Route: Almost circular route from Lyndhurst to Burley, 26.26miles
OK, so our original plan for this marathon did not quite happen as we wanted it but like anything science and outdoorsy, it is all about being flexible! Let me explain….
In addition to our Physics investigations throughout the month, we are also looking into different aspects of how the human body is affected by endurance efforts, including some of the misconceptions out there about how to prepare for such events. One such concept is the use of refined carbohydrates and sugar-based foods as a suitable fuel. A fair number of people asked us about carbo-loading during the weeks leading up to this Challenge and we have even joked about the need for cake to keep us going. Sure, cake is a great treat and since we are burning a significant amount of energy, there is little reason for us not to indulge. However, our goal is to not only to complete these marathons but to be fully functioning human beings by the end of them too! There is a huge choice of cereal and energy bars out there, most of them purely sugar based, which are heavily promoted as suitable sustenance for the outdoors and sport. We wanted to look into the effect of refined sugar on our blood sugar levels and hence our energy levels during one of our runs to see if there was any benefit to eating these products during endurance activities.
That was our Scientific focus for the marathon in the New Forest National Park since the flat(-ish) terrain allowed for a steadier cadence and hopefully a more consistent energy output. This would make it far easier to monitor blood sugars and also to reduce other possible external factors.
To test any effect requires a control, one runner who would eat our normal diet before and during the run (Claire) and a guinea pig to only eat refined sugar (me). And yes, I did volunteer. Preparation started with firstly taking our blood sugar levels to get a baseline value before our first meal of the day; a balanced carb-protein-fat snack for Claire and a packet of glucose energy tablets for me; purely on taste, guess who enjoyed their food more! Then it was time to set off, Claire also very much on alert for any changes in my mood as the run progressed.
What a strange sensation! The impact of that much sugar was immediate. My head felt as if it was buzzing, a slightly surreal feeling as if my head was not quite in tune with my body. Even without taking any blood sugar measurements to verify it, I could feel the effect of the sugar surging through my muscles, so much so that pacing went out the window as I bounded along. I was even talking more than usual too.. Poor Claire!
Unsurprisingly, the first set of readings half an hour into our run, showed a clear difference between our blood sugar levels; mine significantly elevated compared to Claire’s, a result that we were hoping for. Then it all went wrong. Unfortunately, our blood sugar monitor kept giving out the same error message, refusing to take any further readings. It seemed that the humidity of the day was interfering with the measuring sensor and since that was not going to change as quickly as our blood sugar levels would, we had to abandon the investigation on this occasion. A shame but we have another available window on the Lake District marathon to try again. In true science tradition, this would have to be a practice one!
The big plus of this failed attempt was that I could then indulge in a proper snack before the expected low hit me, making the whole running experience far more pleasant. It also meant that we could settle into our marathon and enjoy the gorgeous scenery around us.
As indicated by the name, this was one of the most wooded routes that we would be taking through the National Parks and we luxuriated in the tranquillity of the forest tracks. Oaks, beech and birches all intertwined to provide a calming canopy to run through. The National Parks are so important to the protection of habitats for a vast number of species of plants and animals native to the UK and the New Forest National Park is no exception. In fact, the visibility of so many animals and birds is part of the special quality of this park. We even had the pleasure of one green woodpecker pretty much flying alongside us as it searched out food.
However, there are few animals that are as confident or as curious as the New Forest ponies. Motivated by the possibility of food, they happily trot over to say hello. With their beautiful faces and gentle manner, it is very tempting to give them a little treat however this is a big no-no. Human food is really not good for their health! Likewise with the donkey; although slightly less curious they were just as adorable. With so many ponies and donkeys roaming freely within the park, it seemed that every corner turned and inclines climbed there were at least a couple of these four legged friends to ‘cheer’ us along. It must be a mammoth effort to round up all the ponies during the Drift, the biannual event where locals check on the health of their animals and to take stock of any new foals. No doubt a truly impressive sight and one that we would have loved to have seen, though we were secretly glad not to have to navigate through hundreds of animals on top of our miles.
The most significant impression that we got of the New Forest was the sheer amount of heathland that we passed through. Apparently the New Forest National Park is home to 75% of all heathland in Europe, highlighting the important work of the National Park Authority in the protection of this special area.
It was this evocative environment that kept us sane as we did a mammoth push through to 18 miles before our main stop of the run. Thankfully, Claire’s parents tracked our movements to provide essential water stops. Over 3.5 litres each, with little inclination to relieve ourselves told the story of how humid the day was. So far, we have had our main stop around 16 miles and we found the extra two miles much harder on our bodies. Like I mentioned earlier, is all about learning, each marathon is simply a practise for the next. We might have mastered it all by the Cairngorms!
Favourite moment of the day was quite late on, when we were trotting steadily along the dismantled railway path towards Burley. As we passed a young lad, intently studying his bike, he quietly spoke out,
“This is going to be a bit tricky.”
Curious, and a little charmed by his confident but roundabout way of getting our attention, we stopped to ask him what was going to be tricky. It appeared that his chain had jumped off his single speed BMX and he was struggling to get it back on. Team effort and several oil-covered hands later, we got the chain fixed. A very polite “Thank you” and off he sped to catch up with his sister and mum. A good reminder of one of our prime reasons for doing this challenge is to get young people out to enjoy and make use of these special places.