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Saturday, 15 December 2012

#46: It's a Marathon, Not a Snickers — Part Four

I’d bagged my parents a pair of prized spectator tickets at one of the finish-line grandstands, and was starting to well up at the thought of seeing them as I homed in on the finish. Just over 5k to go.

If I’d been in any doubt as to how much emotion a marathon evokes within, I was quickly becoming cured of that. And the cramping in my calves also kept me honest. I was never in danger of completely seizing up, but I stopped a few times to stretch and try and shake it off.

The last 3.2 miles felt like 32. I think I was slightly hallucinating and initiated a tactic I would later employ in future marathons to help me get to the finish; literally counting minutes down, second-by-second.

Knowing I was now doing barely more than a (cold, wet shoe) shuffle, but still managing close to 10-minute mile pace, I just kept going. Pretending I was a hero; even though I was, along with each-and-every one of the other 39,999 (or so) runners.

The impressive yellow-and-black, Flora-encrusted marker for Mile 24 loomed large in the distance and was the most welcome sight. The crowd cheered louder as our chips collectively chirped upon crossing the timing mat. 2.2 miles to go.

I thought about where Steve now was. I knew there was no chance I’d catch him back up, but I was trying – with every last sinew of physical and mental energy – to somehow up the speed of my shuffle… and at least close the gap.

By mile 25 in a marathon – in fact, particularly from 20 miles on (the final 10k) – hundreds, make that thousands of people (depending on the size of field) have hit The Wall to varying degrees.

And in 1998, I witnessed it first-hand for the first time. I was suffering, but many were grappling with greater struggles. Some shuffling at a pace which made mine seem like a sprint. Some trying to shuffle, but engaging in more of a stumble-shuffle-walk. Some just walking. Some trying to walk, but feeling light-headed; apparently in a state of advanced delirium as they staggered left-and-right like a drunk 'walking' home (to the wrong house) after a big night. And some were on the brink of collapse.

The St John’s Ambulance crew was out in force, as they have been every year, and once again did an incredible job of treating and helping so many runners.

I thanked the heavens that all my faculties were still in working order and I was still fully conscious; in control of my own destiny.

As with most marathons, a large portion of the 1998 London were first-timers. And for Steve and I, despite the fact we’d set a time goal and were trying desperately to achieve that, it really was all about finishing.

Making it to the chequered flag on The Mall – with the Queen looking on from her drawing room – and having a hardy volunteer place the finisher’s medal round our necks in triumph – was the most important goal. To be able to say we’d finished a marathon.

Besides, my chances of breaking four hours had long since bitten the dust.

The cheers of the so knowledgeable crowd at the Mile 25 marker gave us all a much-needed adrenaline boost, as we inched our way down the Embankment, alongside the River Thames, and towards Buckingham Palace. As marathon finishes go, London’s historic stretch is hard to beat.

I was now pretty delirious and craving the finish. My official (gun) time had already clicked past four hours and I just wanted to get this thing over with. Thankfully my XL vest, though soaked to the bone, was hanging somewhat off my chest – which ensured I evaded a bloody bout (and excruciatingly painful case) of jogger’s nipple.

The 800m To Go sign was an extremely welcome sight and proved a rallying cry/injection of adrenaline all rolled into one, as we all willed each other into the finish strongly with a hot, if still very damp, -shoe shuffle.

Finally we turned right into Birdcage Walk and navigated the curve in front of Buckingham Palace, with Big Ben looking on impressively. Knowing there was just 385 yards to go – and seeing the finish – was a beautiful feeling.

As Mum and Dad were in a grandstand on the right, I hauled my tattered and torn body over to that side of the finishing straight and began wildly waving at everyone in all the grandstands, just in case it was them.

With about 100m to go, I spotted them, and Mum nudged Dad into Camcorder action (their bums must have been so numb by this stage). I stopped briefly to pose and then staggered on into and through the finish (Dad caught a flash of my shoe, as I recall).

As I staggered, John Wayne-like down the finisher’s chute, volunteers wrapped one of the famous silver foil sheets around my shoulders – emblazoned with the major sponsor Flora’s now famous logo – and hung one of the precious medals around my neck.

I then limped on, picking up a goodie bag, plus some water, fruit and other replenishment and wondering what on earth had possessed me to put myself through that (a feeling that quickly passes!). Enjoying the camaraderie of my fellow runners kept things in perspective, as we all hobbled onwards together. The mutual appreciation for what we’d just achieved enhancing the warmth of the foil blanket.

I retrieved my kit bag – at the start we’d thrown our Flora pull-string bags onto trucks which corresponded with our race numbers – and then headed to Horse Guards Parade to meet Mum and Dad at the A (for Atkinson) tree (there was a tree for each letter of the alphabet).

We then left the finishing area and I called Steve, who I discovered had also failed to break four hours, but had been only around three minutes ahead of me; we’d clearly both found out exactly what the final 10k of a marathon – particularly your debut – is all about.

Steve was at the Shakespeare pub in Victoria, enjoying a refreshing and hard-earned pint of ice-cold beer in the company of friends and family. Just as in the race, I tried to play catch-up.

What a day and what an experience. My gun time was 4:15 and change; my official chip/net time in the region of 4:08:55. Not Sub-4, but I’ll take it.

The experience of finishing my first marathon – and one of the world’s most famous, at that – is something I’ll always remember and be proud of.

Because in your first marathon, it’s all about claiming that finisher’s medal.

And once you have one of those majestic medallions in the bag, who knows what the future might hold?


1 comment:

Nancy T said...

Oh no--I'm afraid this is going to inspire more newbies to try a marathon :)