When I run hard, the world collapses around me. External concerns which often to be circulating endlessly in my brain disappear, and my thinking narrows into calculating splits, sizing up the next hill, and willing myself to keep putting one foot in front of the other. As soon as the run ends and the endorphins are gone, plans for research projects, worries about my thesis, and concerns for the fiscal health of the U.S. flood back in. The world that, just a few hours before, I couldn’t see anything beyond suddenly becomes almost impossible to recall. All I have left to remind me of what it felt like when I was running are the mile splits on my watch.
This is what I can remember about what it felt like running today—prompted by the twenty-six one-mile intervals saved on my watch, leftover from the London Marathon.
What I do remember quite well—because it was happening for months before the marathon—is that I didn’t train. Saying you didn’t train for something is a really shit excuse for poor performance; I’ve never really understood why it makes someone more impressive when they say, “I did such and such, and I didn’t even train for it.” The real feats in life come not from coasting on talent, but from hard work and discipline. Both these characteristics were, I am afraid to say, lacking in my marathon preparation.
I finished rowing in early March, and immediately embarked to the U.S., where I bounced from couch to couch, managed a few long runs here and there, and took far too many days off between them. When I got back to the U.K., I had what I worried was a budding stress fracture in my foot, and rested a week. Last Sunday, I wasn’t even sure if I was going to run—and I knew that, if I did, it would be an accomplishment if I even managed to finish, much less run a respectable time.
That was, pretty much, my mindset this morning: go, run, and try to come home with a time that isn’t too embarrassing. My starting area was near the front of the non-elite group, thanks to an overly optimistic “projected finishing time” put down on my registration form back when I thought I might actually prepare for this marathon properly. I looked around me and saw lean, sinewy veteran runners with mile splits written in sharpie on their arms and belts full of electrolyte gels. I had no idea what to expect at the start, no sense of what pace I should be running, or clue what it felt like to run more than seventeen miles, my previous maximum. There’s something glorious about that kind of naivety, though, because when the gun went off, I just went.
The first mile was a lot of stop-and-go jostling and jockeying for position. It wasn’t until the second mile that I had a chance to actually open up and stride out. And—to my surprise—it felt amazing. I had been told to hold back in the first half of the marathon, having been warned that it always feels good when you’re starting. But I didn’t just feel good; I felt fantastic. I was so happy to be running, so happy to be in England, and so happy to listen to the thousands of footfalls around me. At the end of the second mile, I looked at my watch—6:35 for the mile, way, way, way faster than I had planned.
Reason suggested it was time to slow down. But I really, truly, couldn’t. The entire London Marathon course is lined five-deep with spectators, handing out candy and water and cheering exuberantly for everyone. There are no teams, so no opposition; everyone receives the same encouragement. I was lucky enough to be running next to a guy with “Alex” on his jersey, so I heard a lot of “way to go, Alex”s. I’ve never been at a sporting event with such an immensely positive atmosphere, and I just fed off of it.
I spent the first few miles waiting for reality to set in, but it was taking its sweet time and, eventually, I got tired of waiting. I realized that, having settled onto 6:45 miles, I had a reasonable chance—if I kept it up—of breaking three hours. The field was starting to spread out, and I started picking people off. I focused on the people running in “fancy dress.” There are all sorts of awards for “Fastest Person Dressed as a Leperchaun” and “Fastest Fred Flinstone Look-Alike”, so the marathon is crammed with people dressed in fantastically stupid costumes. At a certain point, I decided that I simply couldn’t be beat by a Viking, Clown, or Smurf—so I passed them. I passed the half-marathon mark in 1:29, right as the sun came out and I became vaguely aware that I was, slowly, getting dehydrated.
They say that a Marathon can be divided into two halves—the first twenty miles and the last six. The dividing line between the two, of course, is the infamous “wall.” No metaphor—be it a field of landmines, endless inhospitable desert, or thirty-foot-high concrete barrier—can accurately capture what I ran into at mile twenty-one. I finished one mile in a comfortable 6:50, and the next in 8:15. The costumed idiots—and a whole lot of other people—that I had painstakingly passed the last twenty-one miles, ran merrily by.
There were quite a few moments when I thought about stopping. It’d be one thing if it felt like a pure matter of willpower, but it wasn’t. There are some things you can’t fake, things no amount of grit and determination can overcome; not training, I think, is one of them. The last five miles felt like an absolute eternity. I hated running, hated the marathon, and hated the crowd cheering me on. Men have a bad tendency to claim that anything they do that is painful is roughly equivalent to childbirth. I won’t make the analogy, but I will say that I can think of few things in my life that I have enjoyed less than those last five miles.
In fact, the only redeeming quality of those last five miles was that they ended. There was no dramatic sprint to the finish—I barely made it across before collapsing. My entire face was numb, something that defies explanation. 3:04.22—a disappointment relative to what I had been hoping for an hour before the finish, but an astonishing improvement on what I had been expecting four hours prior.
There’s something truly brilliant about the set up of a Marathon. Unless you are an elite Kenyan or Ethiopian, you have no chance of actually winning. Once that element of competition is taken out, the entire dynamic changes. I think there are few sporting events where, simultaneously, I can be thrilled to run 3:04 and the woman next to me on the bus back is equally excited to have finished in six hours. When there are so many people taking part, who cares if you finish 3,093th or—having rudely elbowed and clawed your way forward—finish 3,092nd. It doesn’t really matter, because nearly everyone in a marathon is racing only against themselves.
I am pretty sure I have a new hobby. Boston, here I come.