It's 9:45am and I am writing this precisely (to the minute) a week after I started my first marathon. I really had no idea what to expect. In fact, if I had known what was going to happen, it's possible I would have chosen to defer. Maybe I will discover the answer as I write this article.
The day itself was meant to start with a warming bowl of porridge at 5.30am, after a restorative 8 hour sleep. Instead, as is so common, I spent most of the night willing my brain to switch off. I think I eventually sparked out at around 2.30am, which made the porridge slightly less appetising. Still, the day had finally arrived. 4 hours later I would be lining up to do the London Marathon!
Segmenting time into manageable blocks became something of a theme of the day in my head. 4 hours until the marathon, 4 hours (or under I hoped) to run the marathon, 2 hours until I get to the end if I can maintain this pace... alright 2 hours from now, if I maintain THIS pace, ok fine…2 hours if I can keep walking... just 1 hour to go if I can keep moving... 30mins, 10, 5 nearly there.... thank goodness! It's done!
As you can tell, the marathon didn’t exactly go as I had planned. The seeds of this performance were sewn 7 weeks earlier when I tore my left calf. It wasn’t an especially bad tear, but it took me out of running completely for nearly 3 weeks and then at a very reduced level for the 2.5 weeks before the “taper”. I told myself that I had done lots of running over the past few years and even if I was no longer going for a “fast time” I would still be alright to jog the distance. But at 18 miles. my legs had other ideas.
I remember people from QPH telling me about the amazing atmosphere of London, but until you experience it for yourself nothing quite prepares you for it. Every part of the course was lined with people cheering, singing, drumming, holding signs and giving out sweets.
Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon in 1967, famously wrote “If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon”. I would suggest that you get an even better view if you are doing the running (or walking) and take the time to absorb the kindness and encouragement from all the thousands of strangers cheering you on. This was especially the case for me from about mile 18.
Ironically, it was my thighs and not the calves that decided to cause trouble. I felt my muscles getting tighter from about mile 16 and did a bit of jog/walking, but to no avail. From mile 18 my legs simply refused to lift off the ground and every time I tried, the quads just cramped up and I got shooting pains into my right knee. At around mile 20 I stopped to get a standing-up massage for about 5 minutes. When this didn’t do the trick I knew that my marathon was now going to be a walking slog to the end.
Walking those last 8 miles were the hardest physical challenge I have ever experienced. It was also, to be honest, hugely disappointing. I thought I had imagined every worst-case scenario between 9pm and 2.30am the night before. I knew my calf might tear again, or that I might experience another injury, or that I would just miss out on a sub 4hr time. It really hadn’t occurred to me that I might have lost so much fitness that I would find myself walking down the embankment being overtaken by… well, just about everybody around me.
What kept me going was a combination of factors, each of which came to the fore at different times. One moment I would focus on the generous support people had given to the charity I fundraised for, another time it was knowing that my family was waiting at Westminster, then it was the crowd’s encouragement. Ultimately though, it came down to my own determination to keep going…to finish my first marathon.
The aftermath was also a little surreal. I received lots of incredibly kind and encouraging messages congratulating me for finishing and persevering. Unfortunately, I just felt too tired and emotional (never has that phrase felt more accurate) to feel very much of anything apart from disappointment. When I got home I had a bath, a lie down and let out all my emotions, chatting through the events of the day with my wife. Then, having got it “all out of my system”, I went to join my fellow QPH marathon friends at the Island pub. Turns out, it wasn’t “all out of my system”. As I walked in, everyone smiled and clapped and I burst into tears – looking very macho I’m sure. Fortunately, a couple of hours later, after a lot of helpful chats and a large portion of fish and chips I was feeling a bit better, but absolutely drained. I fell into bed and got the first good night’s sleep in about a week.
So, after a week what am I feeling now? I am certainly glad that I entered and finished the marathon. It's not the way I would have wanted the day to go, but I learnt a huge amount about myself and what I can endure. I have also been left with a huge amount of gratitude for my friends, family and the strangers who kept me going through those 26.2 miles. I am also feeling more of the pride that everyone insisted I should be feeling.
Finally, would I do it again? Well yes, of course I would. I put my name into the ballot on Monday. There is, as far as I am concerned, some seriously unfinished business. I just hope the training and the day go a bit more smoothly next time.