It has taken me days to finally be able to sit down and put my London Marathon experience into words. I have never experienced child birth myself, but I can only imagine this is how marathon training and the day itself compares.
For months you are training your body for one of the biggest days of your life, your body is not your own, you have aches and pains all over, your appetite changes and some days you feel physically sick.
Then the big day comes. You experience pain like you have never felt before, that goes on for hours. But you know at the end you will receive something that is so worth the pain – so you don’t complain, you don’t grumble, you push through.
The moment you have been waiting for arrives. You finish. The hard part is over, but you are still in pain. You have achieved this amazing thing and you have something to show for it – but you are in a fog and you cannot fully process what you have just done.
Then slowly, the pain subsides, the fog lifts and you look at this beautiful thing in your hand that you have not been able to put down for days. And you think – “I want another one!”
I am of course talking about my medal.
Now that my legs have eased up slightly, and I am starting to master the stairs again I am starting to kick myself when I analyse my performance. I know I could have performed better than I did, I can run faster – I have done it before. But in the moment, it just does not seem humanly possible to push yourself to go faster, you do the bare minimum to ensure you can finish. And in the second half of the race that is exactly what I did.
The run started off well. I was in the zone, I was not paying any attention to the runners around me, spectators were a blur and I was just focused. Until mile 4 and I realized that I should have lined up for that third toilet break before the start. Watching numerous runners (including some in fancy dress) fly past as I waited what felt like hours for the toilet I tried to not let myself panic. And there was no need. After a ten minute wait – I got back into the zone and over took all those runners who passed me whilst I waited in line.
So I carried on. My legs and mind were working together in harmony, round Cutty Sark through to the seven mile mark where I heard people screaming my name! My friends were there to cheer me on, telling me how well I was doing. Quick hugs and I was off again. I knew I had another friend and the Willow Foundation waiting on Tower Bridge, so I kept on, in the zone never focusing further ahead than the next mile marker.
I knew the approach to Tower Bridge was coming, as the crowds started to thicken. When I ran over the bridge I did not stop. I have heard many people give an account of their experiences running over the bridge, and I have to say it is just like they describe. There is nothing like it. The shear volume of the cheers is deafening. Despite looking out for my friend here, I did not spot him and would not have been able to hear him shouting my name due to how loud the crowds were. It didn’t matter anyway – as many people told me – Tower Bridge is the place where you have to fight back the tears. And I did just that.
Just after Tower Bridge you turn right down the Highway, and here is where you will become broken. I was told – “don’t look to your left.” And for a very good reason. As you are approaching the half way point you will have runners coming towards you reaching the 22 mile marker – on the home straight. This part of the course is what got me. My mind went dark and I found it hard to keep going. Weaving in and out of the slower runners and walkers had impacted my ankle – it was throbbing and I just wanted to stop. So I did – I walked it out for about five minutes before getting back to a slower pace than the first half. Mile 14-17 was a hard slog, running round the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf was the worst part of the course for me. Not only did I have in my mind those runners (who were probably now finished) but I was trying hard to refocus and push through, plus I felt physically sick from the heat and the amount of sugar that was rushing round my body.
My friends appeared just before mile 17, the same guys who I first saw at mile 7. I took a longer pause to talk to them, get hugs and take on some paracetamol for my ankle, which was now making me question whether I could continue. But I carried on, pushing through when I could and then slowing down to a quick walk when the pain got a little too much.
Before I knew it I was back along the river. The crowds were thickening up again, cheering was deafening and everything remained blurry. I knew I had people waiting to see me on in the home stretch. So I kept going – trying not to break out into a walk – but running in a rather disappointing slow pace. I heard my name being screamed around Victoria Embankment, it was my Sister in Law and her husband. I sprinted towards them giving them a big sweaty hug. Seeing them was just what I needed to see through the final few miles.
Big Ben was ahead, I just had to turn right and my family and the Willow Foundation would be there to see me through the final turn. The crowds around Big Ben were unbelievable. Thousands of people stretched out, screaming names of strangers to get them through to the end.
Running into Birdcage Walk I knew I had to keep running. I could not walk in the last few miles, I had to be running when I saw my family. When I finally spotted them, hearing them roar and cheer, I sprinted over so happy to see them. Issy, from work, and my Brother were telling me how proud they were, my 11 year old Niece was sobbing, my Nephews were saying “you did so well” – but I had not finished. So with my heart bursting with love and pride I sprinted to the end. When others around me looked like they wanted to die, walking along, I ran my heart out to the end. The fancy dress camel, who had been in sight all the way, was in front. And he was not going to beat me to the end. The Marshall shouted to me “don’t let that camel beat you.” And I didn’t – I whizzed passed and crossed the finish line without him around me.
I had done it. 26.2 miles (or 26.8 according the Garmin).
The crying came as another Marshall placed that beautiful medal over my neck. And then I realized I cannot walk! For miles and miles I pushed on, running. But as soon as I crossed that finish line walking through the funnel to collect the goody bag and my kit bag seemed like another 26 miles.
Finally through the production line and re-united with Ross I was guided by a Willow Foundation volunteer to the “Recovery Center” where Willow had hot showers, massages and refreshments waiting. Also waiting were my friends and family – those who had chased me throughout the day and those who were waiting at the finish line.
Pain forgotten I had photos with Bob and Megs Wilson, beaming with my medal. I had done it. The journey was over.
As I look back and reflect on the day, and the training leading up to it, I know that I had the ability to perform better. I think about the training runs I missed when I just could not take any more and know I could have pushed myself through – I just didn’t want to. I think of the day itself and the times when I took a pause, knowing that If I fought my mind harder my legs would have kept going.
I suppose this is the point post marathon, when you are starting to forget about the pain through training and race day itself, that runners do the thing they say they would never do – book another marathon. So far, I can happily say that I have not caught the bug. I am frustrated with myself, because I could have done better, but not so much so that I feel I need to chase a PB.
Right now, I am happy to have survived, to have finished and to be at the point where I can start thinking about running again without clocking in the miles.
There are many races to come my way in the next few months. So for now, I’m still resting and focusing on getting my running speed to back where it was and enjoying the freedom of running.
As a final note, I wanted to express my thanks again to everyone who played a part in my journey. The support I had throughout training and in the lead up, was nothing compared to that on the day. Family and friends, near and far, were sending me messages, tracking my progress and cheering from the side lines. It took me until the following day to respond to all the messages and comments I had received.
In a world where there is so much focus on hate and evil, the London Marathon showed me that love is so much more powerful.
At the beginning of my journey I read a quote “If you are ever loosing faith in human nature, go out and watch a Marathon.”
There has never been a truer word spoken.
Well done Gemma and you’ve done brilliantly! Now for me having done a total of 2 London marathons, the first was so much harder. You did this, be proud!
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AH-MA-ZING! You did GREAT!
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