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