In April 2007 I ran the London Marathon. It was something I’d dreamt about doing since I was a child, when other boys in my school ran the mini-marathon. Instead of being the triumphant celebration that I imagined, I had such a bad experience I didn’t run for five years afterwards. A lot of my friends at Run Dem Crew have run marathons lately, from London to Boston, to Copenhagen to Edinburgh. Some have come back from their exploits covered in glory, some have come back humbled, beaten and bruised. In Boston, we were all reminded there are much more important things than marathon PBs and we saw the power of sport to transcend atrocity.
The marathon distance is not a joke. Non-runner friends consider me to be a marathon runner because I run half-marathons. There is a world of difference between the two disciplines. Despite the fact a half-marathon is well beyond the pain threshold of most non-runners, it’s not a distance so formidable it overcomes you, unless you get an injury. The distance isn’t too daunting in a half. In a marathon, when you stop, as I did, at mile 19, and still have over 7 miles to go, it’s a big deal.
This blog post is in recognition of the arduous nature of running a marathon. I have massive respect for anyone who has run the distance, regardless of how quickly they did it. In particular, this is an expression of solidarity with the people I know who have found it challenging. Charlie Dark at Run Dem Crew says each marathon you run teaches you something new about yourself. He reminds us we’ve done something amazing, which a large chunk of the population could never even contemplate. I can see this now, yet it’s not how I saw things in 2007.
I applied for a free place in the ballot for the London Marathon in the summer of 2006. I had no real expectation of getting in, as the odds are slim to none. From 2003, I’d been an occasional 5 and 10K runner, sticking to Nike events, which were enjoyable, well organised and gave me something to aim at. Paula Radcliffe had been at the finish line of one of these events. She was generous, making eye contact with each runner as they crossed the line, clapping us on, and signing autographs for everyone. It was really inspirational because she was the number one runner in the world at that time, and I’m grateful she made the effort to fulfil her sponsorship duties so gracefully. I still have her autograph on my race shirt.
Anyway, I was really surprised and a little scared, when I received a letter through the post in the late autumn telling me I had gotten in. I resolved to start training in the New Year, and was a mixture of excited and nervous.
I decided to use the marathon as an opportunity to raise money for charity, despite getting a ballot place. A couple of charities appealed to me and I ended up going for Mind, the mental health charity. Mental health is a much misunderstood issue, which will unfortunately at some point affect all our lives, either directly, or through a friend or relation’s illness. People very close to me have been affected and I had been distressed at the lack of understanding and funding available to support them. I wanted to do my bit and was able to raise £939.83 from generous and supportive friends and family. Looking back at the list of people who supported me today, I’m really grateful for what they did.
One reason my marathon experience was so painful was because I didn’t measure accurately the distance or pace I ran in training. I was working out the distances I’d run using a piece of string on a map and estimating pace using my Casio digital watch. I followed a training plan that was in the London Marathon brochure, and really enjoyed the longer meditative runs on a Sunday, when I would listen to Nick Drake and watch the miles slip by. I found this time really important for de-stressing and de-cluttering my mind from the fallout of any particular week. However, I didn’t put in the full amount of training sessions, telling myself running 3 times a week would be enough. A marathon wasn’t that different from a 10K, I thought. I was living in Lower Clapton, so on Sundays I ran initially through Victoria Park and east along the canal. After a while, when I needed more inspiration and distance, I changed my route and ran to London Bridge and then along the Thames, eventually getting as far as Chelsea, before running back. I’d never run more than 7 miles previously which meant this was new territory for me. I enjoyed it and didn’t find the distances too difficult because the pace was very comfortable.
Halfway through the training schedule, I got a knee injury, due to the increased work load, meaning I couldn’t run for 2/3 weeks. I had to pull out of the March half marathon which I had entered. It’s a shame because the experience would have given me a wake-up call, showing me I wasn’t running quickly or far enough.
Throughout training, I was pulling my body in different directions. On top of working a demanding full time job I was cycling most days, running three times a week and also keeping up a fairly hard-drinking, junk-food eating social life. Looking at it now, it’s clear I was often taking two steps forward and two steps back. Back then, I thought I could have my cake and eat it.
Three weeks before the race I ran what I thought was 20 miles, according to the string method. I now know that it was considerably less. I found the run comfortable, was confident I would be able to finish the marathon between 3:30 and 3:45 and had told friends and family when to expect me at various points along the route.
The night before the race, I was over-excited and nervous and couldn’t sleep. The clock ticked on, and the more time passed the more anxious I got, making it even more difficult for me to sleep. I had trained so hard. Was it all going to be wasted because of insomnia? Eventually, at 3am, I did something that in hindsight maybe wasn’t the best idea. It was the act of a desperate man. I drank a few shots of whisky, and eventually dosed off into an uneasy runner’s dream.
At 6am, my alarm woke me. I leapt out of bed, ate breakfast and was out of the house by 7. Adrenaline was pumping and it was exciting to see all the other runners en route. One girl came out of another house in my road carrying a kit bag and we got chatting and spent the journey together.
At the start, there was a great atmosphere and I had plenty of time to pack away my tracksuit and meet Jini, a friend from work who was also running. We were planning to run at different paces, so despite the fact it was nice to see a friendly face, we couldn’t spend very long together because we were in different pens. Queues for the toilet were very long and I was glad I’d gotten there early. All this was new to me, and exciting. I made my way into my pen and shared some nervous conversation with other runners around me.
I was surprised at how long it took to actually pass the start line of the marathon. After the gun went off, it was about 25 minutes before I crossed the line, and the density of the runners so tight we literally ran for about 3 seconds before having to slow down to a walk again. This meant that I was very quickly running well behind my target pace. I tried to compensate for this by running faster than my target pace after about the third mile when things opened up. Not a good strategy. I should have stuck at my marathon pace and left something in the tank for later.
It was unbelievably hot for marathon running on the day- 22 degrees. All my training had been done during English winter weather, so the heat was really punishing. Despite the fact I’d taken on a lot of water in the build-up to the race, during it, no matter how much I drank, I felt parched. My skin felt dry, my hair felt dry, and the sun beat down all the more. After five miles, I remember putting my hand on my head and noticing my hair felt like straw. I looked ruefully at the other runners who were wearing caps which shaded them from the sun. It had never occurred to me to wear a hat. I didn’t even own one. When you’re running 10Ks in the sun the race is short enough that heat isn’t really an issue. This was a completely different kettle of fish.
Nevertheless, the crowd provided some distraction, especially around Tower Bridge, where I’d hoped to see my family. Unfortunately, I missed them in the mass of people. I was told afterwards that they had seen me and had been shouting out to me. I ran past, oblivious because I was listening to a carefully constructed playlist on my iPod. I wish I hadn’t run with earphones in now because I began to feel very lonely after that.
Once I’d passed Tower Bridge the heat began to take even more of a toll, as for a stretch of several miles the organisers completely ran out of water. The hot weather was unexpected and the dehydrated masses had completely exhausted supplies. I remember wiping some sweat from my face and being alarmed to see my hand come back covered in salt. I’d never experienced this before, and didn’t know it was a relatively common running phenomenon. To make matters worse, runners around me were starting to drop out due to the heat, being treated by members of St John’s Ambulance at the road-side. Most people who run long distances will recognise the phenomenon of having one or two runners you’ve never met before who you constantly see during the race. You spend a stretch running in their slipstream, then they do the same for you. I was duelling with one particular guy in this way and was chilled to the bone when he suddenly collapsed beside me. The ambulance people attended him straight away and I was relieved to see him revived and talking, but his race was over. Could the same thing happen to me?
At this point, I completely stopped enjoying the marathon. I began to feel under lots of pressure mentally because of all the people who had sponsored me. Although I knew they were happy to give the money to charity, I felt I would be letting them down, letting myself down, if I didn’t complete the race. I felt terrible for the people I was running for. They went through real anguish due to their conditions and I couldn’t even manage this. I can see now I was being terribly hard on myself. At the time, my thoughts seemed like the truth. As we ran round the Isle of Dogs, my legs were leaden and I really wanted to stop. I had never stopped in a race before and in my mind considered stopping failure. The loneliness of not spotting any family or friends kicked even harder. These days, running with the crew, I don’t wear earphones when I run, and have a completely different experience on race days, when crew-members often turn out in large numbers to cheer the runners on.
As the miles dragged on I went into meltdown. Mile 17 felt like an existential crisis. I had an imaginary conversation in my mind with a loved one who had died. It was like the antithesis of the scene in Star Wars when Luke turns off his targeting computer in the attack on the Death Star. Instead of feeling free and confident in my abilities, for me, in the heart of darkness of the marathon there was no plan, no faith in a greater power, just a loss of faith in myself. The marathon was defeating me. I couldn’t see how three hours sleep, several shots of whisky, no hat, majorly different running conditions to training conditions, and numerous other factors made the pain I was feeling completely reasonable. I was tempted to talk to the St John’s Ambulance people about how ill I was feeling, except I felt certain they would advise me to err on the side of caution and live to fight another day. I knew if I dropped out, I might never run another marathon again.
I looked up at the crowd in the midst of all this anguish and saw smiling faces, willing all the runners on. I didn’t have my name on my t-shirt, meaning no-one could encourage me directly, unfortunately. People had beers- I would have loved one right then- and were smiling and enjoying themselves.Then it hit me. This was supposed to be fun. Finally, somewhere around mile 19 the wheels came off physically. Mentally, the clouds lifted and I gave myself permission to walk. I wanted to see if I could get some kind of fun back into this experience. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t going to collapse through dehydration. So I walked. I walked and ran and ran and walked. My body cooled down, my mind became less antagonistic and very slowly, the pain and the distance to the end decreased. The time I had been aiming for was an absolute pipe dream now. It had become all about finishing.
I finally saw someone I knew from work at Mile 21. I was so relieved to recognise a friendly face I ran straight up and hugged him, leaving him bemused, sweat-sodden and touched all at once. I’m so grateful I spotted him, as my experience running the London Marathon was one of the loneliest of my life.
At 24 miles, I was passed by a little person in a tutu, much to the amusement of the crowd. Again, I rued not having my name on my t-shirt, as he got so much love as he ran past my lanky legs. I remember my mind boggling as I looked at runners who were carrying much more body-fat than me who were moving much more smoothly on those final few miles. Their bodies were clearly conditioned through training for the task much better than mine.
Finally, after 4 hours and 26 minutes, I finished the London Marathon. Completing any marathon is a phenomenal achievement. Anyone who does it has my utmost respect. At the time, if I’m honest, I was disappointed with the time, despite knowing I honestly couldn’t have given any more. After I crossed the finish line, I was able to pose proudly with my medal. Half an hour later I almost passed out. My vision reduced to a small dot, the rest of my view looking like the snow on a de-tuned TV screen. I met my family and friends. There was no post-run meal with them for me. I felt beaten and bruised and simply wanted to get home and lick my wounds. I took the next day off work, with legs stiff as boards and hardly able to walk down stairs.
After that I quit running. I didn’t feel like doing it any more. The marathon knocked the stuffing out of me. For a while, I joined a gym, which kept me occupied for a few months until the novelty wore off, in the way of gym memberships. Slowly and surely running became a thing of the past and I almost gave up on exercise altogether.
Fast forward to 2013. After five years off running, I came back to it in 2012, having learnt to feel grateful to have a healthy, functioning body after an operation. And now, seeing my friends run marathons, I’m able to reassess my experience, put it into perspective and put the demons to bed.
I’ve learnt a lot over the years since the 2007 marathon. I’ve learnt I can be too hard on myself. I’ve learnt you need to accurately measure the distances and pace you’re running in training. I’ve learnt you can’t seriously train for a marathon if you’re going to pull your body in lots of other directions by binge eating, not sleeping and boozing. I’ve learnt over time to respect the experience I had out there. Seeing so many friends in the crew go through their own marathon journeys, I know I’m not alone.
So finally, understanding all these things, I’m ready to lay the ghost of the London Marathon to rest. I’ve entered the Bournemouth Marathon, which is in October of this year. About 10 other friends in the crew are running and I’m sure others will sign up. I won’t be alone when I run, and for that I am hugely grateful to Charlie Dark and Run Dem Crew. I can neutralise the bad experience of London 2007 and replace it with a positive one by enjoying this marathon. I’ve been running half marathons and 10Ks regularly over the last year, and I now have a running coach who can help me to build up towards the distance. I’ll listen to my breath and take in the sights and sounds of Bournemouth as I run without earphones. I won’t beat myself up if things don’t go as I have envisaged. And I’ll be proud of myself and everyone who runs it or makes the effort to come down and cheer the runners on.
We have a saying in Run Dem Crew. The night before a race, we lay our running kit out, take a picture of it and post it on Instagram. Under the picture, we say “Ready, we ready.” I’m ready to run another marathon. And this time, I’m ready to enjoy it.