Monday, 23 April 2012

I ran the London Marathon 2012 and I loved it

As I sit at my computer the morning after the marathon before I can't think of a part of my body that doesn't ache. My quads are screaming, my calves feel like rock, my back aches, even my eyes are sore. But I have nothing but wonderful memories of my first marathon.

After weeks of rather lazy training and days of stuffing myself with increasingly unwanted carbs I lined up at the start in Greenwich Park with some trepidation. All around me were a scary number of types I would describe as serious runners. The ones huddled in bin bags in their tiny shorts and running club vests, eschewing the newbie comforts of iPods, glugging down noxious looking energy drinks while sneering at us first timers clutching our free Lucozade and fiddling nervously with our headphones. 

Of course there was a smattering of the genuinely insane dressed as Wombles or pulling a sled, plus a very well built pair in tight fitting Tin Man and Lion costumes. The view was impressive as I trotted along behind them, before they accelerated out of sight flanking their very own Dorothy. 

It takes an age to actually get to the start line but once it was crossed we were off and running immediately. I had the mantra drummed into me by everyone who had ever run the London before running through my head: 'Don't start off too quickly'. I kept glancing at my Garmin to make sure I wasn't exceeding a stately pace of over 10 minutes per mile. It felt so slow as I saw Superman fly past me, but I wasn't going to be forced into making that rookie mistake by some over confident super hero. 

The atmosphere was amazing at the start where, despite the relatively early hour for a Sunday, the streets were lined with people cheering us on. Children held out their hands for a high five from the runners while it was disconcerting to hear strangers call out my name in encouragement. I kept thinking friends must be in the crowds, but with your name printed on your vest everyone calls it out to keep you going. 

I wish I could remember more detail of the race itself, but like all these incredible occasions it's all a bit of a blur in hindsight, but a few highlights stick with me. I loved running past the pubs where wafts of beer fumes and barbecue smoke billowed out, reminding me of more fun activities I could be indulging in on a sunny Sunday. The bands that played along the route were really uplifting. As they drowned out the music on my iPod I felt an instant boost. Even the ear splitting drums playing in the underpass just beyond Canary Wharf. 

Rounding the Cutty Sark at around the five mile mark was special. The elegant clipper sporting her brand new contemporary glass bustle was the first monument that reminded me what a great setting I had chosen for my first marathon. 

Next up was Tower Bridge, which seemed to loom out of nowhere. I knew it was around the 12 mile mark, but we had passed under the red and white balloon arch that celebrated that milestone what seemed like ages ago. Even though I am a Londoner I don't know this part of the city well and we seemed to be running through endless rather dingy backstreets without a glimpse of the river over which the bridge arches. 

But then we rounded a corner and there it was. Running under the majestic arches of the bridge, seeing the glittering ribbon of the Thames flowing beneath our feet, was an amazing feeling. I had been looking forward to scaling this iconic part of the race ever since I entered and the real thing bested my expectations. 

Then we ran along the part of the course where two very difference races converge. As we mid fielders plodded our way to mile 14, we had a great view of the real marathon runners struggling through mile 22. They were stringy with hard core training, drenched in sweat and the agony of sprinting the distance we were all jogging was writ large on their faces. 

I felt for the poor wretch who was walking dejectedly in his sweat soaked vest and shorts as his peers streaked past him at top speed. In the middle of the pack people were walking almost from the off, but amongst us charity runners there is no real shame in slowing your pace, but for him you could see just what it had cost him to pull up and effectively pull out of the race. 

As the mile markers inched higher I began to feel the strain, but I knew my family was waiting to cheer me on at mile 19 in the Help the Hospices stand at Canary Wharf. I wouldn't let my boys see me walking so despite an incipient stitch and legs that were beginning to think this wasn't such a great idea after all I soldiered on. 

When I saw my husband and my two eldest sons standing at the barriers it lifted my spirits unimaginably. I am sure I wouldn't have made it round without their support. I ran over for a quick kiss and a cuddle and my oldest son whispered in my ear 'I am so proud of you mummy'. I ran away with tears in my eyes but a renewed determination to run every step of the marathon. 

After all by this point I only had seven miles to go. A mere jog in the park if taken on its own. The energy given to me by my family pulled me through till around mile 22. Now I was deep into unknown territory as I had only managed to reach 20 miles on my longest training run. I felt OK, but as more and more runners started to walk it was becoming increasingly hard to run. I was so tired that dodging around the many walkers was hard work. 

By the time I reached the Embankment, the place I had thought would be the most inspiring, my eyes were stuck to the road. I didn't care about the gleaming capsules of the London Eye, or the Gothic magnificence of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. It was enough to just keep running. As the final miles ticked down, each mile marker seemed further from the next. 

The crowds at this stage were amazing. Screaming themselves raw to encourage us to just keep going. They thrust everything from glasses of Champagne to chocolate biscuits at the runners, though I couldn't eat a thing by this point. The yells of 'It's only another two miles' did help, though by this point two miles seemed like an eternity. 

Again I knew my boys would be at the end and I didn't want them to see mummy walking. I ran on and on as so many around me slowed to a walk. By the final mile along Birdcage Walk I knew I could make it. I could run this marathon down. I was quite literally swearing at the race by the end, at least inside my head. 

I scanned the crowds lining St James' Park as I knew this was where the boys would be waiting and then I saw them. My family, my fans, screaming 'Go on mummy' and waving at me. It was incredible - I had almost done it. I rounded the corner into the Mall and put my foot down. I sprinted across the finish line and burst into tears. 

I had DONE IT! Me, a 40-year-old mum of four who just 16 months ago was so morbidly obese I couldn't run to the end of the road, had run the London Marathon in 4hrs 33minutes and 38seconds. I have never felt more proud of myself. I had run every step and loved almost every minute of the gruelling race. 

As I was processed through the finish by the London Marathon machine tears were running down my face. As they hung the medal around my neck I was just so happy. My legs were aching, I felt horribly sick from all the energy gels and drinks I had chugged down on my way round, but I was beaming. 

When I finally reached my husband and my oldest son I could see how proud they were of me and I just felt brilliant. Despite having run 26.2 miles I was filled with a euphoric energy that is still buzzing through me today. The whole race was aptly bathed in sunlight for me, but then the heavens opened and we hobbled as fast as I could to get back to the car and back home to a bath and some well deserved Champagne. 

I suppose I could have summarised this post in three words - IT WAS AMAZING. 

Monday, 16 April 2012

Less than a week to go

Yesterday we went out for a drive to explore some of the route of the London Marathon and scout out the best spots where my loyal team of spectators can spot me on my way round. I was fizzing with excitement at the bright yellow plastic signs stuck on lamp posts announcing the road closures for the marathon. It hit me that this is finally happening.

This revelation has given me mixed feelings. On one hand I cannot wait for the big day, but on the other I am terrified. As we drove on and on I realised what a big task I have set myself. As we turned the corner at what will be mile 20 - the furthest distance I have ever run - I noticed with a jolt that there was a slight incline that went on and on. It is no steep hill, but I could tell that after 20 miles on my feet I will not welcome this increase in gradient.

I was once told that 20 miles can seem like halfway in a marathon, not a cheering thought. That said from that moment onwards there are so many treats in store that I am hoping they will keep me motivated to power through the home stretch.

There is a glimpse of HMS Belfast through a gap in the buildings, there is the Embankment snaking next to the glinting ribbon of the River Thames, there are the space age silver capsules of the London Eye, the gothic splendour of the Houses of Parliament. I am hoping the majesty of London will keep me going until I sweep around in front of Buckingham Palace to the finish line on The Mall.

For all that I know the marathon will be tough, I couldn't have asked for a better city to run it in. It always amazes me how inspiring a bit of pretty scenery can be on a hard slog of a run. The first half marathon distance I did was enlivened immeasurably by a gorgeous view across the city from Primrose Hill, while a recent tough hill run along the coast path in Devon was lifted to another level by the immense views across golden sandy beaches and glittering blue seascapes.

This week is one of rest and carb loading. It sounds like heaven after all the weeks of training, but actually I am finding short runs and eating lots rather dispiriting. I have put on masses of weight and, while I am trying hard to be sensible about this, I am hating seeing a higher number every time I step onto the scales. In fact I can't wait to finish my marathon and get back into training proper for my next half marathon in June - clearly I am a glutton for punishment.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

A change is as good as a rest

After a my week off I am happy to report that the running is back on track. Clearly giving both mind and body a much needed rest was the best plan, for me at least. On a gorgeous Friday morning I set out with two running friends, which added to the joy of being on the move again as one of them showed me the most delightful new route.

As he pointed out a new run is just the tonic you need when you are getting jaded. When you are traversing different scenery - and this route is mostly off road - you don't dwell on the hills you know lay ahead on your usual routes, or fret about how far you know you have to go, you just run. It was great fun, which is something running really hasn't been for me in a while.

I remembered the delight of discovering hidden backwaters in my local neighbourhood that I never would have known existed. It was also a real treat to have someone to chat to, although I am not sure my inane wittering was that entertaining for him, it was a good way to keep my mind off the niggle in my hip.

After planning a short 10K jaunt, I ended up going the whole 18-mile hog prescribed by my marathon training programme. I will admit that my muscles are howling in pain today, but it was worth it for the psychological boost it gave me. While I did wonder quite how I would hobble through another 8.2 miles once I pulled up, I also kind of feel I have it in me now - and any serious marathoners please don't ruin my illusions.

I know many say that 20-miles can feel like halfway, but hey, I am where I am and I can't, and don't want, to train hard for much longer. If I believe I can do it then I have the battle at least half won, and I do believe I can do it. I am not sure I will be able to walk afterwards, but never mind, I will celebrate by sinking into my sofa with sighs of relief, that is until my half marathon training begins again....

PS pop over to Girl on the River who has honoured me (along with a lot more worthy contributors) in a great series of posts about how to keep the weight off while training hard. You also get to see a particularly flattering (not) before pic of me in my pre-running days.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Taking a break

I know it's not orthodox - but then I am beginning to understand that when it comes to marathons there is no such thing as an orthodoxy - but this week, exactly a month out from my first marathon I am taking a break from running.

Some would condemn this as foolhardy, others would praise me for letting my body have a much needed rest. To be honest I don't really care what the conflicting experts have to say, I just know that for my long term love of running I have to get away from it for a few days.

When I first entered the marathon I had no clue how tough the training would be. I loved running, was up for a challenge and thought that would be enough to get me through. Well perhaps for some it would have been, but for me it fell woefully short of the mark.

In a year of pre-marathon running I was entirely injury free. I never even had a twinge. Since I started training I have injured my calf and my hip sufficiently to keep me off my feet for weeks. I also adored my runs. They were stress relievers and made me feel good about myself and the world around me. During training my runs have become something I dread and that bore the pants off me.

This is not good. I do love running and I fully intend to keep it up for as long as my body will allow me to, which is why I feel the need to step away from the pavement for a while and just forget about what lies ahead.

My husband is always ready with an 'I told you so' when I begin on a marathon moan, having always said it was a bad idea. I am not sure that he is entirely right. I had a marathon itch that had to be scratched, and I am full of hope that I will be ecstatic once it is over!

But the training has been hell. Time-consuming, boring, painful and all-encompassing. It has eaten away my free time, wreaked havoc with a body that probably wasn't ready, if it ever could be, to run such a huge distance and generally left me feeling exhausted and disheartened. I have put on weight and the careful diet I have stuck to for the past 18 months has been rocked by aching hunger pangs I just couldn't ignore.

All in all I am no poster girl for marathon running. But I am not too downhearted as despite my current bad patch I am still looking forward to the races I have lined up after the marathon, their chief attraction being that they are NOT marathons. I am dying to get back into the gym properly and have learned to appreciate how much I need a varied training programme - this woman cannot live on running alone.

So this week I have been to a class at the gym, which I throughly enjoyed and a swim, which made me realise that while I might be a bit off running right now, I like it a whole lot more than swimming. I am planning a relaxed trot for Friday - my usual long run day - and then next week I will be back with the programme, which thankfully segues neatly into a taper period the week after.

Perhaps this approach will mean that I crash and burn on the day, but I just needed a reset and to get out of my hamster on a wheel mindset. I want to love my running again and if that means I don't make it round the marathon as fast as I might have hoped, so be it. I am not going to fall out of love with running over one race.

Monday, 12 March 2012

The Hunger

So the miles are racking up and last week I managed to do 35 miles (in total, not all in one go I hasten to add). This included my longest run so far of 17 long and arduous miles. I have to say I am not sure I am a fan of the long run. Plodding on for hour after hour around the drab streets of North London is just not that inspiring.

Plotting my routes used to revolve around finding the most scenic loops that would lead me from and to my front door. A few fields, trees and a bit of high end real estate was enough to keep me amused on a run. Now it is all about wending my way ever further from home to add on more and more miles. This is so dispiriting as I might find myself running towards home, only to have to switch back away from it again in order to tack on an extra mile or so.

I did consider another epic run into town, but on discovering that to cover 17 miles I would have to run from home to Tower Bridge I simply couldn't face it. The crowds of normal people in normal clothes are too much for me to navigate after sweating my way through a long run.

When I am fresh and full of energy I feel a certain smugness as I power past mere pedestrians, when I am tired and have had enough I don't want to have to push my way through crowded pavements, so I am stuck with the relatively empty streets that fan ever outwards from my house.

It is true that I have discovered a lot of new areas that I never knew existed like the bucolic common and chocolate box pretty village that lie sandwiched like a decadent and indulgent filling between two bland slices of suburbia. Or the gigantic footballers' palaces that turn an otherwise unexciting stretch of road into a mini Beverly Hills, complete with French chateau style residences kitted out with indoor pools and movie rooms, ranks of shimmering sports cars parked outside.

This strange form of sightseeing is fun for a bit, but not diverting enough to keep me amused for the many hours it takes me to run multiple miles.

But boredom isn't the the only disappointing side effect of marathon training - there is also the all encompassing HUNGER it seems to bring on. I have spent over a year trimming my body down by six stone. This was achieved by that tried and tested formula of exercise twinned with a keeping a careful watch over what I ate.

Now with all these miles I am covering I am simply starving. I feel as if I am slipping fast back into my old ways of scoffing until my stomach groans in protest. Despite the fact that I am burning off thousands of calories this pigging out is seeing me putting on weight again. Everyone assures me it's muscle, but I will admit it is pretty dispiriting to step on the scales after a mammoth run, only to discover I am literally piling on the pounds.

The trouble is that when 10K seemed like a long way subsisting on brown rice, grilled chicken and salads was doable. I could tame my appetite and keep a strict control over the calories going in. Now I fear I might gnaw my own arm off should I try to live on my old healthy diet. I am just scared that once I stop marathon training my appetite won't slow down as much as my running.

While most people might be counting down the days until the marathon because they can't wait for the big day, what I am looking forward to most is going back to a more varied diet of exercise and a more pared down diet of food.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Marathon fatigue

I love running, honestly I do, but training for the marathon has shown me you can have too much of a good thing. Pre-marathon I trained four or five times a week. I would run two or three times a week, but I would mix it up with a sprint interval session, perhaps some hills with a bit of circuit training thrown in, a cross country session or a nice long amble at the weekend. I might combine this with some classes at the gym, a cross training or weights session or some Pilates.

Variety is the spice of life after all, and it certainly helps to keep the interest and motivation alive. But marathon training has meant a shift in focus and all I do is run, and run, and run. After injuring myself with some ill advised hill work I have steered clear of anything other than steady runs. Sprinting or intervals seem to result in twinges in my calf and the only way I have found to keep with the programme is to keep it simple and just run - a lot.

I know this period of training won't put me off running for good, but I must admit that I can't wait until the marathon is done so that I can call a halt to the monotony of vanilla runs. I want to be able to take a risk or two without the terror of injury stopping me in my tracks.

I surprised by how much I am missing the gym, but whenever I am not running I am either catching up on the work that I have put to one side in order to train, or plain exhausted from all the effort I am putting in, so I have neither the time nor the energy to visit. In a bizarre way I feel as if my fitness is suffering from doing so much training as I am so focussed on one activity, all the rest of me is becoming wobbly and blobby.

All I can say is roll on 22 April, I want to get back to enjoying my workouts again, as opposed to enduring them, but I guess putting up with tedium is all part of honing the mental toughness to make it round 26.2 miles without throwing in the towel. At least this is what I tell myself when all this running gets a bit too much for me.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Stitches and fickle nature of runs

So I went for my long run - 14 miles - perhaps not that epic by some standards, but it was the longest run I have completed since the calf strain incident so I was very pleased. Though I am hoping that the marathon is a touch more scenic that my route as I didn't find the sight of an ancient smashed up cathode ray tube TV and a roadside strewn with battered coke cans, fag packets and other random detritus that uplifting at about the mile 12 mark.

I usually choose my routes to take in the prettier parts of the north London suburb where I live, or else run out towards Hampstead Heath via the neighbouring much more expensive bits of real estate, but for one reason or another on this run I decided to stay nearer to home and took a less salubrious journey. It made me realise how much your surroundings can influence your run.

When I did my last 14-miler it was into Central London, and I still remember the euphoria of cresting Primrose Hill at around the 70 minute mark. As I ran up to the top of this supremely posh park I could see all the landmarks of our capital laid out in front of me, the London Eye curving into the skyline, the BT Tower standing proud, the Shard still awaiting the final touches to its iconic design. How could you fail to be inspired?

Still back to my point which was that despite the less than inspiring landscape around me I managed to complete my long run without any problems. I was a bit achey once I stopped, but other than that there were no ill effects, either during or after the run.

Fast forward a couple of days to my 4-mile recovery run. The day was far more promising, blue skies, sunshine, birds singing - all you need for a great run. Off I trot and all seems well with the world until, at mile three, I feel a stabbing pain under my ribs. I am almost doubled over in pain with the worst stitch I've had since I started running. In fact I haven't even had a stitch since the early days.

I soldiered on for a while, gulping in deep breathes, slowing my pace and trying to recover my rhythm, but in the end it was no good I slowed to a walk and grabbed my side in pain. After five minutes of hobbling along looking like an OAP robbed of her Zimmer frame, I was able to shuffle home at a sedate jog. Just goes to show you never can tell with running, 14 miles might be a doddle, but that doesn't mean 4-miles can't trip you up.