It’s only very recently—like in the last three or four months—that I could have imagined writing this post.
Despite what many people think about runners, there are very many perfectly sane and well adjusted people out there who frequently lace up a pair of trainers and head off for a few miles along the pavement or trail, without ever considering running a race. And still more who might occasionally bang out the odd 10k charity run or even a 13.1 mile challenge, but sensibly resist the call of anything further.
Whilst I’ve been regularly running 3-4 times a week since early 2014, and for the last year and a half, running daily, I never thought I’d train for a marathon. But as it runs out, this is a long post, about a long run.
26.2 miles is, put simply, a long way.
Really, ever such a long way.
But if you meet enough other runners, some of whom may have run one (or in the case of Steve Edwards, whom I had the pleasure of escorting around the King Henry VIII School Relay Race in February, 829 marathons!!), the subject quite often comes up. And after enough of these casual little conversations, you somehow find yourself googling race dates…
“Go on,” Steve said. “Just one. Just to see if you like it.” And then he grinned at me and promised: “You’ll love it! You’ll never stop after that!”
So, with the encouragement and enthusiasm of my ever supportive husband, I had a little look. It’s important to me that running fits into and strengthens the rest of my life, rather than dominating it, which meant I was after a Saturday race, and an event that wasn’t too high profile or expensive, or a million miles away and therefore super expensive in terms of travel / accommodation.
It was late March when I started seriously considering marathon training, and I was already putting in decent mileage on my weekly long runs, so I was hoping to capitalise on that and build my training plan from this base. I didn’t fancy extending that for more than a few months and risk just burning out, so I was aiming for a June / July event.
With all these factors to consider, you’ll be unsurprised to learn that there weren’t a million options. But as it happened, the race I chose couldn’t have been better.
The Great Barrow Challenge is a 10 in 10 event, with half marathons, marathons and ultras raced on ten consecutive days from the end of June across the first week of July. Everyone there seemed to have been coming back again and again to the GBC family for years, and it was easy to see why: I’ve never experienced an event with so much heart, so much goodwill and encouragement, and so much sheer effort on behalf of the organisers, caterers, medical team and runners—just to make this a fantastic challenge which everyone loves.
My race date was Saturday 30th June. I eat fairly carefully, and I’m pretty healthy; I rarely get injured or sick. On Tuesday 26th June I woke up feeling dreadful, and proceeded to come down with the nastiest bug I’ve experienced in years. Despite being determined it would dissipate within 24 hours, I just got worse each day, with an awful cough, banging headache, temperature, general feebleness, and all the associated nasties of a wicked cold. By Thursday 28th it was clear I wouldn’t be fit enough for a marathon that Saturday. Although I’d managed very gentle 1.5-3 mile runs each day to keep the legs turning over, anything more than that was impossible.
I called GBC and explained, hoping against hope that they wouldn’t just sigh sympathetically and wave me off till next year—and I wasn’t disappointed! They were more than happy to move my race date to the following Saturday, up-ending all the careful planning around childcare and accomodation of course, but hey! I now had eight days to get better!
I drank a tonne of fresh fruit juice and ginger, inhaled Vicks like a good’un, and got as much sleep as I could. I’d been alcohol-free for a while anyway, and doing yoga most days to keep my muscles limber. By Thursday 5th I’d stopped coughing up gunk, my temperature had dropped back to normal, and I could imagine running further than the end of my road without crying.
But nothing’s simple, and in the course of this extra week, during one of my yoga practices I’d had an awkward moment during ‘lizard pose’—we’ve all been there, don’t deny it—and overstretched my left glute and longus adductor. I only know this specific detail now of course, after having someone who knows their way around anatomy check me over. At the time, I just knew my hip hurt. Really hurt.
Then of course there’s the heatwave. On my planned-but-postponed race day it had been fairly warm, 29C in fact. New race day’s forecast was 32C. So that’s nice.
So: never gets sick, rarely injured? Ha. Midsummer Marathon here we come.
Managing your mind seems to be a bigger deal than managing your body when it comes to more extreme physical undertakings like this. For months I’d stretched, strength-trained, done intervals and pace runs, rest runs and long slow distances. My body should have been at its strongest and fittest.
But life intervenes, doesn’t it? I couldn’t have foreseen getting ill, and clearly no amount of healthy eating and building a good immune system was going to swerve around that particular little bullet. The overstretch in my hip was stupid, but completely unexpected. My right hip (which had also done the same lizardy wrangling) was totally fine.
The only thing to do at this stage was to decide that it wasn’t terribly important. Running this marathon had never been about getting an amazing time; I’m not very fast, and I was never going for a sub-4 or similar target. When I checked out the GBC results tables, loads of runners were doing super slow times (ahem, because they had already run like, 8 marathons that day or something); the courses are challenging, with some significant elevation and little shade. So I just lifted the pressure off, right there. Starting, and then finishing became my new goals.
We drove the three hours across to Barrow in Suffolk straight after picking up the kids from school, and made it there, tent up, and veggie spag bol on the trangier by 8pm. There were a few guys milling around the campsite (which is a dedicated ‘GBC Village’ for runners throughout the 10 day event), relaxed, cheerful and friendly. Everyone was 100% confident that I’d have a great day on Saturday, and finish no worries.
Their blithe (and encouraging) confidence reminded me a bit of my similar attitude to 10ks, when chatting with friends training for this distance. Because I usually run one or two of these a week, I know it’s well within my capacity. I can’t imagine a day coming when I feel the same way about 42k!
But the truth is, it is possible to complete this. I know that a 10k is within the reach of a reasonably fit and determined person who isn’t carrying illness or injury, and who has done a bit of training towards it. It may not be a fast 10k, but it’s possible! And it was (sort of) good to know that these guys felt the same about the marathon distance.
Throughout my training I’ve continually had the experience of others informing, building and developing my own ability to run. Things that have gone wrong, things that have gone well; just how important electrolytes are for hydration over distance in hot weather; when to use gels, and which type aren’t utterly puke-worthy; the simple belief and encouragment from running friends who see you put the miles in every day, and believe you can go the distance.
I found myself thinking about ‘the great cloud of witnesses’ in Hebrews 12, who cheer you on in your race—people who’ve gone before you and can show you where the pitfalls are, and remind you why you’re doing it in the first place. My FB running group buddies had filled up a thread of encouragement and love, and I filled in the gaps of a patchy night’s sleep (way too much adrenaline to properly rest!) thinking about how blessed I am to have such incredible support.
I woke at 5.30, entirely too early, and was well ready for the 8am start gun—but this was no quick warm up and safety announcement drill. Instead we had an amazing roll call welcoming runners who were doing significant races that day (including one running his 760th marathon!). When the race director asked if this was anybody’s first marathon, just me and one other put up our shy little hands. A massive cheer and applause completely threw me—I was very glad I was wearing sunglasses against the super bright, already fiercely hot sky, because, yes, I was actually in tears.
I really wasn’t sure at this point whether I should be doing this at all. It was super hot, and everyone around me just seemed so, well, seasoned. They all knew exactly what they were doing, and I felt like a complete amateur. Really I should just stop being silly, get in the car, and quietly drive home.
But I had Tom’s voice in my head: “We’re just going to have a lovely day in sunny Suffolk, and you’re going to get a nice long run, that’s all.” Alright. I can do that.
The first 10k was fine. The heat was manageable, my hip was tight but not too sore, and I was enjoying the camaraderie of being amongst the pack. I remembered to take my first gel around 40 minutes in (I hadn’t trained enough with these, and gels are fairly new and strange thing for me), and I was getting comfortable with running with a bottle (I usually arrange for water stops en route for LSRs, rather than carry water, but in this heat it was a no-brainer).
An hour in, I felt fine. About 20 minutes after that, I started to hurt. For the next five miles my hip throbbed, I got hotter and hotter, and I began to realise I needed to change my mindset. Up till now I’d been using the ‘no-pressure, just a sunny day in Suffolk’ approach, staying relaxed and seeing how I felt. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go 26.2 miles. I needed to start thinking about finishing this thing, or I’d roll over within the next mile or two.
There was no question it was hot. Every runner I passed (or who passed me, and there were more of them) commented on the unbelievable heat and lack of shade. So if I pushed too hard, my heart rate would shoot up, and I just didn’t have the confidence in my fitness after that virus to risk that. So I was forced to combine my target pace running with some gentler jogging and walking, and I knew I’d have to accept a slow finish time.
But the only way that I’d be finishing at all was if that’s what I started to focus on. I can do this. I will do this.
By mile 15 I was starting to enjoy myself. I had a few periods of steady pace running, and at times I felt like my normal self on a long run having some fun. But mostly, it was a slog. The last 10k was a combination of hip pain, blister pain (unavoidable in the sticky sweaty temperature, it seems) and occasional bursts of energy and grit that saw me surge forward for a while, before slowing again.
Tom and the kids traveled around the countryside throughout the day, providing me (and loads of other runers) with water, smiles and lots of support. My incredible husband knew that I’d want to feel I’d done my best, so as I approached the last few miles he encouraged me to give it every bit of energy I had left. But there wasn’t much. I promised myself grimly that whatever else, I’d run the final mile as close to marathon pace as I could, and I gutted it out.
Seeing the finish line, and my family waiting for me with balloons and a hilarious amount of bubbly (which I absolutely did not drink as I’d probably have died), I found myself welling up again. Getting to the start line was probably tougher than getting to the finish line, and both were a team effort.
What I’ve learned, really profoundly over the last few months, is that running is a team sport. The wisdom, the journey, the kindness, the community. You may run solo, but you never run on your own.
(And Steve may be right. I might just do one more.)
Running streak total today is 562 days, 2395 miles. #runeveryday