Jersey Easter Marathon
By Slow Paul
The Jersey Easter Marathon is a brand new race, organised by a trail running nut called Digby at Hare & Tortoise Events on Jersey. If you’ve never been to Jersey, this is not a big place. The Isle of Wight could beat the crap out of it in a war. The race itself followed this example by being as low key as the VLM is huge. There were 23 of us running the marathon plus two teams of two doing the marathon relay and another 28 of so running the half marathon. We are talking small. Instead of a pre-race Expo, Digby had dropped my running number off by hand at my hotel.
We met up in a car park near Goray Castle in the east of the island, where race HQ was centred on the back of a van and a rickety trestle table in constant danger of flying off in the strong wind. The promised tea and coffee at the start failed to materialise because, as Digby apologetically explained, he had dropped and smashed his thermos flask.
Digby ran through a few housekeeping rules and then we collected next to the start flags. In view of the size of the field, he had dispensed with the need for starting pens, so we all set off at the same time, half marathoners included.
The geography of Jersey is varied. Shaped a little like Australia, it slopes from north to south, from high cliffs and rocky coves to low flat bays where the tide goes out for miles and leaves acres of golden sand. The wind was mainly behind us to start with and, after a few miles of road running, we came out on the pavements and esplanade alongside the beach. The views were wonderful and the fresh sea air was like a legal high all of its own. Not being as fit as I would normally be for a marathon, I had to rein myself in on the first half as much as possible, because I’d seen the race profile and knew all the hard work would be in the second half of the race. That’s normal for a marathon of course, but this race would be more so than any other I’ve run.
After nearly eleven miles of, literally, coasting along, I met my wife Julie and in-laws Richard and Trish outside a café in St Aubin, near our hotel, where I picked up an energy bar and drink, ready for the tricky bit. The next few miles followed the island’s disused railway line, up through the trees. Sheltered from the wind and the sun, which was now out and shining nicely, the trail surface was safe and even and the incline was steady. There was a decent crowd of well-wishers and supporters at the finish line for the half marathon, but in no time at all, they were behind us and the tough part began.
It was sad to see more runners out doing separate runs in groups and singly than were doing the race itself, but hopefully, as word gets round, more locals will latch on to the Easter Marathon and give it a go. For a visitor, even one like me who had been to Jersey a few times before, the scenery was about to take over.
At the end of the railway trail, we emerged on top of the headland overlooking the dramatic cliffs and rocks where la Corbiere lighthouse stood solid against the crashing waves. The next mile or so was the calm before the storm, with the road winding down the hillside. Digby had succumbed to his love of all things trail by inserting a short cut at this point that he assured us took out a very steep hill. He didn’t mention it was replaced by a very steep path, with stones that felt like hole punches in the soles of my lightweight road shoes.
Then we were on the flat, at the start of Five Mile Road. This is the only road on the island that doesn’t have a 30 or 40 mph speed limit, so it has historically been where the rich boys finally manage to get their Porsches and Ferraris out of second gear. It’s also where the island’s police traditionally pick up the costs of the Christmas Ball.
Five Mile Road runs alongside the most spectacular bay I have ever seen, called St Ouens (pronounced ‘ones’). The beautiful flat sand stretches out half a mile at low tide and the sand yachts were in full flow as I ran along the roadside. By now, I was running full into the strong wind and could feel the energy being drained out of me. But this is the beauty of a low key marathon. Julie and the others simply drove along the road, leap-frogging me and getting out ready to cheer me on before jumping back in the car and doing it again a mile or two further on. Forget about reserving a place at a barrier for four hours in order to catch a quick glimpse of a disappearing bum as your runner comes past. This was runner and supporter almost hand-in-hand and it helped no end as I finally reached the end of the bay and started the loop around the hamlet of l’Etacq.
It was here that I really started to struggle and encountered the first steep hill. Fortunately, it was a ‘false’ one, as the route turned off it halfway up and dropped back down into l’Etacq. Now there was some relief, as the lovely country roads wound through the hinterland of the bay, parallel with Five Mile Road but benefiting from the shelter of the escarpment on my left and the views back across St Ouens towards la Corbiere.
Finally, the tricky bit. At mile 24 the road started winding up the hillside below the airport. It was steep and then it got steeper and then it got really steep. I knew I was going to have to walk most of this and had planned my pacing to leave enough on my watch to lose some spare minutes on this part, but my problems back at l’Etacq had cost me this cushion and I knew my sub-4:00 target had slipped away. The race profile (yes, there was a great race profile gradient map on the website) showed a total elevation gain of 982 feet overall. It was a bit like running 24 miles, climbing the Eiffel Tower and then having a fast finish to recover. I clawed back a little bit of time from the top of the hill to the finishing line in the St Quenennevais sports centre. In keeping with the hands-on nature of the whole race, there were the earlier finishers and supporters, including my family, all gathered on the finishing line to cheer me home. After a drink and the promised Easter egg, there was just a forty yard walk to the car in the car-park alongside the finish.
We all met up again in the evening at a beach-side bar in St Brelade’s Bay. A Finnish guy had entered the race while on holiday in Jersey, but had got lost halfway road and ended up at the half marathon finish line again by mistake, costing him a 3:00-ish time and first place. The last lady in, with a time of just over six hours, had effectively done an ultra, by turning left instead of right near the end, despite a clearly visible arrow sign, and done an extra couple of miles. I missed out on my age group prize but was given a small bottle of Prosecco as the only mainlander to have made the trip.
In summary? Don’t dismiss low key events, whatever the distance, but certainly not for marathons. If you usually do your long slow runs on your own and enjoy the solitude of running in beautiful scenery, where you can actually see the sights and hear the birdsong, where your supporters can pick and choose where and how often they see you, and feel so much more a part of the event as a result, then races like this are for you. This was my thirteenth marathon so far and by far the prettiest one I’ve run.
Next stop, the land of ice and fire; the Reykjavik Marathon in Iceland in August.