Sunday, 5 October 2014

The loneliness of the long distance runner

Today I ran my first half-marathon.  This evening I am sore but happy.  As my Dad rightly pointed out the other day, I am not a natural athlete.  When I did the induction at the gym 18 months ago I was allowed to walk on the treadmill for 10-15 minutes.  But today I ran 13.1 miles.

Many of you will have done this yourself and those of you that have will almost certainly have done it faster.  Possibly quite a lot faster.   Having trained for 12 weeks and not run more than 3 miles in one go for 25 years, I was very nervous about it, especially when the entry form said there was a two and a half hour cut off point.  I knew from my training runs that it was going to be touch and go whether I did that. 

Conditions were ideal.  Started cool and cloudy and with no breeze.  The race started and ended on grass, with a lap of the cricket pitch, followed by roads for the rest of the way.  Burnham on Sea is very flat and the biggest ‘hills’ are railway bridges, just three in total.  

Midway round the first lap of the cricket pitch I realise that I am following 173 other runners in a 174 person race.  But I know what I can do and more importantly, what I cannot do.  I cannot try and keep up with the pack if I want to finish.  So I am not unsettled by the little girl who on that first lap says to her Mum, “That man is really slow”.  Mum is a little embarrassed but I laugh.  She is right. 

I am used to running alone so I’m okay with how I run alone for nearly the whole of the race after the two mile mark.  I’m encouraged by an old man in a wheelchair who sits at the end of his drive at the three mile mark and cheers me on.  It gives me a real boost.  I’m less happy with how it feels for the first four miles but have found that is often the case and my times are okay.  For me.

Around 6 ½ miles in I catch up and run with a woman who is running her second race of this kind.  She pulls away when I walk while I drink my water at the drinks station but I pass her at around 7 ½ miles and feel good as I run.  I’m there or thereabouts in terms of the time, though beginning to drift a little.  

I don’t see another runner in front of me for about 4 miles after that.  The last two or three miles are tough and probably not helped by running on my own.  Lin and Ben surprise me by showing when I have two miles to go and it’s a massive encouragement to see them.  It’s just around the time I have started to talk to myself to spur me on.  (Other people do that too, right?)

As I get to the last half mile I can see Lin, Ben and my friend Eerke.  He finished 35 minutes ago but runs alongside me to spur me on over the last bit.  The person I saw in the distance a mile ago, an older man, is suddenly very close.  I hadn’t been trying to catch him, just concentrating on my own race.  I am surprised that I can put in a faster finish than I expect and finish 26 seconds outside the 2 hour 30 minute mark.  Mo Farrah can rest easy.  So can I tonight, once I have negotiated the stairs.

The great motivation in all this was to raise money for MAF, an organisation that flies medicines and doctors and patients and pastors and relief supplies to some of the most isolated parts of the world.   My good friend Mark Stanton was working for this charity before his life was cut short by MND.  I came 171st out of 174 finishers.  He’d have done the run so much quicker.  

A huge thank you to the friends who turned out to see me finish, who fed me afterwards and the many, many people who were so generous in their sponsorship.  In my wildest dreams I was hoping to be running for £100 per mile but we’ve just about made it to the £1500 mark, which is brilliant.   Thank you so much for your generosity. 

I just hope I can get out of bed tomorrow.