As I stand in the starting enclosure, legs hopping up and down, half in excitement and half in fear, I look around at the other runners, trying to understand their reasons for doing it. In front of me stands a man in his forties, his hands resting rigidly on his hips as he stares motionless at the start line. To my left is a couple that must be in their twenties, stretching absent-mindedly as they chat about their plans after the race, unfazed by the 26 miles that lay ahead. In contrast, to my right stand two men anxiously adjusting their enormous technical watches, discussing injuries and feelings of doubt.
I spin around and glance at all the different types of people about to run alongside me. Some look like athletes, their tight, black running kits pressing against taut muscles; some like office workers, with skinny arms and pot-bellies. Some of them are young, probably not even 20 yet, others older, far older than I can ever imagine myself running a marathon at.
This is the worst bit of any race, not just a marathon, but any distance. The feeling of uncertainty as you stand helpless, waiting to begin. So many feelings running through your mind; are you fitter than before? Are you slower? What about that twinge you felt a few weeks ago? Will you be able to finish it? Every thought building up as you stand for what feels like hours. Thousands of other people all thinking as well, some with the same things rushing through their minds, others with thoughts you had never even imagined. I think about how I have come here alone and why I’m doing it. I see groups of people cheering each other on. Couples hugging and kissing each other and people waving to their families stood at the side.
Suddenly, the sound of a horn blows followed by an immediate cacophony of cheers and excitement. A rush of feelings shoot through my body, so many that trying to define one amid the others is almost impossible. I shuffle along as we near the start, people bustling from left and right, some apologising, some angry, until I finally reach the line. I take a breath. Then I’m going. I have space to run and I’m picking up speed. People next to me hang back and I overtake, others nudge me as they run past at a pace I wouldn’t try while running a 10km race. There are cheers from the crowds as we make our way up the street and the rush of feelings begins to die down. I’m no longer scared, or excited, or worried about not finishing it. Now I’m just running. There’s no use in over-thinking anything at this point. No use in dwelling on how I could have trained a few more times or how I should have eaten better last week. I just have to keep going and do whatever I can to get to the end of race.
As I see the 2km sign my body begins to realise what’s happening, my breathing is increasing and I can feel adrenaline running through me – I’m enjoying it. I want to run faster and I feel like I could go on for miles at this pace. I look around and see others like me, they appear clear and calm, their heads are facing forward. They have a goal and they’re going to do it. Nobody around me has any doubt. We all push forward like athletic zombies, oblivious to what’s going on around us. I see the two men who stood next to me earlier, their concerns gone, their features determined and halcyon. I take a minute to look around at the street we’re running up. I remember some of the shops when I was here as a pedestrian and for the first time notice spectators faces as they wave excitedly. I smile. I feel proud.
At 5km I’ve hit a rhythm and I feel like this is going to be easy. My breathing has slowed down to almost normal levels. I don’t even feel like I’m running anymore. I look at the buildings around me, at the other runners. Many are doing the same. We all look happy. Everything seems simple and clear. I say to myself just seven more of those and I feel no worry about it. I don’t ever remember it being this easy before, I must be fitter than the last one. I must have taken my training to a new level. I look back on the last few months and think about my training, I think about my diet and try to work out what I’ve done that has made a difference.
A woman runs next to me keeping the same pace. I turn to her and smile. She smiles back. And it isn’t the kind of smile I would give someone on the street as I walk home from work. There’s nothing behind this smile but an understanding. Neither of us say anything. We turn and face forward again, our strides almost identical.
At 10km something is different. I’m still running at the same pace, I’m still enjoying it and I still feel good. But I can begin to sense a few changes. I notice the feeling in my legs and my chest more, it isn’t a bad feeling but I’m paying a lot more attention nevertheless. I notice the frequency of the kilometer signs feeling slightly further apart than before. The people around me are moving differently, I’m overtaking fewer people and fewer are overtaking me, it’s as if someone has picked up a snow globe and shaken it before putting it back down on the table to settle. The excitement is going.
Nobody around me looks happy or sad, they are merely runners all facing the same goal. we keep our pace and move on. Now it’s just a task that we need to complete.
At halfway everything has changed. A snapshot of the race is almost unrecognisable from earlier. I continue at the same pace, barely, and watch as other runners slow down and I occasionally overtake them. I no longer care a great deal about the scenery or the spectators. There is no longer any enjoyment in this, I just want to keep going. I silently work out my time and realise that if I keep this pace until the end I’ll beat the time I got last year. This both fills me with a drive to continue but a dread at holding this pace for another 21km. I think purely about the next kilometre though. I can’t think about anything after that. It just makes me want to stop.
I look around and try to understand what’s driving the other runners. Maybe all they care about it hitting a best time, maybe they’re doing this to make their families proud at the end, maybe they’re doing it for a charity. I think about why I’m doing it and I don’t know. I try to work out who I would want to tell at the end when I finish or if I beat my record. I think for a while and don’t come to a conclusion. I think back to when I started running, about why I decided to run a few laps of the park years ago. I don’t have an answer. I run a couple of kilometers more, each one becoming harder now as I watch intently for the sign that tells me I’m one closer to the finish. It feels like the distances are wrong.
I begin to get annoyed with people around me. I run up behind a group of three runners and try to get past but they’re blocking my way. I hold my position for a minute but then give up and just push through the small space between two of them. The woman looks at me angrily but I don’t care. I don’t really care about anything but finishing this race. Things are getting difficult. I don’t remember them ever being this hard before. And then the fear builds slowly inside me. How can I finish this race? There are 17 more kilometers. I can feel my ankle hurting, what if something happens to it and I have to just stop in agony at the side of the road? I feel tired, maybe I’ll faint.
There are very few good thoughts in my head at this point. I look around at the other runners and feel nothing in common with them. I see the couple that were stood near me earlier. They are no longer chatting happily about a restaurant or rubbing arms. Now, like me, they stare forwards in silence, there is no communication, just the drive to finish this. We are all alone now.
And then it happens. Before I ever ran a marathon I heard people talk about and thought it was pure hyperbole. A theatrical way to explain being tired – dramatic licence for a runner. Since then I’ve felt it at first hand. They call it “the wall”, where your body literally runs out of gas and you have nothing left, where all you want to do is stop and give up.
They say that a marathon doesn’t really begin until the 23rd mile, that this is what you’re training for. That everything leading up to it is nothing in comparison.
They don’t lie.
I don’t want to do it any longer. I don’t even care about my time or finishing. I simply just don’t care about anything anymore. I look around at
everyone else around me. There are a few people who look okay, not great, but okay. Most of us however are in a bad way. My speed in the first few kilometers is a distant memory, now I feel like I’m doing nothing more than pushing my feet forward one at a time. I see another sign which reads 37km and I sigh heavily. I look around for some excuse to stop. I look for something that makes more sense than continuing on this road for another 5km. There’s nothing. Nothing makes a great deal of sense but giving up.
Then I feel a tap on my shoulder. I turn around and see another runner. He looks like I imagine I do. His legs aren’t running so much as just flipping forward one at a time and hitting the road.
“Nearly there mate,” he says smiling, “just got to get through this bit.”
I smile back at him. I nod and look forward again. I look across and see two people running together, a man and a woman. Both of them barely moving, both with barely anything left to give. The man lifts up his arm and pats the woman on the back. The woman does the same and they carry on. They keep going.
I smile. I smile for the first time in what seems like days and I pick my legs up and keep going also. We all do.
Then I see it. It’s still a long way away. Long enough to fill me with both alarm and joy at the same time. In that instant everything changes again. Someone has finally picked up the snow globe again and given it another shake. The lull has gone and now people were moving differently all around me. Little bursts of speed darting around my field of vision at the sight of the finish line. So I use everything I have left and let it go. It isn’t fast running. In fact if I saw myself doing this on a normal day I’d think I was doing nothing more than stretching, but now it feels like I’m sprinting faster than I ever have done before. And as I do I see the crowd around me cheering. I don’t know any of them. I’m here alone without my family or friends, but I look at all of the faces and they’re looking back at me and cheering. They’re cheering someone they’ve never met who’s here on their own. They don’t know why I’m running but still they cheer anyway.
I smile. I smile and run as fast as I can towards the big sign that says finish. For the first time during the whole race I don’t think about anything and I just run. And then I look at the time on the board and I know I’ve beaten my fastest time. I realise that this is the best I’ve ever done and suddenly the last 26 miles are nothing but happy memories. I slow down and run past the finish line into the throng of people stood in the finishers enclosure. I stand there alone and smile wider than I have all day as a lady comes over to me and gives me my medal and a bottle of water. Then I turn and see the woman who smiled at me earlier. I see her holding her medal and crying. She looks up and sees me and we both smile again.
Neither of us says anything.