I ran the inaugural Kielder Marathon this morning. 26.2 miles of undulating trails around the largest man-made reservoir in Northern Europe. With the paths recently finished to complete a full circuit of the lake, the race was the idea of Steve Cram.
The temperature was -3c as I drove from Hexham into the Kielder forest and reservoir area at 8am this morning but by the time the race started it had cleared up and was a lovely sunny day. Two things struck me as I arrived. The first was the absolutely stunning scenery that confirmed Steve's claim that it was the most beautiful marathon in Britain, the second thing was the huge area the reservoir covers and reality sunk in. I was about to start the most challenging race I have ever done on less training than is probably needed.
Up at the start there was a short delay to allow all competitors to be bussed up from the car park but that was the only blip in what was otherwise an extremely well organised race. There were around 1500 runners lining up, including an elite team challenge of teams from Britain, Europe and the rest of the world. Steve Cram started the race before joining in, though it was rumoured he would be dropping out at half way.
I was slightly concerned by the uphill start that went on for the best part of a mile before dropping down to the finish area and we were away on the paths. My race plan went out of the window early on as I got into a group and felt comfortable knocking out 7 minute miles. This was a little faster than I had planned for but it felt OK and I got chatting to a local runner from Hexham, who had run exactly the same time as me in London. The course was undulating but we were either running up or down, never on the flat. Whilst there were no very severe hills in the first half, there were some fairly steep climbs but my legs were recovering well on the downhills. I went through halfway in just under 1.32 but the locals warned me there was a tough stretch coming up. They were not wrong, some steep climbs and steep descents until we arrived at the dam at 18 miles - the only flat section on the course. As we turned to head back to the finish there was a strong head wind that didn't bode well for the last 8 miles but we were sheltered a little by the trees and so it was the hills in the last 6 miles that proved to be a real challenge.
The course marking was excellent with mile markers, all but two were very accurate, and warning signs for every steep incline or decline. This seemed a bit of a luxury but the downhills tended to be quite twisty and so extra care was needed to avoid skidding off the paths. The downside of this though is the last thing you want to see after the 22 mile marker is a 'steep incline' sign!
In the last 4 miles or so, I was tiring but still relatively strong. However, the hills were energy sapping and I had a few heart stopping moments on the downhills as my hamstrings felt like they were cramping up. At half way I was in 37th position but, despite the field being strung out by this stage, I think I passed five or six runners who were really struggling. Two passed me looking very strong so I reckon I was comfortably in the top thirty five when I crossed the finish line in 3.13.40. Consensus was that the course was about 20 minutes slower than a road marathon so it compares with my London performance but official results are not yet available.
This was a great race to be part of, a friendly atmosphere, and great scenery. It seemed to me that most of the runners were from the North East but there were some from further afield. I would certainly recommend this if you are looking for a real challenge and something a bit different - but don't expect a PB!
Steve Cram finished the race in 3.47, looking very fresh.