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Heaven and hell.
by Elaine Kennedy-Walton - 18:09 on 14 May 2017
I’ve wanted to run a marathon for years. I’ve always enjoyed long runs around Moffat, heading out into the countryside and enjoying the lovely views and hills. I quite like the isolation and escapism of being on country roads with no one in sight. I’ve always found the first couple of miles in a run the toughest and after that they seem to come easily so I haven’t ever been intimidated about running long. Ask me to run fast though and I can’t.
The first marathon I entered was Loch Ness Marathon. I’d been in London watching Mark and was so taken aback by the experience I entered on the train on the way home. After not long since having my youngest I think I ramped up the training too soon and ended up with a stress fracture to my metatarsal (during a race in Castle Douglas) so that one was ruled out. Since then I have entered the ballot for London year on year without success. I refused to apply for charity places as the pressure of training was enough without the pressure of having a target to raise. There was talk of an ADAC outing to Blackpool with the option of the full marathon/half/10k and I was quite excited by that prospect and even booked accommodation there thinking I could always aim for the marathon then complete the half if I wasn’t able to go the full distance. Then I got an early Xmas present – the club entry for London and was delighted. On the training front I was sensible and steadily increased miles, adding in lots of short runs in my lunch hour so as to minimise impact on my family and also early morning fitness classes to make sure I wasn’t just running. I was making sure that I was eating lots of protein and having protein shakes after intense or long sessions and getting regular sports massages. Towards the end of my training I even stopped having any alcohol. I was in a great routine of setting the alarm clock for e.g. 6am on a Saturday morning, getting my long run in early and being home just as the family was getting up. I didn’t want to feel foggy in the morning and after a long run I wanted and early night and a good night sleep. All was going well until I was too busy gossiping on a 16mile training run with Ruth Griffith round the Black Esk and had a fall. I didn’t think much of it at the time and dusted myself down and carried on to complete the run. It wasn’t until I got home and inspected the damage and saw the grazes and swelling that I was worried. After that my RIGHT calf gave me gip for about 6 weeks before it settled down and I was then able to progress the training again. I was still nervous about not making London though and before I headed out for the requisite 20mile run I wasn’t sure if I would be able to complete that distance and I was prepared to turn back if necessary. The vast majority of my runs were done myself just me and my Spotify playlist. There were a few runs that Mark kept me company on. For the 20 mile run he ran 18 with me at my slow pace and I added 2 on at the end just by running out and back. The next day my legs felt fine, Mark was struggling much to my amusement. Proof that long runs should be slow and that my training was going well for me. During taper everything was feeling great, I did have a minor ache in my left knee but went for a sports massage and it seemed fine. Maranoia was there and I was consciously NOT running up and down stairs at my work, wearing flat shoes as much as possible and generally taking it easy.
In the run up to the London Marathon I was feeling good physically and mentally was extremely excited about it. The training definitely changes your view of runs. A 14 mile run no longer sounds long and during my taper my training run times were feeling easy but relatively speedy for slowish me. At the time of entering I was asked my predicted time and I estimated sub 4 hour. This was my ultimate aim but realistically I thought I would be happy with anything that was sub 4.5 hours. During my taper I was looking at recent times and the sophisticated Polar Flow app that predicts race times etc based on heart rate etc. It was telling me 4hour 2min. This was based on running in and around Moffat which was much more challenging than the flat streets of London. I began to have confidence that sub 4 hour was realistic so when I was at the Expo picking up my number I attended the Lucozade stall to pick up my pacing bands. I grabbed a 3.55 (Plan A), 4.00 (Plan B) and 4.10(Plan C). I didn’t tell anyone these details, partly because there was a sweep on at my work and partly because I didn’t want any sense of disappointment or expectations.
The afternoon before race day we did some touristy things before getting an early pasta and pizza dinner. I got all my kit ready and then had a wee siesta while Mark, Gordon and the boys watched the football. I had anticipated I wouldn’t sleep very well that night so was pleased to get a couple of hours in the bank. I’d had so many good luck message and last minute sponsors etc it was actually impossible to respond to them all individually. Come night time my youngest and I settled down for an early night after I had some words of wisdom from Gordon. I slept like a baby until about 3 and that’s when the nerves kicked in and I was awake every hour-ish after that, gulping water and being restless. I got up about 6 and put my kit on alongwith some St Andrew Flag and Union Jack tattoos on my face. I gulped down some porridge and croissant with bacon not able to finish either. The forecast was bright but very cold, perfect for us Scots. It was actually wet as I Ieft the hotel at 7am so I went back to the hotel room to get another layer. I got to the nearby tube station and it hadn’t opened yet. I got chatting to some fellow scots from a running club from Fife who between them had amassed a few marathons. I tagged alongwith them to the start, they had the inside info on what route to take to make sure we got on the train to Blackheath when it was quieter. Turns out one of the runners called Amanda was in the same start pen as me and was aiming for sub 4 hour so I ended up seeing a fair bit of her during the race too.
The time before the race started at 10 just seemed to fly by. I spoke with lots of different people, sharing experiences and those who had ran it before spoke of their favourite bits of the course. It was all positive and think I had goosebumps all through the morning. Before I knew it it was time to think about a final pitstop before heading for the starting pens. The queues for the portaloos were incredibly long. I dumped my bag before joining one. The people I were with wanted to try to female urinals. Have to admit I was curious about them and also a bit worried about the time. I went for a quick look but just couldn’t bring myself to use them. Perhaps if I’d been on the prosecco it would have been different. I rejoined the portaloo queue which had went down quite a bit. I then went to the pen, stripping off the extra layers of clothing I had on the way. The pens are incredibly well organised and based on predicted finish time to ensure you are running with people at about the same pace as you. Okay they are by no means perfect but my experience was relatively good giving the shear volume of people who are running. Before I started I was at the overflow of the pen and spotted the 2 Runners World 4hour pacers in the pen and thought that’s where I want to be. Sure enough once the race had started and we began moving forward it wasn’t long before I was able to manoeuvre close to them. I had always said I would walk until I actually crossed the start line (what was the point in running extra) but when the pacer started jogging so did I. I was over the start line in about 4.5 minutes. Not bad. This was it, so exciting, I crossed the start line grinning from ear to ear.
Once we were going it was busy. I definitely caught and gave out a few elbow blows but this wasn’t people being competitive it was just people manoeuvring in an enclosed environment. No doubt I came off worse with being shorter than most of the folk around me. Everyone was apologising to one another, strangers were chatting away. At water and Lucozade stations (which were frequent) people were grabbing bottles of water and passing them across to the runners in the middle who would struggle to get to the side of the road. I was amused by the volunteers whose job it was to shout “hump” and “bump” at the speedbumps. They were actually a godsend as you couldn’t really see much in front of you so it wasn’t the most relaxed type of running. The discarded bottles were a bit of a pest, I caught at least a couple that went shooting across other people’s paths. The crowds were incredible though and made up for the jostling and trip hazards. I had my name printed on my charity vest and it kept surprising me when people were shouting my name. There were kids and adults alike with their hands out looking for high fives. I kept thinking if it’s like this at the start of the race what is it going to be like at the end. Pace wise I was slightly faster then I wanted to be after mile 2 so following everyone’s advice about going off too fast I made a point of sticking with the pacer for the next mile. When we reached the first 5k mark I thought it felt like the easiest 5k I had ever done, discarded my gloves and before I knew it the next 5k was the same. Other runners agreed and we joked about feeling the same when we were at mile 25. I had gradually passed the first pacer in my pen, then the second. Not deliberately but just the way the race went I naturally made a bit of progress. I spotted the 4hour pacer from the Green start and thought I would tag onto him and stick to him like glue. My logic being that those at the much smaller Green start are generally good for age competitors and the like so would have got over the start line quicker. This would put me comfortably sub 4 hour with perhaps a few minutes in the bank in case I ran into trouble later.
Before starting I had divided the race into sections to aim for: my first marker was Cutty Sark, the second the iconic Tower Bridge, the third Canary Wharf and finally Big Ben. When I got to Cutty Sark I felt elated, it was just as impressive as I’d seen on TV and I gave the cameras big waves and grins.
Not long after Cutty Sark I felt some tightness in my LEFT calf. I wasn’t concerned at first, my injuries are always on my right side. I just kept going as I had been and nothing changed for a while. I’m not sure exactly where it got to the point when it altered my gait but I was conscious that I had no “push off” on my left foot and my calf felt really tight. I kept going for a while but then became worried about not being able to lift my foot properly to clear the bottles etc on the road and I was becoming increasingly “hoppity”. I was worried more about tripping and still wasn’t thinking about stopping. I knew my Mark, Gordon and my boys were going to be around miles 8-9 so thought I would get a boost when I saw them. I did spot Michael on his dad’s shoulders but I was near the middle of the crowd of runners, I shouted as loud as I could a couple of times but their eyes stayed fixed on the runners coming towards them and their heads did not turn. It was really disheartening. Somewhere between mile 9 and 10 I stopped to stretch the calf out. Not easily done as you have to wait make your way to the edge of the road and wait for a gap in the crowd but I found both a gap and a lamp post. When I stretched out my left calf was trembling but I started again, briefly. I then spotted an Ambulance and St Johns medical staff. I hopped in and the Doctor examined me, said it was most likely a calf tear and it was up to me if I wanted to carry on. He gave me some paracetamol and I said “I’m not stopping”, stretched off and tried to start again. I don’t know if it was the stretching or the momentary stopping which made it worse but I couldn’t run on it. I walked for a bit thinking the paracetamol might help once it kicked in but even the walking was sore and I was limping badly. I passed the 10 mile marker and looked at my watch. I was using a race time estimator facility on it and so I had been able to keep a close eye on my pace. I went from holding myself back early on in the race to then seeing an estimated time of 6 hours plus now that I was walking. I can appreciate that a 6 hour marathon is still an achievement for many and I take my hat off to them and there was a part of me that just wanted to get the finishers medal but the leg was painful and I still had 16 miles to go. The crowd were now shouting my name and encouraging me to run “keep going, you can do it etc”, problem was I couldn’t. I phoned Mark who immediately said just quit.
I walked to the side and spoke with a Marshall. He pointed me in the direction of the nearest tube station. I was walking along the road, head hung low, chewing my lip to hold back the tears. A well meaning gentleman walking in the same direction said “excuse me but are you alright”, that was it, floodgates were open. I got to the tube station and it was closed (happens regularly during the marathon when the platforms get too crowded). The kind man said “I’m going to get you in” and started shouting at the crowd to get me through “excuse me, we have a lady that needs to get through”. The crowd just did as he told them and lots of them were patting me on the back and saying they were sorry etc as I went past them. The underground worker took one look at me and let me through, I thanked them all (through tears). When I was waiting for the tube a couple of well wishers came up to me and were so nice, telling me there will be other years etc. I got onto a train and there was another runner who must have been in the same boat. We chatted and I felt a bit better. The tube stopped and some supporters got on, one of them muttered something about cheating, he locked eyes with my puffy red eyes which were probably burning into him and then said “I’m so sorry” and looked very embarrassed. If looks could kill!
The worst bit of the entire thing was having to return to the start to retrieve my bag. By this point some of the fastest non-elite finishers were coming in so there was a buzz about the finishing line and the cheers were immense. I had a long limping walk from Westminster tube station, past the Macmillan recovery centre and past the meet and greet that we had agreed a letter to meet under and to effectively just behind the finish line which I was trying not to look at. As I was limping down one set of stairs a female oblivious to my upset and thinking I had actually completed the race said “Christ she’s done well”. If only. Bearing in mind I was still wearing a vest with my name emblazoned on the front I felt severely humiliated. If it had not been so cold I would have ripped it off there and then and paraded around in my sports bra. At the Macmillan centre the chap on the outside tried to get me to go in and I said no, I needed to get my bag, he asked a volunteer where I should go and he pointed me in the right direction.
There was an area cordoned off for DNF like me. They took details of your number then sent a runner to retrieve your bag. Meantime they removed your timing chip so you couldn’t re-join the race/cheat and offered you food, drink, blankets, medical treatment etc. They were a buoyant bunch and I got chatting to some of the other retirees including one lady who was in the Championship and retired at mile 16 with a suspected metatarsal stress fracture. This was her 7th marathon. She told me not to be upset, it’s only a run and I’d do plenty more. All true.
Meantime there were phonecalls going back and forth between Mark, Gordon and I as we tried to get reunited. I couldn’t face waiting around the finish any longer so I told them I would see them back at the hotel. I just wanted to get out of there. I had now covered up and was feeling more conspicuous and headed back to the station. On the way back the Macmillan guy spotted me and rushed over and literally pulled me into the recovery centre (akin to kidnapping). I got some much needed TLC there from the various volunteers. I saw a physio who examined me and said she it was a 2nd degree tear. She offered me a massage on my uninjured leg. They got me a hot drink, wrapped me a blanket to warm me up and then gave me an ice pack for my leg and some ibuprofen. They wanted me to stay and join the reception (you walk down the stairs and get a huge cheer from everyone there and this year there were cheerleaders chanting your name) but I declined saying I just wanted to get back to my hotel.
When I got back to the hotel I was so relieved to get into the bath and wash away the tears from the day. I had a good cry and when Mark came in said I was doing another one as soon as I was fit again with no hype, no fundraising as it’s going to be just for me. That’s still the aim. 7 weeks on from London there has been no running yet but there has been lots of race browsing and goal planning (including a ballot entry for London). I hope to be running again soon and sharing a picture of my marathon medal once I finally get it.
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