Phoenix “It’s a Numbers Game” Marathon – Mixing with UK’s Lunatic Running Fringe


In my opinion, the best way to get a good night’s sleep on a long-haul transatlantic flight is to run a marathon: A marathon (combined with a few “nightcap” beers) is the perfect recipe for a blissful flight!

The first challenge was a logistical one – find a marathon close enough to my hotel in central London to get there, run, get back, shower and make my flight (plus have enough time to rehydrate with a beer or two before boarding).

Spoiler Alert: I managed to find time for a beer before my flight home.

The Phoenix “It’s A Numbers Game” marathon (held in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, just outside London) looked the most viable option. I dropped the race organiser an email to check the logistics and received detailed instructions a short while later.

As it was a small race with entries “strictly limited” to 125, I quickly completed the online entry form and paid the 35 (R700) entry fee to secure my spot.

The race starts at 9am which required a 6am wake-up call and a combination of underground trains, overground train and Uber (use it while you still can in London) to get to the start line. Travel around the London area is expensive and it cost more to get to and from the race than the race fee itself.

I arrived at the local leisure centre to observe a relaxed but motley crew of hardened marathon runners (many sporting vests confirming that they’d completed 100+ marathons) quietly sipping their Lattes while waiting for the 08h45 race briefing.

A hardened group of marathon runners quietly waiting for the race briefing whilst sipping on their lattes.

Race organiser, Rik Vercoe, delivered the briefing with vigour to the 70-odd starters (they obviously get a lot of repeat customers as I was one of only twelve running the race for the first time). The most important point made was that the “The race route has been marked out over thousands of years. If you can’t see the River Thames, you are lost.”

Distance running legend and race organiser Rik Vercoe (right) delivers a briefing to the 70 entrants.

Aside: Rik Vercoe is something of a bonafide running legend – and a modest one at that. Whilst researching this article I clicked a small link hidden at the bottom of his Phoenix Running site called “Our Race Experience” and was blown away. In 2013 he ran 152 marathons and has the Guinness World Record for the fastest “10 marathons in 10 days” time (29h56m56s) – that’s an average of 2:59:30 per marathon!

Briefing over, we trundled down to the river for the start. This marathon is essentially a 2.65km (1.64mile) out and 2.65km back circuit race meaning that eight completed laps = exactly one marathon. The lap is very flat – which I appreciated after the previous weeks hill’s.

A minute before the start – plenty of runners wearing vests advertising that they are veterans of 100+ marathons.

A few runners shot off into the distance but most of the field settled into an easy pace on the tow path along the Thames. My 6min/km pace was fast enough to place me 20th at the first turnaround and held fairly constant for the rest of the race (I ended up 16th).

Now before it sounds like I am bragging, I should point out that I was one of the few runners who would not be returning the following day to run another marathon. Yes, you read that right: if eight laps up and down the Thames aren’t enough, you can return the following day to run the same eight laps again.

Those that manage to complete the double earn themselves a giant 220mm x 180mm medal that is designed to have your race number mounted upon it. Luckily, I could not change my flight home so was not tempted into doing anything foolish. Besides which, a giant medal could easily be turned into a dangerous weapon and do some serious damage by a disgruntled spouse whose husband returns home a day late after running an extra marathon!

The Mega Medal (220mm x 180mm) for those that complete the back-to-back. Can also be used as a dangerous weapon by a running widow.

Having never done a circuit race before, I had some interesting revelations:

  • The first challenge was to see how far I could get before I got lapped (for the record 3 laps but at least no one managed to double-lap me!).
  • The main feeling each time I got lapped was not one of embarrassment or indignity but rather jealousy that someone else was 5km closer to finishing.
  • Seeing every runner twice per lap, it was really interesting to witness how the leaders’ race unfolded. The initial front runner built up a massive lead but then blew on lap 6 and looked very sheepish walking back to the start (where he bailed).
  • You get to scrutinise how everyone else’s race is going and observe how their facial expressions deteriorate over the course of the marathon – however, the camaraderie definitely picks up towards the end.
Some of the Queen’s swans supporting enthusiastically.

By far the biggest danger of a race like this is that your ex decides to run the same race. It must get pretty awkward trying to avoid eye contract 16 times on a narrow track!

For me this was not an issue but there was a far bigger danger… You run past a couple of pubs during the lap and the start/finish turnaround point is directly in front of “The Weir” pub. One has to show remarkable restraint and self-control to hold out until lap 8 is complete before enjoying a pint.

Proof that there are still fish in the Thames.

The winner of the Saturday marathon finished around 3:17 and Sunday’s winner managed a 2:59:59 (on fresh legs – he didn’t do the double). There is no prize money or podium positions on offer – just “joy, pride and personal accomplishment.” The way it should be in my opinion!

This organisers kept things really simple and efficient. There is one marshal at the turnaround point for the first two laps –not to prevent cheating but to make sure no one misses the turnaround and disappears along the Thames. The field consists of hardened marathon runners who wouldn’t cut a corner let along go short on a lap.

No marshals needed – just a simple sign to ensure you don’t disappear down the Thames.

Marathon running is a great leveller: No matter what your achievements, there is always someone who has run further, faster, longer and is more hardcore than you are. At this race there was one lady who managed to complete her 52nd marathon within a lunar year (and appropriately the word “lunar” is also the origin of the word “lunatic”)!

52 Marathons in 52 weeks is apparently quite a big thing in the UK and if you want to push the envelope you can graduate to “100 in 100”. If you don’t want to wait that long to prove your mettle, you can always do 10 marathons in 10 days – check out Brathy 10 in 10 which has been going for 11 years (this year there were 16 starters and 13 finishers). However, I will patriotically raise this with a handful of South Africans (Hilton  Murray, Hazel Moller and Tumelo Mokobane) who’ve run  10 Comrades (89km/55miles) in 10 days!

On top of the only “hill” on the lap. A small footbridge over the Walton Marina.

Then there is the water table or “tuck shop” at the turnaround. This is the best stocked table I have ever experienced. Simply fantastic – and stocked with enthusiastic volunteers as well. A massive selection of sweets and chocolates is available for the hungry runner (and they bring out cake after a couple of laps as well).

Even Willy Wonka couldn’t put together a better water table. Although you’ve got to watch out for the photo bombers!

Phoenix host a lot of races, if you find yourself in the UK and fancy a marathon check out their website, there’s a good chance they’ll have something going on. They deliver on their promise that, “Our races are generally small and designed to be low key and FUN!”

I enjoyed my brush with the lunatic fringe of the UK marathon running scene and would definitely look into doing another of their marathons the next time I’m over there… You don’t get to see a lot of Walton-on-Thames during this marathon. But the little bit I did see will be burned into my mind for ever.

After being tortured by frequent pub passings, I enjoyed my post race pint (having shown remarkable restraint and self-control to hold out this long).
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