I didn’t really plan to do a two in two weekends challenge; actually, mum and I had planned to run Brighton together for CLIC Sargent in 2014, but mum suffered a series of injuries which put her out of action for almost eighteen months, so she deferred and I did that one on my own. While picking up my number at the expo I was seduced by the early bird rates and signed up for 2015 there and then, so that we could still run together when she was fit again.
A few months down the line I was going through the Chasers race calendar – still hoping for the outside chance of a ballot spot at London – and noticed that the club’s target spring marathon this year was Manchester, and that there were around twenty Chasers already going. After checking the actual day of the event in my diary and noticing that it was free – because clicking on the weeks either side would have been TOO MUCH effort – I got all trigger happy with the application form and I was in. Then I noticed Brighton the week before, and London the week after. Ah, the trusty leap-first-look-later approach. Fuck it, I thought, I’m doing it now.
So there we are again, traipsing round the expo at the Brighton Centre, spending money we don’t have on kit we DEFINITELY need, and somehow managing to buttonhole Jo Pavey and her family (to mum’s delight and my horror). Creatures of habit that we are, we found the same Italian restaurant that we ate our pre-race dinner in last year, at the same time as we found it last year, sat at the same table and were served the same meal by the same waiter. Honestly, that is the very definition of happiness to me.
Disappointingly we couldn’t make it three for three by booking into the same hotel – by the time we were certain that mum could race everything had been booked up as far as Three Bridges – so instead we stayed at the Gatwick Airport Travelodge and took the train straight to Preston Park on race day morning. Gatwick Airport Travelodge: I challenge you to find a more depressing collection of words in the English language. This, dear readers, is the reason for booking first thinking later.
As we prepared I could see in mum what she must have seen in me a year before: excited but nervous, fidgeting and squeaking, freaking out about tiny details to avoid confronting the huge task. I remembered panicking about how I’d get hold of a coffee and had I chosen the right kit and where were all the toilets. With the benefit of the experience I’ve gained over the last twelve months I now know that, unless your margin of error is measured in seconds not minutes, nothing you do the night before makes a damn bit of difference anyway, but nobody could have persuaded me of that without me experiencing it for myself. And nothing I could tell mum would persuade her either. I just had to let her ride it out.
The last few months have been hard on us as a family; between ill health and upheaval and loss and more loss, there’s not been much time to draw breath. To me, running has been an invaluable diversion from this, but for mum – despite her low boredom threshold and voracious appetite for challenge – training for a marathon effectively from scratch was not the piece of straw the camel’s back needed. She’s borne it all with incredible good humour and if she ever felt that she wasn’t up to the challenge, she never let on. At least, not until we were sat on the seafront on Saturday afternoon, enjoying a coffee.
In the run up we’d talked a lot about tactics and how I would pace her, how much her preparation had improved on that of Edinburgh’s, how she had done so much more training. We had focused so intently on her physical preparation that we’d completely taken her mental readiness for granted, and as we sat stirring lattes she finally, tearfully, admitted she wasn’t sure if she was up to it. I knew she was more than capable – we’d run a comfortable Wimbledon Common Half together in the run up and barely broken sweat, and she runs at least four times a week – but in that moment she seemed powerless, broken. This is my mum. She’s not meant to be vulnerable. I was so, so scared.
The race day morning went off without a hitch, despite the awkward logistics, and we were even treated to a man with a leprechaun costume and a mobile PA system dancing a jig from Preston Park station all the way to the pens. Mum was smiley and chatty at the starting line and high-fived Jo Pavey on the way through, but something wasn’t right.
Still though, we managed the first 10k without pausing once and with a good pace – too good a pace actually, but trying to persuade her to slow down was like trying to tell the Saharan sun to tone it down a bit – and took a tactical decision to pause for the loo just after mile 9. We’d probably chosen the worst possible loo to stop at, as ten minutes passed and still we jigged about in the queue, but it had got to the point where waiting for the next one wasn’t an option. When we finally got going again it took forever to regain our rhythm, and the undulating seafront road hit mum like a ton of bricks.
The sun was warm and strong, but not strong enough for the brutal sea wind that followed us along the coast. Our pace slowed, the crowd thinned out, and every step felt like treacle. And then, just before mile 11, mum suffered an excruciating groin strain and burst into tears. Where’s that camel, I’ve still got a bundle of straw…
From that point on the race was an exercise in damage limitation. Even as early as mile 14 the thought of not finishing entered both our minds, but we put it straight out; with all the money mum had raised it simply wasn’t a viable option, and besides, I’ve never seen her give up on a race yet. Instead, we took it step by step. Just get to the next speed limit sign. Jog to the traffic lights. Walk as far as the pier. By the time we made it to the CLIC Sargent cheering point there were only a couple of people left, and no sign of her club, Petts Wood Runners. For someone who thrives on the atmosphere of a big race, it crushed mum.
Then, a brief ray of light as Jo from PWR called out to mum from the side of the road. Even I nearly cried a bit when I saw them go in for a hug, and for the first time all day mum smiled with her eyes as well as her mouth. We found out later that they had been there all along, waiting to video her coming through, but in her exhaustion mum couldn’t see or hear them calling her. Jo’s hug was enough to carry her as far as Hove, put the frustration and pain of yet another injury out of her mind and pull out the aeroplane arms again. There were only a few people around the residential streets but they were as warm and welcoming as anyone could hope and they offered an endless supply of orange slices which mum munched through gleefully. For a little while at least, we were back in kid mode.
Eventually though we had to get back to the seafront, and without the pace to keep me warm I felt my body temperature dropping drastically. Luckily I was carrying my new Salomon race vest stuffed full of spare clothes and food, as I was planning on using the hours on foot as training for August’s 100 miler, so I fished out an extra layer, but I could already feel my lips turning blue and my fingers were so frozen as to be useless. The sun’s rays were completely unfettered by clouds and I ended up with ridiculous tan lines, but it didn’t stop the windchill doing its thing. I could barely speak for the last six miles.
The boring power station section passed, the coloured huts left behind, we finally crossed the line in a little over seven hours. I felt shitty for failing my mum as a pacer, I felt shitty for being snappy with her, I felt shitty for not noticing sooner how much she had struggled with the last few months, and I felt shitty that she felt so shitty. As soon as we got home we ran ourselves the hottest baths we could stand, the better to wash away the day.
Six days later I was back in an Italian restaurant, this time in Piccadilly Gardens and at a table with seventeen other Chasers, fizzing with anticipation for Sunday’s Greater Manchester Marathon. There was cautious optimism, a party atmosphere, wine and beer flowing already. Everyone wanted to know everyone else’s target time. All I knew was, there was a homemade pacing band in my hotel room with a 3:44 target, a long time ambition to get a London Marathon good for age qualifying time, and I had absolutely no idea whether I’d be wearing a realistic goal or a really crap novelty bracelet. I answered conservatively that sub four would be nice but frankly I’d be happy to finish. If you don’t have a plan then things can’t fail to go to plan, right? Maths.
I’ve been running eight and a half minute miles comfortably for a while now, which would be enough to hit my target, and the Thames Riverside 20 had shown me that a little bit of discipline and steady pacing goes on a long way on a flat road race. In theory, that was all I had to do for mile after mile. But all week my feet had been heavy with the effort of seven hours’ plodding in them, my lower back was screaming and right up to bedtime on Saturday I was battling a niggly left ankle that couldn’t take my full weight. It was either going to happen, or it really wasn’t.
There’s a phenomenon in my industry known as Dr Theatre – no matter how ill or hungover or injured a performer is, they always mysteriously pull it out of the bag on the night. Seriously, I’ve worked with dancers who turned up to work ashen-faced with the Norovirus, floated gracefully onto stage, did five pirouettes, leapt into the wings and immediately threw up into a sand bucket, only to do it all over again two minutes later. No-one in front of the curtain is any the wiser. Dr Theatre was there, tapping on my shoulder as my alarm went off on Sunday morning. Up you get, you lazy moo. Your ankle’s fine, stop bitching about your back, and the quicker you go the less your feet will hurt.
I know I always say I’m not a city marathon person – and trust me when I say there are few places in the world I like visiting less than Old Trafford – but I fell in love with Manchester almost immediately. The weather was perfect, the route was entertaining if not exactly picturesque, the crowds were encouraging, and I could barely keep up with the number of kids holding out their hands for a high five. There’s a particular brand of understated Northern hubris about the event – a Bet Lynch lookalike called out “Come on love, chips for dinner” and at least three banners told me to run like I stole something – that made me feel like I was running through the set of Coronation Street. I can see why it won the award for Best Marathon yet again this year.
As excellent a turnout as it was for the runners, much respect goes to the Clapham Chasers support team who came all the way to Manchester with a blow-up doll just to cheer us on. It took a good few miles for me to notice that, between looking out for the faster Chasers on the switchbacks and looking out for Ingrid and the cheering squad, I’d barely had my music on for the first half of the race, something I usually rely heavily on. In fact, I’d barely noticed we were at halfway, and I was still really comfortable with the pace.
Cat – herself going for two in two weekends and a PB – had put up a Steve Prefontaine quote on the Facebook page earlier in the week: “The best pace is suicide pace, and today looks like a good day to die.” Grr. As I ran along, listening to party punk god Andrew W.K. and repeating the quote to myself, I drowned out that voice that barters with me to take it easy, that says finishing is a triumph in itself. Of course it is, but I’d come too far to give up the chance of a good for age place I now knew I was capable of, and I knew I should have had more faith from the beginning. I know it’s not exactly in keeping with the whole This Girl Can ethos, but I channelled that testosterone-filled chest-beating machismo and started reeling people in. Club vests disappeared in my wake. Every kid that high-fived me felt like a Super Mario 1-Up.
Andy puts up with enough from me without being dragged to every single race, so we have an understanding that he only comes to Big Races, like city marathons close to home or races with a big goal; since I’d be surrounded by Chasers at Manchester and had persuaded myself not to get too excited about the good for age time, it didn’t qualify as one of them, not to mention the fact that it was in bloody Manchester. But as I approached Stretford I desperately wished I could see his face in the crowd. It was the point at which I knew I was going to make it, and I wanted him to see me do it. What’s more, I wanted mum to see just how much fun running should be.
I crossed the line in front of the Old Trafford Holy Trinity statue with a chip time of 3:41:22, elated and mildly surprised. At least two-thirds of the Chasers running that day got PBs, and the party was nowhere near over. It would have been nice to stay in Manchester for one more night and celebrate with them, but frankly I was ready for home. For me, crossing that line wasn’t the end of three hours and forty one minutes, or the conclusion of a tiring eight days, or the culmination of a few months’ training. It was curtain down on a year-long performance that saw every extreme of tragedy and triumph, and a good deal of comedy for good measure. It’s not the final performance though, not by a long shot.
See you in London…
P.S. Mum spent seven hours insisting she would never do another marathon. Two weeks later, I got a text from her pointing out that her birthday falls in the same week as the New York Marathon. So…