For Rob McTaggart, Richard Brawn and Sanjai Sharma, this marathon journey began way back in January when they started training for what they thought then was going to be the London Marathon in April.
Little did they know that the world would be a very different place by the time the scheduled date of the London Marathon would come around.
When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, the London Marathon organisers were forced to postpone the race. Thus it was penciled in for the first weekend of October instead.
That was of course frustrating for those who had already gone through a large part of their training block for the race but it simply wasn’t feasible to hold it at that time and they had to accept it.
As Coronavirus infection levels grew and with with the whole country placed under lockdown restrictions it began to look likely that even the newly planned October date could be under threat.
By the time it reached July they were due to start marathon training again but with social distancing still very much at the forefront and restrictions still in place even the October date was looking in doubt.
Nevertheless, the Bournemouth AC trio tentatively began to ramp up their training in case the race did end up going ahead but they weren’t overly hopeful.
The organisers did everything they could to try to find a way they could still hold the event but in the end had to concede that it simply wasn’t possible to keep it open to the masses.
That left runners with the option to either run a virtual marathon at a place of their choosing, or find an alternative race. That was when Rich began to look at the Dorney Lake Marathon as a possibility.
It was organised by Active Training World and they already had a Covid-19 safe strategy in place for races that would provide a safe and socially distanced environment for all those taking part.
Knowing he’d have a much better chance of getting a good time in an actual race and with the route being flat and fast, it was a no-brainer for Rich and he signed up.
There was also another marathon race being put together though and that was going to be in Wrexham. A plan had been formulated to hold an event strictly for runners capable of completing a marathon in under 2 hours 40 minutes. That would cut down the numbers of entrants and looked a good option for Tag.
Having completed 18 consecutive London Marathons, Sanjai wasn’t about the let that record fall by the wayside and he was looking to get to 20 in-a-row. That meant by hook or crook, even if it wasn’t going to actually be in London, he still needed to make sure he was doing the virtual race.
Again, he knew his best bet would be run it in an actual race environment, so he joined Rich in signing up for Dorney Lake. Now it was just a case of getting in the best training that he could to boost his fitness levels.
As the months went by, the big day was getting ever closer but doubts were emerging about whether the Wrexham Marathon would actually take place. That left Tag contemplating yet another wasted block of training.
He’d managed to get into fantastic shape as well and could tell from his training runs that was beginning to hit his best form. In the end he managed to get an entry for Dorney Lake as well so at least he knew the chances are he’d have something to show for all the grafting he’d done.
The only potential problem with Dorney Lake was that it’s a very open area, meaning on a windy day it could leave them quite exposed to the elements. They just had to hope for calm conditions on the day.
When the news came in that a storm was due to be passing over the UK that weekend, that was exactly what they didn’t want to hear. Strong winds and ongoing rainfall was forecast which was bound to make things a little more tricky for the race.
There was nothing they could about that though. They had to get on with it and give it their best shot and hope that the direction of the wind wouldn’t result in a strong headwind on any of the long straights.
Sure enough, when the morning of the race came, it was very wet and rather cold to boot. Whilst it didn’t seem overly strong, the wind was certainly noticeable and seemed gusty at times.
The runners were started off depending on their estimated finishing time. Tag was fourth on the list which meant he was starting in the red wave with all the top runners.
That included Will Mackay of Bedford and County AC who had finished second in the New Forest Half Marathon that Rich had taken part in two weeks earlier.
Tag had won the 5k and and finished second in the 10k at that same event so that was a useful little race sharpener for him ahead of the Dorney Lake Marathon.
Rich was 157th fastest according to estimated time so he started in the white wave which followed in a couple of pens later. As well as the New Forest Half Marathon, which he’d found tougher than he was expecting, Rich had recorded a 10k PB at St Albans in the build up to the race. He’d also ran a 5k best at the Bournemouth AC time trial in one of the Tuesday night sessions so he knew he was in fairly good form.
In terms of long runs though, he hadn’t had any 20 mile races to run in at marathon pace this time round so that was worrying him somewhat. He had taken part in the Virtual Wimborne 20 miler but that was on a very hilly course and he didn’t have a great run that day.
That left him unsure of whether he’d realistically be able to achieve the time that he wanted but he’d just have to roll the dice and give it a go.
Because his estimated time was over three hours, Sanjai was starting his race at a later time than Rich and Tag. He was due to set off at 11 o’clock so had a bit more time to play with before he would get his run underway.
Tag started with a guy who said that he wanted a sub 2:30 and that was kind of aligned with Tag’s target, given the conditions, so they set off running together.
After a bad experience at last year’s London Marathon where Tag had ended up falling off the pace over the last 10 miles or so, he wasn’t looking for a lonely run so it was a bonus to find someone who would be going at a similar pace.
They caught up a group and then merged in to form a bigger pack that would stay together for what turned out to be the vast majority of the race.
Having fully tapered in the week leading up to the race and going through the carb depletion and carb loading process, Rich knew he’d have plenty of energy in store for the marathon. His intention was to go off at a pace that seemed comfortable but he was secretly hoping it would be quite a fast pace.
He went through the first three miles at an even quicker pace than what he was aiming for but after that settled into his intended marathon pace.
Right from the outset though, his muscles felt tight and he knew the chances of him getting round the full marathon without getting cramp were slim to none. That was a real worry.
There was a difficult crosswind on certain sections of the course and that was always likely to wear him down as the race progressed and make it more difficult to maintain the pace.
On the 10th mile his pace dropped and he began to produce similar sort of split times to what he had at London the previous year when he recorded his current PB.
That was okay though. He didn’t mind that and knew he’s still be on for a good time if he could stick at that sort of pace for the remainder of the race. It wasn’t going to be easy though by any means.
Tag had been going at between 5:40 and 5:45 pace for the first 12 miles. On the 13th mile he decided it was time to crank it up a notch which forced those in the group he was running with to follow suit.
For the next couple of miles he was going at 5:39 pace before steadily increasing his speed even further over the next four miles. It was a great show of strength that must have put other members of the group into difficulty.
When he got to water station at just over 12 miles, Rich decided he was going to take one of his salt capsules. He put his hand in his pocket to get one out only to find that there was only one there.
His shorts had got so wet that the other two must have just disintegrated. Now he was in real trouble and the threat of cramp had increased further.
He was beginning to find it tough going and was thinking he might end up getting progressively slower over the second half of the race. Just at that point though, he got overtaken by two runners who were going side by side and looked like they were running together.
Remembering what his Dad had told him, Rich decided to up his pace slightly and tuck in behind the two runners. Rich’s Dad is a running coach for Chiltern Harriers and was there supporting him, alongside other members of his club who were taking part.
Soon beginning to feel the benefits of being sheltered from the wind, Rich decided to stay right where he was for the entirety of the third lap. It made a huge difference and by the time he got to mile 20 he was starting to feel good again.
By the time he reached the mile 20 point, Tag‘s arms had gone numb from the persistent crosswinds and he started to get very cold. He wasn’t about to let it slip now though and continued to push on well.
In fact, he proceeded to churn out decent split times all the way to the end and with 26.36 miles on the clock, he made it to the line in a tremendous time of 2:29:04.
That was only 11 seconds off his best ever marathon time which he’d recorded at London in 2017. To be able to produce that sort of time in conditions like that was a real testament to the superb form he was in.
With an astonishing average pace of 5:39, it was the fifth quickest time out of anyone on the day. That was a great achievement for Tag given that there plenty of runners there of a very high standard.
Unfortunately for Rich, his race didn’t end so well. On the 22nd mile, he could feel his muscles starting to seize up and he began to get the dreaded pangs which told him cramp was on the way.
After the second lot of pangs, he took out his shot of CrampFix and tried to drink it. It didn’t go down too well though and the liquid just seemed to nestle in his chest. He actually couldn’t breathe and it felt like he was drowning so he had to stop and try to cough it up.
As he’d stopped, the cramp then kicked in in his left hamstring and that all too familiar excruciating pain was back. He lay on the floor, flat on his back and two of the slower runners who were passing by on a different lap came to help.
Rich had seen that when footballers get cramp they usually get other players to bend their toes back, so he got the other two runners to do that.
Very quickly the pain seemed to subside and he got up gingerly and headed off on his way, thanking the runners who had helped him. Even though he’d got back going though, he was very worried it was going to happen again.
He managed to get into a slow jogging sort of pace which he then stuck at for the remainder of that mile and the next mile as well. Then as he got to mile 25 he started to feel the muscles release.
The CrampFix must have worked all of a sudden. He now felt like there was a good chance he could make it to the line without a relapse and was wondering whether to crank the pace back up for the last couple of miles or just carry on taking it steady.
In the end he decided it wasn’t worth the risk so continued coasting until he reached the end of the 26th mile. The finishing line was now in sight and he was virtually home and dry, or wet, rather, as the case may be. At that point he began to up the pace and pushed through to end which came at 26.45 miles.
As he crossed the line, Rich stopped his watch at just under 2 hours 58 minutes. During the cramp incident though, his watch had paused for a bit though so he now wasn’t sure if he’d actually even got a sub 3. He faced an agonising wait for for the chip time results to come through before he could find out for certain.
As for Sanjai, his training hadn’t gone so well for a number of reasons so he was thinking he’d probably do well to get in under 3 hours 30 minutes.
He managed to settle into a steady pace at the beginning though which he knew would be good enough to get him a Good-For-Age qualification if he was able to maintain it throughout.
Despite the treacherous conditions, Sanjai stayed strong and stuck to the task at hand. Crossing the line in a time of 3:19:32, Sanjai finished in 258th place overall and 27th in the M50 category.
It was a remarkable run from Sanjai under the circumstances and a much better result than he’d been expecting. Crucially as well, it should be enough to see him get into next year’s London Marathon on a Good-For-Age basis which will mean he can do his 20th consecutive one.
There was relief for Rich when his official time came through at 2:58:29 which put him in 148th place. Since he’d been worrying about the amount of time that his watch had auto-paused for, he was actually quite pleased with that result, even though it wasn’t the time he was hoping for.
Running the entire race out front on his own, Will Mackay picked up the victory, finishing in an incredible time of 2:26:14. He was followed by Jack Blaiklock of Thames Hare & Hounds who came in fresh out the pub to finish just over a minute later with a time of 2:27:17.
Chris Richardson of Metro Aberdeen took third place in 2:27:41 with Samuel Barnes of Serpentine taking fourth in 2:28:38. In total 522 runners successfully completed the race with the last one coming in at 6 hours 31 minutes. A further 29 runners who started the race didn’t make it through to the end.
There were some other impressive performances from Dorset based athletes, in particular Brian Underwood who secured a spectacular new PB of 2:35:16. That was good enough to put him 12th in the overall standings and 1st in the M40 category.
Poole Runners man Tim Jones also recorded a terrific new PB of 2:49:35 which put him in 76th place overall and 20th in the M40 category. His running has sky rocketed over the lockdown period and that was huge improvement on his previous best.
Also weighing in with an emphatic PB, Damian Huntingford of Wimborne AC took 35 minutes off his previous best to finish in 95th place with a time of 2:52:11. That put him 32nd in the M40.
Damian had done many similar sort of training runs to Rich in the build up to the race, including the Virtual Wimborne 10 and the Virtual Wimborne 20. Rich could tell that Damian was in excellent form going into the marathon at Dorney and his time was a just reward for his terrific efforts in training.
The best thing about the Dorney Lake Marathon really though was that it gave all the runners who had been training hard during lockdown and over the summer months an opportunity to have something tangible to show for it.
With marathon races being cancelled left, right and centre, those who had worked tirelessly to get into peak shape needed something definitive to aim for that was not going to end up getting canned like all the rest of them.
Active Training World stepped up to plate and provided that at Dorney Lake and that was something all the participants were hugely thankful for, whatever the weather.