How being let down by friends helped me finish a marathon

My flaky friends helped me finish first marathon

Olympic Park, down-town Amsterdam, October 2004. Weather is damp and the sky an unending vista of grey.

The 20mile training runs, the hill work, the sprints are done. The hours minimising injury and reducing niggles by enduring osteopathy and sports massage sessions are over.  I’ve tapered well to make sure my glycogen stores are brimming. I’m feeling both excited and nervous on the start line.  One refrain, however, rattles around in my adrenalin soaked brain – don’t go off too fast!

I wanted to run a marathon by the time I was 35 and so I thought the best place to début would be the one with the flattest course – Amsterdam. The course goes through Vondel Park twice and I agree with my friends who’ve come from London to support me that they will be at the same spot in the park both times.  Experienced amateur marathoners usually write their name somewhere on their number bibs – I don’t realise the importance of this until later in the race. I think my friends would be able to pick me out of a crowd of runners.

The starter gun fires and I’m swept along by the tide of other troopers eager to prove that the hours we’ve invested weren’t in vain.  5km into the run and it feels like I’m on wheels. I see my lovely supportive friends at our spot in Vondel Park and I’m so excited that I’m bouncing and doing a funny jig as I run past them. They laugh and look at me with eyes that say, “silly brave fool”.  My elation subsides, the sky grows a little darker and it starts to drizzle.  The field of runners starts to thin out.  I notice that there aren’t many fun-runners in fancy dress here.

Miles 8-16 and the course loops back along the Amstel River and one of the runners, who passes me and who I then pass, is struck down with calf pain. Carried along by camaraderie and my pathological need to help, I stop and help him stretch.  The damp autumn air quickly cools my muscles and when I start to run again I trip over myself and fall onto my right knee.  At this point it feels like a minor mishap, although it takes me a while for me to be able to pick up my feet again and get into my stride.

Miles 15 -18 and the course turns onto what feels like a deserted airstrip.  With no buildings around to break the wind that’s starting to pick up and with my legs beginning to feel less elastic, I feel like I’m running at the ends of the earth.

Mile 20  in and my knee is starting to throb and each little hump I cross to get over the canals feels like a victory over my stiffening legs.  I’m thinking back to how much energy I wasted at the beginning, I’m cross with myself for stopping to help out my fellow runner – now long gone ahead of me. Running turns into shuffling and I’m using muscles to move me forward that I’ve never used before. The unrelenting drizzle ensures that my muscles are never allowed to get warm.

At this point all I can think is that I’ve only to make it to Vondel Park and I’ll see my friends and they will see me struggling and I will stop and say, take me home, and they will cover my legs with their warm coats, help me into a cab, run me a hot bath and tell me what a brave soldier I am.  They will say that it’s the taking part that matters, and that they couldn’t have run half as far as I ran today. In their eyes I will be a hero.

I shuffle into Vondel Park and amongst the cheering and clapping and shouts of “Come one Kurt/Jan/Lisa”  – it’s at this point I realise why it makes a huge difference if people are shouting out your name – I can’t see any of my friends at our spot.

It’s OK, I think, they’ve obviously gone to another position. One with a better view of the runners.  I’m sure I’ll see them around the next corner.  I can stop then.  The next corner comes and goes and still no sign of my rescuers.  They have the cab money, so I am sure I will see them round one more corner.  At this point I’m experiencing sharp pains in my pelvis and between my shoulder blades.  Just a few more minutes and I’ll see them.  It’s like in films where they slow the frames, and people and voices get distorted.   A jumble of faces, none of them familiar, all of them shouting someone else’s name.  My feet are barely moving – it’s taken me 60 long minutes to get another 3miles – a distance I usually run at almost 3 times the speed.

It’s now that I begin to fully come to my senses and realise that I must be close to the finish.  My mind does a sudden gear change and before long I’m in the Olympic stadium, where we started 5hours ago, and running down the home straight. I drag myself across the finish line and I’m done.

I beg a cab driver to take me, penniless and aching, to the apartment where we’re staying, and find my friends there.  Of course, they got cold standing around waiting for me and decided to go back to base. And I know that if they hadn’t, I would never have achieved this goal that was so important to me.  I learned that day that in a marathon, as in life, you reach your goals one small step at a time.

Next Sunday’s London Marathon will see many runners have a very similar experience to me.  If you are one of them, I wish you all the best of luck and courage with battling your body, thoughts and emotions.  It’s an achievement you will be proud of for many years to come.

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