Why are you nervous? You’ve done this before!
My mind is a swaying tower built from the bricks of habit. Little rituals that start, proceed and end exactly the same way every time; sometimes we call them ‘pings’. We’ll be sitting in the pub before a QPR home game and I’ll turn to Andy and ask if Tess (our cat) is OK, and he says, in a very matter of fact way, yes she is. And I say what’s she’s doing and he’ll answer without missing a beat, she’s curled up on the sofa, or she’s watching pigeons from the study windowsill. We are miles away, and have been for a whole morning. He doesn’t have a security camera, or a telepathic link; I know he doesn’t know for sure. But he answers me as if it’s the most natural question in the world and then we get on with our pints and complaining about Keith Stroud’s godawful refereeing.
This is one type of brick; there are many others like it, stacked and restacked daily. The foundation that my 2022 London Marathon training was built on is a bit different though. The preparation for a weekend long run starts 30 to 60 minutes in advance, packing and repacking my vest, insisting I’m not hungry and then eating a piece of Nutella toast at the last minute, checking weather, feeling nauseous, tying shoelaces two or three times, staring at the front door.
Andy, I’m nervous. I don’t know if I can do this.
You have to understand what an infinitely patient man Andy is. This is not my first rodeo. At this point I have run 53 official marathons and ultras, and probably 20 more marathon plus distances on top of that. I have run London twice before. He would have every right to dismiss my fears, or at least show some frustration; after all, he answered this EXACT comment seven days ago, and seven days before that; not so much travelling through time as trapped in a small pocket of it. But he doesn’t. It is a test of his kindness, and it’s a test that he passes every single time.
And for some reason, hearing his confident response is enough to make me believe I can do it, and off I go.
As you’ve probably heard before, the hard work of a marathon is done getting to the start line. Whatever happens out there on the course, it’s those training miles that often decide whether or not you’re going to finish, or hit your goal time, or (frankly) enjoy yourself. So it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that having Andy boot my arse out of the door every week was the single biggest factor to me getting to the end of this race. But why WAS it such a tall order, when I’ve done more than fifty of them before? Well, that story starts at the end of 2019.
So what happened was: I used to run a lot – then I worked a lot – then a pandemic landed – then –
And here we are now.
I don’t know if anyone else has experienced this, but my sense of time is completely screwed since 23rd March 2020. Like, I still think 2019 was last year. So was 2022. So was 2012. 1998 was maybe a decade ago. I spent a whole year – look at me, a WHOLE YEAR – thinking I was a year older than I was; even wrote job applications and race entries with the wrong damn age. And then I spent a year at that age thinking, nah, I’ve done 38 once already haven’t I? All because lockdown landed the day before my birthday and stopped time.
As a result, it’s taken me quite a while to really understand that I’m not in the shape I think I’m in. The mental gymnastics involved in believing I’m still a 35 year old who last ran a marathon a month ago contorted me into signing THAT Jaz up for races, writing cheques that 38 year old Jaz has to cash… but without the fitness to match it. Beating myself up because I can’t understand why my pace is so slow, why my fitness is suddenly on the floor. Not realising that I’m living with a sort of conscious amnesia, clouding the memories of two years of bad news and grief and stress and surviving on crisps and not much running.
Then I quit my dream job with no prospects to look forward to and barely enough savings to last me half a month. I gave myself the human equivalent of holding the button down on a PC to force a reboot and hoping it switches back on. Sure, all the unsaved work in the last two years was lost, but it worked. I did a bit of sleeping. I saw my dad for the first time in three years. I relearned the days of the week. I woke up.
And then I found myself with a handful of deferred race entries to use. Well, why not?
Which brings us back to the start of this story.
London Marathon 2022
It was October 2022. I had finally recieved one of the unicorns that is a ballot place (yes, they exist) just before the pandemic – having told anyone who’d listen and many who did not that I’d never run London again – and deferred it for the autumn, reasoning that I’d either be fit enough to go for it or I’d be stubbornly dragging my heels around, but I would never again take it for granted. And training started off pretty optimistically. Well it would do, wouldn’t it? Training through the summer, running in daylight, not having to carry two kilos worth of warm kit – lovely stuff. I even kept a run streak going from January to June, recapturing the time I felt most like me; like a runner who had a job instead of the other way around.
Of course fate isn’t that kind – a forced break from running for two months intervened just as I was getting into my stride. Pre-pandemic Jaz probably wouldn’t have given a second thought to rawdogging a marathon but I have to admit, I was back to beginner status at this point and I had no idea how long a marathon would take me to finish. And like a beginner, one of the first things I had to do was work on my ‘why’ – which is weird for me, because in any other context marathon and ultramarathon running IS my why. I figured it was as simple as getting back on track for the 100 Marathon Club (I was up to 53 at this point) and indulging in something I enjoy.
Which in a lot of ways was true, and in many more ways didn’t begin to tell the story of why. I’ve run a lot of marathons for the very simple reason that I enjoy doing them and they’re my favourite thing ever and I want to get to 100 of them as soon as humanly possible and then ideally 1000. But as it turned out, I rediscovered a completely different ‘why’; the cruellest one the pandemic took from us, a community.
Community like Sutton Striders, a new club close to my home that I had started training with. I missed my Clapham Chasers clubmates but life logistics just didn’t allow for me to be part of the everyday goings on any more; and although I figured I could train by myself no problem, I forgot what an impact the encouragement of fellow runners could have. That was until chairman Bryn put up a series of social media posts featuring the Striders running London, with a photo and a Q&A and a club logo. And there I was, among those posts. Part of a team. It was a small gesture on his part but it made me feel validated as a runner, in a way that solo loops around the block can’t. (That gesture meant so much, so unexpectedly, I later decided to join the committee even though I know the square root of fuck all about being on a committee).
Community like my gaggle of football hooligans, who nod warily over their pints every time they hear I’m doing another marathon, but who nonetheless turned up at the north end of Tower Bridge with a QPR scarf. Like one hooligan in particular who found time between being a barrister and a bestselling author to train for her first marathon. Enter low-key hero and glutton for punishment, Harriet. We bumbled around the race village together, we queued for loos together, we did a lot of Instagram twattery together, so when we worked out that she was only two start pens ahead of me I thought it would be a piece of cake to simply sprint the first mile, maybe two, and catch her up. The first two WERE pieces of cake; miles three and four at something close to my current parkrun pace were not, but I got there eventually and we ran, hobbled and grumbled the other twenty two miles together. And honestly it made my day to share those miles with her.
Community like Diana, who was thrust into our path at mile 18 by one of the volunteers. She’d been running with her husband but forced to stop for medical attention for agonising cramps – cramps which by rights should have taken her out of the race altogether. It took about six seconds to work out this isn’t a lady who understands the word “can’t”. Raising money in memory of her late daughter while undergoing chemotherapy herself, our grumblefest turned into a keep-Diana-going-fest, turned into a Diana-taking-care-of-us-fest, turned into a parade of her dozens of supporters who seems to be at every corner. At some point in that last eight miles we all took turns having a bit of a sob while the other two did the comforting, until we got to the last 400 metres where we met Diana’s husband who had waited, unwilling to cross the line without her – then the floodgates opened for us all. Crossing the line as a group of four ranks as one of my favourite running memories ever. (This one’s for Daisy.)
Community like my mum who was manning the water station at mile 5, who abandoned her duties long enough to give me a massive hug and then spent the rest of the day tirelessly singing and handing out drinks and probably hugging everyone who looked like they needed it. Community like the Anthony Nolan charity volunteers who cheered Harriet every time her black and green shirt approached. Community like my husband and his sister who, fifteen years on, still treat London like more than a marathon; who always remind me that it is.
And that’s just the start.
Autumn Ranscombe Challenge 2022
It’s November 2022, barely a month later.
Rachel and Tills haven’t see me in over two years but there is no hesitation whatsoever when they greet me at the start/finish pen of the Ranscombe Challenge, remembering my predilection for skull skirts and giant Galaxy chocolate bars. It’s one of the SVN trademark lap challenges and I’m here to see how far I can get, only a month after London. Of course I want another marathon finish; but I need to be able to drive myself home afterwards and I have no idea what my little legs have in them. So I take it a lap at a time.
As I’m out on the course, taking in the scenery while tiptoeing around the mud, my mind is already a dozen races ahead. At nine o- clock today the Centurion Autumn 100 2023 entries go on sale, and given how popular that race is I don’t want to miss the opportunity to bag a place for attempt number three at the distance. Trouble is, I’m not going to be back at my laptop until sundown, and I have no idea if that’s too later or not. So, as the hour ticks over at the start of my second lap, I trot along a rutted road with my face in my smartphone, trying not to stumble as I go through the sign up process and hoping the signal holds out. Totally normal behaviour.
It is stunning, and as the name suggests, challenging. The loop takes in part of the North Downs and involves a lot of crunchy climbs. My legs are absolutely not in skipping-like-an-ibex shape; I’m mostly hiking by the fourth lap, but I’m happy. I call Andy to get his advice on whether or not it’s worth grinding out two more for the marathon distance.
“Well, you didn’t drive all the way to bumfuck nowhere in Kent not to get a marathon finish.”
And I do. And it’s very firmly type 1 fun, not type 2 fun. That’s what’s different for me at the moment – being so far off the pace, still suffering with chronic lethargy and general heaviness of self, it’s not so much that I can’t run fast as I can’t try to run fast. My body simply won’t answer the call to push beyond its limits because it’s already there. Every bit of rest I take feels like cheating; until I remember, this is as much as you’ve got right now. Remember that. This is 2022 Jaz, not 2019 Jaz or 2015 Jaz. The tradeoff is… it’s all fun. I’m having a lovely old day pottering about in some woods, catching up with old friends and being at peace.
Fast forward to a few months’ time: this will be the groundwork for the Jaz I want to be.
What I feel, picking up the medal, is less euphoria and more quiet satisfaction. I have a bit of a chat, queue up for a coffee, run my thumb pleasingly over the ridges of the medal. Examine the puzzle shape, which I love but which makes me a bit sad to think I’m missing the other three pieces. I should do the whole four race series next year, I think. A nice fuzzy feeling.
That feeling accompanies me on the drive home like a warm blanket, but is eventually jostled out by a nagging thought. Remember, Jaz. Did I leave some kit behind? Forget to pay the Dartford Bridge toll?
Ah, I remember. I officially have a 100 miler to train for.
Pilgrims Challenge 2023
It’s February 2023.
I’ve done the most natural thing I could think of – signed up for the XNRG Pilgrims Challenge. It’s 66 miles over two days along the North Downs; basically, run from Farnham to Redhill, stay overnight in a school hall, run back the next day. If you want a proper run down of the race look up my previous blogs from 2015 and 2018. There’s a reason I choose this race: because it’s familiar ground, safe ground. With their policy of no cut offs, I figure that it would be the perfect way to start this crash course in 100 mile race fitness: prove your endurance, then work on your speed.
There is one other factor I still need to work on: my mental strength. I’ve got enough experience behind me now to know I can slog out a finish if I want to; it’s the wanting to that I worry will let me down. I’m going to be away from home for a whole weekend, which means being away from Andy and our (now) two cats – one of which is a recently adopted elderly curmudgeon named Bay. He’s come down with a stomach bug a couple of days before the race, and although he’s got all the meds and fuss he could possibly need, I still feel immense guilt at taking the car for a whole weekend. What if he needs another emergency trip to the vets. What if Tess runs away. What if Andy trips over a cat and falls down the stairs. The line between being completely present for this race weekend and wanting to rush home to safety is wisp thin.
And that, more than almost anything else, brings home the sharp reality that the person running this race is present day Jaz. The bricks of habit that make up my tower apparently have less mortar holding them together than I realise.
But then; standing under the starting arch, marvelling at the lack of snow (I’ve never seen Pilgrims without it), I feel my shoulders climb down from around my ears. This is what I’m here for.
The next day and a half passes in bliss, for the most part. My progress is slow but determined. It’s not all bad news, being this new Jaz: I half run half hike the first day and it takes me almost ten hours, compared with my first ever finish at around six and a half – and I don’t mind. I’m not beating myself up for being slow like I did last time. In fact, the gentle pace means that I can post Instagram stories of my progress whenever signal allows, diarising the race in real time, not just recording in retrospect. I ring Andy at regular intervals, just to hear his reassuring voice. Partway through the second day I am blindsided by excruciating period cramps – which often make me black out with pain, or simply root me to bed – and I tramp on, wearing a grimace for a smile but knowing that all I have to do is move. In videos I describe the nostalgia I feel running this trail after so many years, a trail I used to train on once a month or more, but it feels more like going back in time. For a few joyful miles Cat is running along the North Downs with me, and it’s not deja vu, she’s really there.
Not that that stops me taking a wrong turn just as dusk starts to creep over the treetops. I’m so engrossed in a call to Andy (the cats are fine, the house is fine, he’s fine) that I gain myself some bonus mileage taking an adjacent trail into the lower woods outside Guildford and having to turn back. No big deal, not even this late in the day. I laugh it off with him, tell him I’ll call once I’m through the final checkpoint. And when I get there, cramming cookies into my race vest that I’m long past being able to eat, a wintry gloom is decidedly settled over Surrey.
That’s when I learn how close to meltdown I really am. Up to that last checkpoint I still believe that no matter how long it takes I’ll get to the end, that there’s nothing to worry about. I’m so proud of myself for getting through the weekend just trusting that everything would be fine, and my regular check ins with Andy contribute to that little echo chamber of optimism. So with a paltry 5 miles to go (maybe an hour and a half?) I call him for what I intended to be the last time. No answer, so I try once more just in case he’s in the middle of Apex Legends. Still, nope.
That’s ok. Give it ten and try again. Watch nervously as the trail ahead plunges into a thicker canopy, crowding out the light and the phone signal. Consider waiting in the open until he calls back, decide that’s daft, carry on. Feel the panic bubbling up. Try again and again for 30 minutes or more. Keep moving.
By this point my train of thought had taken me into a dark place. Bay could be hurt, but I’ve got the car so Andy can’t do anything about it. Andy could be hurt and nobody can get to him. Do I call our next door neighbour to get her to check? No, wait – she’s out for the weekend. What about my mum? She’s an hour’s drive away and she’s probably at work. Try again, try again, swallow down the panic. The last inhabited building before the trail disappeared into the darkness again almost tempted me to pull out of the race so at least I wouldn’t be exposed while I waited for him to call.
I carry on, dry sobbing and yelping to myself. The trail eventually opens out into a path between two of the Puttenham golf course greens – which means the clubhouse would be nearby too. I think, I’ll get shelter there while I figure out how to get home, tell the race director to come and pick me up – I’m pulling out of the race with three miles to go because my husband is potentially dead. Just try one more time.
And then he picks up.
Sounding very much not dead, but perhaps a little sleepy, Andy asks how I was getting on. And I, overwhelmed with relief, go into full on middle eastern woman of grief mode. Wailing, sobbing, hiccuping grotesquely, as a pair of gentleman golfers chasing the last rays of dusk looks on with confusion. From Andy’s perspective he was woken up from a thirty minute nap – something he’d been unable to do all day – to hear me crying unintelligibly down the phone at him from some woods in Surrey. He is alive, so are the cats and fish. Panic over.
No, there’s no Instagram story of that bit.
Therein lies one of the many lessons I later take away from that day: deal with your catastrophising anxiety, because nothing will bring it out faster than an overnight stretch of trail with no end in sight. Easier said than done; I’ve spent years triple checking the oven to make sure the cats aren’t hiding in there (they never are) and going home to lock a front door that is already locked (I almost made my friend miss parkrun doing that) and tapping Andy’s arm three times to make sure everything will be alright (it usually is). Making sure those bricks are neatly stacked. And waiting for earthquakes.
Outside the pub
It’s April 2023.
The day before the South Downs 50 2023, my qualifier for the Autumn 100. I have made it to the pub for QPR’s home game against Preston. Well, nearly; I’ve made it to the front door of the pub. People are milling about in the sunshine, gesticulating with pint glasses and probably complaining about Keith Stroud’s godawful referring. Andy comes out to meet me.
My tower has toppled.
As usual he soothes my rises anxiety, ruefully suggests I go back home. A football stadium is not a great place to be right now, and I need sleep before tomorrow’s early start. As I retrace my steps to the tube, I play time forwards 24 hours to imagine the race, how I’m going to manage my pace and fuelling strategy, begin to restack those bricks. One foot in front of the other.
Why am I nervous? I’ve done this before!
The next day is a story for another day.
To all those lucky enough/brave enough/daft enough to be toeing the line at London Marathon this Sunday: run well, run happy and be really fucking proud xxx