James W remembers
> A few days ago on February 2nd, my phone decided to remind me of a picture that I’d taken exactly one year earlier, at the Weymouth Olympic Sailing Centre, and it brought back some special memories of the Portland Coastal Marathon 2020. Like anyone else running in events last February/March, I had no idea it would be my last race of the year; it was ‘just' a stepping stone on my Ultra training plan. Now, looking back at it, I’m grateful I took some pictures, that I took in the atmosphere, appreciated the location's special status as a 2012 Olympic venue, and got to explore this fascinating Island - and who knows when I’ll be fit to run such a race again.
As a 2019 debutant in the art of the Ultra I had decided in 2020 to increase the proportion of my training and long races off-road. The hills, I knew, were no problem (anyone living in Chalford gets that), but my lesson from the Brecon Trails Ultra the previous May was how much the jigging around of uneven ground, the hopping across of rocks, and the absorbency of mud takes it out of you. So the substantially off-road Portland race (with good hill action thrown in) on the first weekend in February was the perfect fit for my planned trip to Cyprus in March and then a return to the Brecons in May.
On a cold windy morning, the event organiser made good use of the cavernous sailing centre with banging music and announcements to keep the runners uplifted and warm, while we glanced around and shared typical pre-race gallows humour. As the starting gun fired, our route wound along the pavements out of the sailing complex and into the village of Fortuneswell, before we hit our first steep climb up towards HMP The Verne. At the top, we got a taste of the wind’s strength before we descended steeply to the sheltered rocky coastal path on the eastern side of Portland Island, and followed around in a clockwise direction. I remember looking into the English Channel and thinking how powerful and awesome the sea looked out there, wouldn’t want to go slipping off the path, which was a possibility in several places!
We proceeded with rock-hopping technique to the fore, still clustered in threes and fours, and I concentrated on keeping myself topped up with my new favourite running product “Tailwind” and an occasional handful of chocolate covered peanuts and raisins. Before I knew it we were at quarter distance and touching the Portland Bill lighthouse; required on the route by the way, not some kind of monument fetish! The next section provided the first big test - about 5k steadily uphill along a coastal path consisting of squelchy grass, muddy ridges and puddles, being buffeted by the strong westerly which was also bringing sea spray 100m up the cliff! At the end of this sapping section was the reward of a curious sculpture trail left behind by the quarrying industry, before a friendly snack station and the descent to Chesil Beach.
Now we met the second big test: Whilst the middle section was on the flat, it was four stretches of dull pavement as far as the Ferry Bridge, with us immediately starting to meet the leading runners coming back the other way….because, yes, this was a there and back, retrace your steps mental test of a route!
In fact the halfway point was back outside the sailing centre where we started, and people who had chosen the HM race were stopping to pick up their medals! For me it was a case of a bottle refill / sachet empty procedure, pick up a snack, then turn around to face everything we’d just done in reverse. Already feeling tired I recall making a mental map of the remaining sections of the race, to tick off as I completed them, and grinning inanely at the approaching runners. As you do!
By the time we were back in Fortuneswell facing the climb back onto the ‘Island’ I was definitely feeling the impact of the flat 10km in the howling gale at a steady 6min/km pace. Time for a walk up to the top - and that very friendly snack stop. In my mind I was looking forward to a descent on the cliff path but hadn’t factored in the impact of all the other runners who had passed over it since I last saw it - it was 3km of total quagmire! I felt embarrassed at what we runners must have done to this route as some local dog walkers picked their way tentatively in the other direction! So this mud totally sapped my legs and by the time I got to the lighthouse I was requiring my reserves of determination to keep moving at any running pace. I probably picked one of my caffeinated Tailwinds for the next refill of my bottle.
Returning to the rocky coast path for the anticlockwise return I had the prospect of keeping up with the 3rd or 4th placed female runner to keep me motivated. I appeared to have seen off her challenge when my mind started to calculate whether finishing inside 5 hours was on. I find the physical tiredness of these races also impacts mental sharpness, so it meant the decreasing distance vs time calculations kept me entertained and spurred on for several kms!! By which time I realised the 5 hour finish was not on so I tried to concentrate on just moving. There were several ups and downs required to get back around the prison and I could only walk them, including the sharp descent into the village. I was maintaining my position but was at risk of being reeled in by someone.
The last stretch was back into and around the sailing complex. The motivation from behind and the view of Olympic rings saw me finish with a km split which matched the first km, some 5 hours before! My finishing time was 5:10, position was 40th out of 97 (ahead of 3rd place female) which I was chuffed with. I was rewarded with a fine chunky medal, a feeling of great satisfaction and a super cup of tea. I would very much recommend this race for all manner of reasons, it is a perfect location for a challenging marathon (or half); I wonder what it could be like in the summer time?