As I struggled to manage 3 miles on a treadmill this afternoon it occurred to me that exactly one year ago I was preparing myself to tackle all 26 miles of the Belfast Marathon. It seems like a distant dream now, or perhaps a half-remembered nightmare, but for the benefit of those people out there who are today facing the same prospect, or perhaps to a future version of myself (if I ever decide to do it again) I thought I would record my thoughts about what I leaned from the experience.
1. BEFORE THE RACE
It will sound strange, but I found this the absolute worst time of all. Never mind the months of training, the almost constant pain, the exhaustion, the injuries or the gruelling, heat-exhausted 26 mile slog on the day, the hardest bit by far for me were the few days before it. The previous one hundred and sixty days had been spent in almost constant training, then for the last week: nothing. A couple of very short runs and a long walk was the height of my last week’s exertions. Never mind the fact that muscles used to enduring hours of punishment were itching-screaming-for exercise, I felt like a mountain climber confronted for the first time by the north face of the Eiger. The sheer scale of what was about to be attempted became very real and after the training I was in no doubt what it would be like. Self-doubt crept in. The only word I can think of to describe the feeling was “daunted”. I genuinely wondered could I could really do it? This is not something I am used to experiencing. What got me through this? Telling myself to pull myself together and get over it was a start. Fate also intervened and that very week the Finnish Viking Metal band Turisas released the song “Stand up and fight” ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7woW7DmnR0E ) which I found truly inspirational. This will probably not work for anyone else though. If nothing else works try listening to “He’s a pirate” from Pirates of the Caribbean ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mUnrWo6z9WY&feature=related ). If that doesn’t work I don’t know what will.
2. Morning of the race
Drink and eat early enough that it will, shall we say, have passed through you. You don’t want a Paula Radcliffe moment. Also by the time you get to them, the port-a-loos on the route will resemble latrines at the battle of the Somme so best to get that all out of the way before the start.
3. Start of the race
The start of the marathon is an amazing experience. There are so many people crowding at the start of the City Hall you won’t even get jogging until way past the end of Chichester Street. DONT START OFF TOO FAST. I can’t say that enough. I was told that by so many people but still on the day when everyone started running I got carried away and took off like I only had a couple of miles ahead of me. Trust me, you will pay for it later. I did. Forget about everything from running with a friend the whole way to what time you will finish in. All those are irrelevant if you don’t even manage to finish. The biggest hurdle is simply to finish the marathon, and the speed you start off at will have a direct effect on whether or not you even achieve that, so bear that in mind.
As you run up East Bridge Street the sight that opens up before you of thousands and thousands of runners completely filling the road from footpath to footpath, as far as the eye can see, as the sun rises before you is quite simply amazing and totally unforgettable. Bear in mind that the only way anyone can get to see it is to do what you are doing, except maybe if you are a Kenyan, when I imagine that what you just see are miles of empty road ahead of you.
4. Middle section: Bridge end, Falls, Shankill, Crumlin road, Antrim road, Gideons Green and back into Belfast through Boucher. A lot of folk worry about the last section, but for me this was the hardest part. What got me through it all were the people of West and North Belfast. Wee mini-spides in celtic and rangers tops run alongside you, cheering, giving you high-fives, cups of water, blue juice, orange slices and at one point offering a drag on a cigarette (or possibly a joint). I don’t smoke by the way but I appreciated the demonstration of fellow feeling. Between them, these people may have been partly responsible for much of the 30 years of violence we went through, but I’m eternally grateful for the support they gave me last year. The flipside is the route itself. Other marathon organisers go out of their way to showcase the best parts of their city. The London route, for example includes the Mall, Tower Bridge, Big Ben etc. The Belfast organisers treat runners to Dunnes on the Crumlin road, a massive bonfire site, miles of derelict housing and a completely deserted industrial estate. Thanks for that. By the way, if you find yourself struggling, alone and wondering how you are going to carry on, then you start to hear loud pumping rave music in the middle of nowhere, you aren’t hallucinating: it’s a Cool FM booth. In the middle of nowhere, aka Boucher industrial estate.
5. Last section: A lot of folk dread this bit. There is no doubt its hard. By the time you get to Clarendon dock there are only six miles left and you know you can do that. The downside is that if you think about it, that probably means another hour of running and you’ve already run twenty miles. The upside is that if you’ve done all the training you know you know that six miles is not a problem: It’s a lunchtime run. The organisers, however, have one more cruel trick to play. They bring you into Ormeau Park, where the finish is, then you have to run out again. And there are still more than two miles to go. Thanks for that. Trust me: even though I have told you this, and you know that it will happen, I guarantee that when you run into Ormeau Park you will think “Maybe they’ve changed it this year. Maybe this really IS the end!” Its not. Its a cruel joke. Worse is to come. You have to slog all the way up the Ormeau road-uphill all the way-to the roundabout. You have to drag your weary legs past all the bastards who have already finished, sitting outside the Big house and the Errigle Inn, supping ice cool pints of beer and cider and shouting encouragement like “Go on big man: You’re nearly finished.” Don’t listen to them, you’re not. There are still a two miles to go and every step of them is going to feel like all of the previous 24.
Just keep going. No matter how bad it is, if nothing else there really is no point in giving up now. After all those months of training and all 24 miles up to now, are you realistically going to give in at this point? At this point it’s legitimate to start thinking about finishing and what you can look forward to at the end. Hopefully the thought of this will keep you going to the finish. What awaits is massive relief, a huge rush of euphoria that will last until the early hours of the next morning and a genuine sense of achievement at completing a challenge that very few of your friends and relatives can-or ever will be- able to say they have overcome. That and the free packet of Tayto cheese and onion crisps they give you at the end.
And then it’s done and you have to find something else to fill your days and focus your energy. Even if you never run again, you will always be able to say that you completed a marathon. Even today, not that many people can say they have done that. Looking at last year’s stats, less than 24% of those who started, actually finished.
6. A word about pain: The marathon is a day of pain. There is no getting round that, but it is perhaps not the type of pain you might expect. Muscles ache, chronic injuries to knees, hips, shoulders, feet will all present their challenge on the day as if the sheer effort isn’t enough. But that is what the Gods created Ibuprofen for. The real challenge is emotional pain. As you run, all around you, you will be surrounded by other people running with teeshirts bearing the picture of mothers, fathers, sisters, little kids, usually with a label that says “I’m running for..”. They are pictures of the dying and the dead, the terminally ill who need the money raised by the runners to make their final days tolerable. For these folks, every day is a marathon. Thinking about that puts your own current predicament in perspective somewhat. It also presents another challenge though: The more tired you get, the harder it gets to hold back anything emotionally that you’ve been bottling up inside yourself for all those years. Whether it be bereavement, relationship breakdowns, guilt, whatever: when you’ve nothing left physically it becomes hard to hold back the tide of anything you’ve buried in your own psyche and refused to face. The good news is that once its out, you can let it go. This is one thing to give into. Stop running from it and finally run away from it.
7. The secret of how to succeed and finish the marathon
Basically, you put one foot in front of the other. Repeat til the end, no matter how long it takes. That’s all there is to it. Whatever you do, don’t stop. Its very hard. If you feel you can’t keep going, slow down. If you really can’t run any more then walk. Whatever you do, don’t stop moving forwards. As long as you are still eating up the yards you are still making progress towards your goal. If you stop, you are at serious risk of letting in the demon of doubt that will beat you, and it will be virtually impossible to start running again.
People will tell you about gels, energy drinks and other such magic secrets but the reality is that the only thing that will get you to the finish line is whatever is inside you that keeps your legs going. People will tell you that its God, the Gods, or its all in your head, or some sort of self hypnosis. Whatever gets you through to the end is definitely something more than physical conditioning and requires something that will keep you going beyond the point when every last scrap of carbohydrate in your body has been exhausted and there is nothing left to create energy from. Who knows? I would say its actually in your heart, or your guts. Basically wherever sheer bloody mindedness and the refusal to give in comes from. On the day, I took a couple of gels and they made me feel really sick. If you haven’t trained using them, don’t think they will work some sort of magic. Trust in yourself and you will get through it.
8. And finally
Hopefully none of this has put anyone off. It wasn’t meant to. The intention is to give you a realistic portrayal of what it will be like, and if you are prepared for it, then you will be able to face it. Have no doubt about it: what you about to face is a massive challenge of quite simply crazy proportions. But imagine what it will feel like when you defeat that challenge, a feat that most people baulk at even the idea of trying to attempt.
As Hamlet said, “The readiness is all…”