Looking Forward… To March

March is without a doubt my favourite month of the year. It’s the month when the spring equinox marks the end of winter and the clocks change back to sanity. It’s the month when I can finally brush the dust (or snow?) off my racing flats and stretch my legs in the first few road races of the season. This year, in addition to all of this I’m excited to clock as many running miles as I can and add them to those of my fellow running bloggers in Kylabee’s Around the World Running Blog Relay. And if all of those cool things aren’t enough to ensure the awesomeness of March, it also happens to be my birthday month. You could call it the icing on the cake. Oh yes, there will be cake!

cambo snowdrops(Winter Spring is coming: snowdrops are lining one of my favourite trails)

I’ve got two big races to look forward to in March: the Inverness Half Marathon, followed by the glorious Rome Marathon.

The Inverness Half is my first road race this year, where I’ll put my winter training to the test. I have every intention of charging around Inverness with as much bestial vigour as I can muster on the day. My rampage might not result in a half-marathon PB, but it’ll give me a good idea where I’m at and what I’ve got to work with, running wise, for the rest of the glorious warmer months of the year. My target time for the Inverness Half is 1:45 – if the day is right and stars align I might aim for 1:40 instead. If, on the other hand, things start to assume the shape of a pear, I’ll be happy just to finish in under 2 hours.

Now I don’t know about you guys, but there’s a limit to my athletic prowess and I’ve got no ambition to even try and all out race a Half Marathon followed by a Marathon within a fortnight. As such, I don’t see the Rome Marathon as a race. The trip to Rome is my birthday present to myself; a little springtime vacation in the eternal city, a chance to catch some sun as the winter loses its icy grip on my home turf. I always love to run when I’m on holiday, so this particular city break will also involve a marathon length sight-seeing tour on Sunday morning. I have solemnly promised my physiotherapist that I’d run a personal worst in Rome, and might even take a camera on the run. And really, who wouldn’t want to earn a medal for completing and epic long run?

Finally, March is also the month of Kylabee’s Around the World Running Blog Relay (ATWRBR). It’s a fantastic idea, which involves a bunch of running bloggers (or blogging runners?) from all over the world to run together in spirit towards a shared goal. In order to share my contribution to this running extravaganza, I have added a page to my blog where I’ll declare all my runs, for everyone to see/marvel/point and laugh at.

If you are a running blogger, why not join us in our quest to run wild in March? It’s not too late to sign up!

Feeling Seriously Runspired!

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“There’s an overwhelming cultural mentality today that difficult tasks should be avoided; that volitional discomfort is an indication of some psychological oddity. Meanwhile, ultramarathons promise exactly the opposite; the expectation is that the race will be strenuous. Your body will get battered, your spirit will get broken, and you’ll question your sanity and emotional stability. (What’s more – you’ll pay somebody a lot of money in race fees for this to happen. If it weren’t for ultrarunning, there’d be a huge boom in masochism support groups. Clearly, we NEED this sport.) It’s no wonder most people think we’re insane.

But here’s the good part: our gain for suffering through all of this is something akin to enlightenment. We understand that our bodies and minds are capable of far more than most people ever realize – that the primary limiting factors in life’s journeys are the extent to which our minds can dream, and to which we’re willing to work to achieve them.

These truths we discover about ourselves are what keep us coming back for more. In that regard, ultrarunners are the fishermen leaving the shore: we’re fully aware that the storms might be terrible – but the rewards we harvest by venturing into the sea are always worth the hardship.”

-Donald Buraglio, The Running Life: Wisdom and Observations from a Lifetime of Running

I can’t think of a more wonderful place to run my first ultramarathon than the Scottish Highlands – what a place to be, what a life to live! Am seriously getting excited about pushing the limits, even though the race itself is still four months away. Here’s what’s in store for me, the backdrop to all the pain I’ll no doubt suffer:

Cateran trail

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I’m feeling so antsy right now that I’m seriously thinking about heading up there and start to recce the trail this weekend – despite the fact that the whole area is currently buried under several feet of snow!

From 21.2 to 42.2 to 88 to Insanity?

I suspect that I’ve really done it this time. I’ve relinquished whatever shreds of my sanity I still possessed prior to today. I’ve signed myself up for my first ultramarathon. Sort of.

Hey, you know, while I’m on this streak of new running experiences (midnight runs, parkruns, fell races…), I thought, hell, why not try running 88km (or 54 miles) in one day and see what happens?

That’s what I’ll be doing on the 28th of June on the stunning Cateran Trail with two fellow crazy runners. It’s not a race as such (hence I say it’s only sort of an ultramarathon); instead, it’s a charity challenge for a very good cause.

Most people walk the trail, but we’re going to run it. Due to the walkers, it’s got a generous time limit of 24 hours to finish the course. I think it’ll be as gentle an introduction to ultra running as is possible (if such a thing is possible at all!).

Right now, I’m just stupidly excited about the prospects of this new adventure. However, I suspect that my brain is still a little too shell-shocked to fully comprehend what I’ve signed us up for. Until it catches on, I’m just going to enjoy the hype. The fear will come, and I’ve got no doubts that I’m in for some very dark moments that will see me reduced to a shivering, twitching mess of trail trash. Really, I can’t wait!

At the moment, I’m still training for a – hopefully – very fast half-marathon in Inverness in March, followed by a jolly doddle around Rome for the marathon there at the end of March. After that, it looks like I’ll transition into unchartered running territory, by venturing into the land of crazy mileage.

Maspie_waterfall(I’ll be doing lots of this in the spring!)*

But for now, there are other things I must do. For a start, I’ll add my physiotherapist to my Christmas card list and save his number on speed dial. I have a hunch that we’ll become great friends over the next couple of months!

*I realise that this picture might give the misleading impression that I’m planning on standing around a lot under a waterfall in preparation for running an ultramarathon. Although it sounds like good fun too, I don’t think that this would adequately prepare me for running 55 miles. It just so happens that I’m not running (yet) in this picture, as I was walking my most awesome and most loyal friend, the lovely Myra. She’s 14 years old and sadly can’t join me on my runs anymore. I often take her for a little walk before I run, so she gets her exercise and doesn’t feel left out. Note to self: try to get a decent picture of trail running self, so people don’t think that all I do is stand around on the trails!

The Devil and The Craven

Today I passed another milestone in my journey of new running experiences: I took part in my inaugural mountain/fell race. I should have guessed from the name of the race, “Devil’s Burden”, that I’d be in for a heated experience; but little did I know that I was about to take part in one of the biggest mountain races in Scotland. Despite infernal weather, a record 111 relay teams lined up on the start line on this not-so-fine morning, meaning that there were a grand total of 666 bedevilled runners blazing around the Lomond Hills. Really, I couldn’t make this up. I have therefore come to the conclusion that I must have been temporarily possessed when I readily agreed to join them.

The reality is that I run in these mountains a lot and am familiar with the terrain and routes. However, the reality is also that apart from a number of trail races, I tend to only seriously race on the roads. I therefore had no idea how I would fare when unleashed amongst the human equivalent of a herd of mountain goats.

My task was simple: start on the very muddy banks of a reservoir and run in a more or less straight line to the next village. Oh, and there’s also a 1500 foot hill in the way.

I was positively surprised by not embarrassing myself completely with my ability to tackle the mud, surefootedness and speedy uphill climbing. Unlike some other runners, I never once fell over or got caught in barbed wire fences. Hey, for the first 5 kilometres or so I actually deluded myself into thinking that I could pass for a fell runner. Before I knew it, I found myself standing amongst the howling winds at the top of the world (or summit of East Lomond), with only the 450m descend into the abyss separating me from the finish line. There were no paths – just a steep, slippery slope consisting of bog and heather with some pointy rocks thrown in for good measure.

That’s when… well… I’m still trying to come to terms with that happened next. I caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of my eye, blazing past me – a trick of the light? An infernal apparition? No, wait… a runner! It made sense, but wh… how? Then more came flying past me, sometimes in groups of two. They weren’t just passing me; they were disappearing beyond the horizon. On a hill. Going down. How’s that even possible? Witnessing the infernal downhill speed of fellrunners was a sight to behold and one that left me utterly dumbfounded.

downhill running(This is what was happening in my head.)

Great. My already slow descend was further stalled by the fact that my mind was now preoccupied with trying to make sense of the madness that surrounded me and no longer paying attention to where my feet were going. Was I really not as fit as I thought? – Always a possibility. Were my shoes not up for the job? – Maybe a contributing factor, as I was wearing trail, not fell shoes. Did all of these runners have no regard for personal safety? Or an active deathwish? – Perhaps, although it would be one hell of a feat to just happen to run into 665 suicidal individuals on a mountain top in Scotland. Then, the truth dawned on me… The real reason why they were hares going down the mountain and I was a tortoise (and in the real world tortoises don’t win races against hares), is that this tortoise is also a phenomenally gigantic whimp.

That’s right – the truth is that they were all much braver than me. I was haunted by visions of falling flat on my face and slithering down the hill with only my teeth digging into the mud to slow my momentum. Meanwhile, the other runners were heading for the finish line, evidently not bothered by what their brains – or quads – had to say about the matter.

I made my way downhill as fast as I could, which wasn’t fast at all given that it was all I could do to resist nervously chewing on my fingernails or curling up in the foetal position. And as I was descending, looking supremely comfortable, graceful and sublimely in my element (*cough*), who should I run into but the official race photographer? (Don’t even bother asking… the answer is NO!).

Another fantastic new experience, another lesson learned, another thing to add to my ever-growing to-do list!

I loved everything about the day and the race. The mountain runners are wonderfully friendly people and wicked athletes. I, on the other hand, have learned a lot about myself as a runner, including that I am a first class pansie. My next mission: wrestle the heart from a lion and then run as though my life depended on it (away from the angry beast) and down the steepest of hills.

Finally, I’d like to take this opportunity to say a huge “thank you” to the other members of my relay team for giving me a chance to run with them. It was a truely fantastic experience and one which I most certainly hope I’ll get to repeat in the future – only faster! I tip my hat to you crazy downhill runners!

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Vive le Parkrun!

On this fine Saturday morning I finally managed to drag myself out of bed early enough to line up – albeit still half asleep – at the start of my local Parkrun.

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For those of you who don’t know (it started out as a UK thing), parkruns are free, timed 5km fun runs that are held every Saturday morning in parks all over the country and beyond. It’s such a great idea that it’s catching on quickly, and there are now parkrun events popping up in other European countries as well as across the great pond.

I’m ashamed to say that I’ve been inexcusably late in jumping on the parkrun wagon. I’ve been meaning to take part for ages and I kept hearing great things about the wonderful organisation, relaxed and inclusive atmosphere and soaring fun-factor of these events. I first registered on the website and printed out my barcode more months ago than I care to admit (the barcode is all you need to get individually timed). All that I had to do now was to show up at an event and run.

But week after wintry week, my best intentions were defeated by the siren call of my warm bed, which beckoned me to stay just a little longer. “I’ll just go next week,” I kept telling myself again and again and… well, you get the idea.

So what is this ungodly start time for which I repeatedly failed to disengage myself from my bed? It’s 9:30am… Before you point and laugh at my unquestionable pansieness, please remember that I live a country life, meaning that I have a dog to walk and a horse to take care off before I even think about my own breakfast. Also, when I say “my local parkrun”, I mean that I can get there by driving only 30 minutes. (Now you can point and laugh, it’s ok…).

Another factor which might have dampened my motivation somewhat – and I hate to admit this – is the fact that I have never liked racing the 5km distance. Some people seem to think that just because I can run for hours and hours on end, a mere 5km should be the running equivalent of a piece of cake for me, right? Wrong; very, very wrong (although I love the running and cake idea)! Running for hours merely shows that I possess some means of dealing with fatigue (and possibly a pathologically stubborn character). Racing 5km, on the other hand, requires staying in a physically uncomfortable state for a shorter period of time, but the truth is that while battling cramps and stitches and gasping for breath, every step feels like an eternity. So having established that I am a comfort-loving-pansie, do you really think that the girl who can’t get out of bed in the morning is any good at convincing herself to stay in a zone of “controlled discomfort” for any length of time? I don’t think so either.

And because this particular pansie is also exceptionally good at avoidant coping, the last time I actually subjected myself to a 5km race is ages ago. Think years. Maybe even a decade.

What tipped me over the edge – or rather, out of bed this morning – was my speedy running goal for 2014. After all, what is a 5km race for an endurance runner, if not an excellent tempo run? What is more, with over 100 witnesses to the deed, it’s one which even I would be highly unlikely to whimp out of. Even the distance has been measured for me – win!

So there I was this morning, just happy to have made it for once. I even arrived with a few minutes to spare, which I used for a little warm-up run around the very pretty park and a manic attempt to figure out the course. Any nerves, however, were soothed by the very friendly and totally laid-back atmosphere of the event. All you really have to do is to make it to the startline at 9:30 am, wait for the gun and run your socks off! Once over the finish line you get a position chip, which gets scanned together with that barcode you printed off months ago. That’s it! Go home, eat an almond butter sandwich, drink a celebratory hot chocolate and check the website for the results.

This morning’s run made me appreciate one of the awesome aspects of this distance: it really is for everyone. There were some serious club runners who left me choking on their dust after a mere 50 yards. There were veteran runners who use the event to stay sharp. There were those like me, who see the run as a speed workout. There were also families running together and runners who took their dogs for a spin around the park. There were those who aimed to simply complete the distance. All in all, there were over 100 runners from all walks of life, all enjoying the timed 5km run together, but for their own personal reasons.

As for little old me, I complete the course in 23 minutes and 20 seconds. I was the fourth female finisher and second for my age group. I’m absolutely delighted with that, especially since I was mostly just trying to a) stay awake and b) not get lost. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve never been so chuffed to place a tick against the tempo run in my training diary.

I strongly suspect that it will no longer be a rare sight to see me rolling out of my beloved bed and straight into my running shoes at stupid o’clock on Saturday mornings. After all, there will always be tempo runs to be run.  And who knows, could it be that my next 5km PB is lurking in my local park?

I’d encourage every runner to find their local parkrun and to just give it a shot. It’s free, it’s easy, it’s fun, it’s relaxed, and you can bring your better half/friend/dog/toddler/goat/ironing board – in short: it really is for everyone.

Redefining Speed

“I don’t have to run faster than the psychotic-maniac-vampire-cannibal, I just have to run faster than whoever is with me when the psychotic-maniac-vampire-cannibal starts chasing us.”

– Jim Benton

2013 has been a great year of running for me. I’ve loved every moment I’ve spent in my running shoes and have discovered many new things about me, as well as the world around me. Above all else, I want to keep that passion alive. I want to still be running when I’m 70 years old and I still love every second of it.

But as it is, I’m not 70 yet and I know there’s more speed in my legs than I have been able to squeeze out of them so far. You see, the distance part of distance running has always come easy to me – I love my weekly long runs more than any other workout and can happily spend several hours out on the trails. However, when my training plan calls for a “5km Tempo Run” or “10 x 1 minute strides, 1 minute off”, or even just a “8km Fartlek run”, all my best intentions fly out the front door with me. The honest truth is that I usually end up figuring out how many kilometres I’m supposed to cover in that particular workout and then I go and do that distance a little faster than normal. In my world, this has so far sufficed to place a tick against any speed workout in my running journal.

And to be fair, my training strategy of endless hilly trail running combined with my narcoleptic approach to speed workouts has gotten me quite far in the past. Sometimes, I even got there reasonably fast!

Having owned up to the fact that speedwork is the Achilles heel of my training, it’s only logical that 2014 shall be the year in which I focus on speed. I’m not necessarily saying that I want to run much faster (although that would be nice too, thank you very much!). Instead, I simply want to focus on getting my speedwork and training paces right (and then see what happens).

I’m a big fan of the McMillan running calculator and the personalised training plans. Given that they provide me with the exact paces at which I should be running each workout, I’m all out of excuses really. I shall make a conscious effort to become more disciplined about my training paces and training intervals while preparing for my next target race (the Inverness Half Marathon). There, I’ve said it.

Besides, if everything else fails, all of this can go down as a cleverly disguised excuse to indulge in some retail therapy. After all, wannabe speedsters need at least one pair for racing flats, right?

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Forward Momentum

I’ve read somewhere that the body needs at least half a day of recovery per mile run in a race, which would imply that it takes less than two weeks to physically recover from a marathon – which strikes me as a rather simplistic and optimistic estimate! Personally, it makes much more sense to me to to simply accept that recovery needs as long as it takes…

It’s been sixteen days since I ran my first (almost) marathon, and I have enjoyed the recovery almost more than the training itself. I’ve been out running wild and free on most days, with no regard for speed, pace, distance or elevation covered. It’s been a wonderful time to indulge in zen running at its finest.

Today, however, I felt a shift in the gears. For the first time, there was some genuine power in my legs and I felt like running fast. This was the first easy run since the marathon during which my pace had naturally, unnoticeably and comfortably dropped back to well below the 9-minute mile mark.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that today I also suddenly felt the urge to start training again and thought seriously about racing. When I got home, I scanned the horizon for my next potential target race. I’ve identified two serious contenders: I could revisit my favourite race distance and shoot for a new half-marathon PB at the Inverness Half Marathon, or aim for redemption by tackling the Rome Marathon – both of which are in March.

“In a moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”

–          Theodore Roosevelt

In that spirit, I’ll sleep on it tonight, brew over some training plans and triangulate them with my diary tomorrow and make a decision by the end of the week. I can’t help by marvel at how natural all this has been and that both my body and mind found the perfect time to make it known that recovery is over. It’s time to get serious about running again…

Decisions,_decisions

Trailtroopers Tinsel Dash

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Mud, mud, elf, hill, ice, mud, river, log, rope, slide, mud, bog, elf, hill, waterfall, mud, net, Santa, chocolate! That’s the gist of the 10km Christmas-themed adventure “race” I ran this morning.

In the frosty mist I lined up for my first ever adventure race: the Trailtroopers Tinsel Dash at Finlaystone Country Estate. I was a little apprehensive about the prospect of jumping into icy water (repeatedly) on such a frosty day, not to mention the fact that I had no idea how my upper body strength would measure up against the many obstacles. My event-specific preparation consisted of one phone call to a friend who has run Tough Mudder. His advice: just accept that you’ll get very, very dirty.

With nothing else to go by, I heeded his advice and just threw myself into the adventure; mud, icy rivers, bogs and all. The run itself was wicked fun; a challenging dash across wonderfully wild terrain and countless fun and creative obstacles that were designed to get you alternately very, very muddy and/or very, very wet.

Rewards for completion include the cutest medal I have ever earned, a t-shirt I might actually wear outside of the house (and no, I don’t mean while painting the garden fence) and – wait for it – a Christmas-themed chocolate box, handed out by Santa himself. Christmas spirit officially obtained (I’m easily bribed).

All in all, I had a fantastic time and am chuffed to bits with my run. I fearlessly threw myself at, over, under or into every single obstacle and conquered them all. I also got completely soaked and exceptionally muddy and have acquired several bruises to show for my efforts. Personal highlights include slipping and faceplanting in the middle of an icy river and tackling the last two obstacles with my race number clenched between my teeth, as it had come off while crawling through the mud and the obstacles demanded action from both hands.

The whole event was very well organised; a challenging run in a fun winter-wonderland against the backdrop of a tongue-in-cheek Christmas theme.

However, one slight downside is that that the “race” nature of this run had to be treated with a bucket of tinsel. Although the run was timed, all obstacles are essentially voluntary. Some obstacles were clearly marked as bonus obstacles (e.g. wading up the icy river), at other obstacles the elvish marshals asked each runner whether or not they wanted to give it a shot (e.g. when carrying heavy items), and many obstacles were hidden out in the woods with no way of knowing which competitor actually completed them. However, in all cases, whether or not the obstacle was tackled by a competitor was in no way recorded or considered in the finishing times.

While I can understand the merits of giving competitors the option of skipping obstacles they are not comfortable with, this “free for all” nature of the event meant that finish times and especially the positions of individual competitors were not particularly meaningful. Still, the organisers gave prices for the top three finishers, even though it was clear that these individuals had simply skipped some of the harder and more time consuming obstacles.

But not to worry, it was still a wild, wicked and wonderfully wintry adventure. Besides, Santa will no doubt know that this little runner was a very good girl this year and has completed every single obstacle!

We Learn From Failure, Not From Success.

“I am glad that I paid so little attention to good advice; had I abided by it, I might have been saved from some of my most valuable mistakes.”

–  Edna St. Vincent Millay

Prior to running the Athens Classical Marathon, I had contemplated a plethora of possible race scenarios: great run, good run, fun run, slow run, tough run, seemingly endless run, painful run… The one thing that wasn’t on my list of conceivable outcomes was the dreaded DNF. This post is not really intended as a moan about the first race I’ve not completed (ok, maybe a little); it’s mostly about accepting that stuff (and other things beginning with s) happens.

I’m happy to make a mistake. Heck, sometimes I go and make the same mistake three or four times, just to make sure that it’s definitely a mistake. However, now that I have learned that making a mistake in a marathon results in a long, long journey of inconceivable misery, which slowly descends towards a final destination in the depths of deepest despair, I have decided that there are some mistakes I’d rather not repeat.*

So what went wrong?

First and foremost, I simply wasn’t prepared for the heat on the day of the race. And to be fair, nobody was prepared for that, as average temperatures in Athens are around 14 degrees in November. On the day of the marathon, it was officially 26 degrees, but my watch clocked a scorching 31 degrees around lunchtime. To say that I didn’t train in these conditions is an understatement – living in Scotland, I never had a chance to do so.

Still, on the day of the race I did everything as I had practised during my long runs – which meant that after a mere 12 kilometres I was experiencing the first signs of dehydration.

At this point, my lack of experience with the distance and conditions meant that I never realised what was happening to me and therefore failed to do anything useful to remedy the situation. If I had slowed down significantly at this point in the race and re-fuelled properly, I believe that I might have drastically changed the nature of my subsequent run.

Instead, I just decided to do what every darn motivational message about marathons tells you to do; I kept going when things got tough. As it turned out, this was the single worst thing I could have done. (Oh, hindsight!) I’ve learned an important lesson about marathons (and life in general) and that is that there is only one rule when it comes to holes: when you are in one, don’t keep digging.

Ultimately, my marathon debut ended after 40 kilometres as a result of a rookie hydration and nutrition mistake, coupled with my complete lack of experience of how to deal with these issues.

However, it would be unfair to write the whole event off as a failure.

Head in Hands

Despite not crossing the finish line, it wasn’t all bad:

I ran 40 km in one go, which is further than I have ever run before. Okay, so it was two kilometres short of the finish line.  On a training run, that little shortfall wouldn’t even bother me. I still ran from Marathon to Athens, and the modern route is longer than that which Pheidippides ran all those years ago. Unlike the Greek hero, I survived the experience (barely). Hey, I even got further than Paula Radcliffe did on the same route in 2004.

Secondly, I absolutely loved the training. Not for a second did I think that it was all for nothing – nothing that happened on the day of the race can diminish the 1000 wonderful kilometres I have run in preparation for the race. I also believe that my training itself was good – my legs felt great on the day and my recovery was swift.

On the day, I handled the tricky start of the race quite well, in that my pacing was steady and appropriate. I have some fantastic memories of locals handing olive branches to the runners around the tomb of Marathon and even brought one home with me. I loved seeing hundreds of children standing by the side of the road, watching the runners fly by with big, admiring eyes and outstretched hands waiting for a high-five. I was happy to oblige, as often as I could.

I actually ran a pretty good and well-paced first half of the marathon. I should add that I’m reasonably familiar with racing the half-marathon distance. Although I have never before run into trouble as early as 12km in a race before, I somehow can’t help but think that I subconsciously went into some half-marathon survival mode which I didn’t even know I possess, but which could nevertheless come in very handy in future races.

Finally, I’m genuinely glad that I stopped when I did. Pulling out of the race was not easy, but it has taught me a lot about myself as a person and as a runner. Some runners drop out of races the moment their goal time becomes unattainable while others don’t drop out until they literally collapse. I was physically unwell when I stopped; shaking and weakened by severe cramps. Clearly, I’m not a runner who will run myself to oblivion for the sake of a medal. I’m cool with that. I am grateful for the moment of clarity I had during the darkest moments of the race: I run for fun, because I enjoy it and because it’s good for me. Ok, so I won’t be an Olympic runner any time soon. I’m glad I’ve cleared that up for myself.

And now the rant – I’m sorry. (I’m not sorry.)

Sometimes, dropping out of a race is the right thing to do. There, I said it. I know it directly defies the countless pictures, articles, motivational slogans, mugs, t-shirts, and whatnots which suggest that running is painful but that true runners are so awesome they rise above the pain and keep going anyways. I’ve learned that this can be a dangerous message. Running on tired legs and fighting fatigue is one thing every runner needs to face at some point. However, this should not be confused with running through an injury or genuine physical distress, which is just silly, self-destructive and dangerous.

I’m not trying to justify my own actions; I maintain that I am glad that I dropped out of my first marathon. Sure, a DNF is a nasty blow to the system (not to mention ego), but I’d take it any day over a medal presented in conjunction with an IV drip in the back of an ambulance on route to the nearest A&E.

Because I dropped out, I was able to run again in the days that followed the race. It also meant that despite everything, my first marathon has been a positive experience for me, and one which has taught me so much!

forward

*Naturally, I’m already planning my next marathon.

Pheidippides Died

I am sad to say that my marathon debut ended at the 40km marker of the Athens Classical Marathon. It’s the first time I’ve ever tried to run a marathon and also the first time I have ever dropped out of a race. I’m still trying to get my head around it all.

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Naturally I didn’t quite know what to expect from a marathon. My training had gone really well, as had my taper. I had brought most of my usual food with me to Athens to make sure that in the days before the race I’d really only eat things that I knew would work well for me.

On the morning of the race, I felt really good. I was calm and just looking forward to the experience. The start was quick and amazing. There was a minute of silence for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings, after which someone roared:  “Nobody can stop us!” I know it sounds cheesy, but it was such a primal roar, it actually brought tears in my eyes. I was certainly ready to go.

The start of the race was really smooth for me. I ran swift-ish but really comfortable and was at the tomb at Marathon bay (about 5km into the race) before I knew it. At 10km I was still gliding through the sunshine (it was 26 degrees Celsius and no cloud in sight), and clocked a 10km split of 51 minutes, which I was very happy with.

At 12km I got the first cramps in my digestive system. This sometimes happens to me during runs, but up until yesterday, this has always been solved by a trip to the port-a-loo. But not this time. I visited the loo (cursing the time that this lost me), but to no avail – the craps not only stayed, but got worse. I used breathing techniques that sometimes help and ran on up the hill. The devastating problem was that I couldn’t drink anything with the cramps, and even trough I was still running strong at this point, I knew then that I was in trouble.

Kilometers 16-18 are the only genuine downhill section of the course before 31km (the rest really is mostly uphill). I cruised down this hill still feeling really strong, foolishly thinking that I had turned this around. In hindsight, this might have been the start of the fuzzy thinking, because how I could have thought that I was turning this around without being able to eat or drink a thing is beyond me.

My half-marathon split was 1:51, which again I was happy with. It might sound like a big deterioration from my 10km time, but given that the course goes uphill from 9-16km and I had a loo stop, I was still happy with this time.

At the 22.5km aid station I forced myself to sip some water, knowing that this was a bit of a do-or-die moment. My whole digestive system was staging a dirty riot. The cramps weren’t just in my stomach, my entire mid-section was turning solid. I walked through the aid station, which I absolutely hated – my main goal for the marathon had been to run the whole way. Secretly, if things were going really well, I was going to aim for a sub 4 hour marathon.

Just out of the aid station I started to jog again and that was the beginning of the end for my marathon. I felt absolutely terrible. We were still climbing uphill and the cramps were so violent that I had trouble keeping my body upright. I remember glancing at the runners around me and thinking “Hey, most of these guys are struggling too.” Then a young man dashed across in front of me to get violently sick by the side of the road. I thought: “Look, at least I’m not THAT bad.” Unfortunately, this was immediately followed by: “Actually, I’m exactly that bad,” as I fled behind some bushes and hurled up the water I had just drank plus whatever else was in my stomach.

Stopping the race and admitting defeat would have sensible at that point, but it actually never even crossed my mind. In my head, I was still going to cross that finish line. Despite throwing up, I actually started to run again pretty soon afterwards, although I can’t say how fast this was (I’m assuming not very). Every time I ran, the cramps were getting so bad that I couldn’t keep it up. My plan at this point was to simply walk through the aid stations from now on, and run the 2.5km stretch between them. It’s obvious now that my thinking wasn’t super clear.

At the 25km aid station, I decided to try drinking something again. I’m not even going to try to justify this now, as at the time in my dehydrated head, it was just what I needed to make myself feel better. Still, when I found myself throwing up again (this time in the port-a-loo), I was mostly experiencing mild surprise and anger at the situation and frustration over further lost time. Yes, really, after throwing up twice my main thought was “I’m never going to finish this in under 4 hours now”…

I started to feel really faint in the cabin, but in my head this was nothing that a little fresh air wouldn’t fix, so I stumbled out and walked on. Then I ran again for a few hundred yards, until the cramps made it physically impossible to put one leg in front of the other at any speed, and I walked again. The infuriating thing is that my legs and lungs felt pretty good still.

In my head (for the last time, only people who have been on long rotten runs before can possibly understand that thought-processes move to a different dimension in these situations) I thought that if I make it to 31km, I’ll be over the last hill and can cruise downhill into Athens – much like I cruised down the hill from 16-18km.

So I ran/walked/jogged/walked/staggered on until cresting the last peak just after 31km. I don’t know why I was surprised that things were only going downhill from there in every possible sense.

I did get a little boost from the downhill section, but this didn’t last for more than a kilometre. At the 32km marker, I couldn’t run at all anymore. Five mere steps of jogging would send my body into such violent cramps that I was starting to worry about falling over. “Fine”, I thought, “I’ll just walk the damn thing”.

At 34km I couldn’t even walk anymore without the cramps taking over my whole system. I felt like fainting again and knew I had to sit down or some poor bugger would find my lying face down on the concrete. I staggered up to some medics and sat down next to them. They were asking if everything is alright and my answer was: “I just need to rest for a few minutes.” I actually did just that, got up and walked on… only to sit down again at the next medic camp after another kilometre or so (things are getting really hazy now). This medic promptly wrapped a tinfoil blanket around my shoulders and suggested that I should drop out. I remember asking him how far the finish line was in response, got up, and walked on…

At the next medic station there was a doctor, who firmly advised me to drop out. Apparently my pulse and blood pressure were doing funny things at this point. But then he was called off to an ambulance, so in a move that embodies bravery and lunacy in equal measures, I got up and kept walking. One of the medics came with me and what followed is one of the most bizarre memories I have of the event. We were walking through a tunnel, only he was walking backwards but in front of me, keeping a very close eye on me. I don’t know how much of that was actually real, but if it really did happen that way, it’s a good indication of how fast – or rather slow – I was staggering along at this point.

I passed some more medics and stubbornly ignored them, afraid they would not let me continue at all. That’s when the shaking started. The hair on my body just stood up and I was shivering so violently, it was all I could do to keep my legs pointing in the same direction. I knew I had to stop again…

Just past the 40km marker I actually recognised my surroundings. I knew exactly where in Athens I was. The stadium was genuinely just two turns away. Perhaps it was this sense of physical orientation that brought about some mental clarity. I spotted the medics again, staggered towards them on extremely unsteady legs and asked for a blanket. A really nice medic girl who spoke no English at all maneuvered me into a nice spot in the sun and wrapped a foil blanket around me. I remember her having her arms around me to steady me.

I remember looking at the road and runners tumbling past me and evaluating what it would take to join them again.

So I asked myself:

“Julia, why do you run?”

I run because I love it, it’s fun and it makes me feel good.

“And are you loving this, is this fun, are you feeling good?”

No, not even remotely. This is miserable. I wouldn’t even be proud to go on now, there’s a good chance I will genuinely physically collapse if I go on. This is all wrong.

Pulling out was still really hard. I sat down on the sidewalk, less than 2km from the historic Panathinaiko stadium and finish line and cried, due to the disappointment and anger at not finishing and also the relief that it was over.

Everything after that is really hazy. I think we got a taxi home. I felt absolutely abysmal for the rest of the day, couldn’t eat and struggled to get any fluids into me. I think I remember seeing Spongebob Squarepants on TV, but that might well have been another feverish dream…

Today I’m still feeling shattered and feverish, although my legs feel great despite almost running a marathon yesterday.

Of course I’m disappointed to not have finished the race, but I don’t regret dropping out. I know there will always be some who will equate a DNF with weakness. This is not what my runs are like. In training, I completed five great 20-mile runs and finished them tired but comfortable and happy. I’m happy to stick with runs when they get tough and battle it out. I’m even quite good at commanding my tired legs to keep going. Yesterday was an entirely different beast, and I think it’s right to terminate any run (even if it is THE big race) when it’s getting into unhealthy territory. In fact and in hindsight, I think I should have pulled out of the race much sooner, for instance at the point when I knew for certain that any fluid intake made me vomit. I’m not even proud to have battled on as long as I did. Although I find my stubborn idiocy mildly comical now, I equally know that I could easily have ended up in A&E attached to an IV drip. No medal is worth that.

Right now, I’m mostly trying to get my head around what went so wrong. I’m pretty sure the answer is that I was simply dehydrated, but I genuinely don’t know what I could have done differently. I did drink to begin with, but then the cramps prevented me from continuing to do so, which made me unable to drink, which made the situation even worse. I drank plenty of fluids on the days before and my usual 500ml of sports drink on the morning of the run (as I had done prior to all my long runs). I think the heat had something to do with it as well – 26 degrees isn’t that hot, but there was no cover or shade at all until the very last stages of the race. If I ever try a marathon again, I want to make damn sure that it won’t be such a miserable experience.

Finally, I’d like to say that despite it all, the event itself was amazing. The organization was incredibly smooth and the atmosphere was wonderful. Everyone was so helpful and the crowds were fantastic – on a good day, it could have been a wonderful run.