It’s hard to describe the pain that I felt on Sunday from just mile three of the Manchester Marathon. I know I suffered more than I had ever suffered before. But now, several days later, I’m finding the words to describe it eluding me. If there is a memory of pain, perhaps it is an ill formed shadow that language just cannot pin down. I hurt.
After leaving the car at Salford Quays I walked over to Old Trafford Cricket Ground. Despite a perfect Sunday morning of cool temperatures and bright sunshine it was hard to block out the negative thoughts that crept into my mind.
Perhaps it had all started the week before. I’d found it difficult to sleep with the same soundness and depth that I would ordinarily. It’s the easing off of the training that did it. I’m happiest, and I sleep the soundest, when I am exhausted before getting into bed. A reduction of training, and the fact that I was on holiday, meant that I didn’t feel particuarly tired when I went to bed; I found myself reading in the small hours having been awoken by nothing other than my own thoughts. But disrupted sleep was to be the least of my problems; by Friday my stomach was starting to complain too.
My stomach is always the first thing to suffer if things become out of kilter. On Friday I felt very bloated and on Saturday I didn’t feel hungry at all. The food that I did eat tasted slightly metallic. By Sunday morning this meant that I struggled to eat a solitary bagel and I could feel it sitting in my stomach. As I walked away from the car I could hear the fluid that I drank sloshing around: an unwelcome sound and an uncomfortable feeling.
By mile three of twenty six I knew I was in deep trouble.
My target time was 3:30. This would respresent an improvement of 10 minutes over last year’s time when I ran the marathon as an Ironman training run. My plan was to run 2 equal halves as I truly believe that success in the marathon is about pace judgement, best demonstrated through an even (or negative) split. Amongst other things, my recent 1:40 Darwen Half on a very hilly course gave me confidence in being able to run 1:45 for the first half on the flat in Manchester.
But it wasn’t to be.
I felt very uncomfortable from the outset. I’m not a marathon talker. If anyone makes small talk in the early stages of a marathon I’ll reply, but I’ll never instigate a conversation. I prefer getting into the metronomic rythm that I like to adopt and I need to concentrate to be able to do this. On Sunday the conversations that several people started with me jarred and annoyed. I was concentrating on trying to settle my stomach and simply, calmly, make progress without throwing up. It just wasn’t to be. I could feel the little food that I’d managed to eat and the liquid I’d had sloshing around. The annoyng thing was that my legs felt great, my breathing fine, and other than the increasing discomfort in my stomach it would appear that I’d arrived on the line in shape and ready to run.
The early miles passed without too much trouble. Although I felt very unwell I could manage it. I can, however, barely remember anything about the first half. Last year I really enjoyed the sections of the race that ran through Altringham and Sale; I enjoyed hearing the crowd and seeing the efforts that people had gone to to become a part of the event. I’d enjoyed being part of the celebration that is a marathon. This year all I could do is concentrate on not throwing up.
My first bout of sickness came just after the half way point which I passed in 1:45 – exactly on target. The relief that it bought lasted for a couple of minutes, by which time my head was pounding with the onset of dehydration. The fluids that I sipped from that point on simply sat in my stomach too. It was as if I couldn’t absorb anything and whatever was in my system wanted out. Thank goodness for the understanding public, pub bar staff and for a particularly dense bush on a roadside path.
From half way I was in real trouble. Every step jarred my head and irritated my guts even further. To feel like this when your legs feel OK is frustrating. I had to really dig deep to keep moving towards. I ran this marathon last year and finished strongly with an even split having had just 2 small bottles of water on the whole course. I felt stronger on the Ironman marathon than I did on Sunday. To say that my stomach cramp had me doubled over in parts of the course is the truth. I contemplated lying down in the foetal position just to try and alleviate the distress that it was causing me. I’ve had cramp in my calves and feet after long open water swims, but stomach cramp was an entirely new experience. The pain was so intense that I couldn’t focus my vision properly. At drinks stations I fumbled for much needed water and my general form was so poor that I finished the race with four separate areas of my body that were bleeding through my kit. Again, an entirely new experience for me.
It was then, with some stubbornness, that I managed to get myself to the finish line in 3:59:52. I expected to feel relief. Instead I just felt broken and empty. For the rest of the day I felt hollowed out, I knew I’d stopped running and yet my stomach felt no easier. As I write these words some six days later I’m still struggling to get comfortable in my chair.
It’s my belief that there’s a certain magic in misery. So much of life is designed to provide levels of comfort which insulate us from finding out what we are capable of. I went to the marathon believing that I could run a marathon in 3:30. Instead those 26.2 miles taught me a lesson about the value of suffering, moving forward, and having faith that things will work out in the end. And for that I’m truly grateful.