I signed up for the Ealing Half Marathon earlier in the year when I was at the peak of my fitness. Final year university assignments and my dissertation were taking up nearly all my time and the gym had gone from somewhere you don’t really want to go to, to somewhere that provided a much-needed break from studying without the guilt of actually doing anything too ‘fun’. I had got myself into a wonderfully healthy routine of eating well, studying hard and exercising lots, both in terms of weight training and running. Obviously there was the odd chocolate bar (or 5) to break up the boredom, but in general I was in pretty good shape and deciding to run my second half marathon with my running and travel buddy Alice seemed like a brilliant one.
Fast forward to the summer when I’m living at home (with my Mum who is both a baker and a monstrous feeder), working at a pub (where the food is delicious) and don’t have access to a gym. Oops. I had every intention of maintaining my fit and healthy lifestyle but, as we all know, sometimes your routine changing just throws everything off. I’m not saying I’ve been indulging on naughties every single day, but I have definitely eaten less sensibly than normal and have only been running for exercise. For me, I find only doing cardio doesn’t really do much for me and it’s only when I pick up the weights that I really feel the benefit of exercise, both in the way I feel and the way I look. All in all I was still running lots and increasing my miles ready for the half-marathon, but I didn’t feel quite as perky and up for it as I had done when I signed up.
Race weekend finally came around and I was feeling super nervous. I arrived at Alice’s the night before and we had the obligatory pasta dinner. Both feeling a little anxious about the next day, we decided to make a ‘5 worst things that can happen’ list:
- (This was only my top worst thing) I could need my inhaler (which doesn’t really ever happen during exercise as my asthma is more allergy related i.e. cat hair or dust) and that might really throw me off, or it might run out, or I might drop it on the floor…
- What if we actually physically can’t carry on? We convinced ourselves that this was never going to happen, as every runner knows you just have the keep going… but there is still always a niggling feeling that you simply won’t be able to take another step.
- We could really, really need a wee half way round. Again, we talked ourselves out of this one but also remembered there would be toilets en route, and adding a few minutes on your time for a toilet break sure beats the hell out of wetting yourself mid-race!
- We might fall over – bad enough just for sheer embarrassment – and hurt ourselves enough to not be able to carry on. Embarrassment aside, we decided that if this happened we would just have to get over it and be sensible enough to know that running while injured is never a good idea.
- We could finish the race but in a really slow time. I knew I’d trained in terms of running enough long runs, but deep down I knew I wasn’t as fit as I had been when I signed up, I knew I could have done more running in general… what if that meant I was super slow?! In reality and in hindsight this shouldn’t really qualify for the top 5 worst things. Running (at least for me) isn’t really about speed, it’s about a challenge and building strength and fitness and enjoying being outdoors. That being said, any runner will tell you they still do think about time and, since I’d run a half marathon the year before, it was always going to be in the back of my mind that I had a time already and would I beat it?
List made, we realised there wasn’t too much to worry about we just ultimately had to get out there and RUN. If we were slow we were slow. If any of our top 5 worst things happened, then so be it.
Having said this, neither of us got much sleep. I tried my best not to worry about not sleeping, as that only makes it worse. Everyone who gets bad nerves knows that adding the stress of counting how many hours sleep you will get if you fall asleep right now is one of the worst things to do. I tried to just remember that nerves are good and adrenaline will only make me run faster. I didn’t feel like I got much sleep at all but remembering countless running dreams in the morning (falling, forgetting my race pack, finishing with a time of 5 hours… pretty much every one of our top 5 worst things made it into my dreams) meant I knew I must have. Nevertheless, we brushed off the lack of sleep and set off, arriving at the park about 20 minutes before the race in time to put our chips on and get ourselves ready (Alice is number 1399 and I’m 1400)
That feeling just before is always horrific (don’t let the smiling faces in the pictures above fool you). You’re all panicky and stressed and worried but you can’t actually go until you cross the start line. Alice and I were (obviously) faffing a lot and were still queuing for the toilet (so as to avoid number 3 of our top 5 worst things) by the time 9am came around but there was still a huge crowd of people waiting to start by the time we got to the start. We walked with the crowd and I became more and more nervous until – at last – I could start running and then I knew there wasn’t much else to do. I’d made a fresh new playlist and so I just tried to enjoy the music and go. I had an added bonus of seeing my Mum just after the start line which gave me another little spur… I was off!
I normally use Nike Plus to track my runs but don’t when it’s a race just in case it goes wrong or something happens that throws me off. This means I have to rely on my music to be a sort of pacemaker. For me, a mile is about 2 and a half to three songs so I just to try to keep that in my head as I pass each mile marker. I tried to pace myself as we set off and, as we had started so far behind, I overtook the 2h30 pacemaker, then 2h20, then 2h15… I never overtook 2h10 but this made sense as my last marathon was 2h11 so by this point I knew I had found about the right pace. I got to the half way point and was feeling good. I love that feeling during a run, where you just feel so content with putting one foot in front of the other, where you’re aware of your surroundings but don’t really take them in, where you just go. The only time I really took anything in around me was when I periodically became astounded by the amount of supporters and volunteers cheering us all on, it was so amazing. Props especially to whichever genius made this sign, something that can make you chuckle on a long run is always appreciated!
I didn’t really start flagging until the 10 mile point. Oh dear, I could feel I was slowing down, I could feel my legs were sore, I was losing motivation. Every so often I would get a spurt of determination and zoom ahead but then I’d panic that if I did that I would lose steam, so I’d slow down again. It’s always the stress of a time that makes the difference. I’m sure if it was just a training run it would have been fine but I was hoping for as good a time (if not better) than last year and I knew I must only be a little ahead of the 2:15 marker and the worry that he was just behind me was adding to the pressure. I tried to shake it off but I couldn’t and then, sure enough, he overtook me. No way was I letting this happen… I shot off into the distance! Hooray, my stamina was back and I felt great again…until I turned a corner onto a huge hill. The whole course was actually fairly up and down and there were a few big hills but they were usually followed straight away by their glorious downhill counterpart so that was OK. This one was an ordeal to say the least. I was already running out of steam and worried about the marker behind me and I did, in the end, let the marker overtake me but I remained pretty close behind him. Finally, we returned to Lammas park and I knew this was the end. I tried to pick up the pace but I’m sure I only went a fraction faster, I was really tired at this point. Then, finally, AT LAST, the finish line was only a little way ahead of me. I sprinted faster than I ever have before. WHOOSH! Finished, done, finito, complete!!!! My family were right there at the finish line and I just felt great. The timer said 2h20 when I crossed it but I knew it would be a little faster given how faffy we had been at the beginning. I had no idea if I would beat last year’s time but who cares, WE DID IT! I found Alice who had crossed the line about 5 minutes before me and I just felt so proud and happy (and sick and sore).
Aside from post-run sickness (which I am always partial to on long runs… any tips on overcoming this most welcome!) I felt OK, just needed to rest. Once I had got over the sickness – I won’t go into too much detail here – I could just melt into that feeling of total elation when you simply feel smugly sore. No sickness or seizing, just a little achey and so ready for bed. When we did get into bed we had a quick look online and the times were up. I ended up finishing at the exact same time as I had done the year before – 2 hours 11 minutes. Alice came in a little faster at 2 hours and 7 minutes. Overall it was such a proud day and, dare I say it, I can’t wait for my next one!