A week ago I ran a marathon for the first time. 42.195 kilometres in one go. Everest for the average runner.
Bizarrely, marathons have become almost fashionable in recent years. Marathons in megacities such as London and New York have to turn would-be runners away. Some run in fancy dress; others run many marathons on consecutive days. None of this, however, should take away from the fact that running a marathon is an impressive achievement.
Any prologue to this tale would start in September last year, when I signed up to the 2014 Prague Marathon. The story would take in six months of training, generally running a minimum of four times in a week. It would include a frightening amount of pasta eaten in evenings in the flat at the expense of going out and socialising. New chapters could be introduced by the buzzing of an alarm on a weekend, when a regular person would sleep in rather than pound concrete for hours in sub-zero temperatures. In short, a lot of effort and commitment is required before the day of the run itself.
All of the months of dedication (not to mention two months without sipping a drop of alcohol) came down to one overcast May morning in Prague. We made our way to the idyllic Old Town Square, which had been temporarily converted into its own unique running town, complete with gigantic inflatable bottles and mini villages of portaloos. Throngs of brightly-clad men and women of all ages were bouncing around in nervous anticipation, trying to warm up their legs to be ready for the challenge that lay ahead.
By 9am the gun was fired: the race begun. Well, for the elite athletes. It was a couple of minutes before I crossed the start line and officially began my first marathon. The atmosphere in the Old Town Square and along Parizska was filled with optimism, with crowds many people deep clapping and cheering. This was the easy part, and the time to enjoy the day for what it was: a run around one of the most beautiful European cities.
The early section took in the main attractions of Prague. Running along the Charles Bridge was a particular highlight, though negotiating the cobbled streets of the Old Town was a bit tricky at times with the sheer volume of runners bunched together at the start. From here we ran alongside the Vltava which bisects the Czech capital, heading east before crossing a bridge at a bend in the river and returning back to the city centre.
The course then headed south along the Vltava, past the Dancing Houses and under the old Vysehrad castle. Soon after this was the 20km mark. At this point I felt good and was sticking with a group who were being guided by a pacer: a man with bright pink flags who was going to run the whole race in a time of 3 hours 30 minutes.
I passed some friends from school at the 20km mark who were involved in the marathon relay. This fantastic initiative allows teams of four to complete the course, running 10km each (or 12.195km if the last runner). It swells the number of participants to make the roads more crowded but they contribute massively to the atmosphere of the event. A brilliant idea.
By the time one of these girls next saw me, when I was at about 23km, things were beginning to go downhill. I don’t mean the route, either. The clouds which had looked so threatening up to this point finally burst. The skies which had briefly been a brilliant sky blue early in the run darkened rapidly. More troubling, however, was the fact that my legs, which had been skipping along merrily up to this point, suddenly became very heavy and burdensome.
As we ran back towards the centre, the shower started to relent. The strain in my legs, however, did not. It was obvious at the time – not to mention now – that I was going too fast and couldn’t keep pace. Rather than risk not finishing at all, I thus began to drop away from the man with the pink flags and tried to focus really hard on something – anything – to take away the pain beginning to scorch in my quads and hamstrings.
I couldn't think of anything sufficient, and as I ran by the 27km mark in Prague 5 I went for my backup plan. I had brought along my iPod for such a scenario. With barely a soul on the side of the road at this relative outpost, I thus plugged myself in and prepared myself to be inspired to finish the route in relative comfort.
It didn't work. Not heavy metal, not Eminem, not even my beloved Kelly Clarkson could rouse me to run faster. I got to 29km and was out on my feet, barely able to put one foot in front of the other without wincing. Desperate for water stops. Close to tears. I’d been beaten.
I shuffled to the next random song on my iPod and suddenly felt a surge of energy rush through my battered body. I’ll happily admit that a tear did roll down my cheek, at which point was next to a smiling, nay laughing, mouth. It was the moment when deep down I knew I would be crossing the finish line of my own accord, rather than being propped up by a stranger. The song? I am the One and Only by Chesney Hawkes. Bizarre, I know.
Though now moving much slower than before, completing each kilometre between 30 seconds and a minute longer than what I was averaging in the first half of the run, the smile had returned to my face, and my legs felt (slightly) lighter than before. I started to take in my surroundings once more as we returned into the city. I particularly appreciated the sign at the 30km mark which proudly stated: “12 more until free beer!”
Prague is a big city, but it seems that the organisers didn’t deem it sufficiently large to create a completely unique marathon route. The last 8km or so thus repeat the early part of the course. It is at this point that the run becomes more mental, and every little gesture helps. From drumming musicians to a large screen showing messages for the passing runners, they do everything possible bar shorten the course to make the last section as tolerable as possible.
It may have been the same section of road used earlier in the run, but it certainly felt different coming back into the centre for the final time. I hadn’t realised there were quite as many inclines and bumps. A final sugar-dipped banana (I lost count of how many of these heart-attack inducers I consumed), a final cup of water, time for the iPod to be stowed away as the crowds began to grow: the final few kilometres.
It’s a strange emotion, finishing a marathon. Firstly, you don’t really have the energy to be emotional. Every book, article and expert will tell you to enjoy the last few kilometres, but it can actually be agonising to do so. I know that I would have become over-excited and tried to have finished as quickly as possible. Too quickly. For me, most of the last six or seven kilometres were spent zoned out, purely focused on putting one foot in front of the other, not even thinking about the finish line. It would come.
It wasn’t until I passed the InterContinental hotel and rounded the final corner that it dawned on me that I was going to complete the course. I was even able to break into an exhausted smile as friends greeted me down the final stretch. 400 metres…300…200…100…into the square…
And finish. Marathon completed. Mission accomplished. OUCH.
For the record, my time turned out to be 3 hours, 38 minutes and 23 seconds. In the build-up to the event, people kept asking me for a time which I would be ‘happy’ at completing a marathon in. I reluctantly told people that I was looking for somewhere between 3:30 and 3:45. Reluctantly because I didn’t want to think about times. My goal wasn’t to finish in a certain time: it was to finish. Yes, I had an idea in my head of how quickly I wanted to accomplish this, but I can’t think of much worse than completing a marathon and feeling disappointed because I just missed my target time. If you complete a marathon, any marathon, you should feel pride, and that pride should overcome any lingering disappointment.
I ran for personal achievement, but also for a cause. I ran to raise money for UNICEF, and at the time of writing have raised £615 to help improve conditions for children who are at a disadvantage for reasons beyond their control. If you would like to donate, the link is at the bottom of the page. A big thank you to the following people who donated:
Betty Smith – thanks Gran for starting it all off!
Suzanne Higgins and Andy
Rich and Jess Greatrex-Smith
Angela and Steve Smith
Peter and Susan Smith
Michael and Laurie Jenkins
The Elongated Penetrators from US Jetting
Carol Wakeling (and Phil)
Finally, special thanks to Chesney Hawkes – you one-hit hero, you!
So I ran a marathon. It took the best part of a week for me to be able to walk normally again, but it was worth every muscle strain and ounce of pain. A big thank you to everyone for their support, particularly to Hannah for putting up with an unsociable loser who has only been able to talk about running for the last couple of months. I have no need or desire to run another marathon again, but am proud of myself for completing it. Everyone who has completed one, no matter in what time, has my full and unreserved respect.
Love you all,