I’m going to run the London Marathon

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A lot of this post is going to be a middle-aged man writing about his recently discovered enjoyment of a particular form of exercise, which you’ve probably seen before, so here’s the conclusion: on Sunday 28th April 2019, I’m going to be running the London Marathon, to raise money for the Brain Research Trust. Please give generously to support the work they do. I’m supporting them in memory of my brother Simon, who died from a brain tumour, who I wrote about in the introduction to my John O’Groats to Land’s End posts.

If you’d told me a couple of years ago that I’d be in training for running a marathon I’d probably have laughed at you because running was something I just didn’t do. I’d walk, I’d cycle, I’d sporadically go to the gym, and I was sure that was enough to keep me fit. Runners were just people I’d occasionally see while out and about, people who looked much fitter than me doing something I’d barely tried since I was in school. And like most sports at school, running was something I wasn’t very good at with my memories of it mainly consisting of lumbering around a sports field or a ridiculously muddy cross-country route while a teacher shouted at me to go faster. Not how to go faster, just to go faster which was always a baffling instruction because they did they think I was deliberately going slow because I was enjoying it? If I had the ability in me to spur myself on faster, I’d have done it to get myself back inside as quickly as possible. Any time I tried running after that just brought back memories of that time and the thought that anyone watching would just be laughing at my slowly lumbering form as I dragged myself along.

Simon was a runner, and a lot fitter than me. I remember him running the Redditch half-marathon when he was about 18, then doing marathons (including Paris, where he lived, and New York, which he got to cover for his work at Eurosport) before he got ill. Even when he died, though, I didn’t think about doing one in his memory because of my aversion to running, so I ended up walking 1000 miles instead.

Then in January 2017, my friend Theresa encouraged me to come along to the 200th Colchester Castle Parkrun and I decided to go running just that once for the anniversary event. After all, it was only 5km, and surely I was fit enough to slowly jog that and then say after ‘oh yes, I’ve done a Parkrun’ and go back to my regular occasional exercise.

I was doubly wrong. Not only was 5km a lot longer than I thought (especially with hills) but I was so much more unfit than I thought I was. I barely managed a few hundred metres of jogging before I was out of breath and walking, and for me it was less of a run than it was a run-walk-run-walk-run-walk-walk-oh god does this hill never end-run-walk-I have to go up again?-walk-run-oh thank God I’ve finished. My legs were stiff for days after and it had taken me well over 40 minutes to get around. It should have been a hellish experience.

But here’s the thing. No one there shouted ‘go faster’ at me. No one treated me like I was useless because I was lumbering around rather than doing the whole thing in a sprint. No one laughed or pointed at the fat bloke trying to run. Instead, the marshals were cheering and encouraging me around, the people around the finish line clapped me in, and everyone at the finish while I was gasping for breath and getting my barcodes scanned were telling me ‘well done’. And, in a case of finding triumph wherever you can, I hadn’t finished last and was well ahead of the tail runner. It was a reminder that I wasn’t anywhere near as fit as I thought I was (see the picture, for instance) but also a challenge — if I kept doing it, surely I’d be able to get faster?

So I started going back there, aided by the fact that I live next to the park, so it was never a great trek to make it to the start line every Saturday. (I’m still amazed of the people who travel great distances to get there every morning, especially when they’re riding there, running faster than me, then riding off before I’ve even finished) And slowly, I started getting a little faster, and then a little slower as my body (particularly my Achilles) rebelled, and then a little faster again (when I bought some special socks to combat that), but still remaining on just the wrong side of forty minutes for those first six months. Then in July, I finally cracked forty, and spent the next six months yoyoing back and forth around forty minutes, usually within a minute either way and still not managing to run the whole thing, but making an effort to try and run a little bit further and walk a little bit less each time.

Then came 2018 and another spur of the moment decision, this time to enter the Colchester 10K in May, which meant I’d actually have to train and push myself to run further than I’d ever done. More than anything, those little targets helped me make it there as I started running by myself, trying to go a little bit further each time, and each time would be a new record for the furthest I’d ever run. I made it to two miles, then two and a half, then over 5k for the first time, going through a whole series of tiny increments but each one giving me that buzz of setting a new personal record. I also splashed out on a new pair of running shoes, finally realising that the old trainers I’d been using for the past year had probably seen their best days long before I started doing the Parkrun, and definitely weren’t up to a 10K. Thanks to an analysis from Ed at Colchester’s 53–12, I had shoes that were actually comfortable to run in and was able to run a whole Parkrun without stopping for the first time.

Before I ran the 10K, I told myself to be reasonable and be glad if I managed to make it through in anything under an hour and twenty minutes with my main priorities being to not get injured and to make sure I had enough energy to finish it with a run rather than a slow stumble over the line. Somehow, I not only managed to run the whole thing, I managed to cross the line in an hour and 15 minutes, amazing myself at just how good I felt at the end of it.

That, and other long runs I’ve done since, convinced me that I could go further and motivated me to go on and do the Marathon next year. I’ve still got a lot of miles to go in training, but even though I’m still not running fast like my teachers may have wanted, I’m running far and feeling good. I’ve found a wonderfully supportive community in Running Colchester, and I’ve even put together a training spreadsheet to work out all those long runs I’m going to need to do over the next eight months as I build myself up to doing 26.2 miles.

I’m going to keep writing as I go through the training and hopefully find some interesting and amusing stories along the way as I progress towards the marathon, but please donate when you can to help encourage me, because while it does feel good to be losing weight and getting fitter, I am doing this to help others, and maybe give someone else the chance of recovering from their tumour and finishing another marathon themselves.

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Councillor. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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