I have entered a new phase in my life. For the last twelve weeks I’ve been operating in BM (before marathon) now I am in AM (after marathon). BM was a series of training programmes, watching (but not giving up) alcohol and the ever-present undercurrent of fear. Now, aside from the dull, no screw it, semi-crippling ache in my thighs – damn AM living feels good.
On Sunday I ran 26.2 miles in the Nike Women’s San Fran Marathon – traversing the beautiful city, vertiginous hills and bitterly cold rain to smash through the finish line in 4 hours 24 mins.
Run little legs
Starting at 7am, in the dark, from the heart of the city’s Union Square were 25,000 women, and er, the odd man in drag. My team met at 5am in a nearby 24 hour diner, where we forced down porridge, fruit, coffee and plenty of water.
The start pens were a buzz of nervous energy. Union Square with its palm trees, skyscrapers, twinkling lights, the national anthem sung acapella and rousing speeches from Olympic medal holders, befitted the enormity of what was to me, such a momentous occasion.
You can say what you want about Americans, but, damn, when it comes to team spirit they’ve got it nailed.
In the last 30 seconds before the start gun, I closed my eyes, visualised the finish line and took a final deep breath before locking eyes with the digital time counter and getting ready to take my first step. 25,000 voices marked out 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and I felt my nerves escape me taking the first step on this 26.2 mile journey.
With 25,000 women jostling for space, I made a beeline for the outer edges of the streets to forge my own path. Settling into a comfortable pace and breathing in the morning air I watched the darkness thin and daytime blur into vision.
Escaping the financial district with it’s towering graphic buildings, we headed towards Pier 39 and the coast. Rising mystically through the sea mist, Alcatraz came into view with the iconic Golden Gate Bridge emerging in the distance. Wow.
At mile 2, along with a thousand others, I shed my outer layer, donating it to the homeless – the street momentarily becoming a carpet of zipped-up hoodys.
At mile 4, veering left, the first hill came into sight. Having worked hard on my hill training with Nike Master Trainer Brian, I wondered if I was alone in being secretly excited about taking on the concrete mountain. Keeping my pace solid and gait steady I glided up the gradient with ease, overtaking those faltering and giving me a much-needed boost of confidence.
At mile 6 we were challenged with the first serious hill. Approaching the foot, I dug deep and looked at it optimistically – my chance to use the skills mastered in training and gain some ground.
The hill wound up and up, at each corner sweeping ever higher, creating a breathtaking view back down into the watery bay. There are few times in life when we feel genuine self-love, but I can honestly say as I sprinted up the mile long hill past strong women reduced to a stagger, I felt a swell of pride that I’ll never forget. Feeling strong, healthy and able afforded a bigger high than any payrise could ever command.
I spent miles 4 – 17 enjoying this glowing sense of achievement – cutting through the air, covering ground at pace and soaking up the scenery. I relished all the difficult training I’d completed, realising just how worthwhile it had been. Train hard, run easy. If I’m honest I felt smug. Well… pride always comes before a fall. And at mile 17 I stopped feeling quite so perky.
Every marathon runner knows that completion is as much a psychological battle as it is a physical one. Passing the mile 17 marker, I was smacked with the fact I still had 9 miles to go. While in isolation, 9 miles is (now for me) easily achievable, but having already clocked up 17 of the buggers, another 9 seemed like, well, a pretty bleak prospect.
At mile 18, my limbs started to flag. My hamstrings and knees were burning and no amount of bum kicking (a vain attempt to stretch them out) was working. And to make matters more hilarious, like some hideous case of pathetic fallacy the weather changed from mild sunshine to heavy grey sky, a thrashing rain and aggressive coastal wind.
As an extra hurl of mockery, at mile 18 the course also passes by the finish line. I tried to squash the feeling that the marathon was now smirking at me – ‘hey smug girl, not so easy now eh?’ I imagined it saying. The road was straight, flat and seemingly to me, never-ending. I was not about to let the big bad marathon beat me, physically or emotionally, so rather than focus on how far I had left, I focused on how far this journey had already taken me.
At school I was the girl who couldn’t run. Cross Country lessons were a series of faked knees injuries, shameful finish times and embarrassing failures. I was as convinced as my PE teachers that I should stick to the day job. And now, after only 12 weeks of focused training, there was that same little girl, two thirds of the way around a marathon. San Fransisco-bloody-hills-and-all marathon at that. I wasn’t about to let some wind, rain, sore knees and a mere 9 miles get in the way of enjoying a triumphant finish.
At mile 20, a gentle incline and the peak of a hill revealed an enormous lake. The impact of visually taking in quite how far 3 miles was going to be was a psychological strain. I put my head down, sheltered my eyes from the rain and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. Each mile seemed to last a lifetime. Driving my arms back and forth I felt my core carry me onwards – stomach muscles pulsating as they worked like they’ve never worked before. I loosened my palms into cup shapes and imagined them pushing the air back, removing the final miles from the marathon inch by inch. As the end of the lake came into view I knew I had only 3 miles left before victory would be mine.
Three miles. Three little miles. Easy. I was on the home straight. The path to the finish was an uninterrupted straight. With each footstep I willed the end line into view. At this point, the tiniest change to distract from the pain really boosts morale – hence why I’ve never been so pleased to hear Katy Perry singing about kissing girls as speakers blared out her usually irritating tune.
After the tunes, the cheering crowds resumed and sodden spectators starting hollering ‘Go on Emily,’ ‘you can do it,’. A rush of energy followed.
I imagined hugs, cocktails, dry clothes and a long sleep – in that exact order and burned onwards. Each mile felt like 10, but I urged my legs to carry on and not give in to the ever tempting urge to walk. I talked to my thighs, my calfs and my tiny feet as though they were separated from my body. I vowed never again to stand in the mirror and curse them for being too big, too pitted or too pasty. These legs, these strong, fantastic legs that were carrying me ever closer to succeeding in the biggest physical challenge I’ve ever set myself. I reminded myself of how lucky I was to have a body this capable and raced on.
Through the sea mist the finish came into view. I’d been running for over 4 hours, far longer than ever before, and now it was nearly over. Victory was about to me mine. I accelerated the last 100 metres, determined to finish strong and stamped down on the timing strip with my Nike’s. Time seemed to suddenly speed up, and normal life whirled around me as I became blissfully lost in my own elation. I saw myself throw arms into the air, catch my face in hands with utter disbelief then revel in that few precious moments that no one can ever take away – the feeling of succeeding at something so physically challenging that there was a time it seemed impossible and out of reach – a high beyond any other.
As a foil blanket, Tiffany medal, pineapple juice and a bottle of quenching water were thrust into my tired, elated and thirsty hands I looked down and gave myself a deserved look of respect. I had never felt more myself than in those golden seconds of glee. You go body. I run to be.
- Our UK team met at a 24 hour diner where we wolfed down the breakfast of champions – porridge, dried fruit and honey, a bran muffin and natural yoghurt with fresh strawberries topped off with coffee to flush it all through and a litre of water.
- During the race I ate two bags of Jelly Belly Sports Beans to sustain energy levels and keep sugars and carb levels up.
- Coconut Water pre race for hydration and electrolytes
- Water, at the water stations dotted along the course
- Radioactive looking Gatorade
- Post race – a bottle of water and a fresh pineapple juice, followed by two hot chocolates with a giant heap of sugar. Oh and a couple of hours later copious amounts of Champagne.
- A few blisters and a slightly bruised toenail were the only sign that my feet had clocked up 26.2 miles
- After a cold bath to speed up muscle repair my quads were still exceedingly tight. Lactic acid and general overuse meant walking down stairs, sitting down caused considerable pain
- Unexpectedly it was my sports bra that inflicted the worst injury. Along the lining under my arms, skin had been rubbed raw leaving painful scabs that I’m still waiting to heel. All in all, a small price to pay.