My eyes slowly open wide and at long last it’s marathon morning. Today I have a long-promised job to do, a job to do well. Rising, calmness is key and I follow practised habits in slowly preparing myself for the mass start on Nottingham Trent Embankment and the gun of 10.05 AM.
My partner Melanie and I call to collect our friend and my training partner, Lesia and on through Nottingham towards the big river. Hundreds of people mill in the same direction, some bounding slightly excitedly and some trudge, somewhat disconsolately. I sit thinking in the rear of the little Toyota, stilled in the fussy traffic. I know I have much to do.
I’m offering soft platitudes outwardly. I hear myself offering that, considering my recent injury problems, I’ll pull up and drop out of this race if it should become necessary – if the pain should become too much. I know deep down that this is not true though. I will end this race dragging my leg behind me in my wake if I have to. I will not stop.
The jittery last few minutes roll past quickly and it’s time to slip out of the swaddling comfort of my sweatshirt and step on to the road. Step up to the plate. Lesia lines up at my side to accompany me, I’m not sure how long she will be there, perhaps a mile or two, I surmise. There seems a happy and welcome symmetry to this considering how many training miles we’ve passed together. A shuddering jog, stop, walk, trot takes us towards the start line gantry and I gesture to Melanie who is echoing our footsteps on the paving next to us and the massed beginning runners. Drummers pound a rhythmic beat. I cross myself I as I do at the inception and end of each and every run. Thank you for this.
It’s taken an awful lot to get here today and I heave a heavy sigh of recognition as we tread steadily towards the Meadows, past the wide ranks of cheering crowds lining our route.
The early minutes of such a long event are always a testing time. We take readings from our body; we monitor them and make sense of them. How does that injury feel? Is it stiff, sore? Will it dissolve into the disappointing pain of yore? Do I have energy today? Is it a good day? How am I going to feel in two hours? Four hours? Where are my doubts today and can I dispel them?
Do I believe in myself today?
My friend and I chat a little, comparing notes and there is an enquiry in that familiar accent asking if she is disturbing me? In truth I’m happy to have her there to help keep me calm, to chat to just like every other Sunday morning, and make-believe this run is just as the rest. We even pass over familiar cobbles that we know so well whilst negotiating Castle Hill and point down into The Park residential area that understands our Friday night footsteps of many hopeful evenings.
I have perhaps ten Nottingham Robin Hood Half Marathons under my belt ranging back to my expectant debut race back in 1982. This is my initial full event in Nottingham though and the once familiar first half of the race traces a different route to my memory. Lesia and I pass calmly through a throng of steady runners past the picturesque and cooling lake of Nottingham University’s Highfields. Drinks are appearing now and I take liquid fastidiously at every opportunity.
It’s but a few miles in and many runners are still in very good heart. There is an excited babble amongst athletes which has yet to quell. I know it will soon though. The beautiful Wollaton Park appears in front of us and we pass through one of the prettiest stages under thin but cheering and optimistic September sunshine. Suddenly a shout and Melanie appears smiling and happy next to us. Lesia hands her small backpack to her claiming excitedly that she was ‘going to run all the way’ and we push onwards and back to the city.
I am intentionally running well within myself. I need to save as much energy for the onslaught of the final miles and this is very much on my mind. It’s Castle Boulevard and a young man stops, walks, hands on hips, tiring, tiring. Printed on the back of his vest are the words FOR MY GRANDAD. I tell him his grandad would be very proud of him today and he smiles in surprise and replies warmly that his grandfather passed away just three weeks ago. I pat his shoulder for luck and assure him as kindly as I can that he will make it.
There is so much more to running long distance events than pure naked achievement. So many stories of love, sorrow, nostalgia and kinship that transcend pounding the streets amongst thousands of strangers all brought together for many and varied reasons. I want to connect with one or two of those souls today as I always might. Spread a little hope, to pluck a thistle and plant a flower where I thought a flower would grow.
Its decision time for Lesia as miles ten and eleven are with us. I’m sure she had not intended to run this far but her help has been incredibly valuable. I urge her to complete the half marathon as it would be fitting to have a double victory today. Suddenly she begins to falter but hangs on. Its twelve miles and we agree to split at her urging, just before I peel off for the second half of the race. She manages a weary smile, I touch her shoulder, say goodbye for now and thank you. The familiar face of a friend Gill pops into sight, happily chatting away on the Embankment. I call her name and she shouts surprised encouragement. A minute later and Melanie is there once more with another cheer and more support.
So here I am on my own and heading away from the Half Marathon finish and out towards the confrontation with myself. The challenge now begins I consider as kind spectators’ cheers and words of encouragement ring in my ears by the wide grey river. Past Meadow Lane Football Ground, home of Sven Goran Eriksson’s Notts County and padding over a near deserted Lady Bay Bridge, still trying to run within my abilities, saving myself for the major battle that I know I will wage. I’m going to wage a war if I have to.
Lady Bay shows me its quiet and uneventful back streets. I note now at around fourteen miles that a few runners are beginning to walk. Lanes split with opposing runners coming towards me are on me now. The sports drinks are coming fast and furiously too. I drink greedily at them whilst not particularly enjoying the mixture. I think they may be my salvation in due course.
Holme Pierrepont Water Sports Centre comes into view as I crest a small hillock. The panoramic but desolate looking artificial rowing lakes offers the unwanted extra challenge of a strong head wind to test a runners resolve. My resolution and tenacity is strong. I notice it is getting stronger and stronger. I am beginning to feel the true power in my body as I keep my head down and work hard yet smoothly.
All at once I hear a familiar voice and Melanie’s excited face is in front of me, cheering me and asking how I am? ‘I’m okay, I’m okay’ is as much as I manage. These simple words have to suffice after rehearsing what I might say at this point. I ask for a glucose tablet and Melanie shouts to the figure of Lesia standing a little further on. I pause momentarily whilst she coolly peels out a glucose tablet for me. She tells me that I’m looking good. Thank you, and I’m on my way again. Its twenty-two miles and I’m gliding efficiently along the Trent riverside tow path and back to the city. I’m focused and feel myself actually gathering pace.
Its here though that I begin to feel those darker voices in my head a little more often. ‘I’m tiring, I’m tired, this hurts, that hurts, am I running out of gas?’ I banish these thoughts and their negativity. More thoughts emerge, ‘is the injury beginning to come back, is that a twinge, will I be limping in a mile’s time?’ These thoughts will not win today. These thoughts are nothing but abstract feelings and emotions and I can/will beat them off. I am strong and nothing will stop me. They keep trying to return and as they do I feel my body react momentarily before I push them away. My head is high. I am winning, I am winning.
I’m passing runner after runner at this point. I understand their feelings and try to help them. Just a quiet, even whispered word in their ear as I pass ‘keep it going, keep it going, Come on Suzi’. The support of the race marshalls is magnificent at this point. As they talk to me I answer them and thank them, each and every one. They provide a breeze that pushes me forward. In a now very thin field of runners, many walking, Nottingham Forest’s City Ground looms and I run under the cooling overhang of the Trent End Stand, tracing the River Trent to my right.
It’s under Trent Bridge now and a large crowd of picnicking race spectators provide a huge clamour as I ascend from underneath the bridge into bright sunshine and a kaleidoscope of smiling, cheering faces. Go on! Go on! You can do it! Nearly there now! I’m looking ahead hopefully at the next bridge hoping for a crossing there and on to the finish line and I am crestfallen, dismayed to see that the bridge is unused and that I have to keep running down the river, this entailing the same distance to run back on the other side. Here was the big test to my resolve. What could I do now but keep going though?
Gill appears again on the bridge. Hey! HEY! Are you alright? ‘Yes, I’m okay Gill, thanks…”
The finishing area
The final sprint
I’m coming off that bridge now and running up to the finishing area on the grass. I’ve thought about this so much over the past months. What would it feel like, how would I react, how would I finish? I cross myself. The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Thank you, thank you. Big crowds of spectators are facing me as I round onto the grass which I know denotes the finish and the victory. Where are Mel and Lesia?
It’s time to go for broke and I charge into a sprint, as fast as my legs will take me to that line. A line that only a week ago seemed a hurt and injured impossibility. Yes! Yes! Waves of adrenalin course through me and I hear Mel’s shout and her face flashes into view and then out again. Get under that gantry, get under it.
I’m there! I did it! I did it!
I pat the small St Andrew’s cross of Scotland that had been folded into my shorts pocket for inspiration. A following runner exchanges a warm handshake and a solitary Lesia, standing watching by the rope shouts to me. A helper removes my microchip and after a fleeting moment of nausea, I teeter steadily towards the exit and the meet area with Lesia towards Mel. I had really promised myself a pint of ice cold beer at this point but to no avail. This small but necessary pleasure was not to be – at least for the moment.
Back in Nottingham and after an awkward but refreshing shower two pints of the promised cider at last passed my lips along with pints of accompanying water. Six o’clock quickly comes around and the three of us walk to Le Bistrot Pierre in the city to celebrate in the time-honoured way, with a glass of champagne and a fine dinner with those close to you.
To Melanie, for her unceasing support through thick and thin, particularly on those dark days when I didn’t believe I could do this. When injury struck, when the self-doubts loomed, when my mind was in turmoil, the support remained constant. You never gave up on me.
To Lesia, for running with me along the pleasant lanes and through the pretty villages of Nottinghamshire and evenings in the city. For the inspiration of watching her own marathon triumph in London. For keeping my head straight in the all-important first half of the marathon by selflessly running it with me. Most of all, for the cool and objective opinions and support when I most needed a real friend.
I couldn’t have it done it without either of you. That goes too for the wonderful well wishes from afar afield as Scotland and Canada. I carried them all with me, I really did. You all know who you are. A heartfelt ‘thank you’.