Marathon, Man

16 Apr 2014

Almost straight out of the gate, I make a newbie mistake. I feel good, so I run fast. Not stupidly fast, but I'm pacing for a 3:48 race, when my original goal was 4:00-4:30. So I'm zigzagging through the crowd, wasting energy, thinking "C'mon, you slackers! We can go faster than this!"

Turns out we can. For about twenty miles.

By mile 21 I'm in trouble. I grip the badge I'd pinned to my vest the night before, and say out loud "Alright.. this one's for you". I'm not sure if it's the dedication, or the sugar gel I've just finished, but I feel an immediate surge of energy, and start cutting through the crowd again.. for maybe half a mile. Near the next mile marker, the badge falls off and crunches underfoot.

Twenty two. Thoughts of a close friend, her block-lettered slogan hidden under my running belt. It keeps me moving, but I can't get my pace back, hopelessly behind on the splits, and slowing down. The 'slackers' from the first three-quarters of the race are beginning to stream past me. This isn't good, but I've had worse: here, I'm worrying that I'll have to walk, but in the Beast, I worried that I was going to collapse. I don't think it's that the Beast is tougher. I think that I've gotten used to this feeling, and recalibrated.

Twenty three. Another gel, and a warm smile for the cartoon cat hand-painted on the bottom of my vest, and its author. I'm nearly crying. It's not pain. I'm not sure what it is. Perhaps it's simply that the circuits that keep life from being overwhelming need fuel, like everything else, and they're not getting it.

Sometime after 24, something new happens: my legs stop working. My stride is already shortening, but now I'm finding that I can't stabilise my feet when I put them down. It's like trying to run on noodles. And it's serious, because it's not a matter of gritting my teeth and pushing through. The hardware just doesn't work any more. I know how to handle fuel exhaustion, because that's always been the battle in my training runs, but tapering and carb-loading have meant that that hasn't happened here. So I have no choice: I drop to a walk, a few hundred metres through a tunnel where there are no spectators. It's not that I don't want them to see, it's that I can't bear the thought of them trying, uselessly, to encourage me.

But I gulp down the rest of my gels, a massive sugar overdose designed to get me through at whatever cost, and I come out of the tunnel at a shamble, if not a run.

Mile 25 to the finish was always going to be about my parents - not runners, nor connected to my charity, but very much the reason I can do this at all. In planning, I'd even thought about using my phone to video a racecourse dedication, but by this point I don't have the mental focus left to do anything much but keep moving.

It's the clock, in the end, that gets me going again. 800m from the finish, I realise that I'm not going to make my new-but-somehow-now-desperately-important 4:15:00 target. 600m away, it looks dicey. At 400m I realise that it's just-about-doable if I move. So I do, finishing, if not with a sprint, then at least with a real run, in 4:14:53.

I meet another Mind runner just past the line. We chat for a second, then put our arms around each other in silence as we walk towards the medals. I'm too tired to be buzzed; I just want a hug.

It's like that, through the finishers' funnel, the bag pickup, even the post-race reception: we all want to talk, but none of us can. I can’t even eat, another big difference from half marathons. So I stagger home, early, and sleep little.

In the few days since, the marathon has gone from feeling like it would never end to feeling like it never happened. People are already talking about their next one, but I'm not so sure. This knocked a hole in my life; for close to two weeks now I've exercised little, eaten strangely, slept sporadically. The opportunity cost is huge.

Worse, the goal posts move. A friend called me her hero, said she'd nearly cried seeing me out on the course, simple words that give me a glow that will last longer than the muscle soreness. And sure, I feel a kind of quiet pride. But I know that with a bit more training and a bit more strategy I could run the sub-4 that I accidentally set my heart on this time. I know this.

And that's how it gets you.

I’m glad I did this. But I don’t think I should do it again.