I remember planning for my first marathon – Edinburgh, 2013, with my mum, after missing out on the London ballot (of which more here). Lots of weight still to lose, lots of lists and logistics, lots still to learn about how to finish a marathon. Eventually you learn that nothing and nobody can teach you how to finish a marathon. You learn that what you really need to learn is how to listen to your own body.
When I crossed the line at Manchester last year in a little over 3:41 the first thing I thought was that I really hoped they didn’t change the Good For Age qualifying time for London, having just about squeezed in. I still didn’t quite believe I’d done it when I applied, still thought that something would change at the last minute or that I’d read my time wrong or they’d lose my application or something. I almost didn’t believe it even as I clutched the cheerful “Congratulations, you’re in!” magazine in my quivering hands. It didn’t really sink in until after my last marathon of 2015, when every time someone asked me what I was training for I had to amend my answer from “Oh nothing really, I’m always doing something or other,” to “London.” London with a full stop.
Perhaps it’s time to start training seriously for this marathon lark then – you know, training plans, strength and conditioning workouts, speedwork and pacing, eating real food and cutting back on pints of Honeydew. All those articles in Runner’s World I usually skip over to get to the stories of iconic races and Tonks’ column might actually come in useful. My goal is to get under 3:30, taking around twelve minutes off last year’s time – a tall order, but an achievable one. After trying one off the shelf plan and finding that it isn’t pushing me anywhere near enough, I ask my clubmates at Clapham Chasers and discover – almost too late – that many recommend the high-mileage Pfitzinger and Douglas (or P&D) training plan. I like running a lot, so this seems like a no-brainer. I do a few sums and work out that I can just about fit in the 12-week version between now and 24th April, since I already average 40 miles a week. So I draw up my calendar for the next 12 weeks and get stuck in.
Then I compare it with my work calendar. Ah. Three broadcast events in six weeks. Yes, that will be tricky. I’m used to squeezing runs in around work, but with this new job the broadcast days will rarely be less than 18 hours on my feet, and I’ll be learning my job as I go. It’s stressful both on my body and my brain – not to mention my digestive system, eating rancid Pret sandwiches for breakfast lunch and dinner – but I know if I’m going to do this it’s going to hurt occasionally so I suck it up. I stubbornly persist with the speedwork and tempo sessions whenever I can fit them in; then one Thursday, after a particularly stressful day at work I get halfway round before suffering a panic attack and need help from Cat to get my breathing back under control. Cutting one session short is not the end of the world, but the planned hours of speedwork I’m failing to make are slowly stacking up. Perhaps the panic attack is brought on by more than just work.
I get the first half of the project out of the way and hit the ground as soon as I get back. This is mid February now, a couple of weeks away from the small matter of my third attempt at the Moonlight Challenge. I’m in with half a chance of getting first lady if only I can finish all 33 miles and remember my bloody torch this time. I’m going around Battersea Park one freezing evening, not quite hitting tempo pace but not exactly struggling, when I feel a sharp pain develop behind my right kneecap, then it seizes up completely. I try to lollop along in the hope that it will loosen up but the camber and anti-clockwise loop isn’t helping, and I miss the last lap of the session again. This feels bad. This feels worse than the normal run-weariness I can shake off by, well, running. This feels like An Injury. And An Injury means Rest. I am not good at Rest. My metabolism is not good at Rest. I have gained almost a stone in weight since Christmas, and it feels like an actual stone tethered to my feet.
I’m superhuman, so these little setbacks don’t affect me, obviously. No, wait. The other one. Just a bog standard dickhead human who’s too stubborn to recognise something going wrong. I give the knee a few token gestures towards helping it heal – which is to say, continue to run into work once a week at the same intensity, hitting the pavements only slightly less hard than normal, occasionally give it a bit of a rub – but I never get more than 5 miles before it blows up again. I barely run at all in the week prior to the Moonlight Challenge, and unsurprisingly it starts to get better. But a week is not enough. 20 miles into the race, boom.
If I had a coach they would probably ask me which of the 8 marathons or ultras I’m already signed up to this year is actually my A race, then do something sensible like advise which of the others to drop; almost certainly that drop-list would have included Moonlight. The problem is that all my races are A races to me, for one reason or another. I just really love running marathons and ultras. And in a completely unscientific spirit that really only serves to enable this obsession, I am convinced that I run best when I’ve run lots, in as varied and exciting a range of ways as I can. Moonlight is important because of the people who run it; London because it’s the road marathon I always wanted to do; NDW100 is obvious; Giants Head is a party; Jurassic Quarter is Cat’s birthday and a big club weekend; the list goes on. I’m reminded of when I was 9, and we were planning to move to Cyprus: my mum asked me which of my toys were my favourites because we couldn’t take everything. I came up with infallible reasoning for every single thing. I don’t buy shit I don’t like. EVERYTHING IS MY FAVOURITE.
So if I’m not willing to choose my favourite toy, I have to look after them all equally well. Moonlight was a wake up call, not least because my bum knee was pretty much the only thing that stood between me and the first female finisher. I can’t go for sub-3:30 but at least I can do myself proud, and it’s one of only two races Andy will attend so I’m buggered if I’m going to be a tourist – when he sees me pass I want him to see me running like I’m about to win it. I finally knuckle down to a program of gradually building up long slow miles again, supported by cross training on the bike (subtitled: if I don’t have to pay TfL to travel to work I’m winning twice), yoga and strength exercises, a serious effort to lose the winter weight. If I can’t be faster I may as well be stronger, lither, tougher. Is it lither, or more lithe? Whatever. I channelled Caballo Blanco – easy, light, smooth, fast.
On a whim, I signed up to the Wimbledon Half Marathon (not to be confused with the Wimbledon Common Half Marathon) at the beginning of April to test my roadworthiness. I had no idea what sort of time I was capable of (and as usual did absolutely no research on the course profile beforehand) but I figured I would start off at 8 minute miles and see how far I could go before I naturally slowed down. Despite the hills it was further than I thought; I ended up finishing in 1:47.53, not exactly a PB or the equivalent pace for a 3:30 marathon, but not a stretch either. The figures by themselves aren’t much of an indication of anything, but coming away from that feeling like I could run again with no pain was a boost.
Since Lucozade Sport is supplied on the course at London I thought I’d try running Wimbledon on that alone rather than carrying a fistful of gels (which didn’t entirely agree with me at Manchester last year anyway) and road tested my shoes and kit, all with success. The only failure, it turned out, was my ability to stay on my feet. At the end of the first lap I’m crossing the road via a traffic island, over one of the flattest bits of the course when suddenly I’m doing a Superman impression and gliding along the road on my front, and I have no idea why. Pride might come before a fall but a huge rush of adrenalin usually comes directly after it, so I picked myself and my bottle up almost in one movement and carried on before the pain kicked in. The runner behind me reassured me that if I’d stayed on the floor he’d have stopped my watch for me, which is basically the most charitable thing anyone’s ever said to me during a race. Next time round I looked for the trip wire, huge tree root or bear trap that must have been responsible for me going flying. Nothing there. Just the road markings. And as I went over them for the second time my toe brushed the edge and it clicked: I, a person who runs in hills and trails for fun, had tripped over paint.
As I’m sitting on the grass afterwards waiting for my massage, I inspect the wounds on my elbows, hips and knees. Pissing blood and covered in dirt; luckily the only thing that hurts is my pride. I’m a little concerned about the delayed effect of the impact on my poor patellas, although only time will tell for those poor buggers. But what struck me most of all was how quickly and thoroughly I shook off the fear of falling over. The fact is, it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as the tension gripping my whole body each time I’d been out for a run when I knew, deep down, that I wasn’t properly healed yet, that I was falling into a classic overtraining trap. And just like that, I felt as though I had begun to regain control of my body again.
OK, three weekends to go. Three weekends of balancing the desire to go straight back out and run ALL THE MILES with the memory of what it feels like not to be able to run even for a couple of days. It’s a pretty classic situation. As I read about other runners’ experiences with overuse injury a trend appears; those that listen to their body, give it a proper chance to recover, actually come back stronger. Whether that’s down to an increase in strength or some other physical improvement, heightened responses to the body’s signals that reduce the temptation to overtrain, a higher likelihood of practising effective conditioning work and “pre-hab”, or a consciousness of what happens if you don’t, is impossible to tell – you’d have to know their full medical background and training history. On top of which, there aren’t many people lining up to tell Runner’s World how running ruined their life. Still though, you get the idea.
Of course you can’t always tell someone how to avoid disaster; you have to let them experience it for themselves to be sure that the lesson really sticks, and hope they have a chance to recover. Have you ever tried to tell a kid not to jump off a wall because they’ll get hurt, only to find them them biting back tears a few minutes later because they found out the hard way that you were right? Sam Murphy‘s column on coming back from injury in May’s Runner’s World – worth a read if you’re in a similar position – references a quote by ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov: “The more injuries you get, the smarter you get”. Now that I know what it feels like not to be able to run I’m more attuned to the signals telling me I’m about to push it too far, that I’m playing chicken too close to the cliff edge.
Lesson learned – hopefully, just in time. I’ve finished the course, I’ve fudged the homework, I’ve scraped through the mocks and there’s no amount of cramming that will help now. The big test will come on the 24th April 2016.