Firstly a disclaimer. If you are looking for an in-depth analysis of the weather, terrain and minute mile averages broken down into four quarters and shown in graph form to compare with my training averages, I’m afraid you’re not going to find it here. This is a tale of the psychological and emotional challenge of 26.2 miles and hopefully, goes some way to describing the utter poetry of the long distance run.
I am not a runner. I’m a person that runs. There is a difference; runners are fast and confident and competitive. I’m slow, do not have a natural belief in my own abilities and have all the killer instinct of a fluffy bunny that’s been force-fed 10 kilos of carrot cake. Up until this race, when people have asked me why I run I’ve found it a difficult question to answer but now, well, now it has all become clear.
For a while now I’ve had vague ambition that is fast become an overpowering obsession, to run a marathon in under 4hrs and the Thames Meander was going to be it. I thought I could do it and I thought I would do it. OK, so the weather was bad – warm, windy and rainy but I still felt I had the capability. Or did I?
Almost from the first step I didn’t feel right and the doubts started creeping in; “Just take it a mile at a time, first mile, second mile, third mile – the bleep of the Garmin, I look and check all ok, next mile.” 4 miles and my legs are aching. “What??! Legs don’t ache after 4 miles, nothing aches after 4 miles, this can’t be right. Ok, let’s start putting the mind training into use: pain isn’t problem, it isn’t even a thing – my reaction, thoughts and feelings that’s what matters….do I need to stop? No. Can I continue at this pace? Yes. OK carry on.” But, of course I had already failed by this point. Having the mental strength needed is not about pushing thoughts out or even not having them in the first place. It’s about being able to have them, accept them and then letting them go so that they don’t become anything more than that, just thoughts.
I tried to stay and run in the moment and the next few miles blurred by, then suddenly on mile 9 I was struggling – the Garmin bleeps – “I’m getting slower”….another bleep another few seconds lost. “Don’t panic, have a reboot mile – slow down, get yourself together and go again.” Looking at that now I realise that is the worse thought I could have had. Walking is fine – if you have to in order to finish. But I didn’t have to, I just wanted to; I’d let my negative thoughts change my behaviour. And so then, to panic. My psychological armour, such as it was, collapsed and fluttered away like a house of cards. “Control your breathing, I can’t, I want to cry – why? Because I’m rubbish. Michele said keep smiling, she’d be so disappointed if she could see you now. Helen said run with your head and your heart – I don’t know how to run with my head – I don’t know how to do anything with my head. You’re rubbish and everyone will see you are rubbish, what a waste of Bob’s time it is you turning up to his training, and how self-absorbed are you to think that Bob even cares whether you turn up?” And so it went on. By now I’m run walking, fighting back tears and hyper-ventilating. Pathetic, dramatic, ridiculous – maybe but that was my truth during that race. My thoughts were dark and real and uncontrollable and all I wanted to do was stop. I decided that I would get to the turnaround point and speak to a martial about how to get back as I could not finish.
I got to the turnaround point…. and didn’t stop. I looked at my watch saw 2hrs 3mins and never looked at it again until the finish. I can’t tell you at what point the storm in my head subsided but it did. The wind was now against me and the rain was pricking my face like a shower of a thousand pins but inside I had a sudden calmness. I stopped fighting and started running. I’m not going fast and the less said about how I feel physically the better but now there is no question – I’m here to run a marathon and I’m going to run it. I begin to realise people have stopped passing me and I can now see the same people in the distance – they’re not going away anymore and slowly, steadily I begin to catch people. One by one I pass them. As I pass my heart rate goes up – I really need to sort that out; getting panicky every time you pass someone doesn’t bode well for a runner does it? My enjoyment (I think that’s what it’s become now) falters slightly as a walk / runner keeps over taking me, gets 30 or so meters ahead and then walks until I catch her up and goes again. I try and send happy vibes to her but underneath I’m cursing her. At one point she asks me how many miles we’ve got to go and I apologise profusely but tell her honestly that I cannot look at my Garmin as being on the brink of a psychological praecipes, unless I looked down and saw we had half a mile to go it would be the end of my race. She gives me a funny look and skips off into the distance; I do not see her again. Cow.
Into the last 5 miles and I think I have the most enjoyable end of a marathon ever. I catch and over take quite a few faces that I hadn’t seen since mile 10. As I’m passing through Richmond at one of the most exposed points the wind suddenly blows so hard it almost brings me to a standstill and the heavens open as if queued by some slap stick film director: “OK guys this is the bit where the bumbling loser gets soaked and the trumpets go wha, wha whaaaa in the background.” I laugh and the ridiculousness of it all. “Why am I doing this? What’s the point?” My number has almost been lashed off my chest and is hanging on by one safety pin, my back is scared for life from a vengeful Camelbak which I clearly haven’t show the required respect to and I’m wetter than a January weekend in Clacton.
Due to a slight course change we have to run a mile past the finish and then back to cross the line. As I go past my friends is there with her two little girls, they shout and cheer and run with me for about 30 seconds. It breaks my heart (I’m a sensitive sole as you may have noticed) and humbles me that people I love know how much running means to me that they can be bothered to stand for hours in the pouring rain just to cheer me for a few seconds as I stumble past.
On the way back, just before the finish I overtake a guy that has been in my sight for miles, I gear up for a strong finish and can hear him behind. In no surprise to anyone that knows me I mistake a water station for the finish despite everyone on the line yelling and waving at me and have to do a sharp turn yards from the line. Luckily the guy tracking me does the same so I finish ahead of him. Small victories and all that.
All the way home am asking myself the question why I do this and I think I have the answer, for me at least. I want, no, need to do it. Sometimes it’s so hard that I want to stop, sometimes I do stop but there is something there that means I don’t give up completely. And sometimes when I relax and just accept myself, I love it. I feel human, I feel like I belong in the universe.
So for me it’s a metaphor or more accurately a condensed version of the human condition. I experience the ups and downs of a life time within 4-5 hours of a single day.
When I’m racing I feel present, connected and in the moment, it is as real as life gets and the most alive I can be.