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.