The short version…
After five months of banging on about running I actually did the bloody run. And it was bloody wonderful, and I’ve never had a feeling like it that I can talk about in polite company. I was so emotional it’s taken me a week to scrape together this blog post. And I’m doing a half Marathon in October, and then – if I get in and don’t prang myself – a Marathon next year.
The long version…
Some people are natural runners. Some people run because they’re so emotionally battered the only relief can come from doing something completely unnatural.
After the suicide of one of my closest friends four years ago I immediately pledged to Do Something in his honour and fundraise for mental health….then never bothered; probably because I was sore from people asking very personal questions and thought it’d only encourage more of that. The idea of doing a running event barely even entered my head. I’d heard the atmosphere of them could be a bit like a festival, which, considering my (literal) five minutes at Glastonbury, didn’t bode very well…
When another friend took his own life at the end of last year my mental health plummeted. I felt helpless trying to talk to friends and family who barely knew of his existence and had already listened to all this once already not long before. I knew I was heading for an all-time low and had to take the edge off, but didn’t know what with. Loved ones provided the nudge. A very dear friend from university had recently run the Great North Run for Mind, and when my mum, a keen runner for ten years, desperately suggested I run for them too, I leapt to it. Apparently my situation is quite common: many people who fundraise after someone dies only feel ready for it once a few years have passed, and/or after the same rotten illness has touched their lives multiple times. I decided anything that could me feel even a fraction better was worth doing. I knew I was never going to return to the carefree, seize-the-day “Another bottle? Yeeeah, go on then..!” era of my early freelancing days four years ago, but just to see some point to life would do.
After months of slow-but-sure training, I felt calmer and more prepared for the run than I have felt about possibly anything I can remember. I wondered why I was so calm: Was it because I had a training app which scrupulously told me what to do and when? Because I was honouring friends, who had a particularly bolstering effect on me when they were alive? (the spring of 2011, when I met one and just before the other died, was a particularly happy time in my life). Or was it just a sense things couldn’t get any worse? Whatever the reason, it was very strange to feel so remarkably serene. “Is this normality? Do normal people feel like this about doing things all the time?” I wondered. “Bloody hell, no wonder you’re all so efficient…”
The only fly in my zen ointment as race day, aka Bank Holiday Monday, approached was the weather forecast. I’d skimmed past every piece of advice about using bin bags and old clothes to keep warm while waiting at the starting line, confident that by late-May my obscenely tiny, obscenely pink shorts (bright enough to be visible from the afterlife…) would serve me well. The Met Office didn’t share my hope. The forecast swung between rainy and cloudy for days, then settled on “12 degrees with black cloud” the afternoon before. My shorts would be too cold for the start; my running trousers too hot for the finish. To cheer myself up I went to town and spent longer than the race itself choosing eye makeup. After hovering nervily around the cheapo counters in Boots like a teenage shoplifter I went for a Barry M eyeshadow and Bourjois eyeliner, in deep blue to match my Mind running vest (which lasted fairly admirably). Mum gave me some of her St Tropez tanning mousse for my legs, which, if you can get past smelling like a biscuit factory accident, is wonderful stuff.
I managed six hours’ sleep before my 6am start on race day – decent going for me the night before a big event (thanks, all those of you who tweeted polite versions of “MAX. Stop babbling on and go to sodding BED” at me). I took hope at glimmers of sun through cloud, and went into denial that it was still freezing cold: a bit like trying to forget that people I like vote Tory… I ate the traditional runner’s breakfast of porridge and fruit (race day breakfast is to be endured, not enjoyed). Arriving early at the starting point in Green Park proved to be a smart idea which meant I could change and use the loo without queuing for an hour. My Twitter and Facebook notifications were pinging like a Mission Control tower with good luck messages I couldn’t see because my phone was now inside my running armband attached to me. Mum suggested I try an energy drink, which I’d never had before and which they don’t sell at 10Ks because it’s not long enough to make up the calories. We chin-scratched a while over where we might find some Lucozade (Mum, sincerely: “Why don’t you have a look in the Ritz?“) before Dad managed to leg it up to Soho, find the only Boots open before 9am on Bank Holiday Monday and still be back in good time. While we were waiting, I met Lovely Charlotte (see below) and her OH. By this time, the cloud was starting to lift, and I was trying to peel off the layers I’d just spent two hours debating whether and how to put on.
As the start time approached, various uncertain queues were forming, and I began to get a bit edgy trying to work out what they were for and which one of them I was supposed to be in. A policy of just following the largest swarm and letting the excitement carry me seemed the best bet. “This is like the Stop The War march but less angry,” I said to Charlotte as we filed down to the assembly areas. We were in different starting groups so we said our good lucks and goodbyes.
If the atmosphere at Green Park was like a cheerful demonstration, the one at the starting line was more like the Notting Hill Carnival, crossed with an exam hall foyer. Some people were stretching, some chatting, some fiddling with their phones, most just fixed ahead jiggling on the spot. A DJ was blathering instructions and encouragement over a galactic-sized sound system. I got a bit confused again as spectators, toilet queues and waiting runners seemed to be blending into one, but eventually worked out where I was supposed to be, went there, and calmed down again. While we waited for our start, the DJ tried to get us to sing Delilah by Tom Jones and wave our hands in the air, and various enforced jollities that are normally my idea of hell. I thought about my late friends, and how it was probably both theirs too. But I was too focused to care, and thrilled the weather was improving beyond my wildest hopes.
My starting group went off at about 10:20. As I jogged down the Mall across the start line and through Admiralty Arch, James’s Sit Down blaring crisply from my carefully-chosen race playlist, my contentment turned to total euphoria. I settled into a pace and welled up. The sun was out. The roads were closed. Spectators were lining the streets, just like they do for the Marathon. I don’t think I even registered I was doing something which was meant as an exertion until about the third or forth kilometere. I could feel myself grinning all the time “Look at that smile!” I heard one woman say admiringly as I ran past. I’d been wanting to put Three Little Birds by Bob Marley on my playlist but it hadn’t quite made the final cut. By the most beautiful coincidence, just before the 5K mark, I passed by a steel band playing it “Baby don’t worry about a thing; every lil’ thing’s gonna be alright.” My emotions swelled again and again as one, by one, despite my playlist being on shuffle, each landmark got the perfect song to accompany it. When I Know Him So Well by Elaine Paige from Chess struck up just as I passed St Paul’s I really thought I might cry. Between 5 and 6 K, the run weaves through the side and back streets of Cheapside for what seems like an eternity until you loop back for the final stretch. I had Shake and Crawl by the House of Love and Deep Purple’s Hush for the run back up the Strand. Perfect. Between 8 and 9K, just up the road from Big Ben, I saw my mum and dad, waving a Mind banner. I hadn’t expected to see them until about six hours after the finish, let alone during the race. Dad took this:
And then this….
I started to feel the strain just a bit at the last kilometre, suddenly aware that the sun was beating down on me, and impatient to know whether I’d managed to finish in less than an hour (Tip: Don’t spend the last five minutes of a run trying to work out your time a) using an analogue watch, b) when you can’t remember what time you started…) . The last 800 metres down Birdcage Walk (same place as the London Marathon finishes) felt like the longest run of my life. I finished at 1hr 1 min 57 seconds…slightly off my personal best which is just under an hour (57 or 8 minutes I think), but still comfortably decent for my age and gender (and for someone who could barely run half that distance six months ago). I was prepared for a lot of waiting around at the finish but the crowd moved pretty smoothly. I picked up my finisher’s goody bag, then headed back up Green Park towards the Mind stand to see if I could meet and chat to some other Mind runners. Everyone was a bit awkward and tired so I just babbled briefly at one of the girls from the Marketing team and waited for mum, dad and Charlotte to arrive. They came and we basked in the sun for a little while, drinking whatever liquid we could get our hands on (Lucozade comes in your goody bag…).
When walking seemed like a possibility again we went for a sumptuous vegetarian buffet lunch at Titbits. This involved a shortcut through Mayfair, which led to a rather interesting sentimental exchange with my parents (i.e the kind of sentiments parents and children aren’t generally meant to exchange…). Also very amusing was this absurdly camp, posh window display I spotted near Dover Street….
Probably the most remarkable thing about the day is how much I enjoyed, not just coped with, running in a crowd. I had thought having my name emblazoned across my running vest so that strangers could cheer me on might freak me out, distract me, or seem insincere. Not a bit of it. The shouts of my name were a boost, and my sub-zero spatial awareness didn’t seem to impede me or anyone else at any point. I even whooped and high-fived some of the marshalls and spectators. Yes, an actual high-five, as opposed to a virtual one on the internet (I’m clumsy and British. High-fiving normally makes me feel like a goldfish trying to tap dance…). It made me wish the only thing I’m good enough at to make a living from wasn’t such a solitary and thankless pain in the arse: at the moment, I could really do with being cheered on while I write. And, as cleansing and cathartic as soul-baring writing is, it felt really great, and really freeing, to be recognised and applauded just for being somewhere, without having to explain why I was there.
And so, next… as I said, I want to do the London Marathon for Mind next year. I think that’ll be a once-in-a-lifetime thing, but I’ve decided that afterwards I would like for doing the London 10K to become an annual tradition. It covers many helpful bases for me: getting through the winter, keeping me in the habit of running, remembering my friends and amalgamating all the painful anniversaries into something productive. You don’t have to fundraise and it only costs £20 to enter. At some point I’d also like to run in Berlin, where my parents used to live and got married. One of my two friends also lived there and said something immensely corny about it, which I won’t quote here because I’d rather slip it into a piece of fiction one day…
Speaking of books…I want to end this with a plug for Running Like A Girl by Alexandra Heminsley, a glorious part-memoir, part instruction book on running. After seeing other Ladies Who Run recommend it, I bought it for my iPad as a reward halfway through my training and absolutely ate it up. It’s the story of her journey from heartbreak and depression to five-times Marathon runner, and it’ll talk you through everything from your wobbly first run to what to put in your Marathon kitbag. Sometimes in order to learn to love something previously unfamiliar you have to hear it in your own language, and running books by media women who aren’t obvious runners speak to me best. Reading it was like a Friday night pep-talk from a savvier older sister (probably the first time in my life I’ve consciously wished for a big sister, if that doesn’t sound too creepy…). If you’d prefer a shorter read, this brilliant blog post by @girlonetrack on depression and running, is deeply, deeply resonant.
For the very last time, thank you to everyone who sponsored me and I hope you’ll support me in doing the Marathon next year, and enjoy or endure my tweets and blogs. And here’s a (literal) snapshot from Mind of some of the lovely helpful things your sponsorship money will do…