Brighton Marathon 2015: Race Report

I signed up for the Brighton Marathon in July last year. I didn’t tell many people about it until after the Great North Run, in September. I trained through the snow and drizzle of a winter in the west of Scotland (with varying levels of consistency). I somehow ended up doing most of my long runs during the week, from work to home in a very much Going The Pretty Way; I realised that this had perhaps been a mistake when I discovered at 10pm on a Wednesday that I have great difficulty stomaching real food after anything beyond about 14 miles. By the time I got to Holy Week (and taper / cross training via altar stripping and thuribleing), I was questioning my own sanity.

On Friday, I packed and panicked and dithered. I almost forgot my gels. I did forget my sunscreen, which is why I am now sporting an impressive Garmin sunburn line on my left wrist. I slept badly, alternating between worrying that I’d sleep through the alarm and having confusing dreams about running five different marathons that weren’t Brighton.

My goal was to finish (and get an automatic PB). My second goal was sub-6:00. My only-if-unicorns-exist goal was sub-5:30, which would happen only if I didn’t hit the wall and my legs became powered by jet fuel.

We arrived in Brighton on Saturday afternoon, caffeinated, to blue sky, sunshine, and hugs from Pam, who was to provide the Local Knowledge section of my support crew. If you are doing your first marathon, I highly recommend choosing a city that has a friend in it. Not only are they able to source plates of the city’s finest carbohydrates, they can also be emotionally blackmailed into provision of cheerleading services.

Of course, it turns out that I have many excellent (and insane) friends. Since starting to tell people in September that for my birthday I was going to run a marathon, I had amassed quite the cheering squad and with more to come.

Support Crew Selfie

Support Crew Selfie

My morning began with a hug from Holly and an observation that I appeared to be shaking, and then a frantic hunt for an open shop that would sell me some sort of sanitary wear. At eight in the morning. On a Sunday. In England. Thank God for Tesco Metro. And because the queue for the Portaloos was going nowhere fast, thank God also for large trees and shamelessness.

I joined a crowd of people who were wearing trainers and carrying kit bags, and trusted that at least if we got lost we would all get lost together. I got chatting to a man who was running for Clic Sargent. We exchanged cities and half marathon times and longest run stories and gel flavours, and chat about triathletes (neither of us are) and Tough Mudder (he will be next month). I never did learn his name. I hope you did well, Clic Sargent Man! A short way from Preston Park, the guy at the head of our little group walked into a housing estate, which didn’t seem quite right, and then he started to look a little vague. “Mate, do you know where you’re going?” asked my friend. He gestured at the twenty or thirty people who were behind us. “Only, we’ve all been following you.”

Finally, we all came upon a park with a lot of people lining up behind a start line. After a brief panic, we realised that they were the runners for the Brighton 10K. We agreed that we were a bit envious, but magnanimously cheered them on their way before splitting up to find baggage trucks and coffee and, in my case, the aforementioned large tree.

As I was searching for the entrance into the start pens, my phone rang. Coralie! She had been travelling into Brighton for the day and hadn’t expected to make it to the start, but she was standing next to my corral. It was lovely to see a friendly face before I got going.

And then we did get going and I was sent on my way by a high-five from Jo Pavey. I love Jo Pavey. The Paula Radcliffes and Mo Farahs of this world are fabulous and inspirational and I’ll never shut up about the year I high-fived Mo Farah in the Great North Run, but people like Jo make people like me believe that we can do it too.

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The first mile loops around Preston Park, up what on the elevation profile looks like the worst hill of the course. I was running next to a rhino, a Peppa Pig, and a guy called Dave who was wearing an enormous telephone and raising money for the Samaritans, so there was plenty of crowd support for the little knot near me. I liked that hill, which kept me from going off too fast, and as we turned downhill just before the first mile marker I was chanting to myself to not overcook the downhills. I still had twenty five miles to go, and that’s quite a lot of miles.

The next few miles ticked away steadily. It was nice to run past the Pavilion, which felt like a landmark. Coralie saw me there and screamed, but apparently I had game face on and didn’t notice her at all. (Sorry.) A bit past The Level, there is a tiny loop less than a quarter of a mile long that goes up a short sharp hill and past about five apartment buildings. I realised halfway up the hill that I had gone past the 4 mile marker and that that meant I could have my first gel.

A very short way after that, there is a longer hill on the way up into Kemp Town. I was happy and enjoying the sunshine and feeling strong, and the crowds were out in force. And then, out of nowhere, Holly and George were on the street and cheering. I hadn’t expected to see them until half marathon point, so it was amazing to see them there. “WHAT ARE YOU GUYS DOING HERE?!” I shouted. “GO RUN!” George yelled at me.

Photo Credit: Her Majesty (in the blue jumper, above)

Photo Credit: Her Majesty (in the blue jumper, above)

And less than half a mile later, there was Pam, who got a sweaty hug before I dashed off down to the seafront.

The course after that point cuts off the pier but then follows the seafront for a long way, all the way down to Ovingdean, as an out-and-back. I liked the out-and-back aspect of it at that stage; I was on a nice gradual slope up, and I enjoyed watching the faster runners and realising that it would be mostly downhill on the way back into the centre of Brighton. It was warm and there was a gorgeous sea breeze and the smell of salt in my nose. I was having a ball. My energy levels were good. My legs felt good. The only thing that was bothering me, actually, was an awareness that my underarms were beginning to get quite sore. There was a St John Ambulance cadet at the 6 mile marker handing out Vaseline, and I cut across the road to get to him. “Yes,” I said, and slathered it on. Sorted.

Later, so I am told, a very small boy who borrowed George’s lap because his feet were sore would get very concerned that the cycling St John Ambulance paramedics were “cheating”.

I had been taking on a couple of slurps of water at most of the water stations, but I was offered a bottle of Gatorade at that point. I hadn’t trained with it but I tend to handle sports drink fairly well if the flavour isn’t too strong, and I grabbed a lemon one. I had never had it before yesterday, but it is the most delicious thing in the world. It tasted like a lemon ice lolly. I decided then that that was what I wanted at the finish. I took a bottle of lemon Gatorade every time one was offered after that, and let me tell you, the thought of that ice lolly (which by the end I didn’t even want anymore) sustained me through a few dark patches in the later miles.

There were no dark patches yet, though. There were some quiet spots down at the far reaches of the course, out on the coastal path between Brighton and Ovingdean, and I’d tucked my iPod into my belt in case I wanted music, but I found that I was quite happy just to be alone with my thoughts and the wind and the sound of a hundred running shoes slapping on the tarmac.

The support picked up again as we ran into Brighton, between the 10 and 11 mile markers. A woman in a burgundy fleece was giving out free hugs and she was so enthusiastic that I took one, which was a good decision. An older gentleman was giving out Jelly Babies and I took one of those, too, which was a bad decision and I had to fight off nausea for half a mile until the next water station.

Just after 12 miles, I heard a yell of, “GO ON, GIRL!” and I waved at Pam who had made it down from Kemp Town.

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And very soon afterwards, near the hotel, were Holly and George and Coralie, screaming fit to wake the dead and having got hold of a couple of noisemakers.

By now, the fast runners were coming back towards us and heading down towards the finish line. I had a long, long way to go before I was back on that side of the road.

I got quite worried when my Garmin went for 13 miles and I couldn’t see a mile marker anywhere. It had been measuring a tenth to two tenths of a mile long ever since Preston Park, but usually I was close enough to spot the mile marker when it went. A few fuzzy-headed minutes later, I saw the Hilton arch for half marathon point and figured out that that was what we were getting instead of a 13 mile marker. I’d set up my Garmin so that I could just see the clock and get an alert and lap pace every time I went through a mile, but I flicked through the screens as I went under the arch.

2:41, which is twelve minutes quicker than my half marathon PB in any actual half marathon. And yet I was about to do it all over again.

I knew I wouldn’t see my crew again until near the end, so I settled in for the long haul.

We drifted along the seafront, still passing all the people who were racing through 24 and 25 miles and towards the finish. At some point we split so that they were on the seafront path proper while we were on the road, and then after the 14 mile marker the course took us up into Hove. Hove was out in force, although my main memory of this part was that it was an awful lot longer than it looked on the map. My pace had dropped by a fair bit by 16 miles, but I was determined that I was going to keep running until the 18 mile marker, which had been the length of my longest long run, before I thought about walking and just let’s never mind that all of my long runs had been punctuated by breaks for traffic lights… I was uninjured and my energy levels were still good, but my legs now felt very much like this qualified as a very long run indeed. I took on more water, more Gatorade, and orange slices where they were offered. I avoided the jelly babies like the plague after the nearly-puking incident by the Marina. I had been dutifully taking on gels every three miles, but I was struggling to stomach them now. I asked one of the spectators if I could have her glass of Prosecco instead. I cheered for Ellie the Elephant, running for Mind.

As I finally glimpsed the corner that would take us back down to the seafront, I bleeped for 18 miles and I saw the mile marker a short way ahead and I thought that I really might walk.

And then a pub started playing Chariots of Fire.

You can’t walk in Chariots of Fire.

Of course, you also can’t cry in the eighteenth mile of a marathon, that’s stupid, there’s still eight miles to go.

But it was about then that I started to believe that I was really going to finish this thing.

I got down to the seafront and to 19.26 miles (on my Garmin) before I walked. I walked to the 20 mile marker and then started running again. This is called the Road To Hell, out to the lifeboat station and back, and I was beginning to see why they call it that. In my head, I devised a run/walk strategy of a mile and a half running to a half mile walking that was intended to have my last walk finish at 25 miles. I forced another gel, and made a face but didn’t feel sick.

“And then you run,” I told myself.

The course support was very very thin that far out. I thought about my music, but decided that I would just get annoyed by it. I became that irritating person who cheers on the other runners. I ran for a bit with one man in sore silent solidarity, after a brief chat where we agreed that we were nearly done and we would finish and we might as well run through the pain. Just before the turn around, the course goes around the back of the lifeboat station. I was done with this bit. Oddly, not necessarily done with running so much as just very much done with this section of the course.

The out-and-backs that make it such a fabulous spectator course, both for the spectators and for the seeing a lot of your crew, especially if you have as dedicated a crew as I did, are a bit of a double-edged sword for the actual running of them. I loved seeing people come back from Ovingdean and thinking that I’d be coming that way soon, but I hated seeing how far we had to go before we were done with the Road To Hell.

At the 23 mile marker, there was a chip mat and a crew member reading out everyone’s names. He pronounced my last name right on the first try. That was maybe more impressive than the fact that I had just run 23 miles. Also at the chip mat, the map on the Brighton Marathon app corrected itself from projected position to actual position. This put me back from 23.9 miles to 23 miles, accounted for by my walks but apparently putting my crew down in Brighton into a frenzy as they tried to work out whether I had been put in the back of an ambulance.

That got me back onto the seafront, down by the beach huts and with lots of support out.

At 25 miles, I kept the promise I had made to myself back down by the lifeboat station. “And now you go and you don’t walk again and you bloody well run it in!”

I’ve said much the same thing to myself twice now at the 12 mile marker of the Great North Run, and I’ve never managed it. I was going to manage this one. I would never ever again get to do the last mile of my first marathon. Every time I looked like I was struggling, every time I caught someone’s eye, every time I was alone, someone shouted for me or a kid gave me a high five. “Great form, keep that up all the way to the finish!” someone yelled. “You’re still smiling; keep running happy, 3823!” shouted someone else. It worked well enough that I got my pace back up to 12:40 minutes for my twenty-sixth mile.

Not fast. But, faster than I had been — relentless forward progress.

I passed a young guy at the Panda Bridge at the end of Brighton Pier as my Garmin went for 26 miles, and I shouted some encouragement at him. “WAS THAT BEEP FOR 26 MILES?” he screamed at me. “Yes,” I said. “It might be a tiny bit out…” I called over my shoulder. “I DON’T CARE, WE’RE NEARLY DONE!” he screamed back.

The finish line is at the end of a proper downhill, and I went for it. I had glanced at my watch, and saw that I was back on for sub-6:00. The crowds were still out in force, still cheering everyone home, hours and hours and hours after the elites had gone through. And then there were Stewart and Kathryn, and past them Holly, and George who had somehow acquired a windmill, and Coralie and Pam, all of them yelling.

Photo Credit: Stewart Macfarlane

Photo Credit: Stewart Macfarlane

I crossed the line and my medal was put around my neck by the medal lady, and I burst into tears. It is very shiny.

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My squad found me, and we stood for a good while at the finish line and cheered the last hour of people over the line. And then they got me tea and clothes, and in the case of George allowed me to sit in her wheelchair so that I could get on my pants without falling over. And then we walked slowly home together in the sunshine.

Photo Credit: Stewart Macfarlane

Photo Credit: Stewart Macfarlane

Afterwards, George told me that when they were waiting for me at half marathon point they had been watching the fast runners go through the 25 mile marker. A guy who had been going along at a good clip collapsed, and two other guys, also running fast, both probably on for PBs and proper fast times besides, stopped and got him back to his feet and ran him into the finish. That sums up the spirit of a marathon more than anything else I can write. The running community has a big heart, and room for fast legs and slow legs, and leaves no man or woman behind, and I am very proud to have been a little part of it this weekend.

I did it.

Chip Time: 5:58:31

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Inside The Head Of A First Time Marathon Runner

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  • THIS IS THE MOST EXCITING THING EVER.
  • But what if my legs forget how to run?
  • What if my legs drop off?
  • 26.2 miles is a really long way.
  • Why did I miss that long run that time a couple of months ago?
  • shoes … Vaseline … comfy clothes … comfy shoes … comfy everything … safety pins … gels … Garmin … spare Garmin … all the chargers that have ever existed … spare hair ties … sunglasses … porridge … malt loaf … kitchen sink …
  • No. Really. Shoes.
  • Whose stupid idea was this, anyway?
  • I am very very insane. Obviously.
  • Where did I put my train tickets?
  • What if all the trains break down and I don’t get there in time to get my number?
  • Remember that you always feel terrible until about 4 miles in.
  • You know you can get to 20 miles, and then it’s only a 10K and you can crawl that if you have to. Probably.
  • I AM REALLY EXCITED.
  • AND ALSO TERRIFIED.
  • How many different kinds of weather is it reasonable for a paranoid Glaswegian to pack for?
  • It won’t snow in Brighton in April, right?
  • Am I hydrated enough? Am I hydrated too much? What colour is my wee?
  • What if I sleep through my alarm?
  • I had a dream the other night that I went the wrong way and accidentally ran to London. It’s not impossible.
  • *brain explodes*
  • *words that my grandmother thinks I don’t know in the general direction of my running shoes and the cats*
  • What have I forgotten? It is not possible that I haven’t forgotten anything.

This Girl Can

In four weeks, I intend to be pleasantly full of chips and enjoying the Brighton sunshine from a very sitting down position with my lovely posse. I hope to be doing those things with a new shiny piece of bling around my neck, but let’s not count our chickens and all that.

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A thing that happened while I was beginning my marathon training was the launch of the fabulous campaign from Sport England, “This Girl Can”. The purpose of it was to address the fear of judgement that women told Sport England was their biggest barrier to joining in sport and athletic activities: fear of being judged for not being the right shape or the right size, or for not being “fit”, or for not being skilled enough. The first campaign video aired on ITV in early January. The original version of it alone has been viewed seven and a half million times on YouTube. It’s the first sporting campaign I’ve ever recognised myself in.

The video is brilliant, by the way. It’s full of sweat and messy hair and hard work and unairbrushed bodies and real people. Go on, watch it. I’ll wait.

Don’t get me wrong — the Olympics are amazing and being in Glasgow for the Commonwealth Games was amazing and I have BBC Sport open in a browser window permanently for the whole of Wimbledon, but no matter what I tell myself when I’m running down a finishing straight with Chariots of Fire playing in my head I am not really an Olympian.

Let me tell you a secret, Internet. I am not a natural athlete. I am slow and I am not coordinated. I would have failed PE, if there had been grades for it (and half my life later, a good run is still a little bit of a screw you to all the PE teachers who ever told me I was no good). I started running when I did the Couch-to-5K program in the first year of medical school, and the first time I ran twenty minutes without stopping I put my foot down a pothole on the Saltmarket outside a pub on a sunny summer weeknight where fifteen people saw and my glasses fell off. I sweat and I grunt and I hurt and my ponytail falls out. I run a 10 minute mile on a very good day. I work very hard for it.

Screen Shot 2015-03-15 at 19.52.55But these women? I am these women.

I have taken from this campaign my mantra and my hashtag for the last three months. 12 mile run? 10 minute mile? A couple of miles after work in pelting rain and gale force wind? #thisgirlcan.

I am in no way confident about what I’ll be able to do in four weeks time. It is almost a year since I signed up for this madness. I live somewhere between excited and terrified and convinced that I must have been actually mad. I’m going to do my damndest though.

Because: #thisgirlcan.

*

All images are copyright Sport England 2015.

26.2

I got home from work last night and took my knee out for a two mile test run along the river path. The first time I’d had my running shoes on since the Great North Run. It was a gorgeous evening for it and I arrived back at my front door without having crippled myself, which I think is always a good place to start.

And this is what’s next:

brighton registration

I am quite quite mad. Of my madness I have no doubt, but then I never have had any about that.

I registered for the 2015 Brighton Marathon about five months ago and told three people, and decided that I could bottle out of it if the Great North Run did not go according to plan. It was never about getting a specific time or running a perfect race. It was about the fact that if I got to autumn and hadn’t found the time or the motivation to train properly for a half-marathon, it was unrealistic to think that I’d have either of those things for a full marathon. As the start line of that race drew nearer and my miles started to add up, I started to tell a few more people of what I was planning for the spring. And the position I find myself in now is that while the Great North Run did not go according to plan, most of the training for it did and so there will be no bottling out.

It is four years since I ran my first half marathon (when I was a medical student with lies-in and free time and all that jazz). I’m excited to find out what my legs will do when they go beyond thirteen miles.

I have chosen not to run this time for charity. (This is both why I registered so stupidly early and why I wasn’t tempted to try for London.) I’ve been trying to find a less pretentious thing to call this than self-actualisation, but that’s what Maslow would call it. It’s always that, on some level, and that won’t stop me fundraising for the Great North Run next year. But this one is very much for me and for the achievement of a fairly long held was-really-meant-to-be-a-pipe-dream type of dream. It would feel a little weird to try to fundraise for that. I feel that it also gives me a little extra allowance to bore social media with my training woes without feeling so terribly mercenary.

I am also doing it as a bit of a birthday present to myself. I have been told at this point by many people that this is really very mad, more than is normal, but the week between Easter Sunday and Marathon Day will be the occasion of my becoming A Little Bit Old. I am really looking forward to marking my thirtieth birthday with a really long run along Brighton seafront.

Race Report: Great North Run 2014 (I Am Made Of Every Stranger Who Cheered My Name)

Now, get a cup of tea and settle in, because this is a long one (and it comes with a soundtrack).

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There was only one word to describe the North East this weekend:

Hot.

I didn’t think, after nearly a month of distinctly autumnal temperatures, that the thing I’d regret standing on the start line of the Great North Run was that I’d not brought sunscreen. By the afternoon, I had a burnt nose and a tan line where my shorts stopped.

This year would mark the millionth person to cross the finish line at the Great North Run. It is a landmark in mass participation distance running, and it is the first race ever to reach it – long before the same landmark will be reached for the marathons in London and New York. I have to wonder what it must have been like to be Brendan Foster today, to look at what happened in South Shields this afternoon and think: I did that.

I’d had better training and better race prep than when I’d last had a crack at this one in 2012, a month into FY1. I had gone nine and a half miles in a shade under two hours on my last long run ten days beforehand, and I was still upright at the end of that. I had tapered, sort of. I had remembered my running shoes. I had packed porridge, because one never quite knows with England and one especially never quite knows in my mum’s kitchen. I did not severely underestimate how long it would take me to find a baggage bus and then my start pen. The night before the night before, which people keep telling me is the one that counts, I had fallen off the train in Newcastle and I had slept well.

The only potential issue I had was that, a few weeks before, in the middle of a long run, I had had a bit of a niggle in my IT band and it had lingered for a few days. I had trouble with my left IT band years ago and I am distressingly familiar with what it feels like, but this was on the right side where I have never before had so much as a whimper. But it seemed to have settled itself down with a bit of taping and rolling and ice, and I re-taped it on Sunday morning just to be sure.

My plan was to walk only the water stations, to lock onto a 12 minute mile pace and stick with it, and to hope that those things together would get me to the sea in 2:36-ish. That would have been a big PB. (My half-marathon PB is 2:53:52, set at this race in 2012.)

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On Sunday, race morning dawned bright and clear and with just a bit of a bite in the air. It was perfect. “If only it doesn’t get too much hotter than this, this is amazing,” I said. I’d be eating those words by the time the start gun went off – by that time, it was so warm I had already ditched the cheap fleece I’d bought the previous day for start line chucking away in favour of standing about in shorts and a vest. My mum and I walked up Claremont Road, soaking in the sunshine and the buzz as I got last minute water and slathered Vaseline across all my moving parts and found my baggage bus, and then we parted ways, me to head off to the start line and her to stand on the bridge for the start before she began the hike to South Shields by public transport.

It seemed like no time at all before Seb Coe fired the gun and Local Hero swept across the crowd. I cried, and I cried all over again when I watched it back on TV later that evening.

(“Oh, but you do cry at things like that, Beth,” said a friend at choir practice this week as I told the story. It’s like they know me.)

It took about forty minutes for my pen to get to the front. The wait included the Red Arrows doing their flypast. There is no sight in the world quite like that one. It is one of the memories of my childhood, watching them on television on the day of the Great North Run – a thing that I, uncoordinated and asthmatic and doing well in everything at school except PE, would never have even entertained the idea of doing, but here I was doing it for the second time, and let me tell you, television’s got nothing on real life. A few minutes later, I was across the start line. I hit my Garmin and started running, and out of the speakers came Lindisfarne singing Run For Home.

“Run for South Shields,” I thought.

The first three miles ticked by quite nicely. They have the high points of the tunnels under the Central Motorway where endless streams of runners shout, “OGGY OGGY OGGY” and then the Tyne Bridge, and after that you’re into Gateshead. I was feeling the heat (so was everyone), but my only real complaint was my sloshing bladder. I couldn’t think beyond the three mile point, where I knew there would be a toilet – one toilet and a queue of about fifteen runners. I would later discover that there were more toilets about two hundred yards up the road, but I didn’t have time to find that out and I wasn’t up for waiting in the queue. I went for the nearest tree and was followed by four more people who seemed to think I had the right idea. I hit three miles at 34 minutes on my Garmin and then didn’t get to the 5K chip mat until 38:20, which will have been the toilet stop.

Relieved, I carried on. The stop had somehow made me aware of just how hot it was and I was glad when I saw the sign for a water station 100 yards ahead. I decided to hang onto my water until my Garmin beeped for 3.5 miles, and that I’d have a little walk while I drank it. When I started running again, my IT band went twang. It wasn’t enough then to make me stop, but I think I knew then that I was in for a long day.

I took Lucozade at the feed station just before five miles. I had misgivings about taking it, I hadn’t trained with sports drink and the mantra of nothing new on race day was ringing in my head. But I was working hard and sweating badly, and I had taken on a lot of water at the start line and more since then and I was going to be taking on more at every single water station, and I needed to replace electrolytes somehow. I took half a bottle, and that plus the decision to take more at the next feed station would turn out to be the smartest decisions I made all day. I was the only one (so far as I knew) experiencing what felt like really awful toothache in my knee, but the heat was getting to everyone and all around people were being taken into medical tents. St John’s Ambulance were worked very hard on Sunday and they were magnificent.

It was turning into the kind of race that, any other day and any other race, I’d have thrown the towel in at six miles. But you don’t do that at the Great North Run unless your leg actually falls off. If you can’t get round, that’s okay, because the wonderful wonderful people of the North East will drag you around.

Just before the Black Bull Junction, which is the high point of the course, I went past a woman who was standing alone on the right hand side of the road, most of the spectators being on the other side at that point. “Come on, Beth, you’re doing really well!” she shouted. “You can see the top of the hill now!” And I could and I got there, and soon after that, running when I could and walking when I couldn’t, to the sign on the dual carriageway marking the halfway point. ENJOY THE SECOND HALF! it said.

Apart from the 10K chip mat, which I crossed in 1:22:33, I have very little recollection of the third quarter. I vaguely remember that there are a lot more uphills in that section than there seem to be on the elevation profile. I think it might have been here that I overtook Tony The Fridge.

My next clear memory is of the roundabout just before 9 miles, which I walked around while having a bit of a chat to a man dressed in a very pink and very sequinned ball dress. I suspect I’m accidentally in a lot of peoples’ photos from that roundabout. “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” he told me. On the other side of that roundabout was the Boost Zone, with more Vaseline (which I didn’t need) and Queen singing Don’t Stop Me Now (which I did).

At the end of that, sitrep:

  • Knee: Shot.
  • Legs: Dead.
  • Tank: Empty.
  • Blisters (a new and unwelcome thing, developing from the biomechanical weirdnesses I was forcing on my body in an attempt to not actually scream at my knee): Oooh, boy.

But I hadn’t come all this way to quit now. I had less than four miles to go, and I knew by then that I would finish. Even if I had to walk it in (and I had no intention of doing that), I was going to finish.

I started running again. A childrens’ choir singing Let It Go acapella at the side of the road gave my legs a much needed boost and made my eyes suspiciously damp. This is the best road race in the world. I ran from 10.2 miles to 11 miles, which was the longest continuous running I’d managed for some time, and then walked with to Elvis for a little while. A mile and a half from the finish, I exchanged a high five for an orange slice from some kids by the side of the road and I started to run again. “You’re doing amazing,” I said to Elvis. “You aren’t doing so bad yourself,” he said. It was exactly what I needed to hear. Running, slowly and really quite painfully by now, I made it to the water station by the Marsden Rock and to the Scout leader manning it who shouted at me, “You’re nearly there, Beth, the sea’s just down that hill!” There is no sight in the world quite like the Red Arrows doing a Great North Run start line flypast, but even that sight isn’t so beautiful as the sight of the billboard just off that roundabout that proclaims: IT’S THE SEA.

Screen Shot 2014-09-10 at 20.46.13I walked to 12 miles before I tried to pick it up again, and from there it was a little run and a little walk and a little run and a little walk and… well, you get the idea. The crowds on South Shields seafront are astonishing. I went past the Kidney Research UK cheering section, who cheered when they saw my shirt. I went past a woman who was on a one woman mission to personally scream to the end every runner who ran by her: “YES, YES, THAT’S IT, GO ON, BETH!” As the finish line came into sight, the millionth finisher, Tracey Cramond, who had been raising money for the Butterwick Hospice, was announced from the stage, and Chariots of Fire swelled through the speakers, bringing me home.

Because in my head I am an Olympian.

“You can’t cry,” I told myself. “No, really, you can’t cry. You need all the bloody oxygen you can get at this point.”

I all but fell across the finish line in 3:06:43 (chip time, my Garmin time rendered almost wholly irrelevant by the detour I took behind that tree at three miles). It wasn’t the race I had planned, but I am very proud of having finished it and I have never worked harder for a medal.

I was greeted at the Kidney Research UK tent by my aunt and a very welcome chair and the best cup of tea in the world and a physio with magic hands who proceeded to work my IT band loose enough for me to walk back to South Shields town centre and loose enough that three days later I can walk on it with only mild discomfort going down stairs. I have made the decision to not look at my running shoes this week. (I ran for the bus yesterday and that was far enough, thank you.) I may, possibly, if I feel like it, go for a very gentle swim at the weekend to try to shake everything loose. But, far from deciding that this was terrible and that I must never do it again, I had decided before I’d even bandaged my feet that I’ll be back next year and for Kidney Research UK again if they’ll have me.

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My donations page is open until December, but thank you so much to all the people who donated. I was doing this for this charity for a very personal reason as well as for a shot at a fantastic event, and it means a great deal to me and to them.

 

The Great North Run — Again

In a little over two weeks time, I’ll be on the start line of the Great North Run.

(Or, if I choose to be accurate, I’ll be standing about a mile back from Seb Coe and his starting gun. My number is forty-five thousand and something.)

If you have been around that long, you may recall that I ran a bit when I was a medical student. You may also recall that my last race was this same race in 2012, a month into FY1. It was peppered with disasters, like, for one thing, my training plan, such as it was, and also like leaving my shoes behind a photocopier in Stirling and so spending the first part of the weekend trawling Newcastle for an identical pair. Nevertheless, it was an incredible experience (I high-fived Mo Farah!) and I swore then that I’d be back, one day, for the Red Arrows and the Tyne Bridge and Local Hero and that amazing final straight along the South Shields seafront.

Afterwards, I mostly hung up my running shoes for a year. I was too exhausted for a lot of FY1 to do much of anything at the end of the day besides collapse into a tiny heap in the middle of my sofa. But eventually I developed some kind of stamina and then, slowly, sometimes painfully, through my FY2 year, I laced up my shoes and began to be a runner again.

And now it’s 18 days until I am indeed back for the Red Arrows and the Tyne Bridge and all the rest of it.

My training this time around has been far from textbook – for example, there is a hole in it that I can identify as my cardiology weekend on call – but it has been an awful lot better than I did last time. The highlights of my training will be the time I’ve spent running along the Clyde, particularly the day when I wasn’t expecting the Commonwealth Games flotilla to suddenly appear over my right shoulder. And, for sheer bullheadedness, the night I accidentally ran nine miles in hammering rain. I feel that I’m more psychologically prepared for it this time, and that is as important as anything.

I am running this year on a charity place that was kindly given to me by Kidney Research UK. They were the first charity I ever fundraised for, twenty years ago, and I’m doing this for them because kidney disease was the thing that brought to an untimely end the life of my dad, Bob, twenty years ago next summer. You can read more about his story and about the work of Kidney Research UK on my fundraising page, and if you feel moved to do so you can also donate there.

18 days.

Two more long runs.

And shoes. I really must remember my shoes.

Scenes from My Holidays

IMG_0524That my MRCP was followed almost immediately by ten days of annual leave was more down to circumstance than to choice. It turned out to be circumstance of the happiest kind. By the time I left work, two Friday evenings ago, two and a half hours late, I was nursing a splitting headache that I had just about convinced myself was a subdural haematoma (having whacked myself on the head with the car boot on Wednesday night, as you do) and by half past nine I was fast asleep (reasoning that by morning my subdural haematoma would either have got better or killed me, also as you do).

By lunchtime the next day, I felt like a human again. Apparently all I’d really needed was a solid twelve hours of unconsciousness with no alarm clock at the end of it.

I have been nowhere really in the last ten days. I’ve had my holiday here in Glasgow, rebalanced my equilibrium and remembered who I am outside of endless multiple choice questions, sorted out a few bits of my life, spent so much time cuddling the cats that they’ve begun to ask when they’re getting their house back, and altogether had rather a lovely time of it. Indeed, when I turned up on Saturday evening to the last night of the Giffnock Theatre Players’ production of Terence Rattigan’s Cause Célèbre (good play, excellently done) and happened across some friends in the bar, I was informed that I looked more relaxed than I have in months.

IMG_0544The excursion out to Giffnock was my second trip to the theatre of the week. The first had taken me all the way to the East, and, afterwards, left me meandering in a trance back to Waverley, dazed and gobsmacked and thankful that I’m not as a rule the mascara wearing type. I’d spent the early part of the weeks stalking the Twitter feed of Edinburgh Theatres for returns and found myself sitting in the third row of the stalls, spellbound and sobbing. I really cannot say enough good things about War Horse, but at the same time I really don’t want to say anything about it at all — I went in with only a very vague idea of the story, not knowing how it would end but knowing enough about it to have some idea of how I thought it might end, and, for two days, having avoided reviews the way normal people avoid syphilis. It is a remarkable thing, and do go, if you’re lucky enough to be able to get tickets, go and see it. Go, unprepared (for you will be anyway) and unwarned (if you can) and armed with tissues (lots of tissues).

A significant chunk of last week was spent on my sofa deep in CJ Sansom’s novel Dominion. Now, I have never read the Shardlake series that Sansom is best known for and I picked this up a couple of months ago in Waitrose, where I had gone ostensibly to buy milk, because I thought it looked intriguing. The prologue opens in the Cabinet Room on 9 May 1940. Neville Chamberlain has called together his Cabinet after the crushing defeat of the British military in Norway by the German forces. The subject up for discussion in Chamberlain’s proposed resignation from the office of Prime Minister. In our universe, that meeting ended with Winston Churchill taking up the office. In the universe weaved with devastating plausibility by Sansom, Churchill bows to Lord Halifax and from there we skip forward to 1952 and to a Britain that has been much changed by that one moment in history. I’m not quite finished with it yet. This is a great doorstop of a book with a lot of brilliantly done world-building, and it’s well worth the read.

I’ve also made a start on Aaron Sorkin’s new series The Newsroom. It’s not new, not at all, having premiered on US television in 2012, but it airs on Sky Atlantic in the UK and so for me it was watching the pilot with friends on New Year’s Day and then straight to the DVDs. I’ve taken the first season slowly, very slowly, so slowly that I’ve been impressed as hell at my own restraint. There are only ten episodes in Season 1, and Season 2 is not yet available on DVD. I rationed. I should admit right now that I come to this as a biased pair of eyes. I cut my political teeth on The West Wing and I consider it the single best piece of television there has ever been and possibly ever will be. I would watch paint dry if Aaron Sorkin wrote a script for it. This show is what Leo McGarry and Isaac Jaffee before him meant when they talked about surrounding yourself with smart people who disagree with you. I defy people not to catch their breath in the last fifteen minutes of the fourth episode, when… well, you’ll see, but for me that was a moment when what had already been great television suddenly upped its game to 110%.

IMG_0543It was only with the greatest effort that I resisted spending the whole week on the sofa. Annual leave in January in Scotland is what sofas and fires were invented for. In the end, I got myself out for my first runs and my first swim of the year. It still feels a lot like I’m dragging a millstone around by my legs, but that run there was a week ago and it has been getting steadily easier. I’d neglected these things — unnecessarily, I think, and at the expense of making me significantly grumpier — while I huffed and puffed over my exam. I’m back, and planning to stay back whether I have to take the exam again or not. I entered the ballot for the Great North Run at the beginning of the month, and in a week or so I’ll find out whether I’ve been successful. I’m planning for a half marathon in the autumn one way or another and I’m plotting further ahead, too, for the spring of next year and a long-cherished ambition.

There has been the cooking of real food and the building of new bookshelves and did I mention the cats? And, for a short blissful week, the doing of it all with no niggling guilt that I really ought to be studying.

Today, I went back to work. And despite my eleventh day off being considerably more fraught with both planned stress (job interview) and unplanned stress (the kind that requires a roadside breakdown service, although thankfully not en route to the job interview) than I might have liked, I’ve returned refreshed and raring to go and all the better for having been gone for a little while.

Wishlist for 2014

These are not resolutions in the proper sense, partly because I think that if I were to make a New Year’s resolution in the proper sense, it would look something like “fail slightly less at functioning as an adult person”, and I am probably not alone in that.

However, in 2014, I hope…

  1. To continue having gainful employment in this job that I love in this city that I love.
  2. That the Commonwealth Games will make everyone else in the world see why I love it.
  3. To see the continued passage of equal marriage through the Scottish Parliament, and to see the first same-sex marriages in England and Wales.
  4. To run the Great North Run again, a bit quicker and with a bit more proper training and this time to raise money for Kidney Research UK.
  5. To make more time to read more.
  6. That we will end the year as we began it, with Scotland in full communion (if you will) as part of the United Kingdom. #bettertogether
  7. To pass my blasted exam at some point, be that in two weeks or four months or eight months.

And, although these are still not resolutions in the proper sense, being more political than that, I also resolve:

  1. To make quite a lot of noise about marriage equality at the 2014 General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church.
  2. To continue to work for the good and the best interests of all my patients, no matter who they are or where they come from, in accordance with the founding principles of the National Health Service and with an oath that I swore one rainy day in July. (Screw you, Jeremy Hunt.)

Running For Boston

I’m at home, getting ready to go out for a run.

It’s only going to be for a couple of miles, but I can’t not go, not today.

I am not the fastest member of the running community. I can’t run the furthest. I am not the most loyal or the most dedicated, even. I will never, probably, except maybe in my wildest dreams, qualify for the Boston Marathon, that Everest of all distance runners.

But I am a runner.

The words of Melissa Etheridge’s song, written eight years ago for a different kind of race, are ringing in my ears.

And someday if they tell you about it,
if the darkness knocks on your door,
remember her, remember me.
We will be running as we have before,
running for answers, running for more.

I’ve jumped up and down on a start line.

I’ve put in the training.

I’ve talked about the state of my bowels with people whose names I’ve never learned.

I’ve run in the footprints of Wilson Kipsang and Liz Yelling.

I’ve watched hundreds of thousands of pounds raised for good causes.

I’ve been given chocolate buttons and orange slices by people who have never met me.

I’ve run off bad days and I’ve run on good ones.

I’ve been spurred on by the cheers and the high fives of the kids who come out to support the people whose daft hobby has forced a shutdown of their roads for a whole Sunday.

I’ve known the agony and joy and exhilaration of finish lines.

This community is my community. These people were my people.

The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels tonight.

I am a runner and today I run for Boston.

*

Race Report: The World’s Happiest Run (Great North Run 2012)

Or, In Which Beth High-Fived An Olympic Gold Medallist.

But we’ll come to that.

This past Sunday was the BUPA Great North Run 2012, a half marathon that I was running partly as my goal race this year and partly to raise money for Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders).

If someone were to write down the three cardial rules of distance running, they would probably look a little like this:

  • Respect The Distance
    It’s borderline suicidal to think that you can run 13.1 miles on no training. I didn’t — but I did start a brand new job with long hours and a longer commute, and I spent most of August and early September considering it an achievement if I made it home from work without falling asleep on the train, let alone heading out for a run afterwards. I still ran, but not so often as I’d have liked and my longest long run was 6.2 miles.
  • Taper
    In the ten days (ish) before a half marathon, your training starts winding down. Your runs are shorter. You rest. In short, by race day, you’re bouncing off the walls with all the pent-up energy from just wanting to get out and run. I don’t quite know how I should have tapered from what I might hilariously refer to as my training plan (see above), but I’m pretty sure that being on-call for four of the five days before the race wasn’t it.
  • Nothing New On Race Day
    Then, I left my running shoes behind the printer at work when I left for Newcastle. I know. I was on the phone to every running store in the city by nine o’clock on Saturday morning.

The universe may have been telling me not to run this race. I wasn’t really listening.

I wasn’t setting out to break records, here. I wasn’t setting out even to break my own PB (3:04:27, set at my first and only half marathon, in Glasgow 2010). I was heading to the start line with legs that I was fairly certain could get me to at least eight miles, the safety net of knowing that I could walk the entire thing if I needed to, a pocket stuffed full of Compeed patches, and a healthy dollop of sheer bloodymindedness, and my one and only goal was to get to the end in one piece. The Great North Run has been a bucket list race for a long long time and through three rounds of failed ballot applications. There had never been any chance — short of breaking both my legs — that I might not turn up, and, now that I’ve done it, I am so glad.

The Great North Run is the biggest half marathon in the world. There were 55,000 people registered to run on Sunday. In all but the smallest races, a back-of-the-pack runner will take a few minutes to get across the start line. In this race, it started a full three quarters of an hour before I got going. But even shuffling slowly forward and getting steadily drizzled on and becoming increasingly desperate to pee (again), the atmosphere was electric. I saw Tony the Fridge. I saw someone running in a full penguin costume and someone else running dressed as Jesus, complete with a wooden crucifix on his back. I got choked up when Local Hero was played and again when the Red Arrows did their first flypast. I got peeks, on the big screens, of the Olympians and Paralympians who were up front with the guns. This was the best race I had ever done, and I was still a mile away from the start line.

My race plan was to run three miles and walk a half mile. I theorised that I can do anything for three miles, which is true enough. I tried not to think about how well that theory might be holding up by the time I’d run three lots of three miles in a row.

And then I ran across the start line, hit the start button on my Garmin, and high-fived Mo Farah.

I’m going to say that again in case you didn’t read it properly:

I HIGH-FIVED MO FARAH! MO FARAH!

The high from that lasted all the way through the first three miles, and it got me through them quite nicely — so nicely that I really couldn’t tell you much about them. I remember running across the Tyne Bridge and it being everything I’d hoped that that part would be. I remember that I hadn’t been sure of the route through Gateshead and being pleased to find out that it didn’t involve the rotten hill up to the Sage. I think I remember that the rain stopped at some point. Mostly, I remember that I was still so thrilled about Mo that I was giving a high-five to every kid who offered me one, and there were a lot of kids, all of them out there in the rain to cheer on the running nutters.

I have no recollection whatsoever of the 3 mile marker, but it must have happened because I took a half mile walk break. I didn’t feel as if I needed one at that point, but I knew that I would kick myself later if I didn’t take it. I hit the 5K chip mat in 39:34, which included the two minute dash into a portaloo that I had taken almost immediately after the start line.

The next chunk of three miles felt harder. I’m not particularly surprised — looking at the course map, the first two miles are all on an incline, which I had known and then clearly promptly forgotten, and go up to the highest point of the course at the Black Bull Junction. Still, I never really felt as if I wanted to walk during this stretch and I kept saying to myself, “You are running the Great North Run,” which was all I ever needed to bring a ridiculous grin back onto my face. This got me past the 10K mat, which I hit in 1:19:51, and almost to the halfway point, which was marked on the A194 by a billboard welcoming runners to South Tyneside and telling us to enjoy the second half.  The distance I had covered in training had come and gone, but I was still moving and feeling strong.

I walked from what my Garmin told me was 6.5 miles up to the 7 mile marker.  I needed the walk, I think, but my hip flexors tightened up while I was walking and getting going again sucked. I wanted to walk a lot in the next two miles. I didn’t. I was feeling it, but no worse than I had expected, and I was in no actual pain. I kept telling myself that nothing bad would happen if I kept running, that the only thing that would happen if I stopped running at this point was that I’d be slower, and that I’d get my next walk break at ten miles and how awesome would it be to get to that marker. This is what people mean when they say that running is a mental sport.

Just after the 9 mile marker, two things happened.

The first thing was that I went across the 15K mat. I wasn’t really aware of it at the time, but it clocked a 2:01:45 split, which, if nothing else, showed that I was running a fairly steady pace, even if it didn’t feel like that. The second thing was that I got to the Bupa Boost Zone. I didn’t know about this, and it’s a difficult thing to describe to anyone who hasn’t been in it. It’s about half a mile of noise, music, wonderful wonderful hands offering jelly babies and Vaseline, and a Red Arrow circling overhead, and it was exactly what I needed. If you had told me last week that Rhianna and three jelly babies were what I’d need at nine miles, I’d have laughed in your face, but, for whatever reason, it put me back on a high and got me safely through to ten miles. From there, we were into the residential parts of South Shields with lovely cold showers and lovely lovely people with orange slices and water and, for reasons that I couldn’t possibly begin to speculate on, there was also an Elvis impersonator. I found this hilarious. Have you ever heard a less likely running tune than Love Me Tender?

By this time, despite everything that nearly hadn’t got me to the start line, I had worked out that I was back on for a PB and maybe for a sub-3:00 finish — with that 15K split, that should maybe have been a given, but you always have to remember that the last ‘quarter’ of a half marathon is actually 6K, not 5K, and remembered that I had blown up really badly in the last 6K at Glasgow. A sub-3:00 in a half marathon may not seem like a fast time to you and it isn’t, not compared to other people, but the only person I’m ever racing against in any race is myself.

Just before 11 miles, I took a very short walk break up a little hill and to take on some more water. The approach to the 12 mile marker is down a short sharp incline to the seafront, and, as I tossed away my water bottle and started running again, I swore in chorus with the woman next to me. It was one of those downhills that is oh-so-much-worse than any uphill that came before it. And then you turn onto the seafront, and the crowd support that had never faltered the whole way around the course, never, not even on the dual carriageways and not even in the rain, on South Shields seafront, the crowds erupted. 

There are a series of Asics advertisements that were around during the Olympics, and I saw them this weekend on billboards all over Newcastle and at different points along the route. “I am made of everything that got me to the start line, not just the next 13 miles.” “I am made of all the finish lines I said were my last.” But there was one that I’d seen a lot of, that I saw hung across a bridge back in Gateshead and that I thought of again in South Shields, and it sums up the end of this amazing race better than anything else I’ve seen: “I am made of every stranger who cheered my name.” There were people who I’d never seen before and who I’ll never see again, hours and hours after Wilson Kipsang and Tirunesh Dibaba had actually won the thing, standing at the side of the road and screaming me home.

I crossed the finish line in 2:53:52, a personal best by over ten minutes, arms in the air and absolutely on top of the world.

Later, after I’d found my cheering squad and my backpack and what I felt were well-deserved chips and tea, we came across this sign hung outside a local guest house, presumably meant for some other Beth:

Well, it would have been rude not to.

Thanks to BUPA. Thanks to the first aid crews and the marshals and the folk manning water stations and the Metro staff and the baggage bus drivers. Thanks to Mo Farah, to Greg Rutherford and Kat Copeland and Ellie Simmonds and Nicola Adams. Thanks to every single person who came out to support us. What an incredible event. What an astonishing day. I’ll be back.