It’s 9am. I’m at the start and it’s hot. Really hot. I look around and people are lying on the grass soaking up the sun and nervously laughing. I grabbed my final bits from my bag and attempted to send a message to my husband. No signal. Damn.
As I wandered round aimlessly, I bumped into Louise, who I’d been chatting to at the expo. What a relief to find a friendly face. We agreed we would wander round aimlessly together, which turned out to be the best thing ever. Laughing, sharing stories and making light of the weather situation (I was already sweating and we hadn’t even started). It felt like we queued forever in the pens. They changed the start so that each pen goes into waves. I have to confess I think this was a terrible idea. We were stood waiting for nearly an hour in the same crowded spot which just made my feet hurt even more (and it didn’t actually help with congestion in the slightest).
We chatted away to fellow runners. No one peed on my feet this year which was a real bonus. The excitement was building as we edged towards the start line. Eventually we were off. A wave of emotion flooded over me as we crossed the start line. The noise, the music, the memories of running with my good friend Charlie last year. I had no pains in my glutes or hips. I felt surprisingly strong.
Of course I felt completely fresh for the first couple of miles. So fresh in fact, I was darting from one side of the road to the next: high fiving every man, woman, child and dog. I managed to work myself into a bit of a sweat. The excitement was too much. Oops. Must. Slow. Down. Why is it so hard to slow down?
As we approached the 5km timing mat I said to Louise “my husband is about to see how fast we’ve gone out and he’s totally going to face palm” – we MUST slow down! We managed to do that, a little bit. And we needed to. Electrolytes and salt tablets popped. Drink station successfully maneuvered.
Mile 4….Pop! Yep. That’s what I thought. My sports bra strap had popped open. That has never happened before. Thank heavens for Louise who literally lifted up my top on the side of the road and readjusted it for me. We set off again. The temperature continued to rise. The sun was beating down on our pale white bodies. Sweat dripped off my eyebrows into my eyes and I wiped my dripping chin and neck with my sweat band. We passed various pubs and as I saw people drinking ice cold crisp beer, my mouth started to get dry.
We knew our mutual friend Natalie would be somewhere around mile 5.5 so we got our heads down and focused on seeing a familiar face amongst the sea and sound of unknowns. I was feeling so much more tired than usual. So when we eventually spotted Natalie it was everything I needed and more. It’s amazing how something as simple as a hug or encouraging words can fire you up. She told us we were amazing and it was enough for us to push on.
As we approached 6 miles, I suddenly got that weak, dizzy feeling. I could feel the heat rising through my body and my heart started beating through my chest. 190bpm and we were running slow. Damn. Not now. Not again. I slowed to a walk and told Louise to push on. I already knew what was happening and it was only fair to battle this one alone.
Mile 6. It was exactly the same spot as last year that I felt the symptoms of heat stroke. I don’t remember running through Cutty Sark last year. It was all a blur and my photos looked miserable. So I made a conscious effort this time to run the whole way round it smiling and waving at every TV camera. Little did I know there weren’t any actual cameras there this year. They must have been on a break!
Even though I could feel my body shutting down from the heat, I wanted to keep my spirits high. I smiled and continued high fiving the children on the side of the road. At mile 8.5, I saw my family. My mum was jumping up and down and had tears in her eyes. I flung my arms around her neck and told her how hot I was. “You have to keep going!” she said and then practically pushed me back into the road. Standard.
I took a gel and set off at a slow running pace. At mile 9, the tummy cramps came. Tight knots wringing me from the inside out. I kept being sick in my mouth too. I massaged my tummy and slowed to a walk again. My walk turned into a prolonged hike… all the way to mile 11. It’s okay. “No time pressure today” I kept telling myself. Even though I was taking regular sips of water, electrolyte and salt tablets, it didn’t seem to be enough to get me back running comfortably. And I wasn’t the only one. By now, at least 30% of the runners around me were taking regular walking breaks. Some had gone as far as lying on the ground in whatever shaded patch they could find. Some had their heads in their hands. Some were receiving medical attention. I was lucky to have caught my heat stroke soon enough and I had a choice to make now.
I had to devise a plan of getting myself to the finish in one piece. Just like last year, I knew I would have to walk/run it (which is fine but it just felt so typical and disappointing that history was repeating itself). I turned my music up, blocked out the screaming and ran over Tower Bridge with a smile on my face, knowing that I was nearly half way.
From miles 14 to 16, you run on the right hand side of the road whilst faster runners come back on the left (as they head towards mile 23). I can see how this part of the race might be hard for some. For me, it actually perked me up. I love people watching and it reminded me of where I saw my husband last year. It was an emotional stretch; frantically scanning faces, vests and blurry figures for people I might know. I managed to spot a few so I yelled encouragement and kept myself moving.
I ran through every single shower on course and dowsed my wrists, neck and legs with water at every drink station. I couldn’t seem to run for more than 2 minutes at a time and whenever I stopped to walk, I felt dizzy. I told myself that time didn’t matter. It’s not in the plan to get a PB today.
Between miles 17-19, people were dropping like flies. The further I got, the more people who were slumped on the side of the road needing medical attention. It upset me and I wanted to stop to help them all but I knew there was nothing I could do. I was lucky enough to see my husband a few times on the Isle of Dogs. He’d bought me a bottle of cold coke and I can’t tell you how good it was. Even just holding the cold wet bottle was a relief and felt like everything I needed.
As I approached mile 20, I saw my friend Shellie. Oh boy. You have no idea how much it lifted me. She was in such high spirits even though she was struggling too. From mile 20-23 it was something like this: walk, run, walk, dance, high five, run. We kept each other going. I could tell that both of us wanted to stop but we forced ourselves to run little sections at a time. Just knowing that you have someone by your side makes a huge difference during the difficult parts of the race, because you really do feel like you are in it together.
As I approached the drinks station at mile 24, I lost Shellie… but I found fellow ASICS FrontRunner Veronica. A few emotional pep talks about how “we got this” and “we are strong” pushed us to the final stretch at mile 25. We had a little hug and went our separate ways.
Don’t underestimate the power of your people. The marathon can be a lonely race. You are alone with your thoughts for hours. And for some, it’s a sanctuary. But for others, it’s an opportunity to overthink things and let the doubt creep in. Whatever your goal, when you’ve got the support of those around you, you inevitably feel much stronger.
I was reunited with Shellie just after mile 25. I remember hugging her and telling her that this was it. We were about to turn the corner by Big Ben and finish this damn thing. We passed Big Ben together and I told Shellie to run to the finish without me.
Nothing prepares you for the feeling you get in the final kilometre of a marathon. You know the finish is near and yet it feels like a million more miles away. Everything hurts but you know you’ve nearly done it. You leave all your drama behind you and focus on putting one foot in front of the other to get yourself to the line. I hung back and began the final straight on my own. I felt alone. Disappointed. But also strong. I had not had the race I originally envisaged but I’d learned a lot about myself and the strength I have within. That fiery determination that never lets me go without a fight. That stubborn little girl inside me who refuses to be beaten.
One last hug from my husband and I turned the corner at Buckingham Palace. I could see the finish.
I lifted my arms and shut my eyes for moment. All I wanted to do was smile. Because whatever struggles I’d had for the last 26 miles were irrelevant. In that moment, I was, once again, a marathoner.