I ran the London marathon this week. How mad does that sound? I still can’t quite believe it.
Ten years ago I set myself a very wishy washy goal that I would run a marathon before I was 30. At that time, I was a very different person. Still young at 24, and not really knowing who I was or what I was capable of, I had recently taken up running half-heartedly, in a bid to lose weight after gorging myself on all manner of Italian food while I was working out there. I had completed a Race for Life, then a couple of 10ks, and then signed up for a Great North Run to which I neither fully committed, nor trained for. It was a horrible experience which I only completed in 2 hours 35 minutes because I had Dan by my side (and the marvellous Red Arrows for the last mile). Nonetheless I went on to face the same nemesis for two consecutive years.
In the spring of that third year of running, in 2004, I went to support Dan in his very first marathon in London. As a spectator, I was immediately hooked on the energy of this magnificent race and decided I would love to do it one day. Then I promptly forgot about it. I graduated from university, Dan and I got married, and moved to Lincolnshire to start a new life. Running took a backseat, until the summer of 2010 when I decided to take the first tentative steps to running again. Over the summer I fell in love with it, and in the autumn I set up a running group in my village with my husband and two of our friends to inspire others to love running too. One other person turned up that first night, and gradually we grew into Witham Runners and a hub of our community. People began to refer to me as ‘the running lady’. I somehow gained credibility as a coach, so I took qualifications. Running was a big part of my life.
Fast forward two years, and three half marathons later, and I decided to enter the London ballot for 2013. Then, over a glass of wine with two of my running friends, we made a back up plan and entered the 2012 Chester marathon. I drew up a training plan, we started our endurance training, and then I discovered I was pregnant. Once again the marathon dream was put on hold, although I continued to support the long run training from the relative comfort of my mountain bike. I watched my friends and my husband complete the Chester marathon, cheering them on as a member of the race crew. One week later, my husband’s knee in bits from the pounding of the Cheshire roads, our postman brought news from London. Fate apparently knew I was pregnant and I didn’t have a place in London 2013. Dan, however, did. He made a very sensible decision to defer his place to 2014, based on his injury and the fact we would have a newborn, which would mean little time or energy for training.
In March 2013, my daughter Allegra was born. By that point, I was a frustrated runner, who had been out of action for 5 months, keen to put my trainers back on. Six weeks later I entered the London marathon ballot, this time to support my husband. If 2014 was going to be my marathon year, fate would decide. Then a week later, I began running again. 20 minutes the first time, feeling like I would burst open my lungs and my c-section scar. Gradually, I built my strength and endurance back up to a half marathon in October. Then news from London once again dropped into my letter box. I had a place. The hotel was already booked. Dan was already in, with his place from 2013.
2014 is the year that Dan will tell you I became a different person. I drew strength from some invisible force inside me. I was running six, sometimes seven times a week. Throughout the winter, I would regularly rise at 5:30 to go out and run before the baby woke up and Dan had to get ready for work. I learned to run on my own, something I had never before enjoyed and was the reason I had started our running group. Dan spent six weeks out of the country with work, and somehow, I stuck to my training plan, fitting my long runs in around friends and family who offered to babysit. If it was blowing a gale, or dropping hailstones on me, it didn’t matter; it was my opportunity to run and learn to be stronger. If I had to drive the 280 mile round trip to my mum’s so she could look after Allegra for me while I ran, I did. It has taken a village and a huge support network to train for this marathon, and for that I am thankful.
Sunday 13th April 2014
The two weeks leading up to the marathon had been stressful; I won’t lie. Judgement day was inevitably close, and I was frustrated with excess energy from tapering. I admit I had actually worried I may die during the marathon. I’m completely serious, and I now know a fellow runner did collapse on the day and subsequently die in hospital, so this wasn’t an irrational fear of mine; I absolutely respect the marathon as a serious endurance event. For me, it wasn’t a fun run, it was a test of my physical and mental limits, so it was a relief to be finally standing at the blue start where I could let go of all my worries and just get on with it at last. Dan and I said our goodbyes as we entered our separate pens, and I stood with thousands of unknown kindred spirits, soaking up the atmosphere; silent, meditative, calm and resolved. I heard the race start. We shuffled forward slowly for around ten minutes, then at last I saw the start and I began to run.
Already, people were shouting my name: “Go on, Shell,” “Good luck, Shell” and I felt brilliant! I waved to them. I gave them the thumbs up. I high fived a load of kids. What an incredible high! Then I immediately stopped at a portaloo for a wee, where I had a little chat with some ladies in the queue who were also having the same pre-race nerves.
3 miles. We merged with the red start, and I had settled into a good, comfortable pace at ten minutes per mile. I felt a tap on my shoulder, and it was a fellow runner from my club back home. An early boost to see a friendly face.
6 miles. I could hear the crowd noise increasing and I could sense we were getting close to the Cutty Sark. I had been looking forward to this section, as I knew it would be full of energy, and I was not disappointed. The crowd was five or six deep, and I was on a total high, getting a buzz every time somebody shouted my name. I took a selfie here, which conveys my joyful mood.
I can’t really remember the bit after the Cutty Sark. I just got lost in thought and was focused on reaching Tower Bridge, another 6 miles away. I felt good though. My legs felt strong, I was feeling confident. I took on sips of water at every station, ran though the showers on route, including the hosepipes held by thoughtful firemen …
Then I turned a corner, and there was Tower Bridge. Wow. It looked amazing in the bright sunshine, all glistening and glorious. I remember looking at my watch at this point, my thoughts flitting to the men’s elite race, and thinking Mo Farah must have just about finished his race. Then my phone rang. It was Dan. ‘How are you feeling?’ he asked. ‘Strong,’ I replied, ‘You?’ ‘This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,’ he confided. It turns out he was at the 16 mile point, having set off with a friend of ours chasing a sub 4-hour PB until his glutes started cramping at mile 10. The intense sunshine wasn’t helping. We agreed to keep in touch and speak in another few miles or so.
I had by this point reached the halfway point, and gave myself a mental high-five. I was just counting down the miles now until the finish. I looked forward to reaching Canary Wharf in another 6 miles, where I knew I would see the UKRunChat cheer point for a boost from my fellow Twitter users who had given me a lot of support over the past few months throughout my training.
14 miles. I could feel myself starting to tire. I took another gel and a sports drink, and ran on, but I was started to experience Runner Rage. I was feeling annoyed at the bottlenecks on the route as the crowd took up half the road, forcing runners to squeeze through a smaller gap and trip over each other. It was messing with my running stride. Other runners were knocking my elbows as they overtook. A few tripped me up with their feet. For three miles I gritted my teeth and bit my tongue, although a few sweary words may have escaped under my breath. Dig in, dig in, I told myself. You’ll get through this in a bit. I couldn’t hear the crowd anymore. I was looking inward, while watching the arms and feet of other runners to avoid them.
18 miles. I saw the towering buildings of Canary Wharf. The field of runners seemed to have spread out all of a sudden and I had some room again. Wow. My anger was forgotten and I could feel my spirits lifting again. I felt like I was flying as I entered the echoing space amongst the reflective office buildings. The noise from the spectators was incredible. My mood soared, and suddenly I was superwoman again, flying through the twists and turns of the most exciting part of the route. It was so busy! Once again, everybody was yelling my name. I was whooping, I was clapping, I was cheering, I was grinning, I was invincible! I remember urgently scanning the crowd for our UKRunChat banners, and then, just after the 19 mile point, I saw them, and ran over to them like some possessed madwoman. Bear in mind I chat to these guys on Twitter, and I had only met a couple of them for the first time the previous evening at a carb loading meal, so I didn’t really know them, but I was quite free with the sweaty hugs (sorry guys!) and I posed for what has become my favourite race picture from the day. I look so excited by the whole marathon experience, and it portrays my feelings perfectly. (Thanks @crouchendcoops)
Boosted, I ran on, and phoned Dan again as I made a loo stop. He was at 21 miles. He was suffering. I had just had a gel, a hug from some awesome Twitter people, and I was Superwoman, remember? I was going to save him! I ran on, knowing my husband needed me. I scanned the runners ahead, looking for his luminous yellow T-shirt. I grabbed two gels at the next fuel station; one for me and one for Dan. I was on a mission to find my husband and carry him to the finish line on my shoulders if I had to. 20 miles, 21 miles, no sign of him. I slowed to a walk and tried ringing him, but there was no answer. I tried to run again. Owwwww, suddenly my glutes didn’t work. I felt like they had cramped up, packed up and refused to move. I gave them a massage (appreciate that may have looked weird) and tried to run again. It hurt. I was still scanning the runners ahead for him. 22 miles. At this point I began to cry. I wanted desperately to find Dan and give him a hug. I was aware of spectators shouting my name as I walked/hobbled/attempted to run on, with tears streaming down my face, and snot bubbling, but I was lost inside myself. I wanted to reach the 23 mile point, where I knew I had some friends waiting for a much needed boost. As I turned a corner, I spied a lady holding out pieces of banana and took one, yelling my thanks as I willed my legs and my glutes into a run again. This time I was Banana(wo)man! To the rescue!
I was now on the home straight, I knew. We entered a tunnel, and I remember seeing enormous great balloons with motivational messages on them. Pain is temporary. Glory is forever. Enjoy the moment. You are so close. Never give up. I was tripping on sensory overload at this point and had fallen into a kind of running coma where I felt totally alone, and I think I took them as a personal message to me from some higher force. But they worked so much that I missed the 23 and 24 mile markers completely and I was suddenly able to draw energy from the crowd as I ran out again into the sunshine on Embankment. I suddenly saw two friendly faces, Nicki and Laura, two very good friends of mine who had come to spectate. I burst into tears when I saw them and stopped for a hug and some more banana as I composed myself for the last leg, then I ran on.
As I approached Big Ben, I remember speaking to Dan on the phone again. I was crying properly at this point, huge gasping tears rolling down my face as I gathered every last drop of energy from my body to finish this marathon. Dan told me he was waiting for me just before the finish so we could cross the line together and a huge relief washed over me, but I was so overcome with the need to preserve every ounce of energy to run, that I remember shouting at him not to ring again because it was taking too much effort! The photo I took of myself at this point doesn’t really convey my absolute misery. I felt spent, but I remember thinking to myself that I could walk the last bit and still make it back within the 5 hour mark, and this thought somehow spurred me onto run again. I turned the corner at the Houses of Parliament into Birdcage Walk for what would become The Longest Half Mile of My Life.
800m to go. I wiped the snot and tears off my face. I was weaving from side to side of the road, trying to see ahead to the top of Birdcage Walk.
600m to go. I saw the St John’s Ambulance team assisting an injured runner at the roadside. I composed myself.
And then I saw him! I could see Dan standing at the 400m to go sign. I ran to him and burst into tears again. He held my hand and pointed to Buckingham Palace, and then the finish line. I had run a bloody marathon in 4 hours, 50 minutes and 43 seconds. I can’t believe I actually did it.
I am crying now just writing this. I never used to be a runner. If you’re reading this, and thinking you could never do this, you’re wrong. We are all capable, and extraordinary, and I know this now. Training for this marathon has had a profound impact on me; I feel a different, stronger, gutsier person for it, and I would encourage every one of you to challenge yourself with something you never thought yourself capable of, because you will be a better person for it.
I am raising money for Ataxia UK www.justgiving.com/shellsmarathon Thank you to all those who have given so generously.