Margate. Yuck.

It’s 9am on the Eastern Esplanade. Lavverly sea breeze.  700 people are milling around waiting for the start of the 27th Kent Coastal Marathon and Half-Marathon. The two races start at the same time. Many, perhaps most people wear a running shirt bearing the name of their local club; Deal Tri, Invicta East Kent, or the organisers, the Thanet Roadrunners. Some people have done many marathons and have a special number on their back to say just how many.  There are a sprinkling of London club shirts too; Mornington Chasers, Serpentine. Gradually, these logos and others have become familiar to me on the parks and streets. This year, I have entered a new world.

I have contributed towards the immense running economy. I am wearing black Asics shorts, a black ‘tech’ Karrimor wicking running shirt, maybe slightly too new Saucony shoes, fancy ‘twin skin’ socks, a runners armband containing glucose tablets, ibuprofen, spare safety pins, Vaseline and a twenty pound note, and a number on my chest: 402. Looking at the start sheet pinned to the information tent, the half-marathon numbers start at 400; 1-399 are reserved for the full marathoners. It appears that I was only the third person of the hundreds to sign up when I sent off my form and my fifteen pounds back in April. They probably thought I was just incredibly keen.

It was early April when I got the email from the New York Road Runners, the body organising the yearly ING New York City marathon, saying that I had beaten the four to one odds and been successful in the open ballot for a place on November 7th. All the big city ‘major’ marathons are now heavily oversubscribed for open places, the alternative is going for a ‘charity’ place which involves raising at least £1500, and often more, to secure a spot. For overseas runners wanting to head to New York, it is also possible to buy your way in with an ‘international package’ tied in with flights and hotels for truly eye-watering amounts of money. My non-refundable entry fee, swiped from my credit card the moment I was accepted, still came to £170 sterling.

It’s all my cousin Sarah’s fault. She persuaded me to run a 10k race in Finsbury Park in October last year. I don’t run! No, no… I could do that. And I did. I persuaded myself, actually. The next logical step was entering for a distance four times the length four thousand miles away (for me – Sarah lives in Montreal). The plan was for me and Sarah to run it together. That April evening I email her excitedly. She wasn’t successful in the ballot. It’s all gone wrong. An option would be to defer the place a year, but there was no guarantee she would get in next year either. I might get hit by a bus. I have to do it. Do I?

I have a memory of entering for the London marathon about five years ago, although I was not successful in the ballot. I think I got a fleece top as a losers prize. Why did I want to then? I’m not one of those dullards with ‘life lists’. Am I? I have no idea. I think it’s always had an appeal. I remember watching London on TV as a child and being fascinated by the spectacle, the vast masses. I even remember some of the names: Charlie Spedding, Toshiko Seko. I saw all those normal people doing it, and it was obviously possible, and fun. But I don’t really know why I want to, except that I’ve always wanted to. I have found I love running the short distances. I love blasting through a 5k. I love running itself, even though I’m not that great at it, and I have Sarah to thank for that. I love projects, too. I like the organising. I love New York and all my awesome friends there. I think I will be in great shape and finally shift the last few kilos I have been struggling to get rid of for a few years. But I don’t know, really. Maybe I do know. Maybe I’ll find out.

It must be a lot easier to run a marathon these days than it used to be; there is now a vast, almost overwhelming amount of modern information, advice and equipment easily available. I swiftly buy The Non-Runner’s Marathon Trainer from Amazon and get How To Run A Marathon out of Shoe Lane library (the first of several borrowings). Non-Run, as I christen it, is a book about a US university ‘marathon class’ taught yearly to mostly non-runners. It is very American liberal-artsy, very big on personal stories, self-help talk and inspirational sidebars. I am simultaneously repelled by its slightly sentimental tone and wooed by its promises of ‘follow this, and YOU WILL BE SUCCESSFUL IN YOUR GOAL’. The smaller ‘How to’ book is British, breezy and practical. They don’t really conflict. Both are very useful. With these, and the truly Brobdingnagian amount of advice available on the web, I form a plan.

A marathon is 26 miles and 385 yards, or 42.195 km. Interestingly the official version, set in 1921, is the metric rather than the better known arbitrary imperial distance. Almost nobody could run the whole distance completely untrained without stopping. All endurance running involves training several different systems in your body: cardio-vascular (heart, lungs, ‘puff’) musculoskeletal (to take the pounding) and myriad others (joints, adrenal glands, the way your body handles food, the skin on your feet). You are also training your mind to handle many things, and preparing for a foot race with many many other people. You are testing equipment and fuel.

All first-time marathon running plans are the same in terms of their basic instructions. Over a period of several months before the marathon: run short distances during the week, run a long run at the weekend. Gradually increase the distance, particularly of the long run at the weekend. The long run is the ‘money shot’ of distance running training, it’s the element that cannot be avoided. It can be done slowly. The length is the key. This is good, because I run at the speed of a mildly excited ground sloth.

Some plans work by time, some by distance. Some recommend four or five runs a week, some cheery ones reckon you might be able to get away with three. Some include ‘recovery runs’, some reckon you should do interval training. But the long run is always there, land-mining the calendar. Your last long run should be 20 miles (although Non-Run reckons 18 is OK) and should be done 3 weeks (some say 2) before the marathon. Beginners are not expected, or even advised, to complete a full 26 miles in one go before the big dance. After the 20 miler, you should ‘taper’, running shorter and shorter distances, till the last week before the marathon, when you should rest up, eat pasta, and build your energy for the last final push. I think they climb Everest the same way.

Both books advise to run an organised half-marathon (13 m / 21k ) as part of the training, partly to get some race experience. Stories abound of runners who have spent months training solo for a big city marathon and are completely overwhelmed by the experience and the huge crowds and fail to finish for some reason. I found this one, the Kent Coastal Half-Marathon in the right place on the calendar; being on the Isle Of Thanet, about as far east in England as you can go, it has a big advantage that it starts near and runs through the Victorian village of Broadstairs where I can stay with friends. I arrived by train yesterday afternoon, and have been filled with slight foreboding ever since.

I have spent months building up to this moment: the mapping websites, the supplements, the time spent in the various running shops of EC4, and much more importantly the treadmill, the now familiar extended run home from work, the long route out down the disused railway line to Highgate, the loops of the park, the ice water baths for the feet, the numbers, the sweat, and the pounding. Most of July was spent ‘out’ with tendon damage in my big toe. I cross-trained as recommended, watching the afternoon World Cup matches on one of the spinning bikes at the RCJ gym instead, but it means there isn’t any slack left in the schedule I worked out. I would have liked to have been better prepared for this key intermediate stage.

The new problem is my knees. On the last ‘long run’, ten miles in Clissold Park (which I partially ran with Sarah, over on business) there was a dull, hard-to-specify ache developing in/above my knee joints which increased with distance, I felt this at the end of the previous long run too.  I am nervous as to whether they will hold up or not. I have not really paid attention to diet or fluid replacement, two elements which become key with the increasing distances I am now doing, but it is my knees which are causing me the concern. You can fuck them up, you know. You’ll need them.

I have some company for the half: record label boss Sean Price and his brother Rob, both of whom I’ve known through music for a great deal of time. Both of them have been running for many years, look strong and healthy and nonchalant as we line up for the start. I put on my brave face. I didn’t sleep well. I needed to pee twice in the last half-hour. Psychologically, I am not in any kind of zone.

The Tannoy whines, the gun goes. I see Rob and Sean move ahead of me before we’ve even left the start area. Almost from the off, my knees start aching. Fuck. I sit back and try to move steadily. I stay for a long while with a group that include two morris dancers, their bells echoing off the concrete seawall as we wind our way down through the grassy front of Cliftonville. It’s chatty at the back. I even share a joke or two.

___________

Two hours, twenty-seven minutes and fifty-four seconds later, according to the official time, Rob and Sean clap me back through the finishing funnel. I grab my medal and goodie bag and guzzle the crappy sports drink. It was nice of them both to wait, given they both finished half-an-hour ahead of me. I am 261st out of exactly 300 half-marathon runners. But hey, I finished, right? That’s a result! It doesn’t feel like it at the time. I feel utterly gone. I wasn’t too bad energy-wise up until the last three miles, then I properly bonked. The last mile was like pulling out a tooth. I hit the ‘wall’. The water stations and glucose tablets were not enough. I need gels and carbs; I knew this already but in my defence it hadn’t been a problem so far. My knees, weirdly, felt better the longer I ran. I was grateful, grateful, grateful to a bottle-blonde runner at my speed who passed me on a desperate walk break in the last mile, a hilly section back up to Cliftonville in Margate. We had been exchanging the ‘lead’ all the way round, and I knew she had a simply gorgeous arse which I just latched my eyes onto and let it tow me bumpily to the finish line.

I get a lift back to Broadstairs, to ice (for the feet) and cava and hearty congratulations, and eventually a tired train back to London and a beery celebration at the Lexington. The quads, the entire top front of my thighs hurt appallingly, and I have a couple of new additions to the moon base of blisters on the inside of my left foot. The Brooklyn lager helps. I don’t remember getting home.

The next day I feel a hell of a lot better about it. My quads hurt so much I have to walk down staircases backwards for a day, but I play with my medal. There’s a long way to go. There’s a lot of work to do.  But I’m still in it.

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