Loneliness of the long distance runner

So on Sunday I ran the London marathon, raising money for MS Society, a charity that invests in research into possible treatments and cures for Multiple Sclerosis.

I had a place last year, which I got through the ballot. I had never really run before and wasn’t particularly sporty. I entered on a whim, largely because a heavily pregnant colleague was doing, and I thought that if she could do it surely I could. I trained pretty well, until about 8 weeks out when I tweaked something in my knee. When it still hadn’t sorted itself at 2 weeks to go I realised I had to postpone until this year, so I hung up my running shoes until about the turn of the year.

My training was a lot less than it should have been, largely due to working long days with an hour commute either side, and weekends being the only time I get to see my fiancée and therefore at something of a premium. I had gone to about 17 miles three weeks in advance, but had to walk the last couple of miles. I was pretty sure that I struggled because I was knackered, it was late at night, I hadn’t eaten well, and I’d run 10 miles the day before, and had covered a huge distance up and down stairs at work all week. But whatever the excuses you can make, failure to run your distance on the last chance for a big training run is really dispiriting, and made me nervous before the big day.

I didn’t find there to be a loneliness during training. I guess I was aided by the vast number of podcasts I listened to, so I was constantly learning about science and technology, getting riled by politics, or laughing at the comedy. I could start running and get lost in something wonderful, in a way that I think has only really become possible in the last few years. It also helped that when at home, I have some beautiful countryside to go through, and there is little more beautiful that clear winter sky.

I have never taken part in a big sporting event like this before, so didn’t really know what to expect. Of course, I had the images in my head of huge hoards crossing the start line, and saw that there were a few spectators at the key points. That didn’t prepare me at all for the number of people all the way round, the amount of noise they made, and the effect that would have on me as a runner. There were bands, some official and some spilling out of the local communities, every half mile or so. Thousands of people came and lined the streets holding out sweets or fruit for the runners, and cheered people on. Many of the spectators didn’t have a particular runner, but were just taking part in the event.

My favourite spectators were the young lads in hoodies, from the poorer parts of town that we went through. In everyday life I think I would probably be a bit intimidated by a group of surly looking youths, but those same guys with the same surly faces were high fiving runners, enjoying the event and providing really valuable support.

I don’t think I’ve experienced such a positive coming together of such a wide range of people.

My finishing time was 4:29:18, which was pretty much exactly what I paced for. I’m really pleased by that, although I think that with a bit of a training run I could improve, and with a real go I could probably take an hour or more off.

For the first 10 miles or so I was holding back, running just under 10 minutes a mile. I felt like running faster, and nearly gave in to goal creep. By about mile 14, my pace had dropped a bit going at a bit over 10 minutes. From around mile 21 to mile 25 I really struggled to keep my speed up, despite knowing just how fast I needed to go to get a 4:30 time. I can really see why people stop at this point, as while those last 3 or 4 miles don’t seem a lot from the outside, trying to force your legs to keep going when every fibre of your being wants to stop and rest is tough and 3 or 4 miles seems impossible. Those four miles were much harder than the rest put together. 25 to the finish was probably my quickest mile – I certainly belted the last 800 yards, knowing how close I was to the finish and the time I had planned.

One of the symptoms of the difficulty in those later miles, and probably one of the reasons I carried on, was the weight of the event I felt. The great majority of the people there were raising money for charity, and the number of vests that were dedicated to missed loved ones was huge. I was part of something that was honouring those that had suffered and died, and raising vast amounts of money to reduce this in the future. I had become, by accident, part of something massive, much bigger than the achievement of running alone. I got a bit emotional, and although I didn’t cry, I wasn’t too far off.

I’m sure London is very different in many respects from other, smaller, marathons, as you don’t get the same turn out for any others and there is not the same sense of scale. I imagine there is a real risk of loneliness if you stop running and have to walk four miles without support. But in my one experience, long distance running has made me feel more connected than ever to a huge number of people. We did something special last Sunday, and I feel inordinately proud for my part and for everyone else.

    • John Dickinson
    • April 25th, 2012

    A truly fantastic achievement, quite humbling and an experience that will stay with you forever, very well done. On a much smaller scale I did the Great North Run and thoroughly enjoyed it. I for this have places for this year if you fancy it.

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