I remember supporting my brother at the London Marathon in 2010, and having an abiding sense of relief that I was a spectator and not one of the runners, who appeared to be trapped in a world of pain of their own inexplicable making. In fact, spectating itself had felt like pretty hard work. I’d always identified as someone who could simply never run a marathon, and I was content with this status. I could do other stuff. I’ve read lots of books.
For many years after I’d recovered from meningococcal septicaemia, I’d had pins and needles under some of the deeper scars on my ankles, where the nerve endings were damaged. As a student cycling around Cambridge, I learned to push down on the pedals using only my glutes, since pushing down with my knees hurt too much. Running for more than about 40 minutes tended to aggravate both knees and ankles.
And even if I had never been ill, it seems likely to me I would have had this ‘not possible for me’ mindset anyway. People think I look like someone who would be good at running because I’m tall and slim, but I poorly designed feet: low arches, bunions, narrow heels and clawlike toes that don’t sit flat. A day’s shopping and they’re in agony. No, I could never run a marathon…
Whence the change of heart?
Way back in August 2016…
As usual, I was hooked on the Summer Olympics – I’d been glued to all sorts of obscure sports, but aside from the Women’s Hockey final and fellow Hounslovian Mo Farah’s repeated double, the event that stuck in my mind was the men’s marathon. I’d watched it, mesmerised, at complete random, gunning for Galen Rupp (who we all know is Mo’s training partner). Mo Farah, Usain Bolt, Simone Biles – they make it look effortless, superhuman. I had never seen an Olympic event before where the effort of the winners was so visible, where the achievement seemed to come at such physical cost.
If they can put themselves through that…But I always get inspired by the Olympics, and never do anything about it.
The Achievable Challenge
Around the same time, I received an email reminder to enter Run in the Dark, a 10k night run in Battersea Park for the Mark Pollock Trust. My colleagues and I had fielded a team the previous November; I decided to organise our entry this time round.
Hmm…now in 2015, 10k had been the furthest I had ever run. I hadn’t even been sure I’d be able to make it round the course, so I was thrilled with my time of 57 minutes. I was however appalled at the suggestion by an athletic colleague that I should now enter a half marathon, and I could join her in the Richmond Half! Pfth. But this time…I would do the same 10k, but I wouldn’t get the same sense of achievement that I’d got the first time. Hmm indeed.
Maybe I SHOULD enter a half marathon! The only problem was, I found running intrinsically boring.
I needed to listen to music to make it bearable, but I couldn’t listen to music because headphones irritate my ears too badly painfully. I knew I couldn’t do the amount of training required for a half marathon without music, so it seemed my nascent goal was killed before it had begun.
Then I made a game-changing discovery: bone conduction headphones, which conduct sound along your cheekbones instead of into your ear directly. After much poring over Amazon reviews I ordered a pair of Trekz Titanium, and although it took a couple of runs to get used to them, the effect was transformative. Running was fun! I could almost pretend I was dancing.
I googled ‘half marathon’ and discovered one in Wokingham, where my parents live. Perfect! They would be on hand to carry me home and give me chocolate. I signed up for it as soon as registration opened.
Then I started thinking…if a half marathon, why not a marathon? Spectating at the London Marathon in 2010, and a couple of times since, I had allowed myself to fantasise about the glory of having completed the marathon myself, before brushing off the image as just that, a fantasy. Of course, I could never actually run a marathon.
Or could I?
The Yoga-Trained Mind
As anyone who meets me finds out fairly quickly, one of my main pastimes is bikram yoga. I could write a whole blog post on why I’m an adherent. But there is one particular phrase the teachers often use, which came into my head: ‘set the intention’.
It wasn’t that I couldn’t run a half marathon, I realised, it was that I just didn’t want to. If I wanted to, I would set the intention and do it. But I didn’t want to. So that was fine.
Except maybe I did want to!
Crossing the Rubicon
I wasn’t sure how to enter the London Marathon. A quick google revealed the ballot was long since closed. Perhaps it was too late in any event. It occurred to me it might be possible to enter directly through a charity. There was only one charity I could run for, and my stomach did a flip when I clicked through to the fundraising page on the Meningitis Research Foundation’s website and saw the call for runners.
I spent a couple of days preparing my application form and sent it off. Everyone was always saying how difficult it was to get into the London Marathon, so I was pretty sure I wouldn’t get in.
Then a couple of weeks later, the email arrived and my stomach did another flip. I was in!
There was no turning back.
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