As I prepared for my first ever marathon last spring, worrying about being able to finish, I got some words of support from Andy, the leader of the work running group. “Don’t worry Jaz. Distances are your thing. God bless you you’re not fast, but you can go long.”
It sounds like a backhanded compliment but I knew exactly what Andy meant. By this point I was one of the stalwarts of the group, running it when he wasn’t there and encouraging more and more newbies to join. But I was always at the back, and I was happy there. As long as I went at my own pace I believed I could carry on running forever, and Andy’s words carried me for miles.
Mum and I finished Edinburgh just inside the cut off point at 6 hours and 26 minutes – well within my capability, I suspected, but I promised mum I would run with her and I did. She loved the cheering, the live bands and the big city event atmosphere at the start and really struggled with the quieter stretches; miles of road flanked by woodland on one side and the sea on the other which I would have been happy to trot through and enjoy but which she found demoralising. Meanwhile I found the crowds distracting, piling on extra pressure and sometimes just plain annoying. I decided the low-key no-frills gigs were more my thing.
So when mum had to pull out of this year’s Brighton with a hip injury, I was suddenly faced with my first “proper” marathon – that is to say, my first time running a road marathon on my own at my own pace. And it was going to be in a big city event with cheering and live bands and crowds and pressure. It would have to be my thing now.
Whatever I thought a big city marathon meant, at the very least the experience would be invaluable. We’d made a couple of mistakes in our preparation for Edinburgh last year and we weren’t going to repeat them. The first big surprise – although probably only a surprise to a rookie like me – was that race numbers needed to be collected from the expo on the Friday or Saturday before, rather than being posted out. A bustling expo in the Brighton Centre, tightly packed stalls, queues and crowds everywhere? Not exactly my cup of tea.
As it turns out those folks at Brighton Marathon HQ do know what they’re doing. Once we’d got through the terrifyingly tight revolving door the expo was well laid out inside, with an army of sports masseurs on the lower ground and sponsors’ stalls upstairs. We’d been planning a surgical strike: get my race number, find my charity if they were there, and get the hell out of dodge. An hour and a half later, we were still darting excitedly between stalls and eventually came away with a box full of my favourite gels, a new gel belt and pouch (best investment EVER), a 5hr15 pacing band, early bird entry to next year’s marathon and unbridled enthusiasm. Ah, so THAT’s why they have marathon expos.
Having completely screwed up our pre-race preparation in Edinburgh by first missing the pasta dinner we’d booked, then making do with a greasy takeaway pizza long past bedtime, we made sure that we were comfortably nestled in a nearby Italian restaurant before five o’clock and in our hotel room by six. Another lesson learned from the year before, mum had booked us a room overlooking the finish line rather than nearer the start, meaning we had a gentle warm up walking the 2 miles to the start line and a 2 minute stagger home at the end, not the other way around. The Ritz it wasn’t – by which I mean our room had no surface other than beds, the bathroom was a cupboard with a shower in it and the floor sloped so badly I had to hang onto the dado to take my shoes off – but after the two hour bus back to the hotel post Edinburgh, I’d have taken a scabby mattress in a tip so long as it was near the finish. And besides, quirky hotels are half the fun of travelling to races. No clear floor surface? Do stretches on the bed then, much more comfy than the ground. Sloping floor? No need for those cushions to elevate my feet at night. And now I’ve got some great ideas about how to use that alcove space that doesn’t seem big enough for furniture.
Races are all about the mindset and I tried to set my mindset that Sunday morning to “This is really your first marathon. Enjoy it. Finish it. Find out what you can do.” Unfortunately that mindset was somewhat drowned out by an internal monologue of “THIS ISN’T LONDON – WHERE WILL YOU FIND SOME BREAKFAST. SCULL A COFFEE. OH NO THERE’S NO 3G. PAULA RADCLIFFE IS WATCHING, DON’T FALL OVER.” for the full two mile walk to the start line and my poor mother – who not content with the agony of giving birth to me has become my unthanked and unpaid support crew – suffered it all with a smile and a plaintive declaration that she loved me. So, another first. Starting a marathon without any form of food in me, under gloomy grey skies but resolutely wearing a redundant (and frankly, hindering) pair of sunglasses in the hope that no-one would see me weep.
I’ve said many times before that big crowds and occasions only serve to make me more nervous, and that I prefer the no-frills gigs. As exhilarating as it feels to be cheered literally every step of the way, I had to keep my earphones in – I think if I’d heard a single person call my name I’d have fallen apart. The first couple of miles constitute a loop back around Burgess Park where the race starts before turn south towards the coast, and even though we’d arranged not to see each other again until mile 14 I secretly hoped my mum would see me on the other side of the loop. God bless her there she was; tucked in among the journalists taking photos of the man with the tiger on his back (not a euphemism), excitedly screaming my name not a mile into twenty six, and I suddenly appreciated how heartbreaking it must be for her to watch me run when she couldn’t, and how gracelessly I would have behaved in the same situation. I kicked it up a gear.
Which, without wishing to sound even more graceless, eventually became my downfall. Planning to run a steady 12 minute per mile race, I was comfortably mooching around 10 minute miles right down to the first time I saw the coast and emboldened by my comfort, decided I would not walk until after the half marathon mark. Cocksure, but not clever, as strategies go; nonetheless, at the time I felt great. Although I’m no Mo, I’ve learnt that long distance running is really only a balance of physical and mental strength. If mental strength wasn’t a factor, I could happily plod along for hours until the job was done without worrying about going insane in the process. On the other hand, if my physical strength could hold out I could sprint all 26 miles and never suffer the internal voices pleading with me to give up and crumple in a heap with a jar of peanut butter. But endurance sports are so much more complex than that, and the desire to limit the time on my feet – not to mention my eagerness to see my support crew at mile 14 – overruled my pacing sensibilities and I foolishly kept up an unsustainable speed.
The beautiful Sussex countryside was the one thing that slowed me down a bit; not just because of the incline, but because of the view of the lush green hills dovetailing gently into the coastline, the marina and the frothing English Channel. The course had been altered from previous years as I understand – this stage of the race apparently used to be far hillier but had been updated in favour of a flatter, faster route while still taking in the rural area and part of the village. This was my sort of race – too remote for the charity cheering points or for supporters not local to the area, it was peace and quiet and natural beauty, and it was joyful to run through. I briefly reflected on the Edinburgh Marathon of 11 months ago, and how this section would have been torture to my mum. I on the other hand barely checked my Garmin for distance or pace, enjoying the scenery. Which in hindsight probably contributed to my woefully optimistic pacing.
After turning the hairpin and coming back to the city centre I had to take a walk break at the twelve mile mark – not yet tired, but finally conceding that I’d pay for it later if I didn’t. And it was my last chance for rest before the CLIC Sargent cheer point where my long suffering mum had been joined by my partner Andy, and neither deserved to see me anything other than sunny. So when I saw them I took in a mini sprint, grinning from ear to ear and trying to hold back tears of joy as I saw them wielding pink and purple batons, and Andy immortalised the moment in a grainy iPhone picture of two heavy legs and a Cheshire Cat grin bounding towards them. Since Brighton I’ve often come across advice against employing friends and family as support crew because the economy of strength during marathons or endurance sports does not contribute to politeness or good relationships, but at the time I was so happy to see them I could have started the marathon all over again. I want to say I told them this; what I actually said was “IBUPROFEN IBUPROFEN IBUPROFEN.” And the lesson I learned not four miles on was: keep the damn ibuprofen on you. It’s too late at mile 25.
Everyday’s a schoolday, and this was no different. My iPod playlist – so far something I can’t get more than a few miles without unless it’s a trail run or obstacle race – was a tried and trusted mix of pub rock and heavy metal classics on shuffle. I love this playlist, because it absolutely complements my running philosophy which is something akin to that of Phoebe from Friends: it’s only worth doing if you’re having fun, and who gives a shit how cool you look. Over two hours in though, I needed a little change from Ozzy Osbourne and James Hetfield, and switched to my running playlist full of upbeat pop songs (that is to say, the twelve songs I know from this century). Partway through the residential area and a mile or so before the switchback to the 18 mile point, which marked the onset of the ubiquitous Wall, I ran into trouble; literally. The Gods of shuffle threw up my Kryptonite, my sprint finish song: the DJ Fresh mix of Gold Dust by MS Dynamite. I can’t help but go all out when this song comes on, not least because the beat matches perfectly my cadence when sprinting and the tune is anthemic and exhilarating. I went for it.
Like I said, I’m never going to be fast, but running to this song makes me feel like I’m flying. I can run at a speed that actually causes wind turbulence, ruffles my hair and goes some way to cooling me down, instead of my usual pedestrian trot. I know I can’t sustain it, not even for the length of the song, but it gives me the feeling of being a proper racer just for a minute or two. The reality (I now understand) is that all I was doing was using up the last of my energy stores and leaving nothing for the last seven miles. And those last seven miles hit me like a ton of bricks.
Having built myself a comfortable twenty five minute cushion on my target pace for 5hr15, I allowed myself a little breathing space into mile 18 as we wended our way up a slight incline towards the power station and final switchback. Slight though the incline was, I could already feel tightness in my thighs and knew they would be shredded within a couple of miles. For once, the relative peace and quiet did not help – when all you have to look at is wasteland and both directions feel like they go uphill, any sense of joy is lost and there’s nothing to take your mind off the slog. I fell to pieces, and had to walk. I told myself over and over it was too long, too steep, too painful, I’d never make under five hours now. Everyone else was doing better than me and I should probably give up running altogether. But for a well-timed text message of support from my mentor at work, I was considering giving up and sitting on the kerbside to wait for gin.
The psychological turning point for me was when I stopped caring about my finish time. I hadn’t even realised I cared so much until then; particularly as I hadn’t set myself a goal time until the expo the day before where I picked up a 5hr15 pacing band because a) it was in my capability and b) it was a nice shiny silver. I knew with every walking step I was jeopardising that potential sub five hour finish – a time I had never even been aiming for and really shouldn’t have persuaded myself I could do – and when I finally accepted this fact, I stopped hurting quite so much. By this point I was twenty four miles in and running between the pretty shingles and the multicoloured beach huts. Suddenly there were people cheering again, and god bless them them all cheered like their lives depended on it. I was told to hurry up, no walking, I’m nearly there. I’m pretty sure I told more than one person to fuck off but a combination of obstinacy and pride refused to allow me to walk in front of them, despite the searing pain in my thigh muscles, and amid their irritating cheers I plugged on towards the seafront.
At mile 25 I was planning to see my mum and the CLIC Sargent gang one last time, but my Garmin had run out of juice even before I had and I lost all sense of judgement for distance. What seemed like hours passed between the beach huts and my mum’s outstretched arms offering more ibuprofen, by which time it was far too late to be useful and I made do with a kiss and a promise to see her at the end. And I picked up the pace.
By this point I decided the quicker it was over and done with the better, and dug deep for the final mile. I can’t tell you how long it actually took me but it felt like 5 minutes compared with 15 for the mile previous, and I can’t pretend that had nothing to do with what remained of the crowds. What you get over five hours into a marathon, when faster runners have finished and their supporters gone home with them, is a small contingent of die hard nutters who cheer and scream as if they’re ten people each. These are good people, wonderful people, and if I believed in heaven they would be first in the queue. There’s nothing to be gained from cheering in a marathon apart from the knowledge that you’ve made a complete stranger’s day slightly more bearable, and I’d far rather run for 6 hours than cheer.
Despite the pain, the grumps and the desperate thirst (having lost my temper with the fiddly Iqoniq water pouches two water stations back) I couldn’t resist sprinting the final 400 yards. I don’t believe there’s any point running that far if you have anything left in the tank at the end, and finally Gold Dust came good. Squeezing inside my original target and beating my wristband, I crossed the line in 5:11:02. The song has since been removed from my running playlist and put in a playlist of its own, like a priceless jewel in a glass case. You don’t bring out the diamond tiara for a night down the Tiger’s Head, and I won’t play that song until the end of a run ever again.
My mum and Andy had been tracking me on the hip and groovy Brighton Marathon app; which, as long as you know a runner’s number, tells you at their chip time at each 5k checkpoint and uses this data to give an estimated finishing time. Apparently – and boy am I glad I didn’t know this at the time – I was on course for a 4:45 finish at the 30k checkpoint before hitting the wall, adding nearly a minute per mile to my average pace over the last 12k and skewing the estimated finish time so much my mum began to wonder if I really had given up and gone to find gin. The app is a fantastic idea and runs on technology already available at most large races; the only slight problem is that Brighton’s seafront is notoriously bad for mobile phone and data reception on a good day let alone when there are 30,000 people all trying to use it at once, and that having a hip and groovy GPS app to track people running around Brighton is like buying a plasma TV when you live in a tepee.
Unlike the previous year’s dash trying to find a taxi driver to bribe after two hours on a stationary bus, our journey back to the car from the CLIC Sargent finishers’ tent took all of five minutes including the time spent getting my mum and her dodgy hip up the steps from the promenade. I tease her, but despite injury and exhaustion she covered over a half marathon distance on foot herself that day and still managed to drive first us home to south west London then herself onto deepest darkest Kent. As I curled myself up in the back seat of her car, cradling my hip flask full of cherry brandy and feeling my muscles slowly seize, I thought just one thing: when’s the next one then?
Crowds and atmosphere may or may not be my thing. Speed may or may not be my thing. I know what is my thing though. Running.