It was a crazy idea – why did I sign up for the London Marathon?

Why did I sign up for the London Marathon? It was a crazy idea I had in 2017 as my 50th birthday loomed. I wanted to take up the challenge again, having last run it 20 years before.

I contacted Macmillan Cancer Support and said I’d like to run for them, promising to raise the minimum £2,500 sponsorship. So, I sent off my form and four months later actually jumped up and down when the charity actually offered me a place. Reality hit as I ended the call; I had to get a lot fitter, I needed a training plan, a running companion and there was £2,500 to raise!

I drew up a training plan starting with a mile run, increasing the distance by 10 percent each week. My daughter, Kate, agreed to run with me (up to a point and then she said she’d be getting on her bike and would cycle alongside me). My puppy was too young to run with me so I found a second hand pram and pushed Tizzy along in front of me (it seemed too unkind to leave her behind).

Kate was amazing with her support organising coffee mornings and quizzes. My parents had an afternoon tea event in their garden. Sponsor money was readily given as soon as I mentioned Macmillan, and it seemed like our whole village turned out to the coffee morning (with bacon butties) I held. Local pubs, cafes and the local golf course donated prizes too and pound by pound, we gradually bumped along to reach my total.

On the evening of the last quiz, (two weeks before the marathon), my mother was taken into hospital and was eventually diagnosed with sepsis. Soon, she was in intensive care and while she was there we were given the terrible news she had secondary cancer and had just two months to live.

This was when I contacted Macmillan and asked if I could defer my place for a year, and they readily agreed. Thankfully further checks over the next 2 weeks confirmed there was no cancer but Mum needed a major heart operation because the sepsis had damaged her heart valves badly. She is fine now, maybe breathless and a little grumpy that she can’t do all the things she used to be able to do. Every moment I spend with her now is precious.
Even after the deferral, I kept up my training. I stopped raising funds for Macmillan once I reached my £2,500 total, and switched any additional sponsorship to our wonderful local cancer charities, Hospiscare and FORCE. And then, finally, I took the train with my daughter up to London to run the 2019 London Marathon.

The Marathon organisers don’t send out running numbers, so I had to pick mine up from an Expo in Docklands, taking along my drivers licence to prove it was really me. Together with my number, I was given a plastic magnetic tag to attach to my shoelaces which would pick up my feet crossing the start, every 5km marker and the finish – providing my split times.

On marathon day, I set my alarm for seven but we were awake an hour before. I immediately reached for a bottle of water, gulping down a pint to start hydrating my body ready for extended exercise of this special day. As soon as the alarm went off I was up and making porridge.

I pulled on all my running kit painstakingly laid out the night before, including a running belt full of energy gel bars for every 5 miles of the run. Your body can’t store energy for more than an hour’s running – yes, you can keep going without some food, but slowly your muscles are going to suffer.

Kate and I were soon in a packed Dockland’s railway carriage commenting on the heady smell of Deep Heat, surrounded by both nervous and excited people, some running their first marathon, others seasoned distance runners – but all friendly and it began to feel like the party had begun!

We arrived in Greenwich to a sea of people all heading to the start, guided by seemingly hundreds of helpful and encouraging marshals in smart powder-blue uniforms.

I had to leave Kate to enter into a massive runners’ enclosure, showing my race number to gain entry to the restricted zone. I dropped off my kit bag onto a lorry which would be driven to the finish for me to recover after my run, and then I joined the longest queue for a toilet I have ever seen.

The mass start is split over 3 locations, with the runners converging after a couple of miles or so, onto one course. Each of these 3 starts was subdivided into 7 zones. I was in zone 7 on the ‘Red’ start which meant I crossed the start line 43 minutes behind the first of the ‘fun’ runners.

It was freezing waiting to start, and I was so glad of a bin bag that I had cut arm holes in to keep some of the chill off. But it is a long time waiting when you are really desperate to get on your way – wondering if I should make another quick visit to the loo.

At 10.53am I crossed the start line. Before, twenty years before, I could not choose how fast I ran at the start because all the fun runners set off together and you were forced to run for the first two miles in a tiny space keeping at the pace of the masses around you, but this time with the zoned and designated start times, there was clear space ahead of me from the start.

I couldn’t listen to my customary music to keep my pace because the crowds of spectators and all the other noises around me drowned out my own music – I had no idea how fast I was running (keen to start, and keen to get running to warm up) and I ran off too fast. By Mile 6, just before the Cutty Sark, I began to suspect I was in trouble – I expected to feel full of energy and with this first part all being slightly down hill, I should have felt fine but I was not, my legs were heavy. At Mile 11 I had a big wobble with my vision seeming to blurr – I sat on the pavement for a few minutes waiting for it to pass, which it did, and I was off again.

Kate and I arranged for her to see me at certain points on the route – we worked out how fast I’d be, checking out the route and deciding Kate might see me on 7 occasions on the run. In the end, she had to battle her way around, with some underground lines not working, some stations where you could either get on or off, but not both and some roads cordoned off. She did see me six times and was pretty exhausted at the end! Kate ought to win a ‘Supporter of the Year Award’.

Just before Mile 17, my knee went into spasm and when I saw Kate here, I told her I needed to give up and go home. All my training runs had been easy but this was hell and I really could NOT continue. Kate asked me if this was the legendry ‘Wall’ that runners often hit at around Mile 18 but I assured her it wasn’t. Luckily, she persuaded me that she’d see me at Mile 20 and see how I felt then, after all it was only 3 more miles! By Mile 20, I was determined to finish.

I saw Kate again at Mile 23 and then again,
just before the finish, standing on the Albert
Memorial. I gave her a massive hug before I crossed the finish line in just under 6 hours.

Yes, I did enjoy it. I was thrilled to be doing the London marathon, raising so much for amazing cancer charities and the crowds were incredible – the level of support made me feel that this is what human spirit is all about. Bowls of jelly beans were held out by children – I had my name on my shirt – and I can’t say how many times I heard ‘Celia’ yelled out by perfect strangers urging me on. At Mile 23, I think there was a whole picnic including crisps held out for runners. At Tower Bridge the volume of cheering was truly unbelievable.

I have a beautiful heavy medal, a wonderful feeling of achievement and a sense of wonder for all the marshals and the crowd, Kate, and my family and friends who sent messages before and after – and followed me on the London Marathon App. Lastly, I have to say thank you to my husband, Paul who is injured at the moment and couldn’t be with Kate on the day but his love and support throughout has been fabulous.

Stuart Clarke

Author: Stuart Clarke

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