London: the OG of marathons, one year on

I’m a runner, yes, but I’m not a marathon runner. 10k is about my favourite distance really. You’re done and dusted inside an hour – well, I can be done and dusted inside 50 minutes on a good day and if I’ve abandoned all crazy notions of a) having a pain-free chest b) feeling any sort of comfort whatsoever and c) looking any colour other than “Tomato”. It’s not such a short distance that you can see your overall time fucked by one dodgy mile at the outset (duathlon race series, I’m looking at you), but it’s not so long that you need to take electrolyte gels and think about where there might be water stops. Plus, it’s got the word “ten” in it, so people think it’s quite impressive, when in fact it’s not actually that far.

I’ve done a few longer distances over the years – the Great North Run, obviously, because it’s the Great North Run (5/10 do not recommend btw – yes yes yes there’s an atmosphere and you run over the gorgeous bridge and the Red Arrows appear, but honestly, you spend an awful lot of time running through suburbs and industrial areas and if I’m totally honest, I don’t rate it for the price and hype). A few local half-marathons. The Gruesome Twosome several times in north Lincolnshire, with my best friend, which is an off-road half-marathon run in pairs over some absolute bastard hills (but remains my favourite race, because of the friend part). But even the Gruesome introduced a 10k option eventually, which I snatched at gratefully, and generally I will cut any run short before it reaches 9 miles.

HOWEVER. In October 2018, my best friend finally – after 7 years of ballot entries – managed to snag a place in the London Marathon. I didn’t envy her the training or the race, but I was very excited at the prospect of being a spectator and of the fun weekend in London, so I eagerly helped her find an Air BnB in a suitable location and booked the relevant days off work. I also started doing some of her training runs with her. Through November and December we did some 11- and 13-mile runs, which are outside my comfort zone, but I prided myself on pushing the comfortable 10k boundary and felt reasonably smug.

And then, in the first week of January 2019, I had an email from my life insurance company, Vitality Health. They were running a competition to win an entry to any of their sponsored races – the London Landmarks Vitality 10k, which I’d done before, and the Vitality half-marathon, and of course the big daddy London Marathon itself. I lazily scanned the email and clicked the “enter” button at the end. If I won anything, I told myself, it would be another 10k place, or the half – full Marathon places were so rare and sought-after that I doubted anyone would be in with a hope. I actually doubted whether any prize places even existed. But if they did, and if I did randomly win a full marathon place, I decided I could give it to my husband, who doggedly enters the ballot every year to no avail.

Of course, I won a full marathon place. And of course, it wasn’t transferable. I’d have to run it or forfeit it. I agonised for two or three days. On one hand, I had never had any urge to run a marathon, and I wasn’t sure I could do it. On the other, I already had a bed in a really nice Air BnB for that weekend, and my best friend was running, and it’s an EXPERIENCE. On one hand, I had very little time to train – 3 months, versus all the “normal” entered athletes who got 6. On the other, I had already done some longer runs, and I have base running fitness. Fuck it, I decided. I’d run the London Marathon. Why not. Go on then.

February and March were full of storms and shitty weather, but I stuck doggedly to the marathon plan my friend Dan generously provided for me (after scanning my Garmin data and giving me a grilling about my heart rate and energy levels). I took Fridays off work for my long run, and fitted the other 5 weekly sessions around my working day. I was more focused than I’d been since I was a student. I needed to RUN the marathon, I decided. I didn’t aim for any kind of a time, and I was not bothered if my pace was slow, but I wanted to run – I didn’t want a run/walk hybrid, I didn’t want to run 10 miles and then limp for 3, I wanted to run steadily for the full twenty-six-point-two mile distance. That was my goal. By the time I did my final training run at the start of April, which was 21 miles long, I had begun to believe I might manage it.

Running watch -
Goose bumps, model’s own

Sunday April 28th 2019 dawned with perfect running weather. There was a covering of white cloud but it was dry and cool, and we were optimistic. My best friend and I joined the hordes of Deep Heat-pungent shorts-clad nervous athletes thronging through London’s underground system to the marathon start line. We were tense and wired, trying to eat our bagels and bananas with no appetite, bickering about the possibility of obtaining coffee, laughing at the runner in front of us on the steps whose clear plastic kitbag contained only a pair of pants. In the vast starting field we hugged and separated, she to her pen, me to mine, to be herded to our start lines. I queued again and again for nervous Portaloo wees.

London Marathon start line -
Not the only person taking a start line photo

Then I was suddenly on the start line, freezing, and we were moving. The klaxon sounded and I was running the London marathon. My pace had to be slow, so that I could sustain it, and it felt surreal – like I was jogging next to one of my toddlers on a scooter. I could take in every bit of my surroundings because I wasn’t exerting maximum effort. I tried to remember all of it: the cherry trees and leafy suburbs at the start, the underpasses and A-roads we ran along in the middle sections, the landmarks we caught glimpses of.

At 15 miles I saw two of my close friends who had touched my heart by travelling all the way to London to cheer me on at Tower Bridge. It was thrilling. I hadn’t seen my husband or children, but I had no doubt they’d be at the finish line. Miles 16, 17, 18 and 19 I cannot summon a memory of, no matter how hard I try. The scenery was dull and grey, there was drizzle, and nothing of note happened other than a bloke to my right getting really excited about a handful of Vaseline proffered by the St John’s Ambulance folk, giving it a good deep squelching rub into his gonads as he continued to run.

After mile 21 I became hyper aware I was into longest-distance-for-me territory. My head became full of all the “this is where the wheels come off” horror stories people do so love to tell you beforehand and I kept waiting to feel worse than I did. My main sensation was that I was bored of the way running felt. I was bored of my legs going up and down and feeling breathless. At the same time, I was also getting a bit worried because my heart rate kept going down and down and I felt cold, but I didn’t feel like I could run any faster. In a sudden rush, too, I was really thirsty – which was odd because I’d had water at a few of the water stations, more than I’d ever drunk in training, but suddenly I needed water. It took forever to find another water station (mile 23 I think). Before I got to it, I was actually on the verge of picking up a discarded and grimy Buxton Water bottle in an underpass. It was a close call.

Just after mile 25 I saw my lovely friends again – they’d managed to cross London in time to find me. I looked at my watch and realised how far I had come, that I was probably going to be OK and that I would definitely manage to finish the run. I took my headphones off and tried to take everything in – Big Ben, the embankment, the river, all of it. I told myself “You are running the London Marathon, and you’re nearly there.” Then I was in the finishing stretch, suddenly. I had never in any race felt the end approach so abruptly but there I was, on the Mall, waving at my husband, grinning uncontrollably – and all of a sudden I was over the line. It almost felt anti-climactic. It had taken me 4 hours and 8 minutes.

As I slowed to a walk I thought “yesssssss! I’ve done a marathon and I feel fine, what does everyone make such a fuss about?”. But then I changed out of my sweat- and snot-soaked T-shirt and into my race T-shirt, took a selfie with my medal, and suddenly realised I was fucking freezing and my hips were aching and I was all on my own. I had left my hoodie and snacks with my husband, but I had no reception on my phone (of course I didn’t!) and I couldn’t find anyone. I was near tears and rambling aimlessly. My best friend, who had achieved an amazing time and finished well before me, had sent me a map pin to her location but the maps would not load. I went from high to low in a swooping, blood-sugary second.

When finally I managed to locate the pub where everyone was waiting for me, I was shivering and aching and felt too dizzy to eat the protein bar my husband urged on me. I wanted to be celebratory and excited, but I had to sit on a bar stool like an old lady while my friend fussed around me, helping me to swap my trainers for flip-flops and get a hoodie over my head. It was about ten minutes before I was able to take any notice of my surroundings but then suddenly I was all right again and it was time to shuffle to Charing Cross Road, wait for 90 million years to get into the tube station, and go back to the apartment in the highest of spirits. I’d bloody well done it.

Now, exactly a year on from that day, it still feels incredible to me on a micro level that I managed to run that distance (but at the same time I know I can, and while I don’t feel the need to prove it again, I wouldn’t be afraid). On a bigger level, though, I feel so sorry this week for all the entrants who trained hard for this year’s marathon, only to have it banjaxed by the pandemic. It’s truly surreal that the ExCel Centre, where I collected my marathon number and kitbag, is now the Nightingale hospital; and the crowds, too, that I was part of at the start, during the race, at the finish – imagining them feels so sinister and bizarre in the light of current social distancing rules. Right now it’s easy to dramatically wonder: what if races never get back to how they used to be? What if we ran the last London marathon of the old world?

An awful lot can change in a year.

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