TEAMLou

A year ago, I was with my friends at my friend Louise’s funeral. I’ve written about Lou a lot: here is one link. She died too soon, but she died with grace and dignity, while achieving an immense amount in her last few months of life.

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I think it was at her wake in a lovely bar in Edinburgh that someone suggested we get a team together to raise money a year later for one of her chosen charities, the Skeletal Cancer Action Trust. My friends seem to think it was me.

Elliot: It was definitely you. It was when you were at your most evangelical about running.
Me: You mean I’m less evangelical now?
Elliot: Oh. No.
Me: It’s just that with you, it worked so you don’t notice it any more.
Elliot: Oh. Yes.

Al, Lou’s husband, thought it was a great idea, even though he is an obsessive cyclist and hated running (as did his knackered knee). Over the last year, we have gathered 30 people to run together as TEAMLou. Some of them knew Louise, some of them didn’t. Probably hardly any had heard of SCAT, a small charity run out of the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital where Louise had excellent treatment for her bone cancer. But that didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that seemingly everyone is running for charity these days, to the point that some people refuse to give money to races. That’s OK. But anyway TEAMLou kept growing and growing. People who knew Lou, people who knew of Lou, people who read about Lou, people who loved Lou, people who loved Al. A marvellous bunch of kind people who were prepared to run or to learn to run to raise money for Louise. What a lot of mensches. The wonderful designer Mikey designed us a vest.

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We set up a fundraising site. There were some drop-outs along the way, from injury or other reasons. But by last weekend, we had 30 people running: 26 or so in Edinburgh, four in Cornwall doing a solidarity run. Most of the Edinburgh runners were doing the half; one did the marathon; and five ran the marathon relay (with David Amers accompanying Anna on her relay leg). Al had had increasing problems with his knee and I suspect dosed himself on painkillers before running, but he still did his relay leg with distinction.

The night before, Elliot came round to Al’s beautiful flat (so beautiful that it always makes me want to get home and clean up) and we compared our race numbers. Nat looked at his number, which was 330. Mine was 33,500 or something. She said, “why is your number so small? And why does it say ‘marathon’ and not ‘half marathon’?” Elliot’s face went white. I mean, he’s northern so he’s pale, but this was translucent. He had signed up for the marathon by mistake. But when he did that, he put in his predicted half-marathon time of 2:05, so he’d been given an elite number. If Nat hadn’t noticed, he’d have found himself standing next to a bunch of Kenyans, with a predicted finish time only two minutes slower than the world marathon record.

I’m still laughing, several days later, though there are questions to be asked about race organizers who blithely accepted an unknown runner presenting with a world marathon record time without doing any investigation. But Elliot was in a panic. He’d done the Paris marathon but hadn’t had much time to train since and certainly wasn’t ready for a marathon. I think I’d have probably tried to do it, but luckily Al had signed up for the half before his knee failed him and he’d switched to the marathon, so he gave Elliot his bib – with a more reasonable 33,000-ish number – and we assumed that a race management team that didn’t notice a mysterious brand-new elite athlete from Macclesfield would not be especially bothered about two Als running in separate events.

I hadn’t got nervous about the race, and managed to get some sleep for a change. But in the morning my guts told me that I was actually more anxious than I thought. I ate toast and marmalade, drank a disgusting beetroot shot, and left the house at 6:45 to walk up to Regent Road where the TEAMLou half-marathoners were meeting for a group photo. I’d met some of them before, but most were names in emails. Mike, in the red cap, had emailed me to ask if I’d like to run with him. I wrote back to say that I wanted to try to run fast so maybe it wasn’t a good idea, before I remembered that Mike was a seriously fast fell and ultra runner, the kind of man who runs up Ben Nevis, and gets to the top and down again. I sent a very embarrassed apology and accepted his offer with profound gratitude. I’d never had a pacer before, and Mike had never been a pacer, but he wanted to try. Also, he had a calf strain that had been a problem for a month so didn’t want to go full-pelt. He reasoned that the next best thing he could do would be to get someone else to a PB, and that that was me. He’d emailed me a pacer band for a 1:45 time.

1:45! Eight minute miles! Oh my god.

I said, thank you, and wondered how to replace my blood with laser juice or something. Anyway we lined up for our team photo:

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and headed to the start. I was supposed to be in the orange pen, but we ended up standing way way back in the blue one. I think we were so distracted by the godawful weather that we didn’t push our way down to the front where the orange pen was, but I wish we had. The weather was vile. The forecast had been thunderstorms, but on the walk up to the start it had been cool and not raining. Perfect running weather. I decided in May that I’d run races in vests only from now on. No undershirts or extra layers. I slightly regretted that as the goosebumps appeared and the rain started coming sideways, accompanied by freezing gusts of wind. Mike said, that’s Arthur’s Seat over there, and I looked at a bank of dense fog and said, “oh?” It didn’t help that for no apparent reason that start was delayed by 10 minutes. So there were thousands of very cold runners. Some of them kept their waterproofs on, which I bet they regretted later. Plenty were wearing bin-bags. I’d forgotten to bring an old and unloved sweatshirt so I got colder and colder. I just wanted to run to warm up.

Finally at about 8:15 we started. With a shuffle not a bang. The first three miles were very crowded, and the next 10.1 miles were only slightly less crowded. We spent 13.1 miles overtaking and weaving. My pace started at 8:17 miles and hardly varied the whole way round. It was such a treat running with Mike: he had the easy gait of a seriously good runner, and it was encouraging to follow him. He never went off too fast except in the last two miles, when he was trying to get me to speed up. The route went down a hill – such a big descent that it doesn’t qualify for eg. the Boston marathon as an official event – past Holyrood, through Leith and then to Portobello and Musselburgh along the seafront. It’s flat and nice. The rain stopped after a few miles, I warmed up, and although I can’t really remember the sights, I don’t remember being bored. There weren’t many supporters, probably because of the cold, but there were enough. I missed the music and relentless good cheer of London, but I had enough to concentrate on in keeping up with Mike.

I decided to follow my London marathon nutrition and hydration regime, as it had worked, and only began to drink and eat at 6 miles. I’d brought gels, but Mike offered me his, and offered to prepare them for me too. What luxury! No fumbling around with my bum-bag. He asked whether I wanted a gel with or without caffeine. I thought about it. You’re not supposed to try any new food or drink in a race, and I remember Shamiso from my club trying out some gels that another club-runner offered her at the Manchester marathon, and vomiting all the way round. It’s a good cautionary tale, but I wanted the caffeine, so Mike opened a gel and handed it over and I felt like I could get used to having a coach run with me. I need to get rich or extremely fast and hire one. I didn’t vomit up the caffeine gel, and my 10K time was about 49 minutes, which for me is great and which put me on track for a sub 1:50 at least. I think by then Mike realised that I wouldn’t make 1:45 and that my legs were stuck in an 8:17-20 pace. Which I thought was brilliant, considering my marathon pace was a minute slower than that.

We ran past a couple of TEAMLou runners: first Claudia, then Tom. We ran past a woman wearing these extraordinary tights:

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And another one wearing these:

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And I really wanted to see what the front view was, but I didn’t want to turn around in case I lost my balance, so now I know.

By now we were in Musselburgh and we got to the hardest bit. I’d broken my gel every-three-miles rule because I felt like I was flagging, but in fact I wasn’t which proves yet again that I am terrible at interpreting my pace. Mike made a minimal effort and sprinted ahead to take a series of pictures of his charge, which I hope he doesn’t mind me posting:

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And then it was the final four miles. These were the worst, because they consist of a hairpin: all the way up beyond Musselburgh racecourse, then back the same way, so that you are running into a sea of people who have run two miles further than you. It is never not a wee bit demoralizing. Mike kept saying, the turn is coming up, I’m sure the turn is coming up. After two miles of that, I said, you’ve been saying that for two miles, and he said, “mind games!” After the turn did finally come up, he said, right, let’s pick up the pace for the last two miles.

WHAT???

And he sprinted ahead, and I tried to keep up and sometimes I did better than other times. He only had to stop once, and when he did I felt so ashamed, I did speed my legs up a bit. I almost did a negative split but not quite (for non-geek runners, a negative split is when you run the second half faster than the first), but I definitely didn’t slow and when I read Mike’s account of the race, which is here, I realised his tactic was to stop me slowing down rather than get me to speed up. And it worked.

By the time I got to the final half mile I was very tired and visualising this video of Louise walking up a hill with a new prosthetic leg. I don’t usually think that visualising works: I just get my head down and run. But I really think that did. Thanks, Lou. But it meant that at the finish line I wasn’t looking out for anyone, I was fully concentrating on keeping my legs and head going. I seem to remember, after 12.5 miles, thinking, “I’ll just stop here.” But I didn’t.

I got over the line in 1:49:44, and nearly threw up. After I stopped nearly throwing up I was delighted. Really delighted. I’m certain I wouldn’t have got under 1:50 without Mike, though I think I would have beaten my PB of 1:55. But it was really great running with him. Thanks, coach.

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I needed a toilet and warm clothes fast, but neither were immediately available. So I got my t-shirt, and found that for once it was a good, technical t-shirt, and with XS sizes (unlike London marathon’s crap cotton huge pillow-case of a finisher’s t-shirt). Mike and I had our picture taken, went for our bags, and promptly lost each other. Nat managed to find me: she’d come to the finish line but not seen me, again (I missed her twice at London, so now we were quits). My friend Norrie also came to the finish line but I didn’t see him either.

After I’d given up trying to spot Mike, Nat bought me a coffee. There were stalls selling porridge and burgers and beer and once again I watched with astonishment as people drank pints. I never feel like drinking alcohol or even eating immediately after a race. I never want anything for a couple of hours and then am suddenly the hungriest I’ve ever been, ever.

Instead I changed my shorts, which had suffered from my usual racing problem, and the fact that I hadn’t had time to get to the toilets at the start. Changing shorts in a dirty portaloo is fun. There were no phone signals by then as so many people were using the networks, so Nat & I gave up finding Norrie or Mike or anyone else and set off back to the after-party at Al’s house, via a packed East Lothian bus. The party was supposed to be a barbecue, and so it was, even with frequent Biblical deluges from the Edinburgh sky. You can’t keep a good after-race party down.

Aside from the fact that this was a TEAMLou event, and special, would I run the Edinburgh half again from a race perspective? Probably. Although after London and Edinburgh I’d like to run a race where I don’t have to spend the whole duration running around, past, and through people. There were seriously slow people all the way round, which is fine, but when there is never any space and there are always slower runners to overtake, it must mean that the pacing and pen system isn’t working as it should. Of course it was my fault for not going ahead to the orange pen but even then I wouldn’t have spent any less time overtaking. It adds distance and time and it’s tiring. London was 26.8 miles because of the weaving; Edinburgh was about 13.28. I know – as Elliot proved – that it depends on honest self-reporting, but I wish it worked better, though that’s only a selfish wish because I’d like a bit more space to move. So it’s up to me to find a flat race with hardly any people running it.

But that’s just me being a race geek. Much, much more importantly, we have now raised more than £8,000 for SCAT, and that’s so wonderful. A huge well done to everyone on TEAMLou, of whom more here:

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Al, Lou’s husband, is bottom left, still with a functioning knee (more or less).

Thanks to everyone who offered to run even if they didn’t due to injury, and to our supporters on the day. And thank you to everyone who has donated, no matter how much.

Thank you.

Oh, and the winner of the marathon was David Toniok, with a time of 2:15:33. So Elliot would have won by a country mile.

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EMF maps

EMF splits

THE LONDON MARATHON

I did it.

I DID IT.

And here is how.

FRIDAY
I took the train to London. I wasn’t feeling too nervous. The marathon nightmares had stopped. I didn’t have any injuries. I had done as much of my training as I could, and I hadn’t missed a long run. And because of tapering, my overwhelming feeling was: I want to run. I want to run.

I had to go and pick up my racenumber at the marathon Expo in Excel, so I set off from King’s Cross, trying to spot who was a marathon runner going the same way. The best giveaway was a Garmin watch. I met Gemma, my Kirkstall Harrier team-mate, by the cloakroom, and off we went, ready to brave the queues.

There were no queues. I got my number in under a minute, from three lovely pensioner volunteers. They were the first of hundreds of amazing and delightful volunteers who make the London marathon possible. Cheery, pleasant, a treat. Then, into the selling. Stalls selling shoes, kit, gels, chia seed flapjacks, running things I didn’t need, running things I would never need. The flapjacks though were good, and I was tempted. But the man said, “don’t try anything you haven’t had before” and I knew that already but was impressed with his honesty.

There were also stalls advertising marathons. I spoke Italian to the Venetians selling the Venetian marathon, and got tempted by that too, although most of it is through boring Veneto and hardly any in Venice. The next one along was even better: a midnight sun marathon in Tromso, Norway. Tempted, noted.

But hang on. Another marathon?

We found the Brooks “stall”. It was more like a whole arena. I finally found out their reasons for touting Transcend all over the place as if it is the second coming: the guide rail that keeps your foot in the right place when it gets tired. But I was unconvinced. And most of the kit everywhere was dull. The usual plain block colours. Why no stripes? Why no patterns? Adidas, Under Armour, all of you: Buck up and make some interesting kit, please. So Gemma bought gels and I bought nothing. Instead we picked up cards featuring our appropriate runners’ world pacers. Mine were both doing 3:56 and in the red start. One was the Runners World editor. I briefly had a vision of us running along together discussing writing assignments and the job of editing. Hilarious, in retrospect.

Then we got our mugshots done:

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We signed a few walls, then left with a goody bag that was full of crap: pointless flyers and more pointless flyers. And because my appetite was still working on the assumption that I was running 40 miles or so a week, I had to eat a big pie, immediately.

My marathon refuge was with my friends Karen and Chris and their little boy Georgie in Stoke Newington. They live on a lovely quiet street in a lovely quiet house. It is even more lovely now that they have converted their loft into a very gorgeous penthouse bedroom suite. Light, air, quiet, calm. Exactly what I needed. I was supposed to be on the marathon wagon, but I have fallen off it so many times, I didn’t think a very weak gin and tonic and then a prosecco would make much difference. We broke bread, we drank, I slept profoundly and wonderfully, after looking at the stars through the skylight and hoping the International Space Station would go past. That’s what skylights are for: ISS observatories.

SATURDAY
I’d planned not very much. A short 20 minute run in the morning, lunch with Molly, then a marathon manicure. And so it came to pass, although before it came to pass I just lay on the bed and watched the sky go by some more.

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For the 20 minute run, we set out altogether. It was with Karen that I first went for a run about five years ago, to the end of her street, and we both staggered back. Meanwhile I’ve become a runner and she hasn’t, but something about the marathon must have sparked something in her, because although she was in normal clothes, she ran with me around Clissold Park for a mile or so. I was seriously impressed. And now she has downloaded the brilliant Get Running app that I recommend to everyone, and is planning to do the London marathon next year.

Molly had suggested meeting in Andina, in Shoreditch. It’s a Peruvian restaurant and I know nothing about Peruvian cooking. I was slightly worried about going against the “don’t eat anything you’re not familiar with” on the day before a marathon, but the quinoa burger and sweet potato fries were delicious (carbohydrates! starch! fuel!). I usually prefer to walk everywhere in London, and set off up to Stoke Newington before realising it was about three miles away and my legs needed to rest. So no walking, many buses, and a relaxing hour getting my nails to match my Seafarers UK vest in Professional Nail Salon in Stoke Newington.

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At some point in the day, I spoke to Jenny, my trainer. I had emailed her to say I was slightly freaking out about hydration. I’ve never got that right, and think a lot of my harder training runs were hard because I was dehydrated. I knew the weather was going to be sunny and warm: perfect for spectators, not so good for runners. Jenny calmed me down. She has done a few marathons. We decided I would start drinking after 10K unless I desperately needed water before that, and that after that I would take a gel and drink every three miles. I’d also carry electrolyte tabs in my bum bag in case I had chance to mix them with the water. By this point, despite my calmness, I was counting gels in pictures that people were posting of their marathon preparations, and comparing: She’s got 6 but I have 8! Why does he have only 4?

Etc.

Dinner was pasta, of course. By this point I never really wanted to eat pasta again. I’d been diligently eating carbohydrates for a week, and I felt heavy. Someone told me that this was all the glycogen and hydration. But then I noticed that my period seemed to have started, after 65 days of not appearing (I am running as fast towards a menopause as I am to the finish line, it seems), and my mood immediately plummeted. I cursed my body, and put tampons in my bum bag. I did not want to be running round dosed on codeine, but if it was a heavy and bad period, as I sometimes get, that would be the only option. I managed to resist a glass of wine although by now my mood really wanted one. My kit was ready:

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and apart from the capriciousness of my gynaecology, I was ready too.

Of course I slept badly. You do, apparently, before a marathon, which is why the penultimate night of sleep is more important. I woke at 4 and then 5, then dozed until 6. My “period” hadn’t properly appeared, despite vague cramps, so I decided to ignore it, took only one tampon with me, and got ready. Breakfast: the same as I have every day. Toast with peanut butter and marmalade. Tea. More tea.

It felt slightly unreal. I was nervous, I suppose, but the unreality was masking it. I got to the bus stop at 7 and waited half an hour for a bus. There were a couple of other runners. One marched on and flashed her number at the driver and didn’t pay, so I didn’t pay either. At London Bridge, suddenly there was nothing but runners. It was rather wonderful. All these hundreds of people coming together just to run a very long way. The talk on the train was of training, and how many marathons, and which starts people were in. The transport was great: clear, organized, with train guards and station staff loudly pointing us all in the right direction. I got off at Greenwich for the Red Start, which is where all golden bond runners – charity places – start, alongside a few blokes known as the elite runners. Up the hill, past the Greenwich Observatory. I thought I should get my picture taken in front of it in my seafaring vest, but I’d offered to run a GPS app for the marathon organizers, who wanted to test GPS on the route, and I didn’t want to drain my increasingly rapidly draining phone. Stupid. And in the end my phone died after Tower Bridge and I couldn’t run the app anyway.

The red start was on green grass. There was space to lie down, there was water and tea and coffee and plenty of toilets. There were also female urinals, which I was tempted to use, but tight lycra running shorts aren’t the best clothing to use she-pees with.

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As usual, I tried to calculate my toilet needs with wanting to be hydrated. I drank water and coffee because there was an hour to go, and I went to the toilet three times. And I still got it wrong. A pox on my pelvic floor muscles, or on my laziness at doing my daily exercises to strengthen them. I knew as soon as that happened that despite me telling everyone that I was “hoping for under four hours but I’m not bothered if it’s over” that actually that wasn’t true. I wanted to do it in four hours and so I definitely wasn’t going to stop for a toilet. I had the usual post-race emergency equipment in my kit bag, which by now was being trucked across London: wet wipes, jogging trousers, water. I kept going.

The first five miles were amazing, because they flew by. Not at first: we had a long but companionable shuffle to the start line, and I set off at 10:10. Naively I expected it to be like a normal race: crowds for a few miles, then spaces open up and you can run freely. That never happened. Of course it wouldn’t, with 35,000 people. Even so, the novelty of having people cheering at the sidelines made the first five miles be the most unheeded first five miles I’d ever run. There was sunshine, and people, and noise. People were playing music on balconies and in yards. There was so much good cheer.

At five miles or so I spotted a lad running in a Seafarers UK vest and ran up to him. I’d forgotten that my shipping contact Kuba Syzmanski’s son was running, so when he said his name was Kuba, I said, oh, I know someone with that name. To his credit, or possibly because we were running as best we could, he didn’t look withering but simply said, “yes, that’s my dad. You know him.” Kuba Jr is 21 or so. He told me he’d never run more than a half marathon and wasn’t sure how he’d do past 13 miles. More worryingly, he hadn’t had breakfast. I was shocked by this. Who turns up to assault their body with a 26.2 mile race without giving it all the help it can get even if it’s just toast?

Kuba did. I found out afterwards that he was also running in shoes that he’d bought only two days earlier. So, a basic anti-best-advice marathon preparation. For a while, he would dash over to whoever was handing out jelly babies, gels, anything, saying FOOD! We stayed together for five miles or so, through Woolwich and I’m not sure where else. My London geography knowledge failed to keep up with the route map, and unless there was a giant bloody landmark somewhere to be seen, I often didn’t know where I was. I’d read in the London marathon information pack that when you reach Cutty Sark, you are hit with a wall of noise, because that’s where the real mass support begins. But that wasn’t true. There was nowhere on the course that didn’t have supporters. It must have been the sunshine, the Olympics, and the attraction of Mo Farah (who came onscreen on the red start area video screen to say, a little bafflingly, “go hard. Go home”). So all I remember of Cutty Sark was that we turned a sharp corner. Most of the time I was scanning the crowd. I had three sets of supporters to look out for, but I couldn’t remember now what mile points they said they would be at, and I quickly learned the lesson that you have to establish with supporters which side of the road they’ll be on, otherwise it’s pointless. It’s pointless because there is sensory overload”: noise, and heat, and more noise, and cheering, and cheer, and everyone in sunglasses, and you’re trying to weave past slower people, constantly.

So I missed Molly and Rob and Momo, and I missed Nathalie and Alex and Stanley and Daisy, even though Nat saw me twice and ran after me shouting ROSE but, she said, “you were too fast.” But that was later. First, we had Tower Bridge.

That was BEAUTIFUL. Kuba said, let’s take pictures, so I took one of him, and he started to take one of me before I pointed out that I wanted to have Tower Bridge in the background.

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I think those pictures killed my phone dead, but I never checked it again. I lost one of my gels getting the phone out, and I hadn’t any spare. That was slightly worrying.

I lost Kuba at the first Lucozade gel station. He had waited for me a couple of times and I should have waited for him too, but I had another moment of “I want to get under 4 hours” again, having peered at my tiny-font Lucozade pace band and realised I was quite a way off it. Pacers were useless. I’d never even seen the Runners World red start pacers in my pen, and although the Runners World pacer flags popped up here and then, they were irrelevant unless you had started at the same start, in the same pen, at the same time. After we overtook first a 4:15 and then a 4:30, I gave up looking for them.

It was hot. I knew it was going to be about 14 degrees, but it seemed hotter than that. I don’t remember feeling overheated, but as the miles went on, I began pouring water over my head as well as drinking it. The water stations were impressively frequent, impressively staffed, and always welcome. I didn’t always thank the volunteers, and I should have done, as they nearly always gave the water along with a “well done, Rose” or “great running.”

Everyone is your supporter on the London marathon. The reason I couldn’t see or hear Nat or Molly is because so many other people were shouting my name. That’s a good reason to miss your friends, although I’d have liked to see them. I also forgot that my running club was going to be there, or that they were at mile 13 and 22. At that point, I was just running.

And it felt great. I’m surprised I felt great. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t hard. It was the best long run I’ve ever done, and I remember running along, thinking with considerable surprise, “I feel strong.” I got my nutrition right. I got my hydration right. When I got hot, there were showers.

The Isle of Dogs seemed to go on for a long time. We saw runners coming the other way, and I assumed we would quickly loop back, but actually it was miles and miles later. At that point I probably only recognised it because of The Sun doubledecker bus, which I remembered to scowl at as I passed. Miles 15-18 were tricky because my hip started to get very sore. I knew it was my ITB as usual, and I kept thinking that I’d stop and stretch it out. But I didn’t want to stop.

I didn’t want to stop.

So I kept running. And the pain wore off. At mile 18 I started thinking about the Wall, but it never came. You get the wall if you haven’t eaten or drunk properly, and I had. I kept running.

A man from the Telegraph wrote this piece today about how he hated the race, and how the tunnels were like Vietnam or the Somme. What a crass and vile comparison, and he should be censured for making it, but he’s right about the walls of grown men stretching as if their legs were about to fall off. He may have hated the race, but it wasn’t the race’s fault. I enjoyed the tunnels. I remember the powerful smell of Chinese food in the one near Limehouse. I remember going through the Lucozade one near the end, and singing along to this:

and I remember running and singing with a big grin on my face, and it was brilliant. It was about mile 23 and I’D RUN 23 MILES. I forgot to do my celebratory jump at mile 21, because at mile 21, I was thinking, just get to mile 24. The Seafarers UK HQ was at mile 24, in the form of HQS Wellington, a grey Grimsby class warship, and I suppose I must have wanted to find some of my own supporters by then because I began thinking of the ship as my goal. Just get to mile 24. Find the ship. Then it’s only two miles.

I reached Embankment, and by now my brain was so marathoned, I couldn’t understand why my Garmin was getting me to milestones before we got to the actual mile marker which you could hardly miss, as they were gigantic red plastic gates. I also couldn’t quite understand how I’d managed to nearly run a marathon. It had been my goal for so long. So very very long. So many training runs in cold and rain. So many runs up Harrogate Road, and around Eccup. So many, many runs. Lots of my friends, and my mum, tracked me online on the Virgin Money Marathon tracker on the website, which for some bizarre reason was in kilometres. Who runs marathons in kilometres? At mile 22, I remember that my heart sank a bit. But eventually there was mile 24, and there was a big grey battleship, and there was someone holding a sign saying 47177, my number, and I remember thinking, that’s weird. Why is my number on a sign? My number was on a sign because Karen was holding it. I stopped and hugged her, then kept running. I just kept running. I wish I had some great wisdom to share. I wish I could write profoundly about how I kept going. But all I know is: I kept going. There was distraction, and entertainment, and things to look forward to – water, or showers, or the next gel, or a bloody great bridge – and I just kept going. I remember laughing at some t-shirts, particularly the one that talked about how women are great at leadership followed by “and stop looking at my arse.” I remember a man dressed in a brown suit; the man called Dave in a thong, a blue wig and carrying blue balloons, who got more cheers than anyone. My overwhelming memory of the London marathon is goodwill, mountains and depths of it.

By now I had no idea where the finish line was. I mean, I knew it was two miles away, but I had no sense of geography left. I had run past the Tower of London and not even noticed it. I had stopped acknowledging people’s cheers, though I tried always to wave. There were a couple of instances where I wanted some respite from the noise, but I managed to zone out when I needed to and mostly I didn’t need to.

At the end of the Embankment – built by my hero Joseph Bazalgette, along with the sewers of London – there were the Houses of Parliament. I looked up at Big Ben, smiled, and kept running. There was a sign saying 800 metres to go, and I started to sprint. I like to do a sprint finish and I thought I may as well. About an hour later, or it seemed like it, a sign said 600 metres to go, so I thought, oh. I stopped sprinting. Even so, this wonderful geek site for marathon statistics shows that my last five miles weren’t much slower than my first five, and that I overtook 1299 people and was only overtaken by 36. I’m proud of that. So then we were on the Mall, and there were people in grandstands, and I thought, I’d better look for Janey, and then I thought, no I’d better just finish, and I did.

And although I am an undemonstrative person from Yorkshire, I raised my arms in the air and grinned as I ran through the finish, and I did it in 4:07. The announcer was talking about Michel Roux Jr and saying he was expected in 4:17 and the clock showed 4:17 but no way was I wasting energy by turning round to look for him. Later I realise I’d run past him anyway, and thought, “Chef” is an odd name for a man. I also ran past the CEO of Holby, who was asking loudly and theatrically for Vaseline. Vaseline! Bring me Vaseline! My nipples are bloody killing me!

I didn’t finish in under four hours, and it didn’t matter. It still doesn’t matter. Anyway with all the weaving around people – my least favourite aspect of the marathon – I’d run 26.6 miles, not 26.2.

Afterwards, I was tired. I was very very tired. I knew I’d been right not to stop because it would have felt like this. I got my medal, and hung it round my neck, and I thought: you’ve run a marathon. Well done. The medal is heavy, and it’s great, and I earned it.

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Some people in blue t-shirts squeezed between the finish fences cut off my chip timer from my shoe and I must have been slightly delirious by then because I remember thinking, “Hobbits.” I got my goody bag, complete with man’s size t-shirt and men’s deodorant (rather crap, London marathon, when 35% of runners were women). I had my picture taken by MarathonFoto (who only managed to get 3 pictures of me, although they got 52 of Gemma), and I headed over to Horse Guards Parade.

Weirdly, I was not hungry. I was so not hungry, it felt like I would never eat food again. But I had chocolate milk in my bag and I drank half a litre because I knew I needed protein. I stretched. I rollered my hip. I sat down at the meeting point at Horse Guards Parade and decided never to get up again. I put cooling gel on my feet, and forcefully silently thanked Janey for recommending that I bring flip-flops.

I found Nathalie and family, and we walked for two miles to HQS Wellington, where there were hugs and congratulations, and food and drink, and massages and hot showers, and I took advantage of everything on offer. The ship was fabulous and the view was peerless, at mile 24 on the river. By now most of the marathon runners were marathon walkers. By the time we left, the route was being cleared, and we sympathised with the people who were still walking it.

I found Kuba Jr again on the ship. He had finished in 4 and a half hours, which is exceptionally good considering how woefully prepared he was. But he said it was painful and awful. After that, Elliot arrived, and we walked another mile to a pub in Borough market. And eventually I got back to Karen and Chris’ house, and I was in bed by 9.20, and I slept profoundly, right? No. I slept like crap. Apparently that’s common.

In the comments under the snarky Telegraph piece, runners are described as “lemmings in Lycra” and “sad, brainwashed ascetic pilgrims.”

Whatever.

Because I ran a marathon. I didn’t stop once. I never walked. I am proud of myself. It was FUN. And I’ll do it again.

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ACTIVITY
The Virgin Money London marathon 2014
Distance: 26.6 miles
Time: 4:07

Total distance in marathon training: 406 miles

Hip, hip, hip

It worked. The preparation worked. And the god of weather intervened to help matters. So, here is my race report of the East Hull 20. I was the driver. I picked up Richard “Titch” Joyce at LPSA, our de facto clubhouse, at 7.30am, then Gemma and her Hyde Park Harrier friend Ben. Gemma had texted at 5:55am to ask if we could take Ben as his lift had vanished when his club-mate, the driver, fell off her bike, and although my kitten alarm-clock had been banished from the bedroom, I was awake with faint nerves. A rendez-vous at the Shell garage was arranged and off we went to Hull. The sun was already out, there were some runners on the roads, and I still wasn’t scared. Not like I had been scared at the Bridlington Half, when my club-mates kept asking if I was alright and told me afterwards I’d looked terrified. Yesterday I wasn’t terrified. I’d packed my smoothie, some coffee, gels, water, my recovery quiche. I had slept properly. Everything felt good.

We got to the club-house of East Hull Harriers early enough to leave us an hour of Faffing Time. This is essential because there is so much to do: pick up your number, go back to the car to pin it to your vest, faff, go back to the clubhouse to use the toilet again, faff, go back to the car again, faff, go back to the clubhouse to use the toilet again. By the final toilet visit it was 9:56 and the race started at 10. We still didn’t know exactly where the start was but headed out of the clubhouse onto the main road. Further down the road the runners were massing on both sides of the road, as if they were about to dive into the middle and swim down it. The traffic was still passing, we still didn’t understand how the start would work, but we only had a couple of minutes to get nervous, then suddenly everyone moved into the road and a gun went off.

Oh. That must be the start. Or a calamity.

Off we went. For 20 miles. I started quite quickly but wanted to stick to my marathon pace, which is 9:10 per minute mile. Ben and I had debated in the car park for a while about whether we should vest it or not. I thought that “to vest it” was my neologism and was about to be proud of it, but he said Hyde Park Harriers use it all the time. Anyway, we vested it and after a mile of running I knew it was the right decision. It was sunny and warm and beautiful and I warmed up quickly but not too much. There was bunching for the first couple of miles, then space appeared between groups of runners, then more space. There were a dozen or so of us obviously aiming for a nine-minute mile pace. Two of them were right behind me and talking in an uninteresting fashion about football, then DVDs, then more football and I thought, oh well, it’s one reason to run faster, to get away from them. So I did.

It was a beautiful course, once we’d done a mile or so of road: paths, country lanes, fields and nice houses to look at. It was FLAT. After a few miles I ended up running with a man in bright orange top and shoes, who said he was going to run the Rotterdam marathon, that that would be his kit and he was going “full Dutch.” On the other side of me was a woman from Sleaford, a place I had never heard of but which I now know is near Lincoln, in the flat bit but near the hilly bit of Lincoln. For a while we played “who lives in the hilliest town?”

I do.

We stayed together for about 15 miles, and it was companionable. We didn’t talk if we didn’t feel like it. Every so often Full Dutch Man would say something encouraging, and he managed to do it without being annoying. I told him he should put his mantras on t-shirts. He told me he had Irritable Bowel Syndrome and that that morning he had suffered for it, but that now he was fine. I told him about my post on running incontinence for the Guardian, and a woman who had been running near us suddenly sped up and left us. I can’t imagine why.

There were plentiful water stations. There were endlessly cheering marshals, on bikes, at water stations, at corners. I think the sunshine lifted everyone, and there was a cool coastal breeze to go with it which was lovely. Full Dutch Man told me that the East Hull 20 had been voted the windiest course in Britain in Runner’s World, and that last year had been cold and with a gale in his face all the way round. He hadn’t seen the scenery because his head had been down into the wind for 20 miles.

I must have got my fuelling right because for many many miles I felt great. I felt STRONG. I realised how often I’m usually giving myself trouble in my head about running, that I feel tired, or my leg aches, or my shoes are a problem. I didn’t do that yesterday. I just ran, and I enjoyed it. After mile 10, I could start counting downwards and that’s always a delight. At mile 13, I suddenly felt tired, but an all-over tiredness, not the leaden legs I’d had on my 18-mile run. After the first water station, when I chucked my unfinished water bottle immediately, I kept hold of the bottle for the next two stations, because after I’d chucked the bottle at mile 5 or so, I got so thirsty I started hallucinating water stations. That was my only mistake and I’ll correct that somehow, with a hydration pack or a bottle belt.

At just after mile 10, we saw the faster runners coming back the other way. There was only the shortest of crossovers, which meant it was impressive rather than dispiriting to see the leaders sprint past us. We ran through villages where some people cheered us. We ran down lanes where cars were driving, and some drivers were generous and thoughtful, and some drivers were contemptible. The woman in the Range Rover who had her window down and shouted “SINGLE FILE”: I mean you. You can tell who does sport and who doesn’t by how much respect they showed us. (We were, by the way, mostly running in single file when she yelled at us.) We passed lots of cyclists and they passed us and although I wish they would use their damn bells, they mostly treated us respectfully and us them. Some drivers though drove at 40 miles an hour past us and I had some moments of runners’ rage at such heedlessness. Full Dutch Man said three runners had been killed around Rotherham in the last year, and most had been wearing headphones and listening to music. One though had been killed by a lorry driver who was being prosecuted for manslaughter, because he had been driving like a dickhead on country lanes with poor visibility.

At mile 15, it felt like running five more miles was impossible. At mile 17, it felt possible. At mile 18, it felt harder than ever before. At that point, a lot of people were walking. Full Dutch Man, who has run dozens of marathons, and who was clearly faster than me but staying with me out of kindness, said the last two miles was when most people began to struggle. I was struggling a bit, but Full Dutch Man kept me going. We lost our Sleaford companion. She was doing a training plan that sounded insane to me, and which had had her running 24 miles the week before. That didn’t help, and nor did her having a stitch at mile 12. She said she wasn’t enjoying it at all, and she fell back and we carried on. Full Dutch Man had warned me of a hill at mile 19, and we got there and it was, to anyone who runs in Leeds, just a short sharp incline. Then it was downhill to the finish, and Full Dutch Man never faltered in his cheery encouragement, not even then. “See the banners? That’s the finish. You can do it!”

I thought at one point that I might manage to do it in under three hours. That would have been great, because my paces have been somewhat haphazard and seemingly heading to a 4:30 marathon time. But a three hour time might mean I can do four hours after all and although that doesn’t matter, it does. I didn’t do three hours, but I only missed it by six minutes and six seconds. We got near the finish line, and Full Dutch Man’s wife was waiting with his Labrador. Full Dutch Man started calling to his dog, who began to jump and pull and look doggy-delighted. His wife called, “well done, lady!” at me as we passed, and then as we approached the funnel, Full Dutch Man said, no, you go first. And he let me go ahead. What a thoroughly charming man. Afterwards, we hugged, and I thanked him, and then today I looked at the results and found that his name was Malcolm.

Malcolm of Kimberworth Striders, thank you.

Afterwards, I collapsed onto the grass outside East Hull Harriers club-house. Titch and Ben had already finished: Titch did it in 2 hours 15, as he would, being a speedy little dynamo. The finishing prizes were a bottle of water, a towel embroidered with East Hull 20 – much better than a baggy, saggy, ugly race t-shirt – and a lavish buffet. I managed to stand up, with some difficulty, and although I don’t get hungry immediately after running (it usually hits an hour later, suddenly, so that I am so urgently famished I could eat a tree), I made myself eat quiche (protein = recovery), chocolate cornflakes (sugar = recovery), cheese sandwiches (protein = recovery) and an orange (sweet, liquid = delicious). On the way back from the car to the clubhouse, I met a woman who had been in the race, still running though she had passed the finish line, looking at her watch. She saw me looking at her with bewilderment and said, “It’s not quite 20!”

Crikey. At that point, who cares?

I’m not sure how I drove home but I managed it, though seeing signs for “Leeds 28” made my exhausted brain think I was still racing.

It was great though. It was hard but not as hard as it could have been. I mostly felt strong and fit, and when I didn’t, my race slogan of “look what you can do, look what you can do” helped. I thought of lots on the way, as there was silence to think in despite me running in company. I remembered Gemma’s race slogan, written on her hand: Legs, Mind, Heart. Those are the three things that control you during a long race, in that order. I like that.

A race on a sunny but cool enough day, with kind and encouraging marshals and good company and scenery along the way, and afterwards showers equipped with shampoo and countless hair products, and tons of food: I might do it again next year even if I’m not marathon training. It was my first ever 20 miles so I did my jump for joy at 18:20, and Gemma and I tried to recreate the jump afterwards but we couldn’t deal with the iPhone’s second delay and after two jumps I had nothing left in my legs.

My hip was fine during the run. I got other niggles, but they’re just for entertainment, I think, like a foot niggle at mile 14, and a brand new knee pain at mile 18. Today, though, my hip hates me.

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ACTIVITY
EAST HULL 20
Distance: 20 miles
Time: 3:06:06

Preparing

I signed up to run the East Hull 20 last November or so. It made sense, in a way that the fact that I may one day be able to run 26.2 miles made sense, in a dreamy, hysterical, impossible kind of way.

It’s tomorrow.

And, oddly, I’m not too nervous. I wonder why. I had leaden legs on my 18 mile run, but I wasn’t knackered apart from in my legs. Perhaps I’m confident, but that’s not like me. Perhaps I’m denying the fact that I will wake up tomorrow morning at 6am, pick up my club-mates Gemma and Richard, drive to East Hull, and then

FREAK OUT

and run 20 miles. I didn’t really think of this as anything but the next step in my training runs, rather than the longest run I will ever do before the marathon. Then someone said to me last week, you should treat it as your marathon. You should wear what you’re going to wear, eat what you’re going to eat, prepare how you are going to prepare.

Oh. Then it became more alarming. And yet. I don’t have my race vest from Seafarers UK. I’m still not sure about which socks I’ll run in: the comedy rainbow compression socks are great, but today on Parkrun they were making my toes tingle, and that was over only three miles. Also they didn’t enable me to beat the dog who was faster than me by miles. (Comforting thought: dogs are four times as fast as humans. I have no idea where I read that.) I did however beat the ten-year-old girl who was running alongside me for a while with her dad. We were passed (i.e. coming in the other direction) by a group of power walkers, and the next few hundred metres were spent, entertainingly for me, listening to her dad try to answer her question of “what’s the point of power walking?”

Quite.

So as I don’t know about socks, and I have forgotten to buy isotonic stuff to put in drinks and anyway I don’t want to run 20 miles carrying a bottle of water, and my hydration backpack hasn’t yet arrived, I concentrated today on eating and baking. I made power chia flapjack, a version of Veggie Runners’ spicy flapjack, with a large dollop of chia seeds added, along with some preserved plums I bought in Singapore. Then I made a power chia banana and almond milk smoothie for tomorrow morning when I will be stumbling around at 6am. Then a beetroot, feta cheese and kale recovery quiche (eggs = protein = good). Then a carb-loading onion and broccoli pizza, to stop me from heading out to Nash’s fish and chip shop for a large amount of chips, mushy peas and gravy. I had them once, and felt strong when I ran the next day, so in my head they are now i) magic and ii) justifiable. But the Brownlees swear by pizza, so it was pizza.

I have laid out my race outfit, and searched for my race number with some desperation, before searching then for the booking email that told me we would pick up race numbers on the day. I have looked at the East Hull Harriers website and at the course, which has an alarming number of small and large numbers on the main road, which means the loop of doom, when faster runners come back and you know you are several miles behind them. I have checked that I have enough energy gels for throughout the race, and I have charged my watch. I have prepared my post-race clothing of clean t-shirt, clean pants, clean long trousers, clean socks, other shoes. I will probably take jelly beans or jelly babies but will get them on the way, and anyway I’m not sure about them as my throat does not swallow them properly and once you’ve run a mile with half a swallowed jelly baby in your throat, you tend to look at colourful sugary confectionary with darkness in your heart.

I will barricade my door tonight so that my furry alarm known as my kitten – who arrived to lick my neck last night at 3am, 4am, 5am, 6am and 7am – can’t disturb my sleep. I have not had alcohol since Thursday. I paid £25 for an excellent sports massage in which Ward, the man with terrifying hands, poked at my knee where my ITB arrives at it and made me squeal. Yes, he said. That explains why your knee has been aching.

There is petrol in my car. The race location postcode is in my phone for Google maps.

And that is all the preparation I can do. Now my feet just have to run 5280 feet.

ACTIVITY

TUESDAY: TRAINING SESSION, JENNY

WEDNESDAY: CLUB RUN + EXTRA
DISTANCE: 10 MILES
TIME: I DON’T KNOW BECAUSE MY WATCH STOPPED BUT 8 MILES WAS 1: 14
PACE: FAST. 8.30 MILE ON AVERAGE

SATURDAY: PARKRUN
DISTANCE: 3 MILES
TIME: 25:04

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