Project Marathon: The finish line

The beginner: Carol Williamson

Marathon day arrived and I joined the thousands of runners congregating in Blackheath, not quite able to believe I had signed up for this insanity. After what seemed no time at all I was in my allotted starting pen and ready for the off.

The first mile or so passed by happily enough – I cruised comfortably past Peter and Jordan (she’s thinner than she looks in photos) feeling fairly smug. Mind you, shortly thereafter some people dressed as a pint of London Pride, a giant Lucozade Sport bottle and a Nike trainer overtook me, which put everything in perspective. At least I stayed ahead of the rhino.

In fact, everything was going well enough until about halfway. I had seen Sam screaming encouragement at mile one, a hungover friend who had been out until 3am hanging over the barrier at mile 11 yelling me on, and was clocking up my miles as planned.

The first sign that all was not well was crossing Tower Bridge. It should be an uplifting moment – indeed lots of runners apparently get carried away and start going too fast – but it seemed to have the opposite effect on me. As I turned right towards Docklands I felt profoundly depressed that I still had so far to go and the muscles in my legs suddenly started to protest and ache (which is odd, as they hadn’t when I had run 16 miles at Kingston a few weeks earlier).

Things got progressively worse, and weren’t helped by two toilet breaks with a good five minutes’ waiting time at each stop, which meant my thigh muscles started seizing up entirely. By mile 18 when I saw my parents clutching a giant helium balloon, I didn’t care what time I did it in as long as I finished.

Miles 19 to 22 was one of the bleakest points of my life, and if I could have dropped out with no one knowing I would have gladly done it. Along this stretch there were bodies of runners periodically stretched out by the side of the road being attended to by ambulance staff, overcome by the heat or by exhaustion.

At my lowest ebb I slowed to a walk for a good mile but then worked out that if I continued walking I would be on my feet for a further 90 minutes minimum, which was not a thought to be borne. I urged myself into a slow trot again and although it was agony it was no more agonising than walking – just a different form of agony. Accordingly I decided to persevere with the trot since at least that ensured a speedier finish.

By mile 23 I had started to believe I was actually going to finish and thoughts were turning towards a pint of celebratory lager. The last mile whizzed by (though I easily resisted the exhortations of crowd members to “sprint” the last 600m). Turning into Pall Mall was a curious anti-climax rather than a euphoric relief – the only feeling I had was profound gratitude to be able to stop running. I eventually crossed the line five minutes short of five hours, so slower than hoped for but pleasing nonetheless.

Am I glad I did it? Yes. Would I do it again? No, I really don’t think so. But I will go out for a short run tomorrow, so I guess I have somehow become a Runner.

The improver: Matt Kurton

So there you have it. The last of the Lucozade has been poured away. The smell of Deep Heat has left Greenwich Park. Peter Andre and Jordan both have a shiny new medal. And so, I’m happy to say, do I.

As you’ll know if you’ve watched the video, Sunday went well and I beat my 3:30 target. It was hotter than I’d hoped for and in the last couple of miles I had to dig deeper than I’ve ever done before, but the experience was unbelievable. I can understand now why people make such a fuss about the atmosphere at the London Marathon. With all respect to Berlin and Paris, they don’t even come close.

Walking around the capital before and after the race was like walking around a different world. People were talking to one another on the Underground. People were smiling. Total strangers wished me good luck beforehand and asked how I got on in the pub afterwards. Shouldn’t it be a bit more like this the rest of the time?

It was the same during the race. I found myself smiling as I ran along. Even in the places that are supposed to be quiet there were hundreds and hundreds of people, and around Cutty Sark, Tower Bridge and Embankment there were places where the crowd was six-deep on either side of the road. My headphones went totally unlistened to. Instead, I just enjoyed the sound of people willing me on and chatted with other runners. I also managed to see nearly everyone who came out to support me (thanks Sarah, Mum, Dad, Lyn, Dave, Jim and Amy; sorry Dan), which gave me a massive, massive boost.

Don’t get me wrong: it wasn’t easy. I had a tough patch between 16 and 18 miles around the Isle of Dogs. I found The Highway really difficult psychologically – instead of being fired up by the sight of people seven or eight miles behind me, I just felt awkward and guilty. And I only managed to keep going in the last few miles thanks to a combination of the crowd and my own delirious stubbornness.

But the feeling when I turned that corner and realised I was going to finish – and in under 3:30 – was indescribable. After I crossed the line, I was in pieces, a teary-eyed, stumbling wreck, and about as happy as a man can be.

I’d felt a strange pain in my leg for most of last week, and was aware of something not being right almost from the start of the race, so it’s hardly surprising that as I write this several days after the marathon I still can’t walk properly. I’ve strained my right quad, which means I won’t be running again for a good couple of weeks, and to be honest, I’ve never felt so beaten up at the end of a race. But it was well, well worth it, and it’s meant that – as well as having the perfect excuse to put my feet up and watch episode after episode of The Wire – I’ve had plenty of time to think about the last few months.

The first time I met Sam, she told me she had no doubt I’d be able to run sub-3:30. At that stage, I was very, very dubious. If I’m honest, without her advice and support I wouldn’t even have tried for it. And yet, even with a sequence of irritating injuries, it turned out to be possible after all. So I’d like to say thanks very much to Sam. (And well done to Carol, too, while I’m at it.)

As for the future, after my enforced couple of weeks off, I’ll start thinking about training for my first triathlon this summer, and I also want to try and get my half-marathon time down to sub-1:30 by the end of the year.

I won’t be doing another marathon in 2009, and had been thinking about taking next year off as well; Sunday left me on such a high that my initial reaction was to leave it at that. But then I found myself on the London Marathon website a couple of hours ago. I found myself wondering how the change of sponsor would change the race. And then I found myself, almost without thinking, entering the ballot again for next year.

Which probably means, as I end this final blogpost, I’ve come full circle. That’s the thing with running – no matter how far you go, there’s always more to do. It’s one of the reasons I love it. And it’s one of the reasons why, if I’m lucky enough to have my name pulled out of the hat again, I’ll be there in 2010, lining up alongside the superheroes, the Wombles, the giant vegetables and the TV chefs, ready to go through the whole crazy business all over again. Maybe I’ll see you there.

How to make a quick recovery, by Sam Murphy

Congratulations to Matt and Carol and everyone else who completed the London Marathon on Sunday. You are probably feeling a little battered and sore now – all those ground forces will have taken their toll on your skeleton (you’ll have temporarily shrunk by 1-2cm!), while the repeated muscular contractions will have caused substantial microtrauma – tiny tears and bleeding within the muscle itself – which creates pressure and causes pain.

So what you can do to minimise post-race discomfort and speed up your recovery? Here are the essential dos and don’ts …

Don’t go running this week. Rest is the most important recovery aid there is. Studies show that people who rest for a full week after a marathon actually perform better in subsequent training than those who attempt to run in the first few days. As well as optimising recovery, a decent rest period reduces your risk of contracting a virus due to a compromised immune system, and allows minor afflictions, such as blisters and chafing, to heal. It also gives you time to re-attune to normal life, spend some time with your family and friends, and take a genuine break from running.

Do use anti-inflammatories if you feel stiff and sore. Drugs that fall into this class include ibuprofen and aspirin. The herbal remedy arnica has also been shown to act as an anti-inflammatory.

Don’t seek solace in hot baths. They might feel good, but heat is the last thing your already-inflamed muscles need right now. And while you may feel like celebrating, don’t overdo the alcohol, which will also hamper the body’s ability to combat inflammation and soreness and slow your recovery.

Do use ice or an ice pack (or frozen peas) on any sore muscles or joints – constricting blood vessels helps to alleviate inflammation. But bear in mind that while general aches and pains are par for the course after a marathon, anything more specific should be looked at by a sports medicine specialist.

Don’t be surprised if you feel a little flat for the next week or so. The race has taken over a great deal of your life for the last few months, and now it is all over, there’s a big empty space. Plan something to look forward to in the near future to give you something else to focus on.

Do perform a race review. What went right in your race? What went wrong? How was your choice of kit? Did your hydration strategy work? Did you have supporters at the places where you needed them most? And what about the training? Do you think you should have done more long runs? Did you taper enough? Write all of your feedback down – and when you come to do your next race, factor it in to your preparations.

Don’t sign up for another marathon just yet. Why not focus on bettering your time in a 10km or half marathon? Marathons demand a lot from the body (that’s why most elite marathoners only do one or two races per year). I recommend leaving at least two to three months, preferably longer, before you sign up for another 26.2, or indeed, something even more challenging …

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