I’ve been wanting to write a piece about my London Marathon experience for many months because I never did tell the full story on my running blog The Reason I Run. As the hype built up for the London Marathon 2015, it seemed the perfect opportunity to sit down and do it.
So here goes.
Do also check out the edit of this piece, My Marathon Story: Blood, Sweat & Many Many Tears, on the Huffington Post blog. I hope they inspire you to support Epilepsy Research, a charity that’s close to my heart…
Excitement, anxiety and sheer panic – that’s the mix of emotions I felt hours before running the London Marathon last year.
Running this event was something I’d felt an overwhelming urge to do for many years.
But when my eldest sister, Joanne, unexpectedly passed away in 2004 following a life of severe epilepsy, my casual interest in running became a coping mechanism for unbearable grief. Putting on my earphones and letting my legs take me wherever I wanted helped vent my anger, frustration and sadness at the loss we’d had. Running was my release.
In the first year after Jo died, my efforts to somehow muster up enough focus to finish my university degree, and complete the Great North Run in her memory, became everything I lived for.
After running The Great North Run and various 10Ks, my appetite for doing something ‘bigger’ was still there.
Epilepsy charities are so under-represented, and I wanted to keep my sister’s memory alive but also further raise the profile of epilepsy organisations. If I could gain a place in the Virgin London Marathon in support of Epilepsy Research UK, not only would it help fund between research projects on adult and childhood epilepsy every year, it could also help them make developments in drug therapy, medical scanning and enable them to reach a better understanding of the causes of this condition.
The Fundraising Officer, also called Jo, must have sensed my sheer determination when after four or five years of applications I’d still been unsuccessful. Then in October 2013, I received an email saying, ‘I’m able to offer you a place!’
Bloody ‘ell. I couldn’t believe it. I was actually in the London Marathon.
My ambition had always been to run the race before I hit 30. I’d be one year over, but what was quite poignant, was it would be 10 years since my sister passed away. So I wanted it to be a celebration of her life, during what would otherwise be a sad and difficult year.
What followed was six months of relentless training and physio sessions. Fitting a training programme around my work, relationship and social life became the biggest challenge yet.
I felt like ‘the marathon’ became everything I talked about – with my friends, my work colleagues and everyone I met. I suddenly had to find time in my day to mentally and physically prepare for this big challenge.
My then job at Virgin Holidays was a long commute, so morning training sessions were a no-no. I’d spend my commute reading running blogs for tips and advice, while planning new routes and trying to schedule gym and physio sessions into my diary.
When I returned from work it was generally dark and cold, so I tried to base most of my training in the gym during the week, mixing in bits of weight training, high intensity workouts and cardio-based circuit training with classes like Speedflex.
But sometimes, I had no choice but to go running in the cold, dark evenings. On a few occasions, I ran four or five miles from my flat, to find myself stuck in freezing downpours with no money or bus pass to get home. I quickly learned from that mistake.
As it began to warm up, the training – in some ways – was equally as hard. I’d spend Saturdays doing circuits of Hyde Park while the sane people in London basked in the sun with jugs of Pimm’s. My partner would call me up to reassure me that I wasn’t entirely crazy for doing this.
Seven or eight miles eventually turned to 10 or 11. And as family and friends got behind me, my motivational levels rose. I even documented my training and fundraising experiences on my blog TheReasonIRun.
The feat of reaching my £1,500 fundraising target felt almost as daunting as completing the 26 miles.
I was lucky to have a team of really supportive work colleagues who helped me with work raffles and cake sales and made incredibly generous donations which I’ll be eternally grateful for.
Running. Became. My. Life.
Luckily I found an amazing sports therapist – Laurie Cooper – at Hub Health in Clapham. She helped me physically, with sports massages, while the osteopath there armed me with stretches to ward off the recurring back pains I was getting from pounding the pavements.
It’s during this time I found out I had a tilted spine which made these stretches even more paramount in avoiding injury. It’s amazing how much you begin to appreciate your body in a different way when you’re training for a big running event. You also begin to understand what being fit really means.
As the weeks passed, the notion of ever getting to 26 miles felt increasingly daunting. I had a few colleagues who were running that year. And when two announced a few months in that they were dropping out due to injury, I felt a mixture of overwhelming sympathy and envy.
I began relying on my blog to vent my fears. Scrolling for motivational quotes on instagram and Pinterest became my pastime. So what if I had to walk part of the course? My friends and family wouldn’t think any less of me, would they? One particular quote I found became my mantra: ‘You haven’t failed until you quit trying’. The competitive, determined streak in me wasn’t going to let me drop out of the race. Not after all this.
By the end of March, I was edging towards the 20 mile mark and my weekly ‘big run’ became a circular route that usually included Clapham, Battersea, Imperial Wharf, Chelsea, Knightsbridge and several circles around Hyde Park. Other times I’d hit the roads and people-dodge my way through Elephant and Castle and London Bridge before running along Embankment until I headed south through Pimlico or Vauxhall. It felt exhilarating to be able to see so much of London in a few hours. I found streets I’d never run down before and began to appreciate how special this city is.
I had many ‘what the **** are you doing?’ moments. But it was mind over matter. I’d divert my negative thoughts by thinking about my sister, or trying to focus on my music. I rediscovered that the ‘runner’s high’ is a thing. As cliché as it sounds, running by the River Thames without a stitch and with an epic Disclosure track on high volume, does make you feel pretty damn good.
My long-distance running tool kit compiled of the following:
- My Map My Run app – the woman’s voice telling me how far I’d run and what my pace was became my vital piece of motivation.
- Gel bars. They were disgusting and I tried just about every flavour, but they really worked.
- Coffee – before, after, whenever I wanted. Caffeine just helped.
Some people told me I was training too much, and in hindsight, maybe I was. But whatever people told me, I didn’t believe that you ‘just found that remaining seven or eight miles’ through sheer adrenaline from the day.
On Sunday, March 23, 2014 I broke through the wall of doubt and ran 22.54 miles. It was a good day. I remember doing an air punch in the middle of Hyde Park at around the 17 or 18-mile mark, because I knew that I felt ‘ok’ and that the training was paying off.
If I kept running home from Hyde Park, it would take me up to at least 22 miles. I willed my legs up the incline towards my flat, my toes stinging – and now bleeding – from the blisters, and my feet and legs throbbing. I stumbled through the front door, half crying, half laughing, that I’d run 22.54 miles.
At the end of every run, I’d been marking my progress in the Map My Run app and each time, it would ask me to write a note about how it went.
‘PAIN,’ ‘Not feeling good,’ ‘shoes rubbing’ became some of the comments I’d tap into my phone.
But today? ‘I bloody did it.’
But on the morning of the event, I woke up feeling groggy and in a state of self-doubt. I wrapped my legs in KT tape, ate a ridiculous amount of calories (porridge, hot cross buns with banana and honey, a Mars bar or two and an energy drink and set out with no idea how the day was going to pan out.
The first half of the race was unsurprisingly, my strongest. My mental will was greater than my physical doubt.
When I spotted my other half, Ben, and my friends around 11 miles in, it gave me the spring in my step I needed. Shortly after, I crossed Tower Bridge and was surrounded by TV cameras and throngs of people shouting my name (I was wearing my name on my vest) – the atmosphere was breathtaking.
The low point? The seven or eight mile route that takes you around the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf. That’s where I really had to dig deep for mental and physical strength because it’s here you think it’s nearly over, but as you look over to the other side of the road, you see the participants who are approaching the 22-mile mark. The looks of anguish and discomfort on many of their faces hit me like a slap of reality in the face. I couldn’t bare to look at them. Quite possibly the cruelest thing they can do to you in the London Marathon – remind you that this is how you’re going to be looking in about, well, eight miles time!
The following seven or eight miles were some of the most horrific I’ve ever run. My body started to feel like it was heavy and slowing down and knowing we were running a circular route to only come back the way we had come, almost added to the mental torture. I spent the next hour or so trying to heighten the reason I was doing this, and thinking about nothing but my sister, plus my family and friends who were waiting for me at the finish line. I’ve never been religious, but I almost started praying to something or someone above that I would get to the end. If I made it in my 4.5 hour goal that would be epic. If I just made it to the finish line, without walking, that would be enough.
By the time we neared Canary Wharf, it had got intensely hot and I’d been sipping water for about half an hour. Meanwhile, I was trying to ignore the rushes of nausea as I forced small amounts of caffeine gel in my mouth.
I felt like I was near tipping point. Tears began flowing down my cheeks and the amazing crowds were getting bigger and louder. Claxons were sounding. Meanwhile my body longed for me to stop. I swallowed some painkillers that I’d packed as a last resort for my knees. It took the edge of the pain momentarily, but it eventually creeped back.
We were now on the other side of the route and 22 miles in it was now our turns to look like fleeing zombies.
After Limehouse and past St Paul’s, we reached the long tunnel that takes you to Embankment. Runners had begun slowing right down and many were staggering. A few had clearly ‘hit the wall’. I longed to stop for a rest but I knew that if I did, I’d never start again.
We emerged out of the tunnel to throngs of shouting, screaming and applause. The crowds were now 10, maybe 15 people deep either side of us and I could feel hundreds of eyes watching my every move, as if in slow motion.
By now my knees were doing something so bizarre, something I’d never experienced before. My kneecaps were ‘popping’ and the muscle spasms had reached excruciating levels. I was inches away from hitting that wall.
That moment, a girl I knew came running beside me and she must have seen the look of despair on my face!
She flung her arms around me and gave me a kiss on the cheek. Just seeing a friendly face was what I needed.
Moments later I stopped and flung my arms down to my feet to stretch out the pain. I couldn’t just stop in the middle of all the runners, so I hobbled to the side. People were inches away from me, shouting their support and I just wanted to cry again. I jogged on and minutes later, stopped once again to do the same. I reached my fingers to my toes and stretched my hamstrings before running on.
If I walked it was game over.
For the next mile I focused on how amazing all these people – both the runners and those in the crowd – were around me. I was almost speaking to my sister in my head, thinking of how ridiculous/amazing she might think it all was.
Somehow, I found one last morsel of strength to complete the 26th mile. And as I neared St James’ Park I spotted my Dad. I then spotted Ben and my friend Hannah, grinning from ear to ear as they ran alongside the pavement waving at me. It was the last push I needed.
As I passed over the finish line, a sense of sheer relief, calmness and elation flooded over me. It was over.
I was reunited with everyone, the sun was shining and it became one of the happiest days of my life.
We celebrated on the Virgin boat with champagne, food and amazing views over the Thames. I even got a painful, but much-needed massage by the lead physio of the England Rugby team.
I was so proud to raise more than £2,000 for Epilepsy Research and a few weeks later, I was invited to the House of Commons to meet epilepsy sufferers, charity members and the lead researchers behind the organisation.
I then finally met Jo Finnerty, the Chief Fundraising Officer who gave me the Marathon place to start with. I also met ERUK’s Communications Director, Deborah Pullen, who has done many amazing things for the charity, including getting celebrities and people in the public eye on board, to speak out about living with epilepsy. One of those is Martin Kemp, who has helped ERUK run a successful radio campaign on BBC Radio 4.
During the event at the House of Commons, I met some truly amazing people. One of them was a young girl who’d undergone successful brain surgery to cure her seizures. I also listened to talks explaining just how vital our fundraising efforts were in supporting the researchers’ work.
Not long after, a voice recording about my experience went live on the ERUK website which I’d helped make with Rose Thompson – a video maker who has the Vimeo site Epilepsy Stories.
So many amazing things had come out of this one event.
A year has now passed and I’m proud to have waved the flag for such an amazing charity in memory of my sister.
I’ll be cheering on the runners from the other side of the rope this year, with a sense of relief that I’m not going through that great feat, but also with a sense of admiration for their courage and determination, plus a knowing sense of excitement.
Because when you cross that finish line and realise what you’ve achieved, well there’s no feeling quite like it.
Epilepsy Research are the only charity in the UK solely dedicated to carrying out scientific research into epilepsy. This enables them to make developments in drug therapy, medical scanning and understanding of the causes. To find out more, please visit EpilepsyResearch.org.uk. Follow them on twitter @EpilepsyRUK