Laura runs the marathon

Despite what you may think, I haven’t always been a runner.  I only really started what I’d call an ‘active’ lifestyle at the age of about 27.  My partner at the time had gotten me a pair of hiking boots, which I mentioned in passing to a work colleague (Hi, Mr Maule!).  Later that week, I found myself signed up to a 50-odd mile hill walking challenge in Scotland.

And that’s where it all began.  

I was vastly underprepared for that first event, I didn’t break in the boots, I didn’t do any training and I didn’t know the first thing about hydration and fuelling.  At the summit point of the event, when everyone else had their cameras out taking pictures of the beautiful mountain views, I sat down on the ground and cried.  My friend Kelly, who was an absolute powerhouse, took my rucksack and wore it on top of her own, cheering me along the rest of the route with a jolly round of you-can-do-it’s and I-believe-in-you’s as she strode just ahead of my still wobbling chin and salty tear-stained cheeks.

Kelly was an absolute powerhouse

I wobbled again the next year when I was still underprepared for our next challenge, a 73 mile mountain bike and hike across Scotland, finishing in Inverness in the early hours of the morning.  After sobbing into a flapjack sometime after midnight, and another chorus of you-can-do it’s from Kelly, we hobbled over the finishing line together.  She had a blister the size of the whole sole of one foot and I had two black toenails that came off in my socks a few weeks later.

Classic Kelly – never without those huge sunglasses

Each of those events was a whole book of lessons learned.  Eventually the boots were worn in, and I had learned how to eat and drink on the go to keep my energy levels up and avoid the tearful crashes of the previous events.  By the third year I was finally able to keep up with Super Kelly, we marched into the night that year with headlamps and walking poles, clickety-click and made our fastest time all the way to Inverness in good spirits.

What’s that got to do with marathon running?  I’m about to tell you.

The biggest lesson I’ve kept with me from those early events isn’t about training techniques or the best branded shoes to wear, it’s that mental resilience is more than half the battle. In physical fitness terms, if you can run half a marathon, you can complete the full one.  Granted, you may have resorted to walking in the latter stages, but you’ll cross the line eventually.  The challenge with endurance events is mainly a mental one.  Believing you can, and making the determination to keep putting one foot in front of the other, not giving up just because it hurts.

Why running though?

At some point in 2010 or thereabout, I went to my first BMF class and discovered that I really liked exercising outside.  I didn’t really enjoy the amount of running from here to there all over the park, but I liked the smell of trees and feeling the sun, wind and even the rain on my face.

The t-shirt reads “These guns are loaded”

My first 10km race was at the Edinburgh Marathon Festival, where I’m headed again this weekend, 10 years later to run the actual marathon.  I remember feeling nervous on the start line that I might not be able to finish the distance.  I was wearing a cotton t-shirt – that’s how much I knew about running.  I did finish that race, in 1h 04m if I remember correctly and it couldn’t have been all bad, because it marked the start of my life as a runner.

I ran my first half marathon in Hackney in 2016, along with my friend Gemma on the hottest day of the year, already 26C at 9:30am.  There were quite a lot of heatstroke casualties on the course, but we jogged along lightly, enjoying the music and collecting high-fives from kids along the route.  We finished in 2h 19m and slightly sunburned.  

I’ve run seven half marathons since then, with a best time of 1h 54m. I know that’s quite fast, but I also think I can do better.  There’s a kind of addiction to running, someone once said you’ll never regret a run and I think that’s true.  At the very least, even if the run wasn’t enjoyable for its own sake, you can feel glad for having done it.

There are two types of runner; those who admit to feeling smug and superior – and liars.

The marathon is the ultimate race for most recreational runners.  It’s a huge challenge.  The time needed to train to run that distance takes up hours and hours of otherwise free time.  Planning a new route each week so as not to get bored running in circles around the neighbourhood, applying tape and smearing Vaseline over delicate areas, soaking in the bath afterwards and discovering the new chafing points to be taped and Vaselined next time.

Watching the London Marathon (THE marathon) on TV over the years, I’ve often wondered what it would feel like crossing Tower Bridge at the almost-half-way point with all those other runners and their dreams.  It overwhelms me and makes me cry every year.  Sometimes I go out to cheer the runners till my throat is dry from shouting their names and my hands hurt from clapping.  I once got emotional over a man running with a plate of beans on toast.  “Go Mr Beans!”

I once got emotional over a man running with a plate of beans on toast.  “Go Mr Beans!”

I’ve spent a lot of hours over the last few months running around the streets of London, along rivers and canals, though parks and over bridges.  And I still don’t really know what to expect when I get to the start line tomorrow.  

I do know that my fellow runners will be with me, taped up and smeared with various balms, checking their GPS watches for the tenth time and hoping for cool weather and no blisters.  Beyond that I can’t guess what their dreams are, what brought them here, who they keep in their hearts when they’re running or what their power song is, the one they’ll crank up either in their ears or in their minds when the going gets tough.

I only know that over 10 years of pushing myself to new limits, going beyond what other people think is reasonable just to see if I can – all because I told someone at work I got new boots – is what brought me here.

So thanks to Gary for the new boots, to Mike for putting me on the team and most of all to Kelly for dragging me along when I thought I couldn’t.

When I’m struggling past 20 miles tomorrow, I’ll remember what Kelly told me all those years ago. “You can do it. I believe in you.”

In loving memory of Kelly (Bowman) Nicholson 1977-2022

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