Today I ran a marathon - I even have the receipt to prove it. It… didn’t really go to plan.
Maybe it is a bit dickish of me to say “it didn’t go to plan” given that it was my first attempt at the distance and I finished, and my time was admittedly in the ballpark of what I was going for, but still. I suffered a lot during those 42.5km, and I feel entitled to have a little bit of a whine about it as a result.
I have been planning on attempting to run a solo marathon on this date, April 25th, for a while now, basically since the Edinburgh marathon got cancelled in the first week of March. I was still following a training plan for that race pretty consistently, and felt that I might as well continue to do so, and further that if I was going to keep following the training plan, I may as well run the actual marathon at the end of it. I also didn’t tell anybody I was planning on doing this, figuring I’d give the whole “don’t tell anybody your goals” thing a go - the polar opposite of my usual strategy. And obviously, it meant the stakes were a lot lower, if for whatever reason I didn’t end up doing it.
I’ve feverishly refreshed the local weather forecast every day for two weeks, checking to see what the conditions were going to be like today. The good news was that it was unlikely to rain. The bad news was that it was going to be windy. I had a slight twinge in one of my glutes in the past week, and took one of my taper runs off to rest it, but when I woke up this morning, I could still feel it more than I’d have liked. I looked outside, and the trees in the neighbour’s garden were being blown about a fair bit. I pretty seriously considered bailing, but figured I’d go through my whole pre-run routine and see how I felt, and then make a decision about whether or not to head out the door. After toast, coffee and some light yoga, my glute felt fine, and I reasoned that the wind was east-north-easterly - I’d get some help from a tailwind running to the west coast which would hopefully then be sheltered the whole way up, maybe I’d have a bit of a battle crossing back from north-west to north-east, but then might have some more help on the home stretch back to my starting point in the south-east. So I figured I’d better go for it.
I drove down to my planned starting point, laden with my vest, water, gels, a post-run snack and change of clothes, and optimistically my swimming stuff - I thought the ocean would serve as a refreshing recovery tool once I arrived back at my car. I warmed up and my legs felt surprisingly good, and so off I went. It was decently windy, but I’d expected it to be at this point, so I wasn’t too worried. I made it up the hill at the start of the route just fine, and was relieved to have got the only big climb out of the way. The next few kilometres were my usual easy-run loop from home, that I must’ve done a hundred times, I took it easy and felt comfortable, before making the small climb to the airport, the highest point on Guernsey (and so obviously also the highest point on the route). From there the tailwind I’d hoped for finally kicked in and I was fully warmed up; my legs felt great, and I flew down to Rocquaine, in the south-west tip of the island. I looked at my watch, and thought to myself that I was on for 3:45, and started the ~15km up the west coast full of vim and vigour. And then I realised I was totally wrong about the west coast being sheltered from the wind - not only that, I was wrong about the wind direction. It was blowing straight into my face.
Ask any runner, and they will tell you that wind is the worst kind of weather to run in. I would rather run in the rain, the snow, the freezing cold or the baking heat, even in the hail than in strong winds. It sucks. And today it really, really sucked.
After only 4 or 5km on the west coast, I was already feeling horrible. Running in the wind makes it impossible to get into a rhythm, instead you’re always speeding up or slowing down, even changing your body position, it renders you unable to relax into your stride at all. I had no idea how to pace myself into the wind - I know what my target pace is when it’s still, but I have no idea how to adjust that to maintain the same relative effort when it’s gusting so strongly. With the benefit of hindsight and being able to look at my splits, I definitely pushed too hard in those 5km, and should’ve been content to drastically lower my pace and save something for the second half.
Aside from all the practical reasons the wind sucks, it saps the energy from you, and not just physical energy either, but emotional. Before this morning, I’d been pretty confident - I’d done a handful of ~30km runs, and at the end I’d felt strong, like I had plenty more in the tank. I thought I knew what to expect. But at the halfway mark, I felt a lot worse than I have done previously after 32km. I knew I was breathing too hard, and my calves felt very heavy, whereas they’re usually OK. Emotionally I started to struggle a lot. I’d had a plan, and I’d genuinely expected to enjoy most of the run - I thought I’d done the hard work, I thought it’d only be difficult at some point in the last quarter. Every time there was a lull in the wind, I’d hit my stride a little, feel like I was moving well without using too much energy, and slightly get my hopes up that this might be a brief respite - and then a gust would pummel me, I’d lose my rhythm, and everything would feel so hard again. It felt cruel. It never really occured to me that I wouldn’t complete the distance, I just realised it was going to suck a lot more than I’d thought. I’d hoped my physical preparation was going to mean I didn’t have to rely on any kind of mental strength too much, but it was obvious I was going to have to dig really, really deep to get it done. I was on the verge of tears for pretty much the whole of the third quarter.
At some point, I guess around the last 10km, the fatigue really started kicking in. I’d definitely pushed too hard into the wind, and even though I was taking on enough water and having gels regularly, my mind started going. The fourth gel I took also made me start to feel pretty sick, which didn’t help. I was sure if I was going to throw up or burst into tears, or both. I started to get tunnel vision, but at least at this point I felt like I was running fairly efficiently, conditions notwithstanding. I was keeping my head up and trying not to collapse into the wind. At that point, there wasn’t really any emotion or any thought, just the sensation of tiredness, and a desire for it all to be over. I had hoped that after the west coast headwind ordeal, I would get a big help from an east coast tailwind… but of course it was not to be. The last 5k was pretty surreal, I just felt like I was floating along, there was nothing in my brain at all. Once I finished, I didn’t feel anything, not happiness, not relief, nothing. Before today I’d thought I might roar in celebration à la Chris Thompson, and then for most of the run I’d assumed I was going to start crying as soon as I was done, but there was absolutely nothing, apart from some slightly worrying dizziness. I sat on a bench for about 2 minutes but it was still, uhh, windy, and I had to walk a few minutes back to my car so I figured I’d better keep moving. It was a very slow walk, again with nothing in my head. Obviously I did not go swimming - at this point I felt like the wind was my mortal enemy and I refused to remain in its presence any longer than I had to.
It took me about 30 minutes of having sat in the warmth of my car until I really started to feel anything. And of course, I was happy - I’d done it, and the “it” in question was one of the hardest things that I’ve ever done. While I’d wanted to be sufficiently prepared to avoid having to tap into my capacity for suffering, I still didn’t give up, I didn’t even waver, I was accepting that I was going to keep going to the end the whole way round (during the points where I still had the ability to think, I remembered the feeling of watching Kipchoge cross the finish line in Vienna many, many times). I set out to do something difficult, and I succeeded. It was a good feeling.
While I may have completed the run on my own, I definitely couldn’t have done it without a lot of other people. Sam and Will not only kickstarted my love of running, but then gave me a tonne of useful advice about it along the way. Going to Vienna with them and watching Project 1:59 really made me think that if Kipchoge can do it under two hours, I can at least do it - as cheesy as it sounds, if he says that “no human is limited”, then I think I’m starting to believe in him. Everyone on Strava both giving me kudos as well as posting their own, usually very impressive, training gave me a lot of motivation to continue my own. Having Ted as an accountability buddy (accountabilibuddy?) to run a marathon this year made me determined to do it, and ideally before him. To that end, I’d like to take a few words to be smug and remind him that today I ran 42 kilometres while he is currently unable to run even 42 metres 😉. But most of all, I couldn’t have done it without my Mum. Living at home during the pandemic has been tough in many ways, but the fact that I’ve been so well looked after has played a huge part in being able to make it through the whole marathon distance - not having to think at all about food, washing or getting stranded 20km from home on a long run has given me so much time and mental space to train, and without those things I’m not sure I’d have been disciplined enough to be able to do it. So thank you, I am exceptionally grateful, even if I never do a good enough job of showing it.
This is a huge achievement for me, one of my goals for the year that I worked incredibly hard for, and I’m going to force myself to bask in that as much as possible for as long as possible. But, me being me, of course I have plenty of other running aspirations, and these ones I probably will share ahead of time, so stay tuned to find out what the next big thing is. I also know that running is one of those things that can be super uninteresting to talk about, so if you’ve read this far, then thank you; if you couldn’t already tell, this was kinda a big deal for me.