The Big Pilgrimage Marathon 2023

I haven’t been blogging for a while now. I feel sad as it’s been such a presence in my life since… 2012? Wow. Clearly though I don’t feel as compelled to document aspects of my life in this format as frequently. I tend to use Instagram more, I guess (@AnnaTheAppleBlog).

However I enjoy writing my race recaps. If only for myself really so I have something to look back at and remember. And potentially it could be helpful for others if they’re looking for more of a colloquial account of what a race is like.

So anyway, I ran a race! A marathon… shocking I know. I ran the Big Pilgrimage Marathon in August.

Originally when I signed up I toyed with the idea of the ultra distance (8 more miles on top of the marathon). But sensibly, I went with the marathon. It’s not necessarily the distance on the day that I found a bit daunting, but the training itself.

I can comfortably squeeze in the training for a marathon these days without it impacting too much on the weekend time with Isaac and Kyle. That time is so precious.

To get my long runs in I’ve been getting up at 5am to get out of the house by 5.15am. So even if I run 18 miles (the furthest I tend to go) I’m back home by 7.30ish. This means I don’t miss too much of the morning with Isaac (which usually begins at 6.30am). To train for an ultra would mean a lot more 18+ milers. Not something I’m keen to fit in right now.

This race was very handy. It started at Mayflower Park in Southampton and I was able to pay £10 and get transport from Fort Nelson, just a mile from our (new) house. That way Kyle and Isaac didn’t need to get up with me and I could sneak out. The race started at 7.30am so it was quite the early start.

The race was to finish in Fort Nelson (so basically running from Southampton all the way home!) so it was weird being at the finish already. But the transport was super smooth and everyone was friendly and we arrived at Mayflower Park with about 40 minutes to go. So I could comfortably pick up my bib and have a last wee.

The Big Pilgrimage is a very chilled and relaxed event. It’s quite a small event – I think just over 100 people for the marathon distance – which helper it feel very friendly and local. I saw lots of familiar faces which was nice.

As we lined up for the start, I got that nervous feeling I always get before a marathon. Nothing is ever guaranteed or easy, no matter how many times you’ve done the distance before. So off we went. 

Because the field was quite small, I found myself amongst the lead pack. This concerned me a little because my immediate thought was that I was going too fast and also that I wasn’t able to put the route on my watch so if I lost them and was on my own I could be a bit stuck. On that note, the route was so well marked and the marshals great, that there was only one point that I almost missed an arrow (luckily, I was running with someone at the time).

The first section of the run is through Southampton, and you head over Itchen Bridge. I was prepared for this run to be quite undulating and having done this bridge a fair few times in the Southampton Marathon, it was fine. My pace remained around 8-8.30min/miles so I wasn’t beasting myself silly.

Then we headed over towards Netley. We ran alongside the coast and the terrain became off-road (though more compacted trails then anything too gnarly). Kyle, Isaac, my parents and Kyle’s mum would be waiting in Royal Victoria Country Park for me to run through, so that was a nice little motivator. It’s a familiar area to me as well so it felt really comforting, if that makes sense?

At mile five, I got to RVCP and saw my family. Isaac shouted “mummy!” which was lovely and tried to run after me. Very sweet. 

Something that was quite disconcerting about the race was that 99% of people were wearing hydration packs. I had intended on wearing one but I worried it was going to rub me raw (like it has done previously). The only issue was that the race was very eco friendly (lovely) and so at the water stations you needed to provide your own cup or have you pack filled up. So there would be no way for me to get water without carrying something. I decided, probably quite riskily, that because Kyle and my dad were planning on getting to different areas on the course that I could just get water from them.

Of course this is a huge risk – what if I missed them? What if I couldn’t find them? But I decided to wing it. However I did feel quite naked compared to literally everyone else who were all prepared for “self-hydration”. It was going to be quite a warm day and I realised I probably looked either very stupid or a bit cocky.

Oh I should also mention that during the race there are different points where you have to grab a sticker from a marshal and then, like a bingo card, stick it to your bib. This way you know you’ve gone the right way. The stickers were all unique to the different areas.

Anyway, I got my RCVP sticker, drank some water, waved goodbye to my family and off I went.

The unique part about this race is that you have to catch a little ferryboat from Hamble to get to the other side of the river. So that’s where I was now heading. I was still in the lead pack, which was now spreading out a bit more. There were ultra runners already on the course as they’d started earlier so that was nice.

As I got to Hamble (mile 7 or 8 I think) I decided not to stop at the aid station for any snacks (or stare at water I couldn’t have) so ran straight to the boat. I think there were a few boats that would be going back and forwards but there was one literally about to leave and I hopped onto it. It seemed I was the last person and it left straight away! Fantastic timing.

It was very odd immediately stopping (I didn’t stop my watch of course). Everyone was taking photos and talking good naturedly which was nice. I chatted to an older woman who had been running ultras for many years. So interesting. The ferry ride was about 8 minutes long I think and as we came to stop we all hopped off and off we went again.

Now it became clear that there really weren’t many other marathoners, just ultra runners.

We ran to another coastal path and ran alongside the sea, which was lovely. And then we ran across a shingle beach which seemed to go on forever and that was a grind. Though the views were gorgeous. It was a little up and down but nothing crazy. You just had to be careful of your footing. 

I caught up to a man and we started chatting. He was another marathoner. We soon realised that we were actually the two lead runners! Mental. I think because it was such a small race and because we’d both been so lucky with catching the first boat, we’d managed to get ahead.

The coastal path went all the way down to Hill Head, which is very close to where my parents live and again the area became super familiar. At this point the other marathoner, Phil, and I had were having a lovely chat. We were chatting about training, races and all things in between. It was great. We were similar paced and the miles just ticked on by.

I was going to see Kyle and my dad again soon, at mile 10, and I explained my water situation to him (so he didn’t think I was mental not having water on me). I saw them and grabbed some water – which at this point was now an essential. It was becoming very warm. The sun was beaming down and there wasn’t much shade. But the water helped and off we went. It was unspoken that we didn’t wait for each other but just slowed down for the other and let them catch up again (when he stopped for a wee, or I stopped and grabbed water for example). It was nice to be running with someone, but no pressures. 

We ran down the Titchfield Canal path which I know very well. A path that seems to go on forever (about 2 miles). But it’s beautiful. I saw Kyle and my dad again, water was drunk again, and off we went through Titchfield. Past Titchfield Abbey, where the 15 miler racers were to stop, and then headed towards Wickham.

Now the route became less familiar to me. And from what I’d read about the course, I knew it was going to get a lot more hilly. Phil had run the race before so he gave me a good idea of what was to come.

Eventually we got to Wickham, where we ran along the old railway line. This was around 20 miles. As I reached Kyle I grabbed the water and realised it was almost empty and he’d forgotten to grab the other one. The water bottle isn’t a clear bottle and is quite heavy (one of those thermos style ones) so it isn’t very obvious when there’s not much in them. This panicked me a bit as I was so thirsty. Of course this is my own fault for not carrying my own water but Kyle was really worried and felt terrible for not bringing the spare, bless him. Not his fault at all!

I tried a bit of Diet Coke from my dad but ooof that didn’t go down well. I ran off burping away! But anyway, it is what it is. That was the risk I took after all.

I caught back up with Phil and we headed for a big climb. Because I’d built it up in my head it actually wasn’t that bad thankfully. But I knew it was only going to get harder. We had a long downhill stretch on a road and this actually felt so much worse. My legs were not happy at all. My pace had remained fairly consistent through the whole race – probably a bit faster than I thought I was going to go for an off-road more hilly event but I generally felt comfortable the entire race.

At mile 24 I suddenly saw Kyle pop out of the bushes. He’d wanted to find me again before the end to give me more water. I was so pleased to see him because I was really quite thirsty and the thought of more miles in the heat was going to be a struggle. Phil had offered me his water but I had declined because I knew he didn’t have much and would probably need it. Very nice of him though.

I had a big glug from Kyle’s water, thanked him profusely and off we went. Not far now!

The last few miles the conversation grew less and less and I felt the hills getting harder. We’d both agreed that if one of us felt good they should go and it didn’t surprise me when Phil slowly peeled away from me. 

We had two miles left, full uphill climb to the finish and I had nothing left in the tank to keep up. I watched him go and then slowly sunk into my pain cave. It was a tough old slog but I still felt pretty good considering the miles we’d run and the terrain. I was comfortable knowing that I’d be first female and second overall (wowee!) as no one was behind. I wanted to finish as strong as I could though. But it did feel like a crawl and the final stretch across the field towards Fort Nelson was brutal. No shade and a long stretch ahead.

I finished with a smile though as I saw my family, Isaac running alongside me yelling “mama!”.

So in the end, a happy second place, a first place female and 3:50:08, Not too shabby at all!

So all in all, a really great event. Well organised by the Big Feat Events, felt very local and friendly, and a fantastic course. It was beautiful. Varied, interesting, tough but enjoyable. I fully recommend. I hope to do it again!

My legs the next day definitely felt the trails… I’m definitely not used to this trail running business!

Do you like running with strangers in a race?

Do you prefer trails or road races? I’m a road girl but like the trails from time to time.

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