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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London Marathon 2016

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Nothing can prepare you for it. There are no words to describe the crushing blows of sound coming from the crowds, the pressing mass of bodies moving around you, pushing you always forward, though the twenty six mile tunnel lined by impenetrable, unscalable walls. Even if you wanted to bail out you couldn’t. The only way out is at the end. So, get to the end.

I don’t have a great track record with crowds. I’m definitely better than I used to be, better than when I wrote about zombies, but given the choice between open trails and thronged city streets… well, the road shoes aren’t getting much wear. So why am I doing this? In the days after the race I’m amused by how many people – even those who know me and how many marathons or ultras I’ve done before – want to hear all about it, much more than my previous races, as if it’s a league apart from any other marathon in difficulty or involvement. It’s just another road marathon, in theory. Except it’s not; it’s a national event, a city-wide gala, the zenith of many running careers. Despite the ever-lengthening odds of your average Joe actually getting a place on the starting line London is often either their first or last marathon (or both). Especially to someone living in London, it’s a tangible, real thing, not just a thing that happens somewhere else and well done. On a year that will celebrate the millionth finisher, how many Londoners have either run it or know someone who has? Just for one day, they’re all a little bit of a celebrity.

And there I am, as far away from a natural celebrity as it’s possible to be.

About a week before clubmate Cat admitted she was planning to take it easy at London because she was targeting a podium finish at the Pembrokeshire CTS Marathon the following weekend (as you do), and luckily for me her easy pace is my balls out PB pace, so I had myself a companion. We ran to ExCel on the Friday to traipse around the expo and buy tat we didn’t need, and to talk tactics. Broadly speaking, ‘tactics’ involved me wavering between 3:45 for another good for age qualifier and trying to persuade myself maybe I could do 3:30 after all, followed by Cat firmly and sensibly insisting that a) she can’t afford to do that and b) I probably can’t either. So, I picked up a 3:40 pacing band, then a 3:35 one for good luck as well, then my body weight in Clif products. I’d been marauding around looking for a pair of pink running shorts (because it’s the only obscene colour I don’t own) and maintaining that I’d NEVER wear tights or capri pants for running; meanwhile, half an hour later, there I am carrying away one pair of grey patterned capri pants and zero shorts or pink things. Cat would have her work cut out for her.

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Despite there being another huge Chaser turnout I travelled to Maze Hill alone on Sunday morning intending to meet Cat and the others there. It wasn’t so much me being unsociable, although I do like a bit of alone time before a race; I just like to get to the race start two hours in advance, partly to be prepared but mostly to avoid the busy trains. By 8am I was mooching around the Green Start, trying not to bump into Kelly Holmes while glued to my phone looking for a message from Cat; fast forward an hour and a half, and as the announcer made increasingly hysterical pleas for the runners to drop off their bags there was still no sign of her or any of the Chasers. I had to hand my bag in, phone and all, and hope we’d spot each other at the starting pens. Literally minutes before we were due to line up the familiar blue and green stripes flashed by and I found Cat, Korkoi, Kate and Shermayne haggling with the marshals at the pens, hoping to be allowed to start together. Panic over. For now.

Which pen should I be in anyway – what was I realistically aiming for? Only the night before the expo I discovered that my result in Manchester 2015, the result that gave me the Good For Age entry to London in the first place, was now null and void thanks to a man with a dodgy measuring wheel. It was irritating enough to have put so much work in, got my qualifying time for two Londons and then have it taken away; I can’t imagine how infuriating it must be to those who got a significant result, a podium or a PB to retire on. Up to that point I had been realistic about how well a winter of no speed training and a stone gained in weight could actually prepare me; now of course I would have to try and requalify if I ever wanted to run London again. I can’t raise £2000 for a charity place and the ballot entry odds aren’t even as good as the lottery any more. So, do I accept this is probably my first and last opportunity to run London and just enjoy it, knowing that I’ve much bigger fish to fry between now and September? Or do I go for suicide pace and bugger the consequences?

In retrospect, I massively underestimated just how busy it was going to be; not helped by the fact that we were in the relatively quiet Green Start, and not actually catching up with the crowds until a few miles in. We crossed the line – Cat in her usual gentle forefoot trot, me skipping along with Andrew W.K. party moves – only a minute or so after 10am and filtered through the peaceful streets of Greenwich, jostling and being jostled as you do at the beginning of a race. It made me uneasy as it usually does, but I kept telling myself it’d be fine when we crowds thinned out. To Cat’s credit, every time I said so out loud she corrected me – “Jaz, this is London, it’s not going to get any less busy” – and yet somehow I managed to gloss over this crucial piece of advice every time… until, that is, we merged with the other two start pens. As we came down the slope to river’s edge around Charlton a tidal wave of runners met us from one side and the volume of people more than doubled in an instant. It looked like the scene in the Lion King where Simba sees his father crushed by a stampede of wildebeests. I’m not going to get too crude about it, but I’m pretty sure this was around the time my nausea kicked in.

Like the country mice visiting the town mice Cat and I lifted our chins as gracefully as we could, thinking about the trails and pretending we weren’t inches away from other people’s sweat. We chatted about the weather, about other people, about the finer points of existence – we might as well have been two old ladies taking afternoon tea at the Penrith Tea Rooms. The crowd was carrying us along at slightly above our target pace but if we didn’t want to cause a pile-up there wasn’t much we could do about it; there was no moving out to one side or slowing down and allowing others to pass. Every time someone brushed my arm it made me bristle a shudder a little more though, and it was getting pretty difficult to hide. Every half a mile or so we’d both look at our watches, cheerfully announce we were going too fast and should probably slow down, then carry on regardless. Some serious classic British stiff upper lip denial going on.

I had started the race with half a bottle of Lucozade in my hand intending to throw it somewhere convenient within a mile – at Bermondsey I’m still clinging to it like a Linus blanket when I hear my name called off to the left. We’d just settled into a comfortable stride in a relatively quiet stretch, and perfect timing it was too; fellow QPR fan Cez was waving frantically while Loft For Words’ Neil, positioned a little further along with his ubiquitous camera, was snapping away. I’ve spent a lot of Saturdays in the pub with Neil and his camera and I’m always impressed by how he manages to catch a perfect moment. It wasn’t so much that I hadn’t been enjoying myself before, but I felt such a rush of relief to see them both it was impossible to hide and his lens picked up the very instant a grin blossomed across my already sweaty, salty face. There was the boost to get me to Tower Bridge.

Me at London

(C) Neil Dejyothin 2016 – http://www.neildejyothin.com

Cat warned me that Tower Bridge can be a particularly emotional moment; I wasn’t that convinced to be honest, especially as I run across it quite a lot in my usual Friday lunchtime loop around work. As lovely a sight as it is it’s also normally a nasty congestion point, trying to weave through the narrow walkways past people with no haste and no idea where they are, and I can’t really settle down until I’m past it. Today it was a whole different place altogether. Today we were running along the road, the two narrow walkways crammed with spectators screaming and raising a right ruckus around us. The sound swelled and burst through those iconic tower supports, washing over us and pouring into the tide of the Thames below, and for the first (although not last) time I burst into tears. Ah. So this is what everyone was trying to tell me about.

OK, so yeah. That redefines special. I can’t say I enjoyed it, but I’ve certainly never felt anything like it.  And it set a tone for much of the next four or five miles – the route flanked by two walls of noise, surging and rushing over us. Cat ran slightly ahead of me through the Isle of Dogs and Poplar, which suited me absolutely fine. I couldn’t concentrate on where I was putting my feet or the path ahead of me – I just had to follow her ankles and not look up at all the people. Every half a mile or so the overwhelming noise would hit me again and knock me literally breathless; I would clamp my hands over my ears and catch my breath in sobs until it passed. At least twice I actually blacked out briefly, and when the cloud cleared from my eyes I found myself back in a relatively quiet stretch with no recollection of how we got there. And absolutely no way out except forward.

I had arranged for Andy and his family to be stationed along this stretch just after Tower Bridge as it meant that I would see them twice when the route doubled back. It was a great idea in theory, even though I knew it would be a popular spot for exactly this reason, but as usual I had underestimated just how busy it was and therefore how hard it would be to spot them. I ran for a good three miles, scanning the crowd for a glimpse of him or the QPR flag he said he’d be waving, and being horribly antisocial to Cat all the while. Every step I took without seeing him thumped me in the chest. Maybe he’s a bit further down… maybe he couldn’t find a spot there.. maybe they misunderstood… maybe not. It’s silly really, since he’s never at my races, but this one was the one he’d always said he’d be there for, and the one time I knew I’d really need to see him. Eventually, I had to concede defeat and hope we’d catch each other on the return journey. Cat reassured me that he must have been there, he would have seen me – it’s just that I couldn’t see him in the crowd. I knew it was true, but it didn’t make me feel much better. If I had been monitoring my heartrate I’m sure it would have registered such dramatic peaks and troughs as to make an ECG look like a seismograph.

As industrial East London unfolded and everything started looking like the road to the ExCel centre, another familiar sight appeared. Katherine French, stalwart of the road marathon and secret trail fanatic was just a few yards ahead accompanied by her pacer Chris. Aiming for a safe Boston Qualifier time of around 3:30, Katherine and Chris had passed us a long way back as the three groups merged way back in Woolwich and Katherine had the look of a determined lady; by now though she was struggling, stopping to walk and looking downcast. It broke my heart to see her in trouble – I wanted to stop and run with her for a bit, but she had one of the best pacers money (or rather, love and wine) could buy with her already and the last thing she would have wanted was more fuss. Seeing someone else that I admire so much having a crap time just added to the feeling that this just wasn’t fun. I missed the mud and the jelly babies and even though they were right there with me, I missed my friends.

By this point we’re deep in DLR territory and approaching three quarters of the way through. I kept telling myself that next time we passed a fuel station I would pick up a gel or a Lucozade, but by mile 20 I hadn’t managed to do either, whether because I simply couldn’t get to the edge of the pack to reach or because I was afraid of getting tripped up. My stomach was starting to cramp, looking for calories to process which I hadn’t been able to take on, and although I wasn’t feeling tired or sluggish at all I could feel my body crying at me to slow down until the nausea passed. I persisted with the logic that the quicker I went the sooner I’d get to a quiet fuel station, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. We were a good couple of miles past the last gel station before I realised I had missed my last chance. Time had to go out of the window now.

As we approached Shadwell on the return journey I kept my eyes peeled for Andy – surely I couldn’t miss him twice? I was starting to panic now, although I don’t know why I’d suddenly decided that seeing Andy for a brief moment was more likely to get me to the end than having the patient, tireless and graceful Cat by my side the entire time had been. Cat who never once complained about my being distant and unsociable, about the burden of my reliance on her, about the fact that our pace had started to slow and our muscles in danger of cooling. She was a rock all the way through, but she had her own race to think about a week later. She let me drift off to the side of the pack while I scanned every face in the crowd looking for Andy, and when I finally found him there was a brief shriek, a little jump, and then we were past and they long behind us, on the way to the finish. That little boost I had been looking for came and went almost without a chance to register, and the nausea that had been held at bay by the distraction of searching for him came back with a vengeance. After another mile I told her to go on without me. There was no chance of me making my time now, and no point in her risking injury.

The pressure relieved somewhat I trotted along under the underpass, by Blackfriars bridge and along the Embankment where I had run hundreds of times before. Every time I do this route with work I imagine being on the road, running the last few miles to the finish at the Mall; now I was on the other side, wishing I was back on the pavement. I was doing the classic juggling act: walking as much as I could to avoid being sick until the encouragement from onlookers embarrassed me enough to try and trot again, then slowing back down to a walk when I was safely past. I didn’t care about time any more, and I knew I’d still be able to take away the fact that I’d finally finished my first London. I had the support of my club and my family and I had my health, and that was that. It’s not meant to be easy, but as everyone had tried to tell me it does remind you of the goodwill of strangers – never mind my fear of crowds it’s not as if they were malicious or threatening mobs, just a lot of people who had all given up their day to tell total strangers that they believed in them. That’s why it’s different from other marathons, I suppose. Maybe, twitchy little misanthrope that I am, it’s just not for me.

No longer worrying about time I tried to help a couple of other runners who had slowed down, but who looked like they still had a final push left within them – it didn’t seem fair to be overtaking anyone at this stage when I had given up so long ago. The final mile leading to the Mall was a reflective one, but an awesome spectacle nonetheless. This bit I wouldn’t give up for the world – with one last burst of energy I leapt hurdle style over the finish line, stumbled into the marshals holding out medals, and burst into tears. While I waited for my chest to loosen up and my breathing to settle I turned around to watch the finishers behind me coming through, hoping to see Katherine and Chris among them. Those waves of triumph and pain coming through the final arch are what defines any marathon, and it was worth scanning all those faces to pick Katherine out. Seeing her finish represented to me a symbol of strength, of someone who regularly sets themselves standards so high that most people would baulk at attempting let alone be disappointed not to reach them. They came through a few minutes later, both looking calm and composed in comparison to my snot and sobs, and we exchanged sweaty hugs. I was done. We were done.

My mum had been hoping to catch me at the end after her volunteering shift but couldn’t get through the crowds in time, so I met Andy and his family at the meeting point and we went straight back to Earlsfield. Running for nearly four hours on no calories had taken its toll on my complexion and apparently I was looking grey and slurring, a real poster girl for the virtues of exercise, so we hobbled off to a local pub for a full Sunday lunch which I barely touched, although a couple of virgin coladas went down a treat. If that had been the only evidence of the effect of a marathon on the human body I wouldn’t have blamed them for never wanting to try it for themselves but just a couple of weeks later Andy’s sister Emma was asking my advice on shoes and how to train for the Brighton half and parkrun and all sorts. That’s exactly what I’d hope someone would take away from my grey pallor and limp and hypoglycaemia and shivers. It’s fun, but it’s not what you think I mean by fun. And everybody should try it.

It’s not the sort of fun that’s fun while you’re having it, transient fun that exists while it’s happening and disappears into the ether as soon as it’s finished, an unsatisfying and impermanent sort of fun. Cat calls it fun type 2: the afterburn of fun; fun that is had not at the time necessarily but after the hard work and stress has been experienced, and which lasts for weeks afterwards, in the form of memories and a sense of achievement and a change in your outlook. I’ve still never quite managed to articulate the answer to the question “why do you do this” but that’s fairly close. And, you know, the goody bags and the bling make up for it all.

I can tell you probably don’t believe me. I wouldn’t either. All I can say is, try it for yourself and see.

Funky graphs and stats below (I couldn’t resist):

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PS: If you like reading, or running, or reading about running, then you should follow Katherine’s blog girlrunningcrazy.com – winner of Best Running Blog at the Trespass Blog Awards 2015. Hell yes.

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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Yorkshire Marathon 2015

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The best laid plans of mice and men and women (who don’t plan their races properly)…

Compared with the under-the-radar New Forest Marathon, Yorkshire has been my focus since I crapped out on the North Downs; being the last road marathon of the year, it was my last chance to consolidate a sub-4 (or ideally, a sub-3:45) time in 2015. In fact, it’s been in my diary longer than most other races, have been booked back in January. A fact which I only understood the significance of when I went to find my starting pen, then remembered that my expected finish time back in January was a lot more conservative than it is now. Note to self: next time, punch just a little bit above your weight.

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Somehow I’ve avoided serious injury so far this year (touch wood, touch ALL the wood) and managed to strike the balance between keeping up my daily run streak while varying the effort, as a concession to my body’s need for rest. It is beginning to fall apart at the seams though, I can feel it. Like a well loved teddy bear, the stuffing is beginning to sprout from the joints, the covering is threadbare, the once sturdy posture is stooped and folded. I am cajoling it towards the finish line on 1st January 2016, when I will have run at least 1 mile per day for 365 consecutive days and at least 1 marathon per calendar month – or at least, that’s the plan. Between my body and the finish line stands the three-day Druid’s Challenge and the CTS Ultra in Dorset. I’m going to need extra stitches to keep all that stuffing in.

Then again, in many ways I was looking at Yorkshire in the same light as I saw Manchester back in April – again I would be toeing the start line less than fully rested, again I could be looking at anything between a PB and a bang average time, again I would be relying on northern hubris to give me a boost without succumbing to crowd-phobia along the way. I had a restlessly excited night’s sleep fuelled by more red wine, tiramisu and pasta than is really sensible for one person to consume, and set out the next morning while the sky was still gunmetal grey.

YM 1

It was nice to be able to stretch my legs on the half hour walk from city centre hotel to race village, set in the impressive and picturesque University of York campus. The registration, baggage drop and starting pens were at far ends from each other necessitating a good old trek from one to the next, but since I made sure I was there nearly two hours early I could stroll about at leisure, taking photos of ducks and exploring the many bridges and waterways on site. It was an inspiring venue for a marathon start and must be a wonderful environment to study in.

YM 3

When I had done all the procrastinating, Instagramming and Twittering I could reasonably do, I handed in my bag and walked back up to the starting pens along University Road. As they slowly filled I kept an eye out for the pacers and their flags, looking for 3:45; the pens looked to have been in order of expected finish time, but weren’t marked with anything other than a pen number. I saw the 4:00 pacer tuck into the back of the pen I had been assigned to, then realised my mistake – of course I hadn’t thought I’d be doing this kind of time when I booked up at the beginning of the year, so 3:45 was way ahead of me, about halfway up the pen in front. There was no possibility of jumping pens that I could see, with marshals posted at each one and staggered start times between them, so I shuffled to the very front of mine and hoped that I could make my way forward when the race started. Because everyone knows the best way to start a marathon is by sprinting.

I don’t know what possessed me to obsess over following a pacer when I have £200’s worth of GPS watch AND a pacing band on my wrist – especially when following a pacer only really works if you start at the same time – but obsess I did, using the first mile to carve my way through the field in pursuit of the bobbing flag. And so I missed pretty much the only stretch of the race with views worth looking out for; York Minster, the walls of the city, the winding river and friendly throng all melted by as I puffed and panted my way through the first couple of miles four minutes too fast for the ideal pace. On the plus side, my hot start went towards me breaking my 10k record. Never say I don’t do things by halves.

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Having circled the city, the course took us on a dead straight line due north east, up Stockton Lane towards a right hand turn at the 7m point. Leaving York Minster behind meant that the rest of the route would be pretty much A-roads and country lanes, with regular as clockwork water stations every three miles. Good old Yorkshire obliged with perfect weather – clear and crisp to begin with, making way for sunshine later in the day. I was still feeling strong as I passed both the 10k and 20k timing mats, but I’ve got to know my body well over the last couple of years and I knew that my over-exuberance in the first half would come back to bite me. Holding on to a comfortable rhythm for as long as possible I allowed my average pace to slide gradually, first past 8:00, then 8:15, drifting second by second towards the eight and a half minute per mile marker that I would need to hit to get under 3:45 once more.

As predicted, the first I felt of a leaden drag in my feet was around halfway as we made the first of two switchbacks at Stamford Bridge. I allowed my pace to slacken slightly, hoping to recoup some of the energy I’d expended at the beginning and went for another salted caramel Gu to give me that extra oomph. As well as water every third mile there were also iPro energy drinks on offer at miles 6, 12 and 18 but having not been able to find that brand to try it out beforehand I didn’t want to risk drinking any in case it turned me into a pumpkin or something. Since then I’ve seen the bloody stuff advertised everywhere, obviously. Such is the law of sod.

By around mile 18 I knew I would have to let 3:45 go and try for sub 4 instead, and as soon as I made that decision I crashed headlong into The Wall. Hips seized up, legs rooted themselves to the ground, stomach started simultaneously refusing any input and grumbling loudly enough for the wildlife to hear. Facing that old familiar demon – whether to eat and risk throwing up or not eat and pass out – I flashed back to the North Downs and decided it was time to grow the hell up and force down another gel. If it didn’t actually make me go faster, it certainly seemed to stem the hunger pangs and nausea. I could have really done with a bit of Kendal mint cake to be honest. Or for that matter, a pie and a pint. I would finish the race, but I’d be walking more than running from here on in.

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Pace and elevation

The support was lovely and encouraging when it appeared, but the crowds were few and far between, and for the first time I found myself wishing there was more people about. I was vaguely aware of Andy tracking me on the app, thinking that he would have seen my optimistic 10k and 20k splits and must have been wondering what the hell happened. In the hope of a boost I shuffled through playlists trying to find something cheerful, but the running playlist seemed to be mocking me and my old skool 90s dance album sounded a bit like a tryhard at a party, throwing their arms around and forcing everyone to have fun. And it really wasn’t the day for Haruki Murakami.

My slowest mile was the run up to the 24 marker at Osbaldwick, but I managed to pick up for the last couple of miles and was back up and running (sort of) as we made our way towards the 40k mat. By now there were more crowds, singing and music and barbecues and children holding out their hands for a high five; I’d lost my sense of humour a long way back, but at least I knew now that the sooner I got a move on the sooner I’d see University Road and the finish line again. I just wanted it to be over and done with.

It was’t a triumphant finish, or an enjoyable one, but when I crossed the line well inside the four hour mark I realised what a petulant dick I’d been. Any finish is a finish to celebrate, and I had to remember how privileged I am to be able to run at all. The good people of Yorkshire soon sorted out my sulk though, and I was quietly thankful to be walking all the way across the campus once more. So many happy and proud faces around me, glowing in the autumn sun, brandishing medals and finishers’ t-shirts and swapping stories. With a couple of hours before my train home was due, I stretched out on the grass for a while to let the atmosphere sink in. The bank was covered with people sprawled out like the fallout of a runner hand grenade, two little boys dancing between them and spraying crisps and juice everywhere. It was hard to stay grumpy for long.

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I’m happy to be done with road marathons for the meantime; even as I write this I’m watching the Channel 4 broadcast of the race highlights and feeling the itch, but I know the itch will still be there in April and I’ll be in much better shape for having taken a break from the tarmac. As I watch there’s a touch of jealousy for all those past versions of runners, myself included, starting the race once more as if given a second chance to do it. Maybe this time I won’t race off at the start and wear myself out? Oh no, it doesn’t work like that.

So what have I learned? When you get that chance, treat it with respect. Trust your training, trust your body, trust the stupidly expensive watch you bought so you wouldn’t NEED a pacer. Most of all, trust yourself. You know what you’re doing.

With Druids and CTS Dorset still to come though, do I?

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.

Manchester 2

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…

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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