L-R Emmy (lying down), Drama, Kendra, Savannah & Teya

10 October 2013

Knowledge (Post Marathon - Long Version)

22nd September 2013

So, now I know. I’m not a marathon runner

In this I may be in exalted company. Mo Farah, one of the greatest ever distance runners, has just stepped up to the marathon after destroying all opposition at 5 and 10K. However when Paula Radcliffe, our greatest ever Marathon runner, was asked about his chances, the interviewer clearly expecting fawning praise, she said “Wait and see.” The point she was making was a simple one, that just because you’re good at one distance doesn't mean that you’ll be good at another, and a marathon is an altogether different beast. Beast is a good word. And so it proved with me. I love half marathons, but any further, for me, is Too Far. I suspect Mo might do slightly better.

Looking back, with the wisdom of experience, it’s clear to see where I went wrong. I didn't do enough training, at least, not enough of the right kind of training. I put in the right number of miles, at the right times, at the right distances, but 99% of my training was on the flat. This was a deliberate choice. I have dodgy knees that don’t like going downhill, as proved on the marathon when I had to stop on a couple of downhill stretches when my left knee started locking up. The problem is that the New Forest marathon course is described as 'undulating'. I refer you to my previous comment of Hitler being not so nice, drinks being expensive, and giving birth being a bit nippy. If there’s hills on your course that people have to get off their bikes to walk up, that’s not 'undulating'. I’d done the half marathon there 3 years ago, and I’d forgotten just how bad some of those hills were, and the fact that on the marathon course there’d be twice as many of them [all together now -Duh!!!]. But it’s that catch 22. For my knees to get through 6 months of marathon training is almost as great an achievement as doing the marathon itself. But do the necessary training the course requires and you’ll kill yourself before you get there, don’t do the hills beforehand and they’ll kill you on the course. And so it proved.

The second thing I got wrong was the start. When you train you get yourself into a pattern. Arrive at your start point, stretch, walk for 5 mins, stretch, quick limber, hit start on your watch and go. I’d forgotten that starting an official race takes forever. You wander round for 40 minutes, you sit down and you start getting stiff in the cold morning air, you walk round too much you get tired. Then they march you to your time corrals [I was in the 4hr + “yes we know you’re not very quick, there’s hills and it's going to be hot today, please don’t die there’ll be the most awful publicity” corral] and you’re hemmed in for another 20 minutes. You move and stretch the best you can, but the cold cramps start, first your hip, then your knees, then your lower back. By the time the race actually begins, you’re already trying to run off the niggles that will be with you for the next 5 hours. Next time I’ll stand at the back of the corral where there’s room and stretch to my heart’s content. Lesson learned.

Then, of course, the day turned out to be a hot one. The internet had promised a cloudy, cool, overcast day for the entire race. Perfect running conditions. Which it was, until we started, then it was blue skies, hot sun, heat haze and dripping sweat which sat on you like a heavy coat. [The Internet lied to me, whatever next!] People all around the course had their heavy winter coats with them. They were using them as blankets while they sat out having a picnic. I wondered how the man stood next to me in the corral was going to get on, considering he’d only ever run 10 miles before. In March.

Despite all the above I started well. Despite the niggles in the hip, the niggles in the knees, and the throat screaming “gimme water” I was doing ok. But as the 3 climbs in miles 5 to 8 started to take their toll, and it was dawning on me just how long a day it was going to be, I started to learn that the marathon is indeed a different beast [Hitler, drinks, yada yada]. To borrow an analogy from my favourite show, when you run a half marathon you are part of the Walking Dead, a small part of a great big seething mass of [non]humanity. Moving together, focused together, same direction, same goal. At any point on the course there’ll be 10-20 people within touching distance, and another couple of hundred within sight. And as a social experiment that Solomon Asch would be proud of, you take your cues from those around you. They’re not stopping, so you don’t stop. Quid Pro Quo. When you run a marathon though, you’re one of a stringed out and strung out bunch of human survivors. The fit and the strong have long since run off, leaving you alone to fend off the beast. By the top of the hill at mile 8 I could only see ten people. By the forest trail section at mile 13 there were times, despite there being 900 runners on the course, when I could not see another person. It truly was the loneliness of the long distance runner.

At 13.1 miles, halfway, in a beautiful and anachronistically peaceful section of forest, I was exhausted but moving well. I’d done the Half in 2hrs 7 mins – a good time, and was feeling positive. And I was wrong, because it was the beginning of the end. By mile 15 and the next hill my legs were going “uh oh we’re not sure about this”, by mile 17 they were certain, and by mile 20 my race was over. I’d read about The Wall [the internet again], and had been described/predicted/promised a specific and violent moment when the race would suddenly become hard. Like a petrol engine that’s had diesel put in it, a painful, sudden, noisy, apocalyptic seizing up. This was nothing like that, it was a slow and surprisingly pain free slide into oblivion. I was more a petrol engine that someone had forgotten to put petrol in, and at 20miles I ran out. I had nothing, I felt nothing. I was gone. Empty.

That was when I hit the mental wall, and the horrible maths started. And it was horribly simple. My shoe dragging stone kicking shuffling pace had dropped to 12 mins/mile. My leg pace was unchanged but my stride was baby steps [another important lesson learned –my pace was dictated by my stride length, not how fast I was moving my legs]. My pace at walking was 15mins/mile. So if I walked to the finish from here it was only going to cost me 18 minutes. And that was my race over right there. My brain was empty, I no longer cared about time, I’d run further than I’d ever run in my entire life, and I was guaranteed to finish a marathon, something my knees and rehabbed hip had no right to achieve. Who cared if I failed to break 5hrs? 

So I started walking. I tried to run a few more times, particularly at 23 miles when I knew my boss was waiting with a camera, but every time I tried I had the indescribably strange sensation of running, then finding I was actually walking, and not being able to remember slowing down. And Solomon Asch got his full sweep of social conformity, because I wasn’t the only one stopping. Every long straight had a slow moving body ahead, every hill had an even slower body shuffling and shambling onwards. They were stopping, so you stopped too.

The crowd at the end was amazing. I had no intention of running that last half mile, but they made me, and they were right. Probably the most important lesson of the day, you've just done a marathon, possibly your only one, you've earned the right to run through the finish line. So I did, and the crowds cheered me as I started running [they went a little nuts actually]. Just for me.  There was no-one 2 minutes before or 2 minutes after me. I ran round those final bends to the most amazing noise, and wondered why I couldn't have had this second wind at 21 miles which is when the internet told me I would get it [the internet lies, I tell ya]. 

My 2 fellow docs who’d both done the half marathon were there waiting for me, and we got some group photos. Words still can’t describe how proud and shocked I am to have achieved what I did. Quite a few people didn't make it, and there were, sadly, 3 ambulances out on the course. I may not be a marathon runner, but I damn well just finished a marathon.

23rd September 2013

Addendum. Today I saw the pictures. When you run a marathon you aren’t one of the Walking Dead. You just look like one.

Nick (the Zombie on the left)

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