At 10pm on Saturday night this week, I threw one sore, aching leg –
(Just for context, on Friday night I did a back-to-back Bikram and then strength class in the hot room at my yoga studio. Three hours of waving my limbs around in 40 degree heat. Everything hurt. It hurt in places I didn’t know it could. On Saturday morning I ploughed on with my marathon training and ran a slow, treacle-y five miles. By late on Saturday, the pain had become less of a delicious after-burn and was more just how my body felt. I thought it would never end. Oh man, was I wrong about that.)
– anyway, I wearily threw one leg over my little orange bike and set off, in the wake of my completely lovely housemate who has all of the qualities of the Duracell bunny if the Duracell bunny was a tall, sporty, engineer. Honestly, the man never stops. I set off after him, with a feeling of total apprehension and dread. It was dark, and there was an almost full moon. I was so tired, the whole situation was starting to feel very surreal.
“It’s just here!” he yelled, disappearing left.
Stopping our bikes in front of a block of beautiful new-build flats, I had that brief moment of panic all long-distance cyclists have probably experienced (to be fair, I was having this moment after a 10 minute cycle ride and I’ve never cycled a long distance in my life, so I’ve got no idea, but I’m imagining it would be a similar feeling) where you truly don’t know if you can even get off the bike. Wobbly-legged and apprehensive (nobody wants to fall off a stationary bike), I managed it and we went inside.
When we got home it still hadn’t really sunk in what I’d done.
It was just about hitting home the next morning, at 7am, when I got up to have a giant bowl of almond milk porridge with honey, chia and pumpkin seeds.
But really, what I’d signed up for didn’t make total sense to me until 9.30am, when I was stood in the third starting pen for the Cambridge Half Marathon. And the gun had just gone off.
At the very last-minute on Saturday night, one of my housemate’s colleagues had dropped out of the race due to injury, and he had offered me her spot. I was planning to run 13 miles or so on Sunday anyway, so I snapped up the chance to do my long training run with 4,999 other people. Why not, right? We cycled across town at 10pm the night before the race to pick up her race number. (It’s probably not against some kind of rule, but – if you’re reading this, Cambridge Half Marathon organisers – I survived it and nobody was hurt. Ok?)
So, it was only when I was standing, crammed into the starting pen surrounded by people with nervous faces, beeping Garmin watches and belts stuffed with energy gels, all of them mentally revising their race strategies or discussing with fellow club members how they planned to manage their splits, that I worked out what I’d done.
This probably wasn’t going to be just like doing my lovely, calm, reflective long training run with 4,999 other people. This was probably going to be a bit more like a race.
Headphones were banned from the event, so this would be the first race, and probably the longest distance, I’d ever run without music. I’m still working on – and struggling with – timings for energy gels and taking on water. I was pretty sure I wasn’t actually allowed to be there. My legs still burned from Friday night’s strength class and Saturday’s morning’s painfully slow run. I wasn’t totally sure what was going to happen weather-wise, and was sure I’d be too hot if the sun came out – tropical South Cambridgeshire doesn’t take long to warm up on a pretty Sunday afternoon.
All of these things only occurred to me in the 30 seconds before the gun went off. Once the gun had gone off, I was left with just one coherent thought swirling in my head: ‘What the hell am I doing?’
It stuck with me for about three miles – the start line was a blur, and the course headed out-of-town (not far, Cambridge isn’t very big and the course is two winding laps packed with hairpin bends and switchbacks). It went quiet as we approached the only part of the course which isn’t lined with spectators and I started to get a grip.
Reasoning with myself, I reassured myself that I’d have run 13 miles that morning anyway. It was no different running with all these people. I wasn’t here to chase a time, I was just here to cover the distance. Plus, I felt ok. Three miles in, my legs had warmed up and come back to life, and my body was starting to feel like it belonged to me again.
True to form for this sunny part of the South East, the sky split open and broad sunny beams swept over the next few miles. Running through this pretty town’s winding college lanes, over tiny humpback bridges and through the cobbled market square was glorious – and made even more so by the hordes of devoted people who’d come to cheer on their loved ones, who happened to be running shoulder to shoulder with me. I quickly learnt that there’s only one thing more uplifting than hearing people cheer you on personally, and that’s hearing people cheer on the people around you. Especially if the people cheering are the man on your left-hand-side’s completely adorable children, excitedly shrieking ‘you can do it, Daddy!’ like they might, at any moment, literally explode with pride and giddy glee.
The narrow course was packed, and not ideal for overtaking, so my pace was steady – at the three separate electronic chip timing checkpoints I clocked three times that only varied by 20 seconds. I felt comfortable, and in every photo my lovely mum (acting as my personal photographer, coach and bag check) managed to snap of me – even the ones where I hadn’t seen her standing on the sidelines – I’m smiling.
Crossing the finish line, collecting my medal, and drinking a delicious but really weird non-alcoholic, isotonic beer, I found myself thinking about the marathon I’m running in April. I’d just run 13.1 miles. Could I do that all over again right now? Could I do that all over again, right now, and enjoy it?
Amazingly, I was – in that moment, after being unsure about everything else all day – completely certain of the answer. It was yes – yes, I could, and I will.