Digested read: since running the London Marathon I’ve been feeling a bit down, and a bit ‘ouchy’ in the shins. I’ve only run once and demoralisation has set in. However, panic not, I believe I’ve turned a corner, thanks to the cheery disposition of the Hathersage Hurtle organisers who offer up a distance walk, stunning views and cake. It’s going to be just fine.
Can’t believe that’s really one of Oscar Wilde’s quotes? I mean, I do quite like it, but it’s not as pithy and lyrical as you might expect. Ah well, I’ll still take it, it’s working for me.
Did I mention at all that I ran the London Marathon last month? Oh I did? Are you sure? Are you not just making an educated deduction because I still have the imprint of the medal in the side of my face from where I lay on it whilst sleeping? Oh.
Turns out you can only trade on the London experience for so long. Also, and this wasn’t part of the plan, post London I did feel a bit flat (not on the stomach area unfortunately, more sort of mentally). There is a lot written about ‘post marathon blues‘ so it is a known thing, but as with many ‘known things’ sometimes you have to experience it for yourself in order to properly understand and empathise with what it might mean on an individual level. Don’t worry, I’m sufficiently self-aware to realise how incredibly annoying, pretentious and self-indulgent that statement sounds, ‘nobody understands blah de blah‘ but also insufficiently adept as self-censorship to delete that statement. I suppose it’s just that whilst some clichés stand others didn’t, so processing the whole London Marathon adventure is quite challenging, well it is for me anyway.
Firstly, for me at least, it was all so far outside my previous experience of anything else I’ve ever done, once back home in Sheffield, it is a bit like it never happened. Like I’ve been returned from being abducted by aliens, and now I’m back and I’m trying to explain to people that I really and truly was snatched away and transported back, but even my closest friends are looking at me somewhat quizzically, and frankly I’m beginning to doubt it happened myself. I mean, if I was a cow, then my abduction by aliens would be more plausible, as we all know the first thing extraterrestrials in their UFOs do when hovering over remote American farmsteads is beam up cattle with their tractor beams. People though, harder to believe…
So too with running a marathon, it was really such an improbable thing for me to do, I can’t honestly imagine how it happened. Nor can I imagine going off and doing another one, not yet anyway. How people do back to back marathons or like the amazing Ben do 401 marathons in 401 days I can’t begin to imagine. And dear reader, I have a pretty vivid imagination, so that just goes to show how hard it must be! He’s set up the 401 foundation now by the way, that’s splendid! The upshot is, that it really is as if it never happened. It was too unlikely, it was too surreal, I must have imagined the whole thing.
Another issue for me, is that – and shhh, don’t tell – my experience of London was ‘complicated’. For sure it was ‘amazing’, ‘once in a lifetime’, ‘extraordinary personal challenge’ pick and mix your own clichés. However, it was also massively over-shadowed by the lack of water throughout the route. That, coupled with the heat, really shifted my experience. I was quite spooked by dehydration, mile after mile with no water wasn’t good, and for the record, it was not only between miles 7-11 (water stations 8-10 equates to five miles) it was for many miles in the second half of the route too that instead of oasis deserted water stations were mirages in the desert of hot tarmac roads. I really tried to remain positive, but it played on my mind and knocked my confidence. I mean if the London Marathon can run out of water, it could happen anywhere couldn’t it? This, and the fact that after the event I heard of horror stories of injured runners who did not finish (DNF) and of people who did finish, but then spent up to two hours in first aid tents after collapsing, being laid down and covered in ice whilst medics tried to rehydrate them and stabilise their heart rhythms. To be honest, it does rather detract from the ‘isn’t this fun‘ and overall euphoric vibe I’d been anticipating.
Post marathon blues is also, in my case at least, tied up with having to face up to all those problems, decisions and life-choices that I’d postponed addressing thinking they’d be somehow more manageable post the marathon, as in ‘I’ll worry about that after London’. So now without the distraction/ focus of marathon training I need to somehow morph into being a proper grown up, get a job, lose weight, overcome my many and varied social inadequacies, read more books, dive back into social interactions, get properly fit, whatever. Disappointingly, taking part in a marathon, even if you complete it, does not subsequently imbue you with superhuman skills of capability, self-belief, will-power and decisiveness. Nor does it lead you to radiate personal charisma that ensures you will never again experience social inadequacy, alienation or personal rejection. And as if all that wasn’t disappointing enough, furthermore, it doesn’t transform the socio-political context in which we operate. The world is still in turmoil, Trump is still president, plastic still pollutes the seas, Brexit is still happening and I still can’t find a job and my roof still leaks. That was not what I ordered. What snake oil is this, the notion that running a marathon will change your life? Why haven’t I properly metamorphosed into a better version of myself? What was that all about if I still have to be me? 😦 Crap deal.
People aren’t even that interested in the bling, and it’s harder than you might think to lever ‘I just did the London marathon’ into every conversation ever so casually. Example, getting on bus ‘how much is it to the city centre? I don’t normally catch the bus, I normally walk, but as I ran the London marathon (yesterday, last week, last month) I’m giving my legs a break‘ whatever. Not everyone is interested in running! What! Still, it could be worse I suppose. At least most people in the UK have heard of the London marathon. I’ve been reading a book Your pace or mine, an enjoyable account of the many runs undertaken by the author, a self-proclaimed back-of-the-pack runner. Her numerous marathon adventures are awesome, but she is from South Africa originally. The archetypal race there is apparently The Comrades Marathon a gruelling 56 miles ultra marathon with a brutally enforced cut off time of 12 hours. Thus, this is the only race her non-running south African compatriots have heard of. As a consequence, if you tell a South African you run, and they are not a runner themselves, their likely next question would be ‘have you run Comrades then?’ the implication being if you haven’t, you aren’t really a runner. That would be depressing! At least in the UK the London marathon is significantly more achievable – if you can find a way to get a place that is of course… and if you tell non runners you have done it there is usually a flicker of recognition that this constitutes an achievement, I need to hang on to that.
Another challenge, for me at least, is what next and when to start running again. I wasn’t especially stiff after London, but I did have what I’m calling ‘ouchy shins’. I’m not sure if this is an actual medical term, but it should be. Anyway, I’ve done loads of googling ailments and so I’m practically medically qualified now. At the very least I can diagnose every patient/ prospective patient in an episode of Holby City by 5 minutes in. I digress (how unusual) but I am particularly proud of having once correctly diagnosed an ectopic pregnancy practically before the opening titles had finished in an episode of Casualty many years ago. I was watching this in the presence of a senior hospital consultant who scoffed my diagnosis based on his boring years of training, experience and medical expertise (yawn). But people, the story line proved I was right! Fortunately, he was a haematologist so his inability to second guess the plot lines of an episode of Casualty probably wouldn’t lead to catastrophic consequences in his day-to-day work. Probably. I never asked. Sometimes it’s just tactful not to isn’t it?
Where was I? Oh yes, so basically both my shins felt really tender a couple of days after the marathon and I’ve not really had that before. Well only once, as the aftermath of an ill-judged sports massage I had about 3 weeks ahead of London. That knocked out my last long run as I limping so much. Who knew you had massageable connective tissue/ muscle on the front of your shins. Or maybe you don’t and that’s why they hurt so much. Anyways, the point is, I’m paranoid about stress fractures/ shin splints, and it made me/ makes me, quite nervous about running again. You’d think, well I did, that successfully completing a marathon would lead to me brimming over with confidence, secure that at last, I might actually be able to call myself an actual runner. Not so. If anything I feel even more fraudulent than before. The conditions on the day were so random, excellent athletes ended up with DNF, Somehow though I did finish, but many of us probably didn’t have the race we trained for. It makes me wonder just how much success in these running endeavours is all down to luck. I think you can ‘make your own luck’ up to the point, by doing the training say, but unquestionably luck will play a part on the day, and the nature of luck is that it is just that. Luck. Random. It isn’t fair. It breaks my heart to think of the DNFs I know who deserved a different outcome, and the did not starts DNSs too. As I say, it’s complicated. I don’t think I was any more deserving of a finish medal than many who did not get round on the day, maybe I just got lucky?
Terrified of exacerbating a pending injury, I just didn’t run at all for a couple of weeks. One week I joined the tail walker at my local parkrun. That was an interesting experience, being at the back of the field on what I think was the biggest turn out ever at Sheffield Hallam parkrun 805 runners. Most who passed us (erm, everyone else taking part) shouted encouragement ‘well done’ kind of things. I actually thought at first they must be referring to me having completed the London marathon, and then I realised that in fact I am not the centre of the known universe and so they would not be in possession of this fact, they were just being encouraging and nice, which is what most parkrunners are. The tail walker was also needing to walk post injury, so we just walked round chattering the whole way. I felt I made a new friend. Loads of my Smiley Paces running club buddies were out in force, completing the unfinished couple of miles of the London marathon my fellow marathoner wasn’t able to, by running parkrun in solidarity with her. She’d crashed out at the 40km mark. As I was still out there walking I missed the team photo of this gathering, but aren’t they splendid! A loveliness of smilies indeed!
The following Saturday, I volunteered as barcode scribe at parkrun. I like volunteering, you see events from a different perspective, and see the whole continuum or participants as well. In this role I had to manually write down the numbers of people whose barcodes fail to scan. This is a fab job in that you get a double whammy of kudos being in possession of both a hi-vis AND a clipboard. You do also get some grief from people who insist they have always been able to have their number written down from their mobile phone before. Erm, don’t think so. I am generally very averse to any kind of confrontation and will capitulate in almost every situation to avoid the hassle of an argument. However, I feel strongly about this, parkrunners are grown ups, it’s one rule, it’s not much to ask you to bring along a printed barcode, and if you are a regular runner you will know this, I’m a volunteer so nope, I’m not making an exception, especially not if you are going to get all insistent and arsey about it. I will happily take time to explain things to newbies, congratulate them on having taken part, encourage them to come back, tell them how to work out their time and generally enthuse, but I still enforce the rule. With a parkrun as big as Sheffield Hallam you can really appreciate it’s importance. Of the 800 or so runners, only a handful did complain but I soon had huge queues of people needing their number written down as the scanners were playing up in bright sunshine. If you relented on the no barcode, not time, no exceptions rule, you’d spend all weekend manually writing down results and then the poor results processors would have to do likewise. Not OK. Beckton parkrun did a post about why the no barcode, no result, no exception rule applies, that I think is good. parkrun have recently revamped the parkrun code by the way, so with this relaunch the few rules are once again clearly stated.
I still think the directive around dogs is confusing. What are you supposed to do if you don’t have a dog? Fortunately this policy isn’t rigorously enforced locally. Mind you, if ever it were to be, I have a dog in mind… Form a queue people, form a queue!
So then week three on from London, I did my first run. Also at parkrun. Again, my local one was really busy, so busy, that there were actual bottle necks at several points on the course so I had to walk some sections, which was good, as it completely removed the pressure or temptation to run. There was good news and bad news. Amazingly, my lungs and legs generally felt fine, I don’t seem to have lost the ability to put one foot in front of another. My womb still didn’t fall out, and although I was definitely ‘steady’ I was actually a bit faster than the last parkrun I did pre marathon, which is truly bizarre. However, the less good news is that a photo of me running gives me no room for delusion in respect of how much weight I’ve put on, wearing a t-shirt and not wearing a giraffe means my stomach has nowhere to hide. Also, my shins are still tender. Not absolutely terrible by any means, but enough that I think I do need to be a bit careful. Losing weight would help, some strength and conditioning and general cross training is well overdue also. Hmm.
So I was/ am feeling a bit directionless and clueless, I ought to be doing more, but I am scared of injury, and feeling a bit overwhelmed because it is like starting over with a new goal. Then something popped up on Facebook that looked familiar. A reminder about the Hathersage Hurtle. What’s that then? That sounded familiar, have I entered it? I did a bit of rummaging around in my inbox (not a euphemism) and it seems I have indeed. It’s next Saturday. Blooming heck, I’m not even running again yet. Oh well, I thought, it’ll probably be a nice gentle local trail race, it will be fun! Perfect for getting back into it. Not so, it’s twenty miles! TWENTY MILES FFS! And with significant elevation – well, not by Sheffield standards, but definitely by London ones, which is where my focus has been. What was I thinking? Well, actually, I know exactly what I was thinking! I entered back in February, in the depths of winter, probably from the sanctuary of being under a duvet. I was fondly imagining a future whereby at this point in time I’d have completed the marathon, had time to recover and be at my running peak in terms of both capability and confidence. I’d fly round. How wonderful it would be to return to the joys of the peaks after the tyranny of the roads whilst training for London. I never learn. Can’t do this, it’s crazy. I dug around for details and found it was a pricey one to enter £24 and there’s a technical tee at the end. Well, obviously that was a game changer, even with some uncertainty about the medal situation.
A bit more ferreting around, and I discovered there is actually a walk option as well as the run. Hmm, they do exactly the same route, but head out between one and two hours earlier. I emailed the organisers to find out what the cut off time was for the runners and whether I could swap.
Oh my gawd. What a lovely email I got back. So welcoming and reassuring. It massively helped me to refocus:
Well done on the marathon. What an achievement. The Hurtle will be quite a different experience – better views and more cake for a start! We’ve got quite relaxed cut offs. Final cut off for everyone is 5pm so that gives you a total of 7 hours to get round as a runner. Walkers can set off between 8 and 9am so that gives you an extra hour or two. We don’t want you to feel under any pressure as our main aim is for people to have a great day. Let me know what you decide to do.
This is why I run! Beautiful views, friendly runners and bonus cake! I mean London has it’s merits, but is actually the worst trail run ever. Views from the trails and cake, that’s what running is all about. Yomping fest here we come!
Suddenly, I felt relieved. I have decided to drop back to join the walkers. My shins aren’t quite right, but I’ve so missed the gorgeous trails round and about, I miss the camaraderie of running out on the moors with my mates. Training for London was relentless and lonely at times. I missed running against the stunning backdrop of the moors and peaks – I had to focus instead on roads and flattish trails. I can get back out into the peak district proper now. With respect to my running buddies, I’m still too slow to keep up with them, but by starting earlier with the walkers I should have no pressure. I’m hoping this will also remove the navigation issue as if I start at the back of the walkers I can follow them to start with, and then as runners start to overtake I can follow them too. This gives me a sporting chance of seeing people I know en route, as they will speed pass me, instead of me just trailing behind them the whole way round, watching them disappear over the hills and far away before I’ve even fathomed out how to handle my dibber. Arriving at the finish at dusk with no cake left and the Smiley paces group photo long since taken. This could work. I need to get over my weird psychological block about running again, and I think a long, beautiful walk with heaving feed stations, friendly marshals and a technical tee at the end is just the job! What’s wrong with hope over experience dear reader? The alternative is I’d never do anything ever again. The heather might not be out just yet, but it’s still going to be awesome!
I think the route also covers a lot of the same terrain as the Dig Deep Ultra which is my next big goal, so good to have a bit of a recce of sections of that too. What could possibly…
So in terms of my experience of the post-marathon blues – which I think is what this post is sort of about, and it’s not just a rambling stream of consciousness, directionless nonsense at all – I think it’s attributable partly to a lack of direction and partly a sense of anti-climax. Plus, anyone’s body would take a pounding, let alone my post fifty offering, so it’s not surprising I’m maybe feeling a bit battered. And I do need to somehow get my life back on track, but it was always thus, it’s just the goal of getting round London legitimised my procrastination for a few months, but it didn’t make any problems go away, how could it?
To end with positives I think I offer up two:
Positive number one: the absolutely best bit about running events in general (the ones I pick anyway) and the London marathon in particular is that supporters, random strangers who don’t even know you, when they cheer you on, are genuinely offering up unconditional, positive regard. Usually you have to pay counsellors or psychologists or whatever an absolute fortune at an hourly rate to give you that. And even then it will probably be given somewhat dead pan and po faced, they don’t generally wave golden pom poms at you and leap in the air in appreciation of your efforts. In running, people will cheer you euphorically not based on your potential achievement, or any personal characteristics, or even innate worthiness – they can’t they have no idea who you are, so they are cheering you unconditionally just because you are out there giving it a go! There is no other context in life I can think of where you get that. This is why junior parkrun is also especially joyful. It’s a celebration of the best in people, a temporary vision of utopia that demonstrates life is just so much better if we are kind to each other and buoy each other up rather than bring each other down. A reminder there are more good people in the world than not, and there is not just room for diversity and laughter in the world, but also life is so much the better for it. Simple. Cheering on others without cynicism, and unconditionally not only brings joys to others, but will leave you giddy with feelgood joy yourself. Promise.
The second big positive: there is life after the marathon. Just pick another goal, anything, but better if it’s one that taps into whatever it is that makes running fun. I feel so much more upbeat now I can head out again into the hills. When I first started this running blog, such as it is, it was partly to recognise that whilst I have many and manifest limitations that might get in the way of me ever becoming a ‘proper’ runner, there was nothing to stop me enjoying doing it badly, and even celebrating that. The whole parkrun philosophy, of just participating in my own way, not worrying too much about other people’s goals or expectations. And you know what, that philosophy has allowed me to meet some amazing people, discover some extraordinary places, take on some unimaginable challenges and who’d have believed it, somehow progressed from having to breathe into a paper bag to calm myself before daring to turn up at my first parkrun, to completing the London marathon! Strange, but true.
If my old PE teacher could see me know eh? Hah!
It’s not finishing a marathon that is the hardest thing, it’s having the courage to sign up for it in the first place. Honestly, with many of the challenges I’ve taken on I haven’t absolutely believed I could do them, but I have most fervently believed there is only one way to find out. After all, how will I ever know my limits if I don’t test them.
Also, yomping the hills is fun. Whatever challenge appeals, for what it’s worth, I think it’s important to remember that for me at least, running is supposed to be fun. How does the saying go?
Run often, run long, but never outrun your joy of running.
Now go find your trainers, or if you can’t run just now, go look at a favourite bit of running bling or a photo of your favourite running location and imagine yourself out there doing a virtual run. This is what I’m going to try to do. Saturday’s Hathersage Hurtle might be a walk rather than a run, but it’s still a step on the way to getting back on track literally as well as metaphorically, because ultimately that’s all a run is, one foot in front of another. And increasingly the accepted wisdom is long walks can be a helpful part of a running fitness programme too. That gets my vote.
So see you out on them there hills.