Running in circles: my track marathon

In summer 2007, I jogged 8km alone on my club’s track. I have rarely been so bored. This unfond memory was just one of many reasons why, on New Year’s Eve, with a browser window open and debit card in hand to enter Warrington’s winter track marathon, I should have stopped myself.

I’d had no joy with the London ballot, and none of the other early-year marathons appealed. So when word reached me of a track marathon in my home town, at the scene of more or less every personal best I set as a youngster (as well as the finish of my one-and-only sub-2hr half, two years ago), all thoughts turned to flatness, bouncy-bouncy track and the lack of need for a running belt. These somehow over-rode the small matter of 105 laps, plus 195 metres, and what this could do to a runner’s head.

Prior to race day, the second of two in the weekend organised by locals Contest Running Co, we had been forewarned that runners would change direction every two hours (kinder on the leg leading the way on the bend). In the event, this didn’t happen. Several entrants were, heroically, running on both days, with Saturday seeing traditional anticlockwise action. So, to help preserve their left legs – and possibly inspired by post-Storm Doris howls that could have sent traffic cones over the perimeter fence – the decision was taken to send us round clockwise for the full duration.

Transponders were strapped with Velcro to ankles to tot up the laps, allied to announcements from officials to help people keep track of their progress. Accompanying the calls, a communal playlist was compiled from suggestions from every entrant; a nice touch, slightly hampered by the fact that genuine bangers were rubbing shoulders with – for example – Flying Without Wings, two Wurzels tracks and Glory, Glory, Man United.

Alongside solo entrants was a team event where up to four runners could break up the distance in any way they saw fit, flitting in and out Le Mans-style. To my mild horror, I was lapped by one such runner after just 600 metres. Having run that pesky 195 metres at the start, I was beginning to lap runners myself around the mile mark. A mess of overtakings, lappings, undertakings and – later – unlappings ensured an event where manual untangling of the results would be impossible without confiscating everyone’s watches and smartphones. Within two laps, one female entrant returning from the previous day made for a custom water station and emerged with a bottle of beer. Everyone around her was filled with awe.

An hour in and the high winds around the back straight were beginning to take a toll. The undeniable upsides to a track marathon had made for an enjoyable opening, but clear downsides crept in. No ups and downs make for a fast pace, but they leave you utterly exposed. There’s no hard parts, but no downhill means no respite. And those foot and leg muscles that react to every kerb, crack and minor camber adjustment become dangerously complacent.

Yet it was the mental toll that left its mark. For long stretches I trudged, head bowed, staring intently at the white line separating lanes one and two. Just enough room for the quicker folk to pass on the inside, but not so far out to rack up too many extras (I had finish tracked at under 26.3 miles). At one point I followed a female runner ahead, and in my shoegazing stance realised we were wearing the same running shoes. But were they exactly the same? Green rather than blue? I closed in to find that a) the black shoes weren’t even the same brand, b) it was a man, not a women, and c) I used to work with him. My wife, Roo, stoically handing out gels and lip balm for the duration, had secretly assembled a flip-chart series of custom motivational banners (favourites: one to gee me up in “my favourite font”, Comic Sans; another, an uncaptioned photo of Perri Shakes-Drayton). My increasingly floorward posture – as the wind played havoc with the flipchart – started to make this less fun for her.

Just after the finish, with Stuart’s wife’s hand showing her manual tally of the laps (made using a sharpened eyeliner). Photograph: Roo Goodwin

As the afternoon wore on and finishers left the track, the field thinned and the endless trail of overtaking runners dried up. I – despite my abridged training telling horribly in the final hour – became the quickest remaining. One last push, one last grind to near-halt due to a back-straight squall, and – thanks to that extra 195 metres, coupled with our direction of travel – an odd-feeling sprint finish ending 45 metres after the final corner.

In the event I scythed 23mins off my previous marathon best, just outside my 4hr 20min target for the day, but I’m not sure I’ll run another track marathon. It’s an oddly fascinating challenge with a lot going for it: small field, light load and fast pace to be had if your training is there and conditions are kind. The training involved has shrugged off my usual early-year laziness, leading to two recent parkrun PBs, and having seemingly gone round in circles with my running for the past year, it’s pleasing to find that it can – perversely – be quite a good thing.