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Long wait for feeling of normality at Loch Ness Marathon

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ACTIVE OUTDOORS: Thousands hit the streets as the Loch Ness Marathon returned to Inverness at the weekend. Here, Meg Davidson shares her experience

Meg shows off her medal.
Meg shows off her medal.

The Baxter’s Loch Ness Marathon on Sunday was an event we have waited a long time for. As with most things in the last 18 months, this normally annual festival of running had been disrupted by the pandemic.

I had signed up to take on the 26.2-mile challenge – which sees runners go from Whitebridge, along the south side of Loch Ness to finish at Bught Park in Inverness – before most of us had ever heard of Covid-19.

The world feels very different now, and the nerves as I arrived at the Ice Centre early on Sunday morning had more to do with the fact that I was about to sit on a packed coach with folk I didn’t live with for over an hour than the fact I was setting off to run a marathon.

I boarded the bus and sat next to a lady who, just like me, was wearing the obligatory face mask. Our eyes met, but she didn’t see the smile I gave her. Feeling a bit odd, I found it hard to strike up a conversation as I normally would in this sort of situation. In the end, we passed the journey in silence and my thoughts drifted over the weeks and months of training leading to today.

During the first lockdown my training took a nosedive. Limited to one outing per day, I recklessly started running longer and longer runs trying to make up for the other 90 per cent of the day spent inside.

On the start line near Whitebridge.
On the start line near Whitebridge.

I ignored the age-old wisdom of building up gradually and ended up with a hip injury which left me unable to run at all. I was actually relieved when the 2020 event was cancelled and resolved to train more sensibly for the 2021 marathon.

There were some positives to come out of lockdown. It was during this time that I was converted to home exercise videos. I am sure everyone remembers the Joe Wicks phenomenon. I have never had the motivation to do an exercise class in my living room before, but losing all the incidental exercise from going about our normal routines, I found myself doing the girls’ home school PE lessons.

Then a running friend recommended Run Smart Online, founded by Steve Gonser, a physical therapist based in the USA. Gonser specialises in running-specific exercise classes. My husband and I did the tester class and immediately were hooked. I worked my way through his six-week Boot Camp. My injury healed and I was able to run again, but determined not to fall victim to dreaded injury again I kept my mileage relatively low and added some spin bike sessions to my programme – the static bike being our big purchase of the second lockdown.

It was a beautiful morning as the bus made its way round the loch to the start line. Out the front window I could see a line of white coaches, stretching into the distance. I watched the sun rise, casting a pinky golden glow over the landscape, just starting to take on its autumnal colours.

The weather outside was wild. Watching the wind and rain from the warmth of the bus, I did not relish leaving the coach. Finally it was our turn to get off so, wrapped up in cosy winter walking trousers, waterproof, hoodie and hat, I joined the inevitable toilet queue, which was expertly being managed by the marshalls. Finally, in the comfortable familiarity of a toilet queue, the conversation started to flow.

I commiserated with a couple of ladies about how long the queue was, then chatted to a guy in a dressing gown with a carrier bag in his hand. He told me he just went out for milk and got on the wrong bus! It felt reassuringly normal to be having random chat with strangers.

Dressed for the occasion - a fellow marathon runner dons his dressing gown.
Dressed for the occasion - a fellow marathon runner dons his dressing gown.

A lone piper played us to the start for 10am and then we were off. This year I positioned myself nearer the front as I was hoping my new approach to training might give me an improvement on my 2019 time. This was not my best idea as I found myself being overtaken for much of the race, which can really get you down.

Searching for other ways to enhance my marathon training, I had read as much as I could about the mental preparation for the marathon. Much has been spoken about in the last year and a half about the impact the pandemic will have on our mental wellbeing. I have always turned to running to help me through tough times, which made it so difficult during the lockdowns when limits were placed upon when and how often we could get out and run.

Any marathon manual will tell you that completing the 26.2 miles will challenge you mentally as much as physically, if not more so. Tim Noakes' book, Lore of Running, has a particularly good chapter devoted to the subject. Noakes makes the case that it is something in the brain, which he calls the 'central governor', that controls whether or not we reach our full potential in the marathon.

With this in mind, during my training, I have prepared a few positive mantras to get me through the difficult moments in the race.

For the first few miles I was on pace to beat my previous time but somehow I struggled to keep it going and I noticed I was getting further and further behind my goal pace. Discussing my anxiety about the upcoming race with my father-in-law the day before, he had told me not to worry about the time, just enjoy it – and his words were to keep coming back to me throughout the race.

Spectators at the finish line of the 2021 Baxters Loch Ness Marathon.
Spectators at the finish line of the 2021 Baxters Loch Ness Marathon.

There were a few brave souls out to cheer us on in the villages along Loch Ness. I was really touched that these folk had made the effort to come out in such chilly, wet weather. I tried to thank each one and I found that this interaction with other human beings, which has been missing during the pandemic, really spurred me on.

Apart from a wee spell around miles 14 and 15 when I found myself involuntarily racing another lady, my pace was getting slower and slower, but I continued talking to myself and pushing negative thoughts away. It helped that this is the second time that I have completed the course, so I knew about the pitfalls that can ruin you mentally, like not to forget the tough hill at Scaniport when you might be fooled that all the hills are behind you.

By the time I reached the Ness Bridge I was using my cone to cone strategy, where I congratulated myself each time I passed another cone and finally the finish line came into view. It was wonderful to see so many people out cheering on the runners.

In the end I finished more than 10 minutes slower than last time. You could say my new training regime was unsuccessful, but I smiled a lot more during this marathon and I found it so uplifting to be part of a big event again.

Seeing so many folk out sharing this experience and interacting with each other is the most normal I have felt in 18 months – and that is more precious to me than a PB.

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