“Leave nothing behind”…..

When I wrote my last blog post I was in panic mode. Writing does help me process things and you’ll be pleased to hear that I did calm down a bit. This was further helped by a couple of positive runs (one in a blizzard) in the final 10 days preceding the London Landmarks Half Marathon where I had set myself the target of running it in under 3 hours. As always, though, not everything was straight forward and so using the benefit of my most recent experiences, I hearby give you the list of things to avoid in the lead up to a big race:

  • Whilst worrying about “overdoing it” and getting a last minute injury, decide to go to the triathlon club swimming session instead of going for a run. All good in theory as it’s excellent cross training with no pressure on the joints and they are all really lovely supportive people….but not if you accidentally smash your hand into another swimmer (who happened to be Merida – you can’t make it up can you?!) and injure yourself so much that you have to go and have your fingers x-rayed the next day. Thankfully it wasn’t broken, but in case you’re interested, google says that you can run a half marathon if you have a broken finger.
  • Add to your growing stress levels by agreeing to go along to a running club AGM to talk about your book and running stories 4 nights before the race. Sole Sisters in North Bristol are a wonderful and inspiring bunch of ladies (full of lovely normal runners) who were extremely welcoming and found my stories funny (I think), but I was so worried about not doing a good job for them on the night (as I take my running responsibilities very seriously) that I hadn’t really slept much the night before the talk which wasn’t brilliant preparation for a 13 mile race.
  • When you arrive in London for the race, check your hotel booking before you go. Don’t arrive at the hotel and roll your eyes when the receptionist fails to find your booking and then say, “don’t worry I’ll find my confirmation” only to then discover that you must have price checked the hotel but then never actually got around to booking the hotel after all. We were lucky they had a room and I was lucky that I couldn’t read my husband’s mind as he looked at me from across the hotel reception in growing disbelief as the scene unravelled before his eyes….
  • Fail to book a table in a restaurant for the all important pre-race dinner. This is especially important if you are staying in the vicinity of a 65000 seater stadium which has a rugby match on the same day and so you find yourself in direct competition with all 65000 spectators as you try and find somewhere to eat….needless to say that this was unsuccessful and so we ended up back at the hotel for a bit of a lack lustre pizza.

So with all these challenges behind me, I woke up in the day of the race feeling remarkably relaxed. Husband (who was also running in the race) and I enjoyed a leisurely porridge pot and cereal bar, prepared our race bags and left for the tube station. The tubes were running as they should and as we got closer and closer to Charing Cross tube station, we collected more and more runners. I genuinely felt good and I was excited. Dare I say that I felt ready even and was sure that all my troubles were behind me, although as my preceding week shows, this was probably reckless.

Husband and I enjoyed the opportunity of an unusually quiet Trafalgar Square to get some “Lion Selfies” and catch up with my friend “Gordon” who, I know professionally and had also signed up to the race following one of our drunken nights out in London a few months previously when we decided it would be a great idea… Merida arrived carrying a bottle of champagne in her race bag for our post-race celebrations. Hattie was already there as she had travelled in with her sister (also running the race) and we met up with her soon after. Husband and Gordon disappeared to start in the first wave and Hattie, Merida and I slowly followed being careful to do a proper warm up. I was focussed and precise as we went through the warmups that Curly Sue has drilled into us over the past few months and knowing that Hattie sometimes suffers from a tight calf, we paid particular attention to this part of the warm up. We also saw some lovely Sole Sisters as we were joining the start queue who waved enthusiastically at us to say hello – love those ladies.

And then we were off. Merida, in her gold shorts (the Kylies) was in charge of pacing and so we tried to be obedient and keep our pace down, but it was hard. It was a glorious day and perfect for running. Overcast, no kryptonite-like sun sapping my energy, not too hot, not too cold and no wind. This combined with a fairly flat course and my confidence about any hills we would encounter due to the hard hill training we’ve been working on with Curly Sue added to my excitement.

However, whilst I was feeling great and Merida was practically floating along like a Glinda from The Wizard of Oz in gold hot pants (as a sub 3 hour half marathon is a largely enjoyable experience for someone who usually completes one in 2 hours) then unfortunately, poor Hattie was feeling the opposite. Hattie was struggling to breathe and was unusually quiet. I put this down to nerves initially and also the fact that Hattie always hates the first 5k of any race and so I regret to admit that I did what I have always done. We fell into our routine of me ignoring the complaints and willing her to keep going as I was confident that once we hit 5-6k, she would be off like a train chugging confidently towards the finish line and then she would repay the favour by ignoring me as I start to complain at 14k onwards. But the usual strategy didn’t seem to be working as effectively as usual and Hattie asked to walk for a bit. With my mind anxiously, and selfishly I am embarrassed to concede, thinking of the sub 3 goal I had set myself, I urged her on promising a walk at 10k. Hattie continued but somewhere between kilometre 9 and 10 suddenly ran to the side of the road and clung onto a railing, swaying dangerously. Merida and I ran to her side and were horrified to discover that Hattie was a white as a sheet and her legs were buckling beneath her. She was urging us to leave her….which was never going to happen and so I made my internal peace with my sub 3 hour target and tried to help my friend offerfing her dextrose tablets and pouring some water into her. A couple of other runners also stopped to help and one offered to walk with Hattie as “she was planning to largely walk the race anyway”. I declined as Merida and I decided very quickly that we weren’t leaving Hattie at all and certainly not with anyone unless she was related to them. But then Hattie rallied a bit, probably as the sugar hit her system and she seemed a bit better. The relief was palpable. Walking was possible and then she was able to slowly jog, albeit unsteadily. Hattie then declared that she was feeling better but wasn’t going to finish the race and again urged us to leave her. I forcefully informed her that this wasn’t happening (forcefully…read…told her to shut up) and we kept moving forward not really knowing what would happen. At the 6 mile marker (10k) we saw Hattie’s parents and cousin. I have never been so relieved to see anyone in my entire life. The sight of her Mother spurred Hattie to a near sprint but her legs buckled beneath her once more as she reached her, very confused looking, Mum. I quickly explained what had happened and her Mum gave me that “Mum” look that stated clearly that she was now in charge of the situation and Merida and I could go. I didn’t know what to do, but she urged us on and so we left, feeling worried about our friend but also confident that she was now safe and ok.

As we ran off, I looked at Merida and was almost too scared to ask the question I desperately needed to know the answer to.  “Can we still do this in less than 3 hours?” to which the answer was a fairly unconvincing “I’m not sure, it’s going to be very close and we probably don’t have time for any walk breaks”. I said I would give it all I had and we would make a call at 10 miles (16k) as to whether it was still possible as we were not quite yet at the half way point. So, like Forest Gump, I just started running. I put my head down and ran. There was no trundling. There was “grit your teeth and run” running. My average running pace is usually between 7.50 to 8.30 minutes to run a kilometre and I always get slower as the distance increases. On Sunday, I ran kilometre 12 (over the halfway point) in 6 minutes and 32 seconds. This is my second fastest kilometre EVER and kilometres 12 to 14 were all ludicrously speedy. It hurt, but not as much as I had feared it would. We came to the turn point on the embankment which was also the 10 mile point and Merida decided that she wanted to get a selfie. I genuinely couldn’t believe it. A Selfie?!!! But I gamely smiled and enjoyed the breather as I’d not had even a 10 step walk break for the past 45-50 minutes. Now I realise that Merida probably did it on purpose to allow me to catch my breath as we had also made up enough time by this point that the sub 3 goal was back on the table as long as I kept going.

The final 3 miles were horrendous and yet amazing. Merida patted me on the shoulder and told me I was doing well, but conversation was impossible. I gritted my teeth and ran. I really doubted that I would be able to keep going without a walk break, but I was game to try.

The support from the crowds in a big race is so incredibly important over the final section of the route. Children were holding up their hands for high fives, offering jelly babies and cheering. Merida was high fiving for both of us as I just kept putting one foot in front of the other, trying to remember to raise my knees, pump my arms and relax my shoulders as per Coach Curly Sue’s instructions which kept going round in my head.

I grimaced and gurned my way along the final three miles of the race and the spectators could see I was in pain and so were calling out my name to encourage me, but one lady helped me more than she will ever know. She looked into my eyes and shouted “LEAVE NOTHING BEHIND. Do not cross that finish line knowing your could have given any more. Leave nothing behind”. I promised myself right then that I wouldn’t leave anything behind. I repeated this over and over in my head over the final section and when Merida and I finally crossed the finish line, not having walked AT ALL over the final 3 miles, even having sprinted to the finish line, overtaking runner after runner, I knew that I truly and honestly had left nothing behind. If I met that lady today I would hug her. I think she was a runner and knew exactly what I needed to hear.

LLHM Finish with Paula

Hattie did not retire from the race at mile 6 where we left her safely with her parents. She had a rest, some water and then CARRIED ON AND FINISHED.  I couldn’t believe it when I saw her Mum around mile 9 and she told me. Hattie – you are amazing. Finishing a race when you felt as poorly as you did is nothing short of astonishing. You are a hardcore, rockstar runner and I am so proud of you.

Husband was his usual brilliant running self, nailing the race in a sub 1 hour 50 minute time.  We’ve become a couple who now have to run 13 miles in the middle of any weekend that we go away for….which is not something I would have ever predicted and we’re already thinking about our next destination/race.

I managed to get my sub 3 hour and I’m proud as punch with my time of 2 hours, 56 minutes and 42 seconds which takes 5 minutes and some change off my Bristol Half time last September. I ran my socks off in a way that I never thought was possible. I would have never believed before Sunday that I could run that fast or run for that length of time and yet I did. It hurt, but it didn’t kill me. The pain was manageable and now, two days later, I find that I am wanting to see if I can do it again, on my own without someone pacing me – I think this is what they call a runner’s high, or perhaps just insanity! The mind is an extremely powerful muscle and on Sunday it was the most important muscle in my body. Curly Sue, Hattie, Husband, Merida, Hockey Sister and many others were all confident that I could achieve the target I set myself, but I was not. However, something flicked in my brain on Sunday. People have been telling me I am a runner for a while now, and I sort of know they are right. I mean, I run (a lot), I am a Run Angel meaning that I lead other ladies on runs (which I derive enormous pleasure from), I write a blog about running which was then made into a book about running, but finally I think I am there. On Sunday, when I ran in tears between mile 11 and 12, really, really wanting to walk, feeling that I needed to walk but didn’t, I finally proved it to myself. I am a Runner.

So in the words of Jed Bartlett (The West Wing)…what’s next? Well, I’m going to allow myself a week off because I am knackered….ecstatic but knackered. But unlike after the 10k last year, I don’t feel deflated and sad now it’s all over. I feel completely the opposite. I am so very, very happy and proud.  I’m going to drink a little wine (possibly a lot of wine) and eat some chocolate and enjoy Easter. Merida and I polished off a bottle of champagne after crossing the finish line on Sunday, sitting on a steps of a Whitehall building opposite Downing Street, looking a bit like Patsy and Edina in lycra.            Merida – thank you from the bottom of my heart. I am so very lucky to have you as a friend.

Next week will start triathlon training and then in May my old nemesis, the Bristol 10k approaches, where this year there will be an official 75 minute pacer, which I mention for no particular reason at all…..so plenty to keep me occupied in the coming weeks.

But first….a short rest.

Happy Easter.

Finished with medals LLHM