“A little nonsense, now and then, is relished by the wisest men.” – Willy Wonka
7:00am on Father’s day and rather guiltily I thank my twin boys for the Peppa Pig branded Super dad socks they have kindly bought me and head out on the road.
Today’s marathon was going to be over a 200 mile round road trip and one I would never make under usual circumstances. The problem is that this was another one of those brain child races from Sussex Trail Events (STE). Part of something that’s been unofficially branded as the series of Bizarre marathons, now the 5th race in the series, only three people remain in the race for the last man standing who have completed all of them. I’m stupid enough to be one of them and so here I was on my way to the World’s first marathon held in a prison.
The venue was to be Shepton Mallet Prison, Somerset. With the residents having left sometime back in 2013 the Wardens opened up the gates for 100 athletes to run 78 laps of the prison in and around A and B wing, through the exercise yard, segregation and up way too many sets of stair cases for my liking. A total of around 6000 stairs for the marathon.
I made it to Shepton Mallet with 30 minutes to spare so said hello to Chris and Jay (the race directors) who were busy with last minute preparations and could have probably done without my interruption. Too bad, I was far too excited for this one.
Having turned up and looking around the prison it really felt like they had out done themselves this time. Previous races of the marathon series had been held in a multi-story car park, South end pier, the Amex football Stadium and on a treadmill. All brilliant within their own right however the atmosphere of the prison felt like it stimulated everyone’s senses of self-indulgent chaos with an extremely higher potency of “WTF am I doing!” than the previous races.
I met up with a few of my 100 marathon club mates and managed to get a pic with David and Mark, my two rivals still left in the race to be the last man standing.
Chris gave the race briefing with the emphasis on H&S, overstating that they didn’t want any accidents (I’d imagine the boys would have had to jump through several hoops and Risk Assessment rewrites to satisfy the authorities in order to put this on). Some degree of nervousness from both directors and runners filled the yard. This was a tall ask given the narrow corridors, several staircases and distance of a marathon to contend with.
The race started and I made a conscious effort to lead the first lap, not wanting to be stuck in the lemmings system that would surely start as soon as the first stair case or corridor came. The first 250 yards were out in the open round the perimeter before we found our first stair well encounter. A quick climb up a few stairs and then out into the exercise yard where we were greeted with a marshal dressed in full police riot gear and another dressed as a judge with gabble and wig. Both screaming at me in full character I burst out laughing as did the field behind me. This was already awesome and I hadn’t even completed a lap.
First lap done and we knew what we had to endure for the next 25.something miles. As with all the bizarre marathons the novelty wore off but not as quickly as the previous ones had. It took me till half marathon to start shouting at Chris and Jay about how painful this one was. This is a process that always seems to happen with me. These bizarre ones seem to ignite the passion for my running again and I am loving the world and the insanity of the marathon world I live in. At some stage feelings then change and I wonder what the hell I am doing and how STE are the most hated men in my life for putting me through all this. I like to think it’s all done in good taste and the boys do not mind my consistent moaning and shouting at them half way through these marathons.
Chris had mentioned in the race briefing that they would appreciate it if lap counts were not asked for every 5 minutes. I held out until I thought I was around half way then asked the question. I was bang on having done 39 laps. A number of runners would keep asking me for my lap count, presumably using me as a benchmark for something. I quite enjoyed being the bearer of bad news to most of them presuming they had been lapped more than they thought they had and that the pain would end sooner.
The strategy for the race seemed to be to sprint the yard and perimeter of the prison on each lap and take it easy on the stairs and corridors unless the coast was clear. This turned the marathon into a High Intensity Training workout which was suicide. I got to what I thought was around 20 miles and was done in. First place at this stage was around 1 lap ahead and I couldn’t close the gap. My nearest rivals behind me were also struggling as I was which gave me some comfort.
After 4hours and 17 minutes I had completed the course, complete with a mega sound system and keg of ale at the aid station in the yard to some joking about with Jimi Hendrick and Gary Fowle. All I would do is shout their name each time I saw them, but it kept me and them entertained…. I think. I also got into the habit of asking Sharon Daw if she wanted to “hear the good news” each time our paths crossed. Most of the time there would be no good news. Towards the end there was some terribly good news as I’d tell I had only a few laps to go. I don’t think she saw this as good news, but again it kept me entertained.
Crossing (or skipping) over the line I was told that some chap wanted an interview. I asked him who he was reporting for and he did say but I was too fatigued to digest the information. I gave the guy with the camera around 90 seconds of material and that was that.
I made my way to the yard to grab a beer and have a dance whilst the rest of the field whittled down their laps, said my goodbyes and made it back home.
The following day the social media feed was nuts. Sussex trail events had finally made it on national TV (BBC Breakfast). I was tagged by several sources all advising me they saw me whilst eating their cornflakes. My 90 second interview had been whittled down to just the finish! (To see a longer version but still heavily edited interview with Jay and a few of us at the finish click here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DpBgjHGjsHk).
Never mind – I was made up for Jay, Chris and Danny.
This series of bizarre marathons had always come with some interest usually at a local level but half way through the prison race I could tell that this was the one. The team had nailed it. I can’t imagine the work they put into it or the barriers they probably work tirelessly to overcome to put these on. STE are truly pioneers, the dream makers, makers of dreams not put off by dreaming a little bigger!
To me the Prison marathon despite being the hardest was most definitely the best piece of art the boys have produced to date. Perfectly planned and seamlessly executed on the day it is going to take a long time for the smile not to come to my face every time I recall the memory of Shepton Mallet.
To some this could be utter nonsense, grown adults dressing up in fancy dress, running round a prison for most of the day. To me the boys had painted a masterpiece. If there is a hall of fame for marathons then this is definitely one to be inducted.
I cannot express my gratitude to them enough and I thank them for allowing me to be a part of it. Please god let’s have a little break until the next one though. X