You might want to settle down, grab a cuppa and a caramel wafer (I swear this blog is not actually sponsored by Tunnocks, but we all have dreams, if I mention them enough just maybe….) and get comfy because my marathon write-ups are usually pretty long and my fourth one is proving no different. I tried to cut it, I really did. I actually started this a week before I ran the bloody thing, and I cut that out, but it’s still a George RR Martin length ramble. It’s like the last Harry Potter book, Harry on Camping – it could really do with a good edit. If ONLY I was, like, married to an editor or something. But whilst my OH knows a hell of a lot about Judge Dredd and can edit his Betelguesian arse off when it comes to comics, I get well snarly if he does more than sort out my grammar for this running blog lark. So if I can get through running 26.2 miles, for the fourth time, maybe you can get through a marathon length ramble about it, in all its sweaty, sweary glory.
The more marathons I do, the more I realise that in a lot of aspects they are unknowable. There is too much that can change on the day. I thought I was fully prepared for Brighton this year; it was my third marathon, I had run the course before. Wow, that was a big mistake. For whatever reason (read my theories about it here) the wheels utterly fell off and it took all my strength to finish it at all, half an hour slower than the big PB I was hoping for. However, whilst you can’t know exactly how the day will pan out, you CAN train, and prepare for some of those possibilities, thereby giving yourself your best possible shot at success, which is why I’ve given this the subheading of ‘trust the training’ (even though that’s a bit of a spoiler).
The week before this marathon I wasn’t feeling great – weirdly, because the training had gone really well. I’d had some really good long runs, I felt strong and for the first time not suffered the niggles and injuries that I’d had in the past – torn calf, annoying niggly “granny hip”, general bad attitude, etc… But my usual taper madness kicked in in major style the week before the day. Earlier in the week than the usual nerves. I had a real mental health wobble – properly unable to sleep or eat (believe me this NEVER happens) with major anxiety. On top of this, the week before, my best running and coaching buddy Tony, who was going to pace me as he had last year (read about THAT one here, if this isn’t already bloody long enough), had had to pull out of the race entirely. And maybe I’m enough of a selfish shit to insist that he runs a marathon with me after he’s done his back in and only been able to train up to 15 miles, but sadly for me he’s too sensible to put up with that kind of crap. So I’ve gone from thinking, right this is going to be tough but I won’t be on my own at any point, to OK, I’m going to have to dig deep here, this is going to be tough but I believe I am tougher. This is now going to be one of the biggest tests of my mental endurance ever. But then something shifted in my attitude. I employed all the cheesy positive visualisation methods in my mental arsenal and pictured how bloody proud I would be of myself crossing that finish line in under 4 and a half hours. And I knew that you can run WITH someone, you can help each other to take your mind off the pain, you can keep each other company and it’s a lot more fun, but the only person who can run that marathon for you is you.
So whilst I wasn’t in an especially good mental place the week before the depression lifted as suddenly as it had arrived, and I started to feel a lot more positive. It was also partly because the realisation dawned on me that I really was ready for it: as ready as I was ever going to be. The ghost of that dreadful Brighton run was fading, and maybe doing that awful run made me better prepared this time because it totally humbled me. It made me realise that I needed to do a LOT more mental prep before I took it on. And I HAD done that mental prep – the day before the marathon I felt really confident. I had systematically taken care all of the issues that I had any control over. I had followed the training plan Tony had put together for me, almost to the letter, and I trusted that training plan above anything. I’d done all the work, now I just had to get to the start line and put one foot in front of the other.
Another friend – Adrian – then said that he would run with me, because he knew he hadn’t trained enough to get a PB so thought he might as well enjoy it. We’d done our 20-mile run together a few weeks before and both felt that that was the best we’d ever felt on a long run, we got through it dissecting the plot holes in Bodyguard and reminiscing about the Oxford music scene in the 90s. And we’d done it at a really good pace and had felt like we could have gone on and done another 6 if we’d absolutely had to! Not the way either of us usually feel after running 20 miles. Previous long runs for previous marathons I’ve felt completely like I’d given it EVERYthing at the end of the 20, and couldn’t run another step. So that gave me confidence, and now I knew I wouldn’t be on my own for all of it – because much as I LOVE Abingdon Marathon (more on why later) I remembered that there are some quite long lonely stretches, where if you’re not running with a buddy, it would be very tough to get through. It’s not like London, where there are crowds every step of the way; the roads aren’t even closed the whole way, you have to hop on and off pavements and avoid muggles going about their day all over the place.
So to the actual day… I slept OK, which is also unusual, although I felt like I was making up for the week’s bad kip before. But still felt reasonably zen about it all – some might say I was a bit of an obnoxious arsehole the day before – and I do apologise to my husband and kids, for my “YEAAAAAAH BRING IT ON, I’M GOING TO KICK THIS MARATHON’S AAAAAAAAARSE” attitude – but I genuinely felt like I was prepared. I felt as good as I was going to feel about it. This was my fourth marathon rodeo. I’d had two great marathon experiences, and one really bad one. I had run this one before and loved almost every minute that time, the weather looked perfect, I’d hit my training goals, I’ve never been fitter in my freaking life. BUT also, I felt quite realistic, because Brighton 2018 had taught me that you NEVER KNOW how it’s going to go down on the day. You can do everything within your power to make it go as well as possible; you greatly improve your chances, and your mental game by doing all the training, but sometimes it just bites you in the arse. So I had my A) goal: sub 4:30, my B) goal: beat my PB of 4:36, my C) goal: just get in under 5 hours and get a medal and a t-shirt, crawl up the stadium steps to get to my tea, husband and kids and MOST importantly the sausage rolls. DONE.
I would have been proud of myself if I’d hit any of those goals to be honest, but the REAL dream was sub 4:30. However, it was really important for me to feel that whichever way it had gone, however I’d got that medal whether it was dragging myself over the line on the 5- hour cut off mark, I’d be bloody proud of it.
So we rock up at the race, feeling half super ready for it, half a bit like “Am I really going to run a marathon?” – it’s a small race, and the 5-hour cut off means that it’s a pretty serious race too. No danger of me duking it out with a guy in a badger suit like I have both years at Brighton, because I’m buggered if I’m getting beaten to the finish by a badger. There wasn’t a single fancy dressed runner that I saw – not a tutu in sight! In fact with my bright blue hair and sunglasses I was probably the most fancily dressed of the lot. No, this is quite a serious club-runners’ race, everyone is scarily lean and fit looking, and the numbers are in the hundreds rather than thousands. We were fairly near the back of the crowd and my chip time and my gun time are less than 10 seconds apart.
But it’s also a little strange that it’s such a small serious race – the atmosphere couldn’t be more different from the big marathons. There’s no dance warm-up, no DJ pumping everyone up, no setting off in waves, we didn’t even have to queue for more than 5 minutes for the loo. The bag drop was run by a lovely lady I used to work with nearly 20 years ago, and we just caught up about what mutual friends were up to. So the bit before the race was kind of odd. Adrian commented that he just didn’t feel like he was about to run a marathon, and I completely agreed. My lovely friend Grundy made me laugh so hard before the start that I genuinely thought I might not be able to stop, or I might actually have hurt my side laughing. I know he won’t care if I put this in here, but it was to do with where he needed to strategically put some anti chafe balm prior to the race, and whether he could actually do it in a room full of runners… I maintained that as runners, they wouldn’t care or even probably notice. Whilst all around us, men were putting plasters on their nipples and everyone was discussing whether to take 2 or 3 Imodium to fend off the dreaded mid-marathon loo stop.
And then we made our way to the start. It was bloody freezing, and eerily misty as we lined up shivering slightly on the track in the stadium where the marathon starts and finishes. I felt weirdly calm… and I’ll keep banging on about this point, but I think it was the knowledge that I was fit for this: I’D DONE THE TRAINING. The fact that I had done everything in my control to get the time I wanted was like a little talisman, a golden nugget of information that I could hold in my mind to keep me from falling apart like I did at Brighton.
So the gun went off and we started. Again, it didn’t feel like we were about to do what we were in fact about to do. It just kind of felt like we were setting off on a regular long run. I knew we had to do about 10:15 minutes per mile average over the whole thing in order to get in under 4 and a half hours. My strategy was to try to slow myself down at the start; I know when I go off too fast, even if it feels fine, I will pay for it later. I’d gone down a Hal Higdon tweet rabbit hole the night before and quotes from that master of marathon running were flying through my head: “Unless you feel like you’re going too slow for the first 6 miles, you’re going too fast”, and something about how the worst thing you can do is try to bank time because you’ll end up using up that buffer and more at the end. Well, despite this we kind of did do those first few miles a bit too fast, and then the next few a bit too fast too. We did bank some time; Adrian is a stats nerd and was saying things like “if we keep this up, we’ll do 4:24” But I think we both knew we wouldn’t be able to keep that up.
We had a little crew running with us at this point – lovely Tom quite early on asked what pace we were doing and could he join us? We felt bad because we’d slightly mocked his enormous flapping neon bum bag – both of us just wanting to do it up tighter as it bounced up and down in front of us! We got chatting to him, and another couple of runners, ladies from Bicester, I think, who sadly I didn’t get their names. It turned out Tom had only signed up for the marathon 6 weeks before as a bet. I KNOW, RIGHT? I wanted to cover my newly qualified coach’s ears. I told him I wouldn’t recommend it as a strategy, but he is only 26 and you can get away with a lot of inadvisable shit when you’re that age.
So we kind of ate up the miles for the first 15-18. The HUGE advantage of doing a small local race is that you get so much local support. I knew my husband and kids would be at the end, and Adrian’s wife Clare (one of my best friends) and daughters would be there too. That got us through some dark moments towards the end – but during the race there were so many of our club buddies, plus, for me, school friends, friends who are in Abingdon Athletics club, so many marshals, and two people I’ve met through Instagram – I was so excited to see fellow blogger (way more of a celeb than me) Morning Coffee Run, that I nearly tripped up the very kerb he was marshalling us away from. Practically every mile or so there was someone I knew yelling encouragement and offering Jaffa Cakes or fruit (I was too embarrassed to admit I cannot for the life of me stomach solid food when I’m running! Not even a jelly baby or a slice of orange. I’ve eaten EVERYthing that crosses my path in the week since; it’s a temporary thing but I literally can’t swallow anything solid while I’m actually running).
But that support (and yeah, I’m not crazy, the fact that it’s about as flat as you’re going to get on a marathon course) is what absolutely makes this for me. There was one point where I was struggling – we’d just got to the mile 20 mark. Now another Hal Higdonism is that the halfway point of a marathon is not 13.1 miles, its 20… the first 20 miles really did go OK for us. I felt GOOD. I felt strong. I was, as predicted, kicking its arse. Yeaaaaaaaaah, I was up until that 20-mile mark… then I really started to flag. But I knew that lovely Gerry, who I’d run my first marathon with, and a whole load of other friends from the club, were at Gerry’s brother in law’s house at mile 21. And when you know you’re going to see those friendly faces, and Trevor will probably say something silly and show a bit of leg as you pass, and Jill will be there taking photos and grinning, and they are all so proud of you and pleased for you. Well, then you know you can do it.
So, here’s where it started to get darker. 26.2 miles is a fucking long way. It always will be. No matter how many I do I know it will get dark at some point. So I think mile 23 was where it started to really REALLY fucking hurt. This is where the battle between your head and your legs really starts to kick in. My legs were just yelling at me to stop this madness, but my head (and Adrian!) was telling me that we were so close to attaining that goal, and all we had to do was do was the distance of a parkrun and we were there… Not even that far because, as Adrian pointed out, the bit in the stadium REALLY doesn’t count because once you’re there, well, it’s done. You’re going to cross that line and everyone was waiting for us, willing us with all their hearts to get across that line.
My school friend Jo, who I’ve known since I was three when we went to nursery school together, was waiting at what she knew from the previous year and the previous blog to be the worst point in the marathon for me: a horrendous underpass at about mile 24 and a half. You go down a steep slope, which absolutely kills your aching quads, and then have to run up that same incline just when you are absolutely running on fumes and every part of your body is screaming at you to stop. The fact that she remembered and came out to stand there to yell encouragement at me… well, I’m welling up a little bit just thinking about it. It was just an epic bit of perfectly judged marathon support. She deserves a medal.
So the battle had well and truly commenced and I was slowing down badly. Adrian was struggling too, but his calculator brain was telling us that we could make it. And at one point he properly YELLED at me (and swore! I know, shocking!) that we were NOT FUCKING WALKING NOW, EMMA. And I’m so glad he did because those were precious seconds that we could not afford to lose. At about mile 25 he started to flag and told me to go ahead without him. Well, the only response to that was to tell him to fuck off and get moving. I wasn’t leaving him at that point (you get to 25 miles with someone and it all gets a bit ‘Platoon’ – “I’m not leaving you maaaan!”). We got a little burst of speed, which I quickly knew I couldn’t keep up but it was enough of a push, because there ahead of us was the entrance to Tilsey Park and the stadium… I can’t exaggerate the emotion I’ve felt both times I’ve crossed into the park and could see the track ahead. It’s an amazing feeling, but there was still the longest quarter of a mile ahead of us that I have ever run in my life. Amazingly, once we got onto that track, and only had 400m to go, we managed a bit of a sprint finish! Incredible to think that we had that in us, when 10 minutes before my quads were fully screaming at me to stop. We crossed the line with a mere 19 seconds to spare by my watch – 4 hours, 29 minutes and 41 seconds!
Although I didn’t quite know that at the time – honestly, HONESTLY in that moment, I was just really pleased we could finally stop running! And I knew I’d got a respectable PB and that I’d mostly felt really good, so whether I’d done it in under 4 and a half hours didn’t seem to be the most important thing. But then I saw Grundy, who had been trying to get in under 3:45 (I know, he’s a speedy bugger, but he’s so goddamn lovely you can’t even hate him) and the look on his face of pure delight told me I’d done it. Mid a very snotty ugly-crying hug we established that I had in fact done it, and so had he at 3:44 and a 3 minute PB). And there was Matt, my husband, and my kids, all so damn proud and excited. Especially Evie, my baby girl and number-one fan, bearing Tunnocks’ tea cakes, and home-made medals. In an act of comedy cruelty the organisers of Abingdon Marathon see fit to put the tea urn at the top of the stadium steps, so you have to hobble/crawl on all fours to the top to get your cuppa. But ye gods it’s worth it. I can’t tell you how good that tea tasted. It’s like the most delicious nectar of the gods in a polystyrene cup with a ginger nut on the side that there was no way I could eat yet. Adrian had been laughing before we started because we looked up at those steps and it looked like it was only 10, but in his memory of finishing Abingdon 8 years ago it had been about a hundred. At the end of the marathon it really does feel like it.
So there you go. My fourth marathon. The official time was 4 hours 29 minutes and 35 seconds. A 6-minute PB. Not bad, huh?
The next day I was talking to Tony (he who had had to drop out of the marathon a couple of weeks before) about how it had gone and said that now I’d done my sub 4:30 I’d pretty much peaked and didn’t feel like I could run any faster than that, so I might retire from marathons, or y’know (all casual, like) just do it for (a weird twisted idea of) fun, not go for a time… He just laughed at me and said, you know you want to do sub 4:25 now, and you know you’re already thinking about doing it at Manchester. Trouble is, that bugger knows me too well when it comes to this sort of shit. When the pain in my quads was keeping me awake on the Sunday night, I was already doing the mental maths of what pace I’d have to run…. So Manchester it is, then!