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So much more than a race

Sometimes, our enthusiasm and optimism encourage our mouths to make promises that – a few seconds later – we wonder if our bodies can keep. This happened to me last year when, having previously run two half-marathons, I mentioned the idea of running the London Marathon.

The charity partners of Red Thread (MKSnap www.mksnap.org) with whom I was having dinner at the time promptly told me that they had allocated places available, and they’d be delighted if I would run for them. In that moment, the not inconsiderable physical and mental challenge that I had set myself had found at least part of a solution: I was not going to be running for me, but for others. I was still daunted, but I had a long-term goal and a purpose – and I could harness them to help me face what lay ahead.

 

I knew that I would be getting considerably fitter in the weeks and months ahead, but I don’t think I’d appreciated how much I would learn as well. At the start of the journey, before I barely had my feet in my running shoes, I was given a choice of three plans to follow to guide my training and preparation. On 2 January, I duly started following the First Time Finishers plan, ready and willing to take whatever advice I could.

 

The first lesson came quickly. A few days later, I realised that I was following the wrong plan for me – I was already able to run when it suggested I walk, and able to run further and for longer. I needed to be stretched, and this plan wasn’t going to do that for me. Reminding myself not to limit my own ambitions unduly, and not to be afraid to change plans when necessary, I upgraded myself to the Improvers plan – it was definitely the right move.

If I’d assumed that the challenges would be entirely physical, the next lessons arrived swiftly. Setting out to train in the cold takes mental discipline as well as appropriate clothing, and it means learning to manage food and liquid intake and to maintain proper routines for rest and sleep. It’s vital to remember the good days – the moments when you start to master new techniques or skills, the day you run the furthest you’ve ever run (for me, that was 18 miles) – and to remind yourself of that end goal. Not just to complete the London Marathon, but to earn the money that friends and colleagues have pledged. I had to learn to find hope, and to hang on to it when I needed it most.

Training on your own is hard: a runner’s personal resilience isn’t all about muscle development. Unless you learn to know yourself better, you can easily become your own challenge. Wondering if the loneliness of the long distance runner (to borrow the title of a well-known book) was something I needed to address, I decided to try running with a friend at her running club – only to discover that I hated it. My goal and my challenge were personal – marathon running is not a team sport, after all – but club-running meant I had to be conscious of others. I found adapting myself to other people’s varying abilities really tough, especially having to loop while I waited for other runners to catch-up. Resilience does come, in part, from the human networks you build, but they must be the ones that feel supportive. I was fortunate that my Red Thread colleague, Adrian – a considerably more experienced runner – was on hand to talk to, not just about nutrition and training plans, but about my feelings too. He had been through the experiences I was now having, and I could talk to someone that I knew understood.

And then, two days before I was due to run a half-marathon, I hit a dilemma: I came down with flu. Should I force myself to run, or should I pull out? I had to remind myself that my goal was the full marathon, not the 13.1 mile interim event, so I stopped training while I recovered. But how do you start again? Should I just pick up where I left off, or back track a little? The answer is to listen to your own body, recognising when it is telling you it’s stressed, and to listen to advice. Setbacks can always happen: what matters is getting over them. The following weekend, feeling recovered, I ran a new personal best distance – 18 miles – and realised that I could do this.

With 5 weeks to go before the big day, it took only an unfortunate moment with a barstool to pull a ligament in my back and send my planning into a fresh chaos. In spasm, I was barely able to get to the osteopath, who told me categorically that I was to do nothing for 10 days. After feeling rather sorry for myself for a couple of days, I was thrown back into reworking my schedule once again: not giving up, but taking professional advice while rethinking my plans, and accepting that physical injuries can often feel misleadingly better before they are fully healed. Don’t run before you can walk, as the expression goes.

The Sunday before the marathon, with all expert advice still urging restraint, I ran 9 miles. It was another lesson learned: manage your own expectations. The people who had so kindly pledged money to the charity were asking me what my target finishing time was, but I kept my answers to myself. My goal was finishing.

When Race Day finally arrived, I was scared but also very determined. I didn’t want to miss a thing: the sights, the sounds, the smells. Wondering how I was going to manage to stay in the moment in the thick of such a huge crowd of runners, I found the pacesetter for a 4 hour 45 minutes finish. The target was ambitious but sensible, and following them would help me to keep my focus. Making sure I remembered to eat and drink appropriately, I talked to the other runners – some of them dressed as bears or giraffes – and read the messages on their shirts that explained why they were running. As we ran, the crowds by the roadside were getting bigger and bigger, and their clapping and shouts of encouragement left me running with a huge grin on my face.

By the half-way mark, I was still on track and chatting with the pacesetter, although I was starting to feel a few twinges in my muscles. I knew that I had to stay alert – somewhere ahead, my son was at the trackside to cheer me on, and there would be people from the charity to encourage me too: I didn’t want to miss them. But by the time we reached the 19 mile mark, the road was still crowded with runners, some of them now trotting or even walking, and in the melee I lost track of the pacesetter. I was still on track, but now I was ‘alone’. What should I do? Attempting to catch up would be crazy: my body was already tired, and accelerating now would mean I might not even make it to the finish line. I remembered the £3,200 that had been pledged in my name, and told myself that my destination was The Mall, not the back of an ambulance.

I had to keep going, even if my quads were aching by the time I reached the 22 mile mark. I slowed down and remembered to eat. The final stages were proving very tough, but there was no shame in taking care of myself: if I needed to, I could walk to the finish. All the way, friends had been following my progress on the marathon’s app. I also had my Apple watch, and a message from my wife to say that my son was waiting at the 40 kilometre mark. Yet even the encouraging technology had moments where it didn’t necessarily lift the spirits: I’d sent a message to my wife to say I was getting cramps, but I’d had no reply. And when I rested for a few minutes in an underpass, the people following me on the app wondered if I’d been forced to stop.

But as I emerged back into daylight for the final stretch, I saw a friend with a video camera and felt my spirits and my energy boosted. I just had to keep going and have faith in the training I’d done, the advice I’d taken on board, and in the inspirations that had led me to this day and its challenges.

Much as I’d been looking forward to seeing my son, I managed to run straight past him without even noticing. But then, two miles from the end, I started to receive a flood of encouraging text messages and another friend popped up in The Mall to cheer me on. As I approached the finish, I found a woman who was in physical trouble, saying that she felt nauseous and unwell. I decided to stay with her and we crossed the line together.

It was over: I’d made it – and I’d done it. And I had a big heavy medal to prove it too, as I tucked into fruit to replenish my body after what I’ve just put it through. I phoned my wife, and few minutes later my son and I were standing together, hugging and crying tears of exhaustion and joy.

Will I do it again? I’ll be honest: the answer is ‘No’. I’ve had the experience, and I’ve had the learning it has given me – not just in running, but in learning to constantly adjust a plan to respond to changing circumstances while keeping an end goal in sight. The marathon gave me more physical stamina, but it also boosted my mental flexibility and my personal resilience. But I’m proud of the achievement, of course. And even more so of the help I was able to give to my chosen charity, and of the others that I have encouraged to take up running who now feel that they can achieve things if they put their mind to it.

The London Marathon is so much more than a race, and I would encourage anyone who is thinking about it to just do it! The experience and the memory will stay with me for ever.

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