My London Marathon Experience

“You did it, even when it was against everything that makes you feel safe.”

Such wise words from my friend and all-round awesome person Jo, as I struggled post-marathon with feelings of bitter disappointment, embarrassment and regret.

I’ve said for a long time that I’m a 5k girl through and through and that I don’t think marathons are going to be my bag. With that and my bucket list in mind, I wanted to make sure that if I only ever did one, it would be something huge like London and I’d want to enjoy it. Because what’s life without stepping outside your comfort zone?

But there’s stepping outside your comfort zone and there’s running 26.2 miles away from it. It’s probably obvious from the start of this post that my marathon didn’t go to plan. I always knew I was going to have an uphill battle to the start line, going from nothing to marathon in 10 weeks thanks to injury, and having to manage that with some serious anxiety in crowds, exacerbated by 2.5 years of not even having caught a train, let alone been in a group with 40,000 other people plus thousands of spectators. But I had one of my best friends with me to support me to the bitter end, and we were dressed in costume and had raised a load of money for Blood Cancer UK. I thought that I had done everything I could to feel safe in a situation that I was frankly terrified of.

But despite all of this, I still couldn’t have predicted how spectacularly things were going to go wrong on the day.

In the lead up to Sunday, my most pressing concern was my gastro issues. I get so nervous before big running events and that stress and adrenaline always hits me right in the gut and has caused me a lot of problems in training. But apart from that and the 6 weeks missed through injury, I had done all of my long runs without any major issues and had even done just shy of a solid half marathon a few weeks back. My sleep before the marathon wasn’t ideal, with two nights in two different beds, and being woken up consistently the night before the marathon by those in the apartment above us and trucks outside my window. I was awake at 5:30am after less than 6 hours of sleep (but I don’t think anyone sleeps well the night before a marathon). But thankfully on Sunday morning my stomach surprisingly wasn’t that bad, and we made it from our apartment to the start line without any issues at all and I felt really good about it. And the crowds at the start (in our pens etc.) weren’t as bad I thought they’d be. I did get crazy tense in the 30 minutes before we started as my bladder decided that my two pre-race pees were actually just the support act and I was suddenly bursting with no place to go, so it was a speedier than ideal first mile to reach the first portaloos on the course. But after that, we found our pace in the crowds and settled in around the 8:40 per mile mark.

Before things all went a bit wrong

At around mile 5, I suddenly became very aware of the heat, and the cool breeze gave me a weird sensation of being both hot and cold at the same time, almost feverish, and a brief sinking feeling about the whole event came over me before I forced it away. So on we ran, passing the Cutty Sark (me: “where?” Pete: “literally there”) and going over Tower Bridge, hydrating and taking on gels just like we had in training. We saw the super speedy runners who were coming past us in the other direction and kept an eye out for any of our club mates (sadly to no avail), and it was at around mile 15 that I started to get what felt like a stitch, and a tingling feeling under my big toe that felt suspiciously like a blister despite wearing socks that have accompanied me on my long runs with no issues whatsoever. The sun was beating down on us, and that first moment of doubt slipped in.

It never left me.

The first tears came at mile 16 as the pain in my side increased to the point where I couldn’t breathe properly, and nothing was loosening it. I tried different breathing techniques, stretching (usually guaranteed to shift any stitches I get) and changing my cadence, but it had me in a vice-like grip and the more frustrated I got the more tense I was getting and the more I cried the more I couldn’t breathe properly. It was like my mind and body just stopped communicating and rather than simply accepting the fact that I had pulled something (obvious now due to the pain still being there as I type this) and allowing my body to tell me what it could do in that moment, I fought against it, devastated that all I wanted to do was run the last 7 miles, no matter how slowly, when in fact all I could manage was a few hundred metres at a time between regular walking breaks, the only thing that would stop the excruciating pain under my right ribs.

And during all this, I was acutely aware of the fact that it wasn’t just me going through this, but I was derailing Pete’s run as well. He deserved better from me. He did everything he could to calm me down but I had lost the mental battle, and I kept thinking about all those people who had said to me “you’re stronger than you think you are” when I had never felt so weak and pathetic. But another thing Jo has pointed out to me post run (damn her for being so wise) is that my ego was playing a part. I’m used to performing well at running for the most part, but I started thinking about all those people tracking me on the app and witnessing my complete and utter disintegration in real time, discussing what might have gone wrong in my race, not to mention the London crowds seeing me sob as I ran walked through the streets. I felt humiliated.

And speaking of the spectators, I can totally see how people love London for the support they get as they’re running. But for me, I don’t think I have ever felt so overwhelmed in my whole life. The noise was relentless, with whistles, cow bells, air horns, clappers and more, sometimes right in your ear, and there were times when I thought I was going to go mad from it (overly dramatic I know, but I wasn’t in a good place at that point). It turns out I was right to be worried about my anxiety in crowds, but rather than it being from the other runners, it was from the spectators. On the train home Pete and I got chatting to someone who had been volunteering for a charity and she said that some of her runners had also struggled with it and that we shouldn’t underestimate the impact that Covid will have had on our ability to tolerate so many people and so much noise. With hindsight, I wish I had prepared myself better for that, as running with your fingers in your ears and your eyes screwed shut isn’t conducive to a cracking marathon.

Eventually we did finish, but I had failed on my two goals – I hadn’t wanted to stop to walk except for fuelling purposes, and I hadn’t wanted what was likely to be my only marathon to be a negative experience. And the negatives were all I can currently focus on.

I’ve found writing this to be really quite upsetting, but it felt easier to type it out rather than have to keep retelling it in person. I so wanted to be on a runner’s high right now, but instead I feel like all of my weeks of hard work, both running and recovering from my injury, were for nothing and I feel desperately flat. But deep down I know that I put too much pressure on myself to perform well in my first marathon, despite it being an event that goes against everything that makes me feel safe. I know deep down that I’m not a distance girl and that there was a time when it looked like I wasn’t even going to make the start line, let alone finish it. And I know I’m overwhelmed in crowds and generally avoid them like the plague, so in hindsight choosing a big city event for my first and likely only marathon crossed the line from brave to foolish. I’m just not suited to so many people and so much noise, and I don’t think I’d do any big city event again, regardless of distance. And I know that Pete was happy to just be there and earn an amazing medal and that my friends and family are proud no matter what but I feel like I let everyone down. But more than anything else I’m my own worst critic, and I’m so disappointed with the way I fell apart on the streets of London, and I’m not sure how long it’s going to take me to get over that.

But I’m going to try and end this post on some positives, because of course there were some.

  • Getting to experience such a bonkers thing with one of my best mates and realising that he’s a bigger legend than I ever thought possible
  • Raising a load of money for Blood Cancer UK in memory of two incredible people
  • Seeing Eliud Kipchoge and Paula Radcliffe at the Expo
  • Watching kids wanting to high five Pete before spotting his Wolverine claws and freaking out
  • Hearing all the cheers for Wolverine and laughing about how no one had a scoobie who I was meant to be
  • The love and support from friends and family, ESPECIALLY Rach’s flapjack
  • Seeing Pip’s beautiful happy face at the finish and her look of horror and regret when she hugged a very sweaty and emotional me
  • The free burger from Bill’s afterwards
  • The fact that I can do stairs again just 48 hours later
  • The fact that I can always say that I finished the London Marathon
  • The spectacular medal
  • The fact that I never have to do it again

I’m also highly aware of how lucky I am that I’m back home and safe with only bruised and battered emotions, sore ribs and a badly blistered toe after a marathon runner died after collapsing at mile 23 in the London Marathon. My thoughts are with his friends and family.

Inspiring more than one generation

Research carried out by the Centre for Market and Public Organisation at Bristol University showed that nearly 80% of adults were failing to meet government targets for physical activity.

A study by University College London researchers found that only 38% of girls were achieving the recommended hour of physical activity each day.

A 12-year study of more than 300,000 people by the University of Cambridge suggested that a lack of exercise could be killing twice as many people as obesity in Europe.

18 months after the London Olympics, the number of people playing sport once a week had increased by only 200,000.

In England, the prevalence of obesity among adults rose from 14.9% to 24.9% between 1993 and 2013.

Yikes.

Despair Gif

But hang on. In England, 75% of women said they wanted to be more active.

Hold the flipping phone. Is that a beacon of light I see upon the very bleak horizon?

Happy Tina Fey

Yes, some of these statistics make bleak reading, but it’s the last one that gives me hope. If 75% of women want to be more active, then something needs to be done to inspire them into action. The This Girl Can campaign has kickstarted something brilliant, but it will take time to see how successful it has been. The Olympics tagline was “Inspire a Generation”, but what I want to know is – why just the one?

The reason I’m writing this post is because I was inspired today. I took the last session of my Women’s Beginners’ Running Group this evening, getting five women of all different ages to run 5km around a very hot and very busy Parker’s Piece. And they all did it, pushing themselves harder than I thought they could in the conditions, and all coming in between 30 and 36 minutes, sprint finishing with serious strength and guts. I was so unbelievably proud of them, and I felt inspired by their commitment to trying something different and difficult, especially given the comedy geniuses who liked to shout tips at us, run with us, or copy our warm up. Seriously dudes, we get one of you every week. Come back when you have something unique.

wpid-img_20150604_193227.jpg

Warriors.

And so it got me thinking. It’s down to us to inspire each other. To inspire our friends, mother, siblings, daughters. I’m inspired by the women around me every day. By my Zumba instructor and friend Lucy who with her endless energy encourages dozens of women in and around Ely to dance their backsides off and not care what they look like doing it. By my incredibly talented friend Eloise who has worked so hard and dedicated so much of her life to her dancing which has led to her starring in the McQueen show. By my friend Sam who after just a couple of years of running ran the London Marathon for the Motor Neurone Disease Association in memory of her dad. By my boss Karen who pushes her mental strength to its limits by running 24 hour endurance races. By my sister.

And it’s not just the people I know. It’s people like Jessica Ennis, Jo Pavey, Paula Radcliffe, Nicola Adams, Kelly Holmes, Victoria Pendleton, Tanni Grey-Thompson, Denise Lewis, Amy Hughes, Katie McDonnell, Lucy Gossage, Chrissie Wellington, Kacy Catanzaro, the two crews who rowed on the Tideway (and therefore on an equal footing as men) in the Boat Race for the first time and people like 92-year old Harriette Thompson. And I’m barely scratching the surface here. These are just the people I’ve thought of off the top of my head.

But we need more. We need more women’s sport on TV. We need more campaigns like #WSW2015 and This Girl Can. We need to stop belittling ourselves and letting women be physical cliches. In short, we need less of this:

Bridget Bike Fail

And more of this:

Strong Runner

We need to be inspired into action and given the opportunity to try new things. And I genuinely believe that there is a sport out there for everyone. Women should be giving things a go and be encouraged to do so. How sad would it be if someone never found that sporting passion, whether it be netball, sprinting, ultimate frisbee or fencing?

I feel a bit like I’m brain dumping here and pointing out the flipping obvious. But next time you go to your bootcamp class, or see an advert for archery sessions, or decide to sign up for your first 5k like my running group girls, why not pick up the phone and tell your friend/mother/daughter/sister about it? You might end up turning a flicker of interest into an all-consuming flame and then they may go on to do the same thing, a ripple effect of igniting passions. And wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing?

My Running Heroes

So after watching Paula Radcliffe run her final London Marathon last month (in a frankly ridiculous time after her foot surgery three years ago that had her in a mobility scooter worrying that she would never run again) I’ve been thinking about the people who inspire me in my running. It’s not easy for me to whittle it down to just five at this point in time, but that seems like a sensible number so let’s go with it for now.

PAULA RADCLIFFE

Since Paula is the inspiration behind this blog post it’s only right that I start with her. Chances are you know as much about Paula as I do, but the thing I love about her is that when you hear her in interviews she seems like the most unassuming, sweet, quiet person you could ever meet, but underneath it all this woman is pure steel and a running legend. How else could she do her London Marathon swansong amongst the muggles (deciding not to run with the “elite” athletes) at age 41 in 2:36:55, finishing in a time that was just 5 minutes slower than the leading British female runner Sonia Samuels? And she called herself “unprepared”. What an absolute machine.

Amazing PaulaPaula won the London Marathon in 2002, 2003 and 2005, and her 2003 winning time of 2:15:25 remains the world record. The 2015 winner, Tigist Tufa, finished in 2:23:22, 8 minutes off Paula’s record time. So 12 years later, and people still aren’t coming close to beating her. Astounding.

KATHRINE SWITZER

Now if you haven’t heard of the awesome Kathrine Switzer, I’m here to educate you on her brilliance, namely her being the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as a numbered runner in 1967, 5 years before women were officially allowed to run it. What a badass.

To press the importance of this on you, did you know that as recently as the 1960s, it was claimed that women couldn’t run a distance of 26.2 miles because their uterus might fall out and their (gasp!) legs might get big? Anything over 800m was considered de-feminising, and this gives you an idea of the kind of crap women like Kathrine had to put up with. The women’s marathon didn’t even become part of the Olympic games until 1984, (the men’s featured in the first Olympic games in 1896).

For the 1967 Boston Marathon, the rulebook didn’t state “no women”; it was just assumed that no woman would want to run it. So she signed up as K.V. Switzer, and ran as number 261. As she was running, her “ruse” (if it can even be called that) was discovered, and race official Jock Semple tried to drag her off the course, allegedly shouting “get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers!” Her boyfriend, Tom Miller, who was running with her, shoved Semple aside and sent him flying, allowing her to proceed. You can read her full account of the event here.

Switzer Warrior 1  Switzer Warrior 2

Kathrine went on to finish the race in 4:20 (her PB is 2:51:37), and spent the next five years alongside other runners convincing the Boston Athletic Association to allow women to participate in the marathon, succeeding in 1972. Most surprisingly, Semple (the angry bald fella in the dark clothing in the photos) had a change of heart, and was instrumental in this formal admission of female runners.

Kathrine published a book called Marathon Woman which went on to win the Billie Award for journalism for its inspiring portrayal of women in sports. She was also inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2011 for creating a social revolution by empowering women around the world through running.

JO PAVEY

In my opinion, Jo is quite frankly the Queen of showing the kids how it’s done. After 26 years on the track and being an excellent athlete who never quite managed to get to the top of her game on an international stage (although with a hefty national medal haul under her belt), she is now bringing home Gold medals in her early forties, beating women who are literally half her age, at a time when plenty of other women would be winding down their exercise regime as their lives – and indeed their bodies – change.

Jo Pavey

In 2014, Jo unexpectedly (her words, not mine) won Gold in the 10,000m at the European championships, making her the oldest female European champion in history at the age of 40 years and 325 days. Writing for Runner’s World UK, she said “I now find myself looking ahead to 2015 with no thoughts of retirement. It’s pleasing, as I’m enjoying running and there are still things I would like to achieve.” And this is Jo in a nutshell. Humble but determined, knowing that there is a lot of hard work ahead of her but completely prepared for the challenge.  This is why I (and many others) voted for her in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. I never usually vote for things like that, but she inspired me into picking up the phone for her, and I was so delighted when she came third.

Plus I should add that she’s also a bit of a sugar junkie like me. Not something to be proud of (I’m working on reducing my intake!) but good to know I have something in common with her. Haribo anyone?

MO FARAH

Now I’m not going to waste your time or mine telling you about Mo’s amazing London 2012 Olympic successes as part of Super Saturday. That isn’t the reason Mo is on my list. The reason he’s here is because rather than resting on his laurels and saying “yup, I’m the best at the 5,000m and the 10,000, that’ll do” he instead went “NO! I WANT MORE!”. He’s basically the Veruca Salt of running.

Veruca Salt

So even though he had his naysayers who thought he should stick to what he knows best, Mo decided to focus more on half marathon and marathon distances. Along comes 2014 and in April he finished the London Marathon in eighth place in a time of 2:08.21, setting a new English national record, and then in August he successfully defended his 5,000m title and won a gold in the 10,000m in Zürich at the 2014 European Athletics Championships. Just another major championship double then. Then to cap it all off, in September he won the Great North Run in a personal best time of 1:00:00, exactly. What. A. Legend. I’ll even forgive him those Quorn ads because I like him and actually, I rather like Quorn too. Plus he has the best winning face ever. Fact.

Mo Farah Wins

STACY McGIVERN (AKA MY BIG SISTER)

First of all, she’s going to kill me for this, but I provide her with cake so I reckon I can placate her with a hefty wedge of tiffin.

Stacy has been an athlete roughly since the age of 14 or so. I remember when I used to accompany her on Sunday evenings to Comberton Village College Sports Hall to train with George Hibberd, and I would have a bash at the hurdles whilst Stace would nail the high jump on the other side of the hall. She was always willing to have her annoying little sister tag along (basically I wanted to hang out with her and this was the best way despite the fact that I was utterly useless) whilst she did her serious training, becoming an expert across so many disciplines (Triple Jump being her speciality). Her medal haul is ridiculous, and now as a (cough) veteran woman, she is still at the top of her game. This is exhibited by her result in the Cambs County Championships on Saturday afternoon, where after joking that she would at least get a medal as there were only 3 athletes in her 400m race, she went on to beast her opponents, finishing in 61.97 (which was only 2.3 seconds behind the 18 year old won her race).

Stacy Power

If you Google Stacy’s name or check her out on the Power of 10 website, you’ll get an idea of how much she’s won over the years (and how many times they’ve spelt her name wrong – there’s no “e” FYI). Last year, she also won the Peterborough Athletic Club Senior Woman award for Field. And on a personal level, having tried 400m and 800m distances myself recently, my respect for Stacy has gone through the roof, because those distances are tough. I just wish I’d done a better job of supporting her in the past, but hopefully I can make up for it now, even if she did say “Oh for God’s sake!” when she saw me turn up to watch her this weekend. I’m going to assume it was a pleasant surprise.

Stacy is one of the most modest athletes you’ll ever meet, and she probably has no idea how much she inspires me (more so than the other four athletes on this list), but I hope I can continue to improve and to share those experiences with her, as we talk about our races, most likely over cake.