domingo, 10 de outubro de 2021

2021 London Marathon

[versão portuguesa no post em baixo :) ]

On Saturday last week I was jolted wake by a wave of anxiety that came out of nowhere. Honestly, I had been doing fine all through race week; the only thing out of the ordinary had been the foolish fear of eating something spoiled or being hit by a car (not because of being hurt, you see, but because then I wouldn’t be able to run the marathon). Wednesday had also been the first time in 18 months that I had gone to the office and had a work event, so I also had an absurd fear of catching the bug, any bug. But on Saturday I woke up early and was suddenly thrown into the land of the nervous. I struggled to get my morning porridge down, I was slightly nauseous, all the while berating myself for being silly, ‘You need to eat this, you should be carb-loading, it’s not even race day yet!’. Thank heavens D. was arriving that morning, and so I had something to do (pick him up from the airport) and soon I’d have his company to keep me distracted. It worked a treat because soon after he arrived he engaged me in a discussion of feminism’s thorniest issue at the moment and my mind was kept off the looming marathon for a while (clever man).

Just like in my first marathon, it was pouring all through race eve. But proper yellow-warning formal-storm rain. And just like in my first marathon, race day had perfect weather: overcast, breezy but not windy, chilly in the morning but not freezing. And that’s where the similarities end. Because this second round could not have gone more differently than the first.

Actually, there’s something else that was the same: no loo roll in the porta potties at the start. Jesus, how much I kicked myself for forgetting to take some tissues with me because I KNEW I would need to go before the start (nerves were kicking in hard by then) and I KNEW there was not going to be loo roll there. I’ll spare you the grisly details but let’s just say being a runner forces you to become much less squeamish than you’d otherwise be.

Queue for the paperless loos 

In all the rest, the two experiences were night and day. I was so excited to be there that for the first miles and in several parts after I couldn’t quite believe that I was finally running it. ‘You’re running the London marathon, you’re running the London marathon, you’re running THE LONDON MARATHON, how surreal is this!’ was what kept playing in my head. I didn’t want it to end, despite it feeling hard in some parts, like a marathon is supposed to feel. Six years ago my overriding feeling at the start had been to get it done and over with, I was so burned out from my training and sick of running.

What I had this time was a (self-imposed) pressure to do better, time-wise, that I didn’t have in Lisbon. Finishing your first marathon is a huge achievement, who cares about your time. You’re gonna PB anyway! But now that I knew I could run a marathon, the question for me was could I do it properly, within a time that would make me proud (and here the obvious caveat to say that this is of course all very personal, a time that’d make me proud would be a shame for many, just like a time that would disappoint me would make lots of people proud. The point is this is all about you and what you know you can do and have trained for). And there’s where I think my anxiety came from this second time: I had trained hard for over 3 years, this was my dream race, I wanted to do me proud. I wasn’t proud of my first marathon. My time was way off what I had hoped for (even though I was a novice then) and I feel ashamed because I didn’t even fight for it, I walked loads and I crossed the finish line feeling sullen, extremely nauseated, and with only a feeling of relief that it was done.

But enough with the comparisons because I’m getting dragged into bashing my first marathon when this should be all about recording one of the most brilliant experiences I’ve ever had.

Race day was incredible and it starts as soon as you step out the door. It’s very early on a chilly Autumn Sunday morning, so the only people out and about are the people who belong to your mad crew: the ones who are voluntarily – nay, gladly! – going to subject their bodies to the inhumane task of running for 26.2 miles. Everyone you see has the same excited but nerve-wrecked face you can only assume mirrors your own. Everyone is about to take that same leap of faith of not knowing how they’re going to do, what will happen during those hours, knowing it’s going to hurt but hoping it will be one of the most memorable days of one’s life. Being in the midst of this mad crew helped to soothe my nerves. We’re all on the same boat. Everyone was feeling exactly the same as I was. Is that what attracts people to the absurdity of marathons, wanting to feel part of something, a group that goes through a random unhuman challenge that is meaningful to so many people past and present? Just as I was getting metaphysical, we’re supposed to change trains at Canary Wharf. This meant changing stations too and so on the way I pass the 18-mile mark sign. My stomach did a backflip and I felt like screaming ‘IN A FEW HOURS I’LL BE HERE AGAIN AND I’LL BE SO DEAD’. I didn’t, but a strangled cry did escape me. I board the packed train and can’t help thinking, not for the last time that day, ‘I hope this doesn’t turn into a superspreader event’.

Then we arrive at Greenwich and it's on. The long procession up the hill to the start begins and we're in race mode. 

'AaaAvé, Aaavé...'

(These treks to race starts with all the roads closed to traffic and loads of people walking in silence with the same purpose always remind me of those religious processions of my childhood and I have to fight the urge to start chanting ‘Avééé, Avééé, Avééé Mariaaa; AaAAvé, Avé, Avé Mariaa’).

Once there, it’s the familiar pre-race ritual:

Toilets with no loo roll: check. 
Loudspeakers blasting 'Dança Kuduro': check. 
Cursing my decision to go for purple bright shorts rather than the standard and sensible no-stain black: check. 
Feeling faint and wondering if the usual breakfast of bread with peanut butter is gonna be enough for the next four hours: check. 
Checking GPS signal at the start line works just fine: check.

Start area and faint smile

The big screen in the start area shows that the elite are off. The London Marathon has officially started. I'm in my pen waiting for my wave to start, feeling anxious, nauseous, and excited in equal measures. The weather is dreary, the best Britain's got (thank God). 

The waves with normal people start. And soon enough it's our turn. I discard the old jumper and leggings that have kept me warm and follow the old ladies holding the big '4' sign. Flashback to Jogos Sem Fronteiras: team 4 is up next!

And suddenly we too are off. And I can't quite believe this is it: after 3 years, a few injuries, one deferral and 2 postponements, I've made it to the start line in one piece, healthy, fit and in the best spirits I could possibly have hoped for. It's happening.

I had a time goal but I was set on looking at my watch as little as possible. I wanted to enjoy all of it, soak in as much as possible from one of the best race atmospheres in the world and sear every detail into my memory. This is my dream race, I'm running the streets of my city, 889 days after it was last possible.

The plan was to look at how I was going on pace at each mile mark. I have a plan A, B, and C because in 26 miles a lot can happen and you need to adapt to the unexpected: the weather might not be ideal, your body might not cooperate, you might fall, you might lose your energy gels, you might... I'm pleasantly surprised when at mile 1 the watch shows I've ran it within the exact pace I should be running, and so I hold on. That gives me the last boost of confidence I needed to go for goal A, settle in and enjoy the race.

The first 3 miles are not the same for all runners because there are 3 different starting points (50,000 runners and Covid measures demand it). The road is crowded but I never have to slalom runners or slow down: the start in waves by estimated finish times was spot on and so everyone is running at a similar pace to me.

Somewhere in the course, no idea where

The first 10k are through an area of London I had never been in. Greenwich, Woolwich Arsenal, these residential streets are full of people cheering us on with mics, boom boxes in balconies, children with arms out for a high-five. It’s one of the best sections of the route because it’s so genuinely local.

The first landmark is the famous Cutty Sark at the 10k mark. We run along the familiar Greenwich Maritime Museum and the roads are packed. I was feeling very good then but I remember gulping thinking I had barely ran a quarter of the total… That first hour had been so intense that it felt it had gone on for much longer and yet we were still so far away from the end.

Cutty Sark photo, nicked from the London Marathon Insta

The next 10k are fairly uneventful. There are blurs of colour, faces, cheers from the crowds, unfamiliar London streets. A guy who kept bellowing “EASY. CENTRE. EASY. CENTRE.” while running, making a few heads turn politely in his direction, the way Londoners do when they’re wrenched from their usual blank-faced public introversion. I think this was probably a focus technique, but it was odd as fuck. The guy was running around my pace and so his “EASY. CENTRE” shouts were drifting in and out of my earshot and I started to feel really annoyed that this was going to end up my most vivid memory of the race…

Another runner suddenly lets out a joyful “I’M FROM THE U.S., WE LOVE YOU, LONDON!!!” yell which was so genuinely American everyone around him can’t help but chuckle. “ANYONE FROM BROOKLYN?!”, a cheer from the crowd, and another joyful “YAAAAAS!!!” from him. Like I said, mad lot.

The miles keep ticking and I keep pressing the lap button to see I’m keeping my Good for Age dream alive. I’m acutely aware the painful part is (hopefully) still a long way away. So I keep my focus and don’t let me get carried away.

At mile 12 we turn a corner and suddenly there it is in all its splendour: Tower Bridge!!! I had studied the route map so I knew to expect it here but up until then I had been running through unfamiliar streets so I guess I wasn’t really expecting it. I let out a shriek and start grinning like a loon, in one of the most perfect, reality-better-than-my-dreams moment of this amazing race. This was also the first spot I hoped to see D. and L., but the crowds were so big I couldn’t see them. I was slightly disappointed but kept my focus.

Ecstatic at Tower Bridge :)

Here at halfway there’s a bit where two sections of the course meet and so we could see the faster runners coming back and facing their last few miles of the race. It’s sobering to look at their pained expressions and the signs with 35k, etc on the other side – it’s like glimpsing into our future – ‘this will be you in one hour…’.

The old docks, Limehouse, and soon we’re approaching the towering glass blocks of Canary Wharf. That’s my next mental landmark. Several things happen here: the sun starts to shine warm and my heart sinks a little - I prepared for a lot of scenarios but dealing with the heat was not one of them; fatigue starts to creep in and the pace becomes harder to keep; it’s time to take another half of my gel and I have to wrestle it free from my shorts, where it’s glued to my pocket; the countdown in miles reaches single digits and so the end can’t be far now; Canary Wharf roads are darker, windy, and endless, and the expected - but very fleeting! - ‘Running a marathon is a very stupid idea’ voice makes an appearance. The deafening crowds become ever so slightly annoying, and I marvel at the thought that there are people who do this after having swam for 4 km and cycled for 180 more. I promise myself I’ll never be as stupid as them.

This is also where I make the decision to let go of my 3:45 plan A and decide to keep running as strong as I can but not to suffer to the point where I’m unable to keep enjoying the race. And there’s still over an hour to go, the worst hour, and a lot can still happen. I’m pleased I held on for nearly 3 hours, I can let go a little bit.  

We’re back at Limehouse and the 35k runners become us. Uncharted territory because we never go this long in training. It’s hard and it hurts but we keep going. I’ve done this once before and I’m in much better shape now, I can do this again. EASY. CENTRE. (At this point the guy’s mantra had actually turned into ‘THIS IS SO FUCKING EASY’. The pain was real.) My stomach is holding up so well, I’ve started on my second gel – uncharted territory - but I still don't dare to hope this won’t end up in endless months of digestive fuck-up like 6 years ago. I keep my focus.

I hear someone yell my name! And, oh joy, it’s D.!!! I open my arms wide, wave and yell back faintly, and keep going. I daren’t stop. But it was such a warm boost for the soul in a crucial time when body and mind are exhausted. We’re in Tower Hill which means this is the last stretch, the embankment all along the river to the Houses of Parliament, for the last lap around St James’s Park and the finish line.

The best surprise x)

The madness begins. And I had thought the crowds were loud before… But this was just insane. Both sides of the road packed with people, their shouts, cries of incentive, whistling and roars of ‘YOU ARE ALL AMAZING!!! YOU’RE SO CLOSE NOW, JUST A COUPLE OF MILES! GOOOOOOO!!!’ are so overwhelming that I fight the urge to cover my ears with my hands and yell back ‘Stoooop!’. It truly felt too much. And the HoP are so far away… Yet these couple of miles fly by so fast, time truly warps in a marathon and I’m almost in a trance, drunk with joy to see the 24, 25 mile marks fly by so quickly. When I come to my senses I realise I’m running up the slight incline to parliament and it’s now time to turn towards St James’s Park. There’s trees, it’s suddenly darker, there’s loads and loads of people with the now very true ‘YOU’RE NEARLY THERE!’ shouts. The countdown is now in metres: ‘600 metres to go!’, ‘400 metres to go!’ – that’s an Olympic track lap, I can do this! – and then they turn into 365 yards or whatever and I start to do the maths but who knows how long a yard is anyway, and it doesn’t even matter because we’re not on miles anymore, not even km, we turn the final corner, it’s a sprint to the finish line, it’s here! I’M HERE! It’s the Mall! It’s Buckingham Palace! The huge flags are out, the finish line is here, and I did it, I DID IT, I FUCKING DID IT!!! Close to my wildest dream A, well above my goal B, I’m finally a sub-4 hour marathoner!

Just about to cross the finish line, with the palace in the background!

I let out the strangled animal cry I usually reserve for finish lines, very prolonged this time but with a huge smile on my face, and I keep walking to collect my kitbag in a daze – that same bag I had so carefully packed full of warm clothes, snacks and uncertainties as to the state I’d be in when I met it again. My legs feel impossibly heavy, I forgot how to walk, I’m pretty certain one of my toenails is falling off and I can’t believe they’re making us walk this far for our kitbags. After what feels like several miles (it’s only a few hundred meters) I arrive at my kitbag pen and I dimly hold up my bib so they can see my number, unable to speak. The kind lady hands me my bag with a cheery “Congratulations!” and I muster a smile and thank her. Everything is soooo heavy now, so difficult, I can’t possibly take another step, but D. is waiting for me, I keep walking, the S meet & greet is so far away, ARGH!, why am I not called Annabel or something. 

But D. has come looking for me and suddenly I hear my name, see his grinning familiar face and next thing I know I’m clinging to him, sobbing with relief, with pride, with fatigue, with gratefulness, with an immense and indescribable joy. (But no tears because I’m incredibly dehydrated.) He takes my super heavy bag and leads me to the grass where I gingerly sit down. L. joins us soon after and it’s so nice to share with them this moment and this ridiculous high that I’m feeling. I have their company, I have my medal, and, most unexpectedly of all, I have a grumbling empty stomach! This is the best news and my high redoubles – no upset stomach for months on end, yaaay! Be gone, ghosts of marathons past!

Standing up again, injury-free, hungry and surrounded by love. What's with the goose-like lifted leg? No idea.

The pleasant surprises continue. When I get up from the grass I miraculously can walk fine again. I eat several meals that day – my body is craving real food! I wake up ravenous at 6am the day after and have two breakfasts. The hunger is definitely real and here to stay. I feel unexpectedly well the day after, with only the soreness and slight tiredness of the day after a typical long run. My feet are OK. My legs are OK and the day after the race I end up spending 2.5 hours in line to get my medal engraved (stupid decision but hey-ho, the sunk cost fallacy applies, the more time you spend in line the less likely you are to leave it). I feel like I could go for a recovery jog (but I don’t). Walking the 5 or 6 flights of stairs up to my flat doesn’t feel like climbing the Everest. Who would’ve thought!

And mentally, mentally I’m so fine. A week later I’m still riding that marathoner’s high, but particularly during those first couple of days I was stupidly elated. I love running, I want to keep running, and I can’t wait to do it again. I’ve entered the ballot for 2022 and all week I’ve been fighting the urge to go back to my runs. This has been the most unexpected of all – I had not anticipated having to fight this hard to convince myself to take at least 2 weeks completely off (the plan is still one month off and three from regular training). Six years ago I was only too glad to see the back of my running shoes for over nine months…

Life feels weird and, dare I say it, empty, without the London Marathon on the horizon and no training in my days. It’s only been a week but going from a nearly daily regimen to nothing at all makes it feel like I haven’t run in ages. My body doesn’t feel like it ran a marathon a few days ago but I know better than to be fooled into thinking the mammoth distance hasn’t taken its toll and that my body is not in repair mode. My mind too needs a break, even if it’s missing the familiar daily rhythm of training. So all I can do is patiently wait and try to find something else to obsess over in the meantime. My dreams are big, my will to put in the work is strong, so I need to pace myself. I want to run forever, and that requires respect for my body and its recovery from having risen to the challenge I set it. Can’t wait for the next one!


2 comentários:

  1. Im so proud of you! Im so happy, it is one of those moments that we share together and we wont forget, and all because of your dedication, focus and hard work. Maybe next time we will cross the line together.

    Always there for you.

    Love you