All of the congratulations I have received in person and online have been lovely, but in a sense, I felt like a bit of a fraud: it just didn’t feel like such a big deal. Like so many life experiences which one anticipates for a long time, it was quite… anti-climactic to cross the finish line. I expected to feel some kind of epiphany, or a sense of great achievement. Instead, I just felt like I had been for a very long run.
When I finished the race, we were in a big hurry to get back to the hotel so we could make it to Gare du Nord and get our train home. On Monday morning, it was business as usual: the school run and all the tasks that make up my usual working week. I was a little stiff and sore, but I had no blisters or injuries, and I was perfectly able to go about my daily life. It just felt like I had had a strenuous workout.
However on Tuesday, I really struggled to get out of bed. I didn’t feel any worse physically, but I experienced an enormous mood crash. I felt mentally exhausted, weepy and miserable. It did pass – love and support from the family and a couple of good chats with friends and I felt better. Whether it’s a hormonal thing –the adrenalin of the race and the post-race endorphins leaving my system – or whether it’s just the realisation that after months of preparation it’s all over, I don’t know.
Still, I think that experience has helped me to make sense of my marathon journey, and this is what I will say about it. Running a marathon is 100% a mental and not a physical battle.
I assume that if you choose to run a marathon, you would make use of one or more of thousands of good training programmes and books of advice that are available. What you have to do to prepare is fairly simple: you do the training runs and cross-training to get your body in shape for the challenge. During the race you use appropriate kit, and you keep hydrated and fed. Barring injury, accident or mishap, if you have done this basic, sensible preparation, your body will be able to get you through the miles. I am nearly 47, still slightly overweight and I only started running two years ago, and I did it. It’s not impossible.
It’s not impossible, but it is hard. Very hard, and this is why. Unless you are some super-fit machine, your body will want to stop. For me, running has always been about not stopping, about having the will to keep going for those extra few minutes, up that hill, past that next lamppost. My mind and my will have to fight my body every step of the way. Multiply that by 42km and (in my case) five hours. That is one long mind/ body battle.
The Paris Marathon was fabulous. I was lucky enough to meet up with an online friend from our Couch to 5k group, and being with her in the start-pen and walking to the start-line made a world of difference to my pre-race nerves. There were lots of lovely supporters shouting “Allez, allez, allez!” There were brilliant bands, great vistas of a beautiful city, handsome French firemen cooling us down with sprays from their fire hoses. There were refreshment stands with fruit, water and raisins. But in between, there were great stretches of road or tunnel where I felt entirely alone in the crowd. I had to fall back on my own resources to keep me going. I recited lines from Shakespeare, poetry and songs. I counted steps, promised myself that in 2km I could have another gel. It worked for 35km. I ran steadily, keeping my pace pretty even, and by and large it felt good.
I began to walk, promising myself I’d only walk the first 100m of each kilometre and then run the rest. But all around me, everyone seemed to have started walking. We looked like the last, hopeless refugees of an apocalypse, lurching along.
But then I took a sideways glance at a girl walking near me. The ‘GBR’ on her race bib revealed her to be English-speaking. I asked her if the five-hour pace-runner had passed her. She didn’t know, but didn’t think so. We walked together and chatted, and I learned that she was called Naomi, and she lived in France but was originally from John O’Groats in Scotland. The friend she had started with was way ahead of her. We laughed and talked, and I felt better than I had for hours. “Oh!” said Naomi suddenly, “there’s the pace-runner!” He had passed us a moment before. We were at the 40km mark.
“Come on,” I said. “We can do this. It’s just two ks.” And we did. We followed him and passed him as we got to the finish line. As it happened, I had started ahead of him so I didn’t get to break the five-hour mark. But it didn’t matter. I had a new friend to hug after we cross the finish line.
The portly French gentleman who was handing out the medals smiled at me kindly and indicated for me to dip my head. He put the medal round my neck as if I had won the gold at the Olympics. Then he said something I didn’t understand in French and kissed me gently on both cheeks.
So yes, not the transformative experience I expected, but still something extraordinary in its own way. I had a little triumph of will over body, a satisfactory culmination of months of preparation and hard work, and the joyful discovery of the kindness of strangers.