Against all the odds and contrary to my other half’s fervid woe betiding – “your nipples will bleed… feet will crumble… you’ll wet yourself… I’ve read all about it” – I’ve only gone and run the London bloody Marathon and survived, relatively unscathed. I dragged my tormented legs across the finish line with my dignity, and nipples, intact. My friends and family were pretty surprised, I’ve always been what you might term ‘a reluctant mover’, and I was a little taken aback myself. But it’s true, I did it. Liz Cookman: runner of marathons… well, a marathon.
It’s taken three months to write about it, it felt like a memory too precious, too worth savouring, to begin organising it into words and sentences. The marathon was at once the toughest and the most wonderful experience of my life.
The first five miles were easyish. It was like a cartoon world – the sun was shining, the birds were singing, everyone was smiling and I could do anything. The streets were lined with people willing us on and passing out sweets. As we passed pubs we were serenaded by bands playing their own versions of uplifting hits in everything from rock to the steel drum, Eye of the Tiger and Don’t Stop Me Now were particular favourites.
The mile markers seemed to be flying past; if only that had lasted.
By the time I’d reached mile eleven or twelve the heat – it would have to be the hottest day of the month/year – was beginning to get to me and the gaps between each balloon-laden arch – the mile markers – seemed to be growing exponentially.
At Tower Bridge, just before the halfway line, I was beginning to flag despite shovelling in the energy chews.
When I said I ‘ran’ the marathon, I’ll have to come clean. That isn’t strictly true. After mile fifteen, there really wasn’t all that much running going on. Hobbling, walking maybe, but not much running and at somewhere around mile 19, the pain set in. Agonising, searing, unceasing pain. My (ample) bum and thighs were in some sort of spasm, the muscles were useless and the cramp, or whatever it was, was more intense and all-consuming than just about anything I’d experienced before. I felt like a lump of steak after a few days tenderising under a gaucho’s saddle: all the pounding against the hard road had melted my muscles.
36,000 runners start the London Marathon and on average 98% of them finish. Everyone is simply determined that, no matter what, they will get to the end. There are those who fall or can’t cope, the further the distance the more casualties line the sides of the road, being treated by St John’s Ambulance volunteers. But once the pain has calmed or they catch their breath, they carry on. I was seriously sore, but I had to carry on.
By this late stage, pretty much all the runners left were, like me, tired and heavy and hurting. We may as well have been wearing concrete boots. The last five miles were very, very slow (the second half of the race took me 40 minutes more than the first), which is tough psychologically because, by that point, all that’s keeping you going is picturing a cold pint of bubbly, sweet cider at the end – and you want it now.
Some of the runners had become so slow in fact, it looked as if they were trapped underwater, exaggeratedly bouncing and stomping, but with very little forward thrust. I power walked, it was the only way I could deal with the pain, moving just fast enough to somehow trick my muscles, and it meant I was one of the speedy ones. I sailed past runner after runner, creeping towards the end, stopping only to wave to my uncle Timothy and kiss Andy, who were on the Mall to cheer me on (thanks for coming you guys!).
A few metres before the finish line I was almost in tears. I had somehow missed my mum who was somewhere near the end, and she’d missed me. My prepared ‘crossing the line’ track for some reason wouldn’t play – this was not the triumphant scene I had pictured. But with a few seconds to spare, it (Wildfire by SBTRKT, in case you wondered) finally kicked in and I managed to muster the strength to run, one last burst over the finish line and I’d done it, coming in just before the timer hit six hours.
I can now say I’ve run the bloody marathon – who thinks they’re ever going to be able to say that!? Most people called me mad, but the feeling of achievement, the feeling you get from doing something you never, ever thought you’d be able to do is just wonderful. That evening, I might have been walking like a penguin, but I got my pint (and a few extra) and it was the best pint ever.
I ran the marathon for the Canal and River Trust, you can sponsor me here and help them to keep up the good work they do preserving our waterways.
→ On fear and the London Marathon