6 October 2019
For months Kim and I had been training hard for the Clarendon Marathon. We’d been out in all weathers, mostly wet, walking miles and miles to prepare ourselves for what lay ahead. Of course, neither of us really knew what lay ahead, except that it would be hilly, or at least the last part would be. What I wasn’t prepared for though, was a horrible cold, striking me in the week leading up to the big day. In an attempt to get rid of it quickly I took tons of Lemsip and had lots of sleep and rest but, when the big day arrived, I felt dreadful and it was clear my cold was going nowhere fast.
In the car, driving through the dark at a really ungodly hour to get to Salisbury, Commando and Rob both tried to talk me into pulling out of the walk. My nose was running, my head was fuzzy and my chest was tight. It felt a lot like the beginnings of a chest infection but, of course, I didn’t tell them that. The sensible thing would have been to do as I was told but I couldn’t bear the thought of letting Kim down. The hardest parts of all our training walks had been when we’d parted company and had to walk alone. How could I leave her now to walk the whole marathon alone?
So, at around half past seven, Commando and Rob dropped us off outside Wyvern College in Salisbury and headed back to Winchester to meet with the two Hamwic Harriers Clarendon relay teams. Kim and I went inside, picked up our numbers, pinned them on and waited for the start along with a couple of dozen other walkers. At this stage I was convinced I could ignore the snottyness, the coughing and the muzzy head and just keep walking. My water bottle was filled with cold lemsip. In hindsight this was not the best way to begin a very tough marathon walk.
We left the school grounds, and, for most of the first mile, walked along the quiet streets of Laverstock, a small parish on the outskirts of Salisbury. For a while people were overtaking or being overtaken but, slowly the group spread out and it was clear most of the other walkers were run walking. This was when I began to feel bad about holding Kim back. She is a runner and could easily have made good ground at this stage by running on the relatively flat and even paths. Even in a good day running is beyond me and this was not a good day by any stretch of the imagination.
Soon we were on a leafy lane. It was fairly muddy after the recent rain but not too slippery. There was one other lady, a way behind us, walking with poles. We’d spoken to her earlier in the school hall. She’d walked marathons before but not this one and had never finished in under ten hours. She was worried about the cut off time and we guessed she’d probably take the direct route and miss out the two extra loops that made the distance up to twenty six miles.
Soon we left the mud behind and turned onto a narrow tarmac lane. It was full of potholes and giant puddles but it was better than the mud. There were fields to our left and hedgerows to our right. The sun and the walking was beginning to warm us. We passed a sign saying twenty five miles. Obviously the signs on this walk were going to tell us how far we had left rather than how far we’d come.
We walked on, weaving around the puddles. The lady with the poles suddenly decided she was going to run for a bit and left us. “You’re much faster walkers than me,” she said, “You’ll probably overtake me later.” Now, I was fairly sure we were at the very back, although I hadn’t exactly been keeping track so it was possible there were other walkers behind us. It didn’t seem to matter much, as long as we kept going forwards. So far our pace had been pretty good, although this ‘flat’ part of the course was turning out to be far more undulating than we’d expected.
Then the race signs directed us off the lane and across a field. The ground was muddy and rutted with deep tractor tracks. It was flat but tough going. We had to watch our feet the whole time for fear of twisting an ankle in the deep ruts or the slippery mud.
On the far side of the field was another lane and a glimpse through a gate of something that looked medieval. I stooped briefly to take a photo, more to get the GPS position than anything. Later I hoped to find out what the structure was.
The lane snaked around to the left and climbed. Soon we were looking down onto the strange stone structure. Sadly it was too far off and too screened by trees to get decent pictures but I tried. We walked on wondering what it might be. The thick stone walls certainly looked very old.
Later I discovered we’d been looking at the ruins of Clarendon Palace. Built in the twelfth century on a Saxon Manor and royal hunting ground, it was a royal residence in the Middle Ages. It was also where, in 1164, the Assize of Clarendon was held and the Constitutions of Clarendon developed to limit the powers of the church. There isn’t a great deal left of it now but I wish I’d had time to stop and have a better look.
We didn’t know it at the time but we were now in Clarendon Park and, a few minutes later, having almost missed the turn and carried straight on, we turned slightly left through beautiful shady woodland. The trail was leaf strewn and slightly squishy underfoot but fairly easy walking. I thought about the woods Commando, CJ and I had walked through on our visit to Farley Mount. Those were several hours ahead of us and I wasn’t sure if we’d actually we walking through them but I was looking forward to it.
We passed the next mile marker sign in the woods. It told us we now had twenty three miles to go. It also told us we’d either missed the twenty four mile marker or only the odd miles were being marked.
On the far side of the wood we passed through a farm. We were now on the outskirts of Pitton, although we didn’t actually know it. The race signs led us down a grassy bank and along another trail. There were fields to our left and woods to our right.
Soon we came upon the twenty two mile sign. Perhaps we really had missed the twenty four mile sign somehow? Maybe when we were busy looking at the ruins of Clarendon Palace and wondering what they were? There were houses ahead, hidden amongst the trees.
At the end of the lane our path turned left towards the village of Pitton. There were a few people going about their Sunday morning business. It was after nine o’clock now and they were probably on the way to church.. Marshals directed us across the road and up a steep hill lined by pretty little houses. There was a certain amount of house envy but we’d been climbing steadily for half an hour and this final steep climb left me too breathless to get out my phone and take photos. My lungs didn’t seem to be working properly, probably because they were filled with gunk. Breathing hard was beginning to hurt.
The views from the top of the hill were breathtaking for completely different reasons. An undulating patchwork quilt of fields and woods spread out before us. These were the stunning views I’d read about. The ones that make this long, long walk worthwhile. For a moment the snot and the painfully tight chest melted away and I enjoyed the views. The sky was blue, the air was clear. I even stopped to take my jacket off and tie it around my waist.
The next landmark was a seemingly abandoned piece of farm machinery beside a high hedge. Beyond the hedge was the spire of a church. We’d reached West Winterslow but, as ever, we had no real idea where we were.
The route markers took us past the church. The car park and lane Beyond were filled with parked cars. There was probably a church service going on. It seemed like a long time since we’d seen any mile markers and I was sure we should have passed mile twenty one by now.
The next part of the walk took us through a field of corn. Some of it looked about ready to harvest, the silken tops were turning brown. It reminded me of growing corn cobs in my vegetable patch at home.
Not long after we left the cornfield we came to the sports ground at Middle Winterslow. If there was a twenty one mile marker, we’d missed it and we were now six miles in at mile twenty. This was the first relay change over point and Rob and Commando were waiting for us. It was ten o’clock. Back at Wyvern School the first runners would be setting off. Commando would be running lap two. There were toilets here so Kim and I made use of them. When we came out Commando begged me to give up and stop walking. Oddly, apart from my constantly running nose and very fuzzy head, I didn’t feel too bad at this stage, possibly because i’d been steadily sipping lemsip for the last few miles.. Apparently I looked like death warmed up though.
Of course, I refused to stop. How could I leave Kim to walk three quarters of a marathon on her own? Boosted a little by our loo stop and seeing our loved ones, we set off again, along a narrow lane, across the main road through Middle Winterslow, past the village shop and along an unmade road beside the gardens of several houses. Somewhere on this lane we spotted the nineteen mile marker. Nineteen miles seemed an awful long way. The lane was leading us downhill so we made the most of it and pushed our pace. Soon though, we discovered that the patches of algae covered chalk beneath our feet were as slippery as ice. There was no choice but to slow down and watch every step. Walking poles seemed like they’d might have been a good idea about then. This reminded me of the walker earlier who’d decided to run. We hadn’t come past her yet, was she still running?
The lane took us along the edge of a field and onto another lane called the Causeway, with fields to our left and large expensive looking houses to our right. This was where we came to the first of the two loops added to the route to make up the marathon distance. We could have gone straight on and cut out a couple of miles. Of course we didn’t, although, had I been on my own, I might have been tempted. The boost of reaching the quarter way mark and seeing Commando had long worn off and I was feeling decidedly unwell.
The loop took us off the Causeway to our left, alongside a narrow country lane with three right turns that took us back onto the Causeway briefly. We then found ourselves on Weston Lane. This made us smile and, thinking about Weston Lane near our own Weston Shore, joke about being nearly home. In a field off Weston Lane we saw the next mile marker, eighteen. Now there was some downhill to make up for all the climbing.
It wasn’t long before we discovered this downhill section was even tougher than the last. It was covered with loose chalky boulders and yet more slimy, slippery patches, making every step a risk. Somewhere here we passed the seventeen mile marker.
The back to front markers were making me dizzy, or maybe it was my cold. My brain couldn’t seem to work out how far we’d actually walked or how far we had left. Soon the first of the runners began to overtake too, adding to the danger as they careered past, dodging from one patch of firm ground to the next.
As every runner passed we cheered them, half expecting to see the two Hamwic relay runners, one of which was Commando. On we went, past pretty fields filled with something pink and unidentifiable up and down yet more hills and past the sixteen mile marker. My foggy brain said, just ten more to go, then I remembered we were counting backwards and we’d actually only walked ten miles.
Later, Kim said she knew something was wrong because I stopped talking. This is unheard of. The next three miles are a complete blur. There seemed to be nothing but hills, every up was a struggle to breathe and every down was a treacherous battle with the wet chalky ground. It seemed like we’d been walking forever but there had been no more mile markers. How could one mile be so very long and how on earth was I going to get through sixteen more of them?
Coming to the outskirts of Broughton was quite a surprise. We were now approaching the half way mark, although we hadn’t seen any mile markers since the sixteen mile one. No wonder the last mile had seemed so long, it was actually three miles.
As we headed through the little village towards the next relay change point my breathing was getting more and more laboured, even though we were now going downhill. Then we saw the little crowd of relay runners at the side of the road. Commando wasn’t amongst them. He was still on the course somewhere running his segment. Suddenly I couldn’t get my breath at all, even though I was barely moving. As I stumbled towards the group Rob grabbed me. “You’re stopping now,” he said and pushed poor Kim onwards without me.
There was nothing to do but give in and, tearfully, accept defeat. My marathon was over. So I stood with the others trying to get my breathing under control again and waiting for Commando to appear. Probably I should have been taking photos but I wasn’t. The pictures below were taken by the others and I’ve shamelessly stolen them. All I could think about was poor Kim having to walk the next thirteen miles all on her own.
The rest of the day passed in a haze of getting in and out of Julian’s van with assorted runners, driving to the next change point and then to the finish at Kings School Winchester. Everyone kept telling me I’d have been stupid to go on but it didn’t make me feel any better.
We watched the last of the Hamwic relay team cross the finish line but we still had a while to wait for Kim. I spread out my plastic mac and sat on the grass feeling sorry for myself. Then Kim rang Rob to say she was at around mile twenty two and struggling. She needed a sugary drink to pep her up but she didn’t have one. The little bottles of coke were in my rucksack. I looked around at everyone, but no one seemed like they were going to run to find her so I picked up my bag and began to walk back along the course.
About a mile from the finish, on a steep and very muddy lane, I conceded defeat. If I managed to get through the mud and carry on I knew there was no way I’d get back up the hill again. If Kim had walked a mile in the time I’d taken to get to her though, she’d be about a mile away so I stood and waited. About ten minutes later, there she was. Her face lit up when I handed her the little bottle of coke and told her there was just a mile left and most of it was flat.
We walked along the finish straight together, just as we’d planned. Apparently, although I didn’t hear it, the announcer said my name as well as Kim’s because I still had my number pinned to my vest. If I’d wanted to I could have crossed the line and picked up a medal but it would have been a hollow victory. Instead, I ducked under the tape and let Kim have her well deserved moment of glory.