The alarm woke me at 5.30am. I had not slept well. For some reason, I’d kept having nightmares about running a marathon. In fact, even the bits of dreams that weren’t anything to do with running were laced with unsubtle references as to my dread of the upcoming 26.2 miles. For example, I’d been dreaming that I was at a wedding reception, dining at the same table as an obnoxious middle-aged woman who was prone to insulting everyone. Unable to take her vicious verbal barbs no longer, I threw a champagne flute full of gravy over her expensive, peach-coloured dress. She responded by screaming ‘Marathon! Marathon! Marathon!’ at me. Stupid brain.
In an unusually organised move, I’d sorted my kit the night before so it was really just a matter of forcing down some breakfast and heading out. At 6.15am. Gah. Still, I was soon rewarded for my early-start: as I drove, I saw an owl! A barn owl to be precise. I was rather pleased. In fact, I waved a clenched fist and declared ‘OWL!’ loudly and triumphantly, despite being the only person in the car. I was still on an owl-fuelled high when I arrived to pick up regular running chum Matthew Jones (if I ever go on a high-octane crime spree I’m citing ‘an owl-fuelled high’ as a contributing factor during the inevitable court case). With Jones on board, we headed to York. En route, the impossible happened. Well, the improbable. Well, the mildly unlikely: I SAW ANOTHER OWL! Cue a second triumphant ‘OWL!’ cry of the morning, with this time the clenched fist replaced with a 2-fingered salute to underline the owl’s status as owl two of two. Jones was clearly amused by my enthusiasm. Man, the day had peaked right there.
We parked up in York and were shuttle-bussed to the starting area. I applied Vaseline in industrial quantities to anywhere that even vaguely threatened a chaffing. I also scrawled a motivational message on my hand for if things got grim out on the course in the later stages. But what would be the subject of that positive-thinking message? My wife and children? A deity? A crude depiction of James Earl Jones as Coach Couzo from Best of the Best spouting the line ‘If you give everything you’ve got, EVERYTHING, you’ll be winners – that I promise you’? Pfft, there could be only one thing:
Luggage deposited, it was time to join the lengthy queue for the latrines. Now, I’ll acknowledge I include a lot of toilet-related talk in this blog, for which I’m largely unapologetic. I was, however, amused when the lady in front of us in the queue picked up on this and interrupted my and Jones’s toilet-based chatting/fretting to remark ‘how glad we would obviously both be when we got to the front of the queue’. She wasn’t wrong. The pre-race bogging schedule is akin to a pre-flight check on a jumbo-jet. No-one wants ‘the landing gear dropping out at 49,000 feet’ or similar.
All bogged out, it was time to find the starting pen. And behold, disaster! I was in Zone 1. Jones was in Zone 2. And The Penkeepers wouldn’t allow any movement across the zones (although they were quite jolly and apologetic about it, hence my referral to then as ‘The Penkeepers’ rather than ‘The Pen Nazis’, which I almost went with. Hmm, there’s an idea for a kid’s TV show. Remember children’s TV favourite The Shoe People? Meet ‘The Pen Nazis’. Characterised, cartoon writing implements from WWII Germany. Berchtwald Ballpoint? Freidrich Fountain Pen? Meinhard Marker? Maybe not…) but we overcame this by Jones standing right at the front of Zone 2 and me at the back of Zone 1. Ingenious. Fiendish. Remarkable.
I’ve seen the synchronised, aerobics-instructor-led, mass warm-up ignored by participants at many events, but never quite on the scale of this one. I’m not sure a single person (in my vicinity, at least) joined in with Thrusting Theo’s pre-race jiggling. He didn’t seem to care much, however – content to give it all he had for personal satisfaction if nothing else. It wasn’t long before he was done and the pre-race announcements were made. Then there was just time to declare ‘wait, I’m doing a marathon?’ before the commencement hooter was squeezed and we were off.
Now, I had a plan. And it wasn’t ‘not bother with this marathon shite’, despite how much I wanted it to be. I was trying to go ‘sub-4’ – i.e. get round in under 4 hours. In order to do so, I needed to average around 9 minutes per mile. So, the plan was to do as many miles as possible at a pace of around 8 minutes 30 seconds per mile, effectively banking 30 seconds per mile for later in the race when I was struggling. This banked mileage would be referred to as THE BUFFER. And at this pace, the early stages of the run went well, as we snaked through and then out of York. I high-fived some kids. I laughed when a man dressed as Bananaman emerged hurriedly from behind a hedge where he’d clearly just had to ‘drain the banana’. There was even time for a mid-race snap.
At around mile 10, the gradual descent into agony began. I developed a stitch-that-wasn’t-a-stitch. But what was it? The call of the bowels? Organ failure? Heart attack? Whatever it was, I opted to ‘run it off’ (remember: those in search of sound running-related medical advice have come to the wrong blog). A few miles later, spirits were raised when I spotted the hedge I’d had a piss behind during the 2013 Yorkshire Marathon. I’ll never forget the embarrassed nod of mutual acknowledgement I shared with a female competitor squatting behind the same hedge. Ah, memories. Good times. Well, agonising and embarrassing times.
The half-way point came and went. As did the stitch/organ failure/heart attack. And it wasn’t long (yes it was long, Ben, you’re just choosing not to remember it…) before a real psychological barrier began to loom: the drinks station at the 18-mile mark. Back in 2013, this was where I’d hit THE WALL. The point where I’d had to say to Jones ‘just leave me here, I’ll see you at the end’. So it was quite pleasing to be able to keep the pace steady as we passed mile 18. Then 19. Then 20. Then 21. This couldn’t be right. 21 miles in and I was still going steady? It was a miracle. I was going to do it. I was going to cruise home under 4 hours at a steady pace. Surely.
At the 21.0000000001 mile mark, out of nowhere came THE WALL. Well, I say nowhere: it had in fact been solidly under construction for the last 21 miles. And here it was. Lungs burned. Legs throbbed. Dark clouds gathered. In a metaphorical sense. But unlike 2013, this time Taylorson and Jones would struggle on together. Misery loves company, as the saying goes. Well, so does agony. The pace dropped right off. I tore off my base layer in an effort to get a bit more oxygen in. ‘Nipples be damned, I need air Goddam it!’ I’d have said if I could speak. Every step was torturous, and there were still a few miles to go. It was Grimsville: population 2. Still, there was an unspoken-yet-tangible feeling of resolve. We had THE BUFFER and we just needed to pull it all together for the final fight. I grabbed a couple of Jelly Babies from a kindly spectator, the consumption of which resulted in the emission of involuntary sex noises. I followed that up with a Mars Bar. More pleasing feelings. I was like Popeye reaching for the spinach. If Popeye had had a sweet tooth. And tried to kill himself by doing a marathon.
At the 24-mile marker there was a water station. I downed an entire bottle and had a glance at the watch: with a superhuman effort, we could still do it. We could still get the elusive sub-4. The pace upped. The 25 mile marker came and went through gritted teeth as we re-entered York. The last mile loomed. Then the last half a mile, with its ridiculous hill *shakes fist at marathon*. I powered on up the hill (we’re using the term ‘powered’ very loosely here…) noting that a fellow competitor had paused to regurgitate an energy drink to my left, whilst on my right another was wrapped in a foil blanket whilst being attended to by a paramedic. Marathons: what fun. But then the ‘500 metres to go’ marker was in sight. I glanced at the watch. I could walk it from here and still get to the finish in under 4 hours. I was going to do it. I was actually going to do it. Emotion overcame me, and, for a moment, I lost it completely – before hastily pulling myself together for the final straight. As I crossed the line in 3 hours 57 minutes and 54 seconds I fought to remain composed amidst a sea of finishers and race volunteers. I’d achieved something I honestly didn’t think I could do.
I collected the post-race goodies. Most importantly, THE MEDAL. Man, it’s the size of a bin lid.
Then it was time for a well-earned sit down. Frankly, ocean liners have been launched quicker than the time it took me to ease my aching body to the ground. And once I was down there, I was doubtful I’d ever get back up. Although I was spurred on to do so by two of my favourite words in the English language – ‘free’ and ‘beer’. ‘But surely, you’ve just run 26.2 miles and are massively dehydrated Ben? Drinking beer would be rather unwise, wouldn’t it?’ said one side of the brain. ‘BEER! BEER! BEER! CHUG! CHUG! CHUG!’ came the counter-argument. And as it happened, the winning argument, as I indulged in a third of a pint of Yorkshire…something. It was golden and beery. That’s all I remember. M’lud.
After assessing myself for chaffage – all was well, praise Vaselineious, God of Lubricancy. Then it was time to head home. It took a while for the reality to dawn on me that I had achieved what I set out to. What I had worked for 22 weeks to attain with those long, lonely runs and the early starts. Was it worth it, for the sub-4? Yes. Will I do another marathon? No. Why? I think I’ll just sum up the answer to that with ‘because of all of the agony’, but also this picture of my eyeball complete with burst blood vessel. That happened during the run. I’m taking that as a sign. Stupid running.
What’s next? Well I’ve got a Movember 10k next month – comedy moustaches at the ready – then that’s it for 2015 as it stands. Looking ahead to 2016, there are a few things I fancy doing. None of them are marathons, though…