Hell yeah, people – I did it! After 16 weeks of hauling my backside up and down the hills of North London, and after you’ve spent weeks reading about my training and trials (either out of support or morbid fascination) – I ran my first flippin’ marathon and it was totally awesome.
Look – there I am, having a ball!
Whoop! Running, yeah!
The whole experience of training for and running a marathon has been, well… distant. The Marathon, both as a physical act and as an experience, has been more mythical than material, and so far outside of my running experiences that I have felt the whole time like I’m fumbling rather blindly through the rigmarole of training. Throughout my training programme I have been trying to reach and grasp some concrete experience or knowledge of what I was about to face, but even after my slow 20-milers, I felt I was short of it every time.
And I was.
6.2 miles short to be precise.
Because it turns out that nothing – and I mean nothing – during my training prepared me for the mental task of running a marathon. The physical preparation was done, I was quite confident in that, but on Sunday morning as I sat nervously in the back of Marathon Girl and Marathon Boy’s car, I was still totally unsure how I was actually going to try and run the damn thing. The way I saw it I had three options:
- Run it slowly like the long, slow training runs – after all, if I could run 20 miles at that pace in the middle of a heavy training week I should be able to hang on another few miles following a taper
- Have faith in the McMillan Running race time predictor and, accommodating the hills, aim to crack the 4 hour barrier
- Aim for that ‘steady’ pace that I’ve been so desperately practicing all summer, the pace that feels easy for 10 miles, but will require a lot of concentration for the following 16 or so
How on earth could I know which was best? How could I know what it feels like beyond 20 miles? How could I know what hours of relentless undulations would do to my legs? Quite simply, I couldn’t. So I decided to adopt the most popular approach suggested by my running friends – to enjoy it.
This wasn’t advice I had previously wanted to listen to – I’m unnecessarily competitive for a middle-of-the-field runner and irritatingly analytical – but as we drove along the motorway, leaving London, passing through Surrey and entering the depths of Hampshire, the penny dropped. I was so desperate for those 16 weeks of training to be worth it, enjoying myself really was the only sensible race tactic. Paces and target times can wait – there will always be other marathons – but my first shouldn’t be tainted by avoidable disappointment. As Marathon Girl pointed out months ago, not setting a target time is not a cop out, and so I arrived in New Milton determined to have the best damn 26.2 mile run I could.
I was feeling pretty sketchy when we arrived and with no warm up routine planned, there was no way for me to vent my nerves. I bumbled around the start area ( a small park in the small town centre), nervously used the portaloo (no queue, loads of paper), loaded my bag into the baggage van (one van for the marathon runners, one van for the half), loaded up my bumbag with gels and readied an episode of Marathon Talk on my MP3 player. Marathon Boy was pretty amused by how small the whole affair was. Marathon Girl was pretty amused by the bagpipes leading the marching band. I was totally freaked out by the surreality of the procession of runners that formed behind the marching band and solemnly walked to the start line next to the local Morrison’s supermarket.
Seriously, this was one of the weirdest race starts I have ever experienced.
There was a woman’s voice coming through the PA providing a rather lacklustre pre-race rally – “are you all excited? have you all trained? it’s too late now! are you excited?” er… as excited as I was the last 3 times you asked us… – which eventually gave way to a prompt 10am start – go!
I was nestled modestly in the 4:00-4:30 start crowd – my long, slow run pace would bring me home in around 4hr 20min – and I tried to reign in my pace as the race began and we began the first of many sneaky ascents out of New Milton town centre.
The race itself has become a bit of a blur over the last couple of days. I have memories and mental snapshots of ponies in front gardens, forest trails, hills appearing round corners, and jelly babies among other things, but I can no longer be sure of the order they appeared in. Nor can I be sure that my memory of the pain and the fun is entirely accurate and honest either. But I have done my best to compile a list of thoughts on the run itself below:
1. The people that talked to me
Within the first mile I realised that I was not going to need my headphones and podcasts as much as I’d anticipated. A man called Dave started chatting to me – he’d run the NFM 5 or 6 times already, as well as 40-odd other marathons in the last 5 years – and kept me company on and off for the first 6 miles. We leapfrogged each other, as well as others, and I began to enjoy seeing familiar faces, waving hello/goodbye and cheering each other on. I particularly enjoyed the company of a man listening to opera on his phone’s speaker (he worried he’d be disqualified for headphones), who had raised a few thousand pounds for Macmillan. He was running way too far ahead of his schedule, but was wonderfully chipper in the face of an impending wall. I also spent the last 2 miles in the company of another runner with whom I took turns to pace. He was fab.
2. The amount of talking I could do
The biggest shock of the marathon is that I didn’t get out of breath – ever. I was able to talk the whole way and there were very few miles that passed without a conversation. Don’t get me wrong – by 16 miles every last fibre of my body was aching – but I could still talk, laugh and squeal every time I saw a funny banner, got cheered on by strangers (writing my name on my vest was the best idea ever), or got an expected cheer from Marathon Girl and Marathon Boy who were following me around the course.
I found my relaxed breathing pretty worrying at times and wondered if I should be running faster, or if I could run any faster. But I decided to err on the side of caution and concentrate on feeling ‘steady’ the whole time. The breathlessness came in the last 2 miles when talking finally became a struggle (which according to my GPS watch is also when I mustered a little extra oomf and raised the pace towards the finish line) but overall the marathon was a race for my legs, not my lungs. I wonder how much this changes the faster you go…
3. How much my thighs hurt
There were lots of things I anticipated would hurt and could go wrong during the race. My calves were top of the list (recent shin splint issues), followed by my hamstrings (pulled one once and am conscious of occasional twinges), followed by my knees (ITB problems 18 months ago)… but in the end it was my thighs that hurt – for 12 miles. I wasn’t expecting that!
The course was advertised as undulating and, though the hills weren’t huge, the undulations were relentless. I don’t recall a single flat section – if it wasn’t a sneaky uphill climb it was a quad-battering descent. I took the gradients in my stride, never walking and never panicking in the presence of a hill, but by the time I passed the 10 mile marker I was definitely feeling the effects of those bumps. By 14 miles I was wincing as each stride sent vibrations through the fronts of my thighs, but by 20 miles I just accepted the pain. It was a strange feeling, resigning myself to that discomfort and a significantly slower pace, but there was also a huge amount of comfort in the way they just kept going once I cut them a bit of slack. Legs are great, aren’t they?
4. The point at which I thought I was going to die
Yeah. There was a point at which I was genuinely worried I was going to have to stop. Somewhere between miles 16 and 19 shit got tough. Looking back on it the most prominent feeling is the achievement of having dismissed those negative thoughts, but at the time it was pretty dark. My vision started to go really blurry and my legs were beginning to feel pretty weak. Dave, the guy I’d chatted to right at the start of the race had warned of the dark patch between miles 16 and 19 though, and so I plodded on towards the next water station. Genuinely concerned that the blurry vision was a product of dehydration I stopped at the mile 17-ish water station, necked three cups of water and took a cold sponge. That 20 second pit stop did wonders, as did the sponge to wash sticky carb gel off my hands. I pushed on, my vision went back to normal, and as the 20 mile marker got nearer the confidence that I was actually going to finish this thing grew.
5. The point at which I realised this was one of the most fun things I had ever done
Yeah. After I realised I wasn’t going to die (around mile 19) I became pretty annoying. I was full of beans, I laughed a lot and I smiled at everyone. My legs were my favourite things in the world and every step past the 20 mile marker was a minor miracle. Runners around me were struggling. People who had passed me miles back were now walking and I jogged past. Don’t get me wrong – it was tough as hell – and I passed the 21-ish mile water station telling a spectator that this was the most ridiculous thing anyone would ever choose to do with their weekend (she told me I was awesome), but as long as my legs kept moving I kept having fun.
6. Boshing itThere’s a word in use by my running club, Mornington Chasers:
To run with awesomeness
e.g. Keep running, you’re boshing it!
In a moment of pure inspiration I wrote it on my wrist before the race. When shit got tough, I looked at it and remembered that I wasn’t just a runner, I was a Chaser, and I was here to show the New Forest ponies what boshing looked like (admittedly, my version of boshing it was a lot slower than other Chasers’, but boshing isn’t about speed – it’s about style…)
7. The jelly beans
Energy gels are gross. I managed to get 3 down over the first 18 miles, but I just couldn’t face a fourth. It wasn’t a problem thought because the second half of the course was lined with jelly baby wielding spectators.
The questions is, what do you do with the extra sweets? I stuffed them down my bra, picking them out and eating them along the way. I did find a few strays down there after I crossed the finish line though, having disintegrated down my left boob. It was a bit gross, and required washing with the bottle of water provided by the race organisers…
Marathon boy does the jelly baby thang…
He shouted “You look really strong!“
I replied “I feel like shit!“
8. Jelly bean hill
I was both excited and terrified of Jelly Bean Hill. It is one of the most talked about parts of the race course – a big ol’ hill at mile 22, lined with jelly beans/babies and motivational signs. Hmm… awesome treats versus killer hill…
The signs were brilliant: “You have better legs than all the other runners,” read one. I burst out laughing and a spectator shouted “Your legs are awesome!”
“Pain is temporary, internet stats are forever” read another. True, I thought to myself, I’m doing it for my Power of 10 profile.
9. The urge to run another
I thought marathon runners were mad. I couldn’t see the attraction of running more than one. I wanted to experience the distance, but was sure I’d go straight back to halves and 10Ks. But I crossed the finish line after a final 200m sprint and almost immediately declared “I reckon I can go faster next time“. And I’m already wondering which one to target next…
So there you have it, peeps. I ran my first marathon in a grand time of 4:10:52, finishing 244th out of 506 runners, and 44th out of the 125 women. I’m back in the middle of the pack and I couldn’t be more pleased.
After the race we took the advice of a fellow Chaser and drove a couple of miles to the beach at Barton-on-Sea for an icecream and an ice bath. My calves were the only part of my body that didn’t hurt on Monday morning.
Endless thanks to Marathon Girl, Kayleigh, and Marathon Boy, Tim, who drove down on the day to support me, listen to my panics and feed me jelly babies. Their endless support has been invaluable, and I’m lucky to count them among my friends.
Endless thanks also go to my clubmates and friends who sent messages of support, advice during my training and shared their own marathon stories with me. This one’s for you guys xxx