I dont consider myself a runner, I never have, a reluctant one at best.
In September 2010 I took part in my first formal run, doing the 10k from the 20th Montreal Marathon. It was a fun experience, crowds, noise, roadside entertainment, and a finish inside the olympic stadium, which was a great experience. Since that stage, my running distance had increased, gradually, through my first winter’s running, in the snow and the cold. I had extended my running distance to around 15 miles by the end of the winter. Then, the doubts crept in, the lack of confidence, worries about injuries, and the running regularity dropped. I had become a little discouraged with my running, and I let my work be my excuse not to run. It was easy, it would only take the slightest of other responsibilities to tip the scales into not getting my gear on and going outside, so I slacked for a few weeks.
Questions were in the back of my head…what am I doing, whats the point of all this, I dont enjoy it. My pace had stuck around a certain time, I wasnt pushing myself, and my distance faltered. With the irregular running also, my stamina suffered, and when I decided to start running regularly again, it was like learning all over again. I started to incorporate some hill climbing, and it took a few months to even approach my stamina and distance I was before, but even then, I was stuck at around 13, 14, 15 miles. By now it was the summer, the heat was another stumbling block, forcing the runs either very early morning, or nightime runs.
Then it was deciding what to do next. I had run a 10k before, and my current ‘do-able’ distance was around a half marathon, so if I decided to run a half marathon in the next Montreal Marathon, I felt it wouldnt be enough of a challenge. However, I was stuck in this grey area, further than a half marathon, but not yet up to the level where I could tackle a full distance.
After some thought, I went for the full distance. The Marathon was set for the end of September, the entrance fee alone was enough of a kick up the backside to inspire me. I started another training program to set a time of 4 hours, but I had only joined the program half way through it, 7 or 8 weeks of a 16 week course. Its a tough training program, the peak training distance was 40 miles in a week. My pace and stamina improved, but gradually. In the background was an ongoing injury to my left leg, and cramping issues, which I am still struggling to find an answer for.
My longest run was 17.4 miles, the run the week after was supposed to stretch me to 20 miles, but I got caught in a thunderstorm and quit it at 10 miles. This left me short on preparation, and a little worried. I hastily lowered my expectations about time and distance. I clung onto a finishing time of 4 hrs 30, optimistic, but I remained hopeful.
The night before the marathon. Slept in fits and starts. I was about as prepared as I was going to be, considering. 5.50am, woke up before the sun rising, after 3 hours of sleep. Prepared a basic meal, drinking sports drinks like they were water. Strapping my gear on, checking the weather. I had visualized the course, I had ran almost all of it in training, apart from a couple of miles, going through it in fast forward in my head.
Everything ready. deep breath. Step outside. Cloudy, humid. Nerves, real nerves for the first time. Crossing the road to the metro, a couple pass me, notice the marathon number pinned to my shirt, wishing me good luck. I smile awkwardly and keep moving. Onto the metro, I see the first other people in marathon gear walking towards the subway. The train is just one stop to the marathon start location, in the middle of a huge suspension bridge, at 8.30am.
Off the train, the smaller numbers are coalescing to a steady stream of runners, heading from the metro to the bridge. Its about a 20 minute walk. Looking around nervously. Theres some public bathrooms, this is my last chance, so I join the queue. Im fixated on leg muscles, for some reason, looking at the others in the queue ahead of me. I feel unfit.
The crowds converge on the bridge.
The bridge is a landmark, I have pounded the concrete and metal past cars when the sun rises, through the heat of the day, and in the dead of night. I have become familiar with it, I anticipate the pain it brings me, its unforgiving climb, the gusts of wind across its surface, but for some reason I feel more alone now, surrounded by runners than I do making the journey across it alone.
There are actually less people here than I thought. The bridge dominates the landscape, and anything less than a huge amount looks relatively small. The elite runners gather under the start line, stretching, running up and down the local span of the bridge to warm up. I can only imagine what is going through their head, but for this moment, we share the same small stretch of tarmac.
The queue of runners forms by their respective planned finish times, the elite runners at the front, and then stretched out to 5 hrs and beyond at the back. There are ‘pace bunnies’ dotted in the crowd, runners with rabbit signs, and red ears on their caps, with the time written on them. They will be the pace markers for the desired finish time.
I line myself up behind the 4.30 pace bunny, as per my training. The pace bunnies stop at 4.45, everyone else is on their own. We have been told that the marathon organizers will open the roads back up to traffic after 5.45 mins, they cant afford to shut down the city center any longer, so the ones stuck after then will be generally on their own.
The guy on the loudspeaker is counting down the time, building the crowd up, reeling out happy statistics about the days race. It bugs me that the pace bunnies are old guys, ironically. It makes me feel unfit. These are the guys that will run strong and on time, that are confident in their abilities, and I feel so small.
So, here we gather, counting down the time to the start. The foolish, the brave, the ones that live for running, that make a career from it, people that are doing it for a loved one, doing it for a dead relative, raising money for a good cause, probably one or two that find themselves waiting on a bridge to start a marathon after a drunken bet, the reasons are many.
Theres no fanfare, its a countdown and a ripple of applause on a humid sunday morning. We dont sprint out through the start gate, in fact its a slow and steady stop-go as the runners file up and over the start line. We are off.
Apart from the elite runners, who are already off into the distance, the main group of runners bunch up at the start, all the pace people are together, the crowd is mainly friends and family of the runners that wanted to see them go on the start line. I am aiming to start slow, but the crowd dictates the pace, and my first mile is faster than i hoped, but I hang back, determined to run my own pace. The beginning of the race is a series of downward slopes, and with everyone bunched up, it becomes an exersize in space management, avoiding getting in others ways as people filter out to find their own pace, shuffling forwards or backwards in the pack.
The first loop is a tour of the ‘island’, its part of a larger man-made cluster of two islands, built for the Olympic games in Montreal in the 70s. The other island has the Formula 1 circuit on it. I run to pace, running without the headphones on, just pushing them on to hear the mile markers being read off, to check on current time.
My thoughts are random, fairly empty actually, feeling is comfortable enough, but already I am behind pace. Just by a little. To run the marathon in under 4 hours, the pace is 9 mins 5 seconds, at my re-set time of 4 hrs 30mins, its around 10 minute miles, which is something I can achieve, at least in my smaller runs, however, thats without counting run-breaks, and I am not sure about keeping the pace for that length of time. So far my miles are about 10.15, whch is ok.
The island passes, the formula 1 track is done, and we head towards the city. I eat my running snack, and drink at each water station, hungry gulps of sports drinks and water, grabbed, devoured and discarded. Water stations are the one thing you cant really train for, I tend to stop and walk for refreshment. It keeps you on your toes when you switch down from running mode to grabbing for the water.
Heading into the city, the longer term aches begin, and the doubts start. The runners start to thin out, I am now in the latter half of the field, and my 4.30 pace bunny has drifted off ahead. Its frustrating not being able to keep to pace, I am tempted to push it to catch up to the pack, but it would be a temporary victory at best, leaving me gassed for the rest of the run, and with over a half marathon distance to go, I am reluctant to stretch myself, with so little known about how my body will be in the latter stages. I pass a couple of the walking wounded, and it brings to the fore my own fragility. I feel for them. In particular, one black guy, he looks fit, ready to race, but his right knee has been recently, hastily bandaged, obviously a fresh strain or wound, he is walking, hobbling, trying to avoid the pain in his leg. I dont know if he will finish, we arent at half marathon distance yet, with so much longer to run, I cant see him making it.
There are people on the sides of the street, but not as many as I expect, then again, with the relatively low number of 3000 people running, the group must thin out fast, and the average person probably doesnt wait around; either they are there to see someone specific, to support them, and once they have, they move on, or they are just a casual passing observer, and they stay for a while, but the further we get into the run, the longer the field takes to pass any particular point, and the average viewer probably wont stand around for too long.
Having said there, theres some touching, and also bizarre crowd moments. A little 5 year old kid Who I diverted across the road to high five. My first name is printed on the running number I wear, and occasionally someone in the crowd mentions me by name, which is an odd feeling, unexpectedly intimate, like Im supposed to know them…’Go for it Stephen’….’Dont stop running Stephen’….it was encouraging and disconcerting at the same time. The rest were applauding, offering bilingual encouragement (how thoughtful!) and the occasional clanging cowbell:)
I was at around 10, 11 miles, I think, we were on the ‘mainland’ so to speak, running around the city center, the route takes us back under the bridge that we started on, and by that time the half marathon was starting (2 hours later on the same bridge) and this is where the majority of runners participate, so there were HUGE crowds of runners (perhaps 10,000 or more) filtering across the bridge. Whereas the marathon runners take a detour before hitting the mainland, the half marathon runners run straight over the bridge into the city center, so this was the closest I would get to seeing any of them
At this point, my body started to break down. Call me a wimp, unprepared, I dont know, Im trying to get over that part myself, but I guess I was the most prepared for half distance. My ongoing issue is cramp, and it started to affect my thighs. It felt like metal bands tightening around my legs, constricting me. My pace slowed, my stride shortened. At the water stations I would stop and stretch, while I attempted to hold it together. Soon the final pace bunny, the 4.45 runner, and the group he was with passed me. I attempted to keep up with them, but it was a short term victory. I was resigned to seeing the group fade away.
I listened to music for the first time in the race, partly for motivation, partly to block everything else out. Skrilllex came on, I had hoped the hard electronic beats would dictate my pace, but it felt more like it was mocking me, as I struggled to match the tempo with my own stuttering strides.
The mile markers became my consolation, my solace, as I would count them off, and count down towards the total amount. The runners thinned significantly towards the back of the pack, but also became more varied, individual. At the front, you know what to expect. Cookie-cutter hard bodies, muscles so sharp they could slice metal, bodies built for running, machines of fitness. Towards the back, well, individuals. The walking wounded, or even just the walking. I passed two people whose t-shirts proudly declared they were walking the entire marathon. The elderly…quite a large number of significantly older people, which both surprised and encouraged me, and also made me feel bad. One woman with a sign on the back of her shirt (my name is Pat, today is my 60th birthday, wish me happy birthday!) which I did, along with other people. She too left me in her dissapearing footprints. Some power walkers, one older guy I remember with a battered t-shirt that looked like it came from a 1980’s marathon. He was all muscle, looked underfed, hunched over, and yet his walking stride was faster than my jogging one. I marveled at his style and envied his age and power. Also, larger people, a few significantly overweight, doing their own thing. Who knows what reasons we had, what internal struggles were going through the minds of the people at the back of the pack. I would become familiar with some of them, one woman in particular with Vibrams on (these minimalist running shoes, meant to mimic barefoot running). We would alternately pass each other in our run-walk moments, catch up to each other, and then pause, whilst the other one set the pace, and became a motivational target.
As the miles stretched out, the pain increased. The cramps became background noise, manageable, but never going away, then my longer term injury flared up on my left leg. My glutes (the muscles at the top of the thigh that go across the pelvic bone, under the flesh of the ass) became sore, painful. I had to walk and stretch more often, and try to massage the thigh whilst walking to alleviate the pain. This was my routine for the next number of miles, pass a mile marker and get to a water station, grabbing a few cupfuls of drink, gulping them down greedily at a walking pace, perhaps stopping to stretch at a tree, or some steps, then breaking into an awkward run. That was the most difficult part, the transition from walking to running, the point where all my leg muscles would scream at me simultaneously to stop, until I found an awkward faltering stride and settled into it, and keep it going, for perhaps 1/2 a mile, maybe 3/4, until I had to stop again and try and relax my legs until the next mile marker, and repeat the process.
I passed the next major hill, running up half of it, walking the rest, and was reminded of the fragility of runners. On the side of the road, flat out on the sidewalk, with two medical assistants on bicycles, this older guy. His white t-shirt was streaked with blood from each nipple, you could tell (I have had it before also) where the fabric of his sweat-soaked running shirt had just rubbed his nipples raw. They were taking his blood pressure and administering oxygen to him, as far as I could tell from the bits of conversation I had heard when I was passing him, he was a diabetic, Im guessing his blood sugar level was all over the place, but he also looked like he had pushed himself too hard.
Another factor in the longer run was the heat. It was an unusually muggy, humid day, unseasonably so, apparently even the race winner had complained about the heat, and yet he had finished by 10.30 in the morning. It was hours later when I had finished, in the heat of the midday sun, and it only got worse for the people towards the back of the pack. It was in the news later that one poor man, a 32 yr old doing the half marathon had died of a heart attack, just 1km from the finish. Another 25 went to hospital. It has been reported that the chances of dying whilst running in a marathon are less than 1 in 100,000, which is about the same as a middle aged person (me) has from dying generally, without doing any running.
Theres an audio book I listened to while I was training, by a famous Japanese author, Haruki Murakami, called ‘What I think about when I think about running’, so excuse me while I borrow roughly from his book, but it suited me at this stage.
My legs hurt as I ran, each part of my leg would, in turn, increase in pain, new parts of my leg that had never hurt before, began to hurt. i would mentally bargain with my legs, talking the pain away. (If you can get me past this mile marker, then I will stop, I will rest you, I will stretch your affected area, I will ease your pain, if you can just keep me going). The pain would ease from one area, only to be replaced by another area insisting for attention, and the round of bargaining would begin again. Now my feet began to burn also, it felt like blisters would form on the balls of my feet.
While this may all sound distressing, I was actually enjoying the experience generally. The pain wasnt career-ending, it was at the level where it was inconvenient, but manageable. I could keep it at a level that was ok to deal with as long as I kept this interval running up with rest periods. There were times I became grumpy, even irrationally so; there was a moment where the marathon course took a slight ‘U’ shaped detour from the course I expected, perhaps a 10 minute out and back run, probably just to extend the course a little to make the regulation distance, but I remember getting mad at it, wondering what the point was, that it was just making me more tired for no reason. I could glance through the block and see the runners running back down to the course on the other side of the diversion, and hating them, knowing that they were stronger than me, fitter, that they were still running while I was walking. The gloom passed though, just a cloud passing in front of the sun.
The final 6 miles came up. An important milestone for me. This was the part of the course that I had run last year, the final 10km. 42 km sounds like an awfully long distance, but with 32 down, and 10 to go, it becomes more manageable, a figure in my head that seems like it can be completed, rather than a seemingly endless amount to go. The last 10km started with a downhill section, which I figured would be a bit of a relief, however, it was as painful running downhill as anything else by this stage, so it didnt provide the rest I had hoped for.
The run took me through one of the more upmarket neighborhoods in Montreal. Also, we were close enough to the finish now that people who had already finished, people from the 5k, 10k, kids with their families from the 1k, were walking home, in their running gear, with medals around their neck. I looked on with envious eyes. I felt so far away from that place yet, but its what I wanted so badly. Families at the side of the road were cheering people on, some had hoses plugged into their water supply in the house, spraying water over the road for those needing it. I avoided the sprays, I didnt want the water to add to my sweat and rub on various areas even more. One funny group was sitting on their balcony, their stereo was basting the tune from ‘Chariots Of Fire’ across the street. I mimicked the slow motion running from one of the sequences of the movie, much to the amusement of the people on their balcony, as they were in on the joke, although then it occured to me that theres probably been loads of people doing the same joke already, and it must have been old by the time I did it:)
Still counting down, the 5km marker came up, the final loop around the park where the finish line was, and the final hill. Such a cruel joke to have a long, lazy hill along the final few kilometers. I remember the famous Boston Marathon course, theres talk of a hill around the 18 mile mark, called ‘Heartbreak Hill’, and I understand why. This isnt even hardly a hill, in training, I would breeze through it, but at the ass-end of a marathon run, it looked like the slope of everest to me. Run, walk, run, walk, getting there, in my own time, and finally, rounding the corner at the top of the hill. Theres 2 kilometers left now, just over a mile. A last water station, a final refuel, and breaking into a run, ignoring the aches, trying to maintain a tempo.
The final stretch, a long, straight road, and a final turn into the finishing strait, and through the trees, my first wavering glimpse of the finish line. Oh, blessed release. I was numb, just smiling at the thought of what I had achieved, could hardly believe it. I will admit to crying a couple of tears at the finish, just remembering the year of running and training that lead to this moment.
The time was awful, 5 hrs 20 minutes, my hopes for a decent finish were out of the window, and yet, out of only 2,600 people in Montreal, on this day, I had finished a Marathon, and that is something nobody can take away from me. I am a Marathon Runner, still reluctant, not particularly good, but I have accomplished something. I didnt have help, in fact, nobody helped me to run, I had no personal trainers, no motivation to get out of bed and run each day, other than myself, I didnt have friends and family on the course cheering me on, yet I went from not being able to run, to finishing a marathon, somehow.
Today I am a Marathon Runner.