There are times I wish I could see the future; not all the time, because that would take the fun out of living, but once or twice for the winning lottery numbers would be nice, and to help me prepare more effectively for a marathon.
However you do one – whether you run or walk – people who commit fully for one will know what I mean. The months of preparation and planning for the day means that your life can oftentimes be consumed by the entirety of this event; organising routes for practice, working out food plans, raising money, choosing the right trainers and fancy dress (if you’re so inclined) … oh, I could go on.
In fact, I think I will.
This year I did something I never thought I’d ever do; I walked an entire marathon by myself … oh alright, if you discount the other 16,000 people who walked it as well. I’m being facetious, of course (something I’m guilty of more often than I’d care to admit), but I’ve always done every walk before now with a friend of mine (Di), and I was motivated into working hard because I was with someone. I certainly wouldn’t have got into marathon walking in the first place had it not been for another friend, Chelby, telling me about them. Essentially, I’m blaming everyone else here; have you noticed?
However, Di moved to Bournemouth this year, and retired from marathon walking at the same time, so I had a choice; do I give it up as well or carry on? In time honoured fashion, I found a third path – as I have been known to act rather contrary from time to time. I wanted to set myself a goal of walking at least one marathon solo before, due to some impending changes in my own future, I slid into semi-retirement.
So I went ahead and did it, although not without some trepidation; would I keep myself in check as much as I would do with a walking buddy? Would my pace be as good? Would my pace be anywhere as comparable? Would I get a fit of the vapours and give up half way round? My mind plays terrible tricks on me, especially when I spend too much time in my own company, and I certainly had a lot of time to think during my many training walks.
But people so often cope with situations, and I have a wonderful level of support from those around me; my friends Chelby and Kirk joined me on some of the walks, and the longer ones gave me a chance to catch up on some podcasts I had wanted to listen to for a while. I also found an online community of friends who knew about my love of walks and spurred me on, as well as connections on social media with a group of like-minded people who I’ve loved meeting.
The Shine marathon itself was a brilliant experience, as it always is. There are four starts – two for half-marathon walkers and two for full marathon walkers, and I was able to sign up for the 9.20pm start. Rain was threatened on the weather forecasts, and looked like it was going to chucking it down all night – but I missed the rain entirely. I feel for the walkers who were still walking when it eventually hit, as I loathe walking in heavy rain – who wouldn’t?
I was conscious about getting there to the start early; I wasn’t sure how awkward I would feel whilst waiting for the start, standing around without my regular walking buddy to chat to. As usual, however, I had greatly over-thought the situation; I arrived at about 7.45pm, took a short stroll around the site, grumbled at the wet grass that prevented me from sitting down and resting my legs, and then got over myself and walked over to the three gates we were going to pass through en route to the start line.
Each walker could choose to pick up a yellow, blue, or red wristband, and a wheel would be spun to decide which colour would go first, second, and third. I struggle to understand the logic of replacing a system based on skill and confidence level with a system based entirely on chance. I chose the blue gate purely at random, and I’m rather glad I did, as I fell into conversation with a fellow solo walker called Hazel – she had walked 20 marathons, both with her sister and by herself – who gave me some sage advice on heading off in the first group, which I took.
I was pleased, to be honest, that I was able to get off in the first group, as I’m not the most patient person in the world (ask anyone who knows me; they’ll confirm it) and get more antsy the longer I have to wait. A character flaw, I’ll happily admit, but one that drives me on, so swings and roundabouts … In any case, I was able to walk a short way with Hazel before we lost each other in a melee; I looked her up on the Shine tracking system this morning and was delighted to see that she only finished a little way behind me. I’m gutted I didn’t realise how close she and I were; I would love to have cheered her over the finish line.
As I was crossing Tower Bridge a couple of miles in, I fell into conversation with a lady called Nicky, who had done eight Shines so far and was aiming for ten. She had done a couple of Shine marathons in Manchester before moving to the London one, and was as friendly as Hazel; we found ourselves walking together on and off for a substantial portion of the walk. On one occasion, I peeled off and walked ahead for a few miles before we met up again and chatted for a while, then she peeled off.
It was during our time together that we discovered how close to the front we were; in fact, for the first two miles or so we walked together, we spent some time in joint first, which we only found out when a guy on the pacer bike told us. I assumed he was joking, as there was no way that was possible … but it turns out he was telling the truth.
I never set out to achieve a particular order in a marathon; as long as I’m walking at the best speed I can achieve, then I’m not even considering my place in the order – be that number 1,001 or 9,734. But when I discovered I was at the front, I had a daydream of what that would feel like; crossing the finish line as the first marathon walker of the evening. Then I laughed at myself and continued focusing on the pleasure of the actual walk itself.
To give myself a focus and a good pace (without someone with me to keep me going, I found that more difficult than I’d care to admit), I set myself targets for the route. I decided to aim for 5 miles in the first hour, followed by 4.2 – 4.5 miles for the rest of the evening. I was confident I’d be able to sustain that level of fitness, so set off at a good, fast pace, and resolved to slow down a fraction after an hour.
Two hours later, and still walking at a silly speed, I could feel a stitch brewing in my side, so knew it was a good time to calm down slightly. You see, I have a slightly competitive edge – not with anyone else, usually, but with myself. I’m always out to do the best I can do, and have a tendency to become somewhat single-minded when I’m in “the zone”, so I wanted to see how far I could push myself … and kept going.
The route itself was lively and full of things to look at, so I was able to distract myself in different ways than when I had someone to talk to, by looking at the scenery and watching the world go by (there are a couple of stretches around mile 21 / 22 where your reserves are starting to lessen that aren’t very exciting, and I literally spent the time talking to myself with an ongoing pep talk). The Pacer Bike Guy (PBG – I’m ashamed to admit that I utterly forgot to ask him his name) came by occasionally to check in on me, and I was very grateful – there weren’t any other walkers around (except for one phenomenally faster guy who zoomed past me and left me eating his dust; cheery hello’s were quickly exchanged before he continued onwards at warp speed), and some stretches went without volunteers.
Ah yes, the volunteers. They were lovely – utterly lovely. A very few were very quiet and didn’t seem that confident directing us as we went round, but the overwhelming majority (99.9999999999%) were brilliantly encouraging – I was mightily cheered by the “well done’s”, high fives, cheers, and onward encouragement I got from them all. The pit stops were noisy, cheery affairs where I was treated as something of a minor celebrity (as every walker naturally will have been – I’m only a celebrity inside my own head), and the volunteers out on the streets, either by themselves or in small groups, were fantastic – they deserve so much praise.
The last two miles along the South Bank – an area of London I love – were the hardest. The end was within reach, but I was really starting to ache (massively so) – thankfully, I was too stubborn to give in. I could have slowed up a little, of course, but a part of my brain that emerges at times like this kept me going. By this point, I wanted to see how quickly I was able to get to that finish line, and nothing was going to stop me, not even legs that were threatening massive strike action at any moment.
I saw Pacer Bike Guy (PBG) near Borough Market and heard him shout, “You’re second!” I thought he was joking, so laughed, stuck my thumb up, and continued before he sped off to the finish line. I put my head down and carried on.
And then there it was – the finish, at Old Billingsgate Market on the north side of the Thames. That building never looks as good as when you know you’re about to stop walking, get a medal, and have a hot drink. I nearly flagged, right there in front of the building, when three marshals appeared, shook my hand, and cheered me in – that meant so much – before I entered the building to a wall of noise from the small army of volunteers. Oh, and a sense of sheer joy that I’d done it.
Pacer Bike Guy (PBG) saw me walk in, and cheerfully greeted me like an old friend, which I willingly returned – he was brilliantly friendly, and shared with me his ambitions for “10 events / £10k”, which was simply amazing. In previous years, I’ve usually left pretty soon after finishing (because I’ve always got a hotel room to go back to), but because I hung around for a little while talking to PBG, I got to see Nicky – my travelling companion from earlier in the evening – finish, and I was able to join in the cheers as she crossed the line.
But I was amazed at something; I achieved a personal best – something important to people who complete events – at 5 hours, 36 minutes, and found out that I had come in second. That was a great discovery, but the personal best would have been enough for me – and even if I hadn’t got a personal best, I still wouldn’t have been upset. The fact that I achieved those two things on this marathon was a pleasure and a joy.
Why this marathon? Because it’ll be the last one I tackle for a while – for a few years at least – and it surprisingly chokes me up to consider that, as I thoroughly enjoy them. But the pleasure for me comes first and foremost from doing them with friends, and sharing the experience with them, as well as the preparation and after-effects.
After some rest back in my hotel room, I met up with some friends – the inimitable Chelby and Kirk, plus their two children who I shall call the Overlord and Warlord (if they don’t rule the cosmos in the course of their lifetimes, I’ll be stunned) – and that was great. The simple pleasures of a bus ride to show the kids the Royal Albert Hall (because they’d see it on a TV show), lunch, and then a short sojourn to the Science Museum is what it’s all about.
That, for me, is the best part of the entire … aha, exercise; sharing experiences. I wondered if I would get a little choked at the end of the marathon, but no; because this is what I know I’ll miss more than the adrenaline kick of the marathon itself … and I know I’ll miss that. So maybe I would do a solo marathon again in the future, but I’d much rather do it in company, and share the moments of agony (having to walk up and down stairs) as well as pleasure (we’ve completed it!), and the times practicing beforehand and enjoying London afterwards.
With changes in my life looming at some point in the near future, that will be the focus of my attention, and I know I’ll have the time to do marathons again in the future … as and when I find the right moment. Until then, I’ll be mightily supporting the walking marathons, enjoying new challenges … and making sure I treasure those who make the challenges worthwhile.