Running a marathon was never something in my bucket list. In fact, I remember clearly the first time I even thought of it. I had just graduated from the 'Couch 2 5K' programme, and I looked in the mirror and thought “if I carried on like this, I could probably run a marathon one day!” It was a sort of joke as, frankly, I was the most unsporty person I had ever met.
Couch 2 5K was still a novelty and I was quite astounded that I had managed to complete it. I sort of started because I was curious – and a little bit hopeful, the way you are at the start of a diet. I hadn’t really expected to finish. This was why I got up at the crack of dawn to run, and why I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing. I half expected to prove to myself that I could not run as, deep down, I knew this to be true, as surely as night follows day. Except, eventually, I proved to myself that I could. I could run for 50 minutes without stopping. Yes I was slow, and wobbly and breathed like a wheezy old steam train, but I could finish it. I was losing weight and I was genuinely enjoying myself. Who would have thought that? Certainly not me. And so, with wry amusement, I carried on, wondering where this could lead.
There was a lot of running between then and the time that I signed up to do the 2014 Yorkshire Marathon, a year later. I still was slow, but faster than I was, and I had lost a lot more weight. I was still running 3 times a week, on average, and had worked my way up to long runs of around 10 miles. I was mostly sure, still, that I could not run a marathon. But I could not evict that sparkly little voice that said “but, my dear, what if you could?” Besides which, it was my 40th year. I wanted to do something to invest in myself and it needed to be difficult in order to be rewarding. So I went for the one thing I knew I could not do.
Nothing masochistic there, then.
I awoke on the 12th October 2014 at 5am, with the cold grip of terror around my throat. It was dark, it was foggy and there was not a bit of me that wanted to get out of bed. I knew, KNEW that I could not finish, and felt heartily foolish for ever thinking it might be possible. Worst of all, I had told people, TOLD PEOPLE! What sort of idiot does that? This sort. This overgrown, still overweight runner who gets beaten by pensioners. What on earth made me even think I could do this?
To be fair to myself, the weeks leading up to the marathon had not been on Hal Higdon’s Novice One plan. I am a teacher. I sweated out long runs all through the balmy summer holidays, nearly vomiting in the heat on occasions, to make sure that I was marathon-ready. During the last two weeks of the holidays I peaked at a 20 miler, and then ran two half marathons in four days the week afterwards. I was feeling confident. However, in the true spirit of sod’s law, things went tits up. My school was taken over and my job changed beyond recognition overnight. I was suddenly not working the 3 day week contract I had been expecting (and had factored in to my training plans) but 80 hour weeks. I really wanted to do my best, but it was slipping away from me, like sand through my fingers. I realised I had cried every day for a month. The old symptoms started to re-emerge – hot flushes, rollercoaster tummy, heart pounding, feeling nauseous. I knew it was time to go to the doctors.
Even though I was desperate not to, I cried all over my doctor who, sensing my humiliation, signed me off for a month. The thing with anxiety is, though, that by the time you recognise the symptoms, the process has started. The beast has awoken. You can’t switch it off. Time off work and medication really do help, but the black dog is awake and sniffing about and whispering in your ear. Then it becomes a real battle.
‘If you were any good, you’d have stuck to your training plan.’
‘you can’t do it, you know you can’t. You're wasting everyone's time.’
‘you’re making a massive fool of yourself. They’re all laughing.’
Mentally I was 20 stones again, disempowered, on the sofa. How could that woman – me – run a marathon? It was impossible.
I asked my doctor, hoping, I suppose, for her to confirm that a person signed off from work should not be so preposterous as to run a marathon. She said that I was signed off with a mental illness, not a physical one, and that exercise was good for dealing with stress. She saw no reason why I should not continue to exercise at a rate I was used to. In fact she encouraged it.
Sat on the ‘park and run’ bus in York, we were driven towards our chilly doom. The fog was so thick you could not see through the windows. 70 adults sat quietly, shivering in lycra, the nervous energy palpable. Dressed in my running kit, running jacket, gloves and charity shop fleece that I would abandon at the start line, I was agog and most impressed by the lady wearing only her vest. Runners are at once the softest, kindest people I have ever met and hard as nails.
The bus journey passed oh so quicky, and suddenly we were dismounting at York University, the familiar thud-thud of the pre-race PA system vibrating the ground. The old excitement began to build. Except it wasn’t summer, it was thick fog! And it was bloody freezing. I didn’t fancy hanging around eating bananas and queuing for an ice cold portaloo. As I followed the stream of neon runners, like a trail of ants, hundreds upon hundreds of them, my heart began to sink. This was going to be dreadful. What was I doing here?
We checked in our bags. I had packed everything I thought I would need afterwards – a change of clothes, a hoody, two towels, fluffy socks, Crocs, an entire pharmacy, half a ton of bananas. I was beginning to sense I might have overdone it. Then there was that moment when you check in your wordly goods to a stranger, and walk away with only the things you stand up in – and no money or car keys. I felt vulnerable and a long way from home.
We made our way to the Jane Tomlinson Appeal area. To my sheer joy it was not a tent, as had been the case in the past races we had run for them, but a warm, centrally heated ROOM! Best of all, were clean, warm, flushing toilets with NO QUEUE. Let joy be unconfined at such luxury! I was delighted. Maybe it wasn’t going to be so bad after all.
Dom and I hovered about for a good 40 minutes chattering nervously. We rearranged our trainers. We ate bananas. We fiddled with our iPods. We checked our Garmins over and over again. Gloves or no gloves? Running jacket or not? Time ticked by. I felt sick to my stomach. Soon enough, we were on our way to the start line. I heard my name shouted and called round to see my friend, Karen, and we gave each other a massive hug. It was just what I needed. We wished each other well and carried on.
Dom said goodbye as he was filtered towards the pen for the faster runners. I felt my lip wobble as he waved and ran off. I was alone. I made my way to the back of the start line, to zone 5, at the very back. I had expected it to be full of cartoon characters and the elderly. I had, somewhat arrogantly, assumed that I would not be last. I was wrong. I eyed my compatriots suspiciously. They all looked pretty good to me – young and fit. Were they injured? Who knew. Why were they in zone 5? It seemed that everyone was going to take this very seriously, and I had foolishly imagined it would be like the London Marathon I had seen on telly, or the 10ks I had taken place in. There were no teddy bears, no gorillas, no men with fridges on their back. Just me. Dithering inside and out, feeling a million miles from home.
Suddenly, the human wave surged forwards. Walking, then stopping. Walking then stopping. Competitors grinning at other competitors, chipping in on each other’s conversations. Matt Dawson, the ex England Rugby player, was on the PA system making light hearted chit-chat and calling out people’s names. As a fundraising idea, I had asked my friends to choose a song for my playlist for a £1 donation to the Jane Tomlinson Appeal. As the runners surged forwards, and a walk turned to a jog, my iPod started to play ‘Chariots of Fire.’
And then - I was running a marathon.
The first part of the course was downhill. “It’d be great if it was all like this” I quipped to the bloke next to me, thinking it obvious it was a joke. He looked at me like I was an idiot. A few moments later, I bumped my elbow into someone behind me, as we all jostled for position. “Sorry!” I called. “Sorry!” she called back “I guess I’ll be doing a lot of this!” I laughed heartily. As she ran past, I realised she was blind. I cringed. This moment was only to be excelled later in the race when I saw a figure looming through the fog. “Look! Someone in fancy dress!” I shouted.
“I am a Vicar” he replied. Oops.
Chariots of Fire made way to a little bit of Motorhead and things started to look up. The crowds around York were plentiful, and everyone was cheering and waving flags. I started to feel a sense of occasion. After about half a mile, my breathing started to get less ragged and my body started to settle down to its familiar rhythm. I was trying to run slower, endlessly slower. I didn’t want to start off too quickly, and I knew that 10 minute miles were ridiculously quick for me. Calm down, Claire, calm down. Ribbons of runners streamed past me, each trying to find their own pace. Before long the back of the pack had thinned out and there were just few of us running along silently at the same pace, in the mist and the cold and the damp.
“Hi” said a voice behind me “fancy a running partner?” A woman with a kind smile, younger than me, was at my side. I discovered her name was Robyn and she had travelled down from Newcastle by herself on the train to run this marathon. Her train had been cancelled and she had to catch one an hour later, only narrowly making the start of the race. I said hi, and we started to run together, chatting. Agadoo played in my ear, then Chase and Dave. My friends are bastards. Robin laughed. We worked the crowds. Everyone cheered, and we high 5-ed all the children. I had my name printed on my blue Jane Tomlinson shirt, and hoardes of people were shouting “COME ON CLAIRE!”, “you can do it, Claire”, “You’re doing brilliantly!” whilst thrusting jelly babies and Haribo into our hands. The marathon photographers were calling our names and snapping pictures. I have never felt more like a rock star.
As we passed York Minster, I spotted Mike Tomlinson. I was impressed, and somewhat in awe as I am reading Mike and Jane’s book at the moment, so I sort of feel like I have a connection with him, in that weird way you do when you spend time reading someone’s book. I said hi, and he came over and pressed his hand against mine. It was a small gesture – a slightly too long hand press, a momentary connection of eyes. A small gesture that whispered ‘well done, keep going, I can see what this means to you, these events are about people like you.’ I felt ten foot tall.
Village after misty village passed slowly by. We thanked spectators and marshalls for their support, we accepted sweets and we gurned at children. The mist settled into droplets on my eyelashes, making everything seem like it was in soft focus. We quickly developed friendships, shared confidences, told our stories. There is nothing like running to shortcut to your deepest emotions.
By mile 8 I was struggling. We were running in woods by this point, and there seemed to be an increasing number of inclines. We were running at 11.5 minutes per mile and it was a bit quick for me. I was starting to feel a bit stressed and my joints were starting to creak. I was also surprised that I was struggling so early in the race, and started to think the black thoughts of doom. I was convinced that this was because I hadn’t trained enough.
Thankfully, at that point, we met Katy. I recognised Katy from the Vale of York Half Marathon in September because I had chased her down for several miles before overtaking her. It would be fair to say I recognised her more from the back than the front. Katy joined Robyn and I and we continued, a merry band of 3, chatting and running and making merry in the misty Sunday morning for the next few miles. I was very glad of Katy’s company, not least because she was a bit slower than Robyn and gave me chance to get my breath back.
During this time I regained my composure and felt really strong, powering out a good couple of miles at a decent clip (for me, at least.) Robyn seemed to be frustrated by the lack of pace. I urged her to run ahead, but she didn’t want to. “I’ll never leave a man in the field” she said, over and again. I reassured her that it was fine, she should stretch her legs, and I would catch up with her later. Eventually she started to stretch out the distance between us.
The miles were starting to pass quite quickly. 9, 10, 11, 12 – we were nearly half way! Just past the half way point there was a place where the runners ran on both sides of the road and I spotted my brilliant friend, Rachael, which was a real boost. We threw our arms around each other and it felt brilliant. Rachael looked good, but a little grey faced and I was a little worried about her. Soon enough we were at the 14 mile cheer station and there I saw Aunty Pauline, snapping away on her camera, although I was not feeling very photogenic, admittedly. There was a band playing here, and a dodgy Elvis DJ.
“You’re doing really well!” called Aunty Pauline “I’ll see you at the finish!”
She was a vision of smiles and home.
It felt like a long way to go. Katy and I ran onwards, chatting, now the deepest of friends and compatriots, determined to lift ourselves and each other out of any gloom that passed our way. We gossiped, laughed and became increasingly sweary as we got tired. We cheered each other on. We shared secrets, jelly babies and pain killers. We smiled and thanked the marshalls and supporters. We agreed that without each other, we might be tempted to give up. We kept saying aloud “we WILL finish,” “only a few more miles and we’ll be counting single numbers” and we SMILED.
Before long we came across Robyn again, and a friend she was walking with, Rich. Robyn was limping and it she told us that her hips were sore. She had had an accident during her training and had only managed to train up to 13 miles, so she was well beyond her longest run. Sensing that she needed the company I walked alongside her. We laughed as the spectators kept shouting “Come on girls!” ignoring six foot – very obviously male – Rich.
It was evident that Robyn was really struggling. Not only was she limping, she was wincing with every step. We were on a long, slow incline. I asked her if she wanted me to get help. “I am not giving up!” she said, time and again. “I want my bling! I have come this far, I am not giving up.”
We fantasised about the menus of fast food restaurants and what we would eat when we finished the race. The Jane Tomlinson Appeal tent promised a free pint and slippers. I talked a lot about that. However, I was worried. Robyn really was not looking good and there was 11 miles still to go. Each step was causing her to cry. Still she would not give up. I was beginning to worry about myself too – my hips were sore and starting to stiffen up. I needed to run to loosen them off a bit. Besides which, the sweep car was visible, and I really did not want to be told to give up. I had trained for months for this.
Robyn’s earlier words rang in my ears: “I will never leave a man in the field.” I could not run ahead, could I? She was in pain. But if I didn’t, I might be swept up and have to give up my place.
I gently suggested to Robyn that I needed to run. “I’m so sorry, Robyn” I uttered, apologetically and full of shame. “I am going to have to run on. My hips are stiffening up.”
“OK” she responded. “I will try to run too.”
My heart sank. She howled with each step. My dreams of finishing were evaporating. I had been walking slowly with Robyn for half an hour.
Suddenly I had a flash of courage. We were all trying to persuade her to stop, but she was determined to finish. “I am going to get medical help,” I said.
And I ran backwards. Back down the hill, back to a passing policeman on a motorbike. Back down the road I had just run, knowing I would have to turn around at run up that hill again, covering that patch for the third time. The policeman told me to tell the sweep car. Back to the sweep car, to explain that a woman was injured and needed help. Back, back, back. My heart aflutter with panic and misery.
And then I looked at the task ahead. I was at the back, at the bottom of a long, steep hill. Of course! “What does the Fox say” was ringing in my ears for the fourth time as I guilded my loins, picked up my courage, rejected the urge to cry and ran for all I was worth up that massive bloody hill. Again. Everything hurt.
Shit. I really needed to make up some ground.
Eventually I caught up with Katy and we exchanged anxious glances. She wasn’t daft. She knew as well as I did that we were in trouble. As the four-by-four passed us with our injured friend on board, we put down our chins, swung our arms and charged our tired bodies forwards at the greatest speed, power walk or shuffle we could muster. We didn’t speak. We gave ourselves the goal of reaching a couple of marathon power walkers who had passed us long minutes before. We reasoned that they would have a strategy and would be walking at exactly the right pace to avoid being swept up. The road was long and the dreaded mile 18 approached. The wall. The part where it all comes undone.
My mood was not improved by seeing someone doing a poo in a field, or by looking at a dead rat underfoot. But – BUT – we were doing it! We had made up ground! We were marching forwards at quite a good pace now, alternating jogging with power walking. We were trying to work out the maths, but our addled brains were struggling. We were averaging 15 minute miles. That’s not bad! We reckoned we could finish before being swept up, if only we kept this up.
Around 18 miles the sun came out and we started to feel elated. It was going to be OK! We were doing it! Where was this bloody wall? Nowhere, that’s where! We were going up another long, slow hill, but it was all going to be OK – WE were going to be OK. We were going to finish! As my mood soared, weird things started to happen in my head. My eyesight was a bit odd. I felt elated - exhausted and sore - but elated. This was not what I had planned for. Everything had become a bit fuzzy around the edges. The sky was twinkling. Then I realised that the sky was moving into funny shapes. I was hallucinating. My phone buzzed with text after text after text with friends who were wishing me luck, telling me jokes, telling me they were running with me in spirit. Katy was there, my soul sister, my marathon family, driving me ever forwards. The dappled sun lit the beautiful Yorkshire countryside and I started saying ever more bizarre things.
“I wonder what those horses are thinking?”
“umm…” replied Katy
I have never been so happy in my entire life.
It wasn’t long before things became difficult. By 20 miles, I was starting to slow down. Katy was charging ahead, full of vigour, and I was starting to worry about my left hip flexor. Was it just sore? Was I pushing it too hard? We had been doing a lot of power walking, which was a great way to cover ground quickly and rest the running muscles, but I had not done power walking in my training and it was beginning to show. With reluctance, I let Katy run off into the distance. The crowds had thinned out now, and I was on my own.
I was much, much too close to the end to give up. Just a 10K to go! I had run so many 10ks before, but a 10K is over an hour of running at my best pace, not the wearing trudging that I was managing now. An hour. A whole hour more of running.
I remembered something I had read by Hal Higdon. I imagined reaching deep inside myself with a cup and scooping up the last of my energy. With each step I chanted
“I’m still moving”
“I can do this”
Over and over and over. I trudged, robotically, for a good couple of miles in this zone. "I'm tough, I'm strong, I'm moving." There were still spectators in their gardens but I couldn’t really hear what they were saying to me. One toothless old man said “Keep going, my love. It doesn’t matter if you’re slow, you’ve covered the same distance as the rest of them. Keep going!” He had a flock of geese in the front garden of his bungalow. I think. I commented on them, and he looked at me strangely. Were they there, or was I still hallucinating?
One lady called “you’re doing so well, Claire! Keep going! You are almost a MARATHONER! How does that feel! You’ve nearly done it! I am so proud of you – a MARATHON! That’s brilliant, you must be so proud!”
So did she.
I kept moving. At mile 22, just before the mile marker flag, I heard some one from the pub garden shout: “Oi, mate! You’re going the wrong way!” and a cheer.
And there was my wonderful husband, grinning like a loon, running over to give me a hug. He still had his marathon number on, having finished two hours before. He had run back so that I did not have to run those final two miles alone. I have never been more pleased to see anyone in my life.
Those final two miles passed really quickly as he told me how his marathon had gone. We were back in the city now and it all suddenly seemed fun again. People were sat drinking beer in the late afternoon sun, and were all smiles and encouragement. Before I knew it, I was approaching the finishing straight and Dom peeled off to run alongside me.
About 100 spectators were still there, cheering the remaining stragglers on. I was entirely alone running down the finish straight. The announcer read out my name and said “this is Claire Boynton. She entered the Yorkshire marathon as part of a fitness campaign. She was 40 this year and wanted to do something to celebrate her birthday”
All eyes were on me, and I was feeling rather small.
“In 2011, that’s 3 years ago, she used to be over 20 stones. Oh my God! She’s lost over eight stones in weight! That’s incredible! Come on, Claire, you’re nearly finished. Oh my God, this is incredible.”
I sobbed. Big, snotty, chest heaving, unattractive, heart rendering sobs.
I was here. At the finish line.
By the power of my own two feet.
I was a marathoner.