Neolithic Half Marathon Sunday June 2nd 2004
PICTURE: Me proudly wearing my finisher's medal by the stones of Stonehenge.
I'd thought about doing this race, or the full marathon that takes place in alongside it, for a number of years. Stonehenge is somewhere I used to visit often in my youth - usually to see the sun rise at midsummer or midwinter. I'd also been back just last year to see Ashrita Furman break a world record - that was an awesome experience! To get the chance to come back to Stonehenge "the hard way" - in a race - was something I couldn't resist.
The full marathon starts at the beautiful village of Avebury, built around a stone circle every bit as impressive as the more famous Stonehenge. Having not completed such a long distance for a few years, I opted for the half marathon, using it as a stepping stone to the full marathon I'm hoping to complete in August at Rockland, New York State.
Getting there, getting ready, getting going....
I arrived at Stonehenge at around 9am - the morning had been cool and wet in Cardiff so I already had my number pinned on a long-sleeve running top, but as I reached Salisbury Plain the sun was breaking through so I was glad I'd thrown my Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team vest in my bag at the very last moment. From Stonehenge, entrants are taken by bus to the half marathon starting point at Charlton Clumps - the bus ride was excellent, passing through beautiful, sleepy villages with old thatched cottages and high-walled manor houses. This is quintessential "Village England". We had an hour and a half to kill at charlton Clumps (which is just a field in the middle of Slaisbury Plain). I meditated for a while in the sun then sang to myself a few inspirational songs (I make a point of always singing Sri Chinmoy's "Run and Become" song before a race - it gets me inspired!). After that I became restless - oh all right then nervous - and started packing and repacking my bag for no reason. After an hour and a half of this we lined up at one corner of the field, under starters orders. By now there was a gentle breeze without which we would all have been baking under the warm sun - Salisbury Plain was hazy and the dirt road we were to follow could be seen winding into the distance. A moment of contemplation and some last minute stretches on the line - a murmurred pre-race prayer or two - then the starter gave us the word and we were off.
A hurried circuit of the field then we were on to the dirt road winding over numerous low hills - lots of ups and downs, some quite gentle and others a little "surprising" in steepness - all the climbs were short though and I found I was keeping up with the pack of ten or so runners following the extremely quick looking group of four who were leading by some distance within minutes. The early leader was a tall chap in fell shoes with a loping gait and a long stride - he and the chasing pack of three were soon way ahead and the pack I was in would lose sight of them in the dips then regain it on the tops of the ridges. I passed one or two guys - they repassed me - we kept pace with each other as the miles passed. There were water stations every couple of miles where I attempted to grab a drink but I was keeping up a pace at which I'm not too adept at handling a paper cup. Most of it went over my head but I was able to down a little - it was getting pretty hot. The mile markers were counting down - starting with a 13 then a 12 etc - but the spacing of them was pretty random. I did one mile in 8 minutes, then another in 4.32 - imagine that, a mile PB as part of a half marathon :) The course swung right and the breeze instantly stopped - my body temperature started to rise and I was glad of more water stations as the miles rolled by. I was surprised to be keeping up with the rest of this "chasing pack" and more surprised when I started to move up the order into about 8th place. My PB was 1.26.50 and I started to think dangerous thoughts about matching or even beating it - at leat a 1.30 would be possible so long as these mile markers weren't too inaccurate.
The tough bit....
At the Bustard Inn the course changes to grassy paths - deeply rutted by tractor wheels so you have to run with both feet in a rut - this could be nasty in wet weather, but on such a dry day I was coping fine in road shoes. I passed the early leader with the long stride and he mumbled some encouragement, which I really appreciated. Its amazing how breathless runners will take the trouble to do that. Sadly I was even more breathless and could only nod to him in response. A walker called out to me that I was in fifth place which was a real shock - I even had the breath available to say thanks. I could see the guy in fourth place up ahead, still looking strong, but sixth place could not be seen behind and it looked as though I should be able to hang on to my position (by far the best I've ever attained in a public race with over a hundred entrants). I found myself gaining on fourth place as we covered the last three miles - crossing the Fargo road and joining the bridleway that leads past a military compound to approach Stonehenge from the north. At the last mile marker - one more to go - I was on the shoulder of the guy in front, so I thought "why not?" and put on a surge. He came with me of course, and I'm glad he did as it made me give it all I'd got in that last mile. Our club's philosophy on racing has always been that you compete with the rest just in order to bring forward your best performance, and this was a classic example - had I been on my own in that last mile or two I'd not have been able to keep up such a pace. As we came into the field across the road from The Stones themselves I had pulled just a few seconds ahead and was able to keep it going over the rough grass in the chute that led to the finish. I almost fell over just after the line while a very polite lady from the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust was attempting to hand me a finishers medal. I walked around for a while clutching the medal while my breathing normalised then limped stiffly to the marquee to claim my cup of tea and home made cake. What a very English way to recover from one's exertions.
PICTURE: The finish line near just next to Stonehenge, with bronze age mounds on the skyline..
It seems to me that the more you give of yourself in a race, the more satisfaction you feel at the finish. I was elated to have got a PB. I staggered over to The Stones (you get free entry with your race medal - a saving of four quid - what a bonus) and took a brief wander round among the tourists. Something mystical used to attract me to this place and I'm still kind of aware of it, though it really doesn't fascinate me the way it did years ago. Perhaps its because of the spiritual inspiration I've experienced over recent years - something far more "concrete"! Still, the stones inspired me to come to this particular place and this particular race, which was a fantastic experience. See you there next year, hopefully!
Sacred Steps Home