“Now, I don’t want to discourage you honey…but did you say that if I mentioned running a marathon again, I should tell you not to?”
My mother says it with an air of anxious trepidation somewhat dampened by defeatism. She already knows it’s too late; she already knows I’m doomed.
Almost 10 years ago, after completing my second marathon in Rome, I told her in no uncertain terms that I was never, ever, never I will make one again. I may even have cried at the time – not, I hasten to add, tears of joy – after a punishing race during which it pissed me off the entire time (proving that even the Eternal City loses its charm when forced to get wet trudge through the streets for five hours under a concrete-colored sky).
Hardly any supporters showed up; parts of the route were not properly marked off, which meant that the Italians kept nonchalantly crossing the road, cigarette in hand, forcing the runners to stop and wait. But the main problem was that my training didn’t go according to plan.
Used to running with friends but having to prepare for Rome on my own, I had struggled to get through the long runs needed to keep me comfortable. An injury the month before had set me back further and I showed up on race day feeling physically – but especially mentally – unprepared. I had no real confidence that I could do it.
Well, I did, but the whole thing was so traumatizing that I kept my promise: “never again!” – until this year, a full decade later. Only one offer could have induced me to break my iron pact: a place in the London Marathon.
London is special, you see. It’s the one everyone wants to do, the one with the unbeatable vibe, so popular it’s almost impossible to get in. Some people enter the ballot for years without being selected. So when a seat nearly fell into my lap just 10 weeks before the event, I ignored the screaming voice in my head screaming at me to “just say no” and accepted.
My mom wasn’t the only person who expressed concerns. After all, 10 weeks isn’t long; when I googled “10-week marathon training plans,” all the results said something like, “You should allow more than 10 weeks to train for a marathon.” Super useful.
Yet while part of me knew it was madness, another part knew I had something to prove. Yep, my body wasn’t quite as young, fit, and full of Duracell bunny-like energy as it had been at 25. But my mind – surely that, over the next decade, had grown more resilient?
There is something inherently miraculous about training for a marathon. Maybe not to the people who knock one out every year, but to the rest of us “normal” – those for whom it’s a once, twice, thrice in a lifetime achievement – it’s a source of pure magic.
The distance is so far, so unfathomable, that the very idea seems impossible. When you start training, it feels like an exercise of blind faith: Against all your instincts, you have to trust that if you keep going a little further each time, within a few months you’ll be able to run 22.2 miles .
You have to turn down the volume of the constant naysayer in your brain bleating it Obviously you’ll never make it and you keep putting one foot in front of the other. There’s a reason people say it’s the ultimate psychological challenge.
As the miles from the big ride rack up each week, you almost feel like you’re watching yourself catch up with it from afar. Surely it’s not me, running for three hours?you think surprised. Surely I could never do that? For me, it never ceases to be miraculous.
This time I was determined to train on my own, to prove to myself that I didn’t need a running partner’s crutch to keep going. A relative newcomer to a seaside town with a beautiful long coastal path, I rode the same training course, week after week.
Every Saturday, I’d set off down the beach with headphones on and listen to the same playlist. I watched as the sea changed with the weather, from calmly shimmering periwinkle to angrily churning slate. I thought about how much I finally loved living by the sea, and how beautiful the air was in my lungs and the blood flowing through my veins. How good it was to be alive.
Physically, it quickly became apparent that I was no longer 25: my knees ached, my joints creaked, and my back ached. Some days, the wind would whip right in my face and I’d yell “fuck you!” in the void. Others, the rain pounded and drenched me to the skin five minutes after I walked out the door. The irritated things. My toenails have turned black. When my legs got tired, I forgot to lift my feet and stumbled, scraping my hands and knees like a small child. But I kept putting one foot in front of the other, over and over, no matter what.
Stop!the naysayer yelled in my brain. NOI answered calmly.
The big challenge is yet to come. Race day is Sunday 23 April. As I write this, I don’t know if I’ll finish it — even with all the training, nothing will ever really, truly convince me that it’s possible, other than handling the damn thing. My stomach fills with a million butterflies when I think about the final push.
But I know this: I may be older, softer, and more perpetually exhausted, but I know now that I’m mentally stronger than 20-year-old Helen ever was. Culture may still reward youth above all else, but when it comes to marathon training, give me age before beauty any day.