So, I don’t know if anybody had noticed, but I was planning to run a marathon. That was kind of what brought me back to writing these blog posts – and also, a few weeks ago, what sent me away again.
Sometimes I even bore myself, talking about running. Sometimes I really feel like blogging and sometimes I don’t. When I’m bored of talking about running and don’t feel like blogging, I go with it, and end up with natural breaks between posts. I took a little break a few weeks ago, and it just so happened that the break took me all the way through to the marathon. Last time I was here I’d run 18 miles, and the Cambridge Half Marathon. The week after that I ran 22 miles, and felt amazing. I was seriously excited to take on the 26.2.
Tapering was hard, and confusing. I felt caged, and started to climb the walls a little bit (mentally). I was convinced my left knee hurt, even though everybody was telling me that phantom twinges and panics are common when you’re trying to wind down before a long distance. During my tapering weeks (there were two of them – the first was bearable, the second was when I started to pace rooms like a sad zoo animal) I ran around my local athletics track with my dad a couple of times, just taking it slowly, chatting about the marathon.
Talking about the race on one of these slow loops in the unexpectedly warm April sunshine, my dad said – with an uncharacteristic level of gravity and emotion: ‘Alex. It really might be the hardest thing you’ve ever done’.
Well, Dad, I’ve done it. And it was really hard. But was it the hardest thing I’ve ever done? I’m still not sure.
The morning of the race was exciting – my whole family stayed in a hotel near Old Trafford, and joined a crowd of twitchy people in lycra in the hotel’s restaurant for breakfast at 6.30am. You could tell who was running not only by attire, but also by what was on their plates – I was pleased to see I wasn’t the only control freak who had brought their own breakfast.
The start line was, for want of a better phrase – and a slightly less hazy, excitement-blurred memory, a melee. There were runners and supporters everywhere, spilling across the road and squeezing onto the pavement. A man held a sign claiming that if you ran with him for a mile, then walked a minute, he’d lead you to a sub-4 hour marathon. Side-stepping a confused-looking group of people trying to do the bewildering maths behind that promise, I found a comfortable, panic-free gap at the start of the 4 hour crowd. A slow shuffle to the actual start line, with plenty of what I’m learning seem to be obligatory bad jokes and nervous humour from runners nearby, and I actually started to run. I realised I’d left my cap in my mum’s rucksack. Annoying.
15 minutes later, I realised I was now going to have to run for another 3 hours and 45 minutes. If I was lucky. It seemed like quite a long time.
My family had promised they’d see me at about 9 miles. When I passed the 9 mile marker, they were trapped on an overcrowded metrolink platform three stops away, with hundreds of other people who also wanted to be at the 9 mile marker. Strangely, I didn’t even notice they weren’t there.
Suddenly, it was 18 miles. I felt like I was flying. With the 3 hours 58 minute pacer way out of sight behind me, and plenty of space to run into, I felt like had sailed past the unknown (and if we’re honest, pretty unexciting) surroundings without taking anything in. I wondered, briefly, if I should be feeling something. I wasn’t. I let the thought go.
Shouts of my name on my left, and my sister suddenly sprung from the crowd, with – I’m going to put it out there – the best sign anybody has ever taken to an organised running event. In one hand, a huge picture of Ryan Gosling with a dog, in the other, a sign baring the all caps message: RUN LIKE RYAN GOSLING IS WAITING FOR YOU AT THE FINISH LINE HOLDING A PUPPY. Alright, so it was probably a bit wordy for the 5-minute-miling crowd, but at my comfortable pace it was perfect. I laughed, and waved, and blew kisses. My dad threw me my cap – ‘you look good! Really, you look so strong! How do you feel?’
‘Good!’ I shouted back, surprising myself. I blew more kisses, and my feet carried me away. They knew the drill by now, and seemed to have taken matters into their own hands. Or feet. Whatever.
Anyway, it was just as well my feet had taken control, because of what happened next. A few miles later, maybe around 21 or 22 – it’s a blur – I was torn apart by the most painful stitch I’ve experience while running. I don’t usually get a stitch – I’m pretty much unaffected by complications with eating, drinking, breathing, texting and generally doing anything else as well as running. I’ve always thought that was lucky, but now I know really how lucky. The stitch was horrible. It wrenched at my stomach, splitting me in two and – bizarrely – made my hips feel incredibly tight.
As quickly as the stitch appeared, it became something else – the pain in my stomach muscles was quickly overshadowed by the panicking of my mind. On a fairly deserted stretch of the route I found myself in a dark place, with no cheering crowds of children or distracting dancing youth clubs to pull me out of it. Runners passed me. I began to wonder who on earth I thought was when I decided I could run a marathon. At the 23 mile marker I despaired at the thought of running another 3 miles. The 3 hour 58 minute pacer appeared in my peripheral vision, bringing with him the ubiquitous crowd of struggling, suffering people who cling to a pacer in a race desperate to make the time. The bad vibes were palpable, I could taste the panic.
In a moment of clarity, I decided that – seeing as the pain wouldn’t let me get back in front of the pacer – I would rather run behind this crowd of people than be swept along by them. I simply didn’t want to be there. Dropping back through the group, I found a space a little while behind, just ahead of the 3.59 pacer.
A song my dad had insistently put on my playlist started up in my headphones, and as we rounded a corner into the final two miles, the crowd reappeared. Without really noticing it happening, I found I could breathe without the splitting stitch pain. It had worn off. The song hit it’s thudding chorus, I could hear the crowd at the finish line. A voice that wasn’t mine appeared in my head an asked – ‘are you going to do this?’
Yes, I replied. Yes, I am going to do this.
I dug in, ground down, grew taller and strode out, all at once. The last two miles melted away underneath my feet and, 100 yards from the finish line my whole family were shouting for a sprint finish – anything less that top speed looks rubbish on camera, my sister had said, sagely, before I started. I turned it up to eleven and crashed across the finish line. You can see my gritted teeth in the photos.
A question that I got asked a lot during training by friends, colleagues and total strangers was “are you aiming for a time?” My reply was always – yeah, I want sub-four hours. I won’t be heartbroken if I don’t manage it, but it would be nice.
Well, now I’m telling the truth – I would have been heartbroken. I would have been thoroughly miserable if, after my hours of training and time spent sweating up hills, scuffing my trainers when my tired feet wouldn’t even mount the kerb, and washing sweaty kit hadn’t brought me that sub-four hour time.
3 hours, 58 minutes, though? Yep. I’ll take that.