Preparing your body the week before a marathon is not unlike taking a cat to the vet to be put down. The body is being fed way more than usual and given all sorts of attention and affection. Sweet times for the body/Mr. Cat! However, in both cases, they eventually click that something is about to happen to them. Possibly good, probably bad.
The night before the Edinburgh Marathon, I was sat on my ex-boss’s aunt’s sofa, eating a titanic bowl of pasta prepared by her partner. This was Emma and Nick. Emma and Nick were warm, erudite people and easy to get lost in conversation with. Talking to them, my mind was completely calm, and I had rationalised what was happening tomorrow as “just a few hours, really”.
Somewhere about the twentieth forkful, my body finally gave me a slight icy twinge of dread. “Hang on, buddy – you just ate a half kilo of pasta on the way up here, and now more of this shit? You’e never done this. Are you leaving me? You’re leaving me, aren’t you.”
It seemed to say.
The moment passed, I went to bed on my camping cot and got up at 7 a.m. after a fitful sleep. I woke up a little sleepy but with no nerves. Though I did nearly tread on a cat on my way to kitchen for breakfast, which was not auspicious.
Walking to the start line, I couldn’t help but notice what a beautiful day it was. Warm, but not too warm, bright, but not blazing. Perfect running weather. Put my bag in. Went for a piss. Talked to some people standing around. Went for another piss. Prayed that I’d not need to go for a mid-marathon poo. I’d hate to lose time to a poo. Then got into my coloured pen. Gold. 4 1/2 hours – 5 hours estimated finish.
Following experiments with pace and injury, I’d settled at training for 10 minute miles. This was the optimum for distance without injury that I found, and would see me in around 4 hours 30 minutes, accounting for drop off in the second half. Still though, I didn’t really know what was going to happen to me past mile 16, my furthest real training run. I’ve heard all the horror stories. The Wall is not just a place in Game of Thrones, my friends, it’s a very real land of glyco-crashing, crying and possible urination. Muscles out of fuel, basically burning the furniture to keep going. I’d hit some semblance of this on my final long training run and it was like getting exploded by an internal bomb. First, a slight fizzing of hunger in the stomach, then the gutting realisation you’d gone drinking the night before and not eaten dinner (yes, I know, but it was the last night of Bump), then BOOM! Dizziness, nausea, cramp all in a burst, leaving you in pieces. Oh – and you’ve still got 10 miles to go.
Fuck a duck. I’d happily take 5 hours to avoid that.
Countdown came and went. A cheer, but no actually movement because I was near the back and we’d not be moving for a few minutes yet. So stood there making brave faces at everyone around me. I had no headphones, since they were apparently banned, but it was clearly an unenforceable rule. Never trained without music. But who needs music when you’ve got passionate locals with makeshift instruments and a curious relationship with rhythm?
Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle and over the line! BEEP. Set the watch going. Took me two attempts. Half a mile in, my feet already hurt…that can’t be good. My left arch is a bit shifty, but thought it’d hold out for longer than a few hundred metres. Minutes later, I met a couple of Waverley Runners, Colin & Sam, and asked them if we’d passed a mile. We had. Thank God, just 25 to go. The first few miles were run between two small towns, interrupted by brief but beautiful stretch along the coast. Everywhere – crowds! Who are these people? I’d be in bed at this time on a Sunday! I got my first “GO ON VIN!” (name was on my t-shirt) two miles in.
I don’t want to bore you with a mile by mile because…well…there was absolutely zero drama. I did it just as you’d expect. Sticking one foot in front of the other and not thinking about the pub til mile 22. I wish I could say it was more interesting, but it really was just a mostly pleasant run through some gorgeous scenery, on a mild Spring day. I guzzled energy gels, gratefully took sweets from some kids, high fived others. I threw water over my head whenever I could, yelping as it shocked me back to focus. Marathon runners should have tiny cattle prods to stop them drifting. I never hit The Wall, I never had to urge myself on.
I think I got very lucky, though perhaps this means I should have tried harder, because I don’t feel euphoric about it, I just feel a bit “meh, well that’s done, what’s next?” I know that seems strange and I don’t mean to demean anyone else’s effort, but it just didn’t feel as…big?…an achievement as I thought it would be. I felt like I should have suffered more for the money I was raising. Should I have pushed myself harder, earlier? I wasn’t brave enough to do it. Minimal hurt, no joy – either I did it wrong or everything I’d been told about marathons was a lie! Except for the stuff about it being life affirming. THAT much it certainly is.
The generosity, the spirit and the general good cheer of people I met on my trip – from the old couple on the train up to the knackered Welsh kid on the shuttle bus back who gave me £2 in sponsorship – has stripped me of my cynicism for a long while. Civilisation is stuffed full of millions of uncontrollable tragedies that make life seem so very unfair, and every time I saw a stretcher go past, or a collapsed person being tended to by an St. John’s volunteer, or someone struggling on in tears, I had a sharp reminder of what some people will do to themselves to try and make up for the Universe’s roulette wheel of misery. Anyone who tells me they’re running a marathon will get at least an automatic fiver from me from now on, even if I don’t know them.
To make things a little less sober, my highlights were:
– A little girl screaming “MUMMY, I’M BORED!’ at Mile 3.
– Shouting “VIVA ESPANA!” to some Spanish supporters at Mile 5 (and them shouting “VIVA!” back).
– Unexpectedly seeing Nick Pace, a friend from school up to see his girlfriend race, shouting support from the sidelines.
– Getting a wink from am attractive dancer at Mile 10. (Yes, sometimes men are that simple)
– The ubiquitous Queen soundtrack.
– Giving a fat man from Plumstead some apparently much needed support.
– And, my absolute favourite, the discordant family band playing as a quintet as we ran through their farm around the 18 mile mark.
I stuck with Colin and Sam the because they seemed to be at my pace, and it’s no exaggeration to say that I’d not have gotten around without them. They were friendly, insightful and loving the crowd. I kept saying “I’ll stick with you til 13 then drop off” “Ok, 15” “Maybe I can 18” “Alright, let’s call it a rolling contract” and if they found that annoying, they didn’t make a show of it. Every mile I let them know, with increasing incredulity, that we were still on pace. I was a little fatigued, and I was certainly feeling that left arch, but why hadn’t I collapsed into a blubbering heap yet?
In the last mile and a half, I got a sudden second wind and basically sprinted the rest of the way. Not really keeping with the ethos of sticking with my new friends, but I’d come up alone, I was going home alone and this was my one and only marathon so why not give it some. I crossed the line at 4 hours 19 minutes and 29 seconds.
Tumbled into the grassy verge.
Stopped the watch.
Not as bad as all that.
Didn’t want a pint. Would’ve liked a burrito. Instead I got a nice twenty minutes up hill walk to the shuttle bus and a five hour train journey home, via a pub interlude with Steve Rolfe and Martin Cavannagh. You blew my mind, Edinburgh, even if your pub veggie alternative is chips. I want to come back when my legs are fit again for your hills.
EDIT: I still have £500 to raise – so nearly there! My JustGiving page will be up for a little while longer, so if you were thinking of donating but were waiting to see if I actually would cart my arse around the course first, click here for the link.
Also, if you’re interested in seeing what it’s like to live with lupus, Melanie Spencer’s new play, Responsible Other, opening at the Hampstead Theatre in June will show you just that. Details, and a much better pitch, here.
What a month May has been. First (and last) marathon, first (and hopefully not last) play on. June, you better bring me my longed for ex-wife, or you’ll be a disappointment.