Part 1 - By Dave Sherman
Celebrating its 50th birthday next year and referred to by many as ‘Britain’s newest town’ but by others as ‘the concrete jungle’, Milton Keynes (or MK, as the town is commonly referred to) was born out of a government effort to relieve London’s housing congestion, planned to be equidistant from London, Birmingham, Leicester, Oxford and Cambridge, and formed from an area which was predominantly farmland and undeveloped villages into the grid of dual carriageways and roundabouts we know today. However if you look beyond the concrete, you’re left with a huge network of paths for cyclists, runners and walkers known as ‘Redways’ (named as they’re generally surfaced with red tarmac) which offer 270 km of safe paths criss-crossing the entire city, and over 5,000 acres of parkland, rivers, lakes and woodland.
Known as the ‘Green Marathon’ due to the beautiful green spaces the course passes through, the MK Marathon has only been running since 2012 when 2,924 runners took part; however the event weekend now hosts a Marathon, Half Marathon, Relay, 5k and 2.62k Superhero Fun Run. This year’s event attracted less Marathon runners than that initial outing with 1,955 runners taking part, however including 2,219 Half Marathoners and people completing the other distances, there were a total of over 8,000 entries for all events over the weekend.
As with most well organised marathons, plenty of emails provided important information such as how to get there, where to park and about starting zones in the lead-up to race day. Unfortunately for the race organisers but through no fault of their own, the event encountered a few issues including printing errors on the race numbers and the removal of their website by their hosting company; however despite these setbacks communications were clear, potential problems were avoided, and the final race instructions including a detailed A5 booklet were sent in good time.
Although I won’t go into too much detail as the Race Organisers have stated it’s unlikely it’ll be repeated in 2017, a 5k downhill point-to-point event was also held the day before this year’s main event offering runners a chance to run part of the course and collect a third ‘Milton Keynes Challenge’ cow medal after their race the following day. The race started on CMK Boulevards (part of the ½ mile long shopping centre which holds the Guinness World Record for being the longest in the world) and finished outside stadiumMK and as 1,244 of us took part it served as a great pre-main event leg-loosener and showed us what to expect the following day when we’d again be running along Saxon Street during the race’s early stages, but in the opposite direction...
Race day arrived and it was 11 degrees when we arrived with a cloudy sky, which would climb to 15 with limited clouds throughout the morning – perfect weather for running! Parking was nice and simple and the race venue was only a short walk from the car-park. The atmosphere inside the stadium was great and because of the size of the venue, there were plenty of toilets and space inside to get ready, and the bag drop was manned by an army of local cub scouts. Just outside the stadium a family zone had been created complete with climbing wall and bungee trampolines (although I’ll admit I was disappointed to see a ‘pick and mix’ sweet van at an event promoting a healthy activity!).
Getting to the start line was chaotic as the Half Marathoners started with the Marathon runners meaning 5,000 runners attempted to squeeze into the four coloured start pens, and this wasn’t helped when the marshal carrying the ‘Blue zone’ sign stood in the wrong place, causing blue zone runners to create a road block for anyone trying to get into their pens! He eventually realised his mistake at 9:57 – 3 minutes before the race was due to start - and moved taking most of the blue group with him, however as the gates had been closed a number of us had to climb over metal railings to get into our zone! Waves were released separately with a short delay between each, meaning once we were through the start-line inflatables and on to the wide dual carriageway, there was plenty of space to find your pace without the need to zig-zag.
The first few miles of the course took us along Saxon Street on a gentle climb towards the town centre and along CMK Boulevards (part of the ½ mile long shopping centre which holds the Guinness World Record for being the longest in the world). This initial section along dual carriageways and around roundabouts attracted limited supporters (although people cheering from above on flyovers was a nice touch!), but at mile 5.5 we left the main roads and headed into residential areas, and from this point until the final mile the route took advantage of Redways and residential streets and we were surrounded by trees, fields and lakes for almost the entire route. There was also great support from local residents all along the route with plenty of people offering buckets of jelly babies to runners as they passed.
At mile 7.5 the course split as the marathon runners headed out towards Milton Keynes Village while the Half Marathoners headed towards Monkston Park to begin their journey back to the stadium, and at this point of the race I was having a great time – so much so that I’d been carried with the crowd and covered the first few miles much faster than I’d expected – at the halfway point I was on track for sub-3h30m – a PB by over 5 minutes! I’d chosen to wear my Scimitar Sports ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ vest again for this race and although I didn’t hear as many ‘Go on the turtle!’ shouts as I’d experienced in Brighton, this time it was more a case of ‘Is that a turtle?’, ‘It’s a turtle!’ with one person shouting ‘Go on the Hulk!’ and the vest definitely got me some cheers! I even heard one little boy say ‘Mummy – I want a top like that’ to which Mum responded ‘And when you run a marathon I’ll get you one’!
Water stations appeared every 2-3 miles and each stop offered bottles of water with energy drinks available in cups at miles 9, 15 and 21 and energy gels at miles 12 and 18. ‘Litter drop zones’ were positioned after each water station, some of which were incredibly short giving just enough time to take a quick swig and dump your bottle, but most of which were long enough to have a good drink – vital as the morning warmed up gradually. There were portable toilets at each water station which I definitely appreciated as, without wanting to go into too much detail, I started suffering from stomach problems early on due to poor food choices in the days leading up to the race, and as a result made good use of three of them!
Over the following miles we passed a number of landmarks and as someone who can sometimes spend parts of a race ‘in the zone’ when racing, it was great to see signs had been set up highlighting some of the main sights along the route (including whether to look left or right!) such as the Peace Pagoda, Windmill, Roman Ruins and of course Milton Keynes’ famous Concrete Cows.
We also passed a number of lakes including Willen Lake, Tongwell Lake, Lodge Lake and the Tear-drop lakes, and the calm weather as we ran alongside these water features brought a sense of serenity – perfect when you’re trying to knuckle down and get through those final miles. These sights also came in useful when at mile 18, my body finally gave up on me and my stomach cramps became too painful for me to maintain the pace I’d been running at forcing me to slow down – initially to 9 minute miles and eventually to a walk/run ‘get me home’ pace. This could’ve easily resulted in 8 torturous miles of wishing I’d opted for the Half Marathon instead of the full distance, but the beautiful scenery and excellent crowd support helped carry me along and rather than struggling, I found myself enjoying the final few miles and using the support to attempt to block out the pain – even if it was at a much slower pace than I would’ve liked.
One of the things I’d been warned about with this event were the number of underpasses as, let’s face it, in a town famous for its grid of dual carriageways you’re going to need to go over or under the main roads at some point! However most of these appeared towards the end of the race and even then, it was often a case of a sharp descent into the underpass and a gradual climb back out the other side – the route changed in 2013 following participant feedback so it’s clear the organiser had taken note of people’s comments about the first event. As we entered the final mile one last underpass took us back up onto Saxon Street and before long we passed through the junk-food barrier (KFC on one side of the road and McDonalds on the other) and into StadiumMK’s grounds. One final jog around the outside of the stadium, past the family zone, past a mis-placed 200m to go sign (we still had a lap of the Football pitch to complete which was definitely over 200m long!) and we headed down a slope towards the pitch…
Now I’ve been fortunate enough to finish a few races in stadiums including the Madjeski Stadium in Reading and the Olympic Stadium in Stratford, and that feeling of emerging from the tunnel into a huge open stadium and hearing the cheers of supporters sitting in the stands always makes me grin from ear to ear! Even when the venue isn’t filled, the sound carries brilliantly as a result of the stadium’s acoustics and even if you’re seriously flagging, as was the case with me that day, the atmosphere encourages you to dig deep and find that extra bit of energy so you can sprint finish over the line…
As I entered the stadium I literally flew round that pitch and as I crossed the line I checked my watch – I’d finished in 3 hours 39 minutes and 48 seconds – a time I was delighted with considering how terrible I’d felt at 18 miles! As I passed through the finish area I was allowed time to recover and have a stretch-out before collecting my medal, being given a couple of bottles of water and a banana, and then a short walk took me into the baggage hall to collect my bag and an awesome event t-shirt. As VJ and I had also completed the Rocket 5k we were also given our ‘cow’ medal giving us both 3 huge pieces of race bling as our rewards for a hard weekends work!
I’ll admit I’d gone into this race hunting for a personal best and if I’d felt good I could’ve easily knocked 5 minutes off my current PB, but as is often the case with long distance running, it takes a number of factors to make this happen on race day and in my situation this wasn’t to be. However I’m confident this course is a personal best course and although the undulations and underpasses make me hesitant to say ‘fast and flat’ – two adjectives race organisers love to use to describe their events - the sheer beauty of the route and support around the course mean the miles fly by and you’ll absolutely love this race – especially the awesome stadium finish!
Part 2 – By Vijay Algoo
Once we were in the stadium, having parked up a few minutes walk away, everything was pretty good. We managed to get hold of a banana for some pre-race energy and found a space to chill out whilst getting ready for the race. There had been some confusing messages in emails before the race regarding headphones and whether or not we were allowed them. From previous races I had done, I couldn’t see why it would be an issue but decided against them as this seemed to be what had been instructed by the race organisers most recently.
Nearer the start time we decided to head down to the race line, it did seem a bit chaotic near the start line with some people possibly standing in wrong areas, but I managed to walk down and find my area relatively fine. In the holding pen, I wasn’t too far away from the start line, but anything that was being said or announced was impossible to hear. But in fairness, all I was waiting for was the start of the race.
Once the race started we took off alongside the stadium and then away and into full race mode. The first 6 to 7 miles of the route all marathon and half marathon runners were together, which was fun having everyone together and so many people around. We were along the main streets for parts and other in more residential areas. All in all the route was really nice and enjoyable, which was helped by the fact that half an hour into the race the sun came out and was beaming down on us. Not the best conditions for running, but it certainly brightened up the course and probably bought more spectators out for the event.
At around the 7-mile mark, the full and half marathon routes split. As I was in the half I was told to go off to the right while full marathon runners carried on. At this point the half marathon runners went into the parks area and through some fields and along park pathways. We ran by horses in adjacent fields, by the lake and near wooded areas, a great run on a beautiful day.
Once we got to the last couple miles we were back on the roads and heading back in the direction of the stadium. At this point I was struggling in my race, wishing the end to appear every second. I think the heat had got to me and the idea of spending the day in a pub garden somewhere seemed like a more sensible way to have enjoyed the sun. But never the less, after not too long you could see the stadium and I knew I was on the home stretch. I was down alongside the stadium once again and looking out for any signs of the end. After passing a “200m to finish line” sign I was cheering up (although, I’m pretty sure that was more than 200m to go) and digging deep to give anything I had left. Not long after that was a gentle slope up into the stadium and there we were running round the pitch making our way to the finish line.
Once we crossed the finish line, we were handed our medals and water, then we were straight into the runner’s area to receive the goody bag, t-shirt and a couple bananas too. It’s worth pointing out at this point how great the staff were at this event, along the route they were all super energetic, helpful and cheerful, and back at the stadium after the race, I was worried about being able to get back into the runner’s area if I left, to which a security guard replied “just make sure you’re wearing your medal. If you have that on, it’s basically an access all areas pass” which it has to be said, it pretty much was. They were all very helpful and accommodating.
I short, the Milton Keynes half marathon was a nice course, with great staff and really enjoyable atmosphere. I’d be happy to do it again and I’d recommend it for any half or full marathon runners.
Registration for the 2017 event will open on the 1st July 2016, but you can find out more about the Milton Keynes Marathon by visiting www.mkmarathon.com