In September 2016, fed up with not being able to run any distance without becoming completely miserable and out of breath, I attended my first Fit4Life session. This would be different from last time, I decided. It would be unlike that time eight years previously when I spent six months training for a one-off 10K in response to a challenge from a group of friends - I completed that 10K as proud as punch with myself for managing to run every step, only to barely run a step ever again.
October 29, 2017: the starting line of Dublin City Marathon. How on earth did I get here? What was I thinking? I’ve never run more than 16.5 miles and now after two nights of almost no sleep I’m actually going to attempt 26.2?
The thirteen months in between the two events was indeed different from the last time. Somehow I discovered motivation, self-discipline and most importantly, a deep love of running. I’ll never know exactly what clicked this time or why, but I know that by the time I realised that I needed running more than it needed me, I was hooked.
Starting sensibly was key: sessions of two minutes’ running followed by a minute walking, gradually increasing the running distance until the rest periods were eliminated completely. After about three weeks of twice-weekly Fit4Life sessions I was thrilled to be running five kilometres continuously, albeit still with some difficulty and very slowly. Listening to the more experienced runners chatting with the coach helped the time fly by, even if I was mostly too out of breath to contribute to the conversation for a good few weeks! Rain, hail or shine the coaches gave their time and efforts twice a week down at the track, and sometimes this realisation helped get me out the door in the bad weather. The hot shower after a session in hailstones and biting wind was also a welcome reward, along with the feeling of well-being that lasted until the next session. The camaraderie between fellow runners and coaches was another important factor that kept many of us coming back for more even when we would rather be at home on the sofa.
Two months after joining Fit4Life came the first major challenge – the Fit4Life 5K in Athenry. This was my first race since that 10K many years earlier, and my first ever 5K race. I had no idea about pacing and started too fast – a classic rookie mistake. I barely enjoyed a single step of the race and was delighted just to finish. I felt faint and nauseous and cross with myself for executing the race so poorly. Despite the unpleasant experience it inexplicably left me wanting more, and since then I went on to complete another 11 5Ks, one 4 mile, three 10Ks, three half marathons and the jewel in the crown: Dublin City Marathon.
The road to the marathon was not an easy one. I decided that I would train solo as my training plan (Daniels Running Formula – no relation!) was very much individually tailored to my fitness levels and training paces. Apart from that, after signing up I didn’t actually tell anyone until I had been marathon training for about four weeks – such was my uncertainty of my ability to go the distance! I had to make a serious go of the training plan alone before being able to share my plans with friends and family.
The impact on family of training for a marathon – particularly one as intense as the plan I followed – is not to be underestimated. I did not cross that finish line in Dublin alone, but was accompanied in spirit by all the people who helped me get there. Too numerous to mention here, every single person who I counted as my personal cheerleader carried me through the miles on the day. Among their number are all my fellow runners, Fit4Life coaches, family members and in-laws, friends old and new and colleagues enquiring after my training and race prospects and most of all my husband and children who bore the greatest brunt and yet were my greatest supporters.
The training itself, while physically and mentally demanding, pales into insignificance when compared to the burden borne by immediate family – particularly where small children are involved. Their support allowed me the indulgence of long sessions on the road, and served as a useful reminder when returning home in the latter weeks of training, soaked and shivering, that I had signed up for this myself!
The last three weeks or so were mentally the hardest – shouldn’t I be running more often? Am I really getting enough miles in? Am I eating enough, or too much? The days leading up to the marathon were like a kind of twilight period. I felt in a sort of limbo between training and the Big Day. I was sleeping badly and unsure whether I was overdoing it on the carbs. Even short easy runs felt heavy and I doubted my ability to really perform in the race. I felt sure I was coming down with a virus as every niggle, every ache, every sneeze convinced me my hopes were hanging by a thread.
The morning of the race I was up several hours before my starting time. Having slept for about 40 minutes I was shaky and my eyes were burning with exhaustion, but there was an electricity in the air on the streets of Dublin that was impossible to ignore. The throngs of runners and supporters and the closed roads gave a festival atmosphere to the city as I made my way to the start line with my clubmates. All nervous, all excited, we posed for our club photo in our Craughwell AC singlets before taking leave and finding our starting waves.
When the starting gun fired, I could scarcely believe I was actually running a marathon. The months of training had come to this – the seemingly impossible was possible after all. The first few miles I worked very hard on my pace. I was nervous and I knew it, so I focused on keeping steady. Because of my tiredness there was a lot of self-doubt in those first few miles. I honestly didn’t feel I could complete 26.2 miles at the pace I had trained for. I was barely holding it together at two miles – with 24.2 to go! But suddenly it clicked, and I was sailing. The miles flew by all through the Phoenix Park and a particular high point was just after the 10 mile mark running through a tunnel, when a call of “oggy oggy oggy!” from a fellow runner aroused a response of “oi oi oi!” from every single person under that bridge, reverberating powerfully and lifting spirits no end.
The first really tough mile came at mile 14, when I wondered if I could recover my pace according to the plan. Minor panic set in briefly as I crested the hill but just as in training, I managed to get back on track quickly enough. The overwhelming support along the route from the huge number of spectators was a tremendous boost, and I reminded myself regularly of my mantras: “run this mile”, “trust the training” and “my body is strong”.
Seeing my amazing family and friends at various points along the route kept me focused and grateful, particularly once I reached the no-man’s land past 17 miles, which was further than I had ever run in training.
Funnily enough I don’t think I ever hit the dreaded ‘wall’. I do recall the fact that at 22 miles there was not only a hill, but a sticky one at that, as the discarded gel sachets turned the road surface into a tacky beast, right when we needed it least. It was also at this point that a strange silence descended on the group of runners on the final stretch. I was acutely aware of the sound of laboured breathing and squeaking rubber soles straining against the sticky hill.
Usually in any race, no matter the distance, I find the very last stretch to the finishing chute to be interminable. It feels as though some saboteur is slowly and subtly moving the finish line further and further away. For some reason this was not the case in Dublin that day – although I had to dig deep in the last few miles, I enjoyed it to the very end. I crossed the finish line with a time of 3 hours 57 minutes, tired and emotional in the truest sense. I had done what I thought I never could, and despite feeling as though I had been through the wringer, I was elated.
It’s a well-worn line, trotted out by many who have achieved anything they may have once believed themselves incapable of, but hand on heart I believe that if I can run a marathon, anyone can. The only caveat: you have to want it.