*Disclaimer: It’s a long one, but so is 42km so lace up!
Legend has it the Greek messenger, Pheidippides ran the entire distance from the Battle of Marathon to Athens (40K) without stopping to announce the defeat of the Persians. When he got there, he collapsed and died…
And while we can safely assume that poor Pheidippides clearly did not train for such an undertaking, this story alone should have been enough to deter humans from attempting such a distance altogether.
Yet here we are, thousands of years later still pushing our bodies to the limit. Losing toenails, bleeding nipples, dehydration, spinal compression and heart failure are just a few of the glamorous risks involved!
They say that less than 1% of the world’s population go on to run a marathon…and those who do, never shut up about it.
The back story
In 2006, at 14-years old, I underwent major spinal surgery to correct Adolescent Idiopathic Scoliosis. “There’s nothing you won’t be able to do”, the doctors told me before going on to list a number of “inadvisable” activities, including anything impactful like erm, running.
Convinced for years that my body wouldn’t be capable, I dismissed the idea of a marathon believing that only Greek legends, the super fit or those in daft outfits with super inspirational stories would sign themselves up for something so extreme.
But all it took was that one friend to catch me on a good day, just a few months after my 30th birthday and that all changed.
Trina and I started running together the week we first met in Halls of Residence at Glasgow Uni.
As two small-town girls trying to navigate the big, bad city, our eyes were well and truly opened as we set off along the Maryhill Canal – which would have been enough to put some people off running altogether. But as students, we had pasta and high-calorie alcopops to burn off.
And so, in 2010, we took on our first road race, the annual 10K in my hometown of Stranraer, alongside our other two besties, my brother and his friends.
The feeling of crossing the finish line was a high I’ll never forget.
Actually, scrap that. I thought I was going to be sick in front of a home crowd. But undeterred, I knew it wouldn’t be my last rodeo.
We celebrated with a night out of high-calorie alcopops…
There were no digital training plans or fancy activewear then. We went for sporadic training runs in the pouring rain wearing baggy t-shirts and old trainers, and if both earphones functioned, it was a bonus!
Twice, we headed to the capital to complete the Great Edinburgh 10 Mile Run, sporting our Beatson Cancer Charity t-shirts, a cause close to our hearts.
Fortunately, the quality of my footwear started to improve thanks to my brother’s budding career at Adidas and I felt prepped for my next challenge – a half-marathon, in Vienna in 2015.
Signing up for a European race was a dream come true and getting engaged on the same day added a very special element (and expectation) to crossing finishing lines forever!
Content with completing 21km with a knee injury, I put road races on hold, deciding my joints would benefit more from track-running instead.
But catching COVID in the summer of 2021 changed my perspective. Eager to get back out on the streets, which had been so eerily empty during the pandemic (and to check our lungs were still functioning) my hubby and I completed the Madrid Rock n’ Roll 10K.
Trina, meanwhile, went on to secure 10 HM’s and countless other 10K’s under her running belt, raising £££ for great causes and smashing PB’s along the way.
Thirty & thriving
So, like I said, she caught me on a good day and sometimes that’s all you need.
Within days we were signed up, flights booked, training and nutrition plans researched and downloaded. We were taking this very seriously. With age, experience and accommodating lifestyles, we were good to go at 30.
Despite feeling fitter than ever, we still couldn’t fathom how anyone could possibly run for 4 or 5 hours, and when Trina said “Imagine where you could fly to in the world in that time…”, that’s when it really hit.
Hot, high & hilly
I knew that the 16 weeks of training were going to be both physically and mentally challenging – but what restricted me most was the heat. Summer is sizzzzzling in Madrid and more than once, I wondered when dehydration or heat exhaustion would catch up with me.
Combined with the altitude, the conditions could not be more different from what I could expect from the cool, flat, low-lying Amsterdam. What better preparation?
The only way to beat the heat was to be up and out by 6am – the coolest time of day or night which could still be a sweaty 26°C. Some mornings I was out to see both the stars and the sunrise and nothing sets you up for the day better than that.
(Well, a cold shower and a strong coffee help too).
I was advised to never look too far ahead in the training plan but instead, to tick off each run, one by one. However, it was hard to ignore what each Sunday had in store. These long runs were the foundation of the training, starting at 60 mins, gradually increasing each week and peaking at a ridiculous 3h 30m, giving a whole new meaning to the term ‘Sunday scaries’!
My Saturday night ritual involved laying out clothes, mapping routes, charging various devices (sports watch, headphones, phone) and setting alarms, all while the wine remained unopened in the fridge…
At 6am, I would get up to force-feed myself porridge before going back to bed to let the oats work their magic. Then, come 8am, with all the gear and some sort of an idea, I would head out, laden with energy gels, jelly babies wrapped in little tin foil parcels, Powerade and a CamelBak which sloshed with every step. Conscious of my bladder and keen to avoid a Paula Radcliffe moment, I would turn my music up a few notches to drown out the noise…
For months, Sunday afternoons involved nothing more exciting than showers, stretching and siestas (as well as lengthy voice message debriefs with Trina, who was facing her own challenging conditions on the hilly Isle of Arran).
The path to victory
I slept badly in the days leading up to the race, dreaming up worst case scenarios like last-minute injuries, catching COVID, travel strikes…You name it, it kept me awake because so much relied on this day.
But the checklist was ticked off, bag packed, and finally, we were on our way to run our masterpiece.
I won’t try to rewrite it, or bore you with my pace breakdown kilometre by kilometre, and the less said about the toilet stops, the better. There are some parts I don’t remember at all…
But I do recall the emotion when hearing friendly Dutch strangers in the crowd cheer my name, and even though my eyes were focussed on the ground instead of the pretty windmills along the River Amstel, as I tried not to trip over feet and discarded water bottles, it felt amazing to be one of 18,000 runners, who were all setting out to achieve something legendary.
I’ve struggled with the words to summarise “how it felt” so, I’ve cheated and used a relatable, anonymous online quote:
“At mile 20, I thought I was dead. At mile 22, I wished I was dead. At mile 24, I knew I was dead. At mile 26.2, I realised I had become too tough to kill.”
Towards the end, people all around me had stopped, to walk, stretch, or be carted off course by medical staff, and I suddenly felt a bit naïve about what was still to come. I had visions of crossing the finish line on hands and knees, destroyed and toenail-less.
But when I realised I was still just on time to finish sub 4:30 – my best case scenario – my mind and body switched up a gear and I finished strong (at least in my head), exhausted, aching but invigorated!
“A marathon is not just a test of stamina, a test of strength or a test of spirit. It’s a test of belief” (TCS Amsterdam Marathon)
Four weeks on, it still hasn’t really sunk it. I’ve since realised I wasn’t going to experience just one single moment of glory. This was not just a life event to be ticked off the bucket list and posted on Instagram (although that felt pretty good too).
Instead, I think the achievement will manifest itself as a reminder throughout my life every time I have a creeping moment of self-doubt, and I will relive that moment again and again.
Because, if I learned anything from pounding those payments day after day, looking to the brightest star in the sky on those solo morning runs was that with discipline, belief and the unwavering support of my loved ones, I can push myself that extra mile (or 26) and achieve anything.
And when Trina and I collapsed into the world’s comfiest king size that night after a sauna, steak dinner and stroopwafel espresso martinis, we were on an indescribable HIGH.
We congratulated each other again, aware of the scale of each other’s personal achievement. Smashing your own goals is one thing, but watching someone else smash theirs is another.
Finisher (Words of “wisdom”)
- Mix it up!
Around 85% of my runs were in Madrid and while marathon training can be restrictive, holidays were not on hold! I was incredibly lucky to run some amazing new routes – from the hilly and humid Alicante, to the cool, coastal respite of Asturias, the breath-taking beauty of Lake Como and official runners paradise – Valencia.
And I was even luckier to run old ones, including stunning coastal trails in Scotland with my super-fit brother and sister-in-law who have both completed the London Marathon and gave me great advice. Best of all, I ran the familiar country roads of home. It was here that I was reminded of how far I had come since taking those first steps again at 14.
- Invest in the right gear and don’t wear cotton pants!
Did I mention it was really hot?
- Compile an epic race-day playlist!
Thanks to contributions from family and friends, I had hours of banging beats to keep me going.
Never underestimate the power of love and music to get you through and don’t forget to feature that one song to remind you why you are doing it in the first place.