My training runs

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Was it the 'Road to Hell'?

Miles run this week:  26.2!

After six months of training, 161 days of planning, 3,864 hours of preparation and 231,840 minutes living and breathing everything marathon, it took 16,380 seconds to run my first marathon.  I came over the finish line in 4 hours 33 minutes and 55 seconds. And I’m chuffed with that.

Race day started at 5am when I woke up after spending a pretty comfortable night at Hickstead Travelodge, seven miles north of Brighton. I slept well, apart from being woken at 4am when some rowdy blokes rolled into the car park after a stag do in Brighton. I got in the shower, ate my usual pre-race breakfast of porridge brought from home, but had to eat it cold. The butterflies were fluttering, but not trying to break loose. I couldn’t tell if it was nerves or excitement, but all in all, I felt OK. We left at 6.15am to make sure we got a space in the park and ride. As we drove towards Brighton, the butterflies picked up. 

Brian (my partner), Sandra (my training partner) and Alan (her husband and our training route master) arrived in Preston Park just as the sun rose above the treetops. It was a beautiful day. The sky was crystal clear and the forecast was set to be 21 degrees later in the day. But right then, we shivered in the cold. I pulled my leg warmers right up and hugged myself warm. Only 2 hours before the biggest race of my life began.
If you look closely, you can see goosebumps!
A few runners sauntered around the vast green area while organisers hurried about putting things in place. The café was setting up and smells of bacon filled the air. Mobile catering vans pulled up wafting the smell of fresh coffee over us. We chatted with a few other nervous runners, a father and son who watched the race the year before and were so inspired, they decided to give it a go. Within a blink of an eye, the vast empty park became a swarming mass of runners. Noddy and his car walked past closely followed by Elvis.  A huge fairy strode over to the water station, while yellow Afro wigged runners had their photo taken. As the men sipped their coffee, we realised it was 8.15. Time to go to the loo one last time.
All set for the off.
There were two lots of portaloos, each with about 50 loos.  We went to the nearest ones. My jaw dropped and I gasped when I saw the queues.  They must’ve been 200m long at least. We hot-footed it over to the other ones only to find it was exactly the same.  Now what? There was no way we’d get to the front before the race started at 9.  Then we remembered the café had some loos so we raced back there.  The queue was bigger than before, but only about 30 women stood between me and my last nervous pee.

We all stood, patiently jigging up and down to keep warm. Then on one foot to the other as the need to pee got more urgent.  What were these women doing in there? Why wasn’t the queue going down faster?  At 8.50am I was next and then, a male toilet assistant decided that now, 10 minutes before the race, was the best time to top up the toilet paper.  A chorus of highly strung voices shrieked: ‘You have got to be joking!’ Poor bloke. While fumbling around in the toilet, in his broken English (I think he was Polish), he told us he was sorry. He had to do it. Sorry. Sorry. He came out of the toilets with his hands up, surrendering to the 20 or so steely runners’ stares that burned through him as he scampered out and into the crowds.

And so I went, relieved that I could finally relieve myself.  Sandra and I came out of those loos as if the start gun had gone off.  We ran towards the men while ripping off our old t-shirts that were keeping us warm.  Then a blur of hurried hugs, kisses and good luck wishes. The runners were streaming towards their start corrals and we ran to join them. But as I started to jog away from the men, I realised that my running belt was going to annoy the hell out of me like it was, loaded down with energy gels, Vaseline, Nurofen and my iPhone.  I had tried it out a few days before on my last two mile run, but I think the Lycra running shorts I had on now didn’t grip it as well as the shorts I had on before. Damn. Something had to go. I jogged back and handed my phone to Brian, shouting over my shoulder as I turned back to the start ‘I’ll just have to find you at the end’. So much for being cool, calm and collected at the start of the race! I also realised that because of the loo queue, I hadn’t done any warm up exercises. They say preparation is everything and all mine was going out of the window. 

Sandra and I joined the snake of excited runners now being walked slowly towards the start line. Nerves  jangled, excited chitter-chatter filled the air. And then, in the distance, we heard the countdown start over the loadspeakers…….. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6 ….. we all joined in ….. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 Hooooooonnnnnnkkkkkk.  The air horn went off and the cheer went up from the crowd with whoops and whistles.

Like a well practised dance troop, we surged forward in unison only to stop after about five paces.  It always happens.  It’s like the phantom traffic jams you get on a motorway where cars slow to a stop even though everything in front of them is moving. I looked in front of me and there were two firemen in full protective clothing with air tanks on their backs. I asked them, ‘They’re not full are they?’ and was taken a back when they said they were.  How on earth were they going to run 26.2 miles in the heat promised later in the day, in full rig, with those heavy tanks on their back? I hoped their plan was to whip out a mouthpiece tucked under their jackets so they could have a quick drag on the oxygen along the way.

The snake started to move again but this time it didn’t stop.  Slowly we jogged towards the start line, my belt still annoying me bouncing up and down.  I tried to tighten it, tie it in knot, pull it further down, but nothing was working.  So I tucked it down my running shorts and pulled my t-shirt over it. I just hoped it didn’t rub on my tummy too much and cause me problems later in the race.

This was it.  I was about to attempt running for 26.2 miles. The crowds cheered from the behind the barriers that lined Preston Park as got nearer the start line.  I glanced over to the park which had been packed with runners 10 minutes before.  It was eerily empty. Then the runners around me started to cheer as the race leaders passed us on the right.  They’d already done their first mile and we hadn’t even crossed the start line. The start clock loomed ahead. Runners glanced down at their watches, fingers poised to hit the start button to begin their race.  Three, two one, click.  Here we go. 26.2 miles of running ahead.  26.2 miles of the unknown.  My stomach flipped.

A shout came from the left as Brian and Alan called out our names and we waved and smiled.  Then again from the Winston Wish team this time with a video camera. More waves and smiles.  We turned our first bend to be faced with the first hill of the day.  So soon! We knew the first 13 miles was described as ‘undulating’.  Organisers use that word instead of ‘hilly’ as it isn’t as scary to runners. Well, not the inexperienced ones anyway. And they didn’t lie to us.  The crowds cheered, we put our heads down as our hearts started to pound and we forced our bodies to move up into second gear.

I hate the beginning of races or runs.  It takes a few miles to settle into your pace and for your breathing to get back to normal after being kick started into action. And in races, you’re weaving in and out of other runners to try and find space, dodging bollards that you can’t see. 

I managed to keep my eye on Sandra and we got to the top of the first hill and then enjoyed the downhill as the first mile marker came into view. Then it was down towards the sea, through the still cheering, but thinning, crowds. We over took runners dressed in bride and groom costumes, more firefighters in full rig with their practise dummy, (which weighs the same as a person), over their backs, one running backwards just to make the run easier! Already I was thirsty despite drinking lots of water before the start.  My throat was dry and the first water station at three miles couldn’t come quick enough.  I was glad to see the water they were giving out was in small bottles with a pull out and suck spout.  I grabbed one and guzzled that magical liquid that was to be my lifesaver. I made my mind up to always have a bottle in my hand for the whole race, a kind of safety blanket.

Then a left turn, up (yes, up again) a small high street where the crowds thickened again. We were coming up to mile five and were expecting to see the men around here somewhere and also the Winston’s Wish supporters. We both scanned the crowds to take our minds off our breathing which was becoming harder and faster as we climbed the hill. No sign of the men, but a big cheer from Winston’s Wish as they spotted me in the crowd.  Wearing the red tutu was paying off. We headed back down towards the seafront turning left to run along the coast road.  My brother Guy (a five time Southdown marathon runner, i.e. mad as a box of frogs) had told me it was uphill running east out of Brighton and he wasn’t wrong.  The crowds thinned as we started on the long road that stretched out before us.  We could see a stream of runners, miles ahead of us, like ants on the march. And the road was like a switchback.  Long slow climbs up and what seemed to be shorter downs while the sea shimmered on our right, boats bobbing rhythmically in the marina. 

My pace had fallen into a natural stride by now.  We kept checking our watches to make sure we weren’t going too fast.  We were bang on track. A huge sandstone building stood majestically on the hill overlooking the sea.  It looked like a modern Coldizt, but what was it?  I forgot to look going past it the first time and then the when we passed it again four miles later.  I’ve Googled it and still can’t find out what it is. And then what looked like a school, which was in an equally impressive position, overlooking the sea, came into view.  What a fantastic place to have lessons I thought.  But it wasn’t a school, but a holiday home for the St Dunstan’s charity that supports blind ex-servicemen and women.

It was at this point we turned inland again and headed towards Ovingdean. Runners were streaming passed on the other side of the road. They’d done what I was about to do, but what that was, I didn’t know.  Mile seven came up as we ran into a small hamlet of stone houses.  The streets were quiet apart from a few villagers clapping as we went passed, while they sipped champagne! Rotten lot.  A lady sat on her bedroom windowsill and looked down at the masses of runners winding their way through the narrow roads.  I shouted up to her: ‘Why don’t you come and join us?’  She smiled and waved back. And then, another hill. This time steep, but short which left me gasping for air at the top.  The sun was really starting to get warm now and the villages were making the most of it.  The top of the hill opened out into a field where a funfair had pitched up while villagers sat on picnic blankets.  They were in their own little world up there and it was lovely.  The next water station came and I grabbed another bottle of water and tipped some of it onto the back of my head. The ice cold water trickled through my now sweat drenched hair down my back.  Oh that was nice. So cooling.

On we went, back out towards the sea, onto the main Marina Drive that runs parallel to the sea. We turned and started to head back along the switch back road towards Brighton passing mile 10, 11 and 12 and a soldier with a full bergen on his back. On the opposite side of the road, around mile seven was a woman soldier carrying exactly the same.  She looked in agony and I memorised her number 4172 so I could sponsor her.  She made it to the halfway mark, but didn’t finish.

Thank goodness the hills were nearly over.  It was going to be flat from mile 13 onwards (the organisers told a teensy-weensy lie there – more later).

My mental strategy was to break the race up into two 10 mile runs and one six mile run. It was working so far and with the halfway point coming up, another mental boost was that we knew the men should be around here and the Winston’s Wish team.  The crowds were lining the streets again around the halfway inflatable sign that straddled the road.  Now just another half marathon to do. Ha! Just another 13 miles which I knew were going to be tough.

We checked our watches – we’d been running 2 hours 12 minutes. And then Brian and Alan spotted us and we waved and smiled as their cameras clicked away.  Shortly after, Winston’s Wish whooped and called out my name as they picked out my red tutu again.
Looking strong at the halfway point
I was feeling pretty good at this point. The sun was shining, the crowds were fantastic: I was doing what I set out to do – I was enjoying it. But Sandra wasn’t. The heat was getting to her and she was starting to slow.  We hadn’t talked about whether we’d stay together or do our own thing.  Sandra always beats me when we enter races, and that’s fine with me.  The moment I put pressure on myself during a race, be it time or wanting to beat someone, I go to pieces.  So I was torn about what I should do.  Do I stay with my running partner, who I’d spent every Saturday morning with for the last six months, pounding the streets preparing for this day? Or do I keep to the pace I was doing which meant I’d leave her behind?  She sensed what I was thinking and told me to go on without her. I know it’s what I’d have said and have said many a time to her, so reluctantly, I glanced back and carried on. I knew there was every chance she’d catch me as the miles clocked up. I’ve seen her dogged determination and drive many a time so I knew she’d probably have me in sight for the rest of the race.

So this was where the race changed for me. I was on my own so to speak, but at this point I didn’t feel alone. I had thousands of runners ahead of me and behind and thousands of people keeping me company along the way, willing me and every other runner on.

From mile 17 onwards, I was looking for shade to run in.  It was around 12 noon now and the heat was picking up. One foot in front of the other – that’s all I had to do. One resident along Old Shoreham Road was spraying grateful runners with his hosepipe. I wondered if he was on a water meter or not.  I didn’t want to stop and wait at this unexpected oasis for fear of not being able to start up again. I’d learnt from the 20 mile Bramley race in February that my quads began to get very sore from 15 miles onwards. So I was glad I’d taken some painkillers at mile 15 as I was starting to feel it.

Old Shoreham Road seemed to go on for miles. I knew that some of my friends planned to be along this road somewhere.  I scanned the faces along the roadside to find them. Runners passed me on the opposite side of the road and finally, I saw the sign ‘sharp turn ahead’.  There was a band playing at the hairpin and as I got closer, I heard a squeal from the across the road ‘Tina!’ I turned to see my friend Debbie and her husband Mark waving. I shouted over my shoulder: ‘Prepare yourself for a wet hug!’  It was just what I needed as my body started to flag. And then, a double boost, my other friends Marie and Paula spotted me and shouted my name.  I ran to them and gave them a huge wet hug. They shouted words of encouragement as I took off again as the adrenaline boost filled my veins. And then, a hundred metres on, there was Debbie and Mark and I ran towards them beaming.  Mark was taking what I thought was photos, but turned out to be video as I hugged them both.

Having friends along the route were my lifelines.  Knowing they were around the route was great, something to focus on to take my mind off the discomfort that was kicking in now. Noddy and his car headed down the road where I had been 20 minutes before and Superman, looking less than super followed behind.

The route took us back into Brighton where we turned right in front of a gospel choir. The wave of song gave me goosebumps all over.  I raised my hands and clapped to thank them for being there before turning to run towards the power station.  Mile 19 was coming up and this meant the dockyard. The 2010 runners said the race got really tough around the dockyard as there was no music along this three mile loop.  The organisers had listened and put three speakers around this part the route to help the now weary runners. The other vital thing that was still missing was going to be the supporters. But just before I went into this abyss, I heard a shout behind me. I’d run straight past the Andover Roadrunners who were now hollering encouragement at me.  I turned and ran back to them and gave them all a hug too. That was the least I could do after they’d taken the time and trouble to come and support me and Sandra. And then, another shot in the arm of adrenaline just around the corner as Marie and Paula popped up again with Debbie and Mark. Another hug stop, another video and then I waved goodbye as I trudged towards the dockyard.

I passed the 20 mile marker not far into the eerily quiet dockyard.  The air was still and smelt of rotten fish.  Workers on a boat looked down on us while they drank tea.  Runners were stopping, stretching, collapsing.  I shuffled passed a young girl laying on the ground, surrounded by paramedics asking her to tell them her name.  She stared passed them, her eyes glazed over. I told myself, surely she’d felt that coming on? I was worried.  I’d never run this far before and knew that ‘hitting the wall’ was a real possibility. This is where your muscles literally run out of energy.  They have nothing more to give. Your legs stop and your brain starts to shut down.  Your body goes into shock and tries to protect the core organs to keep you alive. I’d tried to prepare my body for this by taking an energy gel at mile seven and fourteen. I’d kept drinking along the way, taking regular sips.  I started to feel bloated, but I was still thirsty. I pulled my last energy gel from my belt and sucked it down at mile 21. I didn’t want to be that girl on the ground. But had I done enough to stop that from happening?

My body was slowing down now and I felt the soreness of my quads everytime my feet hit the ground. This was where the fight started between my mind and my body. Except, the mind is much more powerful than my body.  I knew my body would go on a lot longer than my mind thought it could. I knew this was going to happen and knew this was where I had to bring out strategies to keep myself going.  I had to keep my mind strong. I mustn’t let it cave in and turn the ignition key off. I told myself I was on my way back towards Brighton now. I was heading towards the finish line. I wouldn’t stop or I’d regret it for the rest of my life.

The runners around me were quiet. Everyone was feeling it as the rays of sunshine beat down on us.  The two Mario brothers passed each other going in different directions, one of them two miles further on than the other. They murmured words of encouragement to each other. 

Finally I reached the marshall that stood at the entrance and exit to the dockyard.  He shouted to those going in ‘Well done, only six to go’ and to those coming out ‘Well done.  Only three miles to the finish.’

I said earlier the organisers had lied when they said all the hills were before mile 13.  Coming out of the dockyard was like coming out of the doldrums.  You could hear people again, willing runners on, getting closer. But to get to them, you had to run up a very short, steep hill.  If I went back to that hill today, I’d probably laugh at the size of it. But at that moment in time, any hill would have felt like a mountain after running 23 miles. But this is where living in Andover became a blessing.  Wherever you run in Andover, you get hills.  Long slow ones that seem to go on forever and short steep ones much harder than the one that faced me now.  But I’d never run up one after running 23 miles. 

The hot, desolate dockyard had taken its toll. Mentally I was in a zone. The world around me became a shadow. Voices became distant.  And so I just carried on, one foot in front of the other, leaning into the hill. I was pulled out of my zone when I heard my name being called by familiar voices.  Like little angels, Marie and Paula had winged their way to mile 23.5 and were telling me it wasn’t far to go now. No hug this time for them.  I was pretty certain if I stopped now, I wouldn’t be able to get my legs going again. So I put my hand up to show I’d heard them and then I remembered Paula’s mantra she’d told me to use.  JFDI – 'just f***ing do it'. Not very lady like, but I'd try anything at this point. I turned and as I ran backwards, I shouted over to her ‘JFDI! JFDI!’.  She told me when she saw me next that they were really worried about me when they first saw me at that point.  I was in another place and they could see that. But when I turned and shouted ‘JFDI’ she knew I was OK.

The finish was at Brighton pier. I looked up and I could see it in the distance. Three more miles.  I could do that I told myself. I pictured my short run at Andover. That’s all I had to do, so long as I could fight the little voice in my head telling me to stop.

Then I noticed Archie. Archie is the guide dog for the blind mascot and he was running in front of me. Here was I wilting by the second and there was Archie with a spring in his step donned in full furry costume. I bet he hadn’t had the luxury of tipping water over his head whenever he felt like it.  A new drive kicked in. Surely I could beat Archie to the finish line?  Well, at least not let him out of my sight. I plodded on behind him as the crowd cheered him on in amazement.  Some of the crowd cheering him on were my friends Debbie and Mark who were looking out for me as Marie and Paula had texted them to say I was on my way.  But they missed me because of Archie. It’s so easy to do.  As I made my way towards the finish, Mark was asking the St John’s Ambulance where to find collapsed runners. The time between Marie and Paula texting and me not passing them was too long.  He thought I’d hit the wall, that my race was over. But Debbie knew me better.  ‘She’d never give up’ she said.

Alfie - who had dogged determination
Of course, I was oblivious to all this.  I was back in my zone. Archie was gone from my mind.  I needed something else to help me battle on these last two miles. And so I thought of my boys.  I’d had a text from my youngest son before the race saying ‘when it gets tough, think of us all hugging you’.  So I thought of them, not hugging me, but running alongside me, urging me on. Their young, fresh legs pulling my tired old ones with a magic thread. It brought tears to my eyes then as it does now. It worked. Before I knew it, I’d passed the 25 mile marker and the crowds were getting louder.  More and more of them shouted out: ‘Come on Tina. Not far to go now’. I remembered that I had to take all this in.  I was getting close now and had to make the most of it.  The pier was getting closer and soon it would all be over.  The months of training, the exhilaration and the pain would end.

I knew Brian would be around here now, but I knew it would be impossible to spot him in the sea of faces around me. And then I saw the ‘800m to go’ sign.  Immediately my mind converted it to ‘twice around the running track’.  This was it.  This was the final push.

I’ll never forget the feeling I had running the last 400 metres. The roar of the crowd was deafening as the runners made their way towards the pier. The finish clock came into view and supporters were on every view point. No matter where I looked, there were faces, clapping and shouting. I remembered my promise to myself: to enjoy it.  So I pushed my sunglasses up onto my head and smiled. And I laughed and got a bit teary. I even picked up my pace, although I was probably the only one who knew. I wanted it to end, but I didn’t at the same time.  This was fantastic.  This was the finale of six months of my life.

As I focussed on the finishing clock, watching the seconds tick by, I lapped up the atmosphere.  And as I crossed the finish line, I had to pinch myself when I realised I’d done what I’d set out to do: I’d run a marathon.  

I'd like to thank so many people at this point. Most importantly Brian who's been my rock.  His never ending support and love over the last six months didn't wain. He was with me every step of the way and gave me encouragement and belief when I needed it.  And he ran nice hot baths for me to slip into when I came back from the long, cold, winter runs.

And then there's Sandra, my training partner.  She's been great. We've battled through the tough times together, helping each other along the way. Knowing she was waiting for me every Saturday morning got me out of bed.  Without her, I may have just rolled over and given it a miss. I really don't think I'd have done it without her.

Which brings me on to Alan, Sandra's husband.  He worked out our routes and showed us the way on his bike.  When we got cold, he got cold. When our hands and legs froze, so did his. And he was our camel.  He carried our drinks in his rucksack. He made the hard runs easier for us.

My friends and family have listened to me moan about the training. They've looked interested as I talked endlessly about running. They've listened to my fears and given me motivational talks when it got tough. And then they came along to support me and made the day very special.

The Winston's Wish team has been fantastic too. Their emails and the personal touches in their support made me feel really special. And coming all the way from Gloucester to cheer me on was the icing on the cake.

Then there's Brighton and all the people who came to see us run. Their never ending clapping, shouting out my name and cheering made the day.
And finally, a huge thank you to everyone who's sponsored me. You know who you are. With your generosity I think I'll raise £500 for Winston's Wish.  That will help 50 families support the children where their parents have died.

It's been a fantastic six months and I hope you've enjoyed reading about it. And if you've had even just a slight thought about doing it yourself, I'll just say two words. 

Do it!

Sunday, 3 April 2011

It's the final countdown

Miles run this week:  26

Sunday, 8.45pm

It’s six days and 14 hours before the gun goes off and I begin to move my legs. My heart will be pounding.  My nerves running wild. My body fresh and ready to go. Ahead of me lays 26.2 miles, which will be around 41,000 steps, but of what?

Well running obviously, but what sort of running?  Will I be having a good day or will it be one of those days when your body just doesn’t feel right.  A bit like a run down battery. All runners experience them.  I just hope that I don’t next Sunday. 

One thing’s for sure:  I’m going to do everything I can to enjoy the experience. After nearly six months of training, that’s got to be my main goal. Oh and to finish it of course.

I’m not going to put any pressure on myself to run the marathon within a certain time, or try and keep up with someone.  I’m going to soak up the atmosphere, take in the sites of Brighton, dance to the music (if I’ve still got the legs to do so) and do my best to smile!  And that’s going to be the hardest thing I reckon.  When your legs are aching, and your shoulders are up around your ears with tension, when you’re battling with that evil voice inside your head saying ‘let’s walk now’, it’s going to be hard to find that smile. But I owe it to myself to smile as this is going to be one of the most amazing experiences of my life.  And it’s probably going to be the only marathon I ever run. Note the word probably readers.  I found out the other day that next year’s London Marathon ends in the Olympic stadium and that set the old brain ticking over, much to the annoyance of my partner. He’s just got his Saturday morning lie-ins back. But for how long?  Watch this space.

I’m not going to write too much in this post.  All I’ll say is I’ve done the prep as best I can for a first timer.  I’ve had a few set backs, but I don’t know a runner that doesn’t. And I’ve learnt from them.  I’m really excited, but my stomach keeps lurching with the realisation that it’s almost here. This week I’m going to eat really healthily, drink no alcohol (not counting the glass of wine I had today – well, it is Mother’s Day!) and have some nice easy, short runs as part of my taper (not counting the 15 mile bike ride I did today - I know, don’t say it, ‘bird brain’).

I’d also like to say how chuffed I am to have chosen Winston’s Wish to raise money for.  They’ve got 38 runners at Brighton and they took the time to hand write a thank you card to us all.  In these times when it’s all too easy to bang out a letter on a computer, I was really touched by that. Why not have a look at their webpage to see the reasons why others are running for them.  It brings it home how much people care about others.  Complete strangers want to help people they’ve never met before, or ever will. If we wanted to, we can all remain in our own little worlds these days with the technology we have.  But things like the Brighton marathon show that we’re all human, who are compassionate and care about each other. I know from talking to friends who’ve run marathons that the people lining the streets of Brighton will be willing me on. They’ll be shouting encouragement at me, calling out my name.  They’ll want me to go over that finish line. They’ll be showing me they care.

And it’s that which will get me over the finish line with a smile on my face.  Not just a smile though, the biggest grin ever. 

Signing off as a non-marathoner, hopefully for the last time. Ever.