I suppose I should begin writing about the marathon by shouting ‘I DID IT!’ It still seems surreal. I did it, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I finished in a slow but steady 4 hours 40 minutes and 26 seconds, comfortably within my 4 ½ to 5 hour prediction.
I expected a lesson in pain, and I certainly got one, though not in the way that I anticipated. In fact, the entire race was very different to my expectations, starting with how beautiful it was. I have completely fallen in love with Amsterdam – the gorgeously detailed (and often skew) old Dutch buildings, the canals busy with boats and surrounded by bicycles, and the countryside occasionally intruding, with fields of horses, or empty greenery. Running along the Amstel canal for nearly 15 kilometres of the route, with training rowers occasionally cheering the hoards of runners streaming past, barge boats with musicians cruising up and down to provide a much-need lift to the spirits, and the lovely, large houses with cheering inhabitants was an experience never to be forgotten.
Having written that, however, I must add that I am often amazed at how quickly memories can fade; even the impressions that struck me so powerfully at the time that it seemed impossible that they should remain anything less than intensely clear. Capturing these memories now in words and pictures will help preserve some that may otherwise fade with time, and I have no doubt I will be appreciative of this in future years.
There is something about being in an environment in a very direct, physical way that makes me overwhelmingly appreciative of my surroundings, the simple facts of being alive, and being where I am in that very moment. This is not true for me in team sports, which have their own buzz of adrenaline but require absolutely focused concentration on the ball, my team mates, and the opposition. It is not true in sprinting, where every muscle and brain cell has to be intensely focused on nothing but propelling my body as fast and efficiently as possible across the finish line. For this, and many other reasons, my most beloved sport has always been river marathon paddling, and while that remains my favourite sport and hobby (despite a long break from it, which will hopefully be over in a couple of years), running has certainly given me some of the same satisfactions, if less adrenaline.
I crossed both the start and finish lines in tears. The start was due to memories: I was haunted by the memory of my mother standing waiting with me for the start of the Edinburgh Half Marathon, less than five months ago, and so shortly before her death. My emotions were heightened, as if drawn up to the surface, and I couldn’t afford to turn to her memory for strength through the race, as the slightest hint of it would set me off sobbing again. I decided that she is such an integral part of me that I didn’t need to consciously evoke her – it was enough to know that much of what got me around that course came from things I learnt from her.
Not least of these was pain management. As I struggled initially to come to terms with the unexpected and excruciating pain in my ankles, which started 40 minutes into the race, was followed shortly thereafter by dull, aching knee pain, both of which lasted throughout the following hours of the race, I thought of her reflections on the management of chronic pain, and decided that distraction was my best plan. This was made much easier by the beautiful surroundings and weather, which provided me with much joy.
I crossed the finish line feeling triumphant, but tearful nonethless. I had expected to hit a ‘wall’ at around 35kms, but instead realised that my muscles were feeling fresh and strong, as the joint (and later chest) pains had meant that I had run far, far more slowly than usual. I was still worried about exhaustion ambushing me, having struggled through the last couple of kilometres on three of my half marathons once I had started to speed up for the finish, but tentatively began to pick my pace up from around 37kms. By the time I got to the 40km marker I was still feeling strong, so I picked up the pace and hauled the last 2.2kms, half expecting to burn out at any second, but flying past fellow competitors and crossing the finish line feeling strong. It was the first race I have done after which I could jog a cool-down rather than collapse in an exhausted heap. I cried with satisfaction, joy, sorrow, and most of all bewilderment. I couldn’t quite believe it was over, and my aching joints could soon rest. I couldn’t fully accept that I had achieved what had always seemed so impossible. I couldn’t believe that I could only tell my mother about it in my head. I couldn’t believe how much I had enjoyed it.
Ah, life – teaching us time and again that we can do more than we really believe we can, and that the one thing we should always expect is the unexpected. Clichés, after all, only become clichés because they prove true time and time again.