A stroke of bad luck! Then more! ! Then more!!!
To say I wasn’t looking forward to the London marathon was a bit of an understatement! I know I was lucky that a place came up with the English Federation of Disability sport (EFDS), which I really appreciate by the way, but things turned sour with my training from pretty much day one. I originally got my place around the end of October, and as if by magic that’s when my various problems started!
I seemed to go from a ‘could do anything’ sort of runner who never got ‘niggles’ or injuries, to a ‘whats the next injury going to be?’ type of runner. My wife, and a few others, often said that it was either really bad luck, or someone ‘up there’ didn’t want me to run this marathon. Perhaps it was a bit of both?!?!?
So, around early November time, a few days after I had got my charity place and five months before the marathon, I was in the very early states of marathon training. It was around this time when I developed a mysterious illness and became generally exhausted and run down – and I hadn’t even up’ed my training yet! arrgghh!!
To cut a long story short this lasted, with other complications, for the next six months with frustratingly no real diagnosis or explanation from the medical profession on what the root problem was. I seemed to finally shift the ‘illness’ (although the jury is still out as I’m still not totally 100% well) by using alternative, natural remedies as traditional methods (pills, lotions and potions from the doctor/chemist) didn’t seem to help at all.
All this obviously had a huge negative affect of my training, so then came strike two in the form of Iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS) in my right knee. This little nasty, which is the bane of many runners, raised its head around the same time as the illness, fatigue and other problems.
I’ve had ITBS before, in the other knee a few years ago, but managed to ‘fix it’ within a couple of weeks by focusing on stretching and changing my trainers (which were due for a change at the time anyway). But this time it was different! I started to notice the familiar ‘stinging’ sensation on the outside of my knee and a slight tightness in my hip, and knew from past experience exactly what the problem was and what to do. STOP RUNNING!
Now this is harder than you think when you’ve only got a couple of miles before you get home. But rules are rules and the best rule for the on set or treatment of an ITBS twinge is to STOP RUNNING IMMEDIATELY!!!!! So started more months of lack of running misery. Suffice it to say this also had an effect on training, involved a number of new pairs of trainers, a Physio, a swimming pool and a sports clinic (almost sounds like the start of a joke). I’ll talk about this more in a future post.
The third strike was shine splints. I’ve read about them and always though ‘ouch!’ they sound painful! But in my 5+ years of running I’ve never even had a twinge from the shine area, not until TWO WEEKS before the marathon day (remember what I said about someone up there not liking me?!)
And yes, although I don’t think it was the worst case of shine splints in the world, they bloody well do hurt! So off to the doctors it was again. After going from a person who maybe visited the doctor every five years or so, to one who was going very five weeks or so with illness, tiredness, etc, I honestly think he was getting sick of seeing me! The doc gave me some pills, which basically consisted of a higher strength (than over the counter drugs) painkiller and anti inflammatory combo – ironically with the side effect of drowsiness – great! Just what I need if I’m running a marathon and trying to train! – is that strike four?
Unsurprisingly by the time my ‘week before event chill out’ came I had done very little training and the training I had done had been erratic to say the least, mainly due to the desperation and worry about not doing adequate post event training (catch 22)! I managed to squeeze in a number of 10 milers (my normal, old, Sunday run distance that I used to enjoy prior to my troubles starting in November) but these were not built up to and perhaps the cause of the shin splints! Doing sudden bursts of distance, when you haven’t built up to it, is such a bad idea, and I should have known better and therefore paid the price!
As a runner it’s a funny (not) and extremely frustrating situation to be in, to be honest:
You want to run, to the degree that your climbing the walls – But you can’t run because the injuries you have require rest and recuperation – But you can’t rest because you have to train for an event! – Catch 22!
Of course one option would have been to pull out altogether, which under normal circumstances, I would have. I seriously considered pulling out a number of times as April grew gradually closer, but I felt a little guilty due to the charity donations I’d raise and I didn’t want to let anyone or the charity down.
I came to the conclusion that I’d just do what I could do. If I had to walk the end of the course due to lack of fitness or injury, then I would. If it took me ten hours then it would, but I was determined to finish, but to also limit any further injury or damage.
The Sunday before the marathon I started my ‘running event gear pile’ in the corner of the bedroom, dusted off the check lists and crossed my fingers!
Marathon day arrives
As the Marathon wasn’t until the Sunday we decided to travel down on the preceding Friday morning and head for home on the
Monday afternoon. This gave my family and myself a few days to do the London tourist thing. Ideally I probably should have rested my throbbing shin, but I actually found that it was worse if I sat around, so walking around London visiting the sites actually helped and took my mind off things.
We arrived in London around midday on the Friday. I left the family to book into the hotel and I headed for the ExCeL in London’s Docklands to register. This also gave me the opportunity to get used to the DLR and get my bearings for Sunday.
Sunday morning – Marathon day – soon came. I’d had an early night (actually this was my fifth early night in a row) and, as I’ve learnt from the events I’ve done in the past, I made sure I had everything ready well before bed time. This is a good tip, you don’t want to be messing around with your running number and safety pins or trying to fasten your tracking chip to your trainers the morning of the race. Get everything ready so you literally can get up, get Vaselined, get dressed into your running gear, fuel and go. This came home to me when I saw a guy, 15 minutes before the race, in a panic because he didn’t have any safety pins to fasten his number to his shirt and everyone he asked didn’t have any spares. Whats the motto? Be prepared?!
Down at breakfast I was surprised to see how many runners there were. We were all there well before the normal guests and had the same idea of getting our pre event fuel. Most of them were easy to spot from their Virgin 2012 London marathon red kit bags and general running attire. I wished a few good luck as I was served my porridge and downed toast with jam and juice. Within 20 minutes I was walking through London on my way to the tube station, feeling a little silly wearing my running kit whilst walking. It wasn’t the warmest of days so I had an old disposable fleece on the keep me warm.
One of the many advantages of the London marathon is the free public transport for runners on marathon day. I had a few pounds in my running belt in case of foul ups (there’s that always be prepared again!), but was relieved when I entered the tube station, making sure my running number was visible, and the station master waved me through the turn styles. As I drew closer to the start, at Greenwich, the occupiers of the tube changed from your general mix of commuters to runners. By the time we reached the DLR at Canary Wharf station (a few stops before Greenwich) everyone was a runner. It was about this point when i noticed the atmosphere change. The excitement was growing, runners were sharing stories of past London marathons and other events they had taken part in, training woes (I know that one alright!), tips and exceptions.
Before I knew it we had left he DLR ‘train’ and were on the Greenwich platform shuffling along on foot, shoulder to shoulder, following the crowd all heading for Greenwich park, and the start line. I checked my watch and I had a good 45 minutes before the start which took a little pressure off. I don’t know if it just me, but I like to reach the start in plenty of time, but not have to wait around too long if I over-estimate the travel time. Navigating London in my running kit wasn’t my idea of a good time and I didn’t want to be in the situation where I’d be late and panicked.
Once I found my starting position at ‘Zone 3′ dumped the fleece in a nearby skip got myself ready and started my warm up. Before I knew it was time. The atmosphere was pretty electric by this time with everyone chopping at the bit and ready to go.
The count down completed, Runkeeper was started, and we were off. As I was in zone 3 I was pretty near the front, but as we rounded the corner, out of Greenwich park, I could see people running as far as the eye could see. A couple of miles down the road I was feeling good, not like the Great north run where I felt bloated and didn’t enjoy the first 6 miles, this was different. It appeared that this time I hadn’t over done the fueling. Relief!
Six miles in, I was still feeling ok. The shin and knee were fine and I still felt pretty fresh. I was making sure I was taking on the correct amount of water, from the water stations along the course, and also refueling regularly, things were looking good! The crowds were cheering away and I was quietly impressed at how many people had turned out to cheer the runners on. As it turned out this high valued support remained for pretty much the whole length of the course.
As I went through the 10 mile marker I was feeling a bit less energetic. The shine and knee were still fine, but I was feeling pretty drained. I comforted myself that this was probably pretty normal considering I had just run over 10 miles, especially considering the past months problems.
However, by the time I hit mile 12 I was starting to struggle quite badly. I could see London’s Tower Bridge as we rounded a corner and at that moment I thought ‘I can’t finish this! There is no way I can run another 13 miles’. Then it hit me that something was definitely not right as I’ve run the Keswick to Barrow (K to B) three times (42 miles) a number of times, and although I recognised this feeling, where your body says ‘NO!’, but your mind says ‘YES!’ I’d normally have gone a LOT further than this before I felt it on the K to B. What was wrong? ‘Obviously the lack of training, it must be!’ I told myself under my breath, mentally kicking myself. ‘..and the drugs I am on, I shouldn’t have taken any today!’ ‘It can’t be fuelling or dehydration as I’ve been keeping myself topped up along the course!’. As Tower bridge fell behind I promise myself that I’d switch to fartlets (running and walking) for the next half a mile after mile 13, to try and give myself time to perk up a bit. I started to pass other people walking, which made me feel I wasn’t on my own. It was turning into a matter of survival to complete the course and was soon becoming un-enjoyable!
By the time I hit 20 miles things hadn’t improved at all in fact they were worse. The transition from running to walking hurt. The transition from walking to running hurt. It hurt to run, it hurt to walk, but there was no way I was going to stop! My knee twinge had also put in, a half expected, appearance and had been aching a bit, but dulled after a while.
As I passed the 23 mile marker, something changed. I began to realise that I could actually finish this thing and that had a dramatic change on my performance. For the last 3 miles I managed to run, it was hard, but I managed it. At 25 miles I passed my charity supporters and saw some friends, which gave me another huge mental boost. By this time I could see Big Ben and knew the finish was literally around a couple of corners. With gritted teeth I plowed on. I was on Birdcage walk and less than a mile to the end. Through the cheering crowd I heard ‘Dad!’. I turned round to see my son and daughter waving at me and cheering me along. That was an awesome feeling and one I’ll never forget! For those of you that have run a long distant event before you’ll know that it can be VERY emotional, especially towards the end. In fact a colleague of mine who was also doing the same marathon later said that he’d experienced every possible emotion during the 26.2 miles and he is so right! As soon as I saw my children cheering me on I had a hard time from burst into tears. Luckily the draw of my attention to the side of the road caused me to trip on a sleeping policemen (speed bump, not a really person) which sent my already screaming muscles into a fit of pain, the side effect of which was to refocus me on the event at hand and drive on!
One thing you hear about when trying to recover from any running injury is that you have to make sure to adopt the correct running posture to maximize efficiency and minimize stress on your body. Back straight, head up, arms at 90′ and swinging by your side ‘like they’re on rails’. But you also have to watch out that you don’t get too fatigued, which causes you to let your guard down, droop, and loose this efficient posture for a more ‘sloppy’ one, which in turn aggravates the injury further, or causes new ones. The proof of this philosophy is demonstrated perfectly in the photo (to the right) of me in the last mile. OK, I had run 25 miles at this point so I’m sure you can let me off a little But when i saw this photo I was suppressed. I didn’t release how bad my running posture had become due to tiredness. It’s a lesson worth noting.
After what seemed like an age, but was more like a couple of minutes, I saw the finish line and the clock. Now this final leg of the event
can give you a further boost. Yes you’re beat! Yes you can hardly stand, let alone run! But when you see that clock counting up the seconds you think ‘I can claw back a bit of time here! Even if it’s a second or two!’. Weather or not I did actually speed up I’ll never know, but when you actually cross that line its an amazing feeling. All the hard work and pain is over, FINALLY! I thought I would give in 13 miles ago, but I made it and that feeling, that achievement, makes the whole thing worth while.
I’d completed the marathon in 4 hours, 9 minutes and 24 seconds. Initially I was a little disappointed with this time. I was aiming for less than 4 hours and I’ve always been my own worst critic. But looking back I was probably expecting too much, considering I hadn’t been able to train as much as I wanted to. Thats the life or a runner I’m afraid. Even the professionals who run for a living have injury set backs and have to pull out of events or fail to achieve there target.
In 2009 Paul Ratcliffe successfully completed the New York city half marathon following a break following an operation. She then flew to Germany the day to compete in a marathon. Unfortunately Paula pulled out of the marathon due to ‘not being ready‘. Its a hard call, but one you sometimes have to take so you can continue to run, and enjoy the sport, in the future.
When I met up with the family my wife jokingly asked me if I’d do it again. I said ‘NO I bloody wouldn’t!’. As soon as I said this I knew that come the following day the answer would have changed. And sure enough, I’ve already entered the ballot for the 2013 London Marathon next year. Hopefully, this time if my health continues to stay stable and improve and I prevent further injury I’ll be able to do a better time. For now I’m taking a month off running, cycling and walking. Why a month? It seemed like a nice round number, it’s also the amount of time my medication lasts, so I figured why not. I must admit I’m climbing the walls a bit, but at least my shins have stopped hurting this week and my knee feels better than it has in months. As I write this I’ve got less than 2 weeks left before the running trainers go back on and when they do I’m going back to doing baby steps for while and work up my mileage slowly. The worst thing I could do now is to try and do a few 10 milers and injury myself again and put myself back to square one! I reluctantly pulled out of the Keswick to Barrow, which is a few weeks after the London marathon, as I think a 42 mile run wouldn’t be a good idea at the moment for me.
So why so hard?
As I had the tracking chip removed from my trainer, at the end of the marathon, and I collected my finishers medal, it came home to me how instantly better i felt – pressure gone i suppose (?). I slowly made my way to Horse Guards parade to meet up with the family and as I walked I came to the conclusion that I found the experience I’d just been through much worse than the K to B. Which sounds daft because the K to B is much, much further than a marathon and you have serious hills to deal with, whereas the London marathon is known for being a very flat course. So why did I find it harder? I’ve thought about it a lot over the proceeding weeks and I can only conclude the following two reasons 1) I definitely wasn’t at my best (injury induced lack of training, medication, etc) and 2) there where no hills.
No hills, should a flat course be easier? I noticed the same thing during the 2011 Great North run and also when I’m training on a flat route at home. If I don’t add any hills into my route I always find it harder. Now, I don’t know why this is exactly, if it’s a mind or a physical thing. My theory is that when you tackle a hill or hills your body has to work a lot harder. When you reach the top of the hill/s your body is now operating in a faster ‘mode’. This increased flow then helps you on the flat, and you find it easier. I may be totally wrong, but it seems to fit the facts, for me anyway.
Every event you do builds your experience and you learn something new. One positive point was that I was happy with my ‘fueling’. The last event I did, the BUPA Great North run, I started the event bloated which hampered me for the first half of the race. This time I started the London Marathon feeling great and I seemed to get the balance right.
As always I runkeeper’ed the event, which you can see in full here.
So there you have it! My first, and hopefully not last marathon.
Did I enjoy it? At the time no, but in retrospect yes Brilliant!!!
Would I do another marathon? God yes!
Would i recommend to someone else to do a marathon? Yes – but make sure you train correctly, sensibly, build up slowly (10% rule) and for long enough! Most marathon websites will give you plenty of tips on how to do this. Remember 26.2 miles is a long way to run – respect that fact.
Thanks for reading!
p.s. My charity JustGiving page will be open until July 2012. If you enjoyed this post, or any of the other posts on ScribsBlog, then please consider giving to my chosen charity, The English Federation of Disability Sport. You can see my JustGiving page for the 2012 London marathon here.