It may seem a bit strange to be writing this a week before the London Marathon, especially as I am not running.
But at this time of the year I am always acutely aware of it on the horizon, as I look at runners in the street and wonder if they have reached the peak of their training. I can sense the tiredness, the tension, and the injuries held at bay; the good-causes, the anticipation and impatience and uncertainty. I remember the demands on families, finalising the arrangements for travel and babysitting and rendezvous and last meals.
Maybe in the unbearable enforced idleness of this week some London runners may read this and recognise something. Maybe next week, someone who has been moved by what they have seen, and heard a small voice somewhere in their head and thought “I wonder…”, might stumble on this and remember it one rainy winter night after their acceptance has come through.
That’s how it starts, with a small voice somewhere in a corner of your mind.
“I wonder what it’s like.”
“I wonder if I could do that?”
“Maybe I’ll just have a look at the website… just looking mind, I’m not saying I’ll enter or anything…”.
In my case it was some years, a job-change, a house-move and a number of false-starts before I finally ran a marathon. It can take a long time: but once that voice has started, it can be relentless.
I think it’s one thing which people who have not run a marathon fail to appreciate: they look at London, especially, and say “Wow, that must be a great day” but fail to realise that it’s not just about that day. The race-day itself is one final step at the end of a very long journey. Actually there are multiple journeys:
- One is from first hearing “the voice” to actually committing to do something about it and you can go through quite a few stages along the way.
- The second is the journey from entry to start-line. Especially for a novice, this is a journey into the unknown, of how to train and how much, and what your body can cope with (and how you react when it can’t). Race-day often seems so remote, and even getting to the start-line is a massive task – and a massive achievement – in itself (even before the uncertainties on the day).
- And then there is the journey of self-discovery, which changes you for ever.
Many people say they hated the training, the winter and cold nights and long runs and always having to go again. Not me, I loved the training as much as the event itself: the journey and passage of time, the change in my body and increasing endurance, the sense of progress. Also the knowledge of how fragile it is, knowing how easily it can all be lost, the sense of continually skating on thin ice, as you wonder whether that niggle will turn into an injury and stop you dead; continually adjusting your plan and targets to stay safe. Just don’t blow it now, you’ve come so far, just make sure you get to the start….
A while ago I went to a talk by the bewildering Andy Kirkpatrick(*), who described the moment of completing an epic multi-day solo climb in Yosemite National Park in California. Hauling himself onto the summit, he felt a rush of elation, but even as he punched the air this was tempered also with a sense of loss – bereavement almost. That thing he had lived with for so long was now gone. I thought at the time: “He’s just described exactly the moment of crossing a marathon finish-line”.
That’s when it happens again. That voice. If you’ve had a great day, you wonder what you might really be capable of; if you are disappointed you wonder if you can have another go. This may not come straight away, as you bask in the tiredness, the elation, the congratulations and the knowledge that you don’t have to run tomorrow. But it will come.
In October 2007 I promised that Dublin would be my last. I had coaxed my body to its limit, and it was definitely getting older and more worn. I had stretched my family’s endurance as far as my own, and it was all part of the deal that this would be my last full-marathon. I think it even added a special poignancy to the training, and the day itself.
But last summer it started again. Well into half-marathon training and cruising along, comfortable, at a point which would normally be my limit, I thought “this isn’t so far off a full-marathon programme….”. After a good winter I have entered the Leeds Half and am well ahead of my typical Half targets: 15-miles-plus, and it comes again, that voice.
But I had genuine and very strong reasons why Dublin was to be my last. Family, work (lack of), cost…. And, I knew I had to protect my body. I know, absolutely – as every full-marathon runner does – that 26.2 is absolutely infinitely more than 2 x 13.1, so I’m not so naive as to think because I am fit for a Half I can just carry on up to the full distance. I honestly believed Dublin was my last Marathon, and believed it to be the right thing to do. In fact it was a key moment in the evolution of the Art of Running Slowly.
But that was then. That was before the voice came back.
There is another complication too: I seem to have managed to commit to walk the Yorkshire Three Peaks in June, which adds a whole set of other issues. So. I’ll see how Leeds goes, then Y3P, then maybe decide on an autumn Marathon. Don’t have to go public yet, just slot into the 16-week plan and keep it to myself until I’m sure. Because after all, I haven’t decided yet.
I’d love to do Nottingham (Robin Hood) again; we have history. Or Dublin? (Come to think of it, I never said exactly which Dublin was to be my last.)
And for those of you who are running London this week for your first Marathon, and have read this far: congratulations on making the start. Have a great day, be careful (don’t do anything different now, don’t get carried away, and run your own race). Take time to savour every mile, but always keep 18-22 in your mind. After that, it’s out of your hands.
Be excited and scared: you will never feel more alive. Someone posted a picture recently which had the message
There will be many days when you doubt whether you can run a Marathon; and a whole lifetime to look back and know you did.
Have a great day.
Oh, and … I bet you a beer, some time within the next few years, you will hear a small voice, somewhere in a corner of your mind…..
*Andy Kirkpatrick: twitter @psychovertical, http://www.andy-kirkpatrick.com/