Monday, 16 April 2012

Lochaber marathon

After the success and surprise of the Inverness half marathon last month, running a comfortable 1hr 46min I told myself that I was just going to head up to Lochaber the following month and see what happens....

So, I have had little to no training at all for the last 10 weeks after a diagnosis of 'runners knee'. A common injury which was caused by the ITB muscle becoming very tight and pulling my knee cap out of position. This caused severe pain when running and forced me to slow down and eventually stop running for many weeks. I did keep up my weekly jog leader duties with my jogscotland group, consisting of around 2 hours of running every Tuesday night, but no real hard or long running.

We headed up to Fort William on Saturday morning to meet my parents who had arrived the day before. The weather was very changeable on the road up; hot, cold, sunny and it was even snowing on the drive through Glencoe.

Once we checked in at the Ben Nevis Hotel I was surprised when my 2 year old niece knocked on the hotel room door, more family making a surprise trip up to support me on this, my first marathon!

I was feeling confident the night before, I knew in myself that I would finish and I had come to terms with myself that time was not going to be a factor in this race. The aim was to finish and enjoy the experience. We had a lovely dinner the night before in the hotel followed by an early night!

Race day! I managed to get a great night sleep and felt ready for the race. We had our breakfast at the hotel. My dad force fed me rolls and toast until I was about ready to pop. I don't think I actually ate that much but for me, its hard to eat before a race and at this point I began to feel a little nervous about the event.

After heading back up to the hotel room there wasn't much time for lazing about, time had crept up on me and it was a bit of a rush to get my running gear on before the 11am start. I checked and double checked that I had everything before leaving for the start line.

We had a pre-race briefing in the Nevis Centre, being pleasantly informed that 'there will be first aiders and ambulance services out on the course....they just haven't arrived yet'. Not that I was expecting to be using the services, I just would have felt a little reassured to know they were going to be there...eventually.

We were piped out to the start line and after a few quick waves to all my family who came to support I was on my way.

My mother-in-law gave me a good tip to try and talk to a few runners around you near the start as when you start to struggle in the big miles they will be there to give you support. I started talking to a lady I was running next to. She told me that this was her first marathon in over 10 years and, with very little training was just hoping to finish. I mentioned to her that this was my first marathon and had also managed to avoid training due to injury. I could swear that was all we said to each other and before I knew it I ran passed the first mile marker. I remembered saying into myself 'slow down!' but I looked at my garmin and we ran it in just under 10 minutes...slow enough.

After a few quick turns left and right we were onto the main road and my only target in mind now was the half way point. The route is a straight 13.1 miles out along the main road, turn, and head 13.1 back. The weather was ideal for running. Clear blue skies, nice cool temperature with only a slight head wind on the way out. My dad told me from his marathon experience that the first 16 miles will fly by. I found myself running alone for most of the route and I think this made the miles last a little longer. I drew strength from the stunning surroundings, looking out along the waters and the towering hills around us. The sun was bright enough to make it feel like a perfect summers day but we had the shade of the trees to protect us. If this wasn't such a scenic marathon I don't think I would have kept the mental strength to run all that distance alone.

Between mile 10 and 11 the front runners began to pass me. I thought it would have been sooner than this and was looking forward to seeing some of the elite club runners. A lot of runners are put off with 'out and back' courses and can find it disheartening to see how far behind you are but for me, I love running. I love watching people run and you often miss watching the elite or fast club runners when you are taking part in the event. So the 'out and back' gives me an opportunity to watch others running, and running well.

I had reached the turning point, a small collection of marshals standing in the middle of the road shouting 'just run around us and head back'....easier said than done! I had ran the first half of the marathon in a comfortable 2 hours and 2 minutes. Faster than I had planned but I was happy with the thought of 'I just need to run that distance again'. I knew from that point that my knee would probably begin to play up as this was my longest run since the Inverness half marathon 4 weeks earlier. But, so far so good!

I had passed fellow parkrunner Ian Devoy in the early miles. Again, with the hope that as I began to struggle in the big miles he would scoop me up with some words of encouragement. It was around mile 15 or 16 that I began to hear Ian's voice in the distance behind me. I knew that I had been running around 9.10 per mile and had now slowed to a more comfortable 9.45. Ian was running with a fellow Strathaven Strider and knew they would have maintained a slower but steadier pace for the first half. As Ian got closer I realised he had a small crowd with him. I spoke to Ian for a while, he reported feeling good and he looked and sounded like he was coping well with the experience. I reminded him that not too long ago when I first met him at Strathclyde parkrun he told me that 'running a marathon is just stupid'. Yet here he was, running strong and keeping a good pace.

I couldn't maintain the pace with Ian and it wasn't long before a good gap had found its way between us, I did notice that some of the other folks that were running alongside Ian had also slowed down. For the next couple of miles we all passed each other back and forth as we struggled with our pace.

People often talk about hitting 'the wall'. It has been described to me in various forms. Some people have told me its like all the energy in your body just falling away from you, others talk about your legs just turning to jelly or being as heavy as lead. Well at mile 19 I was preparing myself for 'the wall'. It never came.

I told myself before the race that the aim was to finish it, the only outcome that would disappoint me was not finishing. Time was not a factor in this race. At mile 19 my legs started to cramp up. This was the first time that I began to think that I might not finish. My mind was in the right place for this run, I had a positive mental attitude and was determined to finish. But, when your legs begin to cramp up at the same time its difficult to just keep running. Two fellow runners had stopped just ahead of me, they too appeared to be trying to stretch off some bad leg cramps. I held on to a tree to try and stretch my left quad and as I did this my hamstring when straight into cramp and I felt a large knot at the back of my leg. I slowly tried to straighten my leg and as I done so my thigh went back into cramp. I began to panic as I couldn't put my foot on the ground and had to keep my leg up and slightly bend in order to stop the pain. I hobbled a little and gave a few deep breathes before walking off the pain.

From here on in I had a struggling walk jog to the finish. The next 7 miles would be the slowest miles I have ever ran, the most painful and yet I enjoyed these 7 miles the most. I had used all the water stops on the route, running passed and grabbing a bottle of water at each of them. The last few water stops were time to replace all those lost fluids and I just kept hope that these cramps would pass.

It was a slow battle with cramp coming and going yet mentally I felt strong. Mile 20 I told myself 'I've just ran 20 miles' at mile 21 I repeated the process and again at 22. I used mile 22 to send a quick text to my wife Rachael to let her know that I was safe and was going to finish. I had a long jog and a short walk between miles 19 to 22 but on mile 23, 24 and 25 I managed to jog the whole way. I knew that I was going to finish and no amount of cramping was going to cause me to stop now.

The last mile was the only point on the whole course that is even worth mentioning a hill. It was a small incline that in any other run you would probably not even remember. It was located on a footpath and at the top were the houses I remember running through at the start. The organisers saw the funny side of this and had took the time to spray paint on the path 'great place for a hill' however at the top they had painted some words of encouragement. I would love to say that I powered up that hill but I can't. My thighs were burning and my calf felt as though they were ready to rip at any moment. I struggled up the hill and made my way through the streets of houses. It was a strange feeling to have people just getting on with things, washing the car, in the garden and here was me, fighting a physical battle with myself. Maybe this is 'the wall', although I am not convinced. I think with the right training this pain would have been avoided. But strangely, it was all adding to my experience. I ran passed an elderly gentleman who was pottering about in his garden. He gave me the biggest of smiles and asked, 'was it a full marathon?' I replied with pride 'yep, a full marathon'. This gave me a little moral boost and I pushed on. In the distance I could see my sisters partner. He was waving and started to walk towards me. This was the first time in the whole race I felt physically exhausted. I think mentally I began to think I was finished. He started to run along side me pushing me on around the corner were I saw my dad. The cramps in my legs began to return and I had to stop and walk despite being a few hundred yards from the finish. I think I must have started to run too fast when I saw my dad and it caused my legs to go again. He ran up along side me and started to tell me 'you've done it, you are there'. I pushed on and picked up the pace.

The last 100m were emotional, tears came to my eyes and I felt totally exhausted. I was on the home straight and I had a large support shouting and cheering for me. All my family had come all this way and stood in the freezing cold to watch me cross the line. I gave it my all and started to run as fast as I could crossing the line in 4 hours 37 minutes.

I often hear people say 'never again' when they talk about marathons. I myself said it as soon as I crossed the line, hugging all my family. Its a strange experience. The pain and torture to run on agony and empty seems to just add to the experience of it all. Its only been 24 hours since I completed my first marathon and yet I find myself looking online at marathons in the autumn.

I learned from this that the saying is true that you can achieve anything you put your mind too. If I wasn't so confident mentally that I was going to finish this then I know I would have pulled out. I also learned that running isn't about PB's and how fast or how long you can run. Its about enjoying yourself, taking in the whole experience and everything around you. Its about listening to your body and knowing when you can push yourself just that little bit further when you think you haven't got it in you and when to hang back and take it easy. My time of 4.37 isn't any record breaker and, if I had trained properly I probably would have managed those bigger miles a little better. But I wouldn't change anything about this marathon, I loved every minute of it and its been a totally unforgettable experience.

Special thanks to all the organisers of the event!

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