It’s currently Wednesday evening, about 80 hours after finishing my first London Marathon. Aside from a few minor aches and the odd bit of tightness I’m feeling pretty good. The last few months leading up to the race have been a bit of a rollercoaster as far as training is concerned. At certain points I felt like I was in the best shape of my life, at others I was struggling to finish a 10k. But that, as they say, is the nature of the beast. Every time I’ve ever ran a marathon in the past I’ve started with a flawless plan, but as the weeks move on and life begins to get in the way the plan starts to loosen. When people are congratulated on running a marathon it’s not just for the 26.2 miles on the day, it’s for the weeks of dedication and discipline that go before it.
I am by no means what you would class a textbook marathon distance runner, largely because my preferred physical exercise is weight training. Don’t get me wrong, I love running, I’m actually pretty good at 5 and 10ks, even half marathons I’m no slouch at. But marathons I struggle with. I know that to start knocking minutes off my PB (3.39 in Madrid) I need to give up on the heavy weights and focus on my endurance. The problem is I don’t want to. For me marathons have never been about being the fastest, they’ve been about balance. I know I’m never going to win any trophies, I just want finish respectably without sacrificing my other fitness activities. If I can improve my times, well, that’s just a bonus.
Talking of marathons
I ran my first marathon two and a half years ago in Amsterdam. Up until that point I’d always told myself I’d never do one. I was happy with 10ks and the occasional half marathon, why would I ever need to go further? When am I ever going to need to cover that distance?
Well, because running has a funny way of getting you hooked. If you’re a 10k runner, sooner or later you’ll end up trying a half. The same goes for a marathon. My half marathon times were coming down nicely with me hitting around 1hr 32mins on average. I was interested in finding out how I’d do over 26.2 miles.
Amsterdam was tough. I was far from prepared for the distance, I had a cold and I’d made the mistake of going with friends who were very keen on drinking heavily the night before. Time has a tendency of removing painful memories but I recall vividly the anguish at mile 21 as my legs struggled to move. By the end I was a wreck, but I finished it in 4.13. I told my friends then and there that I wouldn’t do it again.
I was also wearing some kind of pantaloons.
Seven months later I did it again. This time in Paris. I’d trained hard for this one. My half marathon time was down to 1.30 and I’d lost some weight. I was in good shape. However a month before I heavily injured my foot at the Silverstone half and couldn’t train. For four weeks prior I did absolutely no running until the day of the race. Oddly I finished in 3.53. The training and large break had made a massive difference. After already completing a marathon in Amsterdam I also understood the distance a lot better.
A further three marathons and I’d hit the 3hr 39mins mark in Madrid. I was improving every time, and with it a desire to keep going. I wasn’t enjoying the distance or the increased training but the challenge was driving me forward. I wanted to see how hard I could go if I carried on as I was i.e. with a sort of loose regime where running was just one part of my hectic lifestyle.
A few months later and adidas invited me to join their team in the 2015 London Marathon. I was ecstatic; every other marathon I’d done in the past was a result of me not getting into London. After the unsuccessful ballot magazine fell through my letterbox each time I’d start to look through the list of marathons coming up, trying to find one that would act as a replacement. I was destined to be left as a spectator in the only marathon I ever really wanted to do. Until now.
So from November I was on the road to London 2015. I now had something to aim towards that I really wanted to do. Once again I had a plan set out in front of me. Miles and dates written down on a Google spreadsheet highlighting an intricate order of training runs that would lead me on the road to victory. I’d found and paid for races over the first few months of the year and I’d begun to modify my gym workouts around it all.
Inevitably problems occurred, life seems to throw things at you to make a marathon that little bit harder. I was off work ill for a week, I decided to move in with my girlfriend and the only time we could do it was two days before the marathon, I injured my calf which put me out of action for a couple of weeks – those kind of things.
By April 26th however I was ready to go. I don’t ever remember being nervous about a marathon before, probably because the majority of them had been abroad. There was no-one there watching me, nobody cared about my finish time unless I told them. But now I had family and friends there. Everyone at work asked me questions about my training and wished me luck as I left the office. For the first time in my running life I felt real pressure about the race. I didn’t like it. Running races for me has always been about testing myself, it’s a very personal thing. If I do badly I get annoyed with myself but I just go back to the next race and try harder. This was different, it felt like I had one chance and I didn’t want to let people down. I went quiet for a few days before, partly because of moving house but more so because I was worried about how I’d do come race day.
Sunday was a mixture of feelings, I was excited about finally taking part in the London Marathon but equally nervous about the day ahead. I made my way to Greenwich park with a feeling of dread. I just wanted to get started. It’s the worst part of any race. People talk about their worst mile in a marathon, the one that made them want to give up. For me the most painful part is the hour or so before the start where you have no idea what’s going to happen. Just 1k in and the nerves disappear, then they’re just effort. But the fear and doubt, that’s the real difficult stuff to deal with.
Finally it started and we were going. I had no idea how busy it would be. Yes of course I knew how many people were going to be there, but every other marathon I’d ran in the past was in a city I barely knew. This was Greenwich park, a place I’d been only days before where the occasional dog walker pottered past me as I jogged up and down the hills. Now it was like an alien landscape, barely discernible from the serene place I’d been before.
The fear and doubt, that’s the real difficult stuff to deal with.
For the first few kilometres I took my time. As a shorter distance runner I always struggle with the pacing in a marathon. I instinctively want to run at the fastest pace I comfortably can for as long as I can. It’s a tactic I’ve tried before in a marathon but the result is always a good first half that turns into a gruelling second where I have nothing in the tank. In Madrid I paced it perfectly, taking seconds off my miles in the second half to end up with a comfortable negative split. I wanted to do that again so I aimed for 5.20 minute kilometres.
All was going well until I hit the 5k mark. My impatience at overtaking the slower runners meant I stopped paying attention to the ground and I rolled my ankle over a bottle. I stopped instantly and hobbled over to the side of the road, a fear rising in me that I not only wouldn’t get the time I wanted but I may not actually finish. For a few minutes I tested my foot, wobbling it around to test if I could carry on. Finally I decided to risk it and set off again, paying close attention to where my foot landed.
By mile ten I fell back into my stride. My ankle still hurt but it was manageable and I felt like I’d pulled my pace back to a good point. It was also at this stage I saw my family stood at the side of the road. Now, I’m far from a sentimental man, I’ve had my parents at races before and it was nice to know they were there, but there was little emotion involved. However there’s something about the sheer mass of crowds and emotion during the London Marathon that makes the sight of friends and family seem significantly more powerful. I happily waved back as they took my picture, a strange sense of energy filling me as I made my way onwards to the second half of the race.
Suddenly, after miles of nondescript buildings, the monotony of which was not helping my mood, we I turned a corner to see Tower Bridge in the distance. Finally, this was the London Marathon I’d imagined. Running past London architecture in a mass of excited runners, crowds emphatically cheering us on as we made our way into the city centre.
Unfortunately this is also the point where we passed the faster runners. I stared at the athletes running past on the opposite side of the road, flying by us like they were having a light jog in the park. Then I saw the sign that marked out 35k. 35?! I’d only just gone past the 20k mark. These guys were 15k ahead of me. I looked into the distance, which, being in the opposite direction to the finish line meant a rush of anguish went through me. It would be another 15 kilometers in the opposite direction just to get back to the same place I was at now. It was going to be horrible.
For the next 15k I dragged myself forward, pushing myself as hard as I could whilst my mind tried to deal with the remaining distance. My fitness was fine, my breathing barely heavier than it would be walking to the shops, but my legs were in agony. I’d done enough exercise over the past few months to mean I was in good shape but my legs just weren’t prepared for the distance. Even without my earlier ankle injury they felt like they were made of iron. I monotonously continued trying to ignore the pain, not letting myself succumb to the desire to stop.
Within a couple of minutes I saw them though, my dad was taking a picture of a man in a gorilla costume.
And then at last I say the 35k mark. It was all I could think about since seeing it earlier, a milestone in the race that marked the final 7k. 7k I can deal with, it’s just a case of holding out, accepting the pain and counting down until it’s over. It even makes me run faster. I picked up the pace, excitement filling me as I headed towards the finish. I knew these roads, I ran them a couple of times a week. I tried to imagine myself on a normal evening making my way home. I wasn’t at the end of a 42k run, I was at the start of my enjoyable 10k home. It helped, a bit, if only to make me think about something else other than my legs.
There are few feelings in the world that can match the final stretch of a marathon. Even without spectators surrounding you, the sheer emotion as you know it’s coming to an end fills you with excitement. I always start to think about what food I’m going to have or picking up my phone to see what messages are waiting for me. It’s a feeling only beaten by stepping over the finish line and picking up your medal. At the London Marathon it’s multiplied tenfold. The cheering of the thousands of people lining either side of the street is something I’ve never experienced before at another race. I scanned around for my parents residing myself to the fact that I’s never find them within the crowds. Within a couple of minutes I saw them though, my dad was taking a picture of a man in a gorilla costume.
And then it was over. Every last mile a distant memory as I stepped over the line. Relief and joy taking over as I realised I could go and sit down. I looked at my time on the board; 4.11, not what I wanted but I’d take it. I’d probably have taken anything at that point. I picked up my medal and wandered through the crowds. I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Peigh, one of the other runners from the adidas team. It was his first marathon and he was ecstatic about finishing it. After four hours of running, tiredness and leg pain, seeing how happy someone else was to finish was a welcome reminder of the achievement. After running a few marathons it’s easy to be annoyed about not hitting your time, or feeling like you’ve done worse than before as you wander alone to pick up you’re bag. It sometimes takes someone else to remind you that what you’ve just done is a pretty big deal.
Picture Credits: adidas, London Marathon