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ROOTIN’ TOOTIN’ LUTON

Joe Quinn January 2006

Having braved the early morning fog and DOE traffic diversions around Dundrod (why do diversions always take you off the road you want to travel on but never back on again?) my flight to Luton on the first Sunday in December left on time and arrived at 9.00am, 15 minutes ahead of schedule, a positive godsend with the race due to begin at 10.00am, 6 miles from the airport.

Due to recent history I didn’t want to invite the attention of security staff by hurrying running through the terminal carrying a bulky rucksack. But I made the exit unchallenged and headed for the taxi rank. The first driver I met bore more than a passing resemblance to the hook handed Muslim cleric who has featured prominently in the news recently but luckily, all he had in his hand was a bottle of screen spray and (once he got his camel to rise) we were soon on our way to the Start line. Traffic was light and we were outside Race HQ in 20 minutes – my driver was smiling cheerfully as he took the £13.80 fare (I wondered if this was how Luton got its name?) but at least it solved the problem of where to leave my money during the race.

Anyway, I had no time for haggling (he was bigger than me too) and I made straight for the changing rooms with 25 minutes to spare before start time. It was sunny and bright outside and first advice from my uncovered legs was that shorts were OK. On rounding a corner en route to the toilets (a thorn bearing evergreen) a Siberian influenced breeze caressed my arthritis and the prospect of over three and a half hours in that sort of temperature had hypothermia written all over it. So I returned indoors to seek a second opinion on the local climate and weather forecast for the day. A bearded official told me in a convincing Irish accent (he was from Kildare I later discovered) that though the forecast was good he always wore long bottoms at this time of year so I took his advice – it turned out to be an excellent decision. It also ensured that all my bones were kept together in one bag, so to speak, even if they weren’t all in the right place.

The uniqueness of Luton is that it is 3 laps of an approx 8.73 mile circuit, something which I had never experienced before, so what was on offer on lap1 would encourage or dishearten for the other 2. In the event it wasn’t a bad course, most of it through the countryside, with no steep hills, though there were 2 long gradients which were much more noticeable on laps 2 and 3 than on the first. Another off-putting feature, especially on the first lap, was that I passed the half way marker and others of higher denomination before I reached the 5 mile mark, which tends to taunt you with how far you still have to go. After the first 2 – 3 miles the route turned and twisted through open parkland behind housing estates, using dirt footpaths. The sign declaring “Uneven surface” was totally unnecessary, my knee joints having informed me long before.

Soon there was a shout from ahead “Keep Left”, the subject of the diversion being an old lady out for a walk with one of those wheeled Zimmer frames. Those contraptions always strike me as a bit of a contradiction – who needs a Zimmer AND the means of going fast? Me later, perhaps? I avoided her easily but took note of her location in case I needed to “borrow” the frame on lap 2 – I thought even the old lady too might prove supportive if I was in really bad shape on lap 3.

Later I came across the remains of an uneducated cat which had clearly mistaken 10 for 9 and lost out to a juggernaut - no-one attempted mouth to mouth given that head and tail were in roughly the same place. It looked like it had been there about a week.

Through the finish area and I start Lap 2, beginning to fell better, and then I smell frying onions! It’s shortly after 11.00am on a Sunday morning and a burger stall is in full swing! Now if there is one thing on a par with the cruelty level of foxhunting it has to be the smells of cooking, especially fried onions, within nostril range (usually around 5 miles in a normal person but in my case probably 7) of a hungry runner. I realise I’m starving, breakfast having been a bowl of cereal, a cup of tea and a bottle of water, most of it some 6 hours previously. But Bob Geldof’s never around when you need him so I run on.

I overtake a man wearing a yellow vest bearing the legend “100Km Club”, which means he has run a race of that distance (62 miles) so I think passing him will be a feather in my cap (wish I had the full wings). I have found a decent rhythm now and have gone through 10 miles. Past the place of the old lady – wisely she has left the scene as she probably sensed my less than honourable intentions earlier – and along the uneven surfaced path again. I fall into conversation with a man from Coventry and we pass the halfway mark moving comfortably, until horror of horrors, yellow vest man surges past! My companion is telling me of his mate who has had his running gear stolen from his car before the race. He had taken the precaution of bringing it to his room overnight but put it back in the car before he went for breakfast. When he went out again the bag was gone – further proof of my theory that eating before a marathon is risky.

Then on the long hill that wasn’t there before, we close the gap and overtake yellow vest again but he slyly tucks in behind to shelter from the strong headwind. However, I’m feeling good and gradually move away from both my companions.
The cat is still there and I don’t think it’s name is Lazarus. I momentarily thought of the onions again, but cat burger?? Not that hungry! I head for the end of lap 2. (I was pretty smug about my “defeat “of yellow vest, eventually finishing some 4 minutes ahead of him, until I find out he was in the Over 70 age group!)

Thankfully all trace of the onions have gone as I start Lap 3 and I get through 20 miles without too much discomfort. My next target is the 25 mile mark which I have seen (somewhere) on the previous circuit. Two more hills have been miraculously introduced on the course since lap 2. I’m on my own now. I come across the cat again and it strikes me that he/she now looks in better shape than I do.

I go through 24 miles, having to work hard to keep going but there is no sign of Mile 25 anywhere. I can’t believe a mile can be so long. Then ahead I see the yellow fluorescent blob which indicates a mile marker and my spirits rise - 1.2 miles to go. But even greater joy was to unfold as the sign reads not 25 but 26!!! I had missed the 25 marker somehow (needless to say I didn’t go back to look for it) and only had 321.6 metres to go. Never has a finishing clock looked sweeter and the fact it read 3 hours 37 minutes was enough to make my day.

I like to meet the locals to sample the culture of an area when I travel “abroad” and no better opportunity than over the course of a 26.2 mile race. Most of us OTRs tend to be quite talkative as long as it’s not politics. This time was no different. The marshal I spoke to about the weather was from Kildare, the first two runners I bumped into were from Coleraine, one of them the redoubtable Peter Ferris who has run over 230 marathons, another I chatted to for a while was from Dublin and worked with 2 guys from Newcastle Co. Down, so what a learning experience that all turned out to be!

Finally I shared a taxi back to the airport with my 2 fellow countrymen – Total cost £7.50 – maybe Luton’s not such a bad place after all! But avoid the black taxis.