Review: How the Solway Coast Marathon made me enjoy tarmac #marathon #review #ultraboyruns

Terry Pratchett wrote that the Discworld sat atop four giant elephants that stood astride a giant turtle that flew through space. If Scotland were Discworld then the Solway Coast Marathon would be in the space beyond the edges of the known.

I had no idea what to expect from the Solway Coast Marathon but what I did know was the following;

  1. I don’t like road marathons
  2. I don’t like running in the summer months
  3. I had raced less than 12 hours earlier in St Andrews
  4. I had pulled my hamstring in the race in St Andrews

So when I woke up at 4am, after just 3 hours sleep I asked myself do I really want to drive for the next three and half hours to do a race that isn’t my usual cup of tea? I showered and put my shorts on and decided that, ‘yes – what the hell, there’s a medal in this for me’.

What I didn’t expect was to thoroughly enjoy myself and have a truly wonderful time at a stunningly good event.

I drove down along the M74 in what is some very misty conditions and I wondered if the promised sunshine might hold off long enough for the race to take place but as I drove further and further toward the marathon I could see that the sunshine had arrived and by the time I pulled into the airfield car park it was already far too warm.

Now being in England the Covid rules have been relaxed further than in Scotland but when I went to collect my number I ensured that I sanitised my hands and wore a mask, while I’m happy to be racing it was good to see that many of the runners at the start maintained social distancing and I didn’t feel like some sort of freak for following Scottish guidance over the English rules.

Number collection was swift and there were good facilities on hand to make sure that we all got to the start line having been to the little boys or girls room. Afterwards I headed back to the car, got into my race gear and then opened the boot of the car and got comfy, just watching the world go by. Despite my feelings that a road marathon was not what I needed I found myself feeling rather comfortable here and there was a lovely relaxed vibe being given off by both the runners and the organisers.

About 8.30am I headed back to the registration point where the runners were starting to congregate and after a short safety briefing we headed down the road to the start line. I met a young local runner called Claire and we chatted for a little while about our various experiences, there was something wonderfully down to earth about Claire and had she been a back of the pack runner she would have made an awesome companion but she was aiming for a sub4 marathon and I most certainly wasn’t.

When we reached the start line I wished her a cheery farewell and hoped she succeeded in her aim for the day but I knew the place I had to take up and so I headed to the back.

It was here that I met the first of many runners who would help define my day in the sunshine. Mick was a runner with a fine pedigree and, as befits a running legend, was wearing a Saxons, Normans & Vikings t-shirt which instantly put him on my radar as someone who would know Traviss Wilcox. I very much enjoyed our gentle first few miles as we talked about all things SVN and beyond. My time with Mick took away from noting how hard going the tarmac was under my feet – something that in my training runs isn’t an issue as I mostly run trails.

Mick clearly had a plan though and was keen to stick to it, whereas I was aiming to do what I usually do, run the first half as fast as I can and then die in the second half. I suppose when I think about it that’s a plan too it’s just not a very good one. So with the sunshine beating down upon me I pressed on through a few of the runners ahead of me and settled into a reasonably steady rhythm.

In the early stages we were running mostly through some of the little villages near the Solway Coast and it was full of little picture postcard scenes that made you feel like you’d stepped back to times gone by. I was rather enamoured with my surroundings and soaked it all in as I gently plodded along.

It was in these little picture postcard villages that I came across a young gentleman and what I assume was his daughter armed with musical instruments and a hose. The sound of music from supporters is something I really enjoy and the little girl was shaking her rattle like her life depended on it. Wonderful. I had seen the gentleman hose down one of the runners and clearly he was doing this for all that wanted it and so with all the gusto I could manage I shouted, ‘in the face, in the face!’ and he duly obliged – spraying my hot sweaty face with cool refreshing water. I didn’t realise it until much later in the race but the soaking of my buff visor by this lovely pair probably helped maintain my ability to run this event as despite the heat and sunshine my neck remained cool.

Now that I was all cool and feeling refreshed I turned my attention to a different issue. The trouble was that my right hamstring was already on fire and I knew that it was only going to get worse but it was joined by a wobbly left hamstring and I did wonder what I had done to deserve this kind of misfortune but regardless my time was looking okay as I completed the little 6 mile loop and started on the long journey around the coastline.

It was here that I came across one of the two most important people I would meet during the race and his name was Sachin and what a lovely chap he was. We ran together for several miles, moving back and forth and forth and back and we shared stories and philosophies and I really enjoyed chewing the fat with him. He was running with such fantastic consistency that he really helped me keep on target, when he finally meandered past me after several false dawns I watched as he slowly, consistently pulled away from me. Looking his time up he was about 20 minutes ahead of me and if he keeps running like that his times are only going to get quicker.

But it was in the weaving of being ahead or behind Sachin that I met the runner who would really define the race for me. I met Allan at about the 10 mile point and we had chatted for a little while during a period that I had scooted ahead of Sachin but then I’d lost both of them at one of the many excellent checkpoints (more on them later). Anyway I’m getting ahead of myself – as Allan approached I was looking into the distance and trying to decide if I was staring at Scotland or if I was staring at the Lake District. I decided it must be Scotland as there were clearly visible hills but Allan assured me that actually I was looking over into the Lakes and that Scotland, or home as we both called it, was in the other direction.

Allan was cool, not bullshit cool, just cool, kinda like the Fonz, in his superdry sunglasses and Highland Fling vest – when I grow up I thought, I want to be like Allan. But when we pulled into the next checkpoint neither of my fellow runners were there and so for the first time in an age I was alone.

It turned out that Allan was a little bit behind me and Sachin was a little bit ahead, I chose to keep moving forward assuming that at some point Allan and every other runner would probably go past me – no need to slow down when I still had energy in my legs.

It’s at this point that I’d like to mention the course and the checkpoints, we were now at about the second checkpoint and it was clear that there was an army of volunteers on the route, all willing you on and the checkpoint teams were just super, super brilliant. Not just in encouragement terms but also in getting you what you wanted. I’d forgetten about marathon checkpoints looked like as I have gotten so used to ultra marathon checks. The tables were pretty simple – water, cola, electrolytes and jelly babies – I don’t need anything else, they did the job they needed to and armed with 2 x 300ml bottles full of active root in my race vest I was well catered for.

That said had I not had my race vest with me then the checkpoints had bottled water that we could use. There were also lots of water stops – I lost count in the end but they were positioned between 3 and 5 miles apart and this meant that you had enough support. The organisers clearly appreciated that running during the summer months can be a challenge and were fully prepared for it. Unlike at some other races I’ve done (looking at you Vanguard Way – read the review here) there was never any hint of a lack of supplies and as I passed that second checkpoint I was very happy with the awesome support that I and the other runners were getting.

Now out on the coast I could finally appreciate the absolutely beautiful location I had come to run at. I spent much of time gazing out across the sands as I pounded the pavements, watching runners in the distance. I wound my way further and further round the route and looking at all the little nuggets of trails with their tree lined shade and thinking, ‘I bet you could have an awesome trail race round here’ and I wonder if they do?

But to the matter at hand I continued forward and up into the next checkpoint, passing two supporters who were following their runner – I think it might have been Micks partner but I couldn’t be 100% sure. However, as I trudged up the little hill in the town I was passing they offered some much needed support – although when I asked them for an ice-cream that was a lot less forthcoming! Ha.

At the top of one of the few little hills on this course there was the next checkpoint and I stopped here for a few minutes, pouring more water over my head, having a bit of banter with the wonderful volunteers and watching as Allan caught me once more.

I set off after I had refilled my now empty bottles and spent a little bit of time with Becks who was doing what good runners do and maintain a good consistent pace and with her I was able to catch up a little on some of the pace that I had lost. Becks soon left me in her dust though, quite rightly might I add and I was once more left to soak up the views. But I could feel myself slowing all the time, the gusto that I had approached the first half had now left my legs but, and this was important, I found myself still running.

Thoughts of finishing in around 4 hours had departed to be replaced by a dose of reality but I realised that I might actually be able to mostly run this one in and so I pressed on bit by bit, making my way slowly to the next checkpoint at mile 18. Somewhere along this section Allan finally caught me for the final time and we got reacquainted after our short chat earlier. He really was a top fella and the kind of person you want to sit down with at a roaring fire and listen to him tell stories of his adventures, his accent was so wonderfully melodic too and I found that very reassuring, it was like one of those velvety voices you used to get on the radio. I didn’t tell him that but I cold have listened to it all day.

Anyway we were running it in, although Allan was employing a walk-run strategy and that seemed like a sensible thing to do and so I found myself joining him and we spent the next little while chatting about adventures, races we’ve done, Daniel Kershaw and how awesome he is, the race to 100 marathons, the race to bagging all the munros and so many other things that filled me with joy. I think the thing I liked most was that he was soon to racing with his 27 year old son for the first time and that gave me hope that my little ASK Adventurer will still take me out when she’s in her 20s.

We pulled into the checkpoint at mile 18 and there were a couple of the most lovely volunteers, as is always the case I try to thank each of them, have a little joke or flirt. But there was something at this checkpoint that I noted and it was a hardcover edition of the Terry Pratchett book ‘Maskerade’ and I found myself chatting to the lovely lady who was reading it. I love a Pratchett novel, with ‘The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents’ being my absolute favourite and ‘The Truth’, ‘Mort’ and ‘Monstrous Regiment’ also being firm favourites – little did I know that my fellow Pratchett fan had a little surprise for me at the finish, but more on that later.

Allan and I pressed on, saying hello to the odd runner that might pass us by or that we might pass, this was one of the friendliest marathons I have ever taken part in and I recall turning to my companion and saying, ‘you know what, I’m really enjoying this’ and I was – I was having a blast. Yes my hamstrings were ruined, the sun was baking, my second toe on my left foot was blistered and I should really have worn some road shoes instead of an older pair of Altra Lone Peak but you simply couldn’t take away the fact that I was smiling.

Allan and I dipped into the mile 22 checkpoint and said hello once more to the volunteers who were here – this was also one of the earlier checkpoints before you disappeared on the long loop of the coast. Once more we had a bit of a laugh and a joke and then we went off, crossing the little bridge and into the clapping hands of supporters and volunteers. ‘You’re doing well guys’ they cried out – now that was very nice to hear but it wasn’t true, I was dying inside and when Allan and I approached the turn to the final few miles I said, ‘you’ll have to go on without me, I might just amble the last few miles I think’. As I was saying this the ambulance that was running up and down the course came hurtling past us with its lights on and I remembered why I often run with other people during races and its because I do better if my mind isn’t fixated on my inner darkness.

As I watched Allan disappearing into the distance with less than 5km to go I made a choice that usually wold elude me, I found my inner grit and I caught up to Allan and decided that I would hang on to his coat tails for as long as I could.

We were now 40km and I had managed to hold on, Allan seemed to be struggling a bit at this late stage but there was no way I was going anywhere without him and so we kept on going together – he pointed in the direction of a couple of towers that represented the finish line and I could feel the finish. A young lady went past us in the final stretch but I was too pleased to care about trying to race her, I was just glad I was going to finish in one piece (ish).

On the final stretch a group of young chaps started to cheer us in but I advised that really I’d appreciate a sarcastic slow hand clap more and they duly obliged – cheeky buggers 🙂 and then the finish, and the people started clapping and cheering to which I shouted, ‘you’ve started too early its going to take me an age to reach you’ and a young lady told me that there was a special gift for me at the finish – I assumed she must have mistaken me for someone else as I didn’t know anyone there.

Anyway the finish was at the bottom of the hill and I said to Allan, ‘let’s sprint this one in’.

All I recall was the hullabaloo of my own voice crying out, ‘I’ve finished, I’ve finished’.

And it was done but the story isn’t over – I was handed my medal, some water and the copy of ‘Maskerade’ that the lovely volunteer had been reading, she had left it for me, and I’ll mention this a little more below as it was an act of kindness that I found incredibly heart warming.

Overview

  • Distance: Marathon
  • Ascent: 112 metres
  • Date: July 2021
  • Location: Kirkbride and the Solway Coast
  • Cost: £30
  • Entrants: 67
  • Terrain: Road
  • Tough Rating: 3/5 (mainly due to the heat)

Route
The route was through a beautiful part of the UK that I had never seen before and would be keen to explore further both on the English side of the border and the Scottish. If all road marathons looked as good as this then I’d probably run more of them. The route is a curious one though and quite confusing if you’ve never run it before, the initial 6 mile loop throws you because you don’t expect to end up back near the start after only an hour out of the blocks but it really works because then when you have done the bigger loop around the coast you are rewarded with a bit of running that you’ve done before. I found I drew mental strength from knowing that I was nearly there.

Organisation
I like a well organised race and this one was brilliant, on the day everything was just right, there was ample parking, there were toilets at all the checkpoints, the volunteers all knew the drill and the general feeling around the event was really positive. The checkpoints were plentiful and each of them was outfitted with everything that a marathoner might need – plus the organisers were happy to take your own bottle of something to some of the checkpoints.

What’s not to like?

The finish line was as well organised as the start and although Covid remains a shadow over events like this it didn’t dominate like it has at other events – possibly given that the rules have been relaxed a bit further since I raced back in May. That said the organisers (and runners) continued to respect the issue that Covid presents and this event was small enough that we all had space and time to adhere to regulations.

Value for money
Seriously guys – you need to charge more!

£30 (ish) isn’t enough, there are races that charge so much more and give a whole lot less. I would add that I had never heard of this race before I entered, therefore it needs more marketing or more social media or something. The race had less than 100 starters and for an event that was crafted with this much care and value I think it deserves a bigger audience. This was a truly great value for money event with a really lovely medal, top notch organisation and a lovely experience all round.

This is probably one of the best value races I have ever run and that’s high praise indeed for such a tight fisted gimboid like me.

Awards
The medal was a real cracker and one that sits proudly with its siblings, my extra gift of the copy of Maskerade by Terry Pratchett was an unexpected and much loved bonus.

Volunteers and support
We all know that the running community needs the support of a large volunteer community and this race looked like it had it by the bucket load. There were lots of volunteers out on the course who were providing directions on an already well marked course. The checkpoint teams were exceptional and couldn’t have been more helpful. I’m a very fortunate runner and have had some great experiences in running but that fun and enjoyment is often built on the hard work and dedication of those who stand in the wet, cold, sweltering heat and worse. The volunteers and the team here were top class and deserve all the plaudits – thank you.

There is also the community to mention – people from the various villages that we passed through waving us on and wishing us well in addition to the pair with the musical instruments and hose and also the second chap who hosed my face down for me at about mile 10 or something. Cyclists, other runners, walkers, even people in cars offering words or signals of support and that really helps when you’re feeling like crap.

Special Mention
I really want to say thank you to the lovely volunteer who left the Terry Pratchett book for me at the finish, I want you to know that it was a gesture that will be repaid, as I ‘pay it forward’ by doing something for someone else. I didn’t get your name, but if you read this and want to get in touch I would love to thank you personally. As I sat in my car on the journey home this thing made this race just that little bit more special.

Runners
I met some awesome runners during this event, Claire, Mick, Sachin, Becks and of course the awesome Allan. Each of you played a very important and critical part in getting me across the start and the finish and I’ll be thankful to each one of you. Allan especially though, your wise words, fantastic company and endurance were the thing that made sure I ran a reasonable time for a change – I hope our paths cross again on either a hill or in a race, maybe both at the same time.

My race
I ran better than usual but my hamstrings are ruined and the Tour of Tameside is going to be absolute murder.

Conclusions
If you are looking for a fast, flat marathon then the Solway Coastal Marathon could be it, if you enjoy running in the sunshine of July then this could be for you. However, if like me you dislike road marathons, you dislike sunshine and heat and you’re a dilapidated old fart of a runner then this could be for you! I absolutely loved this race – don’t ask me why, it has so few of the ingredients I look for in a race, there are no hills, no trails. The thing it does have though is a stunning personality, great views and that small marathon vibe running through it.

If you were considering running this race I would say that on a cooler, crisper day this is most certainly a route that you could run a personal best and even in the heat the amount of checkpoints mean there is enough support to run fast and not suffer too much.

Could they improve anything? Yes… a bit more social media in the right places – I know there is a Facebook page for Sport in Action but I really only came across this by accident and a slightly better website with some of the awesome photographs might really help this wonderful event have more attendees. Hell I’d help them do it because I genuinely thought my days of enjoying tarmac were over but the Solway Coast Marathon defied my own definitions of what I enjoy and that is the gift that will keep on giving.

I highly, highly recommend this race – next time I’ll be wearing road shoes though! Thanks Solway Coast Marathon – you were awesome, probably see you next year.

You can find out more at the Sport in Action or at the Race Best website.

NB: this is an 100% independent and there is no sponsorship, promotion or paid for benefit in this review, just sharing some thoughts on the race. Professional photography courtesy of Carlos Reina Photography

9 comments
  1. Hey, great write up!! Enjoyed reading it! I was one of the cheeky bugger slow clappers at the end! Best of luck for your next race! 😂😂

    • ultraboycreates said:

      Can I say that I very much appreciated that slow hand clap. I’m not winning any races so I’d rather have a laugh with those out on the course. Thank you kindly for the support.

  2. Stuart Walsh said:

    Haha, brilliant! I was the guy with the hose. You got a great pic of me spraying you. Well done for everything!

    • ultraboycreates said:

      Can I say thank you very much – my buff was so soaked that about 10 miles later I could still benefit from it being damp! Same time next year? If you could make it a bucket to throw over me I’d be even more grateful 😂😂

  3. Allan Price said:

    Thank you. Kept me going as well. The walk run strategy kicked in about 10k earlier than I planned. Special praise to the two people who sailed past us between the last two checkpoints, actually pacing themselves to run round a marathon. As predicted my kilometre times fell from around 5 40 in the first 5 miles to 7 40 at the end.
    Unfortunately you might hear the same stories again next time. Never in my life been called cool before, and don’t expect I will again. Enjoy the Munros with your daughter.

    • ultraboycreates said:

      Hi Allan, let me assure you – you are cool! And I look forward to the same stories the next time we meet! And you’re spot on about the guys who left us for dead between the last checkpoints – they were awesome

  4. Stuart Walsh said:

    Haha, will see what I can do! I’d take part if the weather wasn’t so brutal. Whose idea was it to have a marathon in the middle of summer!?

    • ultraboycreates said:

      What you need is a nice chap to follow you found with a hose!

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