Bank Holiday weekend found us pacing again – this time at the Milton Keynes Marathon in Buckinghamshire. For most people in the UK, Milton Keynes is synonymous with two things : roundabouts and concrete cows. To be fair it has both, approximately 130 of the former (increasing all the time) and six of the latter (not reproducing as far as we know).
A ‘New Town’ built in the early 1970s, Milton Keynes often gets a bad press for being uniform, grey and soulless. However, we have spent some time running in the Milton Keynes area and have found it to be a lot more characterful and welcoming than reports might suggest.
The Milton Keynes marathon was first staged in 2012 and is now an Aims/IAAF Grade A certified race with BARR Gold Accreditation. The marathon course itself is far from grey and dull – after a brief visit downtown, it takes runners along the banks of lakes, rivers and canals, through acres of parkland and past a number of interesting sites. With this post we will try to bring the marathon and area it covers to life and hopefully inspire you to look further than the infamous roundabouts and grid system and maybe try it for yourself one day.
Note: Our headings pay homage to another Milton Keynes Institution – that of the Open University or ‘The University without Walls’ – inspiring people to be curious and learn.
Milton Keynes is famous for its grid system and modernist architecture. It was conceived in the early 1960s to relieve the housing congestion in London. The MK Development Corporation was established to oversee the building of the New Town. The grid system of roads was an attempt to avoid traffic-choking city centres. The main roads joined a central shopping and business district to residential areas, and plenty of green open space was left between them. Criss-crossing between these areas is an extensive network of shared paths (Redways) for use of cyclists and pedestrians. Tower blocks were rejected and a limit of three storeys was placed on buildings outside of the central area.
The first five miles of the marathon route take runners down wide, tree lined boulevards in the centre of the town before making use of the smaller roads and Redways on the outer edges of the urban area. There are a number of switch backs in the initial part of the route which we always like, as its gives an opportunity to see other runners and shout words of encouragement and, yes, a few roundabouts have to be negotiated.
There are 5,000 acres of parkland, rivers, lakes and woodland in Milton Keynes covering 25% of its area and earning it the title of ‘The City in the Country’. After the first few miles in the city centre, the marathon course takes runners on a tour of these areas. The route follows a ‘green-belt’ made up of Ouzel Valley Park, Willen Lake and Forest, Great Linford Park and Loughton Valley Park. Numerous smaller green areas, lakes, ponds and brooks are passed along the way together with parts of the Grand Union Canal. Underfoot is mixture of terrain from tarmac to cycle paths, park trails to tow path. Spectators picnic-ing in the parks encourage runners on their way.
There are a number of buildings of interest on the marathon route. The first 5 miles take you though the urban centre with its modernist architecture. In contrast the remainder of the route passes through picturesque villages with their pretty thatched cottages such as those in Old Milton Keynes village at mile 8.
Different again is Linford Manor (mile 16), a 17th Century manor house that is now the grand home of Peter Winkleman – chairman of MK Dons football club.
A less usual sight is the Bradwell Windmill (just before mile 17) – a limestone structure built in 1817 and recently restored to full working order (with a little help from an electric motor to move the stones on windless days).
Milton Keynes boasts 229 species of birds (which we are told is a lot). The rivers, lakes and parkland are home to some rare and vulnerable species – six of which are on the globally threatened list. Many birds were sighted en route in what looked like safe, idyllic settings. We particularly like the sound of the Snow Goose, Sooty Shearwater and Atlantic Puffin, though almost certainly wouldn’t recognise them if we ran past. Unfortunately all we could get a photo of was a few ducks (we’re told they’re mallard). Let’s hope that they, along with all the more threatened species, survive for future generations (and marathon runners) to see.
Sculpture – the Concrete Cows
Apparently there are other sculptures in Milton Keynes – a Black Horse for a start – but none will be as well known as the six Concrete Cows created by artist Liz Leyh. The cows were constructed in 1978 during her spell as ‘artist in residence’ in the town. The structures, a bullock, two cows and three calves are made from scrap metal and fibre glass and are currently painted black and white though were originally brown.
The cows have had an eventful life having been ‘vandalised’ on numerous occasions. They were painted pink, made into zebras and dressed in pyjamas, turned into skeletons and beheaded. One calf was even kidnapped complete with a ransom note. Sadly the sculptures that the marathon route pass at Bancroft are actually replicas of the originals which are now kept safely in the town’s museum, but the sight of them still provides a welcome distraction 19 miles into the race.
The race medal and t-shirt designs both celebrate this iconic work of art.
Philosophy and Religion
The route passes by a number of religious sites. The picturesque church of All Saints welcomes you on the edge of the old Milton Keynes village around mile 8 with its well-kempt, even jaunty, graveyard. A church has stood on this site since around 1200. A newer construction seen on a small hill to the left at mile 11 is the eye-catching sight of The Peace Pagoda. Built in 1980 by the monks and nuns of the Nipponzan Myohoji movement, the Pagoda was the first of its kind in the Western hemisphere. The Pagoda frieze tells the story of Buddha’s life from his birth to death and the building itself enshrines sacred relics collected from around the world. Next in Great Linford (mile 16) we passed the 13th Century Ecumenical church of St Andrews – which incidentally has its own Face Book page – is that a thing?
Finally just before mile 20 is Bradwell Abbey, a former Benedictine Priory built in 1154. It has a sad history when its occupants were decimated by the Black Death and then it was closed for having ‘scant’ revenues. It now serves as a study centre for visiting Town Planners.
Perhaps the ruins of the Roman Villa at Bancroft Park (mile 19) will stimulate an interest in archaeology. The villa which was discovered during the MK Development building construction in 1971 took 15 years to excavate. The villa was apparently pretty up-market, with a mosaic floor which was removed and displayed on a wall overlooking Queen’s Court in Central Milton Keynes. It also boasted such luxuries as underfloor heating, a bath suite, colonnaded verandas and an ornamental walled garden with a fish pond and summer house. Some degree of imagination is needed to visualise this especially when running past at pace!
At around mile 20 on Sunday we observed a phenomenon not specific to the Milton Keynes Marathon but found in the second half of marathons everywhere. Most people go off too fast when running a marathon and by mile 20 they run out of steam and either slow down considerably or end up walking. We have both done it all too often ourselves but it becomes so much more obvious when you are pacing a marathon at an even pace, within your comfort zone. Many of the runners who pass you early on you see again. Pace groups starting off enthusiastically but over-optimistically drop away.
When we talk to runners (now walkers) later on in the race to try to give them encouragement it is not unusual for them to tell us in a puzzled and disappointed tone “I started off with the 4:00 pacer and couldn’t keep up, then the 4:15 passed and the 4:45 and now you are passing me”. Times may vary but the story remains the same.
We think that we’ve just about learnt this lesson and try to help others not to struggle for as long as we did with unrealistic goals. It is fascinating though, even when confronted with the facts how few of us want to believe that ‘miles in the bank’ doesn’t work. The question is: why is it so hard to accept? Open University degree in Sports Psychology, anyone?
Again not a sight exclusive to the Milton Keynes marathon – but throughout the course, pacers could be spotted with their blue (marathon) and orange (half marathon) vests and balloons. Both races had pacers every 15 up to 5:30 for the marathon and 3hr for the half. We paced 4:15 (Cam) and 5:15 (Jacquie) and really enjoyed it. The experience was made special by the camaraderie amongst the pacers themselves and the hospitality of Andy, Sarah and David. We were housed in the VIP lounge at the MK stadium and the treatment we got there certainly lived up to its name. From when we were first asked to pace until the end of a (for some of us) long race day, the team went out of their way to make our experience good. Free parking, snacks, drinks and massages certainly helped but best of all was the welcome and personal touch.
Thank you, team – it was a pleasure to pace.
Finally some comments about the event in general. As we mentioned previously, the event has received the highest recognition by Aims and the IAAF for its outstanding organisation, and our experience certainly agreed with this. A huge advantage of this race over others is having the MK Dons Stadium available at the start and finish of the race. A warm indoor centre with plenty of facilities was a real blessing on what turned out to be quite a cold blustery day. The stadium finish was as always very special.
As with the start and finish, the overall race management was excellent. Wave starts ensured no overcrowding on the course, the route was extremely well marshalled, and aid stations every three miles had sufficient water, sports drinks and gels even towards the back of the pack. Motivational and informative signs along the way were encouraging and useful. The pockets of supporters made full use of names on bibs. The race village at the end and the shorter races meant that families and friends could join in and feel part of the event. And the cow-themed medal and t-shirt were both attractive and good quality.
We hope that we have convinced you that this undulating, varied and interesting course is definitely one to try.