One time teacher Emma Portus shares a few hard lessons learned at her first London Marathon.
Lesson 1: Train properly
Shortly after completing my first marathon (Berlin in September 2014) I managed to snag a place in the 2015 Virgin Money London Marathon in the public ballot. My first reaction was actually a grimace – a combination of injury and laziness meant that Berlin hadn’t gone as I’d hoped.
On a long weekend run in January, my planned 9-mile run home turned into a 7-mile limp when my knee decided it had enough halfway up Gleadless Road. The pain was caused by an imbalance left over from my injury before Berlin – a sprained ankle and ablative fracture of the right tibia. Cue a month of treadmill jogging and standing on one leg. Finally, after weeks of rehabilitation and gradual correction of my running technique (weird, according to the physio) I was fit enough to do the marathon, albeit with a shorter training plan. Thanks to a bout of flu, however, my carefully planned taper over two weeks became a sharp drop off a cliff, with only a parkrun and a 5-mile road race in the week leading up to the marathon.
Lesson 2: Follow the plan
My main goal was to perform better than I had in Berlin, but my ‘official’ target time was to finish in under 5 hours. From Berlin, I knew that I would be able to conserve my strength by walking through the water stations, eating a ShotBlok every 5k. I had a pace band prepared, found a spot close to the 5 hour pacers in the starting pen and waited to set off. And immediately made the classic error of overestimating my energy and strength and starting too fast. My mistake was in thinking that I would be able to improve on 5h right from the beginning, and so instead of starting at a steady 11.22 minute mile I jogged along at what seemed like a perfectly reasonable 11 minute mile – after all, what difference could 20 seconds per mile make to my performance?
It seemed to be going well, I felt fine, and I ran the first half without stopping to walk at all, taking water and gels whilst on the run. I left the 5h pacers behind, passed somebody wearing an amazing T-Rex costume, a few rhinos and the Jamaican bobsleigh team (!), and by 14 miles I could see the 4:45h pacer ahead. As I came up to the halfway point I passed a couple of other Striders going in the other direction, and I even had enough energy to yell ‘Go Striders!’ at them as they flew by. I don’t know if they heard me. This was the furthest I had ever run without walking, and I felt great. I should have know then that it couldn’t last.
Lesson 3: Don’t freak out
It wasn’t until after mile 15 that I had to admit defeat and take walking breaks. The miles started to feel longer and longer, and as we made it through the Isle of Dogs it became harder to keep my legs moving. I took the offered energy drink at each fuel station, and knew that any photos taken of me at this point would show a proper Striders War Face® as I began to dig deep. My pace was slowing down and I knew that my target of 5h was starting to slip away. I had to stop several times to massage and stretch as my calves and hamstrings were feeling the strain.
It was at mile 20 that it all fell apart (my splits show that this was by far the slowest mile, taking nearly 19 minutes). The 5h pacers passed me, showing no signs of effort at all, and although I valiantly tried to keep up I knew that it was no use, and that I would miss my target time. The only thing left to do now was to make sure I actually completed the race without causing myself some serious damage. I was having difficulty breathing, and my inhaler didn’t help. I started to panic, hyperventilating, and the pain in my legs made moving forward a real struggle. I didn’t realise at the time, but I had hit the wall. Mine wasn’t the solid and sudden brick wall that I had imagined, you see, mine was a soft marshmallow wall that became more suffocating the further I moved.
It was with relief, and a few tears, that I stumbled into a St John’s station, sat down and managed to gasp to the concerned-looking medics that I felt like I was having a panic attack and that I couldn’t feel my legs. They gave me some water and sat with me as I sipped and regained my breath. One of the physios massaged some life back into my legs, and after a few minutes my head cleared enough to get up and continue.
Lesson 4: Keep calm and carry on
The pit stop was enough to let me keep going through the next few miles, and I was on the point of flagging once more when I saw a familiar green and yellow woolly hat. My husband, Nick, had come with my dad to watch me, so I stopped for a hug and a smile and a much needed morale boost. I passed another friend at mile 24, where the cheers and smiles were enough to lift me up and get me going again. Apparently I didn’t look as miserable as I felt.
I made it to the final stretch along the Thames. I didn’t have the energy to run the whole way, but tried to keep walk breaks to a minimum. A voice on my left called out ‘Go on Strider!’ as a club member overtook me, and a bit further on a few cheers and cries of ‘Steel City Striders!’ spurred me on as I struggled towards Westminster. Round the corner by Parliament my focus narrowed, and all I could think of was one last push on through to the end.
I’ve never been so pleased to cross a finish line, because it meant that the struggle was over and that I didn’t have to run any more. I somehow managed to plaster a smile to my face for the cameras, stumbled through the gate to collect my medal and goody bag, and at long last limped through St James’ park for the beer which was waiting for me at the Red Lion.
A few days later I’m recovered enough to realise that although I missed my target, having finished in 5:20, I had still beaten my previous time by 20 minutes, my performance during the first half was a massive improvement on a lot of the running I’ve done in the past year, and as little as 3 years ago I would get winded by the effort of running for a bus. I still don’t think I’m cut out for marathons, and I probably wasn’t really fit enough to do my best for this one, but I’m so glad I did it.