It’s over. After months of training, and 308 minutes of running (and a little walking) on the streets of London yesterday, the marathon is no longer a milestone I’m headed towards but an accomplishment I can look back on.
It turns out that the night before a marathon – especially, I presume, when it’s your first marathon – you don’t sleep very well. I was a mix of nerves and a little bit of excitement, but whereas Elizabeth said it felt as though she was on the verge of going on holiday, it felt to me as though I was ill prepared for an exam or job interview the next day.
All of the prep was done – clothes laid out, bags all packed – and it was just a matter of getting up early, showering, eating a carb-heavy breakfast of peanut butter on wholemeal toast, and then walking up to the train. From the station to the starting line there was a good atmosphere. Practically the only other people getting a train to London at 7:30am on a Sunday were either fellow runners or friends and family accompanying them. Leaving the train at the other end we found ourselves walking amid a melange of people in running gear pinning numbers to themselves and attempting to shake out their nervous excitement.
Once I had some paracetamol in my system, ibuprofen gel on my knees, my knee support in place, and a little vaseline on my nipples… I felt kind of ready. Kind of.
The start was a burst of nerves and good feeling as the music swelled and the noise of the crowds started. And it didn’t ever stop. The whole way around there was hardly a stretch of 50m that didn’t have people cheering, applauding, and urging runners on for hours and hours - it was quite a feeling and made me want to do something equally supportive for competitors in a similarly tough event in the future. I lost count of the number of people holding out offered half oranges and even slices of pizza. Reading the signs, meeting the eyes of encouraging spectators, it all helped even if it was just by giving my mind something else to do.
I think my attitude going into the event would have been more positive if I hadn’t failed to complete the three longest sessions prescribed in our training plan. As it was I literally didn’t know if I would be able to complete the course. That was what I found myself contending with about half way through. The toughest part was somewhere around 15 miles in: I started to feel nauseated, lightheaded as though I might pass out, and like running was the absolute last thing I wanted to be doing. I thought quite clearly at that point that not only didn’t I want to finish the marathon, but I could’nt do it. I remember thinking what a shame it was that all of the training had been for nothing. That was the first point at which I stopped to walk for a minute, and I managed to talk myself around. I switched isotonic drinks for water to calm my stomach, and switched my music off for a bit as it felt weirdly as though I didn’t have the mental capacity to process lyrics and melody as well as concentrate on running.
I honestly don’t know how I got through the next 4 or 5 miles. I remember hitting mile 18 knowing that was where Elizabeth’s family were watching from, and I amused myself momentarily by thwanging my sweat-soaked hat at her brother as I passed. Then I just kept going… and kept going. I ran as much as I could, walked occasionally when I couldn’t, and rode the highs and lows. Somewhere around mile 21, after walking for a couple of minutes, Kanye West’s ‘Black Skinhead’ came on shuffle in my headphones and I set my fastest kilometre of the race. I don’t know the psychology behind that, but I recall being amazed that my legs were still physically capable of what they were doing as I zipped past dozens of other tired runners. I actually had to make an effort to ease up for fear that my knees would just suddenly give out - I remembered clearly how I’d felt after similarly thrashing out the final 2 miles of the Dartford half marathon a few weeks before.
Another fortuitous musical moment came when My Chemical Romance’s ‘Bulletproof Heart’ began as I reached The Mall and entered the final 800m. It had been my unofficial anthem throughout the months of training, and I very nearly cried to hear it at that point. I stepped up the pace with a big grin when I wasn’t singing it to myself. The song ended with ~25m of the race to go, and I crossed the line to the opening strains of Elton John’s ‘I’m Still Standing’, which seemed appropriately joyful.
The whole process of collecting medals, meeting up with Elizabeth, and getting the train home all happened in an achey kind of blur. Then we showered, ordered pizza, and collapsed into bed before 9pm.
It turns out the night after a marathon you don’t sleep so well. I couldn’t find a position where my legs didn’t throb and ache, and my heart was thrumming and racing, possibly from dehydration. There’s a lot of thinking to be done about whether I’d ever do that again, and it still seems foreign to be able to say that I’ve completed a marathon. But there it is. Along with my MA this will be one of the major things I remember when I look back at my early 30s.