London Marathon 2018 – the day after

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Cover photo courtesy of the supremely talented Neil Dejyothin

Resume the position. Feet up, laptop on, well, lap. I’ve even got the glass of wine (don’t judge me).

So, did I leave it all out on the course yesterday? It’s hard to tell; I certainly left about six pints of water out there in the form of sweat (and a handful of tears). Did I run hard? No, no I fucking didn’t. I ran smart; I wanted to get to the end on my own two feet and not in the back of an ambulance. It was 24 degrees out there but it felt closer to 34; the only marathon I’ve ever run that was hotter was the Hampshire Hoppit last year and I pretty much had to walk that guy from start to finish. Did I confront my fears?

You know what, I think I did.

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I faced up to the danger of the heat, and embraced it. It’s just another factor you can’t control, and frankly it was nice to get a decent bit of sun. I faced up to the likelihood of a slow finish time. That is to say, I started off like the clappers, but in a pace that was comfortable and hardly troubling my heart rate. In fact the lead I gained over my 4hr20 pace band was over 8 minutes after halfway and I’d been on course for sub 4hrs for the first 10k. But when I realised it was becoming unsustainable, I did the sensible thing and dialled back. After seeing the countless bodies lying on the side of the road I’m bloody glad I did.

I’m not exaggerating about the perceived heat by the way – as someone with experience of near-equatorial temperatures, that was proper sunblasted bone dry heat. Not the muggy fug like a bad trip in a sauna that you usually get in what passes for an English summer. But gosh it was fun. Like a 26 mile long carnival with runners instead of floats. One of my clubmates even stopped for a cider on the way round. Let’s be honest, nobody’s counting times for yesterday.

London 2018 pace chart

London 2018 map

I faced up to the reality of not being able to finish, right from the start. But I also decided that I would finish this race come hell or high water (not far off), and I knew exactly what I’d have to do to make it so. Drink, eat, drink. After mile 2 there were water stops pretty much every mile plus Lucozade drink and gel stops sprinkled in between, not to mention the good residents of East London and their many slices of orange and buckets of jelly babies. The trick turned out to be keeping my body temperature down from the outside as well as in: namely, drinking half of every bottle of water and dousing my thighs, head and neck with the other half. It worked a treat, but I was still bone dry before the next water station.

I faced up to the crowds. However overwhelming I found them last time round, I realised the only thing to do would be to embrace them. And my god did they put on a show. This is what makes London Marathon so great, and so different from any other – the indescribable atmosphere. Whenever I felt a bit wobbly all I had to do was wave back and smile and I was carried along with another surge of cheer. London Marathon IS the crowds and yesterday made me so blisteringly proud to be an adopted Londoner.

I faced the no mans land beyond my comfort zone. This would be my 41st official marathon finish, but the majority of those have been on trails, in ultras or on low key races, where the pressure doesn’t affect me. The runners there are a different breed altogether; a co-operative of like-minded people, a subculture even. A runner drops, and three people stop to help them up – a few seconds is unlikely to matter, and a race is just another race. On the other hand London is, for most people, their first or only experience of a marathon, and it is nervewracking as fuck. I was pushed and elbowed – not accidentally – on a number of occasions, including one where a guy shoved me out of the water queue to pick up the bottle I was reaching for. It pissed me off, but then I remembered how he must be feeling, imagined how he saw yet another body between him and the water on a hot day. These aren’t the SVN regulars, or the Centurion regulars, or the perennially friendly 100 Marathon Clubbers – there’s no place for etiquette here. These are people miles out of their own comfort zones while I’m barely dipping a toe out of mine. For me, the scariest thing about London will always be other people. But I faced them.

I faced the fear of failure, and in doing so took my own fate into my hands. Instead of handicaps, I found challenges. Instead of disappointment, I have resolve. Yesterday made me realise what I could do if I stopped finding excuses not to try. Four hours and thirty nine minutes on the road is nothing to write home about, for me, but it’s also a pretty respectable time for the second hottest race I’ve ever run – Hampshire, by comparison, took me almost an hour longer. I know I did well yesterday, and I know I can go faster.

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Finally, I faced myself; or rather, I faced my definition of myself. I am not defined by my fears, my hates, my foibles. I am defined by what I want to define myself by. We all are.

#spiritoflondon

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Going to that London

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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.

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A tale of two marathons – Brighton and Manchester 2015

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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…

Larmer Tree Marathon

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In my quest to run at least one marathon every month this year, March (not traditionally a marathon rich month) threw up only a few options that appealed to me. Some were too far away, some clashed with other events, but one stood out; being on a rare free Sunday, set in one of my favourite parts of southern Britain, promising a view of some real live peacocks and run by the same organisers who do the legendary Giants Head Marathon. And when the email came through with the race instructions for the Larmer Tree Marathon, I knew I’d chosen wisely.

Never before have instructions made me laugh so hard that I sprayed my PC screen with coffee. Under Weather was the comment “We won’t be cancelling the race if there’s inclement weather. We will be sitting in the warm by a fully stocked bar.” Under FAQs: “Q: Is there a Costa Coffee or a Starbucks nearby? A: No, this is the countryside.” “Q: Do I have to enjoy myself? A: Yes, it’s the law.” And my personal favourite, “Q: What time does the bar shut? A: When we all go home.” A race with its own bar. White Star Running sound like my kind of people.

After various last minute dropouts, team Clapham Chasers consisted of me and Robert H taking rooms at an inn a few miles away from the race HQ in Larmer Tree Gardens, and Karina and Rob staying with family nearby. Poor Robert had not only been kind enough to wait until late afternoon on the Saturday so I could make 75 minutes of Crystal Palace v QPR before driving down to Wiltshire – what a waste of 75 minutes that was – but he also had to hang around for me after the race as I was the only Chaser mad enough to do the full marathon distance, with the other three sensibly plumping for the half. I made it up to him by forcing him to do a cheesy grin photo by the Start/Finish line. Pretty sure that helped.

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All three courses – full marathon, half and 20 miles – plotted a route around the beautiful Rushmore Estate, and as race director Andy proudly announced at the briefing, the starting line straddles the counties of Wiltshire and Dorset. We picked up our numbers from the main café in the centre of Larmer Tree Gardens, where there was also a stall selling fresh pastries, tea and coffee and another for merchandise. The same room would be converted into a food court later on with lasagne, macaroni cheese, burgers, pizza, salad and all kinds of hot food being served. I was looking forward to seeing that room almost as much as I was the peacocks.

We started off by following a path around the grounds that led us downhill and across a road towards the main trail. I settled into a nice easy rhythm early on, enjoying the slope and using it to find myself a good position in the throng of runners. This is fun, I thought. What a nice way to start a marathon, I thought. Then I heard a lady nearby say “I’m not looking forward to coming up this hill at the end,” and the penny dropped. The finish line is the reverse of the start, which meant we would be finishing on an uphill climb. Ah well. Worry about that in 26 miles’ time.

With my partner Andy’s parents living in Salisbury we find ourselves in and around Wiltshire quite a lot, and I have a great affinity with the area. Whether it’s the pagan influence, the beautiful countryside or just the fact that I’m either running or eating good food whenever I’m there, I always feel right at home. This race was no different; I had a dopey grin on my face most of the time. Added to this, the ground conditions were perfect – a nice mixture of cushioning on top and firm ground underneath, with neither boggy mud nor slippery chalk to contend with – and the weather held out with a cool calm air temperature and no wind or rain to speak of. As one would expect in such a mystical area, it was as though all the planets has aligned. I settled into a rhythm and zoned out.

At the beginning of the race, not really knowing what to expect but sticking with my trusty walk up/run down tactic for hills, I had estimated around a five hour finishing time. I didn’t care particularly, to be honest; still winding down from a busy winter and preparing for the North Downs 100, I just wanted to get some steady miles under my belt. As usual though, when I’m not stressing about my time I seem to fly. At the halfway point I was just within two and a quarter hours, and still feeling pretty strong. I had no idea what terrain was ahead of me though – other than the climb at the end – and couldn’t be sure that the second half wasn’t all uphill or through bog or under water or something ridiculous. So I put all thoughts of a four and a half hour finish out of mind and listened to my audiobook. Stephen Fry, reading one of his own novels. I’ve never felt so English in all my life.

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There are a generous number of water and aid stations along the route, but the most important one is the Lovestation at mile 20. I came tearing down another gentle incline to find a marquee sheltering two trestles full of home baked food, a couple of chairs for runners to pause and rest, and a man in a kilt – Uncle Kev, apparently – waiting at the bottom to catch all the runners and give them a big sporrony hug. I think I was laughing too hard to answer when he asked me how I was doing, and he nearly didn’t let me carry on. Uncle Kev’s role is more than mirth and mischief; the point of the Lovestation is to do a health check on the runners as they come through and make sure no-one is suffering too badly to continue. And, you know, hugs.

Whether it was the hug or the whole bag of jelly snakes I’d eaten, or whether I’d just managed to pace myself properly for a change, I left the Lovestation feeling stronger than ever; just in time to hit Tollard Park and Tollard Green, the boggiest and most uneven stretch of the whole course. It’s a bit cruel plotting such tricky terrain in the last five miles of a marathon, but all those miles along the North Downs finally paid off and me and my gorgeous Salomon Fellraisers fairly danced through it. I felt effortless, my pace quick and my feet light, and I must have overtaken a good twenty people in the final 5k. All that hippy one-with-nature tranquillity went right out of the window. The audiobook was swapped for Gold Dust. Game face.

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As we crossed the road and reached the hill up to Larmer Tree Gardens at the end, I dug in for the climb. It was longer than I remembered from the start, and I paced myself by chanting “don’t go faster, slow down less, don’t go faster, slow down less,” all the way to the top. I turned onto the final straight, seeing the clock pass four hours and thirty minutes but knowing I’d been at the back of the pack and would still just be on for sub 4:30. I hadn’t cared about times at all until I crossed that road, but as soon as I saw the clock I couldn’t resist. A sprint finish, and I just about made it.

I wobbled into the café to find Robert, who hadn’t been expecting me for another half an hour, and claimed a steaming hot plate of mac and cheese. I was just in time for the awards too, and to pick up prizes for Karina and Rob who had both placed second in the half marathon. And just as I packed up my things to hobble back to the car, I remembered one last very important errand. He refused to do his tail display despite my pleading, but I did at least manage to get a photo of him strutting around, being ostentatiously disinterested.

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Robert and I talked a lot about running on the journey back – surprise surprise – and it was fascinating to hear about his career and how the standards have changed so much over the years. He told me that he was plum last in his first marathon, and his time that day still beat mine at the Larmer Tree by over half an hour. I know I’m never going to be a fast runner, but being so much more confident over rough terrain now my trail marathon times are fast catching up with my road times, even though I’m not speeding up overall. It really helps being around such quality runners in the Chasers, even though it can be a bit intimidating at times, because you can’t help but be carried along. More and more I appreciate the importance of being part of such a fabulous a running club, to share my highs and support me in my lows, and to know there’s always someone willing to offer advice or a lift or a hug. Sporron optional.

Istanbul Marathon 2014

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Istanbul is one of my favourite cities in the whole world. Where London likes to think it’s edgy even though the bars all close at midnight, Istanbul is buzzing and full of life right through the small hours – and not just nightlife as you might expect, but everyday life like cafes and snack bars and parks and shops too. It’s a truly 24 hour city. And of course it is a city at the crossroads of a number of cultures, spanning two continents. Historic monuments sit side by side with modern architecture, the old and the new nestled in together, East meeting West. Istanbul is awe-inspiring, vibrant, feisty, charming… and completely bonkers.

I’ve been promising Andy for years that I would take him to Istanbul and show him round all the wonderful sights my father showed me. We’d think about booking a weekend off, then there’d be an away game, then I’d have a freelance job, then we’d be too knackered. So when I finished my last freelance gig – one that very nearly killed me and which made me decide to end my career as a production manager for good – I got straight onto teh interwebs.

September – too soon. October – big project at work, I’ll never get the time off. November – that could work. Wait, doesn’t Istanbul have a marathon around that time of year?

“Andy, I’ve had an idea…”

So poor sod, he finally got his holiday to Istanbul at the expense of watching me run yet another race. The deal was we get two full days of sightseeing, marathon on Sunday, home on Monday. Not a great deal of time, but if we just did the European side we’d be able to do most of the old town and the cultural attractions, maybe get a night out in Taksim Square and definitely a boat tour of the Bosphorus. And obviously we’d eat our body weight in amazing Turkish food in the meantime.

I signed up on the official race website, paid the measly £16 entry fee (still can’t quite believe that wasn’t a typo) and pressed send. The message that came up simply said thank you for your entry, don’t expect any emails from us, see you at the expo. That was that. No confirmation, no booking number, nothing.

Not entirely convinced that I was signed up, I freaked out for about a week, printed off absolutely every bit of info I could find (including directions to the expo centre which would later turn out to be useless) and eventually forgot all about it. That is, until about three weeks out when I got my one and only bit of communication from the organisers. An email to all overseas entrants, explaining that as part of the marathon festival a peace garden would be created to celebrate all the countries represented in the race, planted with trees and plants native to each country. A wonderful sentiment of community, togetherness and sportsmanship, with one minor logistical hurdle. So, would all overseas participants mind bringing an indigenous sapling with them?

I have no idea how many people actually carried a sapling with them on the plane to Turkey, but I’d love to have seen the looks on the customs officers’ faces as runner after runner walked through the Nothing to Declare line carrying a potted rosebush or a sprig of holly. Like I said, charming but bonkers.

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The marathon route actually starts on the Asian side and finishes up in Sultanahmet, the heart of the southwest peninsula which is home to the Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque and the Grand Bazaar to name but a few of the wonderful sights. This means that technically this is the only marathon in the world run over two continents, although you barely even cover a mile before you’re on the European side. Nonetheless, you’re rarely going to find a race with a more stunning first mile. Running over the Bosphorus Bridge, if you look to your right you can just about make out the Black Sea in the distance and to your left stretches the Bosphorus itself, straight towards the Marmara Sea, both shores dotted with higgledy piggledy cottages and luxury waterside summer homes.

Once on the western side the route carries on through the new town along the coastline, crossing the Golden Horn via the Galata Bridge before turning right to continue hugging the water’s edge up towards Eyüp. As I rounded the corner I spotted Andy frantically waving my QPR shirt like a flag, looking as English as it’s possible for a man to look, and gave him a whoop and a cheer before turning towards the first of two main switchbacks. I personally don’t mind switchbacks and I understand their value in a city run, where fewer roads closed off are better for everyone and supporters get to see you more than once without travelling too far. Apart from anything else, you really can’t get too bored of the view here.

We had been spoilt for views thus far though. Having lost the 10km and 15km runners we were on our own now, the field thinned out and finding its rhythm. Andy had challenged me to get under four hours and smash my marathon PB, so with my 9mm pacing band on my wrist and perfect weather conditions behind me, I did exactly what I shouldn’t have done. I raced the 3:45 pacer up to the half marathon point and very nearly beat my Ealing half time. And then I burned out. Just in time to turn onto the carriageway for eleven featureless, monotonous, out-and-back miles.

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It sound churlish to complain about a marathon route being boring when you’re in one of the most enchanting cities in the world, but oh my god do I never want to see Kennedy Caddesi again. Like much of the course it runs alongside water, peaceful and serene, but just when I needed some inspiration to get me through the deadly halfway point and keep up a good enough pace to hit my target I found myself staring at Tarmac and bugger all else. Time for the audiobook.

At this point I was watching the 3:45 pacer slip away, and mournfully reminding myself that four hours was still a good 70 minutes faster that I’d ever done an official marathon before. It still smarted though. Like I always do, I’d gone into the race with a reasonable aim and a plan to execute, and like I always do I got carried away immediately and persuaded myself I could go a step further. I always knew I couldn’t maintain that pace, and my thigh muscles were already beginning to shred, but I was still a little deflated. I had forgotten how painful road running could be.

So I started to break down the remaining distance. Stay in sight of the 3:45 pacer until 25k, then you can have a walk break. You can’t walk on a downhill slope; keep going until an uphill then you can walk. You might as well keep going until 30k now, keep up your margin over the 4:00 pacer. If you can run 30k, you can run 35k. Hold a steady pace until 39k (I like numbers divisible by 3) then you can ramp up for the finish. With my 3:58 pacing band racing to catch up with me, I knew that I couldn’t blow it for the sake of a bit of discomfort and Lord knows if I’d ever have the chance to go for sub 4 again. Bit by bit I nursed my screaming muscles and creaking joints towards the finish line.

Then, disaster. Less than a couple of miles from the end, someone plunged a carving knife into my lower right abdomen and twisted it; or rather, that’s what it felt like. For the first time in the race I stopped running. Bent double, gasping for air, hacking sobs both in agony and despair as my goal time slipped away. Despite being on the home straight every runner that passed me stopped to ask if I was OK, but I knew the only thing I could do was bring my breathing back under control and hope the pain would go away quickly, so I waved them on; I might be about to jeopardise my own target finishing time but I couldn’t do it to anyone else. Every breath twisted the knife further, and when I lifted my shirt I found a huge bruise forming just above my stitch. So of course I assumed it was appendicitis and mentally drafted a will.

Step by step I urged my feet forward. Walk while you can, trot a few paces, never stop moving. Gradually the pain faded away and I could fill my lungs again rather than snatching shallow snappy breaths. The end was in sight. So I took my last mile song, Gold Dust, out of its glass case, and went for it.

For the final stretch we turned off the highway and into Gülhane Park – a beautiful route, but almost entirely uphill. And that was it, a half mile long climb all the way to the end over sheer flagstones made slippery with drizzle. I wanted to throttle whoever designed a marathon that finishes on an uphill, but when I looked up I could see why. After miles of seafront and Tarmac, the lush greenery made for an uplifting view to come home to. Passing through the park gates on the other side, we found ourselves running along the tram tracks towards Sultanahmet, where the finishing straight was lined with hundreds of spectators cheering us on, and as I spotted Andy waving my QPR shirt among them I couldn’t help but grin. We couldn’t be far now. I MUST have done it.

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I sprinted over the line with the clock in the 3:58s, knowing for sure that all that pain had been worth it. Face numb with cold and brain fried from the effort, I allowed a goody bag to be thrust into my hands and looked around for Andy. He found me hobbling, dazed and struggling to speak, but happy. Somehow he’d managed to get a good photo of me grinning on the finishing straight and another posing with my medal – I’ve no idea how, I could barely control a single muscle in my body – and we wobbled around looking for the bag trucks before the walk back to the hotel. A random local man grabbed me and asked if he could get his photo taken with me; I don’t know if he thought I was someone else or was simply conducting a study into the mentally unhinged.

Learning lessons from previous races, I had chosen our hotel based on its proximity to the finish and to the sights in Sultanahmet, and frankly I still can’t quite believe how little we paid for such a prime location, let alone the magnificent service. It was worth every penny in the end. I slumped down onto the bed, aching and still slightly delirious, but really bloody proud.

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I’m done with roads for the meantime, I think. I wanted to see if I could get under four hours and I did, just. But I can see why road runners have to plan their seasons to allow recovery periods while trail runners tend to go on and on. I’m infinitely less mobile now than I was after Beachy Head, and it’s frustrating, not to mention pretty dangerous to the old waistline as two weeks on I’m still constantly hungry but unable to run too far without pain.

I’ve never really enjoyed road running or racing for a time and that hasn’t changed; I set out with a specific target this time and I accomplished it, but despite the spectacular surroundings and the unique nature of the race I can’t say the experience was wholly enjoyable for me. It was a bucket list race for many reasons, and I’m thrilled to have done it, but road running just isn’t my thing. I miss running for the sake of it, dancing around tree trunks and scree and mud puddles, shaking out my limbs and letting my worries melt away. Istanbul is a weird and wonderful city and I love it dearly, but for now I’m looking forward to getting back on the trails.

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