A “Walk” in the Park

By Glen Turner

On Sunday 18 May I made the trek to south-west London for the Richmond Trail Marathon. The entire 26.2 mile course is set within the beautiful surrounds of the Richmond Park Nature Reserve, the largest of London’s eight royal parks and the biggest enclosed space in the capital at 2,500 acres.

The course is a hilly mix of gravel paths, dirt tracks and grass trails, with the exception of one half-mile section where an enormous herd of angry deer forced us out onto a road! It’s no secret that my favourite events are off-road marathons, and the website description of a “demanding and challenging course” certainly whet the appetite.

I had been aiming for this race since coming back from injury in December, and despite not having the ideal preparation due to missing some key sessions, in my head I was repeating the old mantra that being slightly underprepared for a marathon is better than breaking down before the start line. I had done lots of training up on the Greensand Ridge Trail, a few sessions in the Chilterns, and a number of hilly local races in the lead up, so I felt pretty confident.

I was taking part with Siobhan, a good friend of mine, who was running her first off-road marathon. Two friends of ours (Ian and Ciprian) offered to come down on their mountain bikes and act as “mobile drink stations” for us given that the forecast in the park was for 26 degrees on the day.

Having stayed with Siobhan and Ian the previous night, the start was a short taxi ride away and we arrived an hour before the start and set up camp under a few trees. The day was already quite warm, and with a 9:30am kick-off time it had all the makings of a tough day at the office.

The race is limited to 400 places and sold out in January, so the atmosphere in the lead up to the start was very relaxed. At 9:20 we were called to the start line for a five-minute warm up led by a British Military Fitness instructor.  Not the type of pre-race routine I would normally do, but it seemed to put everyone in good humour.

I made my way to the front of the pack and was pleased to see some familiar faces. The course record holder (2:35:51), Chris Dettmar, has made this race his own, and I couldn’t see anybody around us who was going to spoil his party. Edward Catmur (Milton Keynes Marathon winner in 2013) was also there, along with South African runner Dave Ross from the 100 Marathon Club. This was Dave’s 327th marathon. I first met Dave a few years back in my first ultra marathon, a 50km jaunt over the South Downs on a 32-degree day in July. We ran the entire race together, before he out-sprinted me, or perhaps out-plodded me, in the final 100 metres. Also in the mix was a Brazilian runner from Serpentine, Stafano Dardi, who I’ve raced against a few times as well.

The highest number of people to ever break 3 hours on this course is 3 (in 2013), so coming into the race I was hoping that a sub-3 time would be enough to put me on the podium. 

The loud blast of an air horn set us on our way, and as expected Dettmar shot straight to the front and very quickly out of sight. Catmur, Ross and Dardi settled in together at a pace that was too fast for me, so I was happy to sit in another pack of half a dozen runners about 50 metres further back. I chatted briefly to a couple of runners in the pack and it seemed we were all aiming for sub-3.

The first three miles is a small loop starting from Sheen Gate, with the first 1.5 miles uphill and into the wind on an exposed grass track, with the second 1.5 miles back down to the Gate on a gravel path through some trees. It was already clear that the shaded sections were going to be a lot easier for running than the long exposed sections in the sun and wind. I was content to carry on at a little faster than sub-3 pace and let the undulations dictate the pace. It’s simply not a course where you can even think about even pacing from mile to mile, so I had decided to keep an eye on my progress in 5km splits.

After the initial loop we headed out through the centre of the park on a one-mile climb to the White Lodge, before dropping down to Robin Hood Gate on the other side of the park. At the bottom of this downhill section a huge herd of deer briefly forced us from the grass track onto the road. Luckily it was still relatively early in the morning and there were very few cars or cyclists to contend with. This is when I saw Ian for the first time, my “mobile drink station”, who handed me a bottle of sports drink and an anti-cramp tablet. 

Robin Hood Gate signals the start of the long climb to the summit of the ominously named Dark Hill, along a steep and windy gravel track. We had to do this climb three times during the race. As I reached the top of Dark Hill and joined a bridleway for the long descent to Kingston Gate, I’d dropped the pack of runners I was with, and the three runners in front had come back to me, so I settled in with them for the next mile. They all looked hot and bothered already, especially as Kingston Gate was only the 10km mark.

The next section is a two-mile out and back to Petersham Gate along a bumpy, rabbit-holed grass track with no shade to speak of. Given the huffing and puffing amongst the runners around me, and given that I was feeling strong, I gently upped the pace on the way to the Gate. I was also hoping to use the out and back section to see exactly where the runners behind me were on the return to Kingston Gate. Catmur fell right off the pace quickly, (and retired from the race soon after as far as I know) but the other two tucked in behind me as we reached the turnaround cone and headed back. I calculated that Chris Dettmur was already six minutes in front of us, which was sobering to say the least!

When we returned to Kingston Gate we turned left, descended into a gully and scrambled up a steep gravel track on the other side. At the top of the hill we crossed a road and headed through the middle of the park and back to the White Lodge, which is at the centre of Richmond Park, and then back down to Sheen Gate. This 3-mile section is the most exposed on the course, with a combination of nice grass trails and sand bridleways that were much tougher to run on. This was the first time I really felt the sun beating down, and noticed the wind starting to pick up. The Brazilian had fallen off the pace by this time, so it was just Dave Ross and me exchanging a few pleasantries and going stride for stride as we went through the 12-mile mark at Sheen Gate.

The equation from there was simple – two 7.1-mile loops of the park, on the perimeter route known as the Tamsin Trail. I was pleased to be able to grab another drink bottle from Ian, as the temperature was continuing to rise.

We passed the half-way marker in 1 hour 27 minutes and I was still feeling strong, but Dave was starting to drop back. By the time I had reached the summit of Dark Hill for the second time, at Mile 15, he had fallen back considerably. After descending to Kingston Gate and scrambling back up through the gully, I continued on an undulating gravel track back to Sheen Gate, at mile 19.1, and headed out on the final 7.1-mile loop.

By this stage I was lapping runners on their first outer loop and still feeling good. A marshal on a bike who was roaming the course told me I had a “very big lead” over third place, and my watch told me that I was on course for sub-3 providing I didn’t cramp or break my ankle. But just as I started the final ascent up Dark Hill I heard a fast stride in the gravel behind me. Before I knew it a shirtless streak zoomed past me like I was standing still and powered up to the top of the hill, pausing briefly and then sprinting back down past me. It was nothing to worry about though – it was only GB marathon runner Scott Overall doing a bit of hill training ahead of the Commonwealth Games.

After pounding down the rear side of Dark Hill and descending into the gully for the final time, my legs suddenly went heavy and the dreaded wall loomed in front of me. The climb from the bottom of the gully up to the road seemed to be at walking pace, and when I finally reached the top and turned for home I knew I would struggle to keep up my pace. The final 5k is an undulating, windy gravel path, and for the first time in the race I had to come off auto-pilot and will my legs forward. A welcome distraction came in the form of a bunch of hysterical women and kids who were swarming across a field next to me to get a glimpse of David Beckham, who was apparently having a kick about in the park with his sons.

I was surprised that I was able to maintain the same pace as I had done on the first loop as I wound my way along the shaded forest trail, and as I went past the 26 Mile marker I mustered one last surge for the final 400-metre dash. I crossed the line second in 2:53:51.

This meant that my first half was 1:27:00 and my second half was 1:26:51 – a negative split by the narrowest of margins! I was really happy with my time, and my place, and that I only lost one toenail.

The Deputy Mayor of Richmond-upon-Thames, Stephen Speak, was on hand to dish out the finishing medals, and after a brief chat with him I flopped down onto a massage table next to Chris Dettmar, who had comfortably won the race in 2:44. For the third year in a row, Dave Ross finished third in 2:58.

According to the provisional results, only 279 of the 400 entrants finished within the cut off time of 6:30.

Ian and Ciprian met me at the finish line with pizza, coke and flapjacks. After a massage I sat down in the shade to eat some food and wait for the presentation, and they went back out to support Siobhan. I was thrilled to pick up a lovely engraved silver dish, along with a voucher for a free pair of running shoes and £30 in vouchers from Runners Need.

After the official presentations, Dave Ross held a separate ceremony for Jon Carson, who was running his 100th marathon. Jon was formally inducted into the “100 Marathon Club” and presented with his official 100 Marathon Club shirt. It was great to see that so many 100 Club members had travelled to Richmond to congratulate him on his achievement.

Siobhan was really pleased to finish inside 5 hours, and after a long lie down in the afternoon sun it was time for a Tops Pizza and the train ride home to Buzzville.

For anyone thinking of converting to the dark side and tackling an off-road marathon, I would say this is definitely “entry level” as it requires no navigation, has no fences/styles/logs to hurdle, the majority of the paths are firm under foot, and the limit of 400 runners gives it a friendly and informal feel. Yes it’s hilly, but that’s the challenge. What goes up must come down, and the long downhill sections certainly even out the steep climbs. I would certainly recommend it.