Oulton Park 3.5 Hour Challenge – A Review

Oulton Park 3.5 Hour Challenge – A Review

Building a Winning Mentality

The hardest thing about a race, is to let go of it. 

As it happens, I don’t see the Oulton Park 3.5 Hour Challenge as a race. It’s my marathon test event rather than a race in itself.

Yet, all too often, I find myself stressing the details of a run. How much elevation is there? When do I push? What should I eat the night before? Have I done enough training? Is it a PB course?

When you’re training for a marathon, there’s little point in those questions. If you are asking whether you have done enough training the night before an event, its likely you haven’t, or that it’s your first time in which event it’s unlikely that you’ll be asking anyway. The blessing in using the challenge as a test event is the freedom to experiment with pre- and in-event nutrition and kit. There’s no such thing as a PB when everybody is running for the same length of time, save for the number of laps completed.

The night before Oulton Park 3.5 Hour Challenge, I didn’t consider any of the above. With my kit laid out, nutrition packed into my tried-and-tested running belt and a wind-breaker running jacket in case the weather turned for the worse, I was prepared. There was nothing else to do except get a good night sleep before heading to Oulton Park in the morning.

My First Oulton Park 3.5 Hour Challenge

I first entered the Oulton Park 3.5 Hour Challenge last February when training for my first marathon. The idea of running for 3.5 hours seemed like a good benchmark for my fitness and a chance to give myself an idea of what to expect on race day. I loved it, so entered again this year.

The event itself is low key, remote with a small number of runners but very well organised. As it turned out last year, that’s the opposite of the Manchester Marathon. It was a good learning experience nonetheless.

Returning for 2020…

This year, the event was earlier by comparison to the date of the Manchester Marathon and so it was my first opportunity for a 20+ mile long run. I didn’t set out with any concrete goal in mind, simply to beat last year’s effort of 20 miles in 3:18. The maths were simple, if I want to run a sub-4 marathon in Manchester, I simply had to beat last year’s effort.

Running around a track also builds mental toughness. Measuring 2.2 miles in length, you see the same race track 10 times or more. It’s enough to grind you down if you let it. It’s a chance to build your resolve, if you want it enough.

The army cadets manning the fueling stations are really switched on. They ensure that everyone who calls out for a water or gel gets one. They also provide a huge mental boost providing the only spectator support on the course. Last February, a young lad and his mum camped out half way round the track, cheering runners on and dishing out Haribo. I will admit, I was a little disappointed that they hadn’t made the trip this year. They were missed.

Tackling Storm Dennis

You can never predict the weather on race day. So it was perhaps fitting that the event took place whilst Storm Dennis was in full flow. As the event unfolded, it became clear that we would be spared the worst of the weather. However, it was a stark reminder that the weather can throw you a curve ball even when everything else is going right. You can’t change the weather. You can only respond to the conditions you face. It almost proved my undoing as I dithered over whether to wear my new wind-breaker running jacket. Ten minutes before the start, I came to my senses and ditched my jacket – it was the right decision.

Another consequence of Storms Ciara and Dennis was that the shipment of medals didn’t arrive. Before the weekend, those in charge set up an online poll asking competitors whether they would rather receive a medal on the day or wait for a good one to be delivered to them after the event. Luckily, the consensus was to wait for the medals to arrive and be delivered after the challenge. It endeared me to the event and organisers, OP Events, even more.

The Event Is In the Running

The proof is in the pudding, an event is in the running.

So to the event itself, I started at sub-4 marathon pace. I knew that I could sustain it for at least 2 and a half hours; I was hoping that I wouldn’t cede too much in the latter stages. Whilst I was aware of the danger of setting off too fast, I was mindful of setting off too slowly. With my watch set for half mile splits, I had plenty of opportunity to adapt my strategy if things started to go wrong.

I quickly remembered that Oulton Park is a course of two distinct halves – a slower first mile followed by a faster second. The weather added to the challenge of pacing evenly along with the temptation to run with those competing in the half marathon event which set off at the same time.

After a while, it became easier to tell who was pacing themselves for a half marathon and who was taking on the challenge. The length of the event provides ample opportunity to get to know other runners. Finding out about the journeys of other runners and their motivations is a privilege and motivating in itself.

As it happens and to my surprise, I slowed very little, logging 22.2 miles in 3 hours 21 minutes at an average pace of 9:06. If I can match that on race day, I have a chance of running a sub-4 marathon.

With a month and a half to go until the Manchester Marathon, there’s plenty of fine tuning to be done. However, after the Oulton Park 3.5 Hour Challenge, I am feeling positive for the test to come.

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