Marathons

marathons

Last month I wrote a piece about marathons for a fitness trade publication. It was a topic I never would have imagined writing on, given the fact I’m very much a non-runner, but my experience of watching this year’s event has completely changed my tune. If there is one thing I have learnt about marathon runners it’s their mental strength as well as their physical abilities to run for 26.2 miles. It never fails to both impress me.

After a whopping 889-day gap, the London Marathon returned to its Greenwich to Westminster course in October, and I decided to head up to London and watch it properly. It’s pretty embarrassing to admit that this was the first time I’d seen a marathon close up, considering that my dad completed three London Marathons in my lifetime (his last one was when he was 45, and he finished the course in 3 hours and 28 minutes – which, now that I’ve watched the runners myself, I’m even more impressed). In a fitting and uplifting celebration of the event’s #WeRunTogether campaign, 35,300 people had crossed the Finish Line by 6.30 pm on Sunday 3 October, with thousands more completing their marathon challenge virtually during a 24-hour window – making the 41st marathon an especially memorable one. Beforehand, Virgin Money London Marathon Event Director Hugh Brasher had stated that “the event’s return to its iconic central London route will make the 2021 edition the most meaningful in its history” and that certainly feels true.

As a fitness professional, I have always seen the attraction of ticking this iconic physical challenge off the bucket list. But the reality of actually running 26.2 miles puts a massive block in the way for me personally. A marathon is, literally and figuratively, no walk in the park! So, it’s not surprising to find that many marathon runners are not motivated by the physical challenge alone, but have deeper reasons for wanting to push themselves so hard. 

For many, the inspiration to run the marathon stems from wanting to raise money for charity, and this is a time when many charities need help more than ever before. The fact that we are all now living in a post-covid world that is so different, a world that none of us could have imagined 18 months ago, has allowed many of us to see our lives and communities in sharper focus. As reported by Basher on the TSC London Marathon website, “through the pandemic, charities have lost more than £10 billion, and this will be one of the greatest days of the year for charity fundraising in times that have been incredibly difficult. Runners in the London Marathon over the last 40 years have raised more than £1 billion for good causes”.

You only have to google the marathon runners to find some pretty incredible inspirational stories from previous years. In 2017, Tom Harrison, accompanied by his two sons, completed the marathon over six days crawling on his hands and knees, dressed in a gorilla costume. The unlikely hero crawled around 4.5 miles a day, stopping in friends’ beds overnight as he made his way around the course. This story sounded complete madness when I first started reading about it. Still, it makes sense in the end: the policeman raised a huge £23,900 for the Gorilla Organisation, which works to help communities near gorilla habitats and combat poaching.  And from a gorilla suit to wedding dresses, in 2017, newlywed Jackie Scully was diagnosed with breast cancer just days after her husband Duncan proposed to her. Jackie spent the lead-up to her wedding undergoing chemotherapy and reconstructive surgery. Running became a massive part of Jackie’s recovery, and she wanted it to be a part of her wedding day. After the happy couple said their vows on the Cutty Sark, they headed to the start of the marathon to run, in full wedding attire, for two cancer charities – Willow and Breast Cancer Care. There are hundreds more inspirational stories like these you can find – from Major Phil Packer completing the 2009 marathon after being told he’d never walk again to Stuart Eggleshaw, who ran the 2012 marathon having lost 22 stone. 

It’s not enough just to be motivated, of course. As a fitness professional (though, as I may already have mentioned, definitely not a runner) I have more than a passing interest in the physical side of the marathon, and I was keen to explore that fully as part of my marathon experience. This included attending the Running Show at The London Excel on the Saturday before. I had some great chats with businesses here, learning more about barefoot running with Vibram, enjoying conversations about beetroot with Beet It Sport and trying out MYO Master’s MyoAir compression boots. It was great fun. I must also mention the friendliest team of people at one of the fastest-growing trainer brands; Swiss-born On. This brand had already been highly recommended to me on several occasions but having learnt more about the companies’ values, notably their focus on environmental responsibility, I love them even more. 

Reading stories and listening to running fanatics got me thinking about who I would run for, and how I could motivate myself to run a marathon. And so, when I went to watch, I was interested in more than just the running – I was seeing personal journeys unfolding, and wondering about my own. The London Marathon is an event: Runner or non-runner, it makes you stop and think. 

Over to the race itself. My first viewing point was at about mile 18 at Heron Quay. Supposedly, this can be a point where many hit the wall, so I figured it might be where many would need the extra cheers of support to get through it. After a few minutes hovering around the spectator barriers, I spotted a gap and dived in it. I chatted to a lovely guy from Barnsley who was there cheering his son on. He told me he’d run a few marathons himself and all about his training and experiences of it. He was a great character, heckling the runners and making them smile with his jokes and non-stop cheering. He even helped me call out to the runners I was watching (not that I have a problem with the volume of my voice when required, but it was great to have the added vocals nevertheless!).  After an hour or so here, I jumped on a tube and headed towards the finish line. The underground was packed, but the atmosphere everywhere was electric. I pitched up around mile 25 and got a fantastic spot along Victoria Embankment. It was the only part of the day where it rained, but it didn’t last long at all, and just as I caught sight of the runner friends I was tracking, the sun came bursting through the clouds like the perfect finale. I got chatting to some lovely women next to me who joined in calling out to my friends (in between shrieking with incredible enthusiasm for anyone and everyone who went past them). 

Even with really strong motivation and good technique, it’s still an incredible achievement to manage a marathon. As I stood near the end of this year’s race, I was conscious of the people passing me quite clearly in some degree of discomfort. From younger runners to older runners, and including those runners who don’t seem satisfied with just how tough a marathon is already and chose to run inside a telephone box… it still just looks pretty hard work. Those I know who ran this year’s race and people I met on the day all seem to agree on one thing: It’s a mental game as much a physical one. I’ve been doing some reading on this ever since.  Sports Psychologist Dr Jeff Brown, in an article published in Runners World (18/04/19), states that “no matter how many long runs you’ve logged or how fast you ran your repeats, your mind can throw a hurdle your way on race day that can sabotage all your hard work. As a runner, your brain can be both your biggest asset and your greatest enemy. You must put in the miles and time to run your best. But I believe physical conditioning alone isn’t enough to put wings on your feet. What you think and feel on race day has a huge influence on how well you perform.” 

For me, contemplating the mental side of marathon running is even more off-putting in many respects. But I’m looking for a challenge. And part of me had already started contemplating “could I?” before the race had even begun on Sunday.  I’ll be honest, I’ve always used my feet as the easiest-to-justify excuse never to take part in a marathon. I’ve had two surgeries on my left foot, and the right does cause me issues. Oh, and I also despise running! Much to my gym members and PT clients surprise, I’ll rarely step foot on my treadmill – and I never venture outside to pound the streets of Romsey, or jog along trails in the nearby New Forest. But I know that I can change my mindset about running with a bit of effort, and with some specialist support can manage my foot problems too. So, on a high after my weekend of marathon mania, I entered next year’s event through a charity, and guess what – I’m in! 

Of course, having learned about the need for mental as well as physical motivation, I did take some time to figure out the moral driving force for me. Inspired by a good friend who ran for a charity called SportsAid, I looked into what they did, and it seemed immediately like the perfect fit. SportsAid is the only national charity of its kind – helping young British sportsmen and women aspiring to be the country’s next Olympic, Paralympic, Commonwealth and world champions. Imagine the fulfilment running to raise funds for a charity like this, which could potentially secure funding for your children to pursue their dreams. SportsAid supports over 1,000 athletes each year – the vast majority aged 12 to 18 – by providing them with a financial award to help towards training and competition costs. These athletes are Great Britain’s brightest sporting prospects. They are nominated to SportsAid by the national governing bodies of more than 60 sports based on set criteria from each. 

Having set up my gym in 2017 and now managing a rapidly growing personal training membership base, I’ve always been an advocate for getting kids involved wherever possible. I’m an ambassador for Action Mats UK, which provides PE resources for schools and I love to encourage children to enjoy fitness and sport. My daughter, recently nine years old, aspires to be in the Olympics when she’s older. She doesn’t know which event she would like to train for, but that’s not important right now. She finds her release and freedom through sport, and her little brother is all set to follow in her footsteps.

So – the marathon starts here! I’ll be keeping track of my journey from next year and will share the wins and woes of training here.

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