Tales from Kew Gardens – Fast Running

Tales from Kew Gardens  Fast Running

Now that the dust has settled on the GB marathon trials, Fast Running’s Gill Bland caught up with some of the women who raced in Kew to hear their tales from the trials. 

Pre race energies 

Everyone likes to get obsessive about the weather and what they eat the night before their race, and with high stakes like the trials, of course this was no different. 

Clara Edwards, laughs ‘us runners really are a funny bunch’, ‘ it was so funny seeing all the athletes arrive with their cooking paraphernalia in the lobby. I saw microwaves, I took a toaster for my breakfast, the only thing that didn’t get bought was a kitchen sink!’ .

Reading AC’s Naomi Mitchell recalls that “everyone was in really good spirits and excited to race. We were all trying to gauge the weather on our warm up loop to see how windy it was going to be” and Rosie Edwards found “the energy around the race was so positive and I think every athlete was grateful to be there. It felt different to all other marathons. There was a positive atmosphere and gratitude.”

The level of attrition from this lead pack was possibly higher than usual on the slightly lonely looped route in Kew. Credit: Nigel Bramley/Alamy Live News

Going in confident

The only one already with a qualifying time, Steph Davis had been waiting a long time to run this race and had plenty of time to think about what might happen.

But rather than focussing on the magnitude of the task the Clapham Chaser made sure she just had a “pre-race chat with my coach and played through different scenarios in my mind so that in the moments before the start I was only focussing on the warmup and the final bits of preparation”.

That said, she did “change outfit about three times” thanks to the very mixed forecast.

Of course this was no normal race situation and for marathon debutante Becky Briggs there was not only the first time nerves but also the fact that “the concept of a start line felt so unfamiliar” and they had to do “our warmup strides with a mask on”.

Imagine racing the trials in the middle of a pandemic as your first marathon – and as the youngest competitor!

Running into the wind

What might not have been completely clear from the online coverage was that while the course was indeed a fast one, and the potentially sharp corners had been carefully smoothed out, there was quite a headwind on the longest straight section of the route. 

As we now know, the race ranged from textbook, to tantalising, to unexpectedly wonderful, to frustratingly awful for the women taking part. Understandably some didn’t want to think about it again because it was all a bit too raw, but others were able to share some of the positives and negatives of the day.

Elite marathoners are not immune to stomach and nutrition issues and that does seem to have been a common theme of this race.

Some just had to battle with the trials of being female – Charlotte Taylor-Green had bad stomach issues due to being on her period but refuses to be upset by it “you can’t control everything – my body and health is priority and I did what I had to for me… I want to continue running for a long time, there’s no rush”. 

Not every plan works out as you want

For Naomi Mitchell the day didn’t pan out as she hoped either, “early on I had some frustrating stomach cramps but was finding the pace easy. I decided to drop back and let my stomach settle but…the wind meant I couldn’t get back into a rhythm and ended up slowing”. 

Youngster Becky Briggs had an impressive start and kept going with the pacers for as long as possible. Many commented at the time on her gutsy attitude and it was only at half way that she took the decision to drop back a bit after realising that the pace was too intense.

Unfortunately it was too late and the damage was done “it was like I hit a wall, I didn’t take nearly enough fuel in the first half and really paid the price for that”.

Becky Briggs tackling hard solo miles in the second half. Photo: Nigel Bramley

It’s an easy mistake to make when everything is feeling good and Becky told us that she nearly gave in at 21 miles (which she’d completed at 2:32 pace). “My mind and body were really fighting each other but I was determined to get to the end“.

One wonders whether a bit more of an atmosphere might have helped her out at this point and Bekcy agrees “it would have made a huge difference. All the marshalls there did a great job, but nothing beats a roaring crowd all the way round. There were some really lonely parts of Kew”.

Instead she battled on with just the covid-safe crew doing their best to help out, “around 10k to go was really bad, my vision had blurred and I was stumbling around but I kept telling myself ‘Becky you do not give up, that is not who you are’ “. And she did, completing the race in 2:38:58 after walk-running the last 5 miles.

Training the gut for race day too

Sarah Inglis, one of the pre-race favourites had a similarly gruelling trudge to the end, but she doesn’t think even a crowded mass-marathon would have helped her ““I had a similar experience in Arizona (her debut of 2:29:41) with no crowds. I don’t think it made much of a difference.. If it had been my first race I’d have said never again”.

She puts her experience down to not training enough with the gels she planned to use “the first bit felt easy and within myself but I felt sick from miles 16-18 and I couldn’t take any bottles or fuel and my pace just dropped off…I tried self talk, mantras, everything but the negative talk became overwhelming and I was so glad to see the finish line.

“My grandmother said she felt so sad for me when she saw me sat on the curb at the end.”

Becky Briggs leading the pace early on in her marathon debut with Sarah Inglis also at the front of the lead group with Steph Davis. Photo: Nigel Bramley

The race begins at 20 miles…

Wales’s Clara Evans had a much less dramatic experience but still had her own issues with nutrition, she felt “incredible to 30k (her 25-30k split was only beaten by Steph) but my fuelling strategy just wasn’t right. I’d never raced with what I used on the day and I think I’ve learned the lesson that it doesn’t work for me. Perhaps in normal times I‘d have had a chance to trial them in a half marathon but it wasn’t to be. I was being sick a lot from 20 miles and I just couldn’t take on anything which was a massive shame as my legs had more to give.”

Evans had moved up into third place with 5k to go but lost about a minute on the last lap and when it was finished I was just happy it was over”. Despite that, she ran a storming time and qualified for the Commonwealth Games.

Not everyone had a tough day at the office

Rosie Edwards shows that flexible fuelling can pay off. She “was surprised when the whole field seemed to go out with the 2:28/29 pacers but held back and stuck to the plan”.

By mile nine other women were coming back to her and she passed through halfway in 1:15:48. But it wasn’t all plain sailing. By mile 15 she did “feel pretty rough, really rough like my legs were going, but I had an extra gel on me in case I missed a bottle (which I hadn’t) so I took it as a boost and it worked like a miracle”.

When the pacer stopped at 33k she knew it was time to concentrate “I was waiting for the wall and it never came…I was trying to do the maths” to see if she could get the Commonwealth Games time (spoiler, she did). “The last lap was so fun and I was still feeling good until the last 800m. I thought I was about 10th, just scraping the CWG standard but I was so excited to finish third in 2:31. Crazy”. 

The star of the show

Finally of course there’s Steph Davis for whom the planning and training all came together in what looked like an effortless display of race execution. But even she wasn’t immune to gut issues –  “I felt controlled throughout the race – apart from when I got stitch around 4k in! I usually have a pretty tough stomach and rarely get stitches, so this threw me a little, I was shouting to my coach to switch my energy drinks to water so that was a last-minute scramble!”

After that though things settled in. “The first half felt quiet so I had no idea how everyone was feeling behind me…we went through half bang on pace. Although I felt relaxed I didn’t want to do anything too early as the second half of a marathon can feel very long if you make mistakes early on!”.

As we watched the coverage, it looked like Steph made a conscious decision to break away just after 13 miles but she says “I don’t remember actively making a decision…I think it happened when we moved into single file to let the men’s race past.”

“I wasn’t aware of how big my lead was and I couldn’t take anything for granted until I’d crossed that finish line! Of course this race wasn’t about time but rather getting that top-two placing and it was only “at around 500m to go I passed a big clock and knew I was close to my PB. I was delighted to bag a small one!”.

Post race feelings 

Celebrating success and learning from less-than perfect performance are an important part of the racing cycle.

For Naomi Mitchell, the initial blow of seeing a race which didn’t reflect her training has led her to reflect that “I have now experienced what is needed to gut out a tough race and I’m sure this will be of benefit to me in the future”, though she also says she learned that “racing in the wind is much harder than I thought!”. 

Steph Davis celebrates winning the women’s marathon and securing her place to run the marathon at the Tokyo Olympics. Credit: Nigel Bramley/Alamy Live News

For Becky, her big takeaway has been that fuelling a half marathon is very different to a full marathon and needs some practice in training. That said, “giving up on my dreams is simply not a choice. I’m even more determined to get the marathon right one day and show what I’m capable of”.

Lockdown difficulties my have played an impact

A long chat with Sarah Inglis as she endured her hotel-lockdown upon re-entry to Canada found her frustrated but upbeat. All things considered, a late flight to the UK (she arrived only a few days before due to teaching duties and suffered bad jet lag) and “getting complacent” about her fuelling are the two things she thinks made the difference.

For now, she’s going to turn her thought to the track and will try to qualify for the 10,000m. “I’m excited” she says, “I did a 10k PB in a time trial in the build up to this and I’ve got nothing to lose”.

Clara Evans (who ran the biggest PB of the day) clearly has more to offer in future races, “I don’t think I’ve ever felt so fresh as I did the day after this race” but was delighted to see three Welsh PBs in the top 5 of the race.

“I may need some time to improve to get to the games, but the success of others is what has made this happen as we all push each other to improve. My coach Chris Jones has been instrumental in the progress for the Welsh standards in distance running”.

Like many she feels that the trials offered a new and more prominent way to showcase British talent,  “I hope they keep these events standalone.. I feel like everyone can relate toThommo and Steph’s journey’s… this would have been lost amongst a bigger race”. 

Always chasing better performances

Rosie Edwards may have smashed her PB and got third place but she’s not immune to a bit of “what if”, “I do feel like I played it safe for too long. Perhaps I could have gone a few miles earlier, but then I may not have finished as I did. I am excited to be braver in my next one”.

The final word has to go to Marathon Trial champion and the only auto-qualifier for team GB, Steph Davis.  “I always take two weeks off to fully recover and mentally reset. My focus now is to have a healthy build to the Olympics and stay injury free – that’s a pretty good motivator to take your recovery seriously!