A Tale of Two Marathons Part 1: The Bungay Marathon
8 April 2018
It was the best of races, it was the worst of races. It was the age of hope, it was the age of foolishness. It was the season of drizzle, it was the season of fog. They were races of challenges, they were races of triumph.
And so begins my adventure running two UK marathons in an 8-day period.
I signed up for the Brighton Marathon last April, almost before the final finisher of the 2017 race received their medal. The goal was to run in a new country – the UK – and visit my friend Sarah, with whom I’ve established an annual European Marathon Adventure tradition. She joined me in my first 42,195 in Dusseldorf (2016) and again in Paris (2017). Living in London, she has easier access to join me at these races. Now that I planned a race in her ‘home’ country, I was excited to have yet another opportunity to visit with her and possibly share the course with her.
Side note: Sarah is training for an Ironman, and thus she wasn’t able to run the marathon as originally planned. Her coach is helping her train for her amazing challenge, and thus a marathon in April was not part of the plans. But Sarah was with me again, sharing in the weekends of fun and sightseeing in the English countryside.
At some point, I decided to look up the Bungay Running Festival to see when their marathon would be held. Amazingly, it was the weekend prior to Brighton. The opportunity was too good to pass up. My trip now included two marathons in an eight day period, with time to visit friends and work with a UK colleague in between.
One might not understand the draw I had to running in Bungay but seeing as how that was my surname for many years, it was something that I just had to do. The idea of having a medal with ‘Bungay’ on it was worth 26.2 mi in a small village area in Norfolk.
So that is how I found myself on a train, then a bus, to the small bucolic town of Bungay with Sarah. Even if Sarah was not planning to run the full marathon, she did sign up for the half. We arrived late in the day on Saturday, dropped off at the Green Dragon pub (the bus driver didn’t know what we were talking about, but clearly Google maps did!), and walked the two blocks to our hotel, the Castle Inn.
For a small town, there is quite a lot of history that the locals of which the locals are very proud. Our hotel has a long history as an inn and a brewery/tavern, most recently changing hands to the current owners in 2007. A book in our room provided us with a nice summary of the town, surrounding area and the hotel itself. I felt like I was welcomed into someone’s home in a sense, as the staff was unbelievably helpful and accommodating during our one night stay. If you find yourself out in Bungay, be sure to stop in for dinner at the very least. And try to make it to the Green Dragon for a pint of some local beer. They are pretty awesome also.
Before the race
There is no expo or pre-race day activity for this one. There are three different races you can choose to run, and when combined, approximately 1000 people take part in the Bungay Black Dog Running Festival. (The Black Dog is part of a local legend and is found everywhere in Bungay).
There is the marathon (200 people); half marathon (500 people) and the 10K (500). For those who like the ‘running buffet’ idea, they offer the Double Doggy challenge, in which participants register for both the 10K and the half marathon, run back to back. This can be done as the 10K starts at 9:30am, and the half marathon begins at 11am (marathon starts at 9am). So the only criteria is that you must complete the 10K before the half marathon start.
Bib and shirt collection is the morning of the race, and it is pretty straight forward. We walked about a half mile to Malting Meadows where the race starts and ends. Bibs are picked up in the large tent, and there are facilities to change if needed. I had time, so I walked back to the hotel to drop my shirt and have another moment in the warmth.
A note about the weather: it is the UK. Plan on cool and drizzly for the most part. That is what race day was like. And pretty much all days in between. And don’t get too hung up on the extended forecast as it does change. I was worried about being a little too cold, and sure enough, in spite of gloves, my hands were cold almost the entire time. Luckily though, the rain held off until I was into the second half of the race, and even then, it was a light sprinkle at most.
About 10 minutes prior to the start, the announcer tells everyone to move to the start area on the road, and we all headed over. I saw a guy who was at our hotel, and it turned out this was Gareth’s first marathon. We chatted a little, and it was obvious that he was going to be faster than me. So early in the race I wished him well and watched him go out in front.
Another guy behind me had a fun mask on and was juggling. Clearly the juggling joggers are not limited to US races.
Pretty quickly we heard ‘go’ and all started running. This was a no headphone race (apparently all UK races ban headphones and earbuds), so it was also my first race without music. Plus hills. Oh my goodness, what did I commit to?
During the race
You quickly learn that there are hills in this area. Within the first mile, you are taken through Bungay on an uphill road, and head into a little roller coaster section of road along the highway to give your legs a nice workout. The worst hill is the one around mile 5.5 as you head into Beccles, another town over. As a marathon participant, I knew I would again be facing that hill in 13.1 miles as this was a looped course, so I was sure to plan for that extra energy expenditure in loop 2. Running into Beccles and around through the various villages was a nice treat. I enjoyed seeing the fields and the blooming daffodils, catching glimpses of the river and enjoying the handful of spectators that were around to cheer runners on. As we descended into Beccles along a field filled with flowers and two large bulls, the church bells started ringing; it was just a beautiful, multi sensory experience that will stick with me for a long time.
Water stops were every 2-3 miles, but unlike most races I have done, they only offered water. No sports drink or food options. (You were given the chance to drop special drinks for yourself at the beginning of the race that they would set up for you at the designated water stops, if you so chose). I was extremely grateful for the few people out on the course who had some gummies for runners to grab. I did bring some gummies and had salt available, both of which I used on the run. This extra top up of sugar at some critical moments on the course really helped.
The last mile or so is a multi-terrain surface, and unfortunately with all the wet weather this country recently had, it meant a muddy trail. I definitely slowed down on this section, running about 30 seconds per mile slower simply because I was trying to ensure better footing. And no falling. That would have been bad – especially on loop 1.
I finished loop 1 in 2:06, and headed out for loop 2. In all honesty, running this marathon as a looped course wasn’t as bad as I had envisioned. I remember very clearly in Bermuda running past the half way point (and finish of the half marathon) and wanting to veer right and end my run. Not so on this course. I felt good, I felt strong, and I was ready to head out for the second lap. As I ran back up the hill into Bungay, a guy ran beside me and started chatting. He just finished the 10K with a personal best time of 41 minutes, and he was running back to his car for a bit of a cool down. His cool down was faster than my marathon pace, but we stuck together for about 1.5 miles, just talking and sharing some running stories with each other. I am grateful to him for this time as it reinvigorated my pace, keeping me from dialing back too much to ensure I could make it all the way around again.
On this loop, I did run up most hills, but on that last hill before Beccles, I walked up the last half, wanting to not sabotage my whole run, especially when it was going so well.
There isn’t much to talk about on this lap other than I was more chatty with folks, especially the half marathoners that I started to pass (they started at 11am, right before I began my second loop). I tried to yell encouragement as I passed them, and I did play a bit of leapfrog with some of the marathoners. It was a much more social lap and I was pleased at how strong I continued, even when my leg started to feel as if it would fall off. I couldn’t make myself run much faster; I did, however, make myself run and not give into the idea that my running was over for the day.’
As I headed back into the last two miles, I was not looking forward to the muddy trail at all. And as I picked my way through that section, I saw my friend Sarah ahead and yelled to her. She was having a difficult run, made worse by not feeling so well. She had to let me go ahead, and it was around that same moment that I saw Gareth from the hotel. He was struggling with his final mile, and I told him I would run in with him. So when he wanted to slow down and stop, I made him move forward. His uncle was at the finish line to video him completing this race. Gareth was going to finish strong if I had anything to do with it.
We got to the final water stop and Gareth stopped to catch his breath. At this point, the finish was about 0.1 miles ahead, and I yelled at Gareth to keep moving, pushing him to pick up the pace and cross that finish line as a strong runner. In the end, I pulled ahead of him by a couple seconds, but he was right behind me, and he finished with a huge smile on his face. Mission accomplished. Sarah came in shortly after, happy to be finished with her unexpected half marathon.
My time: 4:18:20
After the race
After crossing the finish line, I received a medal, water, banana, cereal bar, beer, crisps (chips) and thankfully a bag to hold it all! Definitely one of the best finish line goodie hauls I’ve seen, especially for a small race like this.
Sarah and I ate our crisps, I drank my beer and we walked back to the hotel to change. We actually had checked out earlier, but the kind folks at the Castle Inn allowed us back into the room to shower and take our time getting ourselves cleaned up. Thank you. That would have been a miserable 3 hours back to London if we didn’t have the chance to shower!
The festival posted photos from the course on their facebook page, and I was able to find my almost-finished photo. I look pretty rough, which is understandable given that I just ran for 4+ hours. But I like it. It shows determination, which is what the marathon is to me.
I had a great time at this event, and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in a nice day trip from London. It’s not the flashiest or most spectated event, but I find that these small races have such great character and are my most favourite of all.
(SOON TO COME: Part 2: Brighton Marathon)