Marathon thoughts…

Today, not only would I like write about my experience of competing in the Greater Manchester Marathon earlier this month, I’d like to share with you some more personal truths that this event has brought to my attention…

But firstly, I must say that the residents of Manchester deserve a huge shoutout for lining the streets outside their homes and cheering us on. Many were kind enough to offer sweets and water too, as well as the occasional motivation-boosting high-five from a young kid. The volunteers who manned the water stations deserve another massive thank you. I know that I’d prefer to be running for 4 hours rather than spending all day picking up water bottles that we had discarded, throwing them to the roadside as we ran past. In spite of 12,000 runners taking to the streets I suspect that the pavements were spotless the next morning. A true testament to their efforts and the goodwill of so many.

These small acts of kindness, although they might sound insignificant, are what makes this day so special. The homemade signs and banners supporting loved ones gave me drive to keep moving forwards. They are memories that I shall look back on with great fondness, and I shall always be grateful to them.

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Never before have I seen 12,000 people share one common goal. As I lined up in my starting zone, I noticed the joyous atmosphere. It was like nothing I have ever experienced before. Friends greeted each other with firm handshakes and big hugs. Smiles adorned the faces of almost everyone. Nerves where apparent, grimaces hinted at the torture that lay before us. Admittedly, there was apprehension for what lay in store for us. But, if nothing else, we always had each other. We weren’t running as individuals competing with one another; instead, we were running as a 12,000 strong army whose only competition was with the distance that lay before us. United. Our sole intention was survival. To simply get to the finish line – by whatever means. Bruised, battered, sore, but yet still somehow with the ability to keep putting one foot in front of the other. If they could continue to run then so could I. As I lined up in my starting zone, my pre-race anxieties just floated away.

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The first few miles were easy; my pace didn’t vary from 8:30 a mile. I was incredibly pleased with my start. After an hour or so I had clocked off 7 miles. I was feeling good. Mile 10 passed. I reached halfway, 13.1 miles in 1h 50mins, my pace was spot on – exactly where I was in training and where I wanted to be on race day. I managed to maintain my speed for the next hour. At mile 20 things started to get a little tricky. I still had over 6 miles to go, which equated to another hour of running. I was struggling to pick my legs up. I had no niggles, no injuries, it was just the fatigue of 3 hours of running. I didn’t hit the wall as such, but from the 20 mile mark my pace did slow drastically. In fact, I remember very little about the last 6 miles. Although there is one thing that stands out.

Approaching mile 23, by which time I had been running for 3 and a half hours, I noticed another runner up ahead of me. In a field of 12,000 athletes that was hardly surprising, I had seen plenty of other runners, but this one stood out. He was a young man, only a couple of years older than me, but that’s not what was remarkable about him. His right leg was a prosthetic blade. Here I was all consumed by the pain that I was experiencing, I hadn’t even considered the hell other runners could also be in. Other runners less fortunate than myself. The grit that he had shown to still be running after 23 miles in a time that many full-bodied runners would be more than pleased with amazed me. I actually found it a little difficult to process what my eyes had just witnessed, but that man; along with the 12,000 other runners helped me reach the finish.

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I reach the signpost for mile 25. There’s a little over one mile to go. 10 minutes at the most and then it would all be over. I turn the corner. Old Trafford stands before me way off in the distance. The stadium, with its scaffold-like appearance, gets closer and closer with each passing stride. Home to Manchester United, the football team which I support. Motivation enough to encourage me as my legs tire. The course takes a sharp right, and finally after 25.5 miles the finish line is in sight.

Music blaring. Crowds cheering. I gained a second-wind (although come to think of it, by this stage in the race it would more likely be a third or fourth). My jog turned to a run. My strides increased in length. My pace quickened. Arms pumping I made my way through the field. I must have overtaken at least fifty other runners. I did not know how I had the energy to accomplish such a task; I had been dead on my feet just moments before. I tried not to think about; worried that this reserve of energy would soon drain and I’d stutter and come to a halt metres before the line. I crossed the line. My last mile was a whole minute faster than any of the previous 25.

Never has the phrase “it’s the journey not the destination” rung more true. I expected feelings of joy and pride, mangled with the obvious pain that I would be in, but neither made an appearance. In fact, there was nothing. I thought I’d feel good, I thought I’d feel some semblance of pride and satisfaction. I didn’t. It changed nothing. I did not cross the line with arms aloft, nor did I break down in tears. In a way, the finish line was meaningless. There was no one to congratulate me, to share in my triumph. I was surrounded by people, yet I was alone. I’d run quicker than expected and so my dad and brother were not yet at the finishing line, nor in fact, did they see me at any point over the 26.2 miles. There was no joy. There was no relief. The whole experience was devoid of emotion. I don’t know why. It simply was the end – a chance to sit down – nothing more.

Perhaps I had been searching for something as I spent that morning running round Manchester, whatever I was looking for I certainly didn’t find it when I crossed the line. It has taken me this long to process all that has gone before.

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Many of you must be questioning why I ran a marathon. After all, it’s not something a lot of 21 year-olds sign up to do or even have aspirations of doing at any point in their lives. In fact, I do not know of anyone my own age who has ever contemplated running such a great distance. Understandably so, I must add, for it is one hell of a long way.

Honestly?

Well, I suppose we need to delve a little deeper to discover what really drives me. (This could well be the most honest post that I have ever written.)

The reason I signed up to run a marathon was not for the pride or satisfaction of having accomplished 26.2 miles on foot and having raised hundreds of pounds for charity in the process. My motivation was a lot more selfish than that…

Sport has always been more than an interest or a hobby of mine. I can’t quite describe why this passion exists, how it was initially ignited, nor how the very same passion has sustained the test of time when so many other interests have fallen to the wayside. I used to represent schools and clubs at football, rugby, athletics, cricket and pretty much anything else you could think of. I remember at the age of 8 being asked what I wanted to do when I was older, and like many young boys I harboured ambitions of reaching the dizzying heights of professional sport. There has been nothing else that I have ever seriously considered doing.

Those teams, those sports were what my life revolved around every single weekend for over a decade of my life. Then one day, two, three years ago now, it all stopped. I gave up. Quit. Threw in the towel. I had had enough. I don’t really know why. Maybe it was the pressures of needing to do well at school, maybe it was my huge lack of confidence and wealth of self-doubt that continue to plague me, maybe it was the stresses of growing up and feeling lost in an adult world? Perhaps it was a combination of the three? Whatever the answer may be, it wasn’t a happy period of my life.

Ever since I cut-short my love-affair with playing sport I have felt that there has been a part of me missing, something that I’ve been trying to replace ever since. In my final two years at school I became obsessed with indoor rowing at the gym. I used to row 10km every single day. I did this for weeks and weeks and weeks. When I stopped, there was this void. This emptiness. I needed something to fill it.

I held ambitions to go into rugby coaching, but it clashed with my shifts at work. I got a football coaching qualification, but didn’t go very far with that either. I have spent the last two years working in the PE department at my old secondary school as a teaching assistant. The opportunity to take rugby teams at the weekends came my way and I grabbed the chance with both hands – anything to be involved with sport again.

Challenging myself in sporting terms has always been a source of huge motivation. In many respects it is what gets me out of bed in the morning. It is my purpose. My identity in life. Now with that gone I feel lost.

On top of that, I wanted – no, I needed – to manufacture a situation where it was acceptable for me to talk about mental health, and more specifically my mental health. It was not something that I had addressed in the public domain. I had bottled everything up for so long from so many and I knew no other way of telling them. I did not know how to begin the conversation. And so I took measures to solve that problem.

This will sound strange, but those of you who know me I’m sure will understand, the physical aspect of a marathon has always appealed to me. I love to stretch the limits. To see how far I can take things before there are negative consequences. To test my body and my mind to the extreme. Now I think about it, this mind-set has probably contributed a lot to my battles with stress, anxiety and depression. I must admit I did question how mentally tough a marathon could be. It couldn’t be any worse than living with a mental illness, right? I figured my day-to-day struggles with anxiety and depression would be more than sufficient mental training for the long miles ahead come race day. (To be fair, I think they were!)

So I suppose my marathon attempt was an effort to introduce a little bit of sport back into my life. The routine, the structure of training, working towards an ultimate goal, provided me with the desire to live each day to the maximum. I finally had something to work towards again.

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And yes, I am pleased to report that by sharing posts on the topic of mental health to my Facebook page, I summoned the strength and courage to open up to some important people in my life. It wasn’t easy, but I’m so glad that this conversation took place; it went so, so, so well. I continue to feel incredibly comfortable talking with them as openly and honestly as I do. I’m not sure if I’d ever have been able to say the words had I not signed up for this challenge way back in November!

I owe so much to those 26.2 miles and the friends that have helped me along the way.

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