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Monday, 8 October 2012

GO GO JO JO! My first half marathon.

Two weeks ago I came down with acute bronchitis. This has happened before and will happen again. We Thomases are famously weak of chest. But the timing was pretty atrocious, since it was two weeks before I was due to take part in the Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon, and the bronchitis caused me to miss nearly a fortnight of training. This wouldn't have been quite so bad if I hadn't signed up to the race just six weeks before, and if the longest run I had managed in my training wasn't 14K, a mere two thirds of the final race distance.

If you read about my triathlon, you'll know that I sorely berated myself for not putting in enough work beforehand. The whole thing was agony from start to finish, and I staggered across the finish line not far from last, feeling defeated, deflated and like I'd let myself down. I was not a pretty sight. I was really keen not to let that happen again, but the bronchitis had its own ideas. There was nothing I could do.

Ewww, thick mucus.
So, over the last week or so, I have been racked with doubt. My partner Justin, both of my parents, my colleagues and my indomitable training buddy Julia all reminded me that I DID NOT HAVE TO RUN. There would be no shame in pulling out. Julia - also due to run the race - texted me the night before with "no one is making you do this". But she was wrong. SOMEONE was making me do it, and that someone was me. We Thomases are also famously bloody minded, and, frankly, I'd handed over £45 in order to take part in this communal self-torture session. I knew that if I didn't even try, I'd spend the day feeling miserable. So I decided to get cheerful about the whole thing. If it took me three and a half hours, it didn't matter. If I had to walk the whole way, it didn't matter. If I felt like my legs were about to buckle beneath me and my lungs were about to explode, it didn't matter. Well, actually, it probably would matter if my lungs exploded, but I tried not to think about that. Julia's next text, once I'd confirmed my attendance, was a smiley face and the reassuring message: "Remember, none of this matters". Great minds...

As if to match my new found PMA, the sun shone down on us on the morning of the run. Being a Londoner, I am a regular complainer about the weather, the traffic, the hell-hole that is the Underground and the sheer numbers of bodies that one has to fight through on a daily basis. Being a Londoner doesn't always make you a nice person. But the sun was out, and the early-morning tube trains were packed with people in lycra and trainers, many of them looking as reassuringly nervous as I felt. For once I felt glad to be one of the multitude. We (me, Julia, and our personal photographer and sherpa Tom - Julia's husband) shuffled off at Knightsbridge and wandered through the crisp morning into a beautiful Hyde Park. Amidst the green were a few trees doing that clever autumn trick of being a hundred different shades of red and yellow. These trees tug at my heartstrings and remind me of the house I grew up in, and a beautiful colour-changing Chinese Maple that I will always love, even though I haven't laid eyes on it for nearly ten years. Excuse the sentimental digression.


More than 12,000 runners and thousands more in faithful friends and supporters poured into Hyde Park with us. We located Julia's charity marquee and agreed on it being our rendez-vous spot for after the race. Julia was running for Tommy's, a phenomenal charity funding research into stillbirth, premature birth and miscarriage. This is the moment for a double confession. Firstly, I was not running for a specific charity, because I had been lucky enough to get a ballot place. Secondly, I had done something naughty, and taken a ballot place belonging to someone else. This is against the rules of the half, because places in this particular run are coveted, and the organisers quite rightly want to avoid people selling their places on for a profit. But the circumstances are more than mitigating. My beautiful friend Aleks recently moved to Sierra Leone with Save the Children, another amazing charity. She's literally gone to Africa to save lives, so I think can be forgiven this small infraction. Lord knows what possessed me to stick my hand up when she offered her place on Facebook, but there we go, I did. The 30@Thirty spirit can be dangerous.

At the dreaded GREEN starting funnel.
Aside from a 20-odd minute queue for a genuinely revolting porta-loo, nothing else stood between us and exploding-lung-leg-buckling-doom. We missed the warm-up thanks to aforementioned queueing. So off we trotted to the start funnels. Since I was Aleks for the day, and since Aleks is a marathon-running legend, I was wearing a light green race number. This indicated that I intended to finish the race in two hours, which, of course, I did not. But nonetheless, I followed Julia into the green arena, safe in the knowledge that amongst so very many people, I was unlikely to stand out as too much of a fraud. Julia gave my hand a squeeze as we shuffled forward. We wished each other a good run and, at the starting gun, Julia was away, heading for her sub two hour triumph.

I set off at a modest trot, determined not to blow myself out too early. My plan was to intersperse running with short walks, but I figured I'd try and run at least 5k before my first break. I had the wise words of both Justin and my friend Jenny in my head right from the start. Slow and steady, slow and steady. London was glorious. The first stretch of the race was outside the park, and the sun danced on the buildings and statues, amongst them the Wellington Arch, Buckingham Palace, the London Eye and the Houses of Parliament, one of the most extraordinarily beautiful pieces of architecture in this town, if you ask me. I was just starting to get over the initial shock of running again after more than two weeks when I hit the one mile marker, and felt for the first time that I might actually manage this after all. Thousands of people lined the roads, shouting and cheering, and despite the fact that loads of runners were streaming past me, I knew that at no stage was I going to find myself cast adrift. I know that is is still possible to feel lonely in the midst of twelve and a half thousand people, but somehow I felt in my heart that I was going to feel a part of this crowd, not alone within it.

Half way down The Mall, a gentleman just behind me answered a phone call in Portuguese, and cheerfully explained that he was running. Whoever was on the other end of the phone clearly didn't quite understand the seriousness of the run and kept him on the phone for a few more minutes. It made me laugh. I felt happy, despite the fact that I became aware that there was no way in hell I could have answered a phone call at that precise moment. In fact, when I spotted Tom a few minutes later I didn't even have the puff to call out to him, and instead ambled towards him wildly waving my hands. I found out later that Julia had done exactly the same. Below are the respective pictures of us signalling that all is well.

Thumbs up!
Hello! Lungs haven't exploded yet!
Bye bye!
Here are some other interesting things that happened along the way. Very close to the start, I saw a banner saying 'GO GO JO JO!' To whoever made that banner, thank you. I hope your Jo Jo did well, and I hope you don't mind that I stole a little bit of the banner's positive energy as I trundled past it, both at the beginning and then again towards the end.

Seen better, seen worse.
During the course of the race, I was overtaken by Scooby Doo, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, a man in nothing but pink y-fronts and running shoes, a lady with an inexplicable bag of balloons on her back, a purple gimp, a giant squirrel, several tu-tus, and a fantastic sign that said "keep running Lizzie! Lots of cute guys checking out your bum." This of course led me to wonder how my bum looked, a question expertly answered later by one of Tom's photographs.

And here is perhaps the strangest, most wonderful thing of all. I felt great all the way through, and not once did I stop and walk. Not once. It could be argued that my pace over the last two miles was slower than the slowest of slow walks, but I was still jogging right up until the last 100m, when I managed a little tiny sprint. Not once did I feel defeated, deflated and like I'd let myself down. In fact, although I didn't have a watch on me, I knew from the six mile mark that I wasn't going to take the three hours I had predicted. I knew that I was doing OK. I mean, let's be clear here, I'm no Mo Farah, but I almost felt this good when I finally crossed the finish line at two hours twenty-seven.


I smiled my way through that race, singing strange snippets from random songs in my head. I looked at the people around me and wondered what had drawn them to the race. I watched the different sized bottoms jogging past me, appraising them without judgement, full of good will towards everyone who passed me or was passed by me. I read people's charity shirts and thought about the personal experiences that make people dedicate so much effort and energy to a particular cause. I thought of the autistic children, the grandparents with Alzheimer's disease, the millions of people fighting, beating and losing to cancer, the mothers and fathers who had lost children, the people still to be lost, the people being helped by the money raised on that sunny day, as we all jogged around London. I thought about how important it is to smile, and how it feels to be part of something good. I did my best to ignore the tightness in my ankle and the increasing pain in my knees and hips. I took Justin's advice and kept channeling The Little Engine that Could, all the way to the finish.


So, here's me with my wooden medal, in the shape of an autumn maple leaf.  I hope this is one of those trinkets I manage never to lose.


And here are some happy finishers. The wonderful Julia, who finished in an extraordinary one hour and fifty-three minutes, and her lovely friend Kati, who was heroically leaving Hyde Park to cook a Canadian Thanksgiving lunch for several friends. Hats off to that, since after the race I managed a cheeseburger, chocolate milkshake, onion rings, fries, and an obscenely long soak in a hot bath. Not all at the same time, I hasten to add, though that might have been nice.

Happy Ladies!
As I write this I am curled on the sofa trying to avoid moving my legs. Despite the liberal application of Tiger Balm after my bath, I am still walking like a pregnant T-Rex with balance issues. Tomorrow will be a slow day. Stairs will be a challenge. But despite this incomprehensible agony, I feel great. My enormous thanks to Aleks, for letting me go a lot slower than she would have had she not been off doing wonderful things in a wonderful country. My thanks to everyone who supported me, and as always to Julia for believing in me when I struggle to believe in myself. Huge thanks to Tom, Justin, Jenny and Roland for showing up to cheer us on. My thanks to the sun for shining, and to all the volunteers who made it a great day. My thanks to the guy in the pink y-fronts, for making me giggle. OK, enough with the thanks now, I'm off to take some ibuprofen and pass out.

Nine down, twenty-one to go...