Today is a very special day. Do you know why? Well, today is Marathon Day: 26th February = 26.2! (yes, I know my friends in the USA write the date the other way around and that my continental friends use kilometres, but just go with it – it is a thing, honest!) For a Marathon Day special I thought I would write about my own marathon journey. Some of this has been touched on in other posts, but I thought it would be good to take the time to reflect on how far I’ve come and why 26.2 miles remains so important to me.
It all began waaaay back in the pre-blog days of 2009 and frankly, it was all Steve’s fault! 2009 was the year I “graduated” from being a bit of a fair weather plodder, to being a “proper runner” who trained regularly, regardless of weather, and signed up for “proper” races (rather than mass-participation charity fundraisers) thanks to the encouragement of a certain PT who had recently become a fairly permanent fixture in my life. I knew Steve had run many marathons (he was probably the first person I was ever aware of who had actually run any marathons, let alone several!) but I don’t think I had ever really considered marathon running as a genuine possibility for me. Despite a lifetime of watching the London marathon on TV every April, I still believed marathons were reserved for the super elite and the super fit. Surely impossible for someone like me? But that year’s London marathon changed all that. I knew Steve was training, but had little concept of what that really meant in terms of the commitment he was making, it was only when I travelled to London with him and watched the race live that I began to get a taste of what marathon running was really all about: the palpable excitement and nerves at the expo, the enthusiasm and energy of the crowd… and the people just like me running through the streets of the capital. I distinctly remember thinking, if they can do this, why can’t I?
And so the first steps on a journey that would change my life were taken. By the time the year was over, Steve and I were engaged and we had both signed up for the 2010 Paris Marathon. It may not ultimately have been the marathon experience I dreamed of, thanks to an injury sustained during training, but despite all the naysayers I completed that race (in a rather slow 5:01:03 – might have dipped under 5 hours if I hadn’t stopped for a toilet break!). Before the race if people had asked me about marathon running I would say something about how I wanted to do it just once to see what it was like, to be able to say I had done it, but far from a “one and done” experience, actually running the race made me want to do it again. I crossed the line tired, sore and feeling like I was under attack from my emotions, but I also crossed the line knowing that I DEFINITELY wanted to do it again. In London…
I was incredibly fortunate and secured a place in the 2011 London Marathon via the running club I was a member of at the time. Looking back, I can’t believe how lucky I was to get in and I don’t think I realised it at the time having never experienced the repeated ballot rejections that I have since become so familiar with! This time training went much more to plan and I completed the race in a much more respectable 4:35:28. I was overjoyed: I had actually run the London marathon, the same London marathon I watched on TV every year, and had achieved a time I felt to be much more representative of my abilities. For many, that experience would be the end of the road, but not me. My journey had barely even begun.
A few short weeks later I was lining up at the start of another marathon, this time in Edinburgh. I had taken on a double marathon challenge to raise money for a local charity, but having one marathon already in my legs that spring I had no idea how I would fare. I had achieved the time I wanted to in London, so this race was all about the experience, about completing the challenge I had set for myself and raising money for a good cause. But having run a marathon already meant that I could go into this race feeling much more confident and I felt no pressure to perform. Perhaps that’s why I was able to set myself a new PB of 4:32:17, despite running into that Edinburgh marathon headwind for the last few miles (my dad was running the last leg of the relay that year and as he caught up to me and asked how I was doing I could only grunt at him and watch, helpless, as he disappeared into the distance on his fresh legs!). I could have ended it there: 3 marathons, including London, a decent finish time, and a fundraising experience. That’s more than many others would ever do, but now my journey was to take a new direction: I wanted a quicker time.
And so my thinking changed. I was becoming more and more immersed in the world of running, something that led to me starting this blog, and I wanted to run a sub 4:30 marathon. I knew that 4:30ish was an “average” finish time and I wanted to be above average (delusions of grandeur, haha!), but this was not to prove as straightforward as I had hoped…
My first crack at my new goal was in 2012. My marathon of choice was the now-defunct Lochaber marathon, an out-and-back course on country roads around Fort William. It was always a popular marathon among Scottish club runners and I knew it would be a very different experience to the big city races I had taken part in so far. Training went well and I was hitting the paces I would need for a finish closer to 4 hours, but towards the end of March I developed a problem with my left calf and continued to battle with it right up to race day. My physio gave me the go-ahead to run, but with the caution that I should stop if the pain in my left side worsened (thanks to a biomechanical issue, I had developed bursitis in my hip and was getting referred pain in my calf as my body tried to adapt). I completed the race, but was off pace from the start, the last 10 miles were an uncomfortable, lonely plod and I burst into tears as soon as I finished. My time was still respectable at 4:35:08 (faster than London!) but I knew it didn’t reflect my training and what I thought I was now capable of doing. I had to chalk it up to a speedbump in the road and remind myself that there would be other races.
But contrary to my expectations, it was not to be in the following year as the road got even bumpier. With the niggling problem in my hip resurfacing at the end of 2012, I made the heartbreaking decision not to take up my place at the 2013 Paris marathon and work instead on getting back to basics, addressing my biomechanical issues and rebuilding myself as a stronger, more robust runner. As it turns out, this was probably for the best as in February of 2013 I succumbed to the flu. Proper flu. The kind where it hurt to just lie in bed and even a trip to the toilet was a huge undertaking (a visit to the doctor completely wiped me out despite my otherwise good physical fitness and for the first time I truly understood why much more vulnerable people could be at such risk if they caught the flu). Still, a year of focusing my training in a very different way meant that I could go into 2014 feeling much stronger and ready to take on the challenge of aiming for a 4 hour marathon, my new target after my training for Lochaber suggested I might be capable of this.
2014 was a year of challenge. Steve and I committed to raising funds for Macmillan Cancer Support and my part in this was to take on 3 marathons – 2 in the spring and 1 in the autumn. The first of these was Paris, having been so disappointed not to get there the year before. Spring training went well and I was delighted to finish the race with a massive new PB of 4:05:07! But my good fortune was not to last as yet again I picked up an injury as I headed into my second marathon of the year – Edinburgh. This time it was my tibialis posterior. I couldn’t believe that I had yet another injury and there was a lot of “why me?” angst. Much like in Lochaber a couple of years before, I had the ok to give it a go and once more found myself with a painful hobble through the final miles, this time finishing in 4:40:02. Quite a difference from Paris! Even worse, the problem continued all the way through the summer, forcing me to pull out of my autumn marathon in Loch Ness to ensure that I could properly heal.
Throughout my injury time I began to really seriously think that maybe marathon running wasn’t for me as I kept on getting injured, but my time in Paris made me think that I could aim for a sub-4 hour time and as my body healed I decided that I had to have another go. My journey was not over!
I had secured a place in the 2015 Paris Marathon and as the new year began it was time for the now-familiar routine of marathon training. That training began well, but as I headed into March the wheels came off. I had issues with nutrition, with feeling stressed about work pressures and something had to give. Inevitably that something was my body. What began as a tight calf soon evolved into a problem with my quad and I began to fear that once more my hip was going to be at the root of things. Fortunately a trip to the physio put my mind at rest when a mild strain to the quad muscle was diagnosed. Even better, I would be able to run in Paris, but had to make some sweeping changes to my training in the final weeks and found myself out on my bike rather than running. On race day my quad was reasonably comfortable, but I was aware of the muscle, a little like a constant itch that needed to be scratched, and what had begun as an assault on 4 hours turned into a much more sedate affair, clocking in at 4:43:39. Aside from that PB in 2014, I was actually getting slower! Yet once more rather than consider giving up, I decided to try AGAIN! I’m either incredibly tenacious, completely delusional or just plain mad!
I recovered well that spring and ran strongly throughout the summer, really enjoying my running again. And to cheer me even further, I actually WON my place in the 2016 Paris Marathon. Then it happened. What at first was a slightly niggly foot got worse and soon I was hobbling to my podiatrist hoping for a miracle. Instead, I got the diagnosis I had feared: a stress fracture of the second metatarsal. In the past all my injuries had been to do with muscles or tendons, things that would heal reasonably quickly, but this time there was damage to the bone. I had an Xray, I had taping and I had strict orders not to run. At all. Once more, I could see my marathon dreams slipping away and once more I considered whether or not I had reached the end of my marathon journey. But as I recovered well (following my podiatrist’s advice TO THE LETTER as well as listening very carefully to my body) I decided that since our trip to Paris was booked, there was no harm in actually trying to complete the marathon – after all, I was by then injury-free, I was just a tiny bit undertrained with my 10 mile long run and weeks on the bike. Still, what was the worst that could happen? I’d rather DNF than DNS and thought it would be fun to completely take the pressure off and just enjoy the experience. Which is exactly what I did. I kept the pace easy, stopped to enjoy a “buffet” of orange segments and sugar lumps along the way, took selfies and had a generally fantastic time. I learned a lot about pacing and was rather surprised to end up finishing faster than the year before with a 4:38:38. Maybe my marathon journey wasn’t done after all…
After several years of injury-blighted spring marathons, I decided to try something different and sign up for an autumn marathon. My thinking was that a lot of my training would take place in the summer when I would be at my most rested, and I looked carefully at my training plan to shake things up and reduce the impact on my body. I was convinced that my injuries were coming either from biomechanical issues (which had largely been addressed) or training mistakes (which I didn’t plan to repeat). I also decided to keep this one secret and see what happened when there was no pressure on me to succeed. Sadly, I didn’t quite make it to the start line. My hip was to blame again, but this time for very different reasons. The yoga I had been doing had helped to significantly loosen off the offending hip, but then it wasn’t strong enough to withstand the demands of my training. Despite my physio saying I could run the marathon without doing any damage, I decided it just wasn’t worth it. I had nothing to prove, after all I had completed marathons in much more dire circumstances. Instead I oped to pull out, work on strengthening my hip, and try (yet) again. To be honest, if I was reading all this about somebody else I’d be wondering why on earth they kept on returning to the marathon when more often than not it resulted in injury, yet I just can’t let go of my sub-4 hour dream yet. I’m so sure I have it in me and am determined to prove that I can do it, using all I’ve learned from past failures to make that dream come true.
Which brings us right up to date. I have a place in the 2017 Paris Marathon (spotting the pattern yet?) and so far training has gone well, although I am conscious that I’m now hitting the stage where things are more likely to go wrong. Still, I believe that I was simply unlucky at the tail end of 2016. I don’t really consider my hip problem then to be an injury as nothing was damaged, it was more of a reaction to operating with greater mobility and a lack of strength. Rather than a training error, this was simply bad luck. I also believe that I got the pattern of my training right and have continued to work with that in my current cycle. At this point, I am further into the training than I was in the autumn and I continue to prioritise strength work for my hips and core in my PT sessions. I’m also using yoga to help me stay flexible, having regular sports massages, trying to prioritise rest and listening very carefully to my body. So far it seems happy and I’m hopeful that this time I can complete a successful cycle of training and prove that my roller coaster journey to date has finally levelled out to a much smoother path. Regular readers have perhaps been following my training in my weekly updates, and with just 6 weeks to go, I’m still feeling optimistic. Only time will tell if I can finally reach my goal and use the (often hard) lessons from my marathon journey to find what I’m looking for. Wish me luck!
Tell me about your marathon journey. Have there been many bumps in the road for you?
Do you have a favourite marathon experience?