Bearing in mind the overall title of this blog, often there’s little about the tread of trainers on tarmac. Just back from marathon 33, in Palma, Mallorca, I’m devoting this week’s instalment to the whole mind-blowing experience of running 26.2 miles, in all its highs and lows…….
Pre-race: Joining the fluorescent tide…..
I wake with a jolt in total darkness. How much time left to sleep? The phone display reads 6:28am. Surely not! In two minutes the alarm will go off, no getting comfy again now. My clothes are laid out in order, as always: bra, pants, socks, top, bottom, shoes. It’s the first of several mantras that govern my day.
A quick breakfast and I’m off to catch the bus. It’s still before dawn – my bright pink top out of place among the handful of other regular passengers.
At Palma bus station, I spot one, then two fellow runners. Heading for the exits, more alight from other buses. And in the quiet streets above they appear from all sides like zombies called towards a common goal, the rest of the sleeping world oblivious. We are a sea of fluorescent, surfing in waves to the start.
Mission number one. Queue for the loo. Which is the shortest? There are three timed starts, the marathon being first. The half marathoners and 10kmers step aside to let me through – their bladders can wait, mine is on a five minute warning.
I take my place in the crush of bright yellow, green, blue, orange, listening to the banter – the same pre-race nervous chat being spoken in a dozen different languages. Two minutes to go. The commentator falls silent and the theme tune to Chariots of Fire starts up. As those unforgettable notes fill the crisp sea air, the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, and I swallow deeply. The music fades, and the countdown begins 10, nine, eight……
First rep, miles 1 to 8.7: Settling into it…..
The gun goes off. We surge forward, a luminous tidal wave breaking across the start line. After a minute I’m crossing it too, carried forward by the swell. I set my GPS. This is it, I’m off.
Everyone starts quickly. They always do. I force myself to stay back, watch my pace, feel the slowness in my legs, as others dart past. The 4:15 pacing balloon pulls away, and the 4:30 too.
The tide flows onward towards the marina. Hundreds of people are running past me, and the 4:30 balloon too. I know many will finish well after the balloon and after me. I want to call out to them to slow down. But they’re running their own race, as I am running mine.
About two miles in, a girl in a bright pink top, and a man, stop briefly to chat to spectators. Then they speed on, bouncing sprightly ahead to regain their place. As we pass seafront hotels, groups of British holidaymakers wave Union Jacks and shout encouragement. Some look as if they have been practising all night.
I begin to settle down, just taking it easy. There’s loads of space around me now. The “pack” are gone, and probably fewer than a hundred people behind me. This first part of the route is an out and back, and soon I see the lead runners returning. They’re running at what would be my sprinting pace, with already fixed no nonsense expressions. I am in awe.
The pack soon follows. It’s plain some people are already working harder than others. I see the 4:15 and 4:30 balloon pacers – dozens of runners with them, spread out in a horizontal line and tight behind, like a battalion moving in formation behind company colours. I estimate I am less than 2 minutes behind the 4:30 group and at this pace I should soon make headway towards them.
The lead half-marathoner comes into sight, rounds the most westerly point, and passes me effortlessly, having set off 10 minutes later. Gradually more of the half-marathoners catch up and mix in, as some marathoners also slow down. We become a churning sea of different paces.
Palma Cathedral looms majestically into view, its sandstone walls golden in the morning sunshine. I reflect on the deep love I have for this island and its people, a place I’ve been visiting for many years. In this state of sudden spirituality, a voice in my head says: “I’d like my ashes scattered here when I die.” It’s a re-assuring, peaceful feeling.
We’re on into the city streets now, winding corridors of shops, historic buildings, spectators, bands entertaining, water stations, pounding feet. The half-marathoners are pressing on. I check my pace: “Don’t start pushing it. Take it easy,” my inner voice cautions. I start on one of my mantras: “Comfort zone. Comfort zone. Comfort……”
Around mile eight, a runner in a Berlin Marathon 40th anniversary finisher T-shirt passes. “What a great shirt. Damn, I wish I’d done that one,” I think.
Second rep, 8.7 to 17.4 miles: Warming up…..
We’re heading towards the bus station. I think of my husband John. Did he get the 10.30am bus? He’d be a few minutes into the journey now, or perhaps he decided to sleep on and catch the next one. I realise my mind is drifting and I re-focus to the pounding feet.
There are loads of us now, all jostling for position in the narrow streets. We cross the Placa Major, the main square, music blaring, the crowd cheering. It’s slightly downhill and we’re motoring.
Out into the sunlight, blue sea and sky, round the Cathedral, then back into the narrow streets again. There’s a spectator dressed as Wonder Woman, in red leotard and wig. She’s jumping up and down. Good for her, I think.
Around mile 10, I pass the “speedy” girl in the pink top and her partner. They both look tired and dispirited. Not a good sign this early on. I feel no satisfaction in their discomfort, but am re-assured that I held back.
Feeling lighter on my feet, I complete mile 11 in 9’35”. “Too fast,” I tell myself, “slow down.” Mile 12 – and the GPS reads 9’25”. A bullying voice cuts in: “You silly cow, what did you just say? Slow down!” I know it will be like this from now on, the voices in my head bickering – one driving me on, the other offering solace.
I reach the half-marathon split and envy them their right turn, wondering for the umpteemth time why I couldn’t have just settled for 50 halves.
As I make the marathon left-turn a marshal calls out: “Joanna! Animal!” Spoken with a Spanish accent, it has an exotic air. I smile, and give him a thumbs up.
I want to push on, but I’m still not halfway. I wonder, as I have earlier, where the 4:30 pace group can be. Is my watch on some kind of go-slow? I really should have passed them by now.
I reach halfway in 2:10, feeling in good shape, but barely registering any sense of satisfaction, knowing the hardest bit is still to come. There are few runners around: “Where is everyone?,” I wonder.
In the opposite direction the lead runner comes into view – he flies by, around 10 miles ahead of me. “How is he doing that?” my head asks, again in awe.
As I round a corner I see several people walking up a slight incline in various states of weariness. The 4:30 balloon is there too. I pass it shortly. There’s just the pace runner carrying it, and one other man – they’re both walking, their battalion scattered. Even the balloon is deflating. I’m tempted to feel slightly smug, but I have my own fight going on and take no pleasure in seeing others worn down by theirs.
It’s wise not to be too smart. At mile 15, I come to a tougher hill. At this point last year I walked and slowed down to text John – tell him it was hard, I was tired.
The bullying voice kicks in: “Of course, it’s effing hard, and you’re effing tired, it’s an effing marathon, you silly cow. Stop getting distracted. Get on with it.”
I grit my teeth, I keep running.
I’m nearing the airport. Planes packed with holidaymakers land and take off. My head joins them in the clouds and I have a brief sense of relief from physical effort.
Back in the present, I see a cyclist in a baseball cap. He reminds me of someone I know back home. Then passing the Hotel Linda – the name of another friend – I think about what time it is in the UK and what they’ll all be doing.
Suddenly I’m aware of someone crossing the road, he looks like an English tourist in his 20s. He steps back as if to let me pass, then right out, cutting me up with a stupid grin. I make a rapid intake of breath and am forced to arrest my stride. As he walks away, I’m aware I call after him: “Dickhead,” in a loud voice.
I feel wrong-footed, but also see the funny side of my marathon road-rage – not dissimilar to my driving frustrations at times. I think about how I’ll summarise the episode for this blog. What I’ll write generally. What will people think of it? Will it be any good?
Bully voice brings me back to reality: “Stop thinking about that. Wasted energy. Get on with running.” I think a hear a woman crying as I run past. I re-focus with my: “I am here, it is now,” mantra. I tell myself to think of nothing else, except that: “Here. Now. Here. Now. Here…..”
Third rep, 17.4 to 26.2 miles: Pushing through the pain barrier…..
My glasses are really beginning to annoy me. I keep pouring water over my head to cool down as the temperature soars to the high 20s. At each water station I take a few sips, sometimes to wash down an energy gel, but most of the water goes over me. I see it pouring off my baseball cap, the droplets glinting in the sunlight. Blessed coolness, but steaming up my glasses at the same time. The voices discuss it: “How about trying contacts again. Should I get laser surgery? Maybe next time I’ll just run short-sighted!”
I’m coming up to mile 19 – the turn at Arenal. Significant not just because it’s now a wonderful sea vista, but instead of heading east, we’re finally in the direction of home. It’s always a relief. A good bit. Though the Cathedral, the finish, is still a dot in the landscape.
To make the turn we run between barriers, with the crowds several deep each side. There’s a tangible sense of positive energy in the air. It’s intoxicating. I hear the Black-Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” playing over the speakers. It’s a favourite song.
I speed up, passing a few people and do a spontaneous jiggle, waving my fists and punching the air, without ever pausing stride. The crowd go wild, take photos and call out my name. Some shout: “Joanna! Animal!” I forget the pain. I feel good. It’s a real smiley face moment.
The euphoria doesn’t last long. There’s still the reality of more than six miles ahead. My leg muscles are tightening up with lactic acid. The stunning sea view is no help.
Mile 20. Just the 10km to go. Could I be on for a Palma PB (my best time here is 4:16). If I manage around 9’30” miles all the way back, yes I could do it. It’s a tough ask.
I caution myself: “Don’t push too much. Just take it easy. Here! Now!”
The flat esplanade gives way to a conservation area, undulating, twisting, less spectators. I want to walk, but the bullying voice won’t let me. “Keep running. Keep pushing,” it demands. “Don’t effing give up now.”
I see other runners going through their own personal hell – lost in deep, dark places – but all trying to make progress at varying speeds. In our collective zombie-hood, something is driving us forward, no matter how tough it is.
A small girl puts her hand up to high-five me. I’m dimly aware that my upturned palm connects with hers. She smiles, a delighted smile. It lifts me. Momentarily. And I’m on round the next challenging corner.
It’s mile 21 or is it 22, who knows? All I’m aware of, is how much my legs are hurting. They are screaming at me, to stop, to walk. My bully voice is over-riding them. I feel as if I am a car – my mind is the driver red lining the revs, but stopping just short of exploding the engine. I see a runner lying on the floor being tended by medics, one of several I’ve seen, and mentally I ease off the accelerator very slightly.
“It’s only pain, it won’t kill you!” It’s my Dad’s voice in my ear. The same phrase he used when I ran with him as a child. I would cry then at the sheer awfulness of having to keep going. I start welling up now, not so much at that memory, but the knowledge of Dad’s dementia, his deteriorating state of mind and that the reason I’m doing this is for dementia research. It gives me strength again.
Coming to mile 23 there’s an uphill. I allow myself to walk at last. Oh brief, happy relief. A man pees against a tree in full profile view, one of several I’ve seen en route doing similar. “There are loos, why can’t they use them,” my inner voice chips in. And the counter: “You’re only envious, because you have to.” I reflect that men can have such revolting habits, but think of John, my husband, and know that they can be very lovely too.
It’s the top of the hill. My GPS beeps. An 11’43” mile. I’ve lost a bit of time, but it will be OK if I can rally and get moving again. I go into a trance-like hypnotic state, just pushing on. My legs are SO tired. The voice is cajoling now: “Go on, you’re doing great. Just keep it up. Just. Keep. It. Up.”
I’m not really registering much else around me. I’m totally in the moment and just focussing on propelling my legs forward. I’m aware of other runners, but only as in a dream, all sense of reality suspended.
Beep. Just over a mile to go. Just over a mile! I check the time. I’m not going to make a Palma PB. I might just squeeze in, in 4:20, but I need to push, push, PUSH. There is no let up.
I have one mission, one goal – to reach the finish line.
The Cathedral is close now, big enough to occupy much of my vision, should I choose. My eyes, however, are on the road, the route. Runners who’ve finished have formed a line and clap us in, urging us on. I feel emotional again and dig deep for those last 500 metres, searching for any last scrap of unused energy.
I round the final bend. Push, push. 150 metres to go. Push, push. I check my watch. Push, push. Can I make it inside 4:21? Push, push. The display turns to 4:20. I see the seconds tick by. Push, push. The finish line becomes a mirage, floating near and then far away. Push, push, PUSH. It’s real. And I cross it. I stop my GPS: 4:20:52.
John and our friend Mark are there. I barely see them. I don’t stop at all. I am in an exhausted daze. My brain is adjusting to no longer having to pump my legs forward and maintain the rhythm. At last I feel a deep sense of relief – it’s all over.
Post-race: Recovering, refuelling, reflecting…..
I walk – definitely like a zombie now – picking up water, energy drink, medal, T-shirt. I’m too tired to look at any of it.
I find a bench by a table and sit with my head laid flat – unable to summon up the energy to think, do or say anything. Gradually, I’m dimly aware that my clothes are soaked through, my top dripping wet from all the water I’ve been pouring over me to cool down. I have nothing with which to dry my glasses. Everything about me is totally spent. My first conscious thought: “I’m getting too old for this.”
Eventually, I summon the energy to ring John. I walk slowly and painfully towards him. Through the loudspeakers, I hear the song of Johannesburg: “Give Me Hope, Johanna, Give Me Hope.” I smile. What timing. It perks me up.
We walk to a bar with a garden. And sit in dappled sunlight. They do pizza. Great, just what I feel like. I order coffee, then a wine too – why not. Tourists offer congratulations and I acknowledge with other runners our shared effort.
I go to the loo and stretch my legs, my calf muscles are so tight. I change out of my wet top and into my finisher T-shirt. It’s a great T-shirt! I put it on, look in the mirror. And I feel pretty damn good.
*Phew! Bit of an epic guys, wasn’t it – but then the marathon is. There’s no other event where the slowest line up against the fastest, old against the young, weak against the strong, disabled against able-bodied. No other event where you so totally have to draw on your own inner strength to get through it – without break, pause or respite. I’m sure my OCD plays a part in how and why I run, though I still have no real idea what compels me, or others, to complete 26.2 miles. Whatever time or pace you achieve, it’s the most exhausting mental and physical challenge – and the most rewarding too. I hope I’ve been able to convey something of what an extraordinary event it is. As ever, thanks for reading 🙂