Marathons from the other side of the drinks station

I spent the last day of my leave (well until Wednesday) doing one of the drinks station for the Baht’at Trail Half and Full Marathon. It felt good to do something positive because I have been struggling since we got back. Yesterday was horrible. I was barely awake and when I was I couldn’t really be bothered to be. Maybe I was just really tired because after another full night’s sleep I felt much better when I woke up this morning.

There is something about volunteering and cheering people on that is exhilarating and fun. The course they were doing is pretty brutal! The elevation is just silly! Or as they say in the course description, it’s a tad hilly. Well yes it is, it’s basically just under a mile of flat and then just over three of fairly relentless up – then I am not quite sure of the Ilkley Moor loop they do but it involves very little flat. Marathon runners do the entire thing twice.

We set up the drinks station and then waited for the marathon runners to come through. They were looking good and strong but one or two admitted they had underestimated the hills – I’m not surprised, I live here, I have run those hills, they always seem utterly unreasonable! The views however are stunning. Not long after the marathoners the half marathoners, the sane people in this lot, started coming through. And then the first lot started coming back down…

I enjoyed cheering people on, filling up their drinks, encouraging, handing out sweets, having a quick chat, being part of it for a split second and sometimes a few minutes. There were a few things that struck me about this event in particular

  • It is incredibly friendly. Maybe that’s easier because it’s small. 30 odd marathon starters and 80 odd for the half. It made it easier to really care about people and for them to be more than just a race number. I felt a little bit invested in each of their runs.
  • The course really tested everyone and stretched out the field. I loved how everyone was just running their race; some taking it seriously and going for it; others stopping for a good chat every time they came to see us; others taking their drink and fuel and giving us a nod. #TheirRunTheirRules and it was fabulous to see.
  • The event was as plastic free as possible. There was almost no rubbish at all really. The picture is the total rubbish from our drinks station and most of that was stuff we picked up in the lay-by as we set up – we left it cleaner than we found it!
  • All runners were great about the no plastic cups. One lost his hydra cup on the way somewhere (I hope he found it or could get another) so he got a plastic one which he then took with him to use at the other stations and there was one other occasion where the cup was too tangled up so we used a plastic one to save time. Yes it takes a few seconds longer but it makes a huge difference and I think all events should think about this!
  • The no plastic etc seemed to have a really positive impact on how runners dealt with their own rubbish. Everyone seemed to keep hold of their gel packs and other wrappers etc and use the bins at the drinks stations. We had to pick almost nothing up and those bits we did were dropped sweets and things falling out of pockets.
  • The last runner got the same experience as the first. We were the last as well as the first drinks station and we did not pack up anything until we knew he was safely through and had what he needed to complete. There was no way we were running out of anything and the same was available to the back of the pack as for the front runners. That’s important to me – obviously as a back of the pack runner – but it was nice that the whole event had that same ethos.
  • I kinda want to run it. Just the half mind, there is no way I could persuade my brain to get my legs to go back up the hills if I made it round the first loop!
  • This is my sort of event. I felt like I belonged, like I was part of something. I know I wasn’t running so there was no pressure on me to move but still. It was such a contrast to London. It was what running should be about – being out doing your thing in beautiful countryside.

So it’s been a good day. I had a great time watching people conquer the course (even where they felt a little defeated by it!) and also watching swallows, the cows in the field opposite, red kites, some farm cats and a kestrel. So for those of you who run or those of you who don’t – volunteer. It’s such a good way to get involved. It’s such a great way to be inspired and see people achieve great things. If you want to redefine possible – and watch determination, a special sort of humour and just pure awesomeness, volunteer at a half and/or full marathon! It’s great to see it all from the other side!

For those of you who ran it: Thank you for doing it. Well done. You rock! I hope your tomorrow is a gentle one without stairs and without hills and with cake, lots of cake!

VLM Got This Very Wrong

So it seems the marathon broke me a little bit. I managed to get myself though work on Tuesday feeling really tired and sore. Once I got home I started feeling progressively worse and about 7.30pm went to bed feeling shivery, sick and feverish. I had an unsettled night with a high temperature and a very uncomfortable tummy and lower back. Yesterday was pretty miserable, slipping in and out of fitful sleep and with a funny sort of tummy ache and migraine-y type headache leaving me not quite knowing what to do with myself.

I feel a little better today after a better night. I’ve even had a bit of food and am now actually sitting up on the sofa (watching the Lion King). I have been scrolling through social media and news posts from the marathon and catching up with people I know who ran it. Most of them thankfully had amazing experiences. I know people who went sub three hours and I know people who were slower than I was and lots and lots in-between. I am really excited to hear that they had the great race and the fantastic experience the London Marathon promises.

However, I am also hearing and reading about a very different experience. One that I find really upsetting and one which makes me really really angry. You can get a snapshot of that by reading the BBC online article ‘London marathon runners ‘called fat and slow’ by contractors‘. It is quite clear that slower runners did not have the same support or experience that everyone else had or which all runners should be able to expect. I have to be honest, when I saw 6.15, 6.30 and 7 hours pacers (I didn’t see the 7.30 pacers at the start) I was excited! It is actually rare for there to be pacers at any event that mean anything to me. Even at parkrun the pacers are often out of reach! So to see pacers at the back end made me feel welcome, made me feel part of it. I was excited.

The experience of those at the back seems horrendous! Imagine being laughed at, told to hurry up and generally mocked – and that by people who are supposed to be supporting you. Then imagine being sprayed by clean up fluid and possibly getting chemical burns. And all of this while running in an event you have trained hard for, that pushes the boundaries of what is possible and for which you have raised 1000s of pounds for charity. Just imagine that for a second.

The experience of the back of the pack runners here was not only disappointing it was also dangerous. Water stations being dismantled not only sends a real message of ‘this race is not really for you’ but can also have serious consequences. Yes, even slower runners might have a hydration and fuelling strategy that is based on the advertised water and Lucozade stations. When those stations do not exist the consequences could be pretty serious. Even as I was coming through water stations in the latter half of the run I could see that they were packing up. I don’t think I need to really spell out the dangers of making runners weave through traffic or even just pedestrians.

So what’s the answer here? It re-opens the debate about cut off times for some. But the thing is, the Marathon is supposed to have an 8 hour cut off time. The instructions clearly say that if you fall below a certain pace you might have to move to the pavement but if you finish within 8 hours you get an official time and medal etc. So while that is not ideal, I also get the need to re-open roads etc. However, if you have an 8 hour cut off time then you need to guarantee that everyone within that pace can finish and finish safely. To me that means ensuring that all runners are properly supported, that the marshals are still on course, that the drinks stations are there, the mile markers still up and that those who have had to move to the pavement are supported by having a path cleared. If you can’t do that, then change the cut off time.

Yes that’s right. If you cannot support all runners on the current cut off time then reduce the time allowed to a point where you can. I know that might be a controversial point but honestly, as a slow runner I would rather look at a race and decide not to enter because the cut off time is too tight for me than run it thinking the cut off is ok just to find that they didn’t mean it. Don’t ever give a token nod to inclusivity – that’s worse than not being inclusive at all. Of course, given London Marathon’s status as one of the biggest charity fundraising events and the huge number of first time marathoners taking part, it would be nice if it was genuinely inclusive.

So I can’t help but compare this marathon to the Dopey one in January. There was no hint of packing up anywhere along the course. Yes there is a cut off time – one that is advertised everywhere and people do get swept but the 16 minute mile pace from when the last person starts is advertised and that’s the one that is enforced. It is clear what is expected and what happens when you fall behind pace. We weren’t right at the back for that one either but as we left the race retreat we saw people coming through the finish and the support for those runners was phenomenal. The course was very much still open.

It’s not like I would want to run London again anyway but having heard and read about some of these awful experience I certainly wouldn’t want to. VLM got this wrong and apparently that’s not something that just happened this year. So I am adding my voice to the call for a genuinely inclusive London Marathon, for an apology to those runners at the back of the pack, for a re-think of how the race should be managed so that everyone can have a positive experience, whether they run sub-three or just sneak in within the official cut-off time. Just get is sorted.

London Marathon 2019 – 3: Reflections

In my last post I shared the run pretty much as I experienced it as I was running it yesterday. In this post I want to share a few thoughts now that running the damn thing is in the past and emotions and thoughts have had time to settle.

People have been gently taking the piss whenever I have said that this is my last marathon. But I was being serious and the experience yesterday just confirms that decision. It just wasn’t fun. And doing it on my own was just horrible. So on reflection there are a number of things I learned yesterday.

  1. There are no shortcuts in a marathon. You can’t wing it. If you haven’t trained enough it’s not going to go very well. I was undertrained. I knew that. I tried to follow a plan that was actually too hard for me. I couldn’t sustain the weekly miles and therefore ended up missing some runs – usually the speed or strength runs and I didn’t have the miles in my legs to reach my A Goal (which was 5.45 if anyone cares)
  2. Even if you are completely marathon fit and physically everything holds up over the distance, marathons are mental. You have to really want it. You have to have a reason. Without that reason it is almost completely impossible.
  3. Kath is my reason. I see no point in running 26.2 miles if she isn’t doing it with me. I mean there’s just is no point. It’s just a long lonely fucking boring run. I didn’t have anyone to share my thoughts, to laugh at things, to cry with and to share the whole experience with.
  4. Marathons are partly about how much pain you are prepared to tolerate. That means that you have to want it, really want it which takes us back to 2 above. I was in a fair amount of pain and I didn’t want it enough to push through that pain barrier.

I was ok until about 9 miles. I struggled a bit after seeing Dad at the cheer station because it was emotional but I settled again. Then the tummy cramps started. With hindsight it is blindly obvious that they were the beginning of period cramps. A week early but period cramps they were. I’m sort of pleased really because it means that I ran a 6.28 marathon on day 1 of my period. Some months I barely crawl out of bed on day 1!

My head went when I lost all the time in the toilet queue. My confidence went when I realised that rather than being ahead of pace I was now behind and the minute that happened I lost the chance of a sub six hour finish. I can blame the fall all I want, that’s not what did it. Losing confidence and letting the loss of time get to me is what lost me the 6 hour finish. That’s just the way it goes.

The fall was just one of those things. The pain will go. I walked almost all of it from the mile 15 marker where I fell with very few runs but I can’t honestly say how much of that was physical and how much of it was mental. I am glad I finished. I do think that long term I will look back at the grit and determination it took with pride. Right now I am just glad it is over.

I’m sore today. We both are. I must have been compensating to protect my knee because my right ankle and lower leg are tight and sore. My hamstrings are very very very tight. My hip is stiff and feels bruised as does my knee. My left knee keeps twinging and my lower back is grumpy. I am tired. We woke up early, really early and sat in bed with a cuppa and a piece of flapjack before going for a walk round the Serpentine (our Hotel was just opposite Hyde Park). We walked very slowly and for about 3/4 of the walk it felt good and felt to be loosening things but it was perhaps just a little too far and pain crept in again towards the end. Flat and straight is fine, any camber and going round tighter bends is awkward, uphill uncomfortable and downhill just evil. Stair are a bit hit and miss so there’s lots of wincing because the pain comes as a surprise. Up is better than down.

After the busyness and noise of Sunday it was lovely to watch herons fly across the Serpentine, see geese and their goslings, moorhens, ducks, swans and all manner of birds including what we both think might have been a reed warbler. It’s what we needed and it was in such stark contrast to the marathon. We need green and air and creatures and natural noises. That’s where we thrive and that’s where we need our adventures to be. And most of all we need to be together.

We’re home now after a relatively easy journey and it’s nice to be back, to have the cats around us and to just relax completely. Work tomorrow but I won’t be going anywhere fast! The heron card Kath made me which I mentioned in the last post survived the run and I need to decide if I want to frame it or if I want to keep it with me. It’s something really special, so special that I was initially reluctant to share it – but here it is.

London Marathon 2019 – 2: The Run

Can I be honest? Please don’t hate me. The thing is, I don’t actually like the London Marathon. Oh undoubtedly it’s a great city marathon and I like watching it on TV and maybe if you can whizz through at 5 miles a minute or less it’s a nice course but otherwise it’s not much to write home about. And yes the crowds are plenty and loud but nonetheless, I don’t really like it. It’s just iconic and somehow a bit special but no.

Anyway, we had porridge and then slowly got sorted. Then we got the tube,IMG_5092 then another tube and then a train to Greenwich to get Kath to the red start area. As I left her to continue on to the blue start we were both quite emotional and for the first time the reality of us running this thing separately dawned on me. I walked away with tears streaming. By the time I got to the start area I felt better, back to settled. I handed my bag in and found somewhere to just sit for a while. I had my wholemeal roll with peanut butter and then I lay back on the grass just drifting. After a while I thought maybe I should go for a pee. I headed over to the toilets, looked at the queues and instead decided to brave the female urinals. Let’s just say it involve cardboard devices and an ability to be fairly accurate. It was an experience. Just before I entered the start zone I went to the proper toilets which were almost queueless by then. I was ready to get going now. I chatted to a couple of runner’s around me for a bit, everyone playing it all down and just being there to finish etc. I don’t buy it. I know they have a time in mind and I know they are here to race – themselves if nothing else.

Then we are off. I set my watch to go and settle in. I’m going too fast as I am keeping pace with the 5.15 pacers. Let them go. I keep repeating that over and over. Just let them go and slow down. Just coming up to a mile I drop into run/walk. I felt ok. Not great but ok. I’m still going too fast. I spend the next few miles telling myself to slow down. I am still going too fast when I pass someone I know and say a quick Hi and tell her I’m feeling good and strong and urge her to keep going. I’m 5 miles in and everything is ok. I’ve let the pacers go and I am closer to the pace I should be at. By mile 6 ish I’ve got there. This is the right sort of pace to get me under 6 hours. I get to the Cutty Sark and gently run my way round the bend and wave at the camera. It’s all good. I’m beginning to think ahead. Only about 2 miles until I see Dad. I look forward to that. I keep plodding. I do a mental form check. I’m doing well. I see the Mind cheer station and get a really loud cheer and I see Dad at the end of the line. I run along it and high five everyone and give Dad a hug. As I run on and turn away from the cheer station I struggle to keep the emotion in check. I take some deep breaths and run on.

Mile 9 and a bit. There should be a cheer station by someone I know somewhere here. About ten miles I think. I look for it but I miss it. I notice that my tummy is crampy. I decide not to ignore it but stop at toilets. At just after mile 11 I see a short queue and join it. I check the tracker and Kath has gone through half way and shows on the map as around 26km. The woman in front of me goes into the toilet. She takes forever and comes out 7 58384116_10157239650874721_2171688099405365248_nminutes after in completely new kit. Something was wrong there, some sort of cheating but there’s nothing I can do and I have lost all the time I was up on my six hour goal. I set off again but I miss Kath. I have a little cry. My head is slipping. My six hour marathon is slipping away. I don’t like doing it without her. It feels wrong and I feel very very alone.

Twelve miles done. I keep plodding. The odd extra walk sneaks in and I am getting slower. I’m lonely. I try and get a grip. Tower Bridge. I wanted to run Tower Bridge because I felt too poorly to last time. I set off and then I stop. I want to enjoy it, take it in. I run a bit and walk a bit. I smile and I look around but it just isn’t the same. I miss Kath. I come off the bridge and turn right. I run a bit and walk a bit. I keep looking at the faster runners on the other side of the road. I don’t think I can get there but remind myself that I always think that. I keep hoping I might see Kath. I cry a bit more. I don’t want to do this without her next to me. I don’t see her. I keep plodding.

I come up to mile fifteen. I can see the marker on my right and ¬†have just come through a Lucozade station. ‘Shit that tarmac is slippery’ pops into my head as i find myself hurtling to the floor. I don’t remember much, just hitting my right knee and hip hard as I do a sort of undignified roll and bounce action and push off my left hand to get back up. Nobody stops, nobody helps me, nobody asks if I am ok. It hurts. I want to stop, just walk away, just fuck the fucking marathon. I don’t need to finish four. Three is just fine. It fucking hurts. I keep moving with tears streaming. I don’t really know why. Forward motion seems the best thing to do. No point in standing still. Nowhere else to go. I check my phone and the tracker. Kath hasn’t moved. I suppressed the panic. SHE HASN’T MOVED.

I keep moving though. I don’t want to do this. I want to stop. Mile 16 comes and I’m still walking. I don’t even remember seeing Mile 18 to 21. It’s all a blur of missing Kath, trying to run just little bits and keep putting one foot in front of the other. In the previous three marathons I have doubted my ability to finish. It never occurred to me to drop out but the possibility of not making the cut off time or being pulled for medical reasons was always there. This time I knew that if I wanted to I would get to the finish. I just wasn’t sure I wanted it enough to keep going. BUT KATH HASN’T MOVED. Logistically, though, I think, the easiest way to get to find out what is going on is to finish this bloody marathon. I keep trying to convince myself that it is just the tracker, that Kath is probably fine.

Somewhere on that stretch the 6.15 pacers from my start come past and I try to stick with them for a bit. They had started not far behind me and I think that maybe, just maybe if I can go with them I could still get a marathon PB. But I can’t hold on. Or maybe I just don’t want to enough. I’ve had enough of the crowds now too. Yes the support is loud and people shout your name but somehow it felt edgy. Some of it was alcohol fuelled and aggressive. At one point I had a brat of a lad pint in one hand and megaphone in the other running backwards in front of me shouting encouragement. I didn’t have the energy to sidestep or comment so I just had to wait until he stopped and picked his next victim. The support at the Disney races felt somehow more real, more genuine, less of a game. There were exceptions to this. Somehow it felt like I knew when the shouts of encouragement came from other runners, there is a tone, an understanding, a real empathy that comes through. It says ‘I know that everything hurts, I know right now you don’t believe so let me believe in you for you’. Most of the support just sounded hollow to me. Like being loud and shouting supportive phrases was just some kind of sport in itself.

I pass Mile 22. I miss Kath more than ever. ¬†‘Well you didn’t think you’d gt here, yet here you are, I think. I keep touching my tinker bell necklace and the little heron card Kath made for me so she could be with me in spirit. I know I can walk 4 miles. I know I can finish. I still don’t know if I want it enough though. Just 3 miles to the Embankment cheer station where Kath might be but I try not to think about seeing her. I try to go faster but I’m not sure I actually do. I get the the Embankment. I am hoping it will give me a boost. I feel nothing. I feel like I am done. A guy wearing a finisher medal walks along side me on the other side of the barricade. He is being lovely and genuine and I hate him. ‘Don’t give up now. You are so close, don’t you dare give up now’. He was of course right. Giving up now makes no sense. I’d have to cover the same distance to recover my bag – might as well do it along the proper route. My watch beeps for 25 miles. I am about half a mile up on the official markers so half a mile until I might see Kath. She’s not there. The Mind team gives me a little boost though. I run a few steps.

The last bit. I don’t know exactly when I start running but I suddenly realise that I could get round in under 6 hours 30 minutes if I push just a little. I tap the heron for power and set off. Everything feels like it might snap. ‘No faster’ I tell myself ‘just nurse it home’. I turn alongside Buckingham Palace. I keep my eye on the crowd. Dad will be somewhere on my right as I turn for home. I don’t see him. I must have missed him. Disappointment hits like a punch to the stomach. And then I decide I really have had enough of this marathon. I want it to be over. I don’t feel like I can run any further and the pain in my right hip and ankle are outrageous so I fix my eyes on the finish line and run. Not fast, not sprinting but gently speeding up with every step just willing the finish to come to me. That last hundred metres is probably the hardest fought 100 metres I have every run. And then it’s over.

IMG_5102I stop my watch. Under 6.30. I get my medal. I take a selfie and start the long walk to get my bag. I look at my phone. Kath had obviously tracked me and had sent me a text. I ring her. She’s waiting for me where I exit the runners only area. I mix my recovery drink and walk to find her. Only when I see her do I find out that she had finished. She’d completed in under 5 hours in spite of also having a pretty rough time. Our adventures are better when they are together sort of adventures. This was not a good adventure.

We worked out where the meeting point was where Dad would be together and made our way to meet him. We posed for a couple of pictures and then made our way to the restaurant by our hotel again. We wanted to be away from crowds and noise. We had a nice meal and re-lived bits of the race and chatted. Then we went to the hotel for a bath and bed.

And that was my 2019 London Marathon. I’m glad it’s over.

London Marathon 2019 – 1: The Build Up

IMG_5037As you know the last bit of preparation for the marathon was not ideal, I had a horrible cold and chesty cough that seemed to take forever to clear and my last couple of runs were short and slow and hard work. Not ideal but nonetheless I felt excited about going to the running show to pick up our race packs. I did this on Thursday after we realised that I was in London for a meeting anyway and could change my train tickets easily and without massive extra cost to come home a bit later.

The running show was actually quite fun. I hadn’t really expected that. I IMG_5034collected our numbers and timing chips and then had a look at the stands. I joined the trail running association and bought amazing looking flapjacks from flapjackery and gorgeous chocolate from Carole Armitage Chocolates. I spoke to quite a few race organisers about their marathons, carefully selecting those with shorter distance options! This is my last marathon after all. I picked up loads of leaflets.

IMG_5055I was late home on Thursday and I was tired! Friday I was unsettled and couldn’t really focus on work. Eventually we went for a little trot out which was harder work than I really wanted it to be. Still though I was excited and only mildly terrified. Later on I packed my bag, worried about what to take, repacked my bag and continued worrying about what to take. I didn’t sleep well. On Saturday morning we were both awake early, much earlier than we really needed to be but we tried to have a calm and relaxed morning and then got a lift to the station. We were on our way.

The journey was fine. The train to London wasn’t busy and the coffee was ok even if the pastries on the LNER weekend service are inedible. The tube was busy but at least we didn’t have that far to go. We arrived at the hotel which was decidedly average ad checked in with the ‘help’ of a totally disinterested receptionist who was too busy trying to have a private phone conversation. Then we looked for lunch. Rather than wandering around IMG_5029aimlessly for ages we just opted for the ASK Italian even though we had a booking for the evening there too. The lighter options were actually just right for lunch.

After lunch we laid out our things, packed our drop bags and got sorted. I still felt more excited than scared. We watched a bit of TV and I dozed off for a while and then it was soon time to go meet Dad for dinner. We had a good natter and I fuelled on lasagna while Kath went for Spag Bol. There, ready! Now it was really just about getting a good night’s sleep. I wasn’t really nervous. I was looking forward to it. Marathon number 4! Yay!

IMG_5091Re-reading this post I realise it says very little about the emotions of the build up, about what I was thinking and feeling. I think that’s maybe because I wasn’t. It was sort of all consuming and life was split into pre marathon and post marathon with the latter being forever away. Yet I felt very little and thought very little about actually running the marathon. I knew that the reality was that I was undertrained. At the same time I also knew that I could get my backside round the distance. It felt a bit like there wasn’t much to think about and emotionally I just felt settled that whatever was going to happen was going to happen.