I’ve already talked about the first part of my weekend (the launch of the Bath LitFest and the UKYA Extravaganza) in this post. But the second part needed a post to itself, because this is the big one. This is The One Where Lou Runs A Half Marathon.
I’m not sure I’ve ever been as nervous as I was in the starting pen. I got chatting to a couple of people around me, some of whom had done this before and some of whom hadn’t – and then, suddenly, forty minutes had gone by and they were counting down to the start.
And that was it. There was no going back.
Photo: Caroline Ambrose
I’m in that photo somewhere, having come from all the way at the back, round the corner to the right. And we’ve not even got past the start gantry yet…
The sound is the thing I’ll probably remember the longest. The first mile is a downhill straight, and as far as you can see, there’s nothing but people running. But the sound. Thousands and thousands of feet, all hitting the ground slightly out of step. Imagine standing under a tin roof in the middle of a rubber hailstorm and you’ll probably not quite get it, but close enough. It was utterly, utterly overwhelming.
Mile 1. Off we go.
Mile 2. Right. Bed in. Pace. Feet. Don’t fall over. Four soldiers are running in their uniform, carrying a stretcher with a dummy on it for Help For Heroes. They get a huge cheer.
Mile 3. Ooh. This is actually happening. Huh.
Midway between Miles 3 & 4, we get lapped by the front runner. Everyone cheers as he goes by. He’s already gone.
Mile 4. I wish I was dead. Maybe I am dead. Maybe this is hell. Maybe this is what hell is. This, forever.
Mile 5. The Lucozade station isn’t far. I didn’t train with Lucozade. It’ll make me feel sick, especially after using one of my energy gels and shoving a handful of Jelly Babies from a cheering station down my throat. I’m not taking a Lucozade.
Mile 6. I have drunk an entire bottle of Lucozade. I feel sick. And have so much sugar zipping round my system that I’m probably not far off seeing double. I’m also beginning to seriously doubt I can do this.
Just at the point I’m about to cry, I spot the 10k checkpoint. It’s a big archway straddling the first lap lane with a clock. Astonishingly, I seem to have reached it at the time I’d expected I would (give or take). I’m not the slowest person on the road. I’m faster than I assumed I was – I’d had visions of being the very, very last person out there. And I remember that just after 6 miles is the point I had always, always found the mythical “wall” when I was training. Maybe I can do this after all.
I get overtaken by a guy in a massive rhino costume.
Mile 7. I actually manage to have a conversation, running uphill into Queen Square, with a woman wearing cat ears. I still wish I was dead, but I’m over halfway. This is practically the home straight.
Mile 8. I am not going to cry. I am not going to cry. I am not going to cry.
Mile 9. All the kids on the route hold out their hands for runners to high-five. It helps. A lot. I run up to one of the guys at a cheering station who has a bowl of jelly babies. “JELLY BABY ME!” He laughs and pats my shoulder as I grab a handful on the way past. One of them is liquorice flavour. I feel this a cruel and unusual punishment. No wonder he was laughing. DAMN HIM. I also give up on trying to run without music. It’s rubbish. And boring. I switch on my iPod (only using one earphone, because on a lapped road race, it’s essential to be able to hear marshals). The first song that comes on is Frank Turner’s The Road.
This is not only a song I love, it’s hugely appropriate. It’s a sign. I’m NOT GOING TO DIE. I might even – shockingly – manage this. I spend so much of the next few minutes mouthing along to it that I don’t even realise that’s another mile down.
Mile 10. I can definitely do this. Really. Where’s that bloody Lucozade station? Sugar me up. I don’t care if I have to jitter my way back, I’m finishing.
Mile 11. Everyone slows to a walk. Including me. Nobody wants to walk across the finish line, and there’s still 2 miles-and-change to go. People on the pavement cheer – and nobody cheers harder than they do for the pair in hi-vis vests who go past, each holding on to one end of a short rope. The vest of the runner on the left reads: “Guide Runner”. The vest of the runner on the right reads: “Blind runner”. Everybody applauds.
Mile 12. We’re all starting to run again. There are people everywhere, cheering. I’m starting to overtake runners around me who are flagging or who are saving their energy for a big finish. I fall into step just behind a woman running for Water Aid, dressed as a tap. “GO ON, TAP! RUN FASTER! GET IT? RUN FASTER?” I wonder how many times she’s heard that already.
Runners who have already finished are starting to appear in the crowds, wrapped in foil blankets. They wave and shout. People are already yelling “Well done!” at the runners.
The last half mile is hard. Not because I’m tired – I am, but I know I’ll finish. It’s hard because I’m tired and tearful and people keep shouting “You’re nearly there!” at the runners. They are amazing. The back of my leg starts feeling tight, so I slow to a walk for a minute. Two guys standing on the pavement yell at me to keep going, that I’m so close to the end. I am. I’m nearly there.
A cycle marshal directs the runners around an ambulance. It’s the only casualty I’ve seen, but there have been others.
The tap has vanished into the distance.
I tell my feet that they’re going to run and there’s nothing they can do about it.
Mile 13. There it is. I can crawl it from here. I run round the corner into Great Pulteney Street, and I am absolutely convinced they’ve moved the gantry. I’m sure it was much, much nearer the top of the street when I went under it at the start. What’s it doing all the way down there? I can’t decide whether I’m going to be sick or cry. Or both. Simultaneously.
And then… there it is. I’m over the mats and under the gantry and now I’m definitely going to cry.
But I don’t. Somehow. Instead, I join the slightly dazed shuffle through the runners’ village to collect medals, blankets, finishers’ shirts and get the timing chips removed from shoes. And find my family.
My cheeks feel gritty. It’s salt from my sweat, all dried on my skin. I feel weirdly proud. (I think I may be on the verge of hysteria.)
I have never needed a shower so badly.
But I just ran a half marathon… and I wasn’t last. I was – in fact – 10,517th, with a chip time of 2h37 and a gun time of 2h43. And I’m OK with that. Because I made it.