Tagged: medals

An open letter to anyone running the London Marathon

Dear runner,

So you’re running the London Marathon. Good for you.

You’re about to do something incredible. Incredible, and painful. But mostly incredible. Although don’t forget painful.

Anyway, forget the pain for a moment. Really, forget the pain. Because you’re in for an utterly unforgettable experience. And I’m a little jealous. Okay, I’m a lot jealous.

I ran the London Marathon last year, raising money for the South West Children’s Heart Circle (a very worthy cause, which, if so minded, you could support by donating here). It was intense, exhilarating, exhausting, incredible, overwhelming, exciting, incomprehensible, enjoyable, unenjoyable, and a whole lot of other adjectives. But, above all else, it was brilliant.

And also painful. Let’s not forget the pain. I’m sorry to confirm this to you but, yes, running a marathon is going to hurt.

But let’s not dwell on the bad stuff. That whole thing about pain being temporary, and all that? It’s true. Honest. In the closing stages of last year’s London Marathon I was in pain. Serious pain. So much pain. I ached so much I swore I’d never run a marathon again. And I meant it.

I meant it when I crossed the finish line, more mentally and physically exhausted than I’d ever been. I meant it that evening, when my legs barely walked. I meant it in the following days, when I couldn’t walk in a straight line, or without feeling the dull ache in my legs. I was never, I told myself repeatedly, running a marathon again.

I lied to myself. Less than two weeks later, I’d entered the ballot to run this year’s London Marathon.

I didn’t get in. And while I’ve since run the Houston Marathon, I’m still gutted that I won’t be out on the streets of London on April 23. Which is why I’m jealous of you. Not in a bad way, you understand. I’m genuinely happy for you. I’d just love to be there with you. Because, genuinely, running the London Marathon is everything that you dream and hope it will be.

Here’s the thing: I could offer you some sage advice and marathon tips right now. But I’m not going to. If you’re like me, you’ll be sick of hearing advice about pacing, timing, running technique, hydration strategies and all that sort of stuff. And, if you’re not, you can easily find advice from plenty of people far more qualified than me to offer it.

So I want to say a few things to reassure you. Because, if you’re anything like me, right now you’re probably thinking of little else other than the London Marathon. It will be consuming your every thought, at the back of your mind no matter what you’re doing. You’ll be nervous. You’ll be excited. You’ll probably be a little bit scared.

That’s all okay. Keep this in mind: you got this.

Seriously, you’ve got this. You. Have. Got. This. Really, you have. Just keep those conflicting emotions in balance and you’ll be fine. Be excited, but don’t get carried away. And be nervous, but don’t let it scare you.

Plus, it might not seem like it with the race yet to be run, but you’ve already done the hard bit.

All those months of training? All those long, long runs on freezing cold mornings, with nothing but your own thoughts and a clutch of energy gels for company? That’s the hard stuff. You’ve done that now. You’ve only got 26.2 miles left to run. And it’s the fun 26.2 miles. Enjoy it.

It will be a lot of fun. Remember that when the nerves start to take over. Take a deep breath, forget the nerves and enjoy it. Enjoy going to the Expo to pick up your number. Enjoy the nervous trip to the start in Greenwich on an early morning train full of equally nervous fellow runners. Enjoy heading into the start zone, and realising just how big the London Marathon really is. Enjoy dropping off your bag, enjoy your final pre-race pee (actually, here’s my one bit of sage advice: don’t forget your final pre-race pee).

Enjoy lining up in the start zone. Enjoy trying to fathom how big the race is, and how many runners are ahead or behind of you. Enjoy the nervous anticipation before the start. Enjoy the moment when you cross that start line and realise, at the same time as everyone around you, that you’re actually running the London Marathon.

After that? Well, there are a whole host of things to enjoy. 26.2 miles worth, stretching out over the course of the next several hours. I won’t spoil all the surprises. There’ll be things you’ll expect – running over Tower Bridge really is as exciting as you’d anticipated – and things you won’t. The wafting smell from a nearby KFC, anyone?

Most of all, no matter how prepared you are, no matter how big a race you’ve done before, you’ll struggle to comprehend the scale of the marathon. It’s huge. There are so many runners. There’s so much organisation.

And then there the spectators. Lots of spectators. So many spectators. They form a virtually never-ending wall of noise, cheering, motions and support. Enjoy the spectators. Enjoy the support. It’s amazing. It’s inspiring. It’s, well, a little overwhelming. Sometimes, you’ll wish there were fewer spectators and fewer runners, a little more space so you could get away from the constant noise, and get back to running by yourself, just like you did on those long, cold training runs.

But try not to be overwhelmed by the spectators. Let them carry you along, but don’t let them push you into going too fast. High five kids when you want a distraction, read the signs people are holding up when you want to stop thinking about your pacing. Even chat to them if you want. But stick to your plan. When you need to, just focus on your running, your time, your pace plan, yourself. Head down, and picture what it will be like when you cross that finish line on The Mall. Picture being given that medal (actually, one other bit of sage advice: when they put the medal round your neck, be careful you don’t topple over with the extra weight when you’re in a post-marathon exhausted state. It’s a really heavy medal…).

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And remember, that’s what you’re aiming for: reaching the finish. Sure, set yourself a timing goal. I did. And push yourself to meet it. I did. I pushed myself harder than I thought possible. And, in doing so, I learned new things about myself.

Crucially, though, don’t let your target time consume you. If you miss it, you’ll be a bit disappointed. That’s natural. But don’t be upset: it’s okay. You’ll come to realise finishing is success in a marathon. The simple fact you’ll have done one is what will impress your friends and family.

And hey, if you really want to meet that target time, that can wait until the next marathon. Because, no matter how painful it is, no matter how much your legs hurt, no matter how much you doubt whether you’ll actually reach that finish, eventually you’ll want to do another one.

Honestly, you will. Running – well, limping, really – through the last few miles of last year’s London Marathon was the most painful, difficult, intense thing I’ve ever done. I still wince thinking of it now. It hurt. Lordy, it hurt.

But that hurt fades. Your legs will recover. You won’t forget the pain, but it will become part of the massive mix of emotions, feeling and experiences that make up the marathon experience. And you’ll look back at the whole event, on all those sensations, as one of the great experiences of your life.

That’s why I’m gutted I’m not running it again this weekend, and why I’m jealous that you are.

But I’m really happy for you. Your experience will be very different from mine, because every person’s marathon experience is different. A weird truth about a marathon is that, for such a big, communal event, it’s also an incredibly individual challenge. No two people will ever have the same experience. So go out there, and enjoy yours.

I’ll be cheering every single one of you on. Where I’ll be cheering from, I don’t know. I’m tempted to head into London, to join the crowds and cheers you on. But I’m not sure if I can. I’m not sure I could face being so close to it all, without getting really jealous that I wasn’t out there running myself.

But I’m happy you will be. Honest. So I’ll end with this: good luck. Enjoy it. Embrace it. Live it.

You’re about to run the London Marathon. The London Marathon! It’s going to be incredible.

And, yes, it’s going to hurt.

But it will be incredible.

And painful.

But mostly incredible.

Honest.

James

London Marathon 2016 runner 47812

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A New Year first – Texas marathon prep with a touch of class (win)

I’m not one for New Year’s Resolutions. I’ve always thought they’re kind of silly. But I’ve always thought it’s important to start off a New Year in a positive fashion. And I’ve managed to start 2017 in real style – with my first-ever running class win.

With the Houston Marathon fast approaching, and an understanding boss in work, I pieced together the time off to travel out to stay with my brother in Texas just after Christmas, giving me a few weeks to party on New Year’s Eve and fill up on smoked Texas brisket. No, hang on, let’s try that again… giving me a few weeks to adjust to the Texas climate and finish my marathon training. Yes, that’s better.

It was in that spirit that me and my brother decided to enter the first round of the 2017 Run Houston 10k race series – which was held on New Year’s Day at Sam Houston Race Park, a horse racing course about 30 minutes from my brother’s humble abode in The Woodlands.

Now, that did mean an early start on January 1 to get to the venue in time for the 9.30am start, but since I don’t drink and I’m not exactly a wild party animal, it wasn’t like I had to peg back my NYE partying too much. And the race start time was a full hour later than the 5k element of the race, so we got a positive lie-in compared to many.

Having studied the results of the 2016 event, I knew I had a reasonable chance of a relatively high overall finish if I could produce something approaching my best 10k race time – somewhere just over the 40-minute mark, depending on course. Although I wasn’t sure I’d be able to pull that off, given that I was a few days removed from a long flight, and in my short time in Texas I’d already chomped through some smoked beef brisket, pizza (topped with smoked sausage) and plenty of other meat-based delights…

Still, the flat, fast course was just about perfect for producing a good time, and despite my excess meat consumption I felt in good form. It began and finished in the race course car park, but was essentially two loops of an out and back course held along a nearby road. It pretty much comprised two long straights, with a hairpin at each end.

There wasn’t much in the way of scenery – think warehouses and corporate buildings rather than parkland or stunning views – but for a 10k run it was just about ideal.

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The Run Houston Sam Houston Race Park 10k route. Flat and fast, not exactly scenic…

I’d plotted myself a relatively conservative pace, but found myself with plenty in reserve and was able to run a bit faster than I’d intended – but still feeling very comfortable. With the course design I could see the people ahead of my, so I knew I was somewhere just outside the top ten after the first kilometre or so. And I thought I’d probably overtaken enough people to move into the top ten by the halfway point of the race.

One runner went past me with just over a kilometre to go, but I was able to up my pace and hold onto him for a while, before he pulled clear with a mega kick on the final straight. I held on to cross the line in 40m 03s, which is right up there with my best 10k race times.

So I knew I was pretty high up the field. So while waiting for my brother to finish I retrieved my phone from my hire car, found some free Wi-Fi (the better to avoid expensive roaming data charges…) and fired up the results (helpfully, I could scan a QR code on my race number). And there it was… eighth overall. But that wasn’t even the bit that caught my eye.It was the bit that read: Male 35 to 39: 1.

The number 1. That meant first. First. First! I was first. In my class. First in my class. That’s a win. A win. That’s never happened before. I’d won my class. I’d won. I’d only flippin’ won my class!

I’ve topped the male 35-39 year-old class on the odd Parkrun, but this was my first class win on a proper, paid-for race. A class win! Now, there is one caveat. Most races I’ve done in Britain don’t have that many classes. I’m usually in a ‘senior’ category that covers males from the ages of 18 to 39 or so. The Run Houston event has far more classes, and so I ‘only’ had to beat other runners aged 35-39.

Still, even as someone who isn’t a fan of boasting or self-promotion, it’s kinda a pretty decent achievement. I was eighth overall in a field of 616 runners, and topped 53 people in the male 35-39 class. Even if everyone else was simply off-form because it was New Year’s Day and they’d been out partying harder than I did, I’m pretty thrilled.

Winning my class on a Texas race also seemed to involve a bit more razzmatazz than on many British runs. I hung around for the awards, during which I got to stand on the top step of a podium showing off my bonus, super-shiny first place medal (with about as much enthusiasm as an introverted Brit could muster…). Yup, I got a second medal for the run. Both of which are so chunky and weighty I fear excess weight baggage issues when the time comes to fly home…

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One run, two medals. Both chunky. Oh so chunky…

All in all, a great way to start the year – and a great way to prepare for the Houston Marathon. Well, almost. There was one slight issue: the drinks stations.

There were four chances to grab a drink on the course, with the stations featuring the paper cups that are common in the USA – which, you may remember, I struggled somewhat to use effectively during the Houston Half Marathon.

In order to practice for the marathon, I’d planned to grab a few drinks on the course. But once the race started and I knew I was in with a shot at a decent finish, I sort of forgot that idea. I did grab one drink just after half-distance, and once again struggled to get even a half-decent percentage of the contents of the cup into my mouth.

And so, while I’ve got a shiny first-place medal to admire, I’ve still got a slight worry that keeping hydrated on the marathon could be a surprisingly big challenge…

The rewards of running (does it mean a thing if you don’t get some bling?)

A statement to file in the ‘cliche but true’ category: running is it’s own reward. Frankly, unless you’re a professional (or aspiring to be one), most runners enter events not for glory or riches, but for the warm feeling of satisfaction that comes with completing an athletic endeavour – hopefully in a Personal Best time.

Yet if running really is it’s own reward, why do the organisers of just about every paid-for race always provide some form of prize for finishers? And why is there always something thrilling about being handed your finishers’ prize.

When it comes to running prizes, the most common remains the medal. And, while it’s a long way from an Olympic gold, there is something quite nice about walking away from a run with a little bit of shiny metal hanging around your neck.

Now, you do get some medals that seem a bit basic – classic bits of metal with runners or a similar design on. They’re nice, but… a bit simple.

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Medals featuring running things. Simple, but effective

What’s more pleasing is completing a race which offers a far more customised, bespoke medal – it’s a nice touch that shows the effort many event organisers put in to make sure their event (and prize) stands out as a little bit special.

Sometimes that means a medal with a design that reflects the venue: a picture of a stag for the Bushy Park 10k, or a Christmas design on a festive-themed race held in late December.

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Medals with theming: deer and Christmas. Colourful, too…

Or perhaps a medal shaped like a dragon for the Wyvern 10k, reflecting the logo of Wyvern College, which hosted the race HQ (and no, the Wyvern 10k isn’t in Wales, but near Eastleigh in Hampshire).

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Who wouldn’t want a medal shaped like a dragon?

And some medals stand out just for being big, chunky and colourful.

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Medals don’t have to be gold, silver or bronze: green and purple works too

Yes, we like medals. Except there’s just one problem: what do you do with them after a run? Sure, they’re nice to show off, but you tend to end up with a lot of them. And unlike, say, an Olympic gold for winning a race against world-class opposition, you probably don’t want to hang a series of medals for finishing somewhere mid-pack in a race of a few hundred amateurs up on your wall. Well, you might, but if you end up entering lots of races, you can end up with a lot of medals.

My growing collection started taking up space in a rough pile on the top of a bookcase, until a visit from my Mum came up with a better solution: she bought me a jar to put them in.

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My medal jar. Yup, I need a bigger one

Here’s the thing though: medals aren’t the only finishing prizes that are offered by races. And some of the other prizes might not be as shiny, but are far more useful. The next most common prize I’ve encountered are technical T-shirts – and, as every runner knows, you can never have too many running T-shirts.

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Prize T-shirts: bright and useful

Helpfully for me, lots of the T-shirts given away as prizes come in somewhat bright colours, which is very useful – if you’re going to run in the dark in winter you need bright colours, and as someone who doesn’t like standing out much, I’m rubbish at buying brightly coloured clothes. So getting them as prizes saves me a lot of bother. And yes, there is something quite satisfying about going out running in a T-shirt that shows other runners you’re a proper runner who’s done races and everything.

There’s also a brief nod of respect here to some of the bigger events that have multiple prizes: the Hampton Court Palace Half-Marathon I did recently offered a T-shirt and a medal – and the medal is perhaps the finest, most original I’ve received to date.

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Kudos to this genius T-shirt and medal combo

Then there are even more creative prizes. The Thames Towpath 10 is sponsored by the Fullers brewery, and so the finishing prize is a pint glass. Even as a non-drinker, it’s one of my favourite glasses. Another event gives every finisher a mug – which is strangely satisfying to reflect on every time I slurp tea from it.

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A prize mug and a pint glass. And yes, the mug does need a wash. But it’s proof I use it…

What’s notable about the T-shirts, mugs and glasses I’ve been given as prizes is that I use them regularly – while the medals have ended up in a corner of my room in a pot. Is that a sign that more events should be thinking outside the medal when it comes to prizes?

Possibly, except the truth is it really doesn’t matter. Because the truth is I really don’t do it for the finishing prize. It’s a lovely gesture, and always makes the end of a race that bit more enjoyable. But, as I started by saying, the real reward of completing a race is in the running it took to do it. Any finishing prize on top of that is a nice bit of icing on a cake (a sweaty cake with aching legs, obviously).

Having said all that, I already know that, should I finish the London Marathon in two weeks or so, the medal I’ll get for doing so will instantly become one of my most prized possessions. Am I running for that medal? No, but it will be a shiny, metallic bit of proof of my achievements.

I’m running the 2016 London Marathon to raise money for the South West Children’s Heart Circle, who help care for children undergoing heart surgery in the south west of England. Any sponsorship received would go to a great cause – click the ‘Just Giving’ button for details of how to donate. Thanks!
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