On Sunday the 14th October I crossed the finish line of the Yorkshire Marathon. Six months previously, I was recovering from surgery after a miscarriage, two days before I should have been running the London Marathon (you can read my first ever post The Beginning here).
The week before the Yorkshire marathon was a tough one for me; London ballot places were dropping through letter boxes, and soon I would finally tackle my first marathon, just not the one I’d set out to do. It also marked the beginning of Baby Loss Awareness week, which was very close to my heart. I decided to wear my pink and blue Baby Loss pin on my marathon vest as a reminder of everything that Run would mean to me.
I was so excited to get to the start line, however, in my final tapering runs I found myself really struggling to control my emotions as the forced of all of this hit me. It is positive – and at times downright cathartic – to acknowledge how important these feelings are, but it can also be overwhelming. I found myself not just in tears but gasping for air; I can only describe it as a panic attack whilst trying to run at the same time, not conducive to marathon running. I was desperate to experience my emotions during the marathon, but terrified of not being able to control them; and if I was struggling on small solo runs around home how would I cope with the atmosphere of the real thing?
At 9:30am on Sunday I finally lined in the start pen of the Yorkshire Marathon, there was an air of nervous, excited anticipation, and I batted back a few tears that I’d kept in whilst saying goodbye to my supporters. However, once we pushed through the start line and the race began in earnest, I found I was carried forward both physically and mentally by the sheer momentum of the other runners. It was impossible not to feel truly present, as it was impossible to stand still or go backwards. In reality, it was during those final runs (in my own company, easy pace, easy distance) where my mind struggled with most; there was space for it to take over. As many had reassured me, and I hope this might reassure some of you, the real thing was much easier.
At this point I should make some mention of the weather, because it was absolutely bloody awful! We had driving rain the entire day, and although I was appreciative of the cooler temperature, (I am a bit afraid of doing something as huge as a marathon in the heat), the rain I could have done without! To be honest once we were running it was fine for us, but it must have been very tough for the spectators, even if a lot of them were Northern. Despite this the atmosphere was still electric, and thanks to my super Guide Dog’s vest (short name in large black letters on a yellow background!) I had a huge amount of support from the crowds. Every time someone shouted my name I grinned and thanked them; I must have said thankyou a hundred times. The very act of smiling releases endorphins which make you feel happy and suppresses the stress hormone cortisol. So I kept on smiling, and kept on running.
The first half passed quite easily, and after the adrenaline of running past the beautiful York Minster we headed out into the more rural section, I was careful to pace myself. It was really exciting to hit the 13.2 mark and finally the numbers left were smaller than those already run. There was a spectator fun bus taking people to designated points across the course, but with none between miles 2-14 my Mum and partner decided they would go to a café for a cooked breakfast. This was a big mistake! After getting lost, missing the bus and underestimating the traffic they realised they were heading for being in serious trouble with a tired, cold hungry marathon runner! Thankfully due to an emergency taxi (find that runner!) they were both there at Stamford bridge, which was a wonderful boost.
I began to find it tough from around mile 15, so I started checking in with myself using a body scan technique: Feet, knees, hips, yep they all feel ok; you aren’t out of breath; you’re fine actually. It’s probably just your clever old brain letting you know you’re doing something stupid, like running a marathon. The other mindfulness method I used was to notice that pain came and went: my ankle (which has never hurt before) was sore in the first few miles but this just disappeared, later my right knee started to ache but that went away too. Nearly every part of my body hurt at some point but noting its coming and going meant that I didn’t panic each time I got a niggle (physical or mental); I trusted that it would pass.
I’ve heard that the second half of a marathon starts at mile 20, and this is certainly where the game changed for me. I’d read a lot about about mental training and mantras, and the one I found myself repeating for the final 6 miles was “I can, I will”. It really is head down, move your feet at this stage and repeating this in time with my strides gave me a rhythm and a sense of compulsion that I couldn’t break. A dear friend told me to think of them at mile 24, and as I did I found the emotion starting to creep through. With two miles to go there was no way I wasn’t going to cross that line.
Until I rounded the corner of mile 26 and saw a hill. Yes, they put a hill at mile 26. But you don’t walk at mile 26 even if there is a hill, so I powered on, ignoring my protesting knees. By this stage I didn’t have many runners around me, so as I entered the finishing area it felt like the whole crowd was cheering just for me. I sprinted for the finish (not entirely in control of my legs it must be said!), arms in the air, and I crossed the line. I finished twenty minutes quicker than I’d hoped, at 4:41:04.
What does it feel like to cross the finish line of your first marathon? For me, once the relief gave way and there was space for all the feelings I felt suddenly overwhelmed the sheer magnitude of support and love that had got me to that moment. It was like being hit by every single kind thought or message all at once and the major emotion I felt was gratitude. It might have been my own little legs that had taken me all that way, but it was the support that had carried me round, pushing me forward when I felt like maybe I couldn’t.
I hadn’t realised my mum and Tom were at the finish line, and somehow that felt special. I crossed the line with everything I needed inside me. But it is wonderful knowing now that they were there, and they saw me do it. Once I found them I just about managed a “I did it. I ran a marathon” before dissolving into tears in my foil blanket.
I don’t think it has entirely sunk in yet. I’m not a natural runner, and if you had told me a few years ago that one day I would run a marathon I would have thought you were mad. And now I will always have run a marathon, it can never be taken away. I had such a lot tied up in this marathon and I hope that there will be things I can begin to move forward from, now that I’ve achieved what I set out to do over a year ago. It’s confusing that what was one of the hardest years of my life has also been one of my best. And I’m going to take care now not to put too much pressure on myself – every one of those miles was healing, particularly the last 26.2, but I also know that running a marathon doesn’t fix everything. Now it is finally done I’m going to take time to rest, nourish, relax, have fun, socialise, reflect, recover.
Oh, but London 2019 – I’m coming for you!