My top five marathons: missed starts, world records, sand dunes and an Olympic rower


Runners tackle the sand dunes of The Marathon des Sables, in Morocco - Credit: PIERRE VERDY/AFP/Getty Images)

Remember those days when road races were aplenty, cross country fixtures filled the winter months and marathons could be run just about anywhere around the globe?

One day, we will get back to that blissful state, returning to a pre-coronavirus era when a sharp Friday night five-miler might lead to a Saturday morning parkrun as a preamble for a Sunday morning half or full marathon.

In the mean-time, while the training can tick over, without a competitive race in sight, this seems like an opportune moment to recall a few races from past years, starting off with the king of all events, the marathon.

You can always learn from former outings, especially the ones involving the familiar struggle to conquer the 26.2-mile challenge of the marathon. Pack in the mileage in training, never race in brand new trainers, don't start too quickly, drink plenty, set little targets etc etc.

But what I have learned most, looking back over the last four decades, is that while I might be a lot wiser, I'm certainly a lot slower.

Ignorance can be bliss, even when it comes to the pain and heartache of the marathon.

Having 'jogged' the memory, here's my top five marathon experiences of the last 35 years.

The Black Dog Marathon in Bungay in April 1983 Picture: ARCHANT

The start of the Bungay Marathon in 1983. Columnist Carl Marston took part the following year

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Reason: you always remember your first marathon

I had only just turned 17 when I ran my first marathon, ill-prepared and wet behind the ears, in the north-east corner of Suffolk.

A two-lap affair, I wasn't sure whether to just run the half-marathon or continue onto lap two. I delayed a final decision until I approached the end of lap one, such was my intricate planning for this marathon debut.

The Bungay Black Dog Marathon is still very much alive and kicking, and is now part of a Bungay Festival of Running, held over a very similar route to the one I tentatively grappled with in April, 1984, although the course used to be tackled the other way around with runners encountering hills for the first half of each lap towards Beccles before returning via the flat bottom of the Waveney Valley.

I don't remember too much about that first marathon, except for passing one spectator, presumably an old local farmer, who was leaning on his field gate wearing the expression of someone who didn't quite approve of me expending all that energy, for no apparent gain. Better to have been forking manure or feeding the chickens instead.

This was no London Marathon experience. No crowds, no razzmatazz, no City sights.

And not even a glimpse of the legendary 'Black Shuck,' a ghostly black dog with flaming eyes who, according to folklore, tore through the nave of St Mary's Church in Bungay during a storm, killing one man and a boy and while also causing the church steeple to collapse through the roof. Probably just as well.

This is a marathon for the purist. And long may it continue.


Competitors in the Marathon des Sables, which incorporates a stage over the marathon distance - Credit: archant


Reason: most sand dunes along a route

Stage five of the six-stage Marathon des Sables, in Morocco, was held over the traditional marathon distance. Well, it was when I took part, in what was the 20th anniversary of this famous event in 2005.

It is unique on this list. The only off-road marathon, the only one outside Europe and the only one involving a 'warm-up' over a double-marathon on stage four, and three earlier stages through sand dunes over varying distances, all crammed into less than a week.


Carl Marston pictured back in 2005, before his trip to the Marathon des Sables - Credit: Phil Morley

This also remains the only marathon I have completed wearing gaiters.

Apart from the hot temperature, nudging 40 degrees centigrade, the rocky and sandy terrain, spending a week under canvass, nursing a few foot blisters, and the need to carry all your food and belongings in a rucksack, this is the perfect marathon to tackle that elusive PB!

I missed my PB by a mere two-and-a-half hours.


The scene of the Rotterdam Marathon - Credit: Marco De Swart


Reason: missed the start on the day a world record was set

One of the best tips for setting a personal best is to make sure you don't miss the start by 10 minutes. I learnt this the hard way. Carlos Lopez didn't make the same mistake.

I was just a few days into a two-month inter-railing trip around Europe when I tried my hand at the STAD Rotterdam Marathon on April 20, 1985.

Flat as a pancake, with the exception of a slight gradient crossing the odd bridge, and usually blessed with good running conditions, the Rotterdam Marathon was the best event to run if you wanted a swift time during the 1980s.

This was the home of the world record, though my expectations were a little lower after a few nights of slumming it in youth hostels and on trains.

Still, confidence was high when I joined the field that Sunday morning in the Netherlands' second biggest city, and Europe's biggest seaport.

I was surrounded by runners who seemed to be wearing a different coloured race number to my own, but I didn't give this a second thought until getting into discussion with a fellow participant, just minutes before the start.

It was then that I realised I was not actually toeing the line for the start of the fourth staging of the Rotterdam Marathon, but instead was rubbing shoulders with competitors in the supporting 20K, being held at another location across the city.

Panic set in. A mad dash down a number of streets eventually saw me to the official start-line of the marathon, though by then it was deserted except for a few spectators.

The race had kicked off 15 minutes earlier. Undeterred, I set off alone, decked in garish shorts sporting the design of the flag of Great Britain, unsure of whether to ignore or recognise the sympathetic applause and ironic cheers of onlookers.

I ran like the wind to catch up the first stragglers. In fact, it was probably the quickest first 5K I have run at any marathon, keeping up the momentum from the sprint between different race-starts.

Obviously, I suffered for this enormously, during the later stages of the race.

By contrast, further up the road, Portuguese star Carlos Lopes was on his way to setting a new world record of 2hrs 07mins 12secs. Clearly, he had not made the same mistake as me.

Lopes' world record stood for three years, until Belayneh Dinsamo broke it on the same Rotterdam course in 1988 (2:06:50).

But for me, it was back to the drawing board. First stop, a bunk bed in the Rotterdam Youth Hostel.

London Marathon

The mass start at the London Marathon - Credit: PA Sport


Reason: has to be on everybody's list

You can't ignore the London Marathon. I ran it many times, during the 1990s and 2000s, particularly enjoying the painful stretch along the cobbles around the Tower of London section, before the introduction of carpets.

Back in 2006, I was manning a drinks station at around 22 miles with my wife and about 60 other volunteers (mostly members of Essex club Springfield Striders), when Olympic rower James Cracknell suddenly lurched across the road towards us.

He seemed to make a beeline for my wife, and take a drink off her, which certainly cost him a few seconds.

I mention this because his official finishing time was 3:00:10. To this day, my wife is convinced that Mr Cracknell would have broken three hours, but for that slight detour.

paris marathon

Eiffel Tower, a landmark along the route of the Paris Marathon - Credit: PA Sport


Reason: Very scenic but don't be tempted by the Metro

Any route that takes in the Champs-Elysees, the Bois de Vincennes, the banks of the River Seine, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower and Avenue Foch is on to a winner.

The modern-day Paris Marathon, first staged in 1976 - although one of its forerunners, the Tour de Paris Marathon, was first held in 1896 - is second only to the New York Marathon in terms of the number of competitors.

Like Rotterdam, I also ran this during an inter-railing holiday in the mid-1980s, although unlike Rotterdam, I managed to rock up at the correct start-line.

While the scenery was indeed stunning, my clearest memory was spotting several runners disappearing down the steps into Paris Metro Stations, at various points, no doubt to reappear looking fresher further down the course. 

At least that's what I suspected. I never found out for sure.

Thank goodness for the advent of electronic chip timing.