“Marathons make you miserable, but they also give you the most unlikely and the most indescribable pleasures. It’s a world that I love – a world unlocked when you dress up in Lycra and run 26.2 miles in the company of upwards of 30,000 complete strangers. Even when I hate it, I love it still.”
The back cover of Phil Hewitt‘s book Keep on Running: The Highs and Lows of a Marathon Addict gives you a fair idea that this is going to be an entertaining read. A light-hearted, but above all honest, account of the writer’s journey from an occasional runner to a full-blown marathon addict, this book resonated with me from page one. I shared his joy, I shared his pain, and I shared his understanding that the next one is never really the last one, no matter what you might have previously announced!
Like many of us, Hewitt discovered marathon running not as a whippet-thin racing snake in his early twenties, but in his mid-thirties, when the myriad demands of life – work, family and a niggling feeling that he was becoming an observer of life rather than a participant – made him want to try something new. A chance opportunity, a spur of the moment decision and he was committed to not only run, but to run a marathon, write about it for the newspaper he worked for and raise funds for charity at the same time. Quite an undertaking for someone who hadn’t run a step since the occasional short foray at university!
And so the stage was set for an addiction now dating back well over a decade to the late nineties. As readers, we become almost participants in that addiction as we follow Hewitt’s journey through all sorts of marathons – from big city races to much lower key local or trail races – taking in an assortment of countries, weather and even terrain on his never-ending quest to become a better marathon runner. We learn not just of his race experiences, but of the training, preparation and, in some cases, lack of preparation that shaped those experiences. Each chapter covers a different race and is recounted in an impressive amount of detail.
For me, the chapters detailing races I am familiar with were my favourites. Hewitt’s first marathon was THE marathon – London. London was my second marathon running experience, however I had been a spectator there before I had been a participant and Hewitt’s description of the thought processes before a first marathon certainly rang true:
“I was convinced…that I was never, ever, no never, going to do it again. One marathon was going to be enough. The marathon itch had lurked in my mind for a few years before the chance had arisen, and now I was going to purge myself completely of all mad urges in one insanely long run, after which I would return to normal life. No more getting up stupidly early on a Sunday and running 15 miles…No more aches and pains. No, I was going back to a life of leisure.”
Return to a life of leisure? Yeah, right! Every marathon runner had a first marathon. Every marathon runner I know (including myself) believed it would be a one-off event. We were wrong. We went back for more, and then more. We became addicts!
And so it was that as I read this book, I felt like I was running with Hewitt. I relived the London marathon experience, I relived the Paris marathon experience (my first marathon and one I will return to next month) and I relived the mental peaks and troughs that go hand in hand with running a marathon. As time passes, we forget the pain and the dark moments (usually somewhere after the 18 mile mark) which are overshadowed by the sheer elation of crossing the finish line and being handed a medal. As the aches and pains fade, we find ourselves considering what’s next. Hewitt, clearly, always has to have another race lined up in order to feel complete.
Of course running a marathon does not always go to plan and Hewitt is happy to share with us some of his less than successful experiences. Yet even after a bad race he picks himself up, enters another and gets on with it – a valuable thing for us all to remember when we have a run (or race) that just doesn’t go well. But regardless of whether a race went well or badly, Hewitt retains the humorous and entertaining style that had me willing him on to meet his goals in each race.
You see that’s the thing about marathon running, which Hewitt clearly understands – it offers something special. It’s a sport where we can compete in the same event as the elites. It’s a sport where your greatest competition is yourself. And it’s a sport where everyone can join in. As Hewitt puts it:
“All of us have got our lives, our jobs, our families, our routines, our habits, our foibles. All of us work to get from one day to the next. Very few of us hit the headlines. Very few of us aspire to. But train for a marathon, and for one day you can join the ranks of the immortals”
He concludes his point by writing:
“This is the way we become heroes – if only to ourselves. Sporting glory is there for the taking every time you line up at the start of a marathon – and that’s the seduction.”
And that, I suspect, is what Hewitt and so many others are addicted to. Something which can only be truly understood once you’ve taken on the 26.2 mile monster.
So if you’ve ever wondered why marathon runners keep going back for more, this book is Hewitt’s attempt to articulate the reasons. If you’ve ever run a marathon, then this book is for you. If you’re training for your first marathon, this book is for you. Heck, if your only experience of marathon running is lying in bed watching the London marathon whilst eating a bacon roll, this book is for you. True to its subtitle, this book really does present the highs and lows of marathon running – the perils, pitfalls and pleasure 26.2 miles can evoke. I throughly enjoyed it.