In the run-up to this year’s London Marathon, I came across this statement in a BBC Sport article by Tom Fordyce, assessing Mo Farah’s chances:
“Some people run their best [marathon] on their first ever one, and they can never replicate it”
This statement has stayed with me, partly because in the back of my mind I can’t help thinking that my own subsequent marathons haven’t really done justice to my first: I have only improved my PB by about 9’ 30” over 6 subsequent attempts, and this is an even smaller improvement than it seems, considering the relative difficulty of the Athens (my first) and the flatness of the Manchester (my PB) courses.
But deeper than that, and perhaps through the rose-tinted lenses of nostalgia, I don’t think setting any PB can make another marathon come anywhere close to replicating Athens 2011…
You see, when I took the decision to run it, I didn’t run. But I wanted to. And attempting a marathon was one of those impossible dreams I had had for a while, so I thought that the best way of developing a running habit was to commit, publicly, to running a marathon for charity. That way I couldn’t very well get tired and change my mind, could I?
The Athens Marathon is held annually on the second Sunday of November, and I started training after the Christmas holidays, giving myself about 10 months to train, with a half-marathon in May serving as intermediate goal. Which I bonked by the way.
I remember feeling very frustrated by the inflexibility of all the one-size-fits-all programmes, which suggested that a non-runner (with no aerobic base) needed as long to train as a habitual marathon runner; or that completing a half-marathon training plan made no difference to the starting point of the plan for the full distance.
In the end I came across the Adidas Micoach platform, which was the best, most flexible and most complete training platform I have ever come across, offering not only customisable training programmes (which took account of your current ability), but complemented these with a wide range of strength and flexibility plans. Not only that, but the app tracked your performance during the exercise and compared the executed exercise with the plan, and gave you a score. And all for free! But like everything that is too good to be true, it is no longer: Adidas acquired Runtastic and for some bizarre reason decided to keep that – vastly inferior – platform and discontinue Micoach!
But back to my first marathon; what was it that made it so special?
I suppose first of all, the audacity of the idea! There was I, a non-runner, who never had anything to show for himself in the realm of sports (with the exception perhaps of freediving, but that’s a different kettle of fish), confidently telling everyone who would listen how I was going to run the second hardest city marathon in Europe! I remember, the Friday before the race, my cousin asking me what my longest Long Run had been: “30km” I told him. And how did it feel? “bloody hard!” Did you feel like you could go for another 12km at the same pace? “…”
I was nervous, of course I was. But I suppose I had what Patrick O’Brian wonderfully describes as a “piratical gleam” in my eye when I thought about it: Despite appearances, I can distinguish between my crazy ideas which stand a chance of success and those that don’t; I wouldn’t even admit it to myself at the time, but I don’t think I ever doubted I’d finish. Not even when I was out with injury till two months before the race.
Then it was a real journey into the unknown, both metaphorically and geographically: with every long run I was attempting a distance I had never ran before: Every week I would chart a new route for my long run, and I had no idea how my mind and body would cope with the distance. And as I had only recently moved to Leicestershire, and these events took place before the time of GPS watches with route guidance, I remember carrying little pieces of paper with simple directions on which country lane I should turn in!
I remember the first time I ran 8km (!), my route passed through a little uphill S, between two farms: It must have been a miserable day, because it felt like the most exposed terrain I had ever run through: As the crow flies, I was less than 2km from my front door!
But one of the best things that happened was that I got injured! Nothing more serious than IT band trouble, but in terms of time out of training, it is my worst running injury to this day. Despite my physio’s best efforts, and my following his advice religiously, it didn’t seem to want to get better: the pain was in my hips, and I couldn’t run no matter how gently I tried!
By that time I was already in touch with Dimitri, a friend of my sister’s, who was also training to run his first marathon in Athens, and we were comparing notes. I must have mentioned my injury, and he suggested that it could be my shoes. “Impossible, I had them fitted before buying, I went on a treadmill and they took videos of my feet and everything!” I responded; “they are considered the top marathon racing shoe!” I said. And then he introduced me to “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall, which had been published two years ago. In strictly running terms, the weeks and months I spent reading it, assessing online praise and criticism, researching foot strike, minimal shoes, and eventually ordering my first pair of Saucony Kinvaras, count amongst the happiest weeks of my running career: even if I was still recovering and doing very little actual running!
And my first run in those Kinvaras? I felt I was flying! I had never worn anything as light or as fast!
I got over the injury, but our correspondence with Dimitri continued, each email growing to mythical proportions till I had to print them off at work to read at my leisure at home! With that injury behind me, I could continue my training alone, and with the Huncote Harriers, the ranks of whom I had joined soon after beginning to train. I even inspired Demi, then still my girlfriend and living in Athens, to take up running at her local track. She too bought a pair of Kinvaras, and started following a plan on Micoach.
And what of the day itself? So many memories!
The start of the Athens Marathon is just outside of the village of Marathon, on the coast – the sight of the eponymous battle at 492 BC, the victorious outcome of which the Athenian messenger was sent home to report. This means that runners are collected by coaches at a number of meeting points in Athens and driven to the start. We had arranged to meet with Dimitri at Syntagma Square and board our coach there. I was the only person with an Athens Marathon gear bag when I boarded the Metro to that rendezvous, and it was fun to observe the trickle of blue bags boarding my train at subsequent stops.
The trip from Athens to Marathon by coach is long. Well, not really, it only takes about 30’, but it feels very long when you realise that that is the route you will be running back along! The unending straight after Stauro (the highest point on the route, at the 31st km) and the groaning of the coach’s brakes as it negotiated the prolonged downhill to the coast… I patted Dimitri on the shoulder and said “this will all be uphill when we run back!”
I remember little of the time before the start, it was my first big race and I was concentrating on finding my corral, timing my visit to the portaloos for the last moment before they got too busy, doing some warm-up and generally soaking up the atmosphere. It was a bitterly cold morning, but I don’t remember minding that.
During the first kilometres of the race I felt I was at a street party! I stuck close to the blue line (the measured route, so the shortest distance to the finish), exchanged nervous jokes with other newbies (as I didn’t have a previous time, I was in a slow pen with others who were running their first marathon) and was surprised by the olive twigs handed out by many of the spectators. I remember one old lady repeatedly mumbling “well done my children!” under her breath with tears in her eyes, and for no good reason I felt a lump in my throat. Closer to the lap around the tomb at the site of the battle I noticed a girl running in a pair of shorts and top in the colours of the Mexican flag: “Mexico En La Piel” had been on 6 Music a few days ago, and I started humming it inwardly.
Just before the serious hills (well, it’s all one hill really), and past the tavernas roasting chops within sniffing distance of the runners, there is a pretty little downhill bend between pine trees. I got my only glimpse of the sea at that point. It’s far enough into the race to make you feel that you can pick up the pace a bit, but that’s a trap!
The only negative emotion, which I tried to combat, was that none of my friends and family who had said they’d come out to support me had actually turned up! I rationalised in my mind, telling myself that perhaps I had missed them in the crowds, or that they were probably waiting at Stavro, where there are bridges you can look down on the course from, and where, 31 kms into the race and at the end of the bastard 13km-long hill, you certainly need all the support you can get. As I passed Stavro without spotting anyone, I heard a little voice in me say “in the end, no one came”. “We are running now!” I responded aloud to the surprise of a runner next to me and continued. In any case, I had no time for negative emotions: I was cresting the hill, just 11km to go now and they would all be downhill! “There’s no way” I told myself, “there’s no way I’m not finishing this!”. Even if the downhill, in those cold conditions, claimed as many victims as the hills, with people hobbling off with cramps or aching knees.
A bit further down, close to a Metro station, I heard familiar voices, my sister and Demi calling me: it turns out my pace was faster than they had expected and they didn’t have time to make it to Stavro. We greeted each other, words of encouragement were shouted, but I didn’t dare brake my pace: my mantra throughout the race was “don’t stop running”. I remember Niko (my brother in law) running alongside me for a while, telling me that I was looking good and asking if I needed any gels or water. I didn’t, it was the only marathon I relied solely on Powerade for energy!.. It went so well, I don’t know why I haven’t tried that approach again…
Around that point I realised, not without some surprise, that I was actually looking good for a sub four-hour finish! That had been my secret goal throughout my training, although to anyone who’d ask, I’d say that I just wanted to finish. Which was true, but… 😉
The thought of a sub 4 hour finish caused me to make my biggest mistake of the day, the one I still regret: I started racing it. Sensibly, you understand, it was the last quarter of my first marathon so I didn’t have the energy or strength for anything stupid, but that meant that I went for a fast finish. And that deprived me of properly taking in the amazing experience of finishing my first marathon in the marble Panathinaiko Stadium, or the sights and sounds of people lining up the last few hundred meters of the route… One only gets to finish one’s first marathon once, and I feel I short-changed myself of the experience. And needlessly too, because with a finishing time of 03:51:18, I could have taken a couple of minutes longer to enjoy the last stretch and still make it in under four hours… Still, of all the things I could regret on the day…
And then… it was done! The medal was placed around my neck, and the chip removed from my shoe. I made my way round the stadium, collected my gear and called Demi to arrange where we’d meet. In the almost seven years since, I can’t recall her being as happy to see me as she was that moment! And just like that I was a marathon runner! No longer the child who’d find excuses to avoid distance running during PE (by contrast I loved sprints and playing sports), but one of only 1% of the population to have completed a marathon!
But back to the original statement about people whose first marathon is their best: How could I possibly hope to replicate my journey to, and experience of, Athens 2011?
And where does that leave me now? Why do I keep running marathons (as opposed to simply running), and what am I seeking? Is it really the desire to constantly improve my PB that drives me, or am I on a futile quest to recreate that experience? That would be an impossibility. Am I simply an addict, engaged in a compulsive behaviour seeking to replicate his first high? Could it be a superstitious belief that drives me, that the marathons I run will somehow determine events in my non-running life?
Or is it because I want to still be counted amongst the number of marathon runners by merit, and not by virtue of some bygone glory?
“When you reach Sparta do it justice”, was the motto of a friend’s grammar school. I feel the same about Marathon.
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