This is the first in a series of posts about my ongoing recovery from an achilles injury.
Part One: Joy and Sorrow
It has been 18 months since I last ran a marathon. I am absolutely thrilled to be here. In the interim period I have had to miss two marathons through illness and injury. This is the nature of the 26.2 mile monster: you train for months and make sacrifices that non runners just do not understand to line up and attempt to achieve peak performance in a set location on a set day at a set time in the story of your life. There is no room for deviating from your routine, no other race you can try again for next week or next month. This is it.
Today is extra special as I have gained entry to the championship start. Dedicated tents, small numbers, a VIP warm up where I run my strides alongside the warm up pace of E. Mutai. Conditions are perfect. I am surrounded by some of the best club athletes in the country. All the men have run sub 2:45 at a previous event and all the women sub 3:15 to earn their place to be here. I don't chat to anyone, trying to stay calm and in the zone that I have created in my head but inside my heart is dancing. I smile at the irony that I am just as excited about running about 29 miles today (including warm up and cool down) as I used to be about going out on a Saturday night. The delicious anticipation of it all.
We are assembled behind the elite men, a respectable distance apart, but not so far that I can pinpoint my exact location later that day when I watch the race on the BBC iplayer. I bounce nervously up and down and it is only now that I feel the twinge that has been present all week in my achilles that I have explained away as just part of the taper. And then we're off.
I can't stop the smile that has spread across my face. It is a moment of complete joy to have arrived here, to be experiencing this again and to have the best possible chance of a good time under the circumstances (I am going for 2:54). But then I pull myself back mentally, I hear the words of my coach and coaches across the country: don't go off too fast.
Despite my privileged start position I am surprised at how busy the run is in the first 1-2 miles and this number increases as we merge with the other starts at 3 miles. I had forgotten how much mental effort was required at London just to make sure I don't fall over. The plus side of this is that the miles fly by in the early stages. As I cross the 5km mat, I am passed by my club mate Thomas who I know is going for a similar time and I am thoroughly cheered by seeing him. However I already know that something is not right. My right achilles is throbbing up the right hand side and I am hoping this is going to dissipate soon. All week I have run no further than 3 miles and I feel confident that a few miles more and I will have run this stiffness out.
At 6 miles, I am getting on target pace after slightly slower first few miles than planned. The pain is there and in fact it is worse. Doubts start to creep into my head about my ability to finish and I remember a conversation with my coach who said there is no shame in dropping out of a marathon. I remember agreeing with him at the time thinking that in the overall scheme of things, I am going to run many more marathons and hope to venture into ultras in the future too. I think how sensible I felt during this conversation thinking that I wouldn't sacrifice long term goals for short term glory. I had misjudged myself.
After 8 miles I started to think that I was doing myself permanent damage. I was still managing to stick to my splits and maintain form but I was in considerable pain which was had spread up into my calf. At 9 miles, disaster struck as I heard someone call my name and turned to see my brother Gerard in the crowd with a massive saltire flag waving encouragement. I had no idea he was going to be there until this moment and my heart began to somersault in waves of gratitude and love for his support and despair about letting him down. How much money had he spent flying down as a surprise?!
At this point I determined to get to the halfway mark to at least say that I had run a half marathon. I trundled on and crossed the halfway mark around 1:27 ish which I couldn't quite believe. I was in a lot of pain but I was still running a good time. I was also feeling good within myself apart from the pain in my leg. Maybe it would still go away. Maybe Gerard being here was a sign that I should continue. I even prayed: please God tell me if I'm being stupid!!!
I decided to carry on. I knew my aunt Jacqueline and cousin Georgia were going to be at the 20 mile mark and I felt certain that Gerard would be between 13 and 20. In a previous London marathon he had managed to get to three separate points. My splits started to fall. I couldn't maintain form any more, this was getting serious.
Every mile I looked for Gerard but I couldn't see him. I realised I was going to have to pull out at 20 miles. I knew jacqueline would understand, I could collapse in a heap, she would call Gerard and I would save my leg. Mile 18, mile 19, no Gerard. I was walking when I could but the crowd wouldn't let me. Every time I staggered to the side to limp for a bit, the crowd would start clapping and yelling "come on 163, you can do it" and then break out into rapturous applause when I broken to a hobble as if I was none other than mo farah. This is the only way I got to 20.
I saw Jac and Georgia and ran over to them with tears in my eyes. "I'm injured, I can't go on". e
What are you talking about they yelled at me declaring the immortal words, "only 6 miles to go!!!" I couldn't believe it. I thought they would understand and allow me to walk off the course but I hadn't reckoned for the power of the supporters.
My thoughts switched back to Gerard. My baby brother would look after me. He would understand and look after me. As soon as I had been rejected by Jac, I had asked her where Gerard was and she said 21 or 22. I was overjoyed. Later I would find out she lied to make me keep going. I kept going walking at all the water stations as it was quite warm. The crowds were getting busier but still I couldn't see Gerard. Where is he? Mile 23 passed and then I remembered ALex, my friend who had promised to be at mile 24. I couldn't see him either. Between mile 24 and 25, there was alex! He nearly missed me but I had never been so glad to see anyone but him. We waved at each other and he screamed encouragement and pumped his fists at me. Some of his energy rejuvenated my spirit.
The end was near and although I was still in pain I was in a new head space. I knew I was going to finish. I wasn't going to get the time I wanted but I realised that by some miracle I could possibly get under 3:15 meaning I could come back and do this all again next year. I had retreated completely into myself, no longer aware of the crowds but focussing on form and getting there as quickly as I could. Just after mile 25 I heard Gerard again and felt his energy transmitting over to me. I even managed a fist pump any murray style which he reported back to the family that I was doing fine and there was nothing wrong with me. As I turned I to the finish, a scene I have played over and over in my head since, I was overcome with emotion. It had been so difficult but I had felt the love of my family and friends including those who I knew were tracking me from afar carry me home and I realised this was not just for me but for all of them too. Thank you to everyone, you all know who you are.
As I ran down the home straight, the DJ was introducing a new song. I couldn't believe my luck when the village people came on and I crossed the line not with my arms in the air with joy but making the 'y' of YMCA.
3:13:20 on the clock. I was going to be able to return again next year.
"When you are sorrowful, look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight"
- Kahlil Gibran