Becoming someone who has run a marathon

June 16, 2018

A few weeks ago, I ran my first marathon. Having had a bit of time to mentally process the experience, I want to attempt to capture my thoughts and feelings of the day.

It’s something I never thought I’d do. For a long time I never saw the appeal of running, let alone running for half a day. As a teenager it made my knees hurt, and it seemed fairly boring. I’d much rather get on my bike and get out into the countryside. But over the last few years, that started changing, and somehow, without really meaning to, it seemed that I’d become a runner. A regular at Parkrun and Goodgym. I’d done some 10k events, and even a half marathon. Even so, a marathon seemed like too much - something that only hardcore runners would do. But as I was having lunch after my second half marathon, the waiter asked how I’d got on. When I told him I’d got below 2 hours, he asked if I was planning to do a full marathon. I said no, and laughed it off as a ridiculous idea. But the cogs in my brain started turning, and the next evening, I found myself signing up for the Edinburgh marathon. There was no need to raise enormous amounts of money for charity - I just needed to pay the entrance fee. And do the training, of course.

Over the course of the next few months, I slogged my way through the peaks and troughs of my training schedule, alternating between confidence and defeatism as I racked up the miles and the training took over my life. I cut out alcohol completely, but was probably making up for it in chocolate consumption. I was running a lot, and not doing that much else. Through the spring, as my long runs got longer, I still didn’t believe that I’d be able to do it. Then, on the day of the London Marathon, I ran 20 miles, and felt good. Better than that, even. At the end of that run, as I got to the top of the hill above my house and looked at the view, I felt fantastic - a strange and wonderful euphoria accompanied me the last few hundred yards. The next day at work, I was even able to walk down the stairs without flinching. Maybe I would be able to run a marathon after all. Even still, some doubts lingered. For the last week or two before the event, I stayed off my bike, paranoid that all my training would go to waste from an accident. In spite of having built a running pace calculator, I still had no idea what sort of time I could realistically aim for. I’d pulled the figure of four and a half hours out of the air, but my only real target was finishing.

The day eventually arrived, and with it came messages of encouragement from friends and family. After the usual fiddling with safety pins I got the number more or less straight on my chest. I can’t be the only person who finds that far more difficult than it should be. We got the bus to the city centre, and after saying goodbye to my family, I joined the crowd in the starting pen. I was surprised how much I was affected by the atmosphere at the start. There was an amazing sense of togetherness among the runners, people exchanging supportive smiles in a strange combination of nerves and excitement, an enormous infectious feeling of collective anticipation, building through the crowd as the start time got closer.

That anticipation mounted even further as the music got louder and we heard a countdown, and I was slightly worried that I’d set off too quickly and burn myself out. I needn’t have worried too much - we still had a few hundred yards of queuing and walking before we got to the start line. Eventually, we were up and running, and it felt good.

After a couple of kilometres, I heard a shout of “Go on, Daddy” and looked around to see my wife and daughter waving to me, which made me feel great. Then, at Portobello beach I saw my friend and running guru Ollie, and he jogged along with me for a few hundred yards. It felt good to see familiar faces, but plenty of unfamiliar faces made me smile as well. People on the roadside reading your name and giving shouts of encouragement, or holding out their hands for high fives, or offering up tubs of Haribo, or in one case playing slightly manic air drums - it all added up to something special. One thing that stayed with me was the signs saying “touch here for power” - the wonderful thing is that it’s true - you do get a boost from the smiles and cheers, and it’s hard not to get into the spirit of things, even if you’re a grumpy old man like me…

I kept a fairly steady pace for most of the way, but it was getting more difficult, and at mile 23, I was really starting to struggle. My legs felt impossibly heavy, and the energy gels and water just seemed to be making me feel queasy. At about the same time, my GPS watch ran out of battery. Trying not to interpret that as a bad omen, I reminded myself that sometimes it’s better not to be constantly confronted by data about how far you’ve run. Besides, I didn’t need GPS to tell me that my legs hurt.

With the tiredness came a wave of negativity. I started to question why I was doing this, why any of us were doing it. Are marathons and other big sponsorship events really a good way of raising money for good causes? How much is spent on t-shirts and silly hats and inflatable banging sticks, money that could have gone towards the good cause itself?

What’s the environmental impact? Seeing the number of bottles of water that are thrown half-drunk to the roadside made me feel uncomfortable - partly because I worried that I’d trip on one of them, but mainly because it seems like a terrible waste. What’s the official view of charities like Water Aid on that?

Mass participation events may not be perfect, but what is? Pretty much everything seems to be problematic in one way or another these days. Maybe we need to stop overthinking it - any event that brings so much positivity to so many people can’t be a bad thing.

I alternated between running and walking for a while, cursing the sight of the people who were doing the relay. It seemed like a cruel trick for the organisers to play on us, setting off new batches of people whose legs weren’t as tired as ours. Where were those people with the sweets, now that I needed them? At one point I did see a lady with a big tub of jelly babies, but I think I managed to drop more on the floor than I got into my mouth.

Eventually the sight of the mile 25 marker, and the sound of Led Zeppelin on my running playlist helped me to get a second wind, and as I came in towards the finish line, I actually felt good. I took my headphones out, wanting to take in as much of the atmosphere as possible, to savour the moment. After all, finishing a marathon will probably be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I scanned the faces in the crowd, looking for my wife and daughter, but they had maintained their tradition of missing me at the end of every event I’ve run. I felt like crying. I wanted to share this moment with them, felt lost without them. Also, I’d left my wallet with them, so I had to wait a little longer for my first beer in two months.

Note to self - always remember to carry a bank card and some cash on a run in future.

Normally I’m not a big fan of the medals and the various bits of tat that you get at the end of a run. They seem a bit pointless, just another thing to put on the list of negative environmental impact of big events. If it wasn’t for the fact that my daughter likes to play with them, they’d be going straight in the bin, and I’ve often thought there should be an option to ask event organisers not to make a medal for you.

This time was different, though. I did want some kind of souvenir. Sat there in my new T-shirt, I felt proud of the medal, like I’d earned it, and I’m actually going to use the keyring that was attached to it - an EMF logo with 26.2 on the other side will remind me that I set my mind to doing something difficult, and I did it. I had ticked a box, but I’d done something more than that.

I had planned to meet some friends in the pub that evening, but all I wanted to do was have a bath and lie down. My wife went to get fish and chips and beer, and I was in bed by about 9 o’clock.

The next morning, my ambitions were very limited. A big breakfast of pancakes, followed by the leftovers of my daughter’s pancakes, followed by a mission to minimise the amount of walking I’d have to do by riding an open top tourist bus, spotting the other fragile people proudly wearing their ‘finisher’ t-shirts.

Thankfully I managed to stay free from blisters, lost toenails, bleeding nipples, and any of the other marathon horror stories I’d heard about. I was walking a bit stiffly for the next days, but my main discomfort was the sunburn from having spent a long time lying on my back in a field at the finish.

What have I learned? Not as much as I imagined I might. I didn’t have any great epiphany. It was probably unrealistic to imagine that I would. After all, running 26 miles isn’t really all that different from running 20, but a marathon is different from other running events. It’s not something that you can just turn up and run. The whole point is that it’s difficult - it does feel like something fairly extreme. For the shorter events that I’ve run in the past, I didn’t particularly train for them - I just ran when I felt like it, and I felt like running often enough. For the marathon, I followed a training schedule. I was committed to it, and made minor sacrifices in my social life for it. It required patience from my family.

Perhaps it isn’t so much the marathon itself that is the challenge - it’s the training. Perhaps the lesson from this experience is that we’re all capable of things that we previously thought were beyond us, or as the quote on the medal puts it, “Great things never came from comfort zones”. Pushing yourself harder brings rewards.

Will I ever do it again? I don’t know. In the last few weeks, the training had really started to feel like a grind, and I was fairly confident that my first marathon would also be my last. Now I’m not so sure. Having experienced the highs, then lows, then highs of the day, and having received the early bird email offer, I’m starting to have second thoughts about a second time. But not just yet.