Friday, 22 April 2011

Even marathon runners need to nap

London is a great, mysterious city, with always a surprise, so I suppose you have to run around it every year, on a pilgrimage of self-exploration and self-abuse. It was time for the marathon again. I took the train in, finally opened the envelope with my entry documents (sitting on desk for months), read the Virgin London Marathon magazine and almost cried. Adrenaline was - at least - seeping out through my tearducts. I'd forgotten what adrenaline tasted like. Today it tasted like defeat and tomorrow's hope in a pitiful cocktail. I was trying to think of a name for this cocktail when the train pulled into King's Cross.

I dodged the crowds at the ExCel Centre exposition, went to the hotel, checked in, wandered around Carnaby Street and wondered when it had been swallowed whole by the Evil Chains. I went out for dinner at the worst pizza express on the planet (Byward Street), near All Hallows by the Tower Church. My pasta came burned black, the sauce shrivelled away. They must have lost it at the back of the oven. After a tine on my fork shattered on first contact I proposed to the waiter that he might want to bring another one (I've never done this before, honest). He looked puzzled, so I explained, perfectly nicely, that it seemed quite burned to me. He scowled and carried it away. A couple of minutes later the manager showed up. "What it is?" he said, and glared at me. I explained again. "It's because it's warmed in the over," he said. "I think perhaps it was in the oven a bit long," I said. "No, it's just that the oven is very hot at the top." He was glaring now. "Well, would it be possible for me to have another one that's a bit less burnt?" "DO you want to choose another plate?" he asked, "I can bring you another, but it'll be just the same." I had lasagna, which the manager had probably spat on, but at least it wasn't burnt through. I needed my carbohydrate. The restaurant appeared to be full of runners, all in their casual sports gear, carrying backpacks. I still think wearing cufflinks saves adrenaline.

The hotel was nice (Apex, near Tower Bridge), quiet and roomy, with a view of St Olave's church. The phone was nice, a Jensen phone. I didn't use it. The TV looked ok. I didn't use that either. The shower was excellent, and I used that. The bed was huge, and I used that. I finally got around to looking at the train timetable for the following morning, and thought I could get away with the 8:10 from London Bridge overground station. Not caring about your performance can be pleasingly relaxing. Gone are the days of tense evenings with Sean micromanaging our breakfast and checking the contents of the race bag for the twentieth time. I could barely be bothered to crumple my race number before pinning it to my shirt (for aerodynamic purposes). I slept with my feet up on a pillow and dreamed of my dog running across the fens.

The morning was overcast, but the air was humid and the clouds promised to break later. A few runners haunted the streets. Most were at the station, taking their hydration seriously, their bladders inexorably filling.

I fell asleep on the train to Blackheath. Then I made my fraudulent way to the Fast Good For Age pen. Because I had held over my place from last year, when I had obtained it by merit of being fast. But I was no longer Fast, nor even Good For Age. I am an overweight sluggard, with my best miles left behind me, spent with a bottle on the sofa. The problem with middle-age runner culture is that no one believes you, because talking your race down is universal.

I see the old crowd there, and they're still runners, proper runners. I bump into Chanti from Long Eaton. "How's it going?" I ask. "Not great, digestive problems ... I won't run flat out," he says, dismissively, meaning "I'm hoping for 2:49." Then Giulio, "oh, ok," he says, which Giacomo glosses as "sub 3 for sure".  Giacomo says "not bad", and Giulio explains that means 2:45. Then Ish, who is a new father and hasn't trained, so he's going to trot around in 3:15.

You? They all ask. I'm fat and I haven't trained, I say. They all think that means 2:59. I explain that I'd be happy with 3:59. They all think I'm talking my race down. I'm not, but not one of them believes me. Only I know how very not-pretty it's going to be.
I creep my way to the back of the Fast Good For Age starting pen, at the very front of the red start. The sides are lined with men - there are almost no women here - peeing under the barriers, away from the pen. They had a choice between peeing in the toilets, or making it to the front of the pen, a choice that was none.

We crammed in together, in a fug of testosterone and adrenaline and watery urine. There were a couple of idiots talking over the PA, which I think may have been the TV or radio coverage. 9:45 approached. There was a countdown. And nothing happened. Gradually I saw a few heads begin to move. And then it all began.

I was running without a watch. I didn't need to know how slow or fast I was: my target was to enjoy myself. It never really works as a target that (am I enjoying myself yet?). Having people run past me was a new experience. One guy asked me a question or said something - I forget what - and we fell into conversation. We hit the two mile mark and he looked at his watch. "Oh this is good," he said, "I didn't think I was going to be able to pace myself because I've no practice at doing that, but we've run the first two miles in exactly 7:20 each." Oh Christ, I think, slow down.

I run (if you can call that running). I see a lot more than usual. The sun emerges - gently at first, but soon intensely, and licks London with sparkling light. Around the water stations the roads coruscate.

Oddly enough, running a marathon slowly isn't very different from running one quickly. You go through all the same moments of apprehension and of fear that you won't finish. You worry whether that twingeing in the toe is the start of a blister. The pain is quite similar, though I did have a new one this time: the pain caused by completely worn out shoes. I'd tried to buy a new pair of shoes, but they turned out not to be quite right. So I wore a pair that were a couple of years old, with many hundreds of miles in them.

I ignored the slow people passing me, and reminded myself that I was here to enjoy it. A woman said "hello". I looked over at her. "Oh Christ," I think, "Nell McAndrew is speaking to me." A thousand reasons run through my head why Nell might want to speak to me. Actually none do. I can't think of a single one. Some of this must be legible on my face, and so Nell says: "I'm from your running club - my name's Caroline." I look down, and she is indeed wearing a Cambridge & Coleridge vest. She runs nicely and I follow her for five to eight miles before I lose her.

Tower Bridge is great, except you know that the next few miles are a bit boring. I'm still feeling pretty good. I see the leaders -- Mutai has a twenty second lead on Lel, and he looks strong and determined; you can see the resolution in his face, and I think, yes, I want to be like him. Then it is - as always, just as it is when I'm fast - in the three miles after Tower Bridge that people pass me. This time people in fancy dress. Short overweight people. Everything is in slow motion. I pray for the turn when we start to head back west.

You can't lie to the Marathon. You can't cheat it. You think you can sneak around, but 26.2 miles won't let you get away with it. When your training schedule includes a couple of thousand miles on the bike together with a couple of crashes, scars and a broken hand, one long run (26.2 miles), plus another when you got lost in the fens and ran out of water, one abandoned set of hill repeats, plus a handful of 7-mile runs, you cannot hope that a poker face is going to persuade the Marathon to let you get away with it. I keep on waiting for the hamstring to give up.

But I think I'm going to be ok.

And then the turn happens and I'm feeling pretty good, and I pick my heels up a bit. And I pass all of those people who passed me. They're slowing, some are stretching against the barriers, many are walking. And I'm feeling pretty good. I look at the clocks on the mile markers and figure out that I should make 4 hours. Then I calculate that I will make four hours even if I have to stop and walk a bit. Then I work out that 3:45 is quite plausible. I'm deeply confused because I am passed by the 3:30 pacers twice, and I have no idea - having no watch - why they should be anywhere near.

While the thirteenth mile had been the longest mile of my life - at least until the fourteenth, which only held its pre-eminence until the fifteenth - after about twenty everything speeded up. Though the markers do seem to go a bit funny for the last couple of miles, and that "800 metres to go" was an age in coming. It reminded me of my old friend Ned's complaints in 2008 when I cheerily exclaimed "that's only twice around a track"; but once I hit that the metres disappeared pretty quickly, and I bounded past a few old codgers and cripples towards the finish.

I saw Ish and Caroline, who complained about the heat, but kept on walking, and within minutes was in Trafalgar Square, sitting on the steps in front of the National Gallery.

Here's a useful bit: an advanced marathoning technique Sean taught me. Take flip-flops for after the race. I haven't had a running blister in years, today the flip-flops were an exquisite relief. In Trafalgar Square the sun at last went away, giving some relief to the 4+ hour slowcoaches.

The waiter at Les Deux Salons brought me a bavette steak that was the shape of my fist, and somewhat bigger, good and bloody on the inside. Somewhere deep inside me the memory of thirty years of vegetarianism stirred, and I ate every inch. That's how to recover. Maybe I'll become a runner again one day, and I'll be able to forget this 3:34.20, and return to lighter numbers. In the heart of this bavette steak I look for inspiration for the autumn, and it's perhaps a sign of being a runner, however faint and inaudible, that the inner chorus is asking "where next?". First, however, I need a new pair of shoes.


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