I did it.
I DID IT.
And here is how.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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?
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
The Virgin Money London marathon 2014
Distance: 26.6 miles
Total distance in marathon training: 406 miles