Saturday, 25 May 2013

26.2 Reasons to Doubt Everything, Ever.

This time last week I was en route to the expo at Brathay Hall, about to collect my race number and a bundle of freebies ready for Sunday's marathon. We jovially took photos of ourselves standing by the finish line, and I was relishing the anticipation of the time between then and the moment I'd see that banner again later the next day. I was looking forward to slap-up pre-marathon grub at Zephirelli's in Ambleside, a hot shower and an early night.

I was excited to see what I could do; to taste the Brathay Windermere marathon for the second time, this time with hindsight, more training, and a more confident approach to my running. I was looking forward to the drum beats of the send-off, the quaint villages around the route, the killer hill at mile 7-8, and to seeing those numbers going beyond 13 and getting increasingly massive. This time it would be an adventure, which I calculated would probably start around mile 15 and keep getting better and better as I pushed through the way I had during miles of lonely training in Stockholm. I was prepared, of that I was sure.

But then the night came and I didn't sleep. And the morning came and I couldn't eat. I arrived at the start line already depleted, nauseous and tense. I was terrified of something and I didn't know what it was; anxiety was gnawing at my stomach and gripping its fingers around my chest. I kept telling myself that I just needed to get to mile 15: both up to that point and beyond that point were separate adventures, and I could deal with them both. The drumming began, the starting shot was fired, and I was running another marathon.

Like every race, my stomach fell to my feet and my heart swelled up into my throat, and I ran and saw the feet and legs moving in a blur ahead of me. My feet were moving but my head was still waiting to start the race. I could do this, I knew, but it didn't feel like it. The block of runners was much bigger than I was used to, the crowds were much bigger than I was used to; my mind was whirling and my heart was pulsating in the back of my throat. I slowed down and tried to calm down. A mile in and I started to steady, the rhythms of my feet and breath finally meeting one another in a regular pattern, lulling me into a state of relative calm. My mind freed itself of my worries and started to drift back to Sweden, or forwards to my wedding: I froze the thoughts and promised myself I would come back to them later, when I needed them - I didn't want to waste any mental energy on any form of thinking so early in the race.

I'm not sure if it was for this reason, or simply down to a already-heightened state of anxiety, but it was at that point, just after the first mile marker, that it started to come undone, and went pretty much downhill from there for the next 25 miles. The running was fine - really quite good for the most part - but my mental state during almost the entire marathon was something I hadn't known until last Sunday, and since then I've struggled to think of the marathon without a sour sensation rising from my gut. The experience wasn't humbling, nor was it revealing in any sort of self-reflectional sense: it was simply hard, there is no other word for it, and it took everything I had in my mind to get past that finish line.

I could talk about the amazing scenes in Hawkeshead as we ran through cheering crowds, banners and a roar of music (truly sensational). Or I could talk about the stitch that felt as if a piece of glass was stuck in my lower intestine, leaving me bent double by the side of the road, trying to vomit and trying not to vomit simultaneously. I could talk about the comments about vegetarian runners that made me laugh even in the darkest moments ("come on veggie, prove it!", [tones of amazement] "vegetarian, as well..."). Or how about those last miles where I couldn't even summon a smile for the constant cheers and encouragement from the onlookers visiting the Lake District that day? But the memories of the race pale into the background still, as all I really know is that I learned a lot about running last Sunday, more than I wished ever to know. Until then I'd done 7 runs of over 20 miles in my time as a runner, and it wasn't until that 8th attempt that I really felt the force and enormity of 'The Wall'. I didn't know until then - and I hope to never know again - how it feels, mentally, to have nothing more to give. Physical emptiness can be addressed with a quick energy gel or a stretch by the side of the road, but what do you do with mental emptiness? What do you do when you can't find any thoughts in your head to hold on to, when there's 9 miles left to run and no part of your mind can convince you that you can do it? There were a few occasions when I literally couldn't breathe: my lungs felt as if they had deflated and I couldn't draw in any air to get them going again. I was terrified, and there was no one there to reassure me that I would be ok. It happened two or three times, and each time I had to stop, to try and hold back the tears, and to resist every physical urge that was screaming at me to give in.

Recounting all of this makes me think that I should feel mentally stronger now, able to tackle anything that comes my way: I did, after all, complete the marathon, and so nearly within the time goal that I had set for myself. But I feel weaker, not stronger. I feel as if I've left something out on the roads around Windermere, a part of me that I probably won't get back, and it's the part of me that made me want to sign up for another 26.2 miles right away after Windermere last year. Whatever it was left me blind to the pains and the immense hardness of marathon running. It stopped me from noticing the other runners struggling to move forwards, the pools of sick by the side of the road, the pains in my lungs, knees, head, stomach, face, neck, back, toenails, arms, shoulders during and after the run, or that crescendo and sudden explosion of agony that hits at full force about 7 minutes after crossing the finish line. Marathon running is hard. We all know it's physically hard - it's supposed to be, as I tell myself on any long run - but the mental challenge is something that hits with startling force, and that can't be prepared for in advance. The problem is that no amount of advice, forewarning or ready-prepared mental acrobatics can possibly be of any use when you have no capacity to think. And when you lose capacity to think, the pains cry out louder, the distance stretches further, and the process of running seems increasingly more ludicrous with every forwards step.