Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Running the London Marathon to raise money for CF

Posted by Mark

I warn you now that this is a long post but lots of people have been asking how the Marathon went so here it is...

At 13.1 miles I took a picture of myself at the halfway point. I look tired. My eyes are surrounded by salt where the sweat that has been pouring down my face has evaporated. My legs and feet are sore and my right knee has been complaining for the last 10 miles. This was not how it was supposed to be. I was supposed to arrive at the halfway point fresh and ready for those final miles. As it was I had no idea whether I would even make it to the end. The realisation hit me that although getting half way is an achievement, in reality it just meant that I had to do everything I had just done all over again. Every. Single. Mile. The thought did not fill me with confidence.

Before long I was at mile 14 and into unknown territory; never before had I run more than 14 miles. This was also not how it was supposed to be. I should have made it up to at least 20 miles during training but several injuries prevented me making it that far so I was curious to see whether I'd finish and in what state.

The day had started well. The journey to the start line was an interesting experience. Almost the only people on the train platforms were marathon runners, easily identifiable by the red plastic bags they were clutching that contained whatever change of clothes or treats they might need after the race. As we got closer and closer to Greenwich and Blackheath more and more red bags appeared at every stop until the carriages were crammed with them. It was like rush hour on a bad day but with none of the anger or frustration, only excitement and camaraderie. From the windows of the train I could see parts of the course awaiting runners and spectators. We passed the marker for mile 17 with its arch of red and white balloons and I wondered how long it would be before I saw it again and how I would feel when I did. 

Arriving at Blackheath we were greeted by three blimps, green, blue and red floating above the park to mark the three different starting points. Hot air balloons were being inflated at the start line and I began to feel nervous. With a light drizzle, the damp grass smelt like the early morning car-boot sales that I remember from childhood. Once in the blue start area, my red bag was loaded on to the side of a big lorry which would be driven off to the finish line for me to collect later. A large screen was showing the build up to the elite race that was about to begin an hour before the rest of us would be getting underway and music was playing to keep people’s spirits up. Some people were doing energetic warm-ups while most were queueing for toilets. I opted for some gentle stretches and mobilisation exercises, not wanting to use up all of my energy too soon. With a couple of minutes to go before the start time I made my way to area number 9, right at the back of the starting line-up. With hundreds and hundreds of people in front of me it was clearly going to be a long time before I would get to cross the start line. Eventually we started to move so I discarded the tracksuit bottoms and jumper I had been wearing and shuffled along towards the start line, picking my way through everyone else’s discarded tracksuits and jumpers (all of which get picked up and donated to local charities). A few minutes later the road curved to the right and we sped up as we were able to cross the start line. The sudden change in atmosphere was incredible. Music was blaring from the starting gantry and crowds of people were cheering us on as we began our 26.2 mile journey. It really felt like I was part of something special and I just couldn’t stop smiling. There is a brief glimpse of me on the BBC coverage at this point and you can see just how happy I am.

All advice on how to run a Marathon centres on making sure you don’t go too fast too soon. I had set myself a target of between 10 and 11 minutes per mile and as I crossed the first mile marker I was pleased to see I was bang on 11 minutes. Through the next several miles I was doing almost exactly 10 minutes per mile and began to settle into the pace and try and take in what was happening. Although I consider myself very much a Londoner, most of the marathon route is through areas unfamiliar to me so for the first few miles I had very little idea of where I was. I knew that the early part of the course through Charlton and Woolwich was where my great-great grandparents had lived and where my great grandfather was born and grew up before going off to fight in the First World War so it was nice to finally get to see some of that part of the city. I remember running past what I assume must be Woolwich Arsenal and was impressed with its quiet grandeur.    

After around 3 miles the different starts converge and it was quite a sight to see a great mass of runners on our left flank come down the hill to run alongside us on the opposite side of the road before we fully joined together. The going was still good at this point and as we ran through the street I saw the first of many live musical entertainments. For the most part the musical acts along the route were in the form of bands – many brass bands, some steel pan bands, a magnificent bagpipe band but here in Woolwich was a lone figure standing in the doorway of a pub with nothing but a microphone and an amplifier singing a wearily slow off-key rendition of ‘Rocket Man’ by Elton John. It was terrible but I loved it. Seven miles in I saw one of the kerb crews from the Cystic Fibrosis trust and their cheers of encouragement gave me a nice boost. At some point things started to look a little bit more familiar as I realised we were in Greenwich and must be near to the Cutty Sark but after a quick circuit of the great clipper it was back into the unknown streets of Deptford and Bermondsey. I was starting to get a bit worried about my knee and wondering if it would hold up. I overheard a couple of women running just behind me talking about painful feet. One of them said ‘My podiatrist says if it’s just background pain then it’s ok – you can carry on’. I took this as a sign and decided that this was indeed ‘background pain’ and wasn’t worth stopping over. However almost immediately I heard someone else to my left declare to his running partner: ‘I think I might pull out soon – I don’t think my leg can take much more’. I chose not to take this as a sign and decided to ignore any further comments I might overhear. 

Nevertheless things were starting to get tough and although I was still hitting around 10 minutes per mile it was getting much harder to do so and I was really starting to worry I wouldn’t have enough energy to complete the course. After a while I realised we must be getting close to Tower Bridge and this was the first point in 12 miles that I allowed myself to slow to a walk in order to catch my breath so that I would be able to run across the bridge. A group of supporters to my left urged me not to stop; not to give up and when I started running again gave me a big cheer. It was quite special to run across Tower Bridge and see the great river stretching out to the East and West and to be part of a huge swarm of runners crossing the bridge amongst the deafening cheers of the spectators.

From Tower Bridge it was out into the East of London again and before long the half-way point where I took the picture of me looking weary and salty. My original and wildly optimistic plan of simply running two near-identical half-marathons was clearly not going to work. I needed a new plan and it was essentially just to take it one single mile at a time. All I needed to do was to make it to the next mile marker, reset and then repeat. Unfortunately the intense focus this was taking me at that point meant that I missed seeing two of our amazing CF Team from the Hospital, Cath and Paul, who I later learned were around mile 13 frantically calling my name and who I completely ignored. If you are reading this Cath and Paul I am very sorry for not seeing you but please be assured that your cries of encouragement were noted on some deep level and undoubtedly contributed to whatever successes I may have achieved that day.

Once I got into the unknown territory of running further than 14 miles, my pace began to slow. What had started off as a consistent 10 minute mile was now slipping from 11 to 12 minutes. We had arranged that Juliette and the boys would be waiting for me around mile 20. I was starting to worry that they’d be expecting me. I started texting Juliette the miles each time I passed them: 16, 17, 18. Looking at my phone now I can see that the time between texts goes from 12 minutes to 13 and then settles into a steady 15 minutes per mile. What happened during this part of the Marathon is a hazy blur of images and sensations. I remember the curious feeling of running through the two parts of the course where they hand out energy gels. Passing through water stations you become used to hopping over the mass of bottles being chucked across the road, but here at the gel stations the ground simply became a sticky carpet of sugary carbohydrate energy gel determined to glue your shoes to the spot and the sound of sticky trainers continued long after the road was clear. I remember masses of hands holding out jelly babies in bags and plates and tupperware boxes. Even more I remember my excitement when an occasional tupperware box would contain Starbust and on one occasion, jaffa cakes and fun size Mars bars

Looking back at some aerial photos taken at mile 16 I am confused to see me with my hands in the air until I remember that at some point someone was playing ‘YMCA’ on the stereo and all the runners automatically did the actions. (I say ‘all the runners’. In the photo it is only me. But I assure you everyone in front of me was doing it too. Unless I was hallucinating, which I may have been and was in fact running down a quiet street on the Isle of Dogs acting as one of the village people. I suppose I will never know.)

By the time I reached mile 18 the only way I could keep up my 15 minute per mile pace was by running for 5 minutes, walking for 5 and running for 5. At one point around here I thought I would give myself a short rest at one of the mile markers but even after just 30 seconds of stopping my muscles began to seize up and starting again was excruciating. So I knew I had to keep going even if it was slow. For a long time my world just existed in 5 minute chunks. Five run, five walk, five run. The five minutes of walking were no breeze though. I remember reassuring my mum and sister who were worried about me doing the marathon that if I needed to I would just walk, but even just walking is tough when you are sore, exhausted drained and the simple act of putting one foot in front of another was an act of extreme willpower.

As I got closer and closer to mile 20 I began to get excited at the prospect of seeing Juliette and the boys who were waiting with some other family members to cheer me on.

 Having experienced the disappointment of missing each other when I ran a half-marathon 2 years ago we had done a recce trip and agreed the exact spot they would stand. I wanted to be bright and running strong when I saw them so as soon as I recognised that we were nearly at the agreed spot I temporarily abandoned my run-walk-run strategy and was overjoyed to spot them straight away and grab a quick kiss from the boys (and Juliette of course). Strangely, after I passed them I started to feel like it really didn't matter how I did from this point onwards. I realised that what I had most been looking forward to and working towards had been seeing them and knowing that they had seen me running in the marathon. 

Of course that didn't mean I could just stop and go home! I was still determined to finish but somehow I felt less pressure and the boost that they had given me added a new confidence that I could finish. I was also now getting into more familiar territory again and passing the halfway point in the opposite direction. At about 22 and half miles you hit the Tower of London and I knew that it was not far now until the end. I was still going slowly but I was running rather than walking and it felt great to come out of the tunnel on Lower Thames Street onto Embankment and know that before long I would be at the end. Still I was worried about my knee and about whether I'd have the energy for a strong finish so I fast walked the whole of mile 24 and started running again as soon as I crossed the marker for mile 25, confident that I could keep going for the remaining 1.2 miles. As I began running, with Big Ben looming over me, the great clock ran the quarter chimes declaring it was a quarter to four. I had been focusing so much on breaking my run down into manageable chunks, resetting my stopwatch on almost every mile marker that until this point that I had no idea what my overall time was. With the help of Big Ben and a rough estimate of when I had crossed the start line I guessed I had been going for nearly five and a half hours. It was far slower than I had unrealistically hoped for but I was now just determined to keep running through to the end. As I entered birdcage walk, with Buckingham Palace in sight a large sign proclaimed '800 meters to go'. I was starting to struggle again but pushed on past the signs counting down: 600 meters, 460meters. Then it was around the corner into the sweeping curve of the Victoria Monument in front of the palace and there at the start of the mall, the finish line! I heard someone shout my name and there was an old friend Jo, excitedly jumping up and down. I slowed down long enough for her to take a pre-finish picture and then ran across the finish line, exhausted but exhilarated. A lovely lady smiled at me and said "and the winner is..." as she put the finishers medal around my neck.

It was hard, really much harder than I thought but worth it all for the experience and even more so because of all the sponsorship money we raised and which is still coming in (and if you want to donate you still can! )

At the time of writing this we have raised almost £1,500 which is wonderful and I really want to thank you all for the donations and support which really did help me to continue when it got tough. So for everyone who donated or wished me well, this medal is for you too - thank you!