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Why I ran a marathon on no training, 5 months after having a baby….

This week has seen the annual emotional rollercoaster that is the Virgin London Marathon ballot results.

From Monday this week, people began to receive magazines through their door with either ‘You’re in!’ or, much more likely…’Commiserations!’ With a record-breaking 414,000 entering to take part and only around 40,000 spots up for grabs, the massive majority were disappointed.

I’m a keen runner so entered the ballot this year but was unsuccessful.  I won’t be complaining however as I’m lucky enough to have run the race twice already.  It got me thinking back to April this year when I ran London in quite an unconventional way……..

Turn the clock back to 2016 and I took part in the Greater Manchester Marathon, my fifth marathon, and a good one.  I run regularly, have done for years, and bagged a time of 3:41, within the target ‘Good For Age’ pace.  This doesn’t mean (as my friends like to claim) that I’m ‘good for an old bird’. Actually, it’s a set of times outlined by London Marathon organisers that determine whether you are in the top percentage of people for your age and sex in terms of marathon times.  If you’re able to run an official marathon within this time (for me it’s quicker than 3:45), you can apply for a London place and you’re near enough guaranteed a spot.  I had managed to get one before and had run London in 2014.  It was the most amazing experience, I loved every mile and was keen to go back.

I bagged a place for 2017 but a rather lovely life event happened before the day – I became pregnant with our second child.  Having been through a horrible experience previously, I just wasn’t prepared to run it and put my body under that kind of stress when pregnant.  All the evidence suggests that I would have been fine, that there is no danger to a baby when running, but I’d never forgive myself so declared myself out and deferred my place to 2018.

Jack was born in November 2017 and I kept an open mind over whether I would still run the race in April, 5 months after he’d been born.  I’m in an amazing running club – Felixstowe Road Runners – and had been inspired by one of the lady members who had run a marathon 6 months after her baby was born.  She had proven it was possible and lived to tell the tale.  I also knew that I had started running 6 weeks after my first son was born so knew that I would want to get back to it fairly quickly.

So on the 11th November Jack arrived…..and then…….wow.  My first born was not a good sleeper, but it didn’t prepare me for what was ahead with Jack.  The first few days were as expected, a bizarre fog of constant feeding, confusion over the time of day or night and when we’d had sleep or hadn’t.  He then started to sleep fairly well – by 6 weeks we had some nights when he was only up twice, and was settling to sleep at bed time really well. 

Well that was short lived! He got progressively worse until we were regularly up every 1.5-2 hours and I was slowly descending into a sleep-deprived mental case.  On top of that, my god he cried.  And cried.  And cried.  For the first 10 weeks we had day after day where if he was awake, he was crying.  He’d feed happily then cry the minute he’d stopped.  Evening would descend (also known as the witching hour or ‘night time doom’) and he would turn into some kind of wailing banshee meaning that me or my husband would have to pace the living room with him, desperately willing bed time to arrive so we’d have at least one hour of respite. (He’s super lush and happy now by the way).

Add in to the mix the fact that I’m self-employed so didn’t have any maternity leave.  I made a feeble attempt to stop work but failed and was therefore emailing and trying to be productive occasionally, whilst also managing the baby and his older brother.  This is all a long-winded way of getting to the fact that there was no way in hell I would have time to train for a marathon!  Don’t get me wrong, I would have LOVED to.  For me, running is not just a way of keeping fit and trying to keep the body in some kind of respectable state, it’s also very important for my mental health.  I love being out in the fresh air, working hard and getting the endorphins going.  I’ve run for so long, it’s a normal part of my life and something I couldn’t be without, so to have had this respite from the struggles of the newborn would have been wonderful.

After month 2 of sleep deprivation and only 3 months until race day, I officially declared myself out.  I had started to run, but it just wasn’t going well.  During pregnancy your ligaments loosen and I was struggling with severe knee pain whenever I ran, something I hadn’t experienced the first time round.  That passed and I was getting out for the odd run, but was going very gently and only running 3-4 miles at a time.  For non-runners, that’s a lot, but for runners in training for a marathon, that’s really not enough to prepare for a 26.2 mile race.  I was enjoying being back out there though, and in March I ran 10 miles with a friend, ‘just because’, before returning to my usual bimble over 3 or 4 miles.

Fast forward to April and marathon season was in full swing.  Lots of big marathons take place in April and being an active club member, Facebook was full of reports of my friends’ training successes and woes, then in-depth reports of their big races.  The week before London 2018, the Brighton Marathon took place, with lots of my friends competing.  One of those was my NAB partner in  crime, Kate, along with her husband Marcus who was running a marathon for the first time.  She was brilliant, he was brilliant.  She kept us posted throughout the race on our Whatsapp group, and had taken the decision to take the pressure off herself and go and enjoy it.  And boy did she.  She ran with no expectations around PBs or records and went and had fun.  This had a big effect on me.

Kate’s brilliance, along with all of the stories I was hearing made me start to question why I wasn’t lining up on the start line in London.  People all over the world long for a place in London, which is viewed by many as the world’s best marathon.  I have friends who are on their 10th or more successive rejection in the ballot and are desperate  to get in.  It’s a bucket list event for so many.  Here I was with a free place, being completely healthy, deciding not to run it purely because I wouldn’t get the time I pressure myself into getting.  I ran my first marathon in Dublin at the age of 20 (quite a long time ago….!)  Training was hampered by an injury so I didn’t get the time I wanted but finished in a respectable 4:15.  I didn’t entertain the thought of another one until after I’d had my first child, and ran the Marathon of the North in Sunderland in 2013.  I trained with a very lovely friend and it couldn’t have gone better (apart from the fact that it was a slightly short course – don’t ask) finishing in 3:40 and bagging a Good for Age place for London – something I never thought I’d do.  In London I got nearly the exactly the same time, then did it again in Brighton and Manchester.  You can see a pattern here.

That all means I have stupidly high expectations of myself to keep up this pace and continually fall within the Good For Age category.  What a load of rubbish.  I had a bit of an epiphany moment and told myself to stop being such an idiot.  It doesn’t matter what your times are, it matters that you’re running or racing for you, for how it makes you feel and for the chance to be active, fit and enjoying yourself.  For the London Marathon, this is even more true.  Until you run it, you can’t grasp the magnitude of the event.  The atmosphere, the organisation, the support, it’s just incredible and something everyone should have the chance to experience. Here I was, about to give up the chance to do this, all because of my pride over not being quick enough.

Decision made, I contacted a close running friend who also had a place and had also decided to defer.  She’s super fit, super quick and could run a marathon quickly, with her eyes closed, backwards, whenever she wants.  I asked her if she fancied going ‘for a day out’ and she was mad enough to say yes.  I barely told anyone I was doing it, I didn’t want the pressure or fuss so it was on.

Now when I say I didn’t train…I really didn’t.  Apart from the odd short runs I describe above and that one 10 mile run I had completed a couple of months before, that was it! Usually, I rigidly stick to a 4-month training plan involving between 3 and 5 runs per week and run 20 miles at least 3 times.  This was unknown territory and I was really excited about it.  The weather plays a huge part in the mental state of any marathon runner and I’m probably one of the worst for pre-race anxiety.  The weather forecast leading up to the day was not good reading.  It was set to be hot, really hot.  Had I been running in my ‘usual’ way, this would have sent me into an epic meltdown.  I would have been a nightmare to live with or be around and would have written off any chance of a good race because of the heat.  This time, I was quite looking forward to it!

This year, it was going to be a chance to take in the sights, soak up the atmosphere, experience the world’s greatest race, all with my friend, with absolutely no pressure.  Hardly anyone knew I was running and I didn’t give a hoot about how long it took.  When I arrived in the start area, I sent my friends a selfie asking ‘guess what I’m doing today!?!?’ I received a mixture of abuse and delight from them, but as with anything I do in my life, they had my back.

There’s a lot of ‘faffing’ that goes on at the start of a race, getting dressed, sorting your kit, dumping your bag, nutrition, hydration, sun cream…. Running in my situation also posed a new problem.  Boobs.  I was feeding Jack A LOT and was about to go over 12 hours away from him.  That meant the pump came with me.  Imagine my joy when I was in the portaloo, pumping away, when all of a sudden the door swings open and a poor unsuspecting lady stares, open mouthed at the sight ahead of her.  Didn’t lock the door properly did I?…..at least I gave her something to laugh about for a few miles!

Michelle and I had different start areas so we met up at mile 1 and set off for the unknown.  The loose plan was to run to the halfway point, which is near enough on Tower Bridge where a group of Felixstowe Road Runners, including a very special friend of mine would be supporting.  After that – survival.  Run, walk, run, walk and get it done!

It worked!  I didn’t manage to run the full 13 miles to begin with.  I made it to 10 before the heat stopped play.  It was obscenely hot.  The hottest London Marathon on record so everyone was dripping with sweat by mile 1.  At mile 10 a wonderful man gave us an ice pole which was definitely the best gift I have ever received in my life.  We stopped and I caught my breath then we just kept on carrying on.

It was amazing.  We smiled and laughed at the amazing people in crazy outfits.  We blubbed at the emotional messages on runners who were doing this in memory of someone.  We stopped at Tower Bridge for a Facebook live video, I danced to the samba band.

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a walk in the park.  It was hard.  But there was no pressure.  None at all.  I couldn’t fail because there was nothing to get wrong.  By the time we hit Big Ben and we were about to turn towards the Mall and the home straight, I think I was in disbelief.  I sneaked a look at my Garmin watch (of course I had to wear it anyway) and was dumbfounded by the time we could get if I could just keep running these last few hundred metres.  I did and we finished in a time of 4 hours 27 minutes.  How? I have absolutely no idea.

So what have I taken from this and what has it taught me?  A fellow runner and member of FRR has a catchphrase that he often recites to fellow runners questioning their ability.  He says “back yourself.”  I think he’s got something.  That day, I let all anxiety, worry, insecurity and expectation float away and I just ran and tried my best.  I allowed myself the luxury of believing in myself, something I’m not that great at doing, and I honestly believe that my positive mindset is what got me through.  Running a marathon is hard, really hard, but I have always made it even harder by driving myself crazy.

I ran a sub 4:30 marathon without training for it, on months of very little sleep, on the hottest marathon on record, because I took control of my mind.  Anything is possible if you believe and you try.  That is the message I will be teaching my boys for as long as they will listen.