London Marathon

Running the London Marathon has been on my ‘bucket list’ ever since I first conceived the idea that I might one day run 26.2 miles. I watched the London Marathon unfold on the television year after year as a child, scanning the crowds visible on screen, looking for interesting costumes or perhaps the glimpse of the familiar face of a friend or family member. My Mum and Dad ran the event together in 1985. They returned home triumphant, walking unevenly on sore legs, telling tales of roaring crowds, cobblestone streets, and the friendly comraderie of like-minded runners. They told us how they huddled together clad in black bin bags before the event, and then after the event, crowded onto the tube wearing their medals with pride, wrapped in silver mylar blankets that looked like futuristic space-capes. The silver space-capes were the best gift a returning parent could present to us kids after the marathon, fuelling weeks of imaginative super-hero intergalactic adventuring.

I have entered the London Marathon lottery 3 times in the past 4 years, but had never managed to secure a spot. Still, I was determined to run it someday, somehow. I had a partially formed plan that involved running for a charity – most likely for Guide Dogs – and had a vague idea that I would pursue this plan for either the 2016 or 2017 event. Running a marathon in 2015 wasn’t on my radar at all – between a new job, an upcoming family wedding and a variety of other commitments and plans, I had decided that running the 3M half marathon and the Austin half marathon was going to be plenty for me to deal with this year. And then in early January, the chance to run the 2015 London Marathon appeared on the horizon. When opportunity knocks, you’ve got to open the darn door. Never mind that my “long run” was only at 8 miles and we were only 15 weeks out from the event. Never mind that I wasn’t sure how I would get the time off work to participate. Never mind that plane tickets to London don’t grow on trees. I’d figure all that out if it meant I got to run London. There was no way I was going to decline. I said yes.

A plan formed. Me, Teresa, Jill and Christopher would run London. I outlined a training plan to get us up to 26.2 miles in time. Jill came up with costume ideas. Teresa proposed travel itineraries. It was all very exciting.

We were going to run the marathon!

When the alarm rang at 6.30am on Sunday April 26th I was already awake, curled up in a ball on the bed, peering out from beneath my duvet at the gear I had set out the night before. I brushed my teeth and put on sunscreen and liberally applied body glide to all the bits that are prone to chafing. I put on my super-cute Princess Anna race outfit. I ate a peanut butter sandwich and had a cup of tea. I gathered my kit bag and headed down to the hotel lobby with Teresa to meet Jill and Christopher at 7.15am.

By 7.30am, we were all piled onto red London buses and headed to the Green starting area in Blackheath. The roads we were driving on were lined with silver barriers as teams of people closed the streets in preparation for the marathon. We drove past the 12 mile marker and I did a quick mental calculation of when I might see that point of the course again – I reckoned it would be sometime around 12.30pm, which was quite sobering given that it wasn’t even 8am yet!

We arrived at the Green start around 8am. It was cold and drizzling and the grass was wet. I felt excited and nervous. We went over to the Guinness World Record area where Jill had her picture taken and signed autographs as Cinderella. Then we were able to get access to one of the tents, which was super awesome because it was a lot less wet and cold inside the tent, and the loos had a much shorter line. Yay! So with 2 hours to go until the marathon was due to start, we settled in to our tent to wait. I fiddled with my gear. I redid my hair 3 times. I snacked. I chatted with my friends and tent-mates and took a bunch of pictures. Basically, I did everything I could to not think too much about the run itself. Mark came by the Green start and I ventured out into the cold to see him briefly. I put my kit bag on the gear truck so it would be waiting for me at the finish line.

Finally, it was time. We lined up at 10am for a 10.10am start time. Oh the nerves! Ahhhh! So awesome! So scary!

And then we were running! There were spectators lining the route beginning as soon as we exited the starting chute. Mark was at the very first corner, cheering us on and trying to take pictures in the madness of it all. I fell in beside Teresa and the two of us tucked in behind Jill and Christopher for the first couple of miles, following the wake of Jill’s Cinderella skirt. I tried to control my breathing and take it all in. My feet were completely numb from being wet and cold, but the rest of me felt pretty good. We ran through a residential area that had speed humps every few hundred meters, and each hump had a volunteer standing by it shouting “Hump!”. Eventually my toes defrosted enough to regain feeling. Unfortunately, once I could feel my toes, I realized my wet socks were bunched up and bothering me. I talked to Teresa and agreed that I would pull off to the side and straighten out my socks when there was an opportunity. We pulled over and I straightened out my socks as best I could, then jammed my feet back into my shoes and started running again. Teresa was right by my side, but Jill and Christopher stayed back to take a little walk break.

Teresa and I chatted. I was still feeling nervy. There were so many runners everywhere! Just an endless stream as far as I could see in front and behind! Then the Green start merged with the Blue start and suddenly there were even more runners! A river of runners, completely filling both lanes of the road, bouncing along on fresh legs. I tried to take it all in. There were just so many people. And even at this early stage of the course, there were plenty of spectators cheering us all on.

The next few miles are a blur of chatter and crowd watching. We saw all sorts of costumes – running beer bottles, running apples, running Spongebob Squarepants, a giraffe, a gorilla, all manner of sparkly dresses and tutus on both men and women. It quickly became apparent that as Princess Anna of Arendelle, my best audience was the under-10 girls set – they were the ones who called out and cheered for Princess Anna, tugging on their parents’ sleeves and waving enthusiastically as I passed by. It seems that the cult of Anna/Frozen has not yet reached the more mature masses. Ah, well. Teresa, dressed in an adorable Bambi t-shirt and wearing reindeer antlers on her head fared better with the crowd. She got a lot of “Go, Bambi!”, many “Go, reindeer!” and several “Go, Rudolph!”. Of course, Jill, running in a full-length hooped Cinderella dress complete with tiara and long white gloves was the smash hit! People loved Cinderella! As they should.

The London crowds were simply amazing from start to finish. They really cheer people on. Most runners had their names printed on their shirts, and the crowds then specifically cheer for “Fred” or “Mary”….or “Fat Paul” or “Baldy Bob”… get the idea. In the US there are lots of people with funny and/or encouraging signs, but they only really shout and cheer when “their” runners go by. In London, there were far fewer signs, but the crowds cheer for everyone, all the time. It’s like running through a street party at times – there were people dressed in tuxes cheering and drinking pints on the side of the road, there were families having barbecues and handing out sweeties. There was a non-stop soundtrack of pop music and brass bands and drum ensembles to go along with the cheering. It never let up.

We ran past the Cutty Sark and wound our way through the streets. We took a quick bathroom break and I took off one of my shirts, hoping to pass it to Mark sometime soon. I had no idea where we actually were, but I kept scanning the crowd and looking for a familiar face. Sometime around mile 9, I saw Mark and Derek and Indira cheering for us on the side of the road, but there were too many runners between us and them, so we just waved and kept on going. I took off my Anna cape and tied it to my flip belt, not wanting to wear it anymore, but unwilling to let it go. (Ha!). The mile markers kept ticking past until at a certain point things started to look a bit familiar. I realized Teresa had pulled directly alongside me and was looking straight at me. “What is it?”, I asked, looking around. And then I saw it. Tower Bridge was just ahead! Teresa knew it was coming up, but it caught me by surprise. The crowd on the bridge seemed to cheer even louder as we crossed. There was music playing and my heart just swelled with the enormity of it all. I was running the London Marathon. Right here, right now. And as I tried my best to drink in the moment, looking beyond the crowd and out over the Thames, my eyes filled with tears.

I felt a certain satisfaction as we hit the 12 mile marker just before 12.30pm, as I had predicted we would, and thought how slowly and yet how fast the time had gone between getting on the bus and getting to where we were. Almost half way! There were speedy runners going back in the other direction, going through the 22m mark as we approached 13m. They only had 4 miles to go. I had….a lot more…. But no sense in worrying about it. One foot in front of the other. More crowds, more cheering, more music. My Garmin buzzed and beeped and we steadily chewed through the miles.

Sometime around mile 16 we ran through an area that was just a wall of sound – drums beating, people shouting. Then I saw Mark in the crowd. He was holding up the sign Alexander and Suzanna made for me, and I just lost it. By the time I got to him I was crying like a baby. Naturally, he found this concerning. “Are you alright?”. “Yes. I’m fine! I’m great! It’s just so amazing and overwhelming!”, I sobbed as I lobbed my sweaty t-shirt at him.

We ran through more neighbourhoods, more street parties, more friendly supporters. I joined the crowd in singing along with “Hi ho Silver Lining” which was blasting from a stereo system along the route. I accepted a dollop of Vaseline to quell some potential chafing under my arms, I accepted half a banana from someone and a handful of Jelly Babies from another random stranger . I was starting to tire. Unfortunately, without the pink cape, it was harder for my already limited fan base to identify Princess Anna. Teresa suggested putting the cape back on, so as to draw from its super powers. I did. I felt better.

Around mile 21 we saw Jill’s husband Dick on the side of the road. He gave each a hug, told us we were looking great and asked me how I was feeling. Apparently I told him I was ready to be done. I don’t even remember that, but I was speaking the truth.

Then we hit the point where the 12 mile marker was on the other side of the road. There were still a few people on the course, marching onwards as the marathon crew started their clean-up operations, collecting all the discarded bottles and gu packets and scrubbing the blue course guide lines off the tarmac. Gosh, those people still had a long way to go! I just had 4 miles to go. Just 4 miles. Still 4 miles. Ugh. I was tired.

We saw a golden retriever puppy in the crowd. Puppy!

We ran into a tunnel and Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’ was playing. “This is Suzanna’s favourite request in the car at the moment!” I told Teresa. I sang along. ‘Roar’ ended and “Eye Of The Tiger” started blasting. “This is Alexander’s favourite request in the car at the moment!” I told Teresa. “It’s like they are cheering you on!” said Teresa. And I thought about it and decided it was the Universe’s way of letting my children cheer for me from far away. And I cried. Again.

3 miles to go. Plod, plod, plod. The crowds were on fire with their enthusiastic cheering. We ran along Embankment, towards the picture postcard icons of London’s skyline – the London Eye, the Thames, The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. Big Ben struck 3pm. 2 miles to go. An airplane flew overhead through the postcard setting. We turned right in front of Big Ben, and ran past Westminster Abbey. The church bells were ringing. It was like the entire city of London was putting on a show for us. It was amazing. I took deep breaths.

1 mile to go.

As we turned onto Birdcage walk, I realized that Buckingham Palace and the finish line were both oh-so-close, and I totally lost it. I was about to finish the London Marathon and I was so happy and so emotional and the crowds were cheering so loud that I cried. Again. And the more I cried the more the crowd cheered and the more they cheered the more I cried. It was ridiculous!

Teresa and I rounded the final corner together, and I barreled towards the finish line with the last of my strength. We held hands, raised our arms high, and crossed the line together. We got our medals. We did it.

I’d be lying if I said it was easy. It was not easy. But it was amazing. It was fantastic. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.

I am so thankful to Jill, Dick, Christopher, Teresa and of course Mark for the whole fabulous London Marathon experience. I’m thankful for all my AWDAT buddies who trained with me and made the long runs not just bearable but actually fun. I’m thankful for my parents for introducing me to the idea of the London Marathon in the first place and for taking care of my kids so Mark and I could be in London together for this. I’m thankful for my sisters and all my friends who supported me both in person and from afar with messages of encouragement.

And last but not least, I’m thankful for my children for bringing me cups of tea on the sofa after long training runs when I just didn’t want to get up. You’ll be pleased to hear that I brought back a silver mylar marathon blanket for each of my kids, and that the blankets are currently being used as props in imaginative adventures for superhero space travellers. Maybe one day they will run the London Marathon.

Austin Marathon – Third Time’s A Charm

I ran my third Austin Marathon yesterday, and it was good.

Marathon Outfit

My alarm went off at 5.30am, and I quickly dressed in the gear I had laid out the day before. I made tea and ate my oatmeal and faffed around with my water bottles and extra clothing and electronic gadgetry and waited for Elizabeth and Nora to show up. They arrived shortly after 6am and by 6.10am we were on the road, headed for the start line. We found a place to park not too far from the start and wandered around looking for a final potty stop before deciding to head into the Doubletree Hotel and avail ourselves of their facilities. Nothing so luxurious as an actual bathroom with toilet paper and access to soap and water on race day!

As we headed out from the hotel back, we heard the announcer count down to the race start, and the crowd off in the distance began to move forward. We hovered on the edge of the sea of runners, looking for a suitable pace group to jump in behind. Meanwhile, as we scanned the crowds, I went to start my Garmin, so it would begin the sometimes-lengthy process of identifying our location via GPS….and found that my Gamin had stopped dead at 6:30.24am and was not in the mood to be revived. Eek! I was depending on my Garmin to keep me on pace! And it wasn’t working at all – not even the stopwatch function. I had nothing! Fortunately, Elizabeth had a watch and Nora had her iPhone with MapMyRun on it, so we quickly decided to use those instead. I fished out a pace band I had picked up on a whim at the expo and had stashed in my racebelt as a ‘just in case’. Elizabeth put the pace band on, and was appointed as official timekeeper. We still hadn’t seen any suitable pace groups go by, but I was a flurry of nerves in the wake of the non-working-watch, and was anxious to start running before anything else went wrong, so after umming and ahhing for a few more moments, Nora and Elizabeth dived in and started moving towards the starting line, and I followed them into the fray, still holding a banana that I had been planning to eat but hadn’t gotten around to consuming yet.

We crossed the starting line at a jog and picked up pace to align with the surrounding crowds. I pressed my banana into the clapping hands of a random spectator who was standing along the fence a few meters away from the starting line, saying something eloquent like “Here. Please take this. I don’t know what to do with it.”. Once free from my banana, I glanced back to look at the official start time so I’d have some sort of reference point, pressed my green Galloway beeper to switch it on, and we were off.

The couple of miles passed quickly, as they often do in these situations. We didn’t take the first few walk breaks because there were too many people crowded around us for us to slow to a walk without getting in the way. The crowds thinned out a little as we streamed down onto South Congress and we were able to follow our race plan of running 4 mins, walking 1 min.

As we ran across the bridge and onto South Congress, I watched the stream of runners filling the street ahead of me, as far as I could see. I looked out at the water and up at the clear, empty sky. And I thought, “What a nice day for a run. How much further do I have to go?”. Ummm, about 24 miles.

We made our way steadily up the incline from the bridge all the way to Ben White, trying to make sure we didn’t go too fast and yet also stayed on or slightly ahead of our goal pace. There were a few bands along the way, and some early morning spectators standing by the side of the road, bundled in hats and coats, cradling cups of coffee. I spotted a few good signs in the early miles. A standout for me was the Grumpy Cat meme sign that read “I went for a run once. It was horrible.”. I also got a big kick out of the Why You No meme sign too, even though I can’t actually remember what it said. And of course I loved the “Ain’t Nobody Got Time Fo That!” signs, for example “Stopping? Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That!”. There were a few “Hey Girl!” Ryan Gosling signs, but I think we can all agree that those are so 2012. *Sigh* I think what we just learned from this paragraph is that I am an interweb nerd. Moving on…

We made it to the top of South Congress in good time, and settled in to enjoy the downhill run back down South 1st street. The weather really was lovely, and for the most part, I was feeling good. My left ankle was giving me the occasional twinge, and I was still silently fretting about my stupid Garmin dying on me, but overall, it was smooth sailing.

I had a little something to eat at around mile 8 and refilled my water bottles at the aid station on the 1st Street bridge. As we headed into mile 9, I started thinking about the upcoming hills. The marathon course has 3 distinct sections in my mind. (1) Pre-hills, miles 0-10 (2) Hills, miles 10-18 (3) Make it to the finish, miles 18-26.2. Fortunately, the biggest, loudest, most fun aid station is right at mile 9, and by the time I’d run through all that cheering and high-fiving and come out the other side to Salt’n’Pepa’s “Push It!” booming from the loudspeakers, I wasn’t thinking about the hills at all.

In an effort to keep the happy thoughts going, I turned to chat with Nora and Elizabeth, only to find them deep in what seemed to be a heated discussion about politics and immigration. Um. No. So I started talking with the only random person near me who wasn’t wearing ear buds. My new found friend was a cello playing marathon runner. He told me about running the Chicago marathon and how it compared to the Austin course.

As we turned up Winstead at mile 10, I thought back to last year’s marathon and remembered how tired I already felt at that point in the course. And even though my legs still felt relatively fresh, I felt a little pang of longing as the half marathoners turned off and headed for home, knowing that they were almost done whereas I still had 15+ miles to go. As we veered left onto Enfield, some guy beside me on the course turned to me and said “Time to weed out the weak! Only the strong go on!”, which made me laugh.

Marathon Split

Our time check at mile 11 showed we had worked up a 2 minute cushion going into the most challenging section of hills. I realised that I just had to make it to the top of Exposition and then the terrain would flatten out somewhat. Just 2 miles. I could handle 2 miles of hills. “You are my hills and I will eat you!”, I said to myself. Except, I actually said it out loud. I don’t think anyone heard me though.

Then Nora and I had a little conversation in Spanish with an old guy from Mexico who was apparently running his 88th marathon. Nora did all the talking and translating. There were spectators giving out gummy bears and pretzels and other goodies by the side of the road along this stretch. I took a couple of handfuls gummy bears and they were delicious. Yes. I took candy from strangers. I think this is also the stretch where I saw another great race sign, which read “Run, Random Stranger, Run!”.

Victor and Penelope were stationed by the side of the road just before we turned off onto 35th street. I handed them my lifeless Garmin in the hope that not wearing it would stop me from glancing down at it periodically and feeling irritated all over again that it wasn’t working. Then just a little bit further up the road, waiting at the top of the hill, was Mark, Alexander, Suzanna and Rosie! Yay for family! They cheered me on with high fives and hugs and wags.

We ran on and hit the half way point in a respectable 2.25.44, still on track to manage a sub-5 hour marathon, and I was feeling strong.

I don’t remember many specifics about miles 14 – 15. We ran, we walked, I ate candy and snacks and drank water and Gatorade. Mile 16 was s l o w. I was falling off the pace slightly. I was getting tired. Yeuch.

Marathon Mile 17

And then, like an angel, Katie appeared! She ran alongside me, chattering away about how she’d come back from Houston late the night before to be there to see me run and how the rest of the gang was waiting for me on Great Northern. Yay! Partway up Great Northern, Matt jumped in with me and Katie and ran alongside us holding a mug of coffee and with big Sam (German Shepherd) at his side, straining at the leash. Seeing the Karli clan, Mark and the kids, and other friendly faces cheering for me on Great Northern was a real treat. A little further up the road, Mum and Billie were waiting to snap photos and offer words of encouragement. Katie took me all the way to mile 18 and filled up my water bottles like a good little sherpa before sending me on my way.

Marathon Mile 17.5

I rejoined Elizabeth, and as we hit the 19 mile marker, she let me know that we were about 30 seconds behind pace according to the 4.55 pace band. We still had some cushion to come in sub-5 hours, but I needed to stay on pace. Gah. Time to dig in. Meanwhile, Nora had dropped back for a portapotty stop.

I pushed on into mile 20. Run, walk, eat, drink, run, walk, run, walk. It was sunny and windy. My ankle hurt. We went past the AWDAT crew cheering in the front yard of a house along Woodrow at around mile 21. Cherie and Barb offered to go find Nora and make sure she was OK, and I felt better for knowing that someone was watching out for her as I chased down my time goal.

Elizabeth was running just ahead of me, keeping an eye on the time and my pace and our mile splits. She also kept me distracted by reciting some haiku. They were funny.

By mile 23 I didn’t give a crap about my time anymore. I just wanted to be done, so I could stop running and sit down. Fortunately, the stretch from mile 23 to mile 25 had several redeeming features. Firstly, it’s downhill. Downhill, good. Secondly, it had Amy (and Matt, but I didn’t really see Matt). Amy jumped in and jogged along side me, chattering away and taking pictures and saying nice, encouraging things. I figured I’d better keep running.

Marathon mile 23

At the mile 25 marker, Elizabeth announced that as long as I ran sub-13 min miles for the last 2.2 miles, I would finish in under 5 hours. I realised that even if I didn’t do that, no matter what, I was definitely on track for a PR. I cheered! Hooray! PR! Just 1.2 miles to go!

Oof, still 1.2 miles to go.

Run, walk, run, walk. No, keep running!

Oh look, there’s Cindy! On a bike! Hello Cindy! Talk to me Cindy! Distract me from this final mile! Cindy obliged with a quick summary of how the women’s elite marathon played out.

Big hill right before the finishing chute. Walk.

I felt sick. Ugh. Elizabeth was up ahead, cheering me on. I kept going.

And then there I was, in the finishing chute, barreling towards the finish line, grinning like a maniac.

I crossed the line in 4:58.31.

Marathon Time Splits