I knew this was a whole different kettle of fish after I'd been running comfortably for ten minutes. Now twelve, now 14, all the way to 20 before I needed a walk. Unheard of in this new age of 'learning to run again' where I'd been trying to sustain 3:1 run/walk intervals with little joy. The race was the Kew Gardens 10k, leading up to the following day's Richmond Half. I wanted to take it as an easy pace over the two days, to substitute 6.2 miles on fresh legs, the next 13.1 on tired ones, to rehearse my pacing strategy for my third attempt at a marathon, October 8th's Race for Life, almost a year to the day since my Chicago Marathon.
After my disastrous and gutwrenching inability to complete the National Three Peaks, which I'd trained relentlessly for since January, I was living in a massive dark cloud of fury and driven only by the burning need to redeem myself. I count myself blessed that the way I deal with adversity is to quickly find some way to succeed. And that first 20 minute stretch was the start of something very special.
I'd been training for the duration on varied terrain, testing out my ability to run on grass, mud, trail, fleeing geese, mossies, unleashed dogs and what have you, every weekend at least 2.5 hours on the legs, more recently 3. The test always the same, attempting to hold my correct technique over longer and longer intervals but still struggling to sustain anything beyond 3:1 before I felt the form straying.
As the long run distance increased, out came the camelbak, 2 litres of extra weight pressing down on my back, weighing me down while building me up, and having been training to climb it was only logical to always have the practice. So that weight, that incessant, sloshing, Tailwind-infused weight, keeping me going, working me hard. Suddenly I'm at the start line of a race without the pack. And 20 minutes later I took my first walk break. Welcome, wings.
That grin? Well, it's still on my face four days later. Because that 20:2 was followed by a few more 18:2's with a glorious kick at the end. The breathing I dug out had been perfected the preceding week on a treadmill set at 13.5 at running school. That treadmill which nearly flung me off the back but I held on, groaning, I held on to push through the session and to power myself over that first finish line in just about 1 hour 14. Marathon pacing? 1:14, multiply that by 4 and we are looking mighty mighty fine, folks. Especially when we're trying to best a PB of 6 hours and 9 injured minutes.
Day 1: victory. Uninjured. Proud.
Roll up roll up for day 2, now we're getting serious. I've never before run more than 6 or 7 miles total if I'd been running two consecutive days, yet here I was about to stack 13.1 more atop that 10k. I woke up feeling queasy, slightly stiff but nothing I couldn't manage as I'd rolled well the night before. The quandary mostly involved which socks to wear - do I use the full compression socks or the sleeves? Socks or sleeves? Socks or sleeves? I mulled it over while I gagged on lumpy porridge (hate it, I need a better pre-race breakfast as it always makes me sick!) and managed to choke down half a banana and a coffee. Having slathered sudocrem over my toes to prevent the blistering (works like a DREAM, folks) I got the full sock up my right leg, felt the seam pressing on my little toe and promptly changed my mind again.
Once I finally got all the kit on, the watch is now telling me I'm running awfully late and I'd best get my back end in gear. So up I pounced, grabbed all my stuff, kisses to the boys and out the hotel door in the general direction of Kew Gardens and the start line. Of course I had to ask for directions and once I finally managed to get to the right place needed the loo. The situation being typical for a big race, I will just say I have re-named the place Queue Gardens and leave it at that. I'm still queueing with at least 200 other people as they set off wave 5 and once I managed to get in and out I bounded out the loo enclosure through the wrong gate and over the start line with a cackle. It was utter mayhem.
Now in the past, this alone would have been a level of adversity that would have thrown me straight under the bus. On this occasion, it didn't. Not a shred. Garmin started, I decided on these tired legs the plan is now 8:2, let's do 10 minute intervals. Lo and behold the legs were protesting this day (and no surprise) so after a few sets, I decided that 4:1 was the same timing but with the relief of the walk a bit sooner. Score one for genius decision of the day because that was absolutely perfect.
Here's where I cannot possibly choose which bit that came next I enjoyed the most so I'll just fire them off. The twinge in my left knee which usually precedes the IT band stabbing. I scold myself 'get out of your damn hip! Tighten your core!' The pain left, never to return. The girl with the bandana plodding along in front of me, reel in, pass, walk break, she passes, leap frog leap frog leap frog. Don't lose her. The relief I felt(!!!) coming up on the first stretch of towpath. The realisation at the same time that the race had started on grass and I hadn't even noticed. The other five people I had stayed with over the entire race who one-after-the-other dropped back as the towpath became more uneven, and as I see they're all gone I'm remembering all those hard miles out on the trails, all the Box Hill hikes, all the strength training, all the HUGE amount of work and I'm running so strong for 4 and walking so strong for 1, getting what I needed from them both. And steady. Steady. It was positively glorious.
At one point there came an out and back section where those of us on the way out were split by a row of orange cones to the leaders coming back. There had to be at least five of them who tried to cross into our side to pass. I feel no guilt in saying I let none of them cross. Mostly because I can imagine the fury if I'd tried to do the same. I may be slower than them but I had the same right to be there as did they. This only emboldened me.
One particularly rough trail segment just gone, the seconds of my walk break ticking down, I press shoulders down, I start to run again, and I'm just thinking 'my god, would you look at me, look at what I am doing and how bloody strong I am doing it?' I wish I could bottle that and share a drink of it with all of you. It's probably something we never give ourselves and that is the congratulations for simply having the courage to take the journey. For fighting in our heads and on those trails and roads and leg press machines. For digging down to the magma and reaching out a hand to the part of us that has fallen in and gripping for everything that we are worth, and pulling us right side up again. Go. Go. Go.
The final turn into Richmond Old Deer Park is up a slight ramp which felt like a springboard, under an archway which was probably a railway bridge, I hadn't noticed. I was listening to my playlist when an old Grateful Dead favourite kicked in. That steady rhythm driving me until that line of lyrics which tugged at my heart and pulled out my pride so high I wore it across my face and it shone across that field, through all those zig zags of more grass, but I didn't care, I can run on grass now. I can run on anything. I can run. I can run.
"Sometimes the lights are shining on me,
other times I can barely see.
Lately it occurs to me,
what a long strange trip it's been."
I zigged, I zagged. Shoulders down, core strong, 4:1, 4:1, lather, rinse, repeat. There were such great crowds, so much cheering. The last curve before the home stretch I'm running and nodding and smiling and laughing and there was a high five and there were two women on the side who made eye contact and let me know they were genuinely happy for me. I looked at them and grinned and gave myself a proper pat on the back.
Then I was pumping fists and over the line and the Garmin said 2:42 and change. And that 2:42 doubled would give me a 5:30. There was a man near me, limping, yet I felt no pain. I felt no injury. Better still, I felt no fear about what's coming up in three weeks.
I walked to get my finisher photo and asked where they were giving out the Laureus medals for having done two days' worth of events, as I wanted a shot wearing both. Turned out it was all the way out the finish chute, around the entire event. I went to retrieve it. I walked all the way back and I got that photo. And then I took one of my own. All that extra walking and still those legs weren't finished. Not by a long shot.
Just under three weeks I will line up for the third time on a course just down the road, this time to take that turn for the second lap of a course I surely know in my sleep by now. This terrain is no longer foreign, it is no longer terrifying, it is pavement, and towpath, and grass, and gravel and whatever is around the next turn. I am armed with experience, and with training, and when it comes to tackling a challenge, that experience is dangerous to naysayers, to doubters - even when those voices are actually dancing around in the back of my head. But last weekend shut them up and I've no plans to let them back in. No way.
I want that finish. As I live and breathe, I want that strong marathon finish more than I've ever wanted anything in my entire life.
And I'll have it. Whatever it takes, I'll have it.
I blogged about the National Three Peaks on my personal blog, as the experience and emotions around it had a lot of parallels to my son's story and they are completely intertwined. If you want to have a read, it's here (be warned, it's very long and very deep but trust me...it ends well) ;-)
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