Twelve months ago, the idea of running a marathon would never have crossed my mind. Five months ago, I had never ran further than five miles, because I was never any good at long distance running.
For years I had struggled with breathing; I had no stamina at all. I would be subbed off early on during games of Sunday league football because I just couldn’t last. I would spend the majority of the annual cross country in secondary school walking, because I couldn’t run without losing my breath.
Yet I was never unfit; I could smash a football into the top corner, and was once a fairly decent sprinter.
I had strength and power, but no endurance. I had the bottle when the task was straight-forward and easy, but nothing when the going got tough. I had short term motivations, but would never last long term. It is therefore no surprise then that I always cast my sights away from long distance running, because I knew I was physically, and mentally inadequate. This was a weakness I had lived with for many years.
Fast forward to a sudden change in my life, with long term implications. I’m now at university. I’ve been ripped from my hometown of Medway, and thrown into the bustling capital of London ahead of a 4-year degree. With so much change, I had little time to structure how I would approach each experience, and little sense of normality to sit down and plan just how I would make this long term four year stint a success.
I spent a period towards the end of 2016 feeling rather lost, and without the sense of purpose I previously always had. I knew I would achieve nothing until I graduate four years into the future, so just how would I structure these years, and keep myself motivated?
I needed targets, I needed goals; I needed a purpose.
When the new year came around, it all but confirmed that I was in a new stage of my life. 2017 has been a year of significant change; new environments, and new challenges. I wanted to structure my days around something worthwhile, something that would take me beyond my limits. I had been searching for a reason, for a goal the entire time, and when I eventually found that spark, it came from an unlikely, but familiar source.
My interest in the Japanese pop group Morning Musume is partly responsible for how I ended up on the start line in Gravesend on Saturday 27th May 2017. It stemmed from their 2000 film, ‘Pinch Runner’, which I had purchased on DVD in December 2016. The film revolves around nine characters, each with their own issues and anxieties, all bonding together to enter a half-marathon relay. Through training, and eventually breaking their limits in the relay event, each character comes out with a resolve that is a testament to their internal endurance, in the face of external challenges.
It wasn’t a blockbuster hit, but it was enough to inspire me. It connected all the dots in my mind to achieving the sense of accomplishment through physical and mental strain. The idea of a marathon complemented my thought process perfectly; a healthy body stimulates a healthy mind. If I’m pushing myself bit by bit, then eventually I’ll achieve the goal. It’s short term progress for the long term ambition and it’s just like studying for a degree. You cannot cram for a marathon; you cannot run 50 miles the night before and expect to be successful, just like you cannot revise an entire year’s worth of work the night before an exam (although many have indeed tried). To be successful, it would take mental and physical endurance. It would be an awful ordeal at times, but with persistence, hitting that goal could well be the most rewarding feeling one can derive.
On 27th December 2016, I signed up for the Kent Circuit Marathon. I gave it considerable thought, but the positives trounced any negatives. Once my registration was complete, I knew I was tasked with eliminating one of my main weaknesses from my nineteen years on this earth. I knew it would be tough, but I knew it would make me a far better person. Fear, anxiety, and doubt are feelings that were completely absent the moment I signed up to run the 26.2 miles; only excitement, ambition, and motivation danced within me. I had a purpose, I had a plan- already I had the two things I so badly wanted.
From that moment on, we join with each previous post from this blog since the beginning of the year. We’ve already read about the five months of training, the injuries, and the hurdles, now is the time for the real thing. The moment it all came together.
Preparations: The days before
With injury concerns out of the picture, I had a couple of relaxing days in Gravesend enjoying the sunshine, and working on nutrition. It had almost been a week since I last went out for a run due to my ankle, but with plenty of protein, electrolytes, and carbohydrates stored from that period, I was well fuelled to launch myself back onto the road.
With all of this energy, I was pumped up and ready to hit the ground running. I was ready to make that dash across the start line to embark on 20 laps around the Cyclopark. Even my protein tub was poking its head out of my suitcase and reminding me to go hardcore.
Once the day of the race came around, I slept surprisingly well, and woke up as majestically as if I had a lie-in at 5:30am. Despite my abundance of energy, I felt a calm composure; mere hours remained until the marathon would begin.
Breakfast consisted of toast, a banana, an energy flapjack, an electrolyte drink, and a few jelly babies. The carb-loading would continue until an hour before the race. I knew carbs wouldn’t be enough though, not today. Today needed something very important: water, and a lot of it for multiple purposes. The weather would ensure this marathon would be more than the standard 26.2 miles, it would be an excruciating slog through 26 degrees, and more worryingly, over 90% humidity. This meant that my body would be unable to evaporate away any sweat, leading me to overheat and starve my muscles of oxygen. It was a problem I had discovered once before, and knew that when the legs fall away from you, there’s no claiming them back. I wondered whether I would be able to successfully ward off heat exhaustion, but remained eager; it could get as hot and humid as it wanted, I was still going to run this race until the end.
I arrived at the Cyclopark with my mum, and my nan. We set up our ‘base’ by the finish line, where I unpacked my heavy bag with the various drinks, and gels needed to fuel me throughout the event. I had spent time the day before devising a strategy of when to take each gel and drink at 20 minute intervals, and set out onto the start-line with a bag packed with seven gel sachets and ten jelly babies. The drinks were being held safely at our base, while water stops would be available around the course.
I was kitted out in my new running vest, designed specially for this event, along with my new Casio watch for timing, and twenty elastic bands to count how many laps I had completed. I felt great; I’ve never been in better shape my entire life. I had defied a lot of problems just to get to the start-line, and felt nothing but positiveness as the 9am start time drew nearer.
Eventually, the crowd of 400 runners gathered at the start-line, the pre-race photos were taken, and the countdown hit zero to send us underway. Immediately, the sky grew darker, a large cloud covered the circuit. The marathon had begun, and a storm was brewing.
As we made our way around the initial 0.5 mile loop, the sky only grew darker. The temperature had somewhat cooled, and so I quickly grew comfortable in finding a rhythm. The course turned out to consist of much more hilly terrain than I had anticipated. The opening section was a brief incline, followed by a remarkable steep decline, which rather than boosting speed, actually hampered it by producing greater forces through my already battered knees. Luckily, I had elected to wear my patella strap out of precaution, and had no knee issues at all throughout the marathon.
On a full lap, the circuit would enter a technical sector which contained a number of hairpins, before gradual inclines led us towards the back straight, which was home to an actual mountain. Running up this hill became near enough impossible by the end, and was certainly the greatest physical obstacle on the entire circuit.
As I completed the first few laps, the rain began to show its hand. The large looming cloud had burst, and showered pennies for the opening half hour. This was ideal for those running, but the same couldn’t be said for the spectators who had to search for shelter. It was a properly refreshing shower, and very tropical weather. The rain was warm, and so my muscles were largely unaffected. I used these first few laps to enjoy the atmosphere, and let myself gradually ease into a comfortable pace.
The first hour absolutely flew by. I was finding a good pace, and was at this point untroubled by the psychology of the new course, instead rekindling the gradual rhythm I had worked on in training.
It was once the hour mark had passed that the rain suddenly stopped, and the skies cleared. The sun broke through, and the wet surface dried very quickly. It was then I was exposed to the heat promised by every forecast over the past seven days, it was at that moment the course became an actual oven.
I initially adjusted my pace to compensate for the fact that I wouldn’t remain cool for too long with the heat and humidity rapidly rising, while also taking into account that any gusts of wind simply blew directly in front of me. As nice as the weather may have been, the elements were doing everything in their power to stop me.
In spite of my steadily increasing body temperature, I registered my quickest time of the day on Lap 7. This however wasn’t to last. With the heat persistent, and here to stay, myself alongside every other runner ventured into a point of crisis in the mid-stages.
It’s safe to say that these five laps were probably the toughest I’ve had to endure. Once Lap 9 approached, I was forced to realise that the conditions were quickly depriving me of allowing oxygen to reach my muscles, and the sheer humidity meant I was failing to drop an ounce of sweat. It was hot, so very hot.
The end of Lap 9 brought such a damning reality; I had run 40 seconds slower as I gradually accepted that running was becoming increasingly difficult, and that my legs were quickly failing on me. In training runs, I have encountered this feeling at around the 20 mile mark, so to feel it creeping in at not even the halfway stage was a huge blow. The laps became slower, and running became tougher. The greatest difficulty of them all was how far I still had to go. I hold a strong psychological affinity with numbers, and I knew that once I hit Lap 16 that the adrenaline of nearing the finish would bring me home. We were only just hitting double figures though, and it was only the halfway point in the marathon. I realised I had to do everything I had just done, and do it again.
Laps 10-14 all felt the same. They felt endless, and borderline hopeless. My muscles began aching to the point where I was barely propelling myself forward, and getting up the hill towards the end of the lap was draining me even further. I took water at each station possible, and got hosed by a friendly group near the beginning of the lap; these proved to be only temporary fixes.
The water in the plastic cups proved notoriously difficult to drink while running, and most of it missed my mouth, and so once I resorted to chucking it over my head to cool down, the benefits could only last on a timer. Initially, I was able to hydrate myself to go around for another lap, but as my times slowed, I was unable to keep up in time before I overheated once more. Worse still, no gels, and no jelly babies could save my legs from being starved of oxygen, the heat had already sapped most of the fluid from me by the time I hit the midway point in the lap.
I looked around, and saw that the majority of runners had begun walking. Some had even sat down at the side briefly to catch some breath, and fuel themselves back up to crack on once more. The conditions were intense, and everyone was affected. By Lap 14, with my pace almost at a standstill, I realised there would be no shame in slowing down to walk.
It was at this point that you start making friends with those who share your struggle. Those passing offered their motivation, while those alongside joined in for a chat. The bloke at one of the corners, Les, kept encouraging up relentlessly every lap. I believed I would finish, but just how long would it take to break out of this endless string of laps?
Freeing myself from this five lap period took an age. I took a two minute walking stint, but once I tried to get back running, the motion was so clunky and heavy that it initially hurt even returning to my running form. I began to think of so many things; each demon was stood in front of me. I couldn’t think straight, I could only keep moving. My wrist was still covered in elastic bands; I knew I still had so much to go.
Somehow I had escaped from the crisis period, and I entered Lap 15 with the firm thought of the next being Lap 16, this began to flare up some much needed energy. I continued to run, but another issue struck. Having desperately tried to salvage some energy from gels and electrolyte drinks, my stomach seized up, and very quickly I was battling the most persistent stitch.
I endeavoured to run through it until the pain became as severe as being kicked in the stomach. Stitches are the most irritating hindrance. I was frustrated at its refusal to fade, and began to punch the pain a bit like Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens. The walking breaks thus increased in frequency, and every time I tried to carry on it would keep coming back each and every lap.
Patience was the key; the belief that this period would pass, just like what I had experienced previously was crucial. I have encountered this mindset so many times this year. There have been weeks that spike up so much more stress, so much uncertainty, and so much more anxiety than others. These are the weeks, the periods you have to battle through because you know you have reach the toughest point, the peak of the mountain, and that it can only get better afterwards. I knew earlier in the year that once I had written my flaschards, revision could only get easier. Once I had written an essay, the rest of the term’s work could only get easier. And now, as I stumbled along in throbbing pain, I knew that once these three laps of the most excruciating stitch had passed, it could only get easier; the marathon was entering its final stages.
Laps 18-20: A Valiant Finish
Even with the stitch, sometimes you need a steady period to store some energy, and galvanise yourself for the finish. We saw the same with Anthony Joshua last month when he took a few rounds to recover after hitting the canvas in the sixth, before going onto win by KO right near the end in the eleventh.
Maybe in this sense the stitch put the brakes on so that I could finish. Lap 18, and I have only two bands left on my wrist. In my head was the knowledge that the next lap would be the penultimate, and that after that it would be the last. No matter how much it hurt, I was going to make it to the finish.
Towards the end of Lap 17, I saw the bucket and sponge ready adjacent to the water station. This time I properly drenched myself with the sponge. It was the most refreshing thing I had done all day and God knows I should have tried it sooner. It was the saviour which brought me back to life. It shun the heat and humidity, and renewed my energy levels in order to give it my all on these last laps.
For laps 18 and 19, I ran with all that my body would allow, and struggled on to hit that final lap. These laps were two minutes from my previously comfortable pace, a period which felt so long ago, but still a solid six minutes faster than my midpoint crisis, and stitch-stricken self could manage.
Approaching the line to begin my final lap, I threw my running pack back to base. I didn’t need any more gels, nothing. I looked at my wrist; I had broken free from my chains.
The final lap would be just by myself. It would be the challenge, the step into the unknown which I have done for the past year, and for the past five months in training. I would go beyond what my body wanted to allow.
In the early stages of the final lap my thighs were throbbing so much that raising them to run became futile. The weather, as it had done ever since Lap 9, overheated me to the point where I felt cold on the circuit. Cold, and throbbing, running and walking. I marched on for one last time. I knew the last lap was the very last I could manage; the conditions had shown me their worst, yet myself and every other runner on the circuit would still come out victorious.
I considered hiking equipment for the mountainous last hill, but climbed up to the back-straight. No more water, the finish line was in sight. With everything left in me, I threw caution to the blustery wind and charged to the line, sprinting with as much as I could manage. I could injure myself as much as I like now, and I did, as immediately my Achilles snagged in sharp discomfort, but it did not matter one bit.
Dehydrated and exhausted, I crossed the finish line with tremendous relief. I did not look back, as behind me now lay the weakness that I had set out to conquer. Endurance was no longer a weakness, but a strength.
I was given the biggest medal I have ever seen, and was also gifted a goody bag. My grin almost matched the size of the Pocahontas-themed silver medal, it was an amazing memento for an amazing day.
Walking down the paddock to meet my jubilant mother and grandmother, we returned to base to get our breath back. I sank into the chair, and then cramped up while trying to take off my 300 mile-old trainers. I felt nothing but satisfaction as I had my recovery protein, and gazed at my medal. The pain was redundant now, the five months spent training were over, and so was the marathon.
I had never run a marathon before, and had certainly never run in such humid conditions. If I ever encounter the same weather again, then I will be ready, but I am sure I will not be facing a shock the same again now that I have the experience. The same goes for the distance of the marathon. I now know how long it can be, and how tough it can get. With this in mind, I can only get stronger, faster, and better.
At the end of the road
After labouring my two fossilised legs to the car, we returned home. I sat on the sofa ahead of a relaxing afternoon in front of the telly, with F1 qualifying to catch up on, and then the FA Cup final, followed by Doctor Who. The following day would be the Monaco GP race, and also the Indy 500.
Having burned my daily allowance of calories in five hours, I had no interest in regulating my diet at this point. We ordered what was the greatest Chinese I think I’ve ever had. I was in fact so eager to eat it that I hadn’t the patience to take a steady photo beforehand.
The afternoon following the marathon was as relaxing as it could get. Usually the runner’s high lasts for a few hours after a good run, but this time it lasted all the way until I got on the train back to London on Sunday evening.
I look around now at the vests, the numbers, and the medals I’ve collected in these five months. I set out to achieve a goal, and in doing so eliminated a personal weakness, and raised over £350 pounds for Rainbow Trust. It has been a journey made into an adventure by the ups and downs, the maybes and maybe nots, and the “I can do it”, followed by the eventual “I did it”.
Unsurprisingly, I struggled to sleep the night after the marathon; I was restless, and encountered dreams with visions of my wrist still holding numerous elastic bands, and recollections of the worries from each injury. I woke up on a bright Sunday morning however with nothing but one thought: I can’t wait to do it all again.