How not to run a marathon

After an anxious and frustratingly long month of not training for a marathon the big day loomed straight ahead of me. In one week, the virtual 124th Boston Marathon and the Milton Keynes Marathon would take place but I still couldn’t run. However, I wasn’t the least bit disappointed…I was angry! A word of warning before we go any further…I realise that what I am about to share with you is a first world problem of the highest order but I am a runner. If you are also one then you will recognise that when it comes to running and injuries we can be more than a tad irrational and self-centred.  

And so back to the facts: the two marathons were imminent but I was injured and therefore, furious. After all, I had travelled a very long road to get here. I had been training since last Christmas for the Boston Marathon which should have been held in April. But when Covid started to rear its ugly head in early March I quickly signed up for the Milton Keynes Marathon as a spring marathon backup. I wasn’t going to waste all that training for nothing! However, the start lines shifted again when both were subsequently ‘postponed’ until September. I continued to train because I had also previously signed up for a 2-day 100km ultra taking place in July. And then Covid cancelled that event, too, so I ran a virtual 50km instead.

There was no time to take a break afterwards to recover like any normal person because I had to keep training for the September marathons. They were taking place within a week of each other and I hoped that one of them would still go ahead. But thanks again to Covid both announced that they would be held virtually within a range of dates. Which meant I trained throughout the summer without knowing which virtual event I was going to run. However, I found out that running the Milton Keynes Marathon would also count as running the virtual Boston Marathon if done within Boston’s window of dates. A Venn diagram of the marathon date ranges and family obligations meant it could only be done on the 13th September. But as I would effectively be running both marathons I would receive both medals and t-shirts! It looked like there was finally going to be a bright side to the Covid cancellations.   

Although here I was, only days before the marathon(s) and I wasn’t even sure if I could run. After all the months I had spent slogging away the kms, struggling to follow a training plan that kept getting wiped out by a rolling list of Covid cancellations, I had been fit and well. It wasn’t easy and at times it felt like training was never going to end. But I had no injuries, no niggles, no real complaints. The only issue to contend with was the number of pairs of trainers I was burning through.  

Until a ridiculous fall on my left knee one month ago meant I still couldn’t run with less than a week until race day. I had spent the last four weeks doing everything to help my knee recover but I could hardly bend it. The swelling to it had not shifted and there was a tennis ball of fluid attached to it like a sort of quasi crash pad. It was as if my body knew that another fall was likely just around the corner and so had decided to build up its own line of defence. Fair enough, I thought, but it prevented me from walking far or running. I realised that my knee was perfectly happy with this set-up for the foreseeable future but at one week before the marathon I had had enough.

It was clear that if I didn’t do anything I had no hope of starting the marathon even by walking. I sought out medical advice who agreed that it was time for the crash pad to go and was lucky enough to find a GP with a large needle to help deflate it. As I walked away from the GP’s surgery with the crash pad deflated by ¾ and the strict instructions to only do what the knee allowed after 48hrs, I felt I was still in with a tiny chance of running the marathon.

With 5 days to go, time was not exactly on my side but I thought I might as well return to running with a bang. I ran the virtual MK Rocket 5km at a pedestrian rate with wooden legs but as I shuffled along the course it helped to know that there would be a medal at the end of it. With the first run under my belt the knee was still holding up so I followed it up with a couple of more runs in the coming days. I ran a careful 8km, a risky 10km and then a final 8km two days before the marathon. As the runs increased my legs started to remember what to do and crucially, the knee didn’t complain or inflate. But I was beginning to feel tired and my nerves were slightly frayed. At home I faced questions and commentary ranging from ‘Are you going to run the marathon?’ to ‘You shouldn’t run’ and ‘You’re mad’. I still didn’t know if I could run any further than 10km but I knew, at least, that I wanted to try.   

I woke up on the day of the marathon full of nerves, not knowing exactly how the day was going to pan out. But a quick glance of my knee told me that nothing had changed so I was good to go. Once breakfasted I stuffed my backpack with plenty of fuel and drinks to carry because there wouldn’t be any water stations or official pit stops. Rather than run the MK Marathon virtually we would be doing it Reimagined, using a running app that would direct us around the official and certified 2 lap race route. Which meant that we could park strategically near the start/halfway point and use the car as a pit stop to refill our water bottles and refuel before the second lap.

As we walked to the official start line there were already several small groups of socially distanced runners setting off on their own Reimagined races of varying distances. While their families cheered them on it suddenly hit me that I was about to try and run a marathon after only running for 4 days. I hadn’t even been able to go for a walk one week ago. This was insane. I looked at my husband for some last minute reassurance as he would be running by my side but he had his own running injuries to be preoccupied about. All I could do was put on my headphones and start.

We were off and the route began to round a pretty lake that was beginning to fill up with walkers, strollers and dogs. It was no wonder that the masses were out enjoying the park. It was an absolutely beautifully sunny day and forecast to get hotter. As we ran the app started to give us directions through our headphones but they were interspersed with random facts about our surroundings. However, the app’s female voice sounded like an ersatz Siri on a bad day who was completely bored. But her monotonous tone still kept us en route and we soon noticed others following.  

As we left the lake we ran for several kms along a windy woodland path that weaved around a river. While ersatz Siri directed us with all the enthusiasm of a houseplant, we eventually headed towards a second lake. Once there the path became congested again with a large number of walkers and picnickers but many knew about the MK Marathon. Passers-by called out as we ran and cheered us on but suddenly several other runners came charging towards us. They were in the middle of a different race going around the lake in the opposite direction. The competitors  looked very intense and most flew by at a rapid pace but we couldn’t tell what distance they were running. As we ran on we had some near collisions while rounding blind corners but it was a good distraction from our own task at hand. As ersatz Siri stated that we had run ¼ of the marathon I was about to enter unknown territory.   

As we rounded the bottom of the lake I realised that it was the furthest I had run in a month. But I still felt alright so I obediently followed ersatz Siri’s next command. Before long some of the same speedier runners stormed by us once more. Fortunately, the path soon started to verge from the lake to where we could enjoy a bit of peace again.

We started to run along a shady route and finally escaped the rising temperatures. I only realised then just how exposed we had been to the sun when we were lakeside. After several kms of running along the undulating path we soon approached a steep hill. Ersatz Siri flatly told us ‘You’ve got this’ sounding less convinced than I was of getting up it. However, as we plodded upwards she announced that we were about to enter the ‘downhill section’.    

Having finally reached the top, I let myself go as I ran down the other side and felt instant relief in my legs. But we continued to run downhill for so long that for the first time, my knee started to complain. I tried to hold on knowing that we would soon be heading towards the first lake again and our pit stop.  

After a couple more kms we finally reached the lake and the halfway point. By then there was a growing number of runners and spectators tentatively gathering in small groups. It was obvious which runners had fresh legs and were gearing up to start because the rest looked like they had melted in the heat. With empty water bottles we stopped at our car to drink and refuel while refilling our bottles to the max. But before we could truly rest we set off for the second lap and ersatz Siri lazily repeated her earlier directions.

It took a while to get our legs going but my knee seemed to be coping again. In fact, it began to feel more like a mental challenge than physical to have to repeat the same route. It was also hard to ignore the wafting smells of BBQ and overlook the number of people lying around like sloths. But now and then, we spotted another runner ahead. It helped to spur us on and remind us that there were many others working hard in the boiling sun. We had to dig deep but like unstoppable machines we ploughed through the next kms running on the same windy path.  

We finally arrived at the second lake but to a scene that was decidedly different. The crowds had grown and the race still continued but we hardly recognised any of the competitors. They all looked absolutely wiped out as the heat had taken its toll. By then, even the most ambitious were practically crawling. They could hardly lift their heads to nod back to others in the runner’s acknowledgement that misery loves company. We tried to cheer them on while not exactly feeling fresh, ourselves, because at 32km we were starting to feel the mileage and the stifling heat.

Ersatz Siri managed to get us through with her hypnotic drone once more until we eventually left the lake and into the sanctuary of the shadier paths. But as the next kms went by and we were getting closer to the end it was only becoming harder to focus. A bleak internal monologue began to circle in my head. What am I doing? I can’t do this! It’s too hot! I think my toes are crying! I looked at my husband who had been absolutely silent for some time and I could see he was also struggling. I felt a full-blown wobbly coming on so I suggested we stop in the shade to reassess.

As we stretched and drank we admitted that we were both about to lose the plot. Why hadn’t we stopped any earlier? We had both been silently concentrating on our individual struggles during the last couple of kms and had forgotten to look out for each other. We spent some more moments to refuel and knew that we had less than 6km to go. We could actually do this! Except… the heat was unrelenting and I was starting to get low on water.  

At that moment, what can only be described as an angel appeared out of nowhere in the shape of a woman on her way to ASDA. We must have looked terrible because she rushed up to us and seemed really worried. Without asking, and despite our protests she thrust her water bottle at me. She then insisted that I refill my bottles to the brim without any concern for herself in the age of Covid. Before we knew it, with her Bag for Life in hand, she disappeared again.

As we started on the final leg of the marathon we still couldn’t quite believe what had happened because I could not have run much further without refilling. But ersatz Siri promptly brought us back to earth with the news that the long hill was just ahead. As we started to climb in the baking heat we saw another runner in front who looked exhausted. He was accompanied by a much younger cyclist directing the way and urging him upwards with a ‘C’mon!!’ The runner glared at the cyclist with such a look of contempt it could only have meant, ‘You have no idea how hard this is, you cretin!’ As we crept by, I said as much to him as to myself, ‘We’re almost there, we can do this’ and he gave us a silent nod in resigned agreement.  

Finally, we reached the downhill section for the second time but the moment of intense relief was short lived. I was too tired to try and slow my pace as I ran down the steep descent at breakneck speed. With knackered legs, the pressure on my knees and quads was killing me. It was a strange sensation to be sprinting, slightly out of control and in so much pain. But I was glad to get some quick kms out of the way. All I had to do was try to concentrate on not falling until the path levelled out.

But there would be no falling drama this time and at last we entered the final 3km. Ersatz Siri began to count down the mileage to go with some more ‘You’ve got this’. I must have been delusional by then because she was starting to sound sincere. We finally reached 41km and it was only then that I could admit to myself that I was going to make it. The final km and 195m of the marathon made up for all of the hard work. We entered the park again to find it full of other runners and spectators celebrating. There was a real sense of joy in the air as we reached the finish and I was as overjoyed as relieved to finally stop.

It had only been my second marathon and I certainly hadn’t set a new PB but I had somehow done it all with my wonky knee still intact. To date, the ¼ size crash pad still remains stubbornly in situ but surprisingly it has not inflated. In fact, the weakest physical link turned out to be one of my toes which has forced me to finally put my feet up. Well, at least for the moment because a forced recovery period only makes a runner think more about what to do next. With the changing seasons, I can imagine some good cross country trail runs and I think a December winter half marathon may be on the cards. The question is, will the crash pad still be accompanying me by then or will it have been used to defend another fall…

In the meantime, here is another good recovery snack that will hit the spot after any long run. These Spiced plum and walnut swirls are easy to make and are perfect for packing as an After sport snack.

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