When the pain comes - and it WILL come - how will you respond? Will you cower and cry it away? Or will you throw your head back and roar?
That's what I asked myself - on more than one occasion - in advance of last Sunday's Race for Life Marathon. And that, very simply, was the perfect and pristine and precise beauty of having done two other marathons and two mountain challenges and umpteen halves which had not gone completely to plan. Bittersweet victories, the lot of them. But this time I knew exactly what could happen and I was ready.
In retrospect, I think I may have been born ready. So I had long decided that there would only be roaring on this day. I wasn't about to let anything else happen. Buckle up. Enjoy the ride. You're driving.
Now I have to go backwards to start properly because the beginning of this particular twenty-six point two miles of fun fun fun can technically be found during my last training run, a 'final four' miles out in the very same park where the next battle would be won. I found myself squinting up at that shiny blue morning with fire in my blood, a mission in my heart and the latest purple Asics Nimbus on my feet. A bit of glute warming preceded the usual pre-run faff and at last I turned towards the path. Lo and behold, no sooner was the iPod shuffle switched on when out comes Frank Sinatra crooning at me '...and now the end is near, and so I face the final curtain...'
You old dog, you.
I looked up and gave him a wink, then started off, pretty sluggish as it happens. Despite the infusion of Dad juju, my legs were like lead. I remembered the preceding week's stint at running school was a bit of a wash. My legs again rubber, my mind elsewhere, worried about how my Rukai was recovering from a surgery the Monday just gone. I hadn't been in the office all week and so missed my usual gym routine. That essential prep for me to keep the muscles coiled and ready to strike didn't happen, and it showed clearly, then and now. Yet today, despite that shoddy central London treadmill performance, I was still feeling optimistic about the many miles these legs had already seen in the lead up to this day. I lumbered on.
Up until about 2.5 miles, the body flat out refused to kick into gear. Shins still tender from that 'Panting at the Palace' episode, but it had to be done. No excuses. Can't sit still to run a marathon, right? Maybe at some 3.5 miles, the fog finally began to lift, my playlist now gifting me AC/DCs 'If you want blood, you got it'. Damn right I do. I want you to bleed for me. Go go go. C'mon legs, we have a job to do here. Sort yourselves out.
And that slog nearly done, those strangely hard miles, as I take the final turn there's my Pop once more talking to me - loud and clear - via randomly shuffled iPod track...
Now my Dad was a huge Neil Diamond fan. So much so that we used a greatest hits CD at his wake (along with Barry White, Frank Sinatra, and a few others). After I'd returned home from Chicago I put that same Neil Diamond playlist on my iPod for my work commute. Somewhere in the middle of the journey home on my first day back a song comes on that I'd never heard, that I don't know if my Pop even knew, called 'Hell Yeah'. It's basically the story of how a man hasn't got much time left in the world but he's grateful and celebrating the life he's had. I'm sitting on that train missing my Dad terribly and feeling so empty, eyes leaking profusely and then comes this...
"I hear you wondering out loud
Are you ever gonna make it?
Will you ever work it out?
Will you ever take a chance
And just believe you can?
Hell yeah, you will..."
Now come on back to 2017 with me, right down to the end of that pre-marathon final four miles. It's my last ditch effort to prepare for this race, a race which means everything to me solely because it's for my Dad, as are all these Race for Lifes, whatever the distance. So I'm taking the final turn to the home straight and AC/DC shuffles straight into Neil Diamond's 'Hell Yeah'.
Well naturally, 'Panting at the Palace' turns into Panting in the Park - becuase it's awfully hard to run when you're sobbing. I somehow made it to the end of that path, stopped and looked at my watch. 55:09 - precisely the amount of money I donated to the last Race for Life half I'd done for him, one year prior, right there, in that very same park. That 509 at the end? That number's another massive Dad memory, the story far too long to clutter this up any further, but I am certain - beyond any semblance of doubt - that my Pop was stood right there beside me, trying to tell me something.
'Hell yeah, you will...'
Tell you what, I ran out of tears that morning. But I gained a hell of a lot of faith in myself for what I was about to do.
Sunday morning was bright and cool and near on perfect. The forecast I last saw the night before showed clouds at the start, clearing a bit after I'd hit 4 hours, and full sunshine by 5:30:00. I took that, too, as a sign. My husband had gifted me the night before by taking Rukai to stay over at Nanny's house - even though T's mum wasn't actually going to be there - solely to give me the head space I needed to get ready. It was by and large the most thoughtful thing he has ever done for me and that in and of itself made me pretty emotional from the off.
But head clear, totally ready, legs rolled and feeling pretty fresh despite the lingering tenderness in my left shin still from that Parkrun, I choked down more lumpy porridge and a banana and took the long way to the start line to give my legs the same warmup as I'd given them in Richmond. I arrived just in time, not a loo queue to be seen and a ridiculously small field of runners at the start. Before I knew it we were off. And I felt absolutely amazing. Just easy, steady, miles one and two go by in a flash, clocked a bit fast so I took it down a bit and steady on 4:1, 4:1, getting warm now let's do this.
Rounding the turn on to the first trail segment, I immediately think of Jim, Hobs and Gaelle. I've no idea why it's you three but there you are every time I do this stretch. Go figure! Most times I've been in here, it's all going well, going to plan...but not today. Because that little niggle in the shin was the first domino to fall. I didn't exactly feel any pain beyond it, mind, but I am certain that is where things started to get, shall we say 'interesting'.
Off the trail now through water station 1, I took advantage of the proper toilets (still no queue, it was magic!) and carried on to the slow climb round the farm. There is a sign on the path as you go towards the cow barn which says 'how many steps do you think it will take to get there?'
'As many as it takes,' I told it.
I rounded the corner, accosted by the smell of fresh manure and start the slow, barely noticeable climb. It's such a miniscule grade but it's so subtle and so long that you eventually just pray for a sharp hill to get it over with. By then you have reached that sharp hill, a series of switchbacks through the trees then another set before it levels out. I've done it so often I could run it in my sleep, but this time my left hip decided to remind me about that shin failing to turn up to work today. And the brain suddenly becomes the knight with 'only a flesh wound'. No no, it'll be fine. All good. No worries.
Nope. No worries...
Shut up. Go away.
Up and over the hill, now about 7 miles, another aid station, out of the park, a left turn on to the road, upanddownandupanddown the dropped driveway entrances before we hooked left again heading down a quiet lane and through a gate back into the park via the second trail section.
I usually absolutely love this section but now the hip is really starting to give me stick. I tell it to shut up again, not with any kindness. I grit my teeth and am really feeling every bump and dip the whole way down. Across the gravel, back on to the trail again and now whatever I've done to the hip is really settling in for afternoon tea. I remind myself that when you run long you take on pain like a passenger. I put that pain in my pocket and scold myself to get out of my damn hip once again. I don't. I can't. All the tricks in my magic hat are gone. Already. Too soon. The hat has a hole and it's all fallen out.
I keep going. I have no choice.
Over the river and at last back on to the pavement, I stop for another walk and out comes the Voltarol I had the foresight to pop in my flipbelt. Splodge on my hand and the look on the marshal's face was a picture when I jammed my hand down the back of my leggings and started frantically rubbing my hip, cursing through clenched teeth. I can only wonder what she was thinking. At that moment I entirely understood Paula Radcliffe's mid race toilet break. I don't care, I need this, I have to FIX this.
I keep going.
The miles ticked on. At about 9 I round a bend to a marching band camped out beneath the trees. I popped my earphone out, figuring I ought to at least listen to what they were playing and it's the 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' theme song. That got me proper smiling again and I was feeling a bit better as the voltarol kicked in.
By about 11 miles, I knew I was in for a seriously painful afternoon. I gritted my teeth and lowered the intervals, and as I hit the halfway point I was down to 3:1. I grinned at the 'marathon second lap' left hand arrow, pointed to the left like a baseball player predicting a home run and eagerly clicked into Playlist 2. Tempo up, now it's getting serious - the psychological effect of moving on to the new music, marked. I started lap two with renewed purpose. Wonderful crowds all around cheering everyone on. A lovely runner neighbor had also come out to cheer me through the halfway point, and I gave her a wave and a thumbs up that the timing was perfect as I passed. On track for my 5:30 and despite the pain I was still feeling confident because I'd been very much here before. Body disintegrating and I said 'never mind, we have another lap. Go.' It really is ludicrous in retrospect. I spotted the Run Mummy Run support crew as I was about to leave the lap two start and then I was back on that old familiar trail.
With so much of that old, familiar pain. With that lazy green river and the trees and the dragonfly sculpture and the very same marshal I'd waved at nearly three hours prior. What was I doing?
What? I was roaring.
Retracing my steps, take two on the trail, water stop, up and over the hill, now as I crested it for the second time the top of the right calf had started to go, left achilles beginning to ache. Right knee threatening to dance. All the favoring turned into a pain polka. The voltarol had come out twice more. All those gels were making me queasy. Or maybe the pain was making me queasy. I felt horrible. I told the marshal at the top this was excruciating. I needed to tell someone other than that voice in my head just how horrific I was feeling. But there was no reply. And there was only one way to go and that was forward. Relentlessly.
But I only wanted to stop. To lie down. I asked myself what the hell was I doing? Why am I doing this?
And that other part of my brain responded 'you think that hurts? Shut up. Hollywood. Gerry. Kat. Shut up. Go. GO.'
'What would you think if I sang out of tune,
would you stand up and walk out on me.
Lend me your ear and I'll sing you a song,
and I'll try not to sing out of key.
I get by with a little help from my friends...'
And there you all were. Just like that. I still am flabbergasted. There you were. When I could not possibly have needed you more.
Rolling up and down that path, the pain made me shorten the intervals again but there I took them 2:1, 2:1, 2:1 go go go. Go forth and conquer. Go forth and Buzz.
Around again to the descent - one switchback, now two.
I want to lie down. Why am I doing this?
Hell yeah comes on. You cannot be serious.
'Hell yeah you will.
It's gonna be ok...'
You ARE serious.
'...you might get lost
But then you'll find a way...'
And then I'm out on the road again, over the driveways and there is that big 20 on the sign. I kiss my hand and touch it, to take it with me. I've made 20. 20 like this. Go go GO.
Now it's getting serious. And I know exactly how far 6.2 miles is, but I know how far away from the start I am, and these two distances cannot possibly be the same. Because surely I am waaaaayyy farther than 6.2 miles away from the start. Surely.
Hell yeah, you will...
Good lord I am really hurting now. The odd interval slipping to :30 / :30. Past the trail, the marching band has gone home. Sparse supporters pass in the other direction clapping me onward. I thank them. An old couple walking the dog at 21, the man says 'no breaks now!' grinning as I pass. I flip him the bird in my mind while my face is smiling back at him.
And I remembered my Facebook profile photo which says 'when your legs start screaming, scream back'. And so without a noise, I screamed. I opened my mouth and grimaced at the sky and I roared.
And I kept going.
And I kept going.
And I kept going.
Now totally alone, I am so glad I'd run this route so often. Solitude now a comfort. I feel like the last runner in the race. I feel like the last runner on earth. I'm looking for mile markers, now 22 (:30 / :30) OW.
The 'run with loved ones' section comes up. There are two people sat on one of the wooden sculptures in the park. They look at me briefly, curiously, as if wondering what in the hell I was doing there. I'm absolutely shattered. This grass is bloody long it's like it's grabbing me round the ankles and pulling me back. I take to it and run with my loved ones, yet these are all angels and they have been with me for the duration.
There is no one else around. The bunting is down. There aren't any bananas.
I clear the section, back on the path to weave around all the people out for a Sunday stroll. There are no other runners.
God it was so desolate. And on any given day there would be no one giving me any notice whatsoever but on this day there is a number pinned to me and I am looking haggard and ill and exhausted and still I go. I check my watch.
That PB is still very much in reach. And I will have it.
I'm looking hard for that disc golf ground I passed on lap one because that is the turning point. That is so close. And three turns after I thought I'd see it, I found it. Half staggering the walk segments I push around the final corner towards the bridge. I'm going to walk to the bridge, crest it, and run to the finish. I want to hear this. Headphones out.
I start the jog. I look ahead. I see a flash of a purple top, and the face of the only person on earth who knows precisely why I had to succeed today.
I'm shouting her name and grinning. And overflowing with joy. And she is like a mirror for that joy. And I am thanking whatever God there is for such a friend.
The friend who had been with me in the mountains. When people said I couldn't. And aside from me, at that moment, in that place, only she knew I could. My tears for this victory had been laying in wait thinking I'd be finishing alone, but here they were subsumed as now I'm shouting about my PB and there were some 19 minutes cushion in that beautiful time.
One massive hug later, she jogged with me to the chute, and sent me to celebrate the most hard won victory of my life. And still as I type, I cannot possibly imagine any greater success, all told.
I hear the MC calling my name.
I hear '...well under six hours...'
I'm shouting 'PB BABYYYYYY!!!'
I'm throwing my head back and roaring 'I DID IT POP!!!!'
Hell yeah, I did.
Just a young gun with a quick fuse
I was uptight, wanna let loose
I was dreaming of bigger things and
Wanna leave my old life behind
Not a yes sir, not a follower
Fit the box, fit the mold
Have a seat in the foyer, take a number
I was lightning before the thunder.
Imagine Dragons - Thunder
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