Marathons are cruel. They slowly but surely destroy participants, emotionally and physically. They wear down the mind, eat away at thoughts, until pre-race aspirations, hope, motivations are smashed. All that is left is a desire for this suffering to be over, and quickly. They wear down the body, finding little niggles that become groaning aches, before reaching the point of near-capitulation. Few are immune. I was reminded of that as I watched footage of Andrew Lemoncello, one of the UK’s finest distance runners, struggling to the finish line, battling the effects of a hideous stitch.
I shattered my marathon personal best by almost 14 minutes yesterday, running 2.50.23. Yet at no point did I feel comfortable; at no point did I feel in control; at no point was I the master of this marathon. Never mind my dream of breaking 2.45. It was never going to happen, not yesterday, not in the London heat, not with the fragility of my physical condition. I should have at least finished in 2.49 (doesn’t that sound better than 2.50?), but I was bedevilled by cramp in the 25th and 26th miles.
From a swift opening 5km of 18.53, I would only get slower. Even at miles eight to 10, I felt desperate, but I forged on, experiencing moments of relative strength followed by bouts of profound tiredness and self-doubt. A fortnight of tapering seemed to have counted for nothing. Still, I went through halfway in 1.21.12. Too fast. I knew it. Deep down, I knew my fate, knew the dreadful struggle that was to be my punishment for starting too fast. It was too late to change things. The first half of the race was run. I couldn’t go back. Now it was a question of how long I could hold on, how long I could survive.
I had another low between miles 15 to 17. Runners passed me in droves. My right calf was stiffening with every step; pain ran along the inside of my left knee. Soon after, I strangely began to feel brighter again. A nagging stitch, a constant companion during the troublesome previous miles, disappeared. Miles 18 to 21 flew by. I wasn’t getting any faster, but nor was the slowdown as dramatic. Then mile 22 came and with it inexorable tiredness. I was plodding now.
Miles 23 and 24 were harder still. My thoughts grew confused, faintness gathered. The day seemed to grow hotter by the second. At each water station I drank furiously, tipping the rest of the contents over my head and down my throbbing calf. An American women shouted, ‘looking smooth,’ at me. I felt wretched. My 5km split from 35 to 40km would be three minutes slower than my first 5km. The crowds, so supportive, so loud, for so many miles, suddenly felt oppressive.
As I approached the corner for Westminster, cramp arrived, like an arrow in my right hamstring. I forced myself to keep running. It is fatal to stop. Once you cease movement, once you succumb, you could be stuck there for several minutes. I hobbled on, the cramp gradually easing, and passed beneath the ‘800 metres to go’ sign on Birdcage Walk. A sub-2.50 was in my sights. But as I tried to speed up, I could feel the cramp beginning to pinch.
Turning onto The Mall, now 200 metres from the finish line, it returned again. I panicked. The finish line was so close, but I was temporarily incapacitated. A marshal grabbed my hand and walked with me for a few seconds, before I pushed him away and forced myself to run. I watched the clocks ticking towards 2.50. It had gone, I knew that. Only a Usain Bolt sprint finish could save me know. There was no chance of that. I dragged myself across the line, 23 seconds outside of 2.50. Pain, suffering, mental anguish, legs in pieces today: I can’t wait for the 2012 marathon.
Postscript: 2012 never happened. I would not run a road marathon again.