My Virgin London Marathon 2011 experience. Hmmmmm.
It didn't go to plan, not by a long way. It was a hell of a learning experience. And if you have a couple of minutes, I'll tell you all about it.
I slept pretty well the night before. I went out with my wife and stepdaughter, and her friend, and we ate Italian. I raised some eyebrows when I asked for the exact same meal again, please. Well, I was carb loading, see? Back to the hotel, sleep. Woke up around 5:45, had a shower, got my stuff together.
By about 9:10 I was heading for the start line, ready to drop my bag with the organisers and get focussed. Except, I didn't have to get focussed. I was so calm, so together. It felt like there was a maelstrom around me, but I was in its eye and able to watch with total peace. In a word, it was nice.
I dumped my bag, thought about having a big piss, and realised I didn't have time. I looked for my friends Abi and Heath, who were starting in the same area (Heath in pen 7 and Abi in 9, while I was starting from 8 - all ordered by prospective finish times), and couldn't find them. So I just sucked it all in. The panic, the joy, the fear of a marathon start line.
I walked into the pen, to wait for the off - or more accurately, the walk to the start line, which took 20 minutes. Chatted to a few people, but I didn't say much. I was still completely calm, but my heart rate (even resting) was 10bpm above normal, in the mid-50s. I had only one thought: "This is what we're here for. This is what we signed up for. We're ready."
The sun was threatening, but the morning wasn't too hot. The cloud was high and hazy, and my worry was that it would burn off and leave us all exposed. I can run through wind, rain, sleet, snow, ice, anything except heat.
The gun went off, we shuffled forward, I chatted to a nice lady called Lucy briefly, and we were off. It took me 19 minutes 50 seconds to get over the start line, and I kicked off with 10:30-10:45 miles, and it was nice and comfortable. I saw some right fat fuckers come steaming past me, and I knew they'd blow up quickly - because that high cloud was already disappearing and the temperature was rising in a big way.
I'd had a bottle of Lucozade Sport before the start, and nothing else - as I had in all my long training runs. I felt fine, but still wanted a big piss. Figured I would find some toilets on the route.
The first few miles were okay, but I was conscious of how much I was sweating – enough to worry me, certainly. And it went on and on. Sweat was pouring off me, more than I have ever noticed before. The air was so still, not a hint of breeze, nothing.
By mile 5, I knew I was going to struggle, in a big way. By mile seven, I was actually struggling. It made me angry, but I knew what was happening. My sweat had stopped tasting salty, and tasted bitter - that's a bad sign as I recall, and it is linked to dehydration. In just seven miles. I stopped for that big piss, which took 10 minutes (not to piss, to queue. The piss was maybe.... 37 seconds.), ate some Kendal Mint Cake, and set off again.
It fucking sucked. Really. No hiding from that sun, and because of the chest infection I was diagnosed with two weeks ago (chest infection, throat infection, and inflamed lung), I had not had a proper taper during the spell of good weather we've been having. In short, I hadn't run in this heat since last summer, and it was fucking killing me.
I kept on, because I knew my beautiful wife would be waiting for me with a big smile and, arguably as importantly, a sachet of Dioralyte, which I had thankfully bought just for the event in case it was hot! For those not in the know, it helps to replace electrolytes lost when you have chronic diarrhea, and so it's great for post-run rehydration. In this case though, I think it saved me from keeling over. And of course, seeing my wife perked me up no end. I trotted off, just ticking over, still struggling hugely in the heat but being picked up by the crowds constantly. I had my wife's nickname for me on my shirt, so every time anyone shouted my 'name' to help me along, it was a huge spur. Go Bonty!
Mile 17 is where it really went wrong. As noted, I was already struggling in the heat (which had by now hit 20 degrees (68F, US Fact Fans) Celsius), and after a wall of sweat - yes, another - sloshed down my face, I wiped it off my eyelids... and folded a contact lens, which I then lost. In my eye. A nice policeman came and asked if I was okay, and I explained it to him, he took me to an aid station where they escorted me to a bathroom with a mirror. It took some finding, let me tell you, and all the while my eye is hurting, turning redder, and I'm prodding and poking to find the little bastard… I found it eventually, and had some eye drops in my arm wallet for just such an occasion. Cleaned it up, put it back in, thanks everyone for their help, got back on the road and… Well, fuck. Everything has seized up. I feel like I am creaking, and there is nothing at all in my legs. I've got energy in my top half, nothing in my legs and I can't work out how to move it down there.
From mile 17, it became a run/walk. Which felt fucking awful. And no matter how much I told myself that I had just had a shitty chest infection, and that it was stupidly hot for April in the UK, I still felt like a cheat. Like a fraud. Like I was letting all those people that had supported me down; like I was not doing myself justice. I think, perhaps, I had found the wall, certainly mentally.
So when I walked, I walked fast. As fast as I could, actually. I ran what I could. I made sure I picked up spare water, because the guys running in bulky costumes were hurting worse than I was. I checked people were okay if they pulled over to the side. I geed the crowds up when they were quiet. I engaged fully with the event, but I still felt I had not done myself justice.
I knew I was seeing my darling again on mile 23, and when I hit the 22 mark I picked it up again. I didn't want her to see me walking, I just wanted her to feel proud of me. I wasn't doing this for her approval by any means, but it doesn't mean it's not important. None of this would have been possible without her. I made it to 23, and to more Dioralyte, but now I was pretty much fucked. We had a brief chat, and I showed her the patches of blood on my top. Yep, two nipple-shaped bloodstains. Niiiiiice.
I could have taped them, yes. But I'm very hairy. I could have shaved, or waxed, but that would have made it worse - the body hair actually absorbs a fair amount of the friction from the running shirt. Even Bodyglide or Vaseline wouldn't have worked - it would have simply sweated off. The problem happened because of the amount of sweat, and therefore salt, on my body. It's not a big problem, and they're fine today (no breastfeeding until June for me though), but it's a hell of a look in my finishers photo…
I trotted off from mile 23, and somewhere between there and mile 24, I bumped into Lucy again, the lady from the start line. I waved at her to come on, let's go, but she said her knee had 'popped' on mile 12. She had walked the next 11, 12 miles with a fucked knee. Which is mental but... I understand. Thousands of hours of training and fundraising, all that effort and support from so many people… I would have too.
So I made a choice. My race was already fucked, what did I have to lose? I stayed with Lucy until the end, chatting away, wanting to pick her up a little bit because she was so down about her misfortune. I told her what a great job she had done fundraising (£2400!), and what an achievement it was just to make it to the start line. And when we saw the final 400 metres, she wanted to run it in to the finish. And she did!
So that was my race day, pretty much. Oh, except for afterward – my lovely wife performed Reiki on me, she's a level one reiki ninja. As she was doing it she said "That's weird, most of the energy is going into your feet and ankles." I said that is weird, they're fine. It's everything else that hurts. "No, there's something going on at the top of your foot and in the ankle, where the tendons splay on top of the foot."
What do you know, when I woke up at 11:45 that night, it was thanks to some fuck-off pain in that exact spot on my left foot. Today, it's mostly fine, but the same spot on my right foot is going bananas. There's something in this Reiki shizzle…
I ended up disappointed, but also not. It sucked, but it was brilliant. On the way home, I was reading the wonderful Born To Run by Christopher McDougall. I had hoped to finish it before the race for some inspiration, but that didn't happen. So I finished it on the train home, and it made me cry. Why? Because of this:
"You were amazing," Scott said.
"Yeah," I said, "Amazingly slow." It had taken me over 12 hours, meaning that Scott and Arnulfo could have run the course all over again and still beaten me.
"That's what I'm saying," Scott insisted. "I've been there, man. I've been there a lot. It takes more guts than going fast."
The Scott in question is ultra runner god Scott Jurek, talking to the book's author after a 50-mile ultra in 100 degree heat in Mexico's Copper Canyons. Couldn't have read those words at a better time.
I'm going back to do it again next year, and I'm going to kick its fucking ass. I'm not having a six-hour plus marathon* next to my name! Watch out London, you may have got me this time but… We'll see.