A few years ago, I ran the London marathon, for the first and only time. I am, as I’ve explained elsewhere on this blog, a natural middle-distance runner. My tread is heavy and I pronate; I am not suited to longer distances. I went into the race having run two half-marathons, the second in just over 100 minutes. After the half marathon, my knee was too sore for me to run. There were just six weeks to the marathon, and I doubted I would recover in time. I found a physiotherapist, who set to work on my knee, using the same ultrasound devices with which I was familiar from my achilles injuries years before.
To keep my heart and lungs fit while the treatment took effect, the physio suggested that I practise on one of his exercise bikes. This I did, in one hour slots, with the bike at maximum resistance. The look the physio gave me suggested that he found my injury hard to credit, if I could keep myself going at that rate, what really was wrong? After three or four lots of ultrasound, the injury was cured. Yet my knee and my legs remained weak, and I was nervous of trying to get back into running too fast. Even simple training before the marathon, I thought, would end in further injury.
As the race neared, I practised stretches, experimenting even for a time with yoga. I swam daily. For the last six weeks before the race I did not run once.
My partner and a good friend Leo took me to the start. I had my running things, a spare woollen sweater and my mobile phone which I later found ruined in an inch of water which had drained into my bag from an unsealed bottle.
Greenwich Park was full of people warming up by running in every direction of the compass, save the route you might have expected us all to follow, East from the park and out. I found my allocated starting point. All our possessions were loaded onto a lorry to be delivered to the race’s end. Having bagged up my clothes, I collected a device to record the moment at which I actually crossed the starting line. There were many runners in all sorts of fancy-dress costumes. To get from the assembly point to the start took a further ten-minute run.
My strategy was forced on me by the time I had spent injured. I intended to run the first six miles so slowly that I ought not fall apart later. This was easier than I had anticipated. Caught in the middle of a large crowd, my first two miles passed in a wonderfully slow 25 minutes.
The third mile passed in ten minutes. In Woolwich, I found a house where students had erected a barbecue in their front garden, the rich smell of cooking food floating in front of the crowd. I ran away from the distraction, completing the fourth miles in eight minutes, probably my fastest mile of the whole race.
I passed three Elvises, two red houses for Shelter. Other red houses sped past me. For most of the race I attempted to keep my pace steady at around 10 minutes per mile. To stop my body hurting, I drank water at every stop. Kindly spectators handed out fresh oranges, a short burst of energy, which faded quickly. Processed sugar proved to be the most efficient anaesthetic. I was grateful to the young boy handing out boiled mints. They endured, melting slowly on my tongue.
I had been placed in a group of fellow marathon rookies. Until about the 20-mile point, I seemed to be overtaking the runners immediately in front of me. This did not mean I was fast, the crowds were too thick to push through, and whenever I pushed on I just found myself stuck behind a further slow group ahead.
From four miles in, I passed runners even worse prepared than me. Some were stopping and starting, pushing themselves forwards in 100 metre bursts. I overtook others who had given up altogether on running, and just walked on grimly.
I enjoyed the pavements, which were full of well-meaning onlookers, adults, children of all ages. I despised the roads, they were my enemy. I remember a stretch of cobble-stones, on which my feet could not even land flat. My feet turned to blisters, my knees ached with pain. I loathed Steve Ovett, I swore down vengeance on Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams. I cursed Phidippides. For much of the race I was wondering how practical it would be to just stop, and exit the race with dignity. I looked hopefully on portable toilets, pubs, but none offered an anonymous exit.
I finished the race in the slow time of 4 hours, 24 minutes. Three months before I had been hoping to run the distance around an hour faster. My brain was always harking back to the runner I had been but was no more. It remains the only marathon I have run, I have never since wanted to run a second.