Tuesday, 19 April 2011

What I did for most of sunday.

There are two main problems when it comes to writing about the marathon.

Firstly, I don't really remember it, not in detail. Moments stand out- such as when friends were standing by the road, which is more immensely useful than you could imagine- but the rest is more or less a blur. Cheering, sunshine, trying to find the blue lines on the road which represent the shortest route. Children holding out their hands for a high five. Idly reading the back of other runners' vests and realising that the common factor that has brought together all the 'fun' runners is tragedy. Grabbing water, grabbing carb gel, grabbing vaseline (of which more later). Hungrily looking out for the red and white balloons in the distance which mark another mile completed, and resenting them hugely when they turn out to be a 5k marker. The showers and the sweet relief they offered. The memories are impressionistic, and for huge swathes of the route they're absent.

Secondly, a lot of personal reportage is based on thought processes. When writing about a holiday, for example, there are moments when one takes a mental snapshot of an experience; maybe even starts to write the eventual sentence in one's head. There's none of that phrasemaking on a marathon- the internal monologue is tedious beyond belief, the very definition of 'single minded'. 'Come on' it goes, and 'I can do this'. And 'keep going'. And not much else. Sometimes it goes 'I can't do this' and has to be quashed. Then there are the calculations- 'When I crossed the start line the clock said 0:27, now it says 3:38, so I've been running for three hours eleven minutes, which is 191 minutes, and I've done about 18 miles, so that's... 18 into 191...Oooh, carb gel. Come on. Keep going'.

But nonetheless, I feel the need to record the experience. I'd never run a marathon before after all, and dear god I never will again. Plus, I can use this blog as a record of my split times, so I don't have to keep the official marathon page open for the rest of my life.


In Robert, Katie, Charlie and James, my co-runner Julia and I had the best of overnight hosts, and the best of spag bol and garlic bread (carb loading is fun). We even had a small glass of red wine, but don't tell anyone. The Thorogoods live on the road which leads from Maze Hill station to the park, so come Sunday morning there was a steady stream of passers-by going past the front window, all clutching the official red plastic bags for storing kit, and all looking intimidatingly lithe and fit. Terrifyingly soon after waking up (I hadn't slept brilliantly) it was time to head to the start.

...which felt more like a festival than anything else. Crowds of people milling around seemingly aimlessly, a tannoy (manned by a maddeningly chirpy Geordie, whose palpable desire to be Ant and Dec served only to underline how good they are at their job), signs and banners and trucks. There were a few more people stretching than at the average festival, and more vests, and more of a smell of embrocation, but the queues for the portaloos had that authentic Glastonbury touch.

Utterly terrified at this point, I nearly lost it in a flurry of tears when a man in a yellow vest walked past me. He looked like the archetypal closing-time bruiser- you'd cross the street to avoid him even in broad daylight. But on his vest was a photo of a toddler, on his arm was a tattoo of the same toddler, and the logo on the vest was that of the Child Bereavement Charity. On Saturday I was saddened by a tweet from a journalist I used to admire, who said something along the lines of marathon runners being attention seekers, and the charities they run for a 'figleaf' for their own self aggrandisement; I've noticed a few similarly sneering references to marathon runners in the press in the last few weeks. I'd like to put all the oh-so-ironic, 'edgy' journos who came up with this sparkling piece of snidery into a room with the man in the yellow vest.

Once the bag was stowed on the luggage truck (bye bye possessions! See you on the Mall, with any luck!) there really was nothing for it but to head to the start line itself. A couple of nurofen plus (ibuprofen to guard against joint inflammation, codeine because why not) a couple of bites of banana, and then onto the path with the other 30000-odd people to await the hooter.

And wait, and wait. The start itself is hugely anticlimactic. We were pretty much the last people over the line (the clock, as previously mentioned, read 0:27) and half an hour is a long time when you're more frightened than you've ever been. I felt a little sorry for the tannoy man at this point- finding something interesting to say about 30000 people when you've only got a name on a vest to go on is quite a tall order. There now follows an apology for diehard users of the imperial system; the marathon split times are measured in metric. For reference, 5k is more or less 3 miles.

0-5k. 5k time: 33.32 Total time: 33.32

This is the fun bit. The first half mile flies by on wings of 'Oh my god, I'm running the actual marathon'. The people lining the roadsides are a novelty, every child's hand is highfived as you run past. I was determined to take it slowly- the cautionary tales I'd heard all focused on people who went off too fast and had nothing left by mile 16. I was helped in this task by my choice of music. For some reason I decided almost immediately after I got the place that I would listen to the whole of Cosi Fan Tutte followed by the whole of Aida, and that I would listen to versions I'd never heard before. That's how I ended up running 16 miles accompanied by the Barenboim/Erato Cosi, which has some lovely singing in it, but is so slow and ponderous in its tempi that it is the perfect metronome for someone aiming at about an eleven minute mile. Metronomic is the word, by the way; you get into a rhythm. My rhythm was so insistent that I ran each of the first twelve miles in almost exactly eleven minutes, dead on. For those of you who don't run (ie me, six months ago) I'd found in training that ten minute miles were a decent average, and that I could do nine if I really pushed myself, so eleven seemed nice and easy.

Easy was the word, really, for the first ten miles or so. Surprisingly, wonderfully easy. I kept thinking 'Enjoy this. Enjoy it being easy. It'll get hard.'

It got hard.

5k-10k. 5k time: 33.37. Total time: 1.07.09

But not yet. This part of the route was also hugely enjoyable. It still felt easy, and the approach back to Greenwich provided the first sense of a milestone achieved- hurrah, I have got back where I started! I also got into the habit of indicating how many miles I'd completed with my fingers as I crossed each mile line. I have no idea why.

Realisation number one- you need things to look forward to. From about mile three I was egging myself on with the thought that Robert, Katie and family would be waiting with a load of my other friends at around the 6 mile mark. This was an unbelievably helpful thought, providing a distraction for the three miles before I passed them, and a pleasing memory for the miles thereafter. Patrick Wilde and Pete Shaw, compadres from the last two Edinburgh Festivals, were (unexpectedly) waiting about half a mile further on, so the return to Greenwich was a highlight.

Operafans: if you run 6 miles at about 11 min/mile on a hot day, Kurt Streit will be singing 'Un'aura amorosa' as you cross the six mile line.

10-15k. 5k time: 34.30. Total time: 1.41.49

Can't remember. Deptford, Rotherhithe, Canada Water. Jelly babies, water, vaseline.

15-20k. 5k time: 36.27. Total time: 2:18:16

I had a brilliant idea during this section. I was by now very conscious that the sun was beating down and I was very unprotected, especially on the shoulders. In what I now accept may have been my slightly addled brain, I came to the conclusion that the vaseline being handed out by begloved police officers and ambulance staff would make an effective sunblock, so I slathered it all over. I now accept that will have made it much worse and I might as well have rubbed butter on myself.

This was the beginning of the dark times. Getting to Tower Bridge was exciting (as was seeing my friend Francis at the pub on the corner, pint in hand, bellowing my name and blowing kisses as I passed) but crossing it was hard, even with the presence of another friend, Nic Holdridge, who took some photos as I crossed in which my smiling face belies the feeling of unease that was beginning to grow. I knew I couldn't stop; on all previous training runs if I ever stopped to walk I was unable to run again. On the other hand, it was searingly hot, my legs were getting very heavy, my mile times were creeping up, and the idea of another 14 miles was unthinkable. Even Mozart didn't help: I never want to hear 'Il Cor Vi Dono' again.

Everyone tells you that coming off Tower Bridge is the hard bit. All you want to do is turn left and head into town- but you have ten miles of fannying around the Isle of Dogs before you're allowed to do that. On the other side of the road are the runners with 22 miles under their belts. There's just a thin barrier between you. It is cruel, so cruel, to see them. I genuinely considered ducking under the barrier and somehow losing my timing chip. Only the thought of the shame and humiliation that would have followed stopped me; if the race were less well marshalled I would have done it like a shot. I don't like remembering this part, St Katharine's Dock and Wapping. This was the existential crisis, the moment when I knew for a fact I couldn't do it.

HALF WAY. TIME: 2.26.19

The realisation that I had run a slower half than either of my training halves was a blow. Can't do it. Not going to break five and a half hours. Going to have to walk the second half. Going to finish in six, six and a half, seven hours. Going to finish in more than eight hours so I won't even get an official time. Everyone will laugh at me. Everyone thought it was a joke idea for me to run the marathon. They were right.

25k. 5k time: 39.18. Total time: 2.57.34

My body saved me. Three and a half painful miles after Tower Bridge, in the Canary Wharf underpass, my legs stopped running and started walking without having received any such instruction from my brain. I am convinced that if I had insisted on continuing to run I would have collapsed by mile 20. At this point, however, I didn't realise this and spent a good half mile feeling angry and ashamed. I was walking- that meant I was a failure. Charlie Morgan Jones, the lovely lighting designer of the show I did last summer, was waiting by the road with a big smile and a wave. It was lovely to see him, but I just felt embarrassed that he'd seen me not running.

25-30k. 5k time: 40.50. Total time: 3.38.24

The word 'bargaining' came into my head. I'd heard it used by Paula Radcliffe at a nike event I'd attended a few days before. Then I heard the voice of my unoffical coach and running mentor Cat Armstrong, equally clearly in my mind's ear. 'Run a mile, walk a mile' she was saying. Suddenly it was possible again: I'd walk to mile 16, run to 17, walk to 18 and so on. Suddenly I only had five miles of running left! Cosi gave way to Aida (Mancini, Fillipeschi, Simionato/Gui) at exactly three hours, and exactly sixteen miles, meaning that even after a mile of walking I was now averaging eleven and a quarter minutes per mile.

30-35k. 5k time: 43.45. Total time: 4.22.09

Two obsessive thoughts in rotation now. The exciting one: I'm going to do it. I'm definitely going to do it. The urgent one: And I need to do it in under 5 and a half. I will be gutted if I don't do it in under 5 and a half. Memories of Canary Wharf- spotting Jerome's face on the back of a Tshirt and realising I'd found his brother in law Ollie. Jogging to catch up with Ollie, thinking how unfair it was I was having to run to catch him when this was a 'walking' mile. Having a nice stroll together from miles 19-20. The big screen by Canary Wharf station (I didn't spot myself because I refused to wave- that struck me as gauche and fun-runnery, and by now I was all about the Blue Steel determined look). 35k reached in Cabot Square, a place I spend a lot of time doing my corporate work. Picking up speed as I passed the office of one of my major corporate clients in case anyone I'd worked with was watching.

35-40k. 5k time: 41.43. Total time: 5.03.42

Euphoria and exhaustion. The 'walk a mile, run a mile' plan getting harder now, because running even one mile is unbearable. More friends passed- Stephen in Limehouse, nearly reducing me to tears as he shouted 'you're doing really well'. Then a whole clump of friends by mile 24 in Blackfriars (annoyed again- they were on a walking mile when I'd much rather have been running past them- although, pleasingly, there were fewer than I'd expected because I was making better time than THEY expected). At this point I remembered one of the worst training runs. I'd taken the tube to Westminster, hoping to run home via the South Bank, a run of about nine miles. I managed one before I had to stop at Blackfriars Bridge, so intense was the pain in my feet. This was in late February, about seven weeks ago. The idea that I was now closing in on mile 25 was incredible to me.

And then, as I walked round the corner by Big Ben and headed into Parliament Square, my sister and my niece and my mum and my brother in law. My sister, tearily bellowing 'WE LOVE YOU! WE LOVE YOU!'. Nearly lost it. Ipod losing battery and Aida coming to an end (I'd loaded it in the wrong order, too, so the chronology of the opera had been annoying me ever since Wapping- where I'd finally passed the 22 mile marker on the good side.)

Big sign. 800 METRES TO GO. Shuffle now playing Alisha's Attic, of all things. Everyone else is running. Surely I can run 800 metres? Nope. There's a 600 metre marker, I'll run it from there. 'I Am, I Feel/I sometimes think that you forget that/ I Am, I Feel'. Still not running. Walk past 400 metre marker and just beyond it, there it is. The 26 mile marker. 385 yards to go. Indicate 26 miles with my hands- both palms splayed, twice, then one palm and an upraised finger. I start to run. Alisha's Attic gives way to Alizee. Not a shuffle, then, alphabetical order. The absurdity of completing a marathon while listening to the justly forgotten Europop classic 'Moi, Lolita'. Arms aloft as I cross the line, so my runner number is visible in the photo. I've run the marathon. I've run the marathon. I never, ever believed I could. It's the dark secret that's terrified me for six months- the knowledge that I wasn't going to complete it, that I'd collapse or die or just give up. But I didn't.

26.2 MILES. TOTAL TIME: 5.21.15 MILE AVERAGE: 12 mins 15 seconds

I collect my medal and my goodie bag and walk towards the luggage trucks. Just as I'm thinking 'How funny, I thought I'd cry', I am suddenly overtaken by huge wracking sobs. My throat is so dry they make me cough.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

I blame Phidippides.

There are three things in life for which nobody is ever prepared. One, of course, is death. The second is University finals.

The third is running the fucking marathon tomorrow.