A mountain of a marathon

A few weeks ago, I ran my first ever marathon. Every time I read that, I have to pause a little as it still hasn’t quite sunk in yet.

This is very long, but it’s my memories of a very special day and I didn’t want to leave lots out.

Way too early in the morning on Sunday 23rd March, I set off on my way to the Loch Katrine Marathon. Loch Katrine is in the Trossachs, just outside Aberfoyle in Scotland. I’m lucky that this is 40 minutes from my house and about an hour north of Glasgow. The race starts at the Trossachs Pier, at the southern end of the loch, and then follows the private road around the eastern edge of the loch all the way to the top and then round to Stronachlachar. This forms the halfway point, and then you run back along the same route. Out and backs aren’t always the most exciting of routes, but this one meant you just had even more of a chance to appreciate the truly breathtaking scenery by seeing it from different directions.

It’s a small event, with just 350 runners split across the marathon, half marathon and 10k races. It was organised last year as a one off event, to raise funds for Alzheimer Scotland. I was meant to run the half marathon last year, but an injury a few weeks before the event stopped me, and I vowed to return if it was put on again.

Fortunately for me, race director Audrey McIntosh had created such a fantastic experience last year that she bowed to popular pressure and announced it would happen again in 2014. This time however, I was ready to try a marathon.

It was a pretty scary journey to the start line. I found myself skidding over the Dukes Pass, not once but twice. When I say skidding, I mean proper skidding for the first time ever, out of control on black ice, heading for a sticky end off the edge of the road with a long drop. I was extremely lucky to stay on the road. I can only begin to imagine what the poor driver coming the other way thought as he saw both the look of terror on my face and my car moving back onto the correct side of the road. The second skid was less serious, but afterwards I slowed right down to a crawl and noticed a couple of cars behind me doing the same thing.

After this, I was very glad to still be alive and was much less worried about the race. A marathon now seemed quite achievable really. Sometimes it really is true that getting to the start line is the worst bit of a race.

I use the word race carefully. I wouldn’t be racing in any conventional sense of the word, but a race it was, with a start, a finish, other competitors and a time at the end. There was even a medal, a superb goodie bag and a hug from Race Director Audrey of the Antarctic after crossing the finishing line.

Stepping out of the car and looking around me, I had to pinch myself that I was in Scotland. The skies were blue and the sun was out. It was truly a gorgeous day and I felt extremely spoilt that not only was I about to run my first marathon in one of the most beautiful parts of Scotland, but I was getting great weather too.

Couldn't have asked for better weather on race day
Couldn’t have asked for better weather on race day

My running had gone really well over the winter. It had been a fantastic combination of running in amazing places having big adventures with very special people, and long steady solo runs just racking up the miles on the tarmac in the rain.

There were a couple of bad asthma weeks before Christmas, and then a very scary few weeks just after New Year where I changed my road shoes a little too drastically and a little too quickly, but thankfully no serious damage was done. Apart from being very sore and swollen for a few weeks, everything was on track. I was worrying whether I had really done enough long runs, but a very hilly 19 miler the fortnight before had gone brilliantly and I felt I had done as much as I could.

And then, the Friday before race day, I felt the tickle of a cold at the back of my throat. Working in an open plan office is truly a horrendous experience in the winter – I am quite badly asthmatic and the slightest cold normally takes ages to recover from. I had managed to avoid illness over almost the whole winter for the first time in years.

A few weeks before, I’d been a bit under the weather so had taken a couple of days off work to try and fend off whatever was lurking. Whether this was a development or a new acquisition, who knows, but it was certainly terrible timing as I felt my chest tighten and my energy levels start to drop. Saturday morning came and I couldn’t get out of bed.

After the Clacton triathlon, I had vowed never ever to race or run when I was ill. I promised myself that if I was no better on the Sunday morning, no matter how big the disappointment, I would not race. I spent most of the day in a very upset state, desperately hoping for a miracle. I am unable to take most cold remedies because of the interaction with my asthma medication, so I stuck to paracetamol, fruit juice, plenty to eat and plenty of tea to drink from the comfort of my greyhound-infested sofa.

By late Saturday afternoon, I felt much better. With some good sleep in the bank, I felt considerably more human on the Sunday morning. I checked my peak flow (a great tool for managing asthma especially through the winter) and it was just slightly short of normal so I was good to go.

The 9 o’clock start time approached, and with many emergency trips to the loo out of the way, we were bundled up at the line and ready to go. Before the start I had seen some very dear friends who had kindly given up their Sunday to marshal. I still feel a very long way from home sometimes, and familiar faces really do lift the spirits.

I set off slowly, even for me, mindful of the freezing cold air hitting my lungs before I was properly warmed up. I find icy cold days one of the hardest aspects of running with asthma, but these chilly days are often the most beautiful and so there is a lot of trading off being done in the head.

I find it generally takes me about 3 miles to really get my chest warm and my breathing settled, but this time it took much longer. Energy levels weren’t great and I was convinced someone had chopped my legs off and stuck them on backwards – they certainly didn’t feel as if they belonged to me, and combined with the asthma situation I was worried whether I was actually going to be able to make it to the end.

The course is notoriously hilly. Some may say undulating, or challenging, but this really means hilly. I do a lot of my running on the hills where I live, and I really enjoy running up and down them. I managed the first few fine, but again being wary of not being 100% and desperately wanting to conserve my energy for as long as possible, when a bigger hill appeared about 3 miles in, I decided that some walking was going to be required.

By about 7 miles I was starting to feel a bit more with it, and after the second water stop at 8 miles I felt much better. At 9 miles I started to flag a bit again, but somewhere between mile 9 and mile 10 I was passed by the eventual winner, Andrew Murray, on the return leg. In just a tshirt and baggy shorts, he looked extremely fresh and if I didn’t know better, I would have thought he was nipping to the shops for a pint of milk before it shut or chasing an errant hound across a park. In comparison, I was packed almost as if I was off to the Antarctic with Audrey. As a slower runner, I knew would be out for a long time and so had plenty of layers and provisions in my trusty little green rucksack.

I also knew I would be spending most of the day in my own company and this suited me fine. I love to run with friends now, but I also love the feeling of a long run on my own, especially in such a stunning setting which I was seeing for the first time. Soon after Andrew Murray came the other front runners, and it was good to see generally happy faces and swap a bit of chat.

Before long I reached the top of the loch, and was heading out of the wind towards the half way point at last. This was a brilliant feeling, but I knew that after the turn I would be heading back into the wind again for a couple of miles. I tried not to think about this and kept going.

I knew my friend Angela would be at the turn point marshalling. In my generally shattered state, I assumed she was the actual turn point so I was a little disheartened to know there was a bit more to go. All the way round I had been urging myself on to the half way point, as I knew that however tiring, every step after that would be nearer home and would hopefully get easier.

I was so pleased to see her. We met at my first half marathon last October and she has been a hugely important part of my life and my running ever since. We’ve had good, terrible and bizarre literally shitty runs together over the winter, and having her here on the day was just brilliant, she is so enthusiastic and supportive of all runners (except perhaps ones who don’t wave back) and I know how many people appreciate her neverending support.

Needless to say, when the turn finally came, it wasn’t a moment too soon. At the water station, marshal Helen reminded me to keep drinking – it was deceptive because of the wind and the chilly temperature, but of course you are still sweating lots. I had made more of an effort to eat and drink than normal because of my cold. I’d taken plenty of drink but still used everything I had and more from the water stations.

On the home stretch, I was able to see all the scenery and views I’d missed on the way out, and looking across the loch and seeing the 8/18 mile water station miles way across the water was a particularly special part of the day. I waved at the marshals deep down knowing they couldn’t see me. Around 16 miles, I came across another runner who was struggling with an injury. He was taking a break to walk a little, and as I was tired and felt like a chat I walked with him for a while.

After about a mile, I could feel things starting to tighten up and, knowing we were near the 18 mile water station so he could get help if needed, I decided to push on. The break had done me some good and I felt renewed and ready to go again. At the water station, marshal Noanie asked me how I was feeling. I had to confess I was feeling rather knackered and she did make me laugh when she replied “Fancy that after 18 miles!”

I carried on, feeling glad to be knocking the miles off gradually and knowing I didn’t have much more to go. Normally, 8 miles would seem like a fair way but after 18, it didn’t seem that far really. Around 20 miles I stopped to grab a quick picture and saw I’d had a bit of signal back on my phone – my friend Sally had sent me a lovely text and it really lifted me. I looked at Strava, and saw my hoped-for time was comfortably within reach.

Heading home back towards the Pier with Ben Venue to the right
Heading home back towards the Pier with Ben Venue to the right

Just before the last water station, around 22 miles, the wheels really started to come off. I was incredibly sore by now. The blister that had started at 9 miles was threatening to come to life and burst out of the side of my shoe. I was starting to feeling some pain in my left shin as if I’d been kicked hard, and also behind my right knee. I slowed right down, walked as little as possible but realised I was not going to be able to run all the way back.

At the last water station, as well as getting my juice bottle topped up, I finally got a doggy cuddle. I seem to attract dogs on runs, and for me a long run is never quite complete without hugging a dog somewhere along the way. Eddy the brindle English Bull Terrier got a very thorough scratch behind the ears, and to be honest I’m not sure who enjoyed it more. He scratched his belly as I scratched his ears, and I had a few moments to relax and chuckle. As my second favourite breed of dog, they are always a special dog for me to see, and again this picked my spirits up and spurred me on for the last stretch.

Those last few miles were pretty bad. I tried to keep running but there wasn’t much left. I started to see the finish point, but the twists and turns of the banks of the loch meant it was rather more out of reach than it seemed. I saw a large puddle with about a mile to go, and couldn’t resist staggering in to cool my burning feet. I do most of my running off road, and icy puddles are one of my favourite bits of being out on the trails.

I got towards the last straight, and could hear cheering from round the corner. Finally the finishing line was in sight and that was me over it, marathon completed.

All done! (huge thanks to Angela for the fab photo)
All done! (huge thanks to Angela for the fab photo)

I collected my hug and medal from Race Director Audrey, then a goodie bag, hugs from Angela and Al, and a much longed for cup of tea – thanks again Angela as it really was divine. The atmosphere was great, with many congratulations and smiles from everyone and for everyone as they came across the line.

Audrey came over to give me my time. I finished in 5 hours 8 minutes. This was just slightly outside the 5 hours I’d hoped for, but really I was just glad to be finished at all and in such good company. Strava tells me my moving time was 5 hours 1 minute, so if I hadn’t faffed about at water stations/stopped for a pee/stopped for a walk/stroked Eddy, I would have done it. It wouldn’t have been half the experience it was though.

With a small field, organised by an incredibly inspiring person and marshalled by so many experienced runners who gave such fantastic support, it’s difficult to see how my first marathon experience could have been any better. I’d gladly have skipped the arrival of the cold and the skidding but other than that, I really couldn’t wish for more.

After the race, sports masseur Mark Rutherford was offering post-race massages for a further donation to Alzheimer Scotland. As I was so sore, and fretting a little about the pain behind my right knee, I decided to take advantage of Mark’s services. It was a chilly wait for a few minutes, but again I was in good company as I chatted to Mark and the customer before me. I was extremely grateful to Les for telling me that running out of puff at 22 miles was normal and about right. I’m also grateful to Mark, firstly for the magic fingers and secondly for suggesting I look into an asthma management technique called Buteyko breathing that I’d heard about but never tried. My exit from the massage table, set up in a trailer some distance above the ground, was not pretty or dignified but no one was injured at least.

There is so much more to say about my ‘big’ day, so I’ll keep the rest of it for future posts. I’ll definitely be visiting Loch Katrine again – I have a new favourite place in Scotland, and there were so many best bits and special spots along the way, in particular the Clan McGregor cemetery in the middle of the loch and the smiley face that had appeared for the day at the top of the aptly named Graveyard Hill.

But perhaps the most important part of it all for me, was to admit to myself and others just how incredibly proud I am of my achievement, and to be comfortable saying so.

We are taught to be modest, and culturally we (girls especially) often talk our achievements down. Every marathon is special in its own way – it’s a phenomenal physical and psychological achievement to run 26.2 miles. This really was something particularly magical for me though.

Back in 1998, six months after starting university, I had what I refer to as a minor climbing accident that resulted in a major injury. Skip the next couple of paragraphs and photos if you are squeamish or prefer to hide behind the sofa in the more graphic scenes in Casualty/ER…..

While climbing in the Peak District, doing my first lead no less, I fell the spectacularly embarrassing distance of just four feet, and caught my ankle on a ridge in the rock on the way down.

I dislocated it and broke/shattered it in several places. The drips of blood on the floor in A&E were not coming from a graze or a cut as initially suspected. I had a compound (bone exposed) fracture, which I had to have pulled back into place by a very brave doctor so that my leg was stable enough to X-ray. I was conscious throughout this, and unfortunately I remember every second of it despite being on some very groovy drugs. Picture warning – not pretty….

Post accident, pre surgery
Post accident, pre surgery

I then had several hours of pioneering surgery, carried out by a truly brilliant surgeon on his last day before he retired. The initial prognosis was not good, but thanks to his incredible efforts, I avoided the normal external fixation/leg cage. Instead I have something not entirely dissimilar to a section of the Forth Rail bridge inside my ankle.

Newly bolted
Newly bolted – still in place

I spent almost three weeks in the orthopaedic ward of the Manchester Royal Infirmary. I picked up a couple of infections in the metalwork. These were normal but frustrating as they lengthened my stay on the ward. I got to learn far too much about the bowel habits of my elderly wardmates.

Those who were around me at the time know just how bad the injury was, how loud I screamed when I landed, how frightening the time in hospital was and just how long the recovery was. It’s the moment in life that I truly recognised myself as an adult for the first time – aged 19 I had to sign the surgical consent form myself. This didn’t stop me wanting my mum though, who was 200 miles away. I had some extremely aggressive (but extremely vital) physiotherapy so that I didn’t lose any more mobility in the joint than absolutely necessary. I was not allowed to leave hospital until I could raise my foot to 90 degrees from a flat surface, and trying to do this every couple of hours was excruciating. I was not allowed to see my Xrays for the first week in case I refused the truly agonising physio. I spent the best part of six months on crutches.

And so, the fact that I can walk unhindered let alone do any running at all has always been a bit of a miracle. But to run this far, in a respectable time, well I still can’t quite believe I did it. My mum asks me who I am and what the aliens have done with her real daughter. I am so, so proud.

IMG_2945

Many people say “ooh I could never run a marathon” or “ooh I could never run at all”. I thought this, but the actions of another metallically-enhanced friend suggested otherwise when she announced she was off running not long after breaking her femur.

I started running a little in the spring of 2012, and then when I moved to Scotland later that year I ran for longer and longer, finding fabulous places to explore as I went along. I found that while I am a slow runner, I can keep going slowly and pretty happily for a very long time as long as I have beautiful surroundings to run in.

I have a BIG year of running planned, and I had been worrying that maybe I had taken on too much. If I couldn’t get through the marathon, it didn’t bode well for the rest of my plans. Thankfully a successful day at Loch Katrine suggested otherwise and I’m really excited about the next step – a bit of a Fling as part of a relay team with some friends in April, and then onto the next big milestone – a 35.5 mile long ultra marathon along (part of) the Kintyre Way….

 

There are many people who have supported me along the way and continue to do so, but special thanks must go to:

Angela, for taking me under her wing, introducing me to a huge running community and showing me just what was possible if you got your head down and ran lots. Also for marshalling on the day and therefore sharing it with me.

Al, for a lovely long soggy run in the rain in December, which consisted of lots of gossip and some advice on how and where to find a man if the new one didn’t work out. For marshalling on the day and keeping me company in the very early stages of the race. For endless enthusiasm and support, pictures of amazing places, being stark raving billy bonkers at times, and for knowing that the sensible/practical option isn’t always the best one.

Ross, specifically for taking on dog walking duties over the weekend meaning firstly I got more sleep and more importantly, I wasn’t rushing over the Dukes Pass on the morning of the race. I dread to think what would have happened if I had been driving quicker or concentrating less. Also for the brave but unorthodox post-race present 😉

Norry, for all the enthusiasm, advice and encouragement, and for introducing me to night running in the hills.

Daniel the osteopath, for keeping me running safely and helping me manage the after effects of my injury.

Also to all the marshals and to Audrey for such a brilliant day, and of course to those who have started my year off with donations to the Lymphoma Association which is how this whole running thing started.

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9 thoughts on “A mountain of a marathon”

  1. awesome read, i marshalled at this race, the halfway point of the half marathon, i agree, it was a great day for myself as well as the runners………….give yourself a well deserved pat on the back

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