced sausage meat stuffed into a pair of tights. I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that lycra will never be entirely flattering on me, but if I’m careful I should be able to avoid the regurgitated-sausage-look.

However, my greed got the better of me when I spotted calamari on the pub menu. Calamari is fine ... but not when it’s smothered in batter and comes with dramatic amounts of dip. My mouth adores wheat ... my tummy less so. Unfortunately my mouth was doing the ordering.

I was uncomfortable by the time I left the pub and by the time I got to the hotel room, my planned fragrant, relaxing bubble bath wasn’t so much ‘a fragrant, relaxing bubble bath’ as a ‘Dear-God-What’s-That-Smell jacuzzi’.

This didn’t bode well the night before a marathon on a loo-less course.

At least it was summer and the bushes were ... bushy. However, I didn’t want to be known as Mrs Poopy Pants. Or The Runner Who Defaced the Essex Countryside.

To take my mind off of my worries, I laid out my kit ready for the morning. I appeared to be going for the Neon-Meets-Jumble-Sale image. My usual race look. I added a DDMT baseball cap for the hairy end and my trail shoes for the calloused and toenailed end. Ok. Kit sorted, time to relax.

Then the toga party guests arrived back at the hotel.

This time they were congratulating themselves at staying at a budget hotel while drunk.


Time expands and contracts before a marathon. The time between the shower and breakfast feels as though it lasts for ages, then the last half an hour disappears in a couple of minutes. Despite the unreliability of time, I managed to get organised and into the car and heading for Nayland and the start of the Stour Valley Marathon by 7:30am. This might sound ridiculously early but it gives me time to locate the registration area, pin my number on and mentally prepare. More importantly it gives me time to panic, use the loo 6 times and drink as many cups of coffee as I can hold without spraying urine and vomit from either end.

The satnav directed me to the quaint and pretty town but unsure how to find the race car park (read: field) I accosted a chap in Garmin, running vest and trainers. I decided he was a pretty safe bet and unlikely just to be taking the dog for a walk. Unless there was some sort of competitive dog-walking challenges held in Essex. In which case, I’d probably bet on him for that too.

I obviously looked as though I was on for competitive walking too as getting to the start, I was myself accosted by a carful of runners anxious to find the car park, the loos and the coffee. Later I discovered that the car was full of twitter buddies including Conrad Wild. Small world when you’re accosting random strangers in small towns.

Got to the start in the village hall and registered.

I was handed my race directions. I looked at them. Then looked again. This wasn’t English. I wasn’t entirely sure what language it was, but it wasn’t one I could read. And worse ... there wasn’t an actual map with the race packs, just rows and rows of text instructions. In code.

What bloody language is THIS in??

Time to rethink race strategy. Instead of “Pace Self and Enjoy Nice Scenery” I was going to have to go with the “Keep Another Runner in Sight at all Times or end up Lost and Chained in Some Inbred Farmer’s Shed as Pet”.

However, there was a Ordnance Survey map on the main table. Not having a photographic memory or the ability to memorise large sections of trail, I had a quick look. Yep lines and words. It was definitely a map.

Yep … definitely a map

It was also a TEST. The corners of the map was held down by bananas. I wasn’t sure whether it was an honesty test, a hunger test or whether the first person to finish the marathon got the bananas ... but I was betting they wouldn’t be there for much longer. I was right. I nipped off to the loo and when I got back the bananas had vanished.

The route was in a rough lemniscates shape (or for those of you who don’t have Google to hand like me - a fallen over figure of 8) with the cross over the start and end points of the marathon. It looked as though we were starting off going West around the larger loop of the 8, coming almost right past the start point and setting out again East to complete the final and smaller loop. It was nice to know that this was the plan. I was just following the person in front of me. Judging by the confused looks this was going to be a common plan. I hoped the person at the front knew where they were going as that’s where we were ALL going to end up.

Despite, the lack of legible route info, it was quite possibly the most relaxed start to any race I’ve ever been to. People were milling around, there were the usual smells of deep heat and decomposing trainers ... but minus the nervous farts and mindless beeping of Garmins. People were comparing snacks and running packs, chatting about local pubs and weekend plans, but no-one – absolutely no-one – was muttering about pace, mile splits or PBs. It was disconcerting, but also refreshing.

Finally met up with Kate who had promised – via twitter - to buy me a pint on the finishing line as she sped past me. Saw Dan who was distinguishable by his tattoos and relaxed approach to racing despite his quick times and long distances run. However, I was slightly concerned that my super-organised friend Angela – who incidentally could read maps - was late.

What if she’s overslept? Her car has broken down? She’s been kidnapped by lycra-philes? Doesn’t she know that you have to be at marathon starts really early so you visit the loo 8 times and pace in circles? After 15 missed calls, she rolled up half an hour before the start time, excusing her relaxed approach with the excuse that she lived 20 minutes down the road.

Angela and me … when she FINALLY turned up ...
We all started drifting towards the start line. Angela and I were looking at the race instructions and trying to work out what 'LHFE' and 'StEW' meant. Chatting away, we had started dismantling the instructions, when someone bellowed “go!” and we got bashed by behind and carried along by what felt like a herd of cows who’d heard beef was on the menu tonight and were determined to smash out some serious miles before the gravy boat came in.

Going from a standing start to race pace in an attempt to save our lives from the enthusiastic stamping, we shoved the race instructions hastily into our pocket and followed the pack hoping that the person at the front could read them and had an inkling of where he was going.

And we're off! Spot the grinning lunatics in the middle… (Picture source

The area was gorgeous. Properly gorgeous. When someone says Essex, the image conjured up is often of orange tanned girls, massive false eyelashes and fake handbags. But this was the opposite of that. Verdant fields and hedgerows, poppies growing in bright red splashes along the field borders, colourful butterflies everywhere and everything beautiful in the summer sunshine. Passing the river, a swan and cygnets floated serenely. Green blackberries and brown mushrooms by the side of path. Everything was full of life. A joy to run.

At the race briefing we were told that we would be passing through fields with bulls in them. I had taken this with a pinch of salt, but climbing over a stile onto which a ‘Beware of the Bull’ sign had been firmly pasted, I was relieved that my legs had warmed up and glanced behind me to check there were slower, tastier-to-cows-looking runners near me in case it became an all-out sprint. I wouldn’t be using them as bait as such. Just distraction. In that the bull would be distracted by trampling them and I’d be able to run away. I’m not heartless though. I’d come back again. To loot their snacks. Would be rude to leave all that cake out there in a field.

Even while about to be eaten I stop and take a photo ...

As I ran through the field, I was relieved to see no bulls, just young cows ... who were running towards me. In a galloping way. All the slower runners had vanished. Dammit! They were using me as distraction!

My legs took over and propelled me through the field, while I waved my arms and tried not to freak out at the thought of the cows eating my crème eggs and flapjacks. I may have made a few sweary noises. I imagine the effect was something like a fast-moving windmill with tourettes.

Thankfully the cows veered off at the last moment having decided I had Mad Human Disease and gone for the other runners they’d spotted who looked less plague-ridden.

Problem solved. The other runners got an impromptu speed session, I got to the other side of the field and the cows got some exercise. And the slower runners got eaten.

It’s like Darwinism but with cows and trainers.

Unfortunately, a theme had started because as soon as we got into the next field the sheep started chasing us. I have this vision of sheep as cute fluffy cloud-like creatures that emit a gentle baaaa-ing sound. They’re not. They’re grey shit-matted monsters that charge at you while waving their curly (yet pointy) horns and bellowing Mrrrrrraaaaaaaaaa!!!! Needless to say I didn’t hang around to explain to the sheep that they were doing sheep-ing wrong. I got the hell out of their field.

Despite the clearly insane farm animals, I was enjoying this run. It felt more like an ultra than a marathon, with a much more laid back approach (apart from the fleeing from-the-animals sections) and the runners were all friendly and chatty. I don’t tend to talk much in a road marathon as I’m concentrating on not overdosing on sugary gels and avoiding getting trampled by someone in a charity costume who is trying to see their way to the finish through a 1cm gap and whose oxygen starved brain is telling them the quickest way is over the bodies of the other runners. This run we were all chatting and sharing snacks and swapping race stories.

I couldn’t even fault the checkpoints which had enthusiastic marshals and more importantly loads of delicious-looking food. I eyed up the piles of goodies, eating them with my eyes while I relied on my more boring fare of flapjacks and gels. My stomach is reliably-unreliable and I didn’t want to have to hop in the hedge in search of dock leaves which my running buddies who had a better grasp of map-reading than I disappeared over the nearest hill leaving me to the stinging nettles and carnivorous farm animals.

As I was stopped at one of the checkpoints having a scoff and a natter, a fast lady runner went past me. Bother. I hate being overtaken. It’s inevitable of course, not being that fast, but I still hate it. And what if she eats all the cake at the checkpoints, due to getting there before me? Run, Sarah, RUN! Run for the cake!

Chasing after her down the narrow stony track, my aim was just to keep her in sight for as long as possible. I’m not going that fast in terms of road marathon speed but am pushing a bit harder than I would have done had I just been pootling along on my own. The track twists and turns into a grassy path which used to be a tractor trail and it is rutted and difficult to run in. We run along it, neck and neck now. There’s a high lump with long knee length grass in the centre and deep, overgrown grassy furrows on either side which are slightly easier to run in. If you can avoid the long thorny bramble arms reaching out across the narrow track. One whips across my neck drawing blood and the cut stings as the sweat caused by my exertion touches it.

Nice. A more interesting small injury than the usual blisters and chafing. The I’ve-Been-Garotted look.

I check the instructions every now and then, but running and keeping a finger on the line of text you’re on while interpreting the code is difficult and we make frequent wrong turns and double-backs. The trail follows St Edmunds Way, the Essex Way and Stour Valley Path and and we have to keep an eye out for the sometimes hidden footpath markers.

Photo source here
I shouted out a warning out to the fast lady as she carried on running down to the road rather than taking the left turning, the small Essex Way sign for which is hidden in the undergrowth. We exchange names so next time we can shout names out rather than “Hey fast lady runner”. I mishear and think her name is Grace. It fits her running style perfectly. Small and sleek, she moves effortlessly. It is almost a shame to discover she’s Chris.

Chris, Paddy and I ran together for the next 10 miles. I think I’ve mentioned before that there’s a point in every race where running NEAR becomes running WITH. Chris and Paddy had been running nearby for a while, but the commonalities of getting lost and having to discuss directions, snacks and upcoming races had meant we were now all running together. This involves a small degree of ‘waiting for’ such as at checkpoints, lace tying and directions confusion.

Chris and I ran and chatted and ran and chatted. We walked some of the steeper hills, sprinted down the steeper down hills and talked the whole way. We managed to cover our running histories, kids, races and ambitions. We got to 18 miles and made a pact. We decided that we would cross the line together and get a joint place. It wouldn’t seem right trying to outsprint each other after all these miles and miles of conversation.

We passed kayakers on a lonely stretch of river. I shouted a cheery hello and they looked up, surprised to see runners in running packs and hats go charging past their secluded haven. They greeted us but alarm bells weren’t yet ringing. I should have taken the appearance of kayakers as an omen. They had appeared on my last ultra too, however I didn’t yet realise the Stour Valley Marathon was going to BE an ultra ...

We caught up with different groups of people and lost some at different points. People were strung out at difference paces and occasionally a group of us would pause at a crossroads to check directions and we’d have a discussion about the route and all charge off together ... or take different paths. Exchanging stories within the group, it soon became clear that most of us were ultra runners, who’d come to running later and enjoyed the camaraderie of the trails rather than running on the hamster wheel of a track or road.

One chap decided he had had enough as we reached the central part of the route – the crossover of the ‘figure of 8’ shape of the route and he dropped out of the marathon to wait for us all at the end. We also caught up to others and we swapped company as people ran ahead or dropped back. The chat was mainly about running, snacks and our upcoming races. Paddy mentioned the Stour Valley Path 100 he was running in a few weeks time which covered some of the same route. 100 kilometres ... wow.

When I get tired, I get lazy and my running form takes a dramatic downward turn. Gone is the bounce and spring of my fresh running form, instead I develop my own version of the ultra-shuffle. On roads this isn’t a problem, but on trail runs with bumpy trails, tree roots and uneven paths it’s only a matter of time before I’m sliding along on my face wondered why the grass looks so tall. At Stour Valley, I didn’t learn the first time I tripped over a tree root as I managed to stay upright despite looking like I was attempting a ‘Superman-minus-cape’ for a few seconds. The second time I went down properly but managed to miss both the nettles and the tree trunks which I counted as a win. I gained a few scrapes, but I was unhurt apart my pride and a squashed flapjack.

Lots of walkers were out and about. Some for a wander across the fields with their children, ambling gently with a picnic in one hand and a toddler in the other and the full on trousers-in-socks-and-leathery-walking-boots brigade. All were amazed to see dusty runners come charging across the fields, numbers flapping and stuffing flapjacks and snacks into our mouths as we went and trying to stop their dogs tying our legs in knots with leads.

We caught Dan and his running companions up about mile 20. His knee was giving him some pain so we donated some ibuprofen. He thanked us by charging past us on the hill in a burst of enthusiasm and disappearing off into the distance. Next time we’ll give him a sedative instead.

The amounts and variety of food at each checkpoint improved as we got further into the race. Each was a veritable banquet. I eyed it all with longing, then scoffed a bit more flapjack. I didn’t dare try untested food in a race. My tummy hates me anyway and I didn’t want to have to violate one of Essex’s pretty hedgerows while wearing brightly coloured clothes. I was too easy to spot. I didn’t want my race photograph to be of me emerging from a hedge holding a swathe of loo roll.

The marshals were friendly and enthusiastic and impressively managing to stop themselves eating ALL the cake in between runners. It’s a self control I’ll never have, but I can admire it in others. Jim Gandon (a twitter buddy) was manning one of the well-stocked checkpoints with his family and we had a brief chat as we refilled our supplies.

I don’t know who had told me Essex was flat, but they fibbed. It wasn’t mountainous, but a constant up and down of valleys and hills, rolling. The proper definition of undulating when it’s not someone trying to sell you a hilly race as a flat one. I enjoyed this race, stopping to thank marshals, walking hills, eating snacks. It was too nice a run to rush through.

Our route through the fields. (Picture source)

Taking the opportunity while the others were stopped at the last checkpoint scoffing cake, I took a photo. People didn’t want to stop eating to grin at a camera, but we were about 4 miles from the finish - the marshals confirmed there were only about 10 people in front of us, there was no-one in the distance so we were taking the opportunity to eat cake as a mini and early celebration. Tucking my race instructions into my front pocket, I snapped away.

We ran around the edge of a field and hopped down from the hedge, left or right? I reached for my race instructions to check and realised the pocket I’d put them into was empty. Bother. Luckily Dan had his GPS watch pre-programmed – it must be lovely to be organised – so he shouted directions while we ran. He was our new favourite person.

We passed marathon distance … we must be really close now! After a bit of a detour earlier we knew we'd probably go over race distance as we'd had to backtrack but we didn't see the church steeple we'd been looking out for. It must be hidden behind those trees ...

We had a “This is familiar” moment passing some picnic tables and mentioned how there had been families eating there earlier. We thought we might have had to run some of the same trail coming in but the penny didn’t drop until a couple of miles on when we still hadn’t reached the finish line. We had expected a small degree of familiarity ... but didn’t expect miles of it. We also got a bit suspicious when we reached 27.5 miles and the finish was nowhere in sight.

“Crap! We’re following the circle again”.

Yep. Blindly following the beeping of the watch, we had been chatting away and not realised we’d started loop 2 again. No-one was in a hurry to do an additional 12 miles so we glumly retraced our steps.

Crap. We'd given away our lead. And we were properly lost. Digging out our maps we realised we'd have to run 2 miles back to the last village and try and pick up the path there. Chris and I heaved a sigh and set our legs to 'Peg it to the finish line' speed. We weren't sure we could still finish as the 1st women but we were going to go as hard as we could and not even stop for snacks. Dedicated.

… several miles of lanes and trees whizzing past – think Scooby Doo chase scene …

Our legs pounding the road, we finally came into the village of Nayland and ran down the mews, past the church and saw the village hall! Nearly there! Nearly there! I grabbed Chris's hand so we'd cross the line together and we sprinted as fast as we could to the gazebo and the finishing line! And through. We were finished!

Photo source

Stour valley had done things a little differently. Rather than the mass produced medals that you often get at the end of races, they had laid out a selection of silver horseshoes with the name and year of the race. A much prettier and nicer memento of a friendly and scenic race than a boring cloned medal.

My happy 3rd Woman face

And to top it all of we all got fed. A big plate of bolognese (and pasta if you wanted it) and salad at the end of your run.

Because no opportunity to have a 'Mo should be lost

So for £15 entry you get a cracking memento, a gorgeous scenic run AND a massive plate of food. Win. Oh and free coffee. Double win. And checkpoints fully stocked with cake. BEST RACE EVER.

Actual Distance Run: 29.8 miles
Time:                            4:38
Position:                       23rd and joint 3rd woman

Garmin info here 


  1. Congratulations! Sounds Awesome! I have the worst sense of direction though. Properly spooky about your speedo, I love your stripey calf sleeve things!

    1. It was so much fun and ever so friendly! Not sure whether to save up for a swanky Garmin or brush up on my map reading skills!! :)

  2. I am the worst orienteer in the world, I would never ever finish this race. I once did an orienteering race and took 1 hr longer than anyone else because I just could not find one point. Just looking at those instructions stresses me.

    Your reporting is hilarious though! Another great post :)

    1. Ha ha! Brilliant!! I don't feel quite so bad about getting lost now!! :) I just couldn't work out the instructions and I kept losing my place on them. Was chaos! :)