“Sometimes the moments that challenge us the most, define us.”
Deena Kastor, Olympic Bronze medallist
“I’ve learned that finishing a marathon isn’t just an athletic achievement. It’s a state of mind; a state of mind that says anything is possible.”
John Hanc, running writer
“If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.”
Kathrin Switzer, women’s marathon-running pioneer
We’re waiting on the tree-lined avenue south of Queen’s Park, Chesterfield. 800 or so of us, penned in and lined up along the street, stood in trainers, vests and shorts, jogging on the spot. Stretching, setting watches. Staring forwards.
The last ten minutes have felt like an age.
One of the organisers, a big bloke with a booming voice and superfluous megaphone, is cracking a joke. Can you hear me at the back there? Have you fallen asleep? He talks about the cash raised for charity, the occasion, the significance. The crowds lined up along the miles ahead.
I try to listen, but I can’t take much of it in. I feel sick, determined, terrified and excited, all at once. My heartbeat pulses, my stomach flutters. I’ve ran enough races now to know what it’s all about. But this one’s different. My hand hovers over the start button on my wristwatch.
The horn sounds – ahead of us, twenty or so frontrunners surge off, feet already thunderous. I follow; we all follow. The crowd roars.
If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be running a marathon, I’d have laughed pretty hard at you.
Back in late ’13, I’d only just taken up running. I was starting to make a habit of it – heading out to clock up a few miles, as much for my state of mind as for fitness. Three or four times a week, taking in the roads and leafy parks and rural edgelands of Sheffield. I was hauling myself out of a dark time in my life, and thriving off the endorphin release, the heart-pumping kick of pushing myself to run. Harder and faster. But I hadn’t even competed in a 5K race yet. Never mind the incomprehensible 26.2 miles that make up the marathon.
Truth is, in the past ten months, I’ve become a bit of a race junkie. Applying myself in training, I’ve come to complete around 20 5K events. I’ve achieved a personal best of around 18 minutes, running faster than I ever imagined. I’ll finish inside the top #10 of a local race that attracts hundreds of runners of all abilities, from those out for a gentle jog with the kids or dogs, to those hitting sub-16 minutes, seriously quick competitors. 5K is my favourite distance. It’s one where you can really open up, balancing the need to leave enough in the tank for a sprint finish, but still run in fifth gear. You feel sick when you finish, and the adrenaline rush is intoxicating.
I’ve also competed in a few 10Ks. It’s a not dissimilar race, though pushing yourself hard enough while still leaving some to really burn out in the last half-mile is a challenge. Those I’ve done range from the undulating Sheffield Varsity, looping around the landscaped contours of Weston and Crookes Valley Park, to the rural roads and trails of a longstanding club race in hilly Penistone. The highlight has to be the Leeds 10K of July ’14, though, when I finally broke the back of 40 minutes. Exhausted, staggering, on the brink of collapse as soon as I crossed the line, I finished in the top #100 in a city race that counted nearly 8,000 participants. A race that was won by the runner-up in last year’s London Marathon.
We’re a few miles in, and I feel comfortable – or as comfortable as you can early on, I guess, knowing you’ve over 20 miles left. In all my training with my partner Helen, we aimed for 7:30–8-minute-miling; mornings spent running the converted railway line of Derbyshire’s Monsal Trail, passing dog walkers and cyclists, grinding out a 15-mile-run, a 17-mile-run, then the big 20-miler before a couple weeks of tapering down. But even though this is race day, that first mile felt too quick, and the watch bleeps to confirm it. 6’48”. Take it steady, I think. If you burn out at the half-marathon stage you’ll look like an ass, and what’s worse, it’ll have all been for nothing. The next mile flies by. 6’52”. Damn.
The crowds lining the streets are incredible, cheering as if we were all professionals going for Olympic medals, offering water and jellybeans between the official water and energy-gel stations. Go orange vest! Come on Chesterfield! If only a few people are inspired by this, and decide to put on a pair of running shoes tomorrow for the first time in ages, or maybe ever, it’ll be an achievement in itself – no matter the number of entrants, or the finish time of the first man and woman over the line. I’m caught up in it all, wanting to put on a show, and am running mile after mile between 6’50” and 7’30” pace. Helen is up there ahead of me, 20m, 30m in front, looking strong. Before I know it, we’re onto the bypass, running mile 12 along a cordoned-off lane, traffic speeding next to us, bewildered half-asleep motorists clocking us in the crisp Sunday morning air. I look up at an overpass, give the thumbs-up to a bunch of spectators hanging over the rails, a guy taking snaps with his SLR.
I check the watch. 1 hour 29 minutes in, and less than half a mile till the 13 mark, when those entered into the Half Marathon dig in, hoping to find that sprint finish. We round the corner off the bypass with Chesterfield FC’s Proact Stadium in sight, shadowed by a monolithic Tesco, like a freight ship run aground. On the left, Casa Hotel, where yesterday Helen and I picked up our race numbers. We were feeling under the weather and sorry for ourselves, having caught – and only partly recovered from – some nasty flu bug, wondering if starting a marathon in less than 24 hours might just do us in. Now we’re 13 miles in, the halfway point, and I can see the crowds out for their friends and family and workmates running the Half, cheering everyone on. Not far to go! Almost there! Part of me wishes it were true.
The watch bleeps. A Half Marathon time of 1 hour, 33 minutes. Not bad, I think. Only a couple of minutes slower than the Sheffield Half I ran earlier this year. Except this time, there’s another 13.1 miles to go. But that’s fine. I’m fitter and faster and stronger now. Right?
With the half-marathon runners gone, the race swiftly becomes a much lonelier one. Don’t get me wrong – long distance events are often lonely, in that it’s you pitted squarely against yourself, your angels and demons, as much as your nearest competitors. If you want to win something, run a 100 metres, one runner once said: if you want to experience a different life, run a marathon. What happens in your mind, that powerful ally and most dangerous of enemies, is as important as, and irrevocably tied to, what happens with each and every stride. But this, right now, is more than that; a more literal kind of loneliness. Winding out to the northernmost edgelands of town, there is only the flicker of the nearest runner on the horizon, in front and behind. A fierce sun gleams. Helen must be well ahead now, I think. And how many others – 20, 30, 50 at various points up beyond? Best not to think about position. Focus on your mile times, and keeping one foot in front of the other.
Miles 15, 16 and 17 pass by. I’m still grinding them out, clocking a good enough pace. Shame the scenery leaves a bit to be desired, affording little in the way of distraction – but then that, in some way, is part of the marathon’s steely psychological and physical test. Or maybe just a cruel joke on the part of the organisers. Looping what seems aimlessly around the deserted Sheepbridge industrial estate, directed by solitary high-vis-clad marshals through a tangle of roads, warehouses and lifeless mounds of earth, I at least get to clock the positions of those immediately ahead and behind, as we pass each other, heading one way then the next. I’m further up the field than I thought. 2 hours, 13 minutes at the 18-mile mark. I start to get ahead of myself. If I keep on like this, I could manage 3 hours 15 minutes. What a killer time that would be for a first marathon. Only 8 miles to go. You can do this, dig deep. What could go wrong?
There is something – ‘condition’ is probably the best word for it – that experienced long-distance athletes call by several names. Most commonly, it is simply referred to as this: Hitting the Wall. In moments of brief hubris and foolhardy cocksureness, I’ll admit, there have been times this past year I’ve doubted its existence. Surely, I’ve reckoned, when I’ve pushed myself to the limit to get around a 10K in under 40 minutes, a Half in an hour-and-a-half, at some point already I would’ve hit this so-called wall? Hit it, and then gone through it – like all those tough times in a race you have to somehow force your mind, which wants nothing more than for you to give in and please god stop, to keep your legs hurtling along.
Mile 19. Mercifully, it seems, we’re finally leaving the grim reaches of industrial hinterland and heading into a standard residential district, all identikit semi-detacheds and smoothly tarmacked streets. Catch is, I’ve just run my slowest mile of the race, and this next one incorporates a bugger of a steady climb, though I can’t know that yet. When it dawns on me, it’s clearly the sort I could handle in a shorter race. But now, approaching the 20-mile mark, it suddenly morphs into a much, much tougher ask.
My running is slowing. Slowing, step-by-forceful-step, to what feels an agonising, almost glacial pace. No matter how much I grit my teeth, soul search for the will to push through what I hope to god is a passing phase, my legs feel simultaneously like lead and jelly, fossilised yet flaccid, my body converting what little glycogen I have left to glucose, drip-fed to exhausted muscles. It’s everything I can do to put one foot in front of the other. To those gathered in the street, stood on their front lawns hoping to see feats of amateur athletic prowess, I must look a sorry sight. Come on son, not far to go! shouts one, cackling to herself. I can’t know if she actually laughed at me, knowing full well I had six miles to do, on top of the 20 already clocked. It’s possible she had no idea how far I’d come, how far I had to go. I think maybe a part of me was laughing at me; chiding and scolding myself.
There are two halves to a marathon: the first 20 miles, and the last 6.2 miles. I’m on a steep learning curve here, the biggest in all my running to date. If that woman existed, and wasn’t a weird projection of my fatigued, broken, increasingly delirious state of mind, she doubtless meant well – cracking her little joke to take the edge off. But nothing is taking the edge off. Mile 20 and 21 take an age to pass, though I remember little of them except the grim flash of the wristwatch, clear numbers against a black-flooded LCD backdrop, confirming two 10-minute miles. Damn.
The next mile includes a track trail through park woodland. Also, the perimeter of a leisure lake that looks, from where I’m running, like some kind of strange oasis, replete with swans and strolling couples and the occasional, out-of-time fisherman; a reprieve after all those miles of unremitting brickwork, corrugated metal, sprawling tarmac. Without my noticing, my pace has picked up again – distraction working its magic, mind mastering matter. Not quite 8-minute-miling, but close enough I think.
As quickly as my faith is restored, though, I start to fall apart again. Alone, exhausted, I’m glad for the sight of Iain, a mutual pal of mine and Helen’s, spectating on the brow of an upcoming hill. How’s it going? he hollers. Bloody awful I mumble, showing my rictus grin. How’s Helen doing? On for a good time? With a previous personal best of 3’10”, it sounds like she might manage even better today. But I can’t think about that now. Another four miles to go, and the three-hour mark is starting to creep up, swift as the distant, thunderous footfall of the lot of us, starting out all those miles and hours back.
Distance running is an often lonely, purely solitary pursuit. But to run in the first place, and to really take on the challenge of the marathon, you have to have a big heart. In every sense. When the chips are down, it’s no surprise that runners support one another in the course of a long race – running together, pacing and pushing one another to get the job done. The guy I meet with around 3-and-a-half miles to go is a lifesaver. He is struggling as I’m struggling, and there is an instant, unspoken but completely mutual recognition of this fact – along with an equally mutual level of respect at having come this far. We talk about running, how long we’ve been at it, other races we’ve done. This is his second marathon; his first saw him finish just under the four-hour mark – the result many a first-time marathoner aims to break the back of. The chat is a great distraction for both of us. For the first time in miles I’ve forgotten about the steady pain, the cumulative ache of pushing on and on and on. I check the watch. 5K left to go, and we’re just past three hours in. If we can push ourselves mate, we’re on for three-thirty here.
Easier said than done. With a bit of downhill on our side, we grind out mile 24 in around 9 minutes – not an ideal pace, but I’ll settle for anything that even resembles running at this stage. My feet, calves, knees, thighs, hips are desperate for it all to be over. Now. I try to shut the pain out. I can even manage it for a bit, but then halfway through mile 25, suddenly, I fall apart. I can barely jog. John – by now we’ve gotten round to exchanging names – tries to spur me on: jogging ahead, encouraging me to follow. I try to keep pace. Eventually I catch up, only for him to hit the wall, just as I had those few hundred metres back. We go on like this, dragging each other along, for the next half a mile. Then, with the last full mile finally, blissfully, agonisingly on the horizon, and with around 10 minutes left to manage the sub-3’30” target I’d set myself all those months ago in the first naïve weeks of training, somehow, scraping the barrel of myself, I find something in reserve.
Rounding the downhill just past the imposing shadow of the town hall, things start to fall into place. I click into top gear. I’m not sure how, but it has to have something to do with knowing it’s now or never; that if I manage the 8-minute mile that’s proved so difficult since mile 20, I’ll have achieved something I can properly, seriously be proud of. However much agony I have to go through to do it. Pain is temporary; pride is forever. I run this sort of sporting platitude through my head, alternately dismissing it as fool’s talk, then feeling the absolute truth of it. The fatigue and delirium give way to determination and focus. I push on.
The sight of the north edge of Queen’s Park, a few hundred meters from where this all started, is a shot of relief and an adrenaline kick, all at once. And that sound. The roar of crowds lining the park’s pathways, waving banners, cheering. Willing us home. I’m almost back at square one, the outside track of the cricket field and the pavilion above it, the sight of the finish line as I round the outer path beyond them. 400 metres to go. Back at square one, but like every one of the 332 of us who’ll come to complete today’s 26.2 miles of gruelling race, in every way, I’ve come a hell of a distance.
200 metres to go. Who was it said run the first part of a marathon with your head, the middle part with your personality? And the last part – with your heart. I enter the inner track, overtaking one final runner before I spot the clock. 3:26:45. I am sprinting, dying on my feet. Gritting my teeth, breaking into a grin. Stood on the pavilion, a man with a microphone is calling out my race number. Ben Wilkinson: in 3 hours, 27 minutes and…
I cross the finish line.