This time last year, my mother and I had been rejected for the London Marathon, and fearful that we wouldn’t be able to raise the minimum amount required for a charity place, decided instead to enter Edinburgh. Although mum had run London in 2000 (13 years younger and 5 stone lighter, as she reminded me regularly) it would be my first marathon and the longest distance I had run beyond a half.
We arranged regular weekly runs together, we calculated the miles we would need to cover, we looked up training plans and exercises and advice on form. We tried carb gels and energy drinks and protein bars and identified which ones made a difference and which ones inflicted us with Montezuma’s revenge. As we upped our running distances each week we tried all sorts of weird and wonderful kit until we found what we were most comfortable in (as it turns out two bras, two bumbags and a brand loyalty to Asics). And finally, having planned a run/walk strategy that we could both deal with, we plotted a 24 mile walk up and down the Thames path one sunny Sunday in May so we knew what it felt like just to cover the distance.
We forgot one thing. Any guesses?
The Thames path is my favourite running route for many reasons. It’s like a cross section of London, carrying you alternatively through both affluent and poor areas, historical sites and new developments, industrial concrete grey, warm fiery brick and fifty shades of vibrant green. Hugging the river’s edge is like having a Sherpa with you every step of the way; not one of those fishwife GPS trackers you get in cars that shout at you to U-turn, more like a St Bernards gently nudging you in the right direction when you’re too tired to care. Depending on where you pick it up from you can follow it as far as your feet will carry you, and yet never be far from public transport if that turns out not to be anywhere near home.
Our hike that day was due to start at Embankment, where we would track the Thames going west along the north bank all the way to Kew bridge, and then over the bridge to the south bank which we would follow back to Wandsworth and eventually home. Literally bouncing out of the station like a pair of joeys (to the surprise of some hipsters doing the walk of shame), we cheerfully zigzagged around the Houses of Parliament and the evergreen gardens of Chelsea and in no time found ourselves alongside the peaceful Fulham Palace Park. We were still pretty fresh, not to mention feeling smug about our healthy breakfasts and our energy bars, when my mum look wistfully across the water at an ice cream van parked outside the Star and Garter on the Putney side.
“I want a proper 99. Haven’t had one in years.”
Like the sort of white lie you tell a child to avoid a tantrum, I said something I didn’t really intend to honour. “If he’s still there on the way back we can get one.” I stopped short of raising the fact that would be in something like 18 miles time.
Next up was Hammersmith, a prime example of schizophrenic London. Only a few hundred yards inland you can find your standard rough looking estates, chicken shops and graffiti. The strip along the water’s edge however is like something out of a costume drama – all picturesque pubs and impeccably groomed bankside gardens. We planned which of the gingerbread houses we would buy when we won the lottery and where we would moor our modestly furnished longboat. And then we smelled food. Delicious, gastropubby, hot, nourishing food. And then we looked at our Powerbars, and realised they weren’t going to cut it.
Not yet being even halfway we didn’t exactly panic, but it was a bit of a dampener on our otherwise bright mood. Either the psychosomatic effect of the smell or the fact that we were actually getting hungry started to hit us, as the needle on our fuel gages brushed the red line. By the time we passed Chiswick Eyot and lost sight of a bridge in either direction, mum was flagging hard. The energy bars rationed for the whole journey were almost through, and I could tell her temper was shortening. To make matters worse, I had optimistically spotted Kew Bridge two bridges too early, meaning that after three times declaring us nearly there she was inclined not to believe me when we did reach it.
And as the path leading up to the main road and the bridge crept into view, so did something else. Probably the world’s most expensive sandwich shop.
I can’t say it was worth nearly ten quid for two sandwiches (handmade in a mere HALF HOUR and lovingly packaged in chic little origami parcels, which we immediately and unceremoniously tore off) but if you’d given me a scabby donkey wrapped in a poncho right then I wouldn’t even have stopped to ask for salsa. How did we forget food? After all the planning we had done – lists of accessories, hours agonising over whether to wear shorts or tights, hiding bottles of water all over our persons – how did we forget the only thing a person can’t run without: fuel?
I can take a stab at a couple of reasons for this – for starters both mum and I were still a little preoccupied with losing weight and somewhat foolishly were concerned with taking on too many calories, rather than concentrating on taking on enough. In worrying about overeating we had massively underestimated how many calories it takes just to walk that far. It’s not that we didn’t know that you need a lot of fuel to run, we just assumed that walking used a lot less. Lesson very much learned. The whole point of the walk was, after all, to find out what we would need to cover that distance; what we learned is that staying on your feet for that long requires fuel, even if you are only walking. I don’t know why even I assumed walking would take a small fraction of the calories required for running – just existing means a minimum of around 1300 calories each day for me. Fundamentally though, I don’t think either of us are at the stage of thinking of food as fuel. We started with what we liked and then chose the items most likely to help, not the other way round. Hence forgetting to take on some slow-burning carbs and mincing around with fashionable pods of glucose instead. What a pair of wallies.
And we still had 10 miles to go. As soon as the last bite of her tuna sandwich was gone my mum’s mood picked right back up and even the prospect of another 3 hours of walking didn’t immediately dispirit her. We were going back the way we came on the south side of the river now now though, even less populated than the north, and being overtaken by the same dog running rings around us put her a bit on edge. I had the Runkeeper app going on my iPhone, tracking our route and pace, and I could see our mile timings were getting slower and slower. I know from experience that when your feet start to weigh heavy is when you need to get a bloody move on to avoid the psychological wall, and that the longer spent on one’s feet is less time spent relaxing them, but in seeing how far we’d come on the other side of the river mum was struggling with the constant reminder of the distance left and we slowed. To make matters worse, what should have been a wonderful inspiring view became endless miles of GREEN GREEN AND MORE GREEN. Almost every day I marvel how lucky I am to live in a city and still be surrounded by nature. NOT TODAY.
When that bloody dog finally scampered off ahead – not sure if I was more pleased it was gone or annoyed that it had overtaken us – we were almost as far as the first of the rowing clubs that populate the south side, and finding a dry concrete bank used by the rowers to drag their vessels to the water, we decided to rest for ten minutes. By this time every little niggle was a nightmare, and mum had to switch to my spare pair of socks to alleviate the pain of a blistered heel while I basically bathed in Tiger Balm and stretched. The break seemed like a failure to keep up the pace at the time, but in retrospect we should have planned one much earlier and restored our energy instead of plodding on at a soul destroying speed.
Only a couple more miles to Putney, I thought, if that. If we push on we’ll be back in Wandsworth and turning into Garrett Lane in time for dinner. My optimism did not help mum. I was told to shut up.
So, we hadn’t planned our fuel properly, or our rests. Rookie errors. We’ve learned a lot about intake of carbs and effort levels since then, and if there’s a running magazine or training plan we haven’t read between us in the last year, I wanna know about it. But what we stumbled upon next was something I can’t ever imagine Runners World recommending.
Approaching Putney Bridge the pubs became more frequent and the ducks less so. The path widened to a pavement which became a road, and on that road was parked… the ice cream van. I’m telling you now – however much fuel your body needs your soul wants its fair share too. Like a pair of Enid Blyton characters we skipped up to the window and ordered two 99s covered in red syrup with two Flakes in each. I can’t speak for the nutritional value of a double Flake 99 but I can confidently speak for the morale boost (not to mention rediscovered sense of humour) it gave us on our final three miles home. Of course we had deserved it, but I don’t subscribe to the carrot and stick approach to exercise because it’s a system too easily duped, so I didn’t see it as a reward. Fairly obviously, it was no longer a fuel issue either, unless the E numbers in the optimistically named “raspberry syrup” are some kind of superfood. I saw it as a symbol of pure childish joy, the thing that makes me enjoy a sport I am so totally uncompetitive at. I run so I feel like I’m 4 again. I run so I can still tear about with boundless energy, like I did when I didn’t care about grownup things and wasn’t afraid of zombies. I run just because I can.
All I remember of the rest of the trip was openly and hysterically giggling at a man in tight stonewashed jeans pulled up so high he had a full-on camel toe. 29 and 55 years old respectively, and that amused us for a good forty-five minutes. For all our diligence and earnest, the camel toe and the ice cream are what we always talk about when we talk about that walk. I checked the estimated calories spent when we got home – 2,316 according to my Runkeeper, set to my height and weight. 150% of the calories I usually use in a whole day spent in one walk. No wonder we were so crotchety until we got that sandwich and ice-cream. I introduce you, dear readers, to the definition of the word hangry.
So what did we learn? What we knew all along – that in life, a person needs food, water, and a little bit of joy.