What a journey!

 

As people say, life is a journey, and I like to think that within that journey there are many roads to be explored. This year I have encountered several, and one that has brought great joy and now, satisfaction was a sixteen week training plan culminating in my first ever marathon run.

I have been running regularly for around seven years, but running a marathon wasn’t on my agenda. I had quite naturally improved by repetition, and every now and again would push myself to a five mile run and once even a 10K! None of these felt like hard work, and with a notion that I could run a half-marathon if I wanted to, I thought I should put my money where my mouth is, so looked to seek one out. Nothing was coming up in the Autumn for my preferred locations. Then I stumbled across information on the all-new Bristol to Bath marathon. Recalling what a personal trainer had once said to me "if you do a half marathon you’ll want to do a full one” I figured I may as well go for it. Little did I know that within training I would complete eight runs that were half a marathon’s length or longer!

In fact, I probably didn’t think much about how all-consuming the training would be. I followed the Virgin intermediate 17 week training plan, starting at week two, so sixteen weeks for me. It turns out that in that time I have run around 390 miles.

I stuck pretty close to the plan, just missing a few sessions here and there, and adjusting the plan if work got in the way. Alongside the running I did a session or two at Total Boxer each week, where I am a member. Practicing both boxing skills and yoga was a good way to balance & strengthen myself in every way!

Through the training plan, I learned there were ways to vary the runs too, such as Fartlek and Threshold running; things I had never heard of before. Interval running is a combination of very fast running followed by slow running in short spurts. I did not take to this kindly.

I don’t own a Fitbit, and I never listen to music whilst running, but I have been using an APP called Runkeeper for the past few years. When I was getting prepared for the marathon I downloaded a couple of very popular running-app’s that everyone seemed to be using. One of them predicted it would take me 4 hours, 34 minutes and 59 seconds to complete a marathon. I decided they could stick their predictions where the sun doesn’t shine, and promptly removed the apps. You’ll have to wait and see if my confidence was justified!

Somewhere within training I picked up a niggly knee, and resorted to wearing a support for several weeks, but thankfully it righted itself. Even though I’d been running regularly for a long time, within a few weeks of training one of my little toenails got damaged, and has been black ever since - nice! I was getting further toe damage on my right foot with my middle toe suffering the most. I thought I should get them checked out by an expert, and the podiatrist informed me I had Roman foot! Apparently I must have roman ancestors as my middle toes are longer than my big toe which is why I am suffering from extra pressure as the toes squash into each other whilst on the move. The things I’ve learned along the way! She gave me some interesting little squidgy 'toe socks' for my middle toes: elasticated bandage-like things with cool silicone gel inside. They fit over he toes and alleviate the pressure caused by the other toes whilst running. They have really helped, but despite having no pain I do have three bruised toes following the marathon. I don’t think running is for the vain!

On the whole, training went well for me, and the 'easier week' happened to coincide with my birthday week - this meant less running and more indulging on the finer things in life! The week that followed was my worst: I had swapped the days to accommodate my long-run, which at fourteen was the longest I had ever done. Looking back in my diary I see that this was the fifth day on the trot I had been running, and the day before I did a four mile run, went on a bike ride and took a hardcore Yoga class - no wonder it was tough!

That 14- mile run indicated a problem I was going to encounter time and again when I ran long distances, and I’m afraid you get to share it! Turns out that if I run further than 11 miles or so my bowels start to complain. I would insert an exclamation mark here, but it’s really not funny. It is so off-putting, and takes your concentration away from where you need it. 

A friend suggested I take rehydration (salt) tablets before a long-run, which I did with varying degrees of success. They are pretty gross, and only help to a certain mileage. During the marathon I had to use the facilities twice, and wasted five minutes queuing for the loo, so if anyone has any ideas on improving this problem I would love to hear them! 

Did I mention I moved home at around the ten-week mark. It seems I juggled my days around, and I can now see that I ran forty-two miles that week: good job I wasn’t scrutinising my training plan at the time!

As I hadn’t participated in an organised race since my schooldays, I figured I should find a half-marathon to test the waters. I signed up for the Wimbledon half marathon, and on a glorious Sunday morning I headed south. I hopped on a bus at Putney Bridge and crossed the Thames to see early morning rowers on the river. The bus slowly filled with runners and it felt good. Around three hundred and fifty people took part.

It turned out to be more of a trail-run, and I almost lost my footing on a tree root: that could have changed things somewhat. On the whole, running remains primarily a solitary pursuit for me, but I do think that it was a better experience for long-distance running, having others to inspire, track and pace.

Again, my stomach turned at around eleven miles and I had to make an emergency stop, but it was a great run, and quite an overwhelming ending…with maybe a half mile to go there was a woman running near me who sounded like she was hyperventilating…anticipation of the end was palpable and I felt a mild anxiety rising within. Luckily, I managed to abate that and strode to glory, happily awaiting my entourage: Son, best friend and her daughter. In I came, looking for a familiar face, but no, they weren’t there! I spluttered a few expletives and promptly grabbed my complimentary flapjack and a medal sporting a Womble. Give yourself a pat on the back.

I came in at 1 hour and 57 mins, which put me 2nd out of 28 females in my age category. Not bad at all!

Me and my Womble - Wimbledon Half

Me and my Womble - Wimbledon Half

As marathon day drew nearer and the distances tethered down, I played homage to some of my favourite running spots. If you are unfamiliar with London, I would like to assure you that London is a far greener city than most people give it credit for. I have two favourite parks in Tottenham: Downhills Park and Lordship Rec, and just south of them, Finsbury Park and Clissold Park. I did a good amount of my training in these parks, and love them all!

An old work colleague of mine is a veteran runner, and became my unofficial coach by messenger! He lives in France, but knows London well and sent me some routes. One of which sounded ideal, and despite running it three times, varying the distance it was flawed every time! I am not an experienced enough runner, but was told to take it easy on the outbound journey as it is uphill (not obvious hills). Anyway, the first time I did it I got completely lost in a maze of residential streets, and did not keep my cool. 

The second and third times my phone died, which meant I wasn’t 100% sure I had covered my distances. As well, on the third run my stomach was super unhappy, but luckily there is a public toilet there which I believe I visited three times!

To balance things out Rick also gave me my favourite route and a lot of reassurance and advice, so thanks Rick! That favourite route incorporated large parts of London, including St.James, Green, Hyde and Regents Parks. I saw the Shard, Buckingham Palace and Big Ben. Healthier than a bus tour any day!

River Crossing - worth 30 seconds!

River Crossing - worth 30 seconds!

I feel like I should mention food here, but apart from eating more and more as my training intensified I didn’t change anything in my diet - apart from eating more biscuits than normal! I did start making notes of what I ate before a long run and found that scrambled egg on toast, one coffee and an orange juice set me off nicely. I wouldn’t consume anything before 90 minutes of running, and then chose a 'Nakd' cashew bar to keep me going.

It was funny after a long run, I would immediately eat a sandwich or something, have a bath and promptly start preparing a full meal. Food was, and to be fair is never too far from my thoughts!

An antagonistic friend of mine recently asked me what I am running from. I associate running with going somewhere, not running from. When I was a child and into my twenties I used a bicycle as an expression of movement: the speed, the feeling of air rushing past my face. I’ve always liked the sense of ‘going’. Now is not the time to psycho-analyse myself, and maybe I am running from something, but I must enjoy being some kind of fugitive, because it feels damn good!

With three weeks to go I knew I was race - fit as I completed 68 mins of mixed training with a smile. This involved a couple of ten-minute threshold runs: these were explained somewhere as ‘comfortably hard’ and that works for me. Even the interval runs 3x (4min interval 2min easy) went well - this is the type I thought could kill me when I first attempted them. Sprint running was never my forte. 

All I had to do now was stay well and injury-free for three weeks!

By chance it turned out that a good friend of mine was going to be running the same marathon - his first too. Him and his wife live a lot closer to Bristol than I do, and kindly offered to put me up for the night before race- day. We ate a hearty Lasagne with some London-baked bread. As the night progressed we got less chatty and the anticipation started to kick-in. Matt pinned his race number onto his shirt and I laid out all my bits!

 

KIT

 

Well-wishes started coming in the night before the race and continued throughout the morning. I was staying in the depths of Somerset where mobile reception is sporadic, which resulted in me being woken a couple of times by my phone buzzing as the airwaves came to life. I read a message from my brother in a sleepy-haze which simply said ‘Jog-on’! We share a harsh sense of humour.

Race Day!

I ate less than I usually do before a long-run, but it didn’t seem to make any difference. 

Tracey drove us into Bristol. With a mix of excited chatter and quiet reflection, you could feel the tension in the air. The elusive date of 25th October 2015 was finally upon us, and in less than five hours we were hoping to be calling ourselves marathon runners. Eek.

We joined the throng of people gathered in Queen Square, and soaked up the pre-race atmosphere. Heading to the start line Matt & I agreed that we would start together, but had no intention of trying to stick together throughout - I am not sure we even managed the first mile side by side! 

The first eight miles or so were very pleasant - heading out and under the Clifton Suspension Bridge, a Bristol icon. Along that stretch the sun glistened on trees of yellow and a climber could be seen above us on the rock-face. One of my highlights was a booming set of drummers on the roadside: their bangs resonating off the rocks kept spirits high. The route turned back on itself here, so we got to see the front-runners and clapped them by…it was quite reassuring once I’d turned myself, and could see I was ahead of hundreds of people. So far, so good!

The more you run, the more you learn to gauge your distances and times, and can adapt to the race at hand. With this one I didn’t really think about the distance until 11 miles or so, whereas during the half-marathon I would have been counting down miles 12 and 13 with a mild anxiety!

I took my first toilet break just before the half way mark, and I was surprised to still be in Bristol. I couldn’t really tell you where we ran, but we flowed through many a village, and the crowd-support was just amazing. As the miles notched up, so did the number of people lining the streets and geeing us along. You can’t take it all in or appreciate as many spectators as you’d like, but here are a few recollections:

  • For quite some time I must have been running amidst two men called Tom and Rob. I figured they were local heroes or something, as so many people were wishing them well. The penny finally dropped and I realised that they had their names printed on their shirts! I got a few of my own “go on Stroke Association”!
  • When walking up a very steep hill in one of the villages, a man shouted to me ‘there’s a bottle of white wine around the corner’ in a thick west-country accent. Priceless!
  • Who knew Jelly babies were an integral part of marathon running? People stood outside their gardens, and on street corners with offerings of these sugar-fuelled infants
  • A gaggle of boffin-type looking people were cheering on the runners, one holding a piece of cardboard with a raised rectangle of tin-foil. It read ‘touch here for extra power’. I had no choice!
  • Kids with their hands outstretched seemed to be everywhere; weirdly like when people want to touch a famous person at a rock show or movie premiere. It was very endearing. 
  • I fist-pumped a stranger!
  • One of my biggest highlights was on approaching a water-station around 20 miles or so, and I recognised the girl handing me the water, then her Mum, brother and Dad…it was an old mate Paul and his family. As I was in motion, I turned excitedly to say hello and it put a bounce in my step. It turned out that Paul’s daughter’s Guide troop had volunteered to hand out water. It was a great effort from all the water-handlers and race officials. Sadly, I did see at least four people requiring medical attention, and hope they didn’t suffer too much.

We had been warned about the hills, especially a monster at around twenty miles, but there were many and varied. People would be cheering us on saying ‘this is the last hill’, only to be presented with another one, a mile down the road. It got a bit ridiculous in the end.

I have another problem with long-distance running and that is my tendency to stop dead. I have coined people like me ’Stoppers’ and at least on marathon day I discovered I was not alone! Sometimes it’s like I am just bored of running, others it’s some warped psychology where I tell myself ‘don’t stop, don’t stop’ and then I go ahead and stop! I never stop moving, but I stop the momentum. Madness! It’s especially annoying as my general running pace is decent, all things considered. To be fair, my left knee did start playing up around the 21 mile mark, to the point I would call it pain, so that made me stop a couple of times.

On one such slowing-down exercise I met a guy called Paul. He told me I should jog with him as he was working on the basis of run for nine minutes/walk for one. That seemed like a good strategy, but I think I made about 7 minutes before stopping again and Paul called out ‘that’s not nine minutes’. I ignored him, but that is not the end of Paul…

I hope you can sense from my words that this truly was an amazing experience, and as I continue to write this (now a week later) I am just as excited as when I crossed that line. 

With about four miles to go, my thoughts fluctuated between ‘I wonder how long it would take to walk the last four miles’ and ‘come on, you’re nearly there’. I often work out percentages when I run, so I would have been thinking ‘you’re well over 80 percent’ which is always encouraging. 

I’d say I faffed around between 22 and 24 miles, thinking about my knee, getting annoyed with hills, reassuring myself, being happy it was nearly over, knowing I was going to complete it. Miles 24-26 weren’t bad and I think I ran consistently. That last point-two of a mile however was a royal pain in the arse; short, blind roads. Corner after corner and even some small slopes that loomed like Everest. On the approach to the finish I heard a familiar voice, my marathon-mate Paul saying come on, let’s end this together. We ran together briefly, but I couldn’t keep up.

With around 100 metres to go I saw and heard my brother on the sidelines, then my son, Dad, and Mum who was holding a sign saying “Go Amanda!” After my Wimbledon experience it was great to see them there. Here's my reaction:

Happy Runner!

Happy Runner!

When I finally crossed the line, my first thought was ‘I actually did it’. It was somehow hard to comprehend. Paul was just ahead, so we high-fived and hugged. I thanked him and that was that, my marathon journey was complete. The family were well impressed!

As it was such a glorious day, we hung around a while. I got a complimentary massage from ‘my physio plan’ and we went to cheer on some of the runners filtering their way to the finish-line.

I am looking forward to reclaiming my Sundays, nearly as much as I am looking forward to putting my trainers back on, and who knows where that might lead!

Time to complete: 4hours 14 minutes 22 seconds. Job done!

So, that’s my story, and I am sure every person who ran that day has a different story to tell. I’d love to hear any tips, or anecdotes from other runners. 

p.s I heard there were two successful wedding proposals from marathon runners that day-is that a thing?

p.p.s I forgot to say that I raised over £600 for Stroke Association - thanks everyone!

Matt and me

Matt and me

The Fam

The Fam