Yes, you heard right.
From “In terms of running a marathon again, I’m not planning to” and “I am not built to run a marathon” and even, “In my case, if I went and ran another marathon, it would also mean my family would evict me”… I ran a marathon on Sunday. Again.
I am of course blaming one of my best friends who I have known since I pushed her off a slide in nursery aged 3. Clare had told me that she was running her first marathon at Yorkshire, and that I should too. It would be good to do it together, she said, and the tickets sell out really fast, and well yes, I did I suppose grow up in Yorkshire, and look, it’s on my birthday, so it must really be, well, fate.
So on that fateful night before the big day, I was sat in an Indian restaurant for my birthday tea, ordering chicken korma instead of my usual fiery king prawn madras, a whole naan bread to myself, an extra portion of pilau rice, and a sparkling water instead of beer.
“You’re running the marathon, aren’t you?” my lovely boyfriend said/asked. In front of the kids.
Mouth full of food, I feigned surprise.
“I’m running a bit of it with Clare…”
“Maybe, the first bit, 10 miles or so… maybe up to 13 miles…”
“And then what?” my boyfriend said, with a hint of a smile on his face.
I considered telling him I was having an affair.
“And then I quit, you know! Meet her at the end!””
Then the kids and my lovely other half started laughing at me. And I proceeded to grovel for forgiveness for keeping it from them.
The truth is, I had no idea if I was going to finish the marathon. I had spent most of the Summer unable to run due to a hip flexor injury, so my training, unlike my first marathon, was sporadic. In the 6 weeks prior to the big day, I was completing a mid week run of around 3 miles, then a long run on the Sunday. My longest run saw me hit 18 miles, which hadn’t been easy. But then I kind of wanted to prove it to myself that it was all in my head, and that I could do it.
So the next day, with a 5am start, and after forcing a bowl of porridge down, I bundled myself into a taxi.
“I’m running a marathon today, you know,” I told the taxi driver with a smile.
“Reeeeaaallly? You don’t look the type!”
I told myself there would be no tip that day for the taxi driver.
“Yeah, it’s my [insert number here]th birthday too.”
“Reeeeeaallly? You don’t look anywhere near [insert number here]!”
So after tipping the taxi driver handsomely, I stepped out at Manchester Piccadilly train station, clutching something really special in my hand. A first class ticket. My very first first class ticket.
Unexpectedly, the platform at 6am on the Sunday morning was shoulder to shoulder rammed with big, meaty-looking guys. When the train arrived, I squeezed myself into any available space on the train, just thankful to have boarded it (the later train would have arrived too late to make the start). Turns out there had been a boxing match on the night before, and everyone was going home sleepy and maybe a little bit tipsy.
There was no way I was able to get to my first class seat. Resigned, I made idle chatter with a guy on the train about my plans for the day, and that’s when another guy overheard me and I met Chris for the first time!
Chris was also on his way to the marathon, and I could tell from his physique that running was his kind of thing. We chatted about his 3hr-something marathon times, and I told him all about my friend Clare who I was running with and the journey went quickly as a result. As soon as passengers left the train at Leeds, I made a dash for my first class seat, and was able to enjoy the luxury for a mere 20 minutes.
And then I met Carol! Carol was running the 10 mile race which was taking place alongside the marathon. She was really cool as she had on the same running top as me, and we chatted about the usual - our nerves, how we should be in bed at this time on a Sunday morning, and what exactly had possessed us to put ourselves through such torture.
Arriving at York, Carol and every other female passenger took my advice and used the loos at the station rather than at the marathon start line. And the lovely Chris, knowing how nervous I was about catching the bus to the University (where the marathon started) was waiting for me in the foyer of the station, so Carol, myself and Chris went for the bus together. They even let me take a photo for this blog – see how lovely they are?
Arriving, Carol gave me a hug bye and we went our separate ways. Meticulously checking I had everything, I placed my bag in the baggage area, texted Clare to make sure she was on site, and easily found my way to the start line.
Finding each other, we hugged. This being Clare’s first marathon, with a multitude of injuries, she was a bundle of nerves, but it wasn’t long before we started.
“COME ON EVERYONE, LET’S DOOOO THIS!” I yelled, passing the start. A few people clapped (in my head they did).
Now, game plan. It’s always important to have a plan. The plan was that I would stay with Clare for the first 10 miles and then review. It was important to me that given my lack of training, I did not race around the course as I had done at Manchester. Most importantly, I wanted to ENJOY the experience this time, without going for a PB. It was about being able to say that I had ran a marathon on my birthday with one of my best friends, nothing more.
“Right, slow down Clare, you’re going too fast.”
I had it in my head that we would do the first 5 miles at an 11 minute mile pace, then possibly up it to 10 minutes 30 seconds between 5 and 10 miles. With a short stint then at a 10 minute mile pace for a few miles, we would be clocking in at under a sub-5 hour marathon, which was Clare’s goal.
We comfortably ran and let people overtake us. I started to high-five kids. I think I must have high-fived around 100 kids on the day, and occasionally one of them would spot my birthday badge and shout, “Happy birthday!” Passing York Minster was brilliant, it looked beautiful against the blue skies and the crowds were out in force.
At the first drinks station, I encouraged Clare to drink water. We chatted happily away for the first 5 miles, talking about our kids, how marathon running wasn’t as bad as childbirth, the usual stuff.
We started to meet people. There was Helen, who was also a first timer. Two girls dressed as elves ran behind us, having a ball with the crowd, and I lost my high-five fun to a Smurf for a few minutes. We also chatted to a Storm Trooper who was wearing a wedding dress and his friend who I called Princess Leia.
I tried to up the speed a little to 10 minutes 30 seconds a mile and explained to Clare what I was doing. She went a little quiet on me then, so I slowed it down back to 11. The 5 hour marker had not passed us at that point, but I knew it would.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, Clare shouted, “Look it’s him!!!”
And there was a vicar at mile 6, holding out his hand, giving all the runners high-fives! We had all heard about this vicar who had changed the time of his church service on the Sunday so that he could greet the runners, and he was also joined by his lovely female colleague. ALL the runners made a bee-line for the priest.
Helen was still with us at that point, and then the 5 hour marker went past and we all went quiet.
“Did a piece of anyone else just die there too?” I asked.
Both Clare and Helen gave a glum laugh, “Yeah, we saw it too.”
I watched it disappear into the distance and knew that I could have reached it if I wanted, but my focus returned to Clare who had gone quiet again. We lost Helen who increased her speed to chase that 5 hour marker.
“Are you hurting?” asked Clare. We were about 8 miles in.
“Yeah, a little,” I lied. My glutes felt tight but everything else was good.
Running through some beautiful woodland area, I realised that we had passed the mile 9 marker.
“Hey, you know what, I just hit a PB!” I laughed.
Back in the Manchester marathon, I hit the wall at mile 9 due to starting off too fast, and also because of injury. I had had to stop then and walk, yet here at Yorkshire, I was very comfortably running along, feeling strong.
Knowing that mile 10 was approaching, and I was soon planning to leave Clare, I asked her what support she had on the course.
“My Mum is at the end, but a friend might be around the 10 mile mark.”
It started to rain. We ran up little country roads and hills, and Clare kept amazing me at how well she was doing. We took each hill steady.
And then we heard a sound in the distance. Bagpipes! It was so inspiring passing the 10 mile mark, and hearing the roaring noise of bagpipes which always reminds me of the Braveheart movie.
There was no friend waiting for Clare (it hadn’t been a definite arrangement anyhow) but I know how demoralising it can be when you hope to see someone, especially when you are running so hard. Mile 10 was when I had planned to leave Clare, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
“Imagine if we crossed the finish line together holding hands,” she said to me.
Truth is, I really wanted that too, and I told her so. I gave up any hope of chasing the 5 hour marker at that point, I knew I had to stay. We were at a 12 minute mile pace by that point.
Getting to Stamford Bridge at 13 miles, there was a great turn out. Further on, a guy on a microphone was making a right racket, and as I passed him, I pointed to my birthday badge.
“I KNOW YA FIT LOVE, BUT I DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TRYING TO TELL ME!”
I had to turn on a loop here and overheard a member of the public shout, “It’s her birthday!”
“AHH REET! C’MON EVERYONE! HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOOOOUU….”
I think Clare was mortified but I loved it!
Leaving Stamford Bridge, we reached a hill.
“It’s all downhill from the top!” someone shouted.
And then Clare stopped.
I jogged on the spot waiting for her to catch up, and considered the madness of running backwards to her.
“I need a minute.”
I then forced myself to stop running. I could tell Clare was struggling with her injuries.
“You go,” she said.
I paused. We were at mile 15 at that point. I envisaged a long walk to the finish, missing my train, and having to explain to my family that I would be late for present-opening, when I had promised them I’d be home around 6pm.
I then told Clare a conversation I had had over dinner the night before. Before the marathon, the furthest Clare had ever run was THIRTEEN miles.
“I don’t think she’s going to do it,” I had confided in my family, as we sat eating our curries.
“Now you stop that,” my other half told me. “You always say that, and then look what happens! She proves you wrong!”
“Yeah Mum, you said she wouldn’t do that triathlon and she did!”
And this is true. Clare had completed her first triathlon a couple of weeks prior to the marathon. Not only that, she had completed the Great North Run in September, plus numerous other races throughout the year, raising money for charity.
As Clare and I walked up that hill, I turned to her.
“Clare, I’m sorry I didn’t think you could do it. I was wrong, really wrong. You’ve done bloody brilliantly. You’ve managed to run 15 miles non-stop. I know you’re going to do this. I mean it. You’re going to get through this.”
“I’m not going to quit.”
“Are you sure?”
“I promise. You go on. I’m not going to quit.”
I left her walking and started to run up the remainder of the hill. My phone rang.
“Heeellllooo Auntie Jane! [my sister’s voice] It’s Jonnie [my 3 year old nephew] wanting to wish you aaaa haaaappppy birrrthday!”
“Awww that’s lovely…”
“OH MY GOD! Are you doing the marathon!” my sister shouted in her normal adult voice, hearing the panting sounds down the phone.
“How far in are you?”
“About 15 miles.”
“Oh my God, you sound amazing!”
Physically, I did feel good. And then out the corner of my eye, I saw a crowd of around 20 people gesturing towards me.
“GET OFF YOUR PHONE!!!” they shouted.
“Hang on,” I said, coming off for a moment.
“It’s my birthday! I’m allowed!” I shouted back.
“It’s her birthday! Orr wow! It’s her birthday, HAAAPPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOOOOU, HAAAPPY…”
Laughing, I told my sister I’d call her back. I was a few metres from the top of the hill.
And then I saw a great crowd of people running towards me. And it dawned on me, this was the loop I had seen on the course map, and which I had mentally geared myself up to. There’s nothing worse than seeing other people further ahead of you on the course, and knowing you have all that way to go.
But what I wasn’t prepared for was the hill. Miles 15-17 were downhill (and my fastest part of the course) but I knew I’d have to go back the other way. At about mile 16 a woman was offering free hugs and I gave her a long one. I plugged in my music and ‘The Way I Are’ by Timbaland got me through mile 18. I saw Clare on the other side and passed her my water which I had got from a drinks station, and then saw the free hugs lady at mile 19 (as she had crossed to the other side). She gave me an even longer hug. Mile 20 passed at the top of the hill and I assessed my body.
It was starting to hurt, but nowhere near as bad as it had at Manchester. There was no searing pain in my ITB band, and the soles of my feet whilst slightly sore, were not burning (I had replaced my trainers three weeks prior). My shoulders felt a little sore, and my hips were reminding me of the danger of my hip flexor injury recurring, but all in all, I was doing good.
My phone rang again.
“Hello Jane, it’s Mum.”
“Listen, I don’t want to keep you, but I just wanted to ring to wish you a happy birthday.”
“Aw, thanks Mum.”
“Are you doing anything nice?”
“I’m running a marathon, about 21 miles in.”
“Aww that’s lovely. Well, I won’t keep you. I’ll catch you later perhaps.”
“See you later Mum.”
(Scout’s honour – that’s the conversation we had).
I started to pass people I had talked to on the route previously with Clare. There was bumblebee girl, the two girl elves, there was red top Robin soldiering on and a girl with multi-coloured stripy socks.
I had taken one gel with me on the course, but acquired two more at the gel stations and had these at miles 20, 22 and 24. I had learnt my lesson from Manchester and did not take on sweets or fruit offered by passers-by and my stomach remained trouble free. I started to break down the marathon into chunks in my head, 6 miles remaining, now get to 5, well done, get to 4 and you can have another gel, get to 3 and then it’s a mere parkrun left, get to 2 and you can have one more gel, come on girl, half a mile at a time and so on.
I passed Helen at mile 23 who was walking, but still smiling. Someone at mile 24 put on a mega sound system which played some epic sounding music with heavy drums, like the Space Odyessey music. It was brilliant!
Reaching mile 25, spectators were shouting their support, and there were the usual type of guys yelling, “Finish strong!” like in Manchester who have clearly never run a marathon before.
At 25.5 miles in, I remembered Clare’s words of warning.
“There’s a huge hill at the end.”
And I laughed to myself. What hill?
And then I saw it.
The girl next to me looked like she might pass out when she saw the hill and she stopped.
“Come on,” I told her, “You were beating me!”
I jogged up the hill (slowly).
Then I could see the finish and the realisation dawned on me that I was about to complete my second marathon! No way! I sprinted the last 0.3 of a mile. Nothing beats a sprint finish. I came in at 5hrs 6 minutes (my PB is 4hrs 36 minutes).
I thought I heard someone calling my name and when I went to check my phone after returning to the bus, I saw that Clare’s Mum had messaged me to say well done and that I had missed her, which was gutting as I hadn’t seen her for years! I messaged back to say that Clare was around 30-40 minutes behind me…
On the train home, I texted Clare and she replied to say she had become injured at mile 18 but was still going. I watched her progress via a tracking app on Facebook, and thought of her when she did her last mile, breathing a sigh of relief when she finished in a time of 6hrs 23 minutes.
Afterwards, when we caught up, she told me that at one point she had rang her husband to come and collect her. She said she had given up as she had been in so much pain. But then she thought of her parents waiting for her at the finish, and of MY family who had all jumped to her defence over that curry the night before, and that is what had made her cancel her rescue pick up and finish.
Clare proved to me that running a marathon is about what’s in your head. Running, and runners like Clare, will always, always, continue to inspire me to keep running.
Many, many thanks to the organisers @RunYorkshire for a really well organised event – there were stacks of drinks and gels on the course, even for those of us at the back. It was also very well signposted at the beginning and end, the baggage handlers were brilliant and I got my bag back quickly. Super goody bag too, perhaps one of the best I have come across.
I’d also like to just quickly thank the buskers who played air guitar to Breakfast at Tiffany’s at around mile 11 with me, and also to the Caribbean drummers who put up with my attempt at doing a moonwalk. If I have missed anyone else, I can only apologise for the then and now!
Follow me @JWilbyPalmer
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