Pre- race: The day before, I had been invited to the London Marathon Medicine conference. This was a conference organised by the medical director of the marathon for health care workers participating in the Marathon. I had thought about giving it a miss, thinking it would be dry and boring, but it was very well organised and interesting. Topics included cardiac disorders in runners (presented by the cardiologist in looking after Boston Marathon runners), the biomechanics of breast bounce (which the gentlemen in the audience were most fascinated with) and there was a case presentation on an elite female marathoner by a sports physiologist. Elite marathoners are physiologically very interesting and studied very closely, so it was fascinating to see changes in their physiological parameters with training and in relation to personal best times.
At this conference, I met an Australian trained GP, working in London. She was doing her first marathon. I got talking with her. We discussed why we run. She shared with me that she had lost both parents to cancer within a year of each other, a few years ago. This gave her the impetus to live her life to the fullest, and not put things off. Amen to that. We ended up having lunch together.
The afternoon before, I spent having a swim in the hotel pool, fighting off negative thoughts, thinking happy thoughts and reading funny shit on the internet. I was in bed by 0930.
The race report…..
London (and I ) awoke bright and clear at 0530. Rain had been forecast, but I could see no clouds a’ comin. Later I heard that It would be clear in the morning but rainy in the arvo. Impetus to finish!
Off to brekky. It was interesting to see everyone’s reaction to the nerves- some folks go quiet, some get loud and jokey. I tend toward the latter. One of the blokes was joking at breakfast: “only 8 hours till beer!”
I met a South African living in Australia, called Marina. She, too, was doing her first marathon. She, too, was just wanting to get around and not too bothered about her time. It was good to have a yap with her.
We got on the bus. I was feeling quite calm, and spoke to family and friends on the phone. We drove to the blue start in Blackheath. This, apparently, was the site where the victims of the plague were buried. Ironic to start a race on pandemic victims. A celebration of life on buried dead.
We arrived at the start at about 0730. It was chilly. While I was chatting on the phone, I spilled my instant porridge through my kit bags. Cleaning this up used some much needed time.
The starter’s area (one of three) was a fenced off, grassy park. They had tea and coffee, lucozade, changing tents and portaloos. There were trucks, tens of them, for us to put our “kit” bags into, arranged by number.
Gradually the park filled up. They were playing songs to get us “pumped” – songs like “London Calling”, “Vertigo” and “Firework”. I sat and chatted with a girl called Sarah from Lancaster, who was running her first London (but not first ever) marathon. She had finally got in on the ballot. She helped me write some things on my arm to keep me focussed. There were photographers, and I posed for photos. The atmosphere there was quite electric, but, in retrospect, nothing compared to the actual race.
Gordon Ramsay was there, he is a 3:45 marathoner. They showed the elite women’s start. Soon enough, after a few queues to the loo, it was time to start. I was at the back, with all the costumed runners – the rhinos, the ballerinas. The announcer was calling out names as we started. As I passed him, I pointed at my name on my vest, and he said “good luck, Cilla”. RAWKstar moment.
I passed the start line – the song “Seven Nation Army” was playing. I thought “here we go”. My butt pain started up from the beginning. Very soon, I ditched my top and gloves.
The first part was fairly flat, and I was keeping up with the 11-minute mile group. The first few miles were significant for feeling piddly (though I survived till the third set of portaloos as I didn’t want to queue up too long) and speed humps. There were race marshalls on either side holding a sign and saying “hump”. This was very helpful. I was smiling widely, and thought “I am here, fuck this is awesome”. This feeling continued throughout most of the race.
My plan had been to run 8 km (5 miles) and then take a good long walk break. This co-incided with a fuel stop. I started walking and downed my lucozade. A little while after this, I started getting stomach cramps. I ran with them for about a mile, then found a McDonalds to empty my stricken, osmotically loaded bowels (dunno whether the doctorly insights make things easier or harder) . Luckily, the good folk in the McLoos, seeing our race number, let us cut in. I am sure they appreciated my “urrrrrgggggggghhhhh” noise when I had finished on the loo.
Like a true champion, I trotted bravely back out onto the course. I lapped up the support of the crowd. Not a minute or two passed by that somebody didn’t yell out “go Cilla”. This made me smile. I felt like a rockstar. I did the high fives. After the little lucozade incident, I began to take advantage of smaller doses of carbs, vis a vis jelly babies that were being handed out by generous Londoners. Little kids got in on the action, giving high fives and handing out jelly babies.
I crossed the prime meridian again. The Cutty Sark was there at about 7 miles- it was the first time I had laid eyes on it! There was a tight corner. Around this corner, I saw somebody hold up a sign that said “Worst Parade Ever”. I yelled this out to her and had a little chuckle. From the ankles up, I was feeling great. People were milling about, some having barbecues on their front lawns. Quite a few with beer. All of the pubs were open, many of them were blaring music. One of them was blaring out a techno version of “Chariots of fire”. The second fuel station, I drank the Lucozade with water. It felt good having a bottle in both hands. I remember around this point an orchestra was assembled, playing the Rocky theme song.
I was looking forward to the halfway point. We rounded a corner at about 12.5 miles and there it was – the London Bridge, in all it’s Grey and Aqua glory! I think my mouth hung open for this entire stretch. The crowds along this were thick and cheery, and I felt magnificent.
At 13.1 miles, something happened. I was in a bit of pain and started to panic. “Shit” I thought “I have another one of these to go”. My 5×8 plan went out the window, and I started walking. Here, I got a lot of “Go, Cilla” yells. Somebody yelled out “Go Cilla, Our Cilla” in a thick Liverpudlian accent. Then I saw a lady limping. I put my arm around her, and said “You are doing well, sweetie”. She replied “Oh, Bless you”. Then I thought “Heck, she is doing it tougher than me” and started running again.
The part after this was tough. My thunder was being stolen by men in pink tutus, rhinos and a tub of rice pudding. My feet began to burn. It became tiring – thin roads, and having to duck and weave through walkers. A skinny woman wearing a spangly bra walking quicker than I could run strangely irritated me. I was starting to get a stitch. Then I started walking, and I got a shooting pain down my butt. I dealt with this by shuffling along as fast as I could until the stitch became too painful. Still, the crowd kept me going, with the “Go, Cilla”s coming thick and fast. At one point, I even had a group of people chanting my name and ringing a bell. I smiled widely and pumped my fists in rhythm with it.
After 25 km, I thought “This is it. After this is what it’s all about. The bit that’s further than you’ve ever gone before. Time to dig deep”.
At about 28km, with my back and butt aching, I thought I might have to quit running after this. I imagined my protruding vertebral disc rubbing painfully against my L45 nerve root. The cheers from the crowd helped push this from my mind. I also thought “another couple of hours, and that’s it. Finished. Just 2 hours of your life. Hold on”.
Strangely, the poem “If” did not go through my head. Instead, another stanza came through, from the poem “Invictus”. I am surprised I remembered it.
“In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance,
My head is bloodied, but unbowed”.
I held my head high, despite the tightness across my shoulders. I smiled bravely at every person I heard cheering me on.
There were a few open-air concerts around, and at the 30 km mark, it was going off like a frog in a sock. Just the medicine I needed. The high stayed with me for a few km.
After this, my right foot cramped up. I stretched my foot on the side of the road. Race volunteers made sympathetic noises in my direction. I was getting blisters! I just hung in there as best I could. I kept going in my awkward slow shuffle. My run was as fast as a brisk walk, but it was a run.
Given my carbo loading, and keeping up the carbs and fluid throughout the race, I was feeling OK from the ankles up. A little sore in my right leg from holding my foot in an awkward position, but ok. The point was, I thought happily, I was not hitting the wall.
The 20, 21 and subsequent markers seemed to get farther away, though. The fine weather turned foul. A few spectators were driven away. Yet there were still plenty of cheers. I looked out hopefully for my friends.
The pain in my blisters continued and, at just after the 23mile mark, I could go no further. I sat down on the side of the road and pulled out my blister plasters. The spectators, still quite thick, said “oooh, are you ok”. A race marshall rushed up. I calmly explained that I had blisters that I needed to attend to. Bless the marshall, she helped me remove my socks and shoes, which, after 23 miles, probably looked a little manky. My shoulder/neck seized up painfully, and I said to the marshall “I want this fucker over”. She said, kindly “yes, you need to put it to bed, you are seizing up”. With some difficulty I got back on my feet, and I had a cheer from the crowd. This, I think, was one of the highlights of the race.
I continued my waddle past St. Pauls and along the embankment. I got another chant from the crowd, and this time I joined in. The wind was up, and a barrier blew over. It started to rain. A sign said “Only 2.5 miles and then you have made it into history”. Somebody was holding a placard that said “Don’t do a Paula”.
On the embankment, I heard a faint “Cilla” behind me, and I turned and waved, then kept going. Later, the “Cilla, Cilla” got louder. Shauna and Phil were there! And so was my friend Sarah! I ran to greet them, exclaiming “I got BLISTERS!” I gave them a big hug, then kept going.
I passed the Big Ben as the clock struck 4. My spine tingled – what a moment!
The 25 mile sign came. Then a sign came up – I was thinking it was the 26 mile sign, but it was one that said “800 metres to go”. Strangely, I got all disappointed, thinking “that’s nearly a kilometre”. I walked. Then I started my painful shuffle. I really wanted to cane it through that park, but my blisters wouldn’t let me. Some American guy said “Cilla, your’e in the park. You got this, girl”. I looked as the markers went down – 600, then 385 yards. Then I rounded a corner into the mall. I thought I would get all emotional at this point, seeing the big gold statue in front of Buckingham palace. All I felt was relief. I am feeling more emotional typing about it. I went as fast as I could through the final 200 metres.
I felt bewildered. Then the pain train hit. I wondered internally “can I go home now?”
I got my timing chip taken off, then a volunteer put a medal over our head. I queued for a finisher’s photo, then commenced the very long walk to get my kit bag. I was wheezing – my rare exercise induced asthma had made an appearance. I asked at the medical tent if they had some ventolin I could take. They didn’t, so I coughed and wheezed and whimpered and staggered. I saw my friends, who had come to meet me – this eased some of the bewilderment I was feeling, but I am sure I had a big “what just happened?” look on my face. I called a special friend in Australia. He had been following me on the marathon site, and texting me throughout, bless him! I don’t know that I made much sense on that phone call.
I staggered on to the tube station. The downstairs were excruciating. Some drunk people wanted to take a photo with me. The train home was crowded, but, despite my fatigue and pain, I was patient.
I met Phil and Shauna back at the hotel. We had a drink. I gleefully showed them my blisters and recounted my battle stories. The achievement had not yet sunk in. It was so lovely to see them. My people.
That night, I met with my fellow “Travelling fit” comrades. I again showed my blisters. Some people were happy – mainly the first-timers. Some people were disappointed. I think I was in the former group. I went for dinner, wanting a big hunk of cow and some red wine.
I went to bed that night, exhausted but happy, proudly wearing my finisher’s t-shirt and medal.
The achievement sunk in over the next few days.
The thing I was most proud of was not my time (6:10:48). This was slower than I wanted.
Everything that I was worried about prior to the marathon occurred during the marathon. The diarrhoea, cramps, stitches, blisters. The mental freak-outs. Yet, at no point did I say “I can’t do it”. I carried on with a gracious smile, and finished with my head held high and proud. I was slowed down, for sure, but I did not quit. This is what I am most proud of.
A good metaphor for life, really.