I am NOT a London Marathon finisher

The first omen was the crow on the window ledge peering in at me two weeks ago, its beady eye an inky portent of the piercing pain I would feel when some woman somehow managed to stomp her clodhopper right on my Vibrammed foot at mile 21. And if that physical pain – which resulted in me retiring from the Virgin London Marathon at 35.5 kms – yes just under 7kms left – having smashed that distance in just 3 hrs 20 on nothing but a millimetre of rubber, ground up chia seeds and sea salted water – the mental poke in the craw was to follow at Covent Garden.
You remember the feeling you had on Jubilee Day or Kate and Wills’ wedding when you thought just you and Morrissey were the only republicans left? Well I felt it again when I saw reality star Amy Childs, caked in make-up, strolling through with her posse, not a hair out of place or an eyelash extension uncaked. She’d made it to the end whereas I had ‘retired’.
I am not marathon noob. My first was Paris two years ago, which was a cinch. The route takes you through the most beautiful parts of the city lined with passionate supporters but with woods at either end to provide calm and quiet from the fray. I still reminisce fondly about all the runners stepping backwards off Eurostar the next day, their thighs pulped from their battering along cobbled boulevards.
I am especially proud of my performance at Brighton last year. It entails running to Shoreham power station, around it then back to a pier that seems to move further and further away the closer you get to it. People who run that race are never the same again. That’s why I call it Shore’Nam.
So with marathons aplenty across the UK and Europe almost every weekend, I’d always been a bit dismissive of the clamour to run London. It’s very hard to get in for a start. And a Channel 4 Dispatches investigation in 2010 http://www.channel4.com/programmes/dispatches/articles/tracing-the-marathons-millions-producer-feature questioned whether charities benefit as much as thought by the runners, many first timers dealing with personal tragedies. On the other hand, fellow running club members told me it was the ‘best, magical, special’ so I duly entered the ballot expecting to get a rejection just so I could lay that one to rest. But by sheer fluke I got a place. That was weird. I am never that lucky. That was the second omen, or should have been if I hadn’t been swept along by the glee, which escalated to a sense of duty after the horrible loss of life and injury in Boston.
I saw it as such a once in a lifetime opportunity that I felt compelled to make it as memorable as possible. So I trained hard in my barefoot shoes which I’d spent the best part of the previous year transitioning into. I researched and refined my marathon nutrition. I obliterated stomach problems and improved my endurance with a home-made concoction road tested many times over. I lifted heavy weights to increase muscle mass and speed trained like a demon. My final long run was three weeks before – a comfortable 37kms to wrap up a 60-70km barefoot running week with no aches and pains the next day. So I convinced myself that powering through London was a formality, just ‘doing the admin’.
But there is a world of difference between London and most other marathons and that was something I hadn’t researched or prepared for. Firstly, although it’s in the city I live, getting to the start takes ages and you are crammed into buses and trains with other runner and supporters from 6.30am. I was caged next to an especially dreary club runner who bored the carriage senseless with his monotonous ‘advice’ to all in earshot. So much so I stuck a finger in my ear. In Paris I just walked up the road to the Arc de Triomphe arriving a nice 15 mins before it kicked off. Brighton was also easy – despite the early start you can nap on the train and eat your breakfast. Today, I ate my porridge on a packed Victoria Line train to Green Park to stick to my usual timing.
The other thing I wasn’t prepared for was how crowded the route is with slowish, inexperienced runners; the weaving, the emergency stops for exhausted walkers, it all takes it out of you mentally. I ran the first half as a series of intervals rather than at a constant pace, grabbing bare bits of grass verge or pavement to overtake. I was foolish aiming for a PB – it’s great for one-off charity experiences but I didn’t find it a satisfying running race as it was so much hard work politely creating spaces to overtake. All this drains your mental energy and makes you more prone to ‘the wall’ if you aren’t robust.
People had told me that the support is incredible and there’s no doubting it is. Barely a foot of that route isn’t lined three deep with families, colleagues, running comrades and tourists proffering encouragement, jelly sweets and even the odd slurp of cider. But it is unrelentingly noisy which is hard to prep for and there’s no respite from it like there was in Paris, a space to collect your thoughts, exorcise any niggling doubts and blast to the end with renewed vigour. Hell, even Shore’Nam’s a bit meditative. Vibram running is a bit hippy – you connect with the ground and your surroundings which sensually drive you forward. I go into a trancelike state. The London route snakes back and forth round the Isle of Dogs which isn’t as evocative or as visual as a London circuit might be. But I can’t fault the organisation and I am sure the planners have good reason for all this.
So all the more frustrating that I fell not far from the more visceral finale stretch from Tower Hill to the Embankment then Westminster and the Mall. I was looking forward to upping my pace and powering the final 6.7kms, the glorious riverside vista just reward after the miles trudged round corporate London. I was about to enact the grand finale I have rehearsed on many a chilly Sunday mornings. I turned a slight bend and felt another’s foot bear down on mine, which had little more than thin fabric on top. As I fell I twisted to my left to see a slightly older pink clad, fair haired female runner, sporting sunglasses Deidre Barlow would wear to soften a hangover on a sunny day in Weatherfield. “Sorry” she muttered without emotion, probably in pain herself, and plodded on seemingly nonchalantly. I think she’d spotted the water station ahead and made a pre-emptive move. By that stage your legs are less deft and can pull you hither and thither. I got up sharpish so as not to trip anyone else and managed to plod on adrenalin for 500 meters but the pain grew.
I glanced down at my foot which was a bad move, and you should avoid the next couple of lines if you are eating…. my first reaction was that I must have stepped on a watermelon. But that was my actual flesh, not just blood, oozing out of the mesh of my left Vibram.
St John Ambulance at 22 miles isn’t a happy place despite the cheerfulness of the skilled volunteers. I felt very guilty asking for their help when they were stabilising a chap who was unconscious. I cleaned my shoe with a babywipe and thought through the options, watched over by a small crowd (maybe Holby City fans?) who seemed bizarrely to have assembled simply to watch the first aiders, not the race. I realised that if I took off my Vibram I would never get it back on again, and certainly could not fit a dressing inside. I thought about going completely barefoot for the last few miles but why injure myself further now there were bottle caps and other detritus to manoeuvre? So I made the tough decision to retire, and literally hopped back to Shadwell, not daring to see the full damage till I had collected my bag from The Mall.
There I was ushered firmly with a hand on my shoulder to the Desk of Shame. ‘This lady chose to retire’ announced the man as they took my timing chip and number. And that was it. No check I was OK, just silence. I didn’t take a medal but I sure as hell nabbed a Finisher’s T shirt – as a daily reminder that I am NOT a finisher.
Quite the opposite. Reviewing my timings on my pedometer I could see that with a brisk nan jog (as I like to call my 6mins per km auto- trot) I’d have easily achieved a sub-4 hr. But at the pace I was doing, I’d probably have snooked in a good-for-age 3.50 or close to. Embankment’s downhill, scenic and atmospheric and I can usually muster a sprint at the end. So I did a killer time over the miles I ran, and I will complete the job with another 26.2 miles ASAP as soon as my wound heals. I am not sure whether it will be an organised marathon somewhere or a re-run taking in as much of the London route as I can with cars streaming past. Or I might just do the 50k ultra I have been hankering after. Apart from the gashed toe joint and a sore hip where I landed, my body feels totally unscathed by the distance and I have much to be grateful for, not least the holistic expertise of my Synergy running trainer Sarra Dally who got me into minimalist running in the first place, and CrossFit North London coach Ged Andrews whose gruelling weightlifting sessions have built strong muscles and mental endurance. I have improved so much in the past year that I was about to shave nearly 40 mins off my personal best.
Either way, the London Marathon, despite the challenges and the abrupt ending, was a success. It has confirmed for me that I love distance running in Vibrams (though admittedly wearing them in a race as packed as London is risky). My lack of concern at bailing out has taught me how resilient I am. Many would have been in emotional shreds whereas I can only see the positives. Next weekend, I begin my first round of training towards becoming an accredited psychotherapist and I am aiming to specialise in sports motivational coaching. I firmly believe, through first hand experience as well as talking with others, that distance running is a powerful form of emotional healing. But to realise the full benefits you have to be willing to go though the highs and lows to build resilience and self-confidence. It is hard self-work but healthily addictive because it is so transformative, and the results are almost immediate. Whatever fears my future clients present, I’ll have been there and come back fitter and stronger both physically and mentally.


5 thoughts on “I am NOT a London Marathon finisher

  1. Inspirational indeed, Sarah. Re long distance running as emotional healing, I think this effect applies to many if not all endurance sports (from hiking to triathlon) and from what I learned from a PhD student in psychology, there is empirical evidence emerging to support the hypothesis that running has therapeutic effects for people suffering from depression.

    PS: organized marathons in large cities is one thing, small scale trail marathons/races quite another.

  2. Pingback: Warm with Spells of Delusion – A London Marathon Experience | Where's the long run going?

  3. Denise says:

    Great account Sarah. Thanks for sharing your experience. As you know I ran it too as a marathon newbie and was very disappointed not to enjoy it more. I found the crowd overwhelming and like you could not collect my thoughts for a moment which felt very disorientating.I ran most of the course in a total haze and memories of it have a nightmare quality to them! Saying all of that I am so happy that I ran as I see the marathon as a small part of the whole journey which has been transformational. For me more so than psychotherapy was. Inspirational to see you lifting those heavy weights this morning. See you again soon I hope. xx

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