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Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

This weekend, I completed the Luton Marathon. It took me nearly five hours, because I may not have trained as well as I could have, or carb-loaded as well as I could have; but I finished it, and thereby crossed off one of my goals for the year.

I can definitely call it an interesting experience. Up until now I've generally participated in larger-scale (if distinctly shorter) runs - I believe there were about 2800 places or so, in comparison with the tens of thousands who run the Reading Half-Marathon or the London Marathon. On the positive side, this meant there weren't the gigantic throngs that characterize those other events; on the negative side, it also meant that the organizers weren't able to get the roads closed throughout the course, so as the day wore on I found myself increasingly in the company of motor vehicles.

And it was a day-long affair - as I said, I took nearly five hours, which means I started running at about 10am and finally dragged myself across the finish line at almost 3pm. It's difficult to express the time it took, although for the sake of comparison I'll note that when I took the train to Edinburgh earlier this year that trip took less time than my run. As the shadows lengthened, I found myself worrying that I might still be running after dark.

That wouldn't have happened, as it turned out, because there was a strict time limit of five hours, but I'll admit I wasn't at my most rational after around 4 hours of constant motion.

My fellow runners presented an interesting case study too. On shorter runs I've felt a nice vibe, of a bunch of people all working toward the same goal, with a refreshing lack of aggro (refreshing in the context of how much aggro you get on a daily basis in London, that is). But I sense that marathon runners are a breed apart; whereas my various half-marathons have featured the odd nod or encouraging shoulder-tap, I actually got chatting with people during the run.

One guy was doing it for the first time (like me), though he lived right on the course and had participated in the relay in previous years. Another gentleman, who'd hurt his knee somewhere in Lap 3, told me he'd participated the previous year; for the rest of the day we passed each other here and there, always with a word of encouragement, and we greeted each other like veterans after we finished.

My favorite, though, has to be the Slovakian guy I was running alongside for the last mile or so, whose stop-start tactic was even more dramatic than mine. Whereas I was reduced, by that time, to walking for one minute and running for five, he'd take off at top speed for about thirty seconds at a stretch, stop and stretch his hamstrings (giving me enough time to catch up), then dash off again. When I asked him what he was doing he explained that he couldn't run slowly. In any case, he eventually outpaced me and disappeared around a corner, not to be seen again until we were retrieving our backpacks after the race.

Most impressive were the folks bearing T-shirts with the insignia of the 100 Marathon Club, none of whom were younger than about 60. Somewhere in the first half of the race I overheard someone asking one of these 100-marathon guys how many he'd participated in, and the old fellow answered something on the order of 470 marathons.

On the train home another runner (who'd clocked up her 60th) said that she'd been chatting to them as well, and one of these folks had participated in 37 marathons this year alone. My interlocutor shrugged and pointed out that if you're running a marathon every week, you don't need to do anymore training. Fair point.

Incidentally, I also got passed by one of these grey panthers as I was struggling through the third lap. A little old lady trundled past me and blared something cheerful and encouraging at me, thereby fulfilling what appears to be a rule of marathon running - that you must get overtaken at least once by an old person.

So two days later, I'm still sore from my calves to my shoulders, I have a twinge in my right knee that leaves me alternately gasping and cursing, and I'm secretly afraid that the nails on both big toes are getting ready to fall off. But I certainly feel proud of myself, for having signed up, trained and kept going until the end - I was tempted at so many points to give up and ask to go home, but the only thing that stopped me was the knowledge that I'd have to do it again.

Of course, if I do sign up for another, it'll now be with the knowledge that I can complete a full marathon without dropping dead three hours in. But, unlike those old folks from the 100 Marathon Club, I won't be doing it next weekend.