Monday, 13 December 2010

My brother runs

My brother, Nick, has gone way above and beyond the call of duty to enter a guest post on this blog. It's long, but it's so worth it, I promise. I've read it four times already today.

Twenty miles in, and I’m in a world of trouble.

Tiredness, joint pain and a state of mild lunacy go without saying after this distance. What I hadn’t anticipated was the loneliness. My girlfriend was waiting for me at the finish, over six miles away. My running-mate, training partner and coach hadn’t even made it to the start line; he sat at home, more ill than he’d ever been, anxiously waiting for news on my progress. I’d no money, no phone, no means of doing anything other than run. Which was, after all, what I’d come to Dublin to do. I stood up from the pavement I’d taken refuge on, and got on my way.

How did that sad little picture come about? Naturally my brother was to blame. I’d enjoyed running in a casual, flaky sort of way, accompanying both my brother and my once-roommate Tom on their very serious training runs, for various charity races and RAF officer selection respectively. In my final year at university I’d come to enjoy running on my own, doing three or four flat, easy miles along the river and canals in Oxford. I’d never dreamed, however, of running any further. The idea of entering an organised race was just daft.

In April of 2009 my girlfriend and I travelled to Paris to support my brother in his first full-sized marathon. We learned there that this involves a weird combination of Maths, Orienteering and playing ‘Where’s Wally?’, one of which I am quite good at. Dave’s pacing being what it was, we were able to wave him on twice during the race and see him shortly after the finish, taking in Notre Dame cathedral, The Place de la Concorde, the Champs Elysées, and the general Parisian ambience along the way. Marathon supporting is fun, we decided. Far better than actually running the bloody thing, at any rate.

And yet, somehow, by the summer of that year Dave and I were training hard, having both signed up to run a frankly ludicrous 26.2 miles through the streets of Dublin in late October. Soon I was buying expensive (but remarkably lightweight) shorts, discussing the relative merits of different energy gels, and inspecting with interest the changing consistency of my poor abused feet. By September we were covering twenty miles a week, and struggling slightly to fit the runs in around our jobs. As we entered October the runs were getting really rather long; we spent Sunday mornings doing 18 miles as two nine-mile loops, returning home halfway through for bananas and sugary snacks. All seemed to be going to plan, although as the days grew shorter and the weather colder it was becoming more difficult to get through the long runs. Two weeks before the big day we started tapering; shortening our runs to allow ourselves to store up some energy. This couldn’t have come soon enough; we were both feeling more than a little worn out by this stage.

The Dublin Marathon is run on the last Monday in October, which is a bank holiday in Ireland. This suited me just fine as this happened to be the first day of half term in England (being a teacher is excellent), but Dave had only taken that one day off. The plan was for us to fly out on the Sunday, visit the exhibition centre to register and collect our timing chips, stay in a proper Irish pub, run 42 kilometres on the Monday morning and fly back that evening. My girlfriend Erin was flying out on the Sunday evening as well, accompanied by her mum Bernie, to support us.

The Saturday morning rolled around and for the first time in months we were not going for a run. Eating, packing, and perhaps a few miles’ walk were on the agenda. Instead, I was woken with the news of Dave having collapsed into his breakfast. An ambulance was already on its way. He left in a tragicomic Arthur Dent style, oxygen mask clamped over face, dressed in pyjamas, dressing gown and tartan blanket. The hospital diagnosis was confusing to say the least; swine flu, double pneumonia, pleurisy and the classic hole-in-the-lung problem were all suggested, but the consensus was that there was to be no getting out of bed for him, let alone getting on a plane or running for four hours.

That weekend was a bit of a blur. Somehow I decided I was going it alone. If nothing else I’d already booked flights, hotel and girlfriend, so off I went. I drifted through Gatwick in a daze, and boarded a bus at Dublin airport which took me to the exhibition centre. There I collected my race kit (most importantly my number and timing chip), but couldn’t find much of the enthusiasm shown by my fellow runners. I took a taxi back to the hotel—the driver was impressed by my choice of establishment, which turned out to be a large and quite famous pub. ‘My brother booked it’, I told him, glumly.

Around then Erin and her mum turned up, which cheered me up no end. We had a large, late afternoon meal, and I handed over a race map and some suggestions as to when and where they might manage to see me. I went back to my hotel early, which served no purpose at all, as the pub was full of lively revellers who sang and danced into the night.

Racers were due at the appointed place by 8.30 the next morning; happily the hotel was very close to the start line. I breakfasted alone in the café attached to a supermarket, was pleased to see other runners drifting in, and even more pleased to see what they were eating so I could copy them. It dawned on me that I had really no idea what I was doing. I wandered over to the start zone in a bit of a daze. Groups of people milled about, psyching themselves up, stretching, adjusting outfits, and swapping energy products. Not wishing to feel left out, I took a register of myself, swapped my energy gels around, held one leg while stretching the other one, and issued myself a high-five. Noticing at this point that I was just a mad English person standing in the middle of Georgian Dublin in shorts and t-shirt, high-fiving himself, I was mercifully ushered to the start line. Naturally the Irish contingent started singing (‘Molly Malone’ and the National Anthem, ‘Amhran na bhFiann’), and suddenly we were off.

Once again I was confronted with the unavoidable fact that I had no clue at all what I was doing. I knew I was supposed to average the magic 9:09 pace if I was to achieve a 4-hour marathon (actually 3:59:43.8), but Dave’s magic watch suggested I was doing anything but. The initial trot through the crowds registered 10:45. I sped up. Suddenly 7:10. Slow down again: 13. Thirteen? Thirteen minutes a mile? Madness. I tried instead to replicate the pace we’d been training at; when I next looked at my watch a pleasing 8:55 was showing.

Suddenly all the training seemed worth it. My legs happily flew me along the roads, I kept pace neatly with the people around me, all of us keeping our eyes on the 4-hour pacemakers. At the far end of O’Connell street Erin and her mum waved me on at just under the two mile mark. The course turned west out of the city and entered Phoenix Park. The weather was perfect; cool, crisp, a slight dampness in the air. I sailed through the 10k mark as my watch showed a time of just over an hour: a personal best! The course turned back towards the city and my legs just kept on going. Erin and her mum saw me again around 11 miles, and why wouldn’t they? I was right on schedule. The course turned away from the city again and on to more residential streets. The locals, bless them all, lined the streets, having set up trestle tables outside their houses with cups of water and sliced fruit. Children offered sweets from huge bags, as their mothers banged saucepans together shouting ‘You’re doing grand! That’s great running!’ at total strangers. Old people just stood around, beaming.

The half-marathon point saw another personal best; I should say that I’d only ever noted how long 13.1 miles took once before, and I was a bit hungover. I struck up a friendship with an Irish woman called Nieve (no, not Niamh, she made that quite clear), who did all of her training on a treadmill, poor soul. She gave me part of a Twix bar, which seemed an odd choice of sustenance, but then maybe her treadmill was next to a vending machine. We ran together for a few miles; she kept telling me to go on ahead as I was clearly ‘gagging to go faster’, but in truth I could see she was keeping rigid four-hour pace and I was in desperate need of a good pacemaker. Eventually we broke apart after the mêlée of a water station and I was alone again, but still trotting along quite happily. I was firmly settled into my pace by this stage, and the balloons attached to the official pacemakers remained around a hundred yards ahead of me, as they had from the off.

Perhaps you can tell, I’m delaying getting to this next bit. Here goes. I passed the 18 mile mark, still on course, and quietly celebrated my having run further than ever before.  At eighteen-and-a-half miles, it was all still going fine. Less than eight miles, left, I tell Brain. That’s just a run from home to Knole park, a longish lap and then back again. Brain diligently relays this to Legs and Feet. This does not go down well.

It was Left Leg that raised a complaint, and without any attempt at negotiation, went on immediate strike. As the cramp yanked hard on all my muscles I had to stop, and the woman who had been angling to overtake me crashed into my shoulder instead. Remembering my manners, I apologised and fell over. Informing Brain that we were not stopping for anything I got back up, but Right Leg had joined in the strike and I hit the ground once more. Realising that I looked ridiculous and presented a significant hazard to other runners, I dragged my weary corpse to the side of the road and sat on the kerb desperately trying to relieve the pain of the cramp. It did eventually subside and I set off again, managing another mile or so before the pain overtook me once more. It was here, near University College Dublin, having run twenty cold, continuous miles that I realised the full extent of my predicament, and where I decided that, regardless of the pain and everything else, I was bloody well going to finish the Dublin bloody Marathon.

The rest of the race was spent in some sort of mad stupor, more ridiculous and awful than any night of heavy drinking and yet somehow brilliant too. I was definitely going to be in massive pain at the end of the day; what difference could an extra six miles make? I thought I might as well pick a fight with a horse or wrestle a bus while I was at it. There were more stops, oh yes, and I’ll take this opportunity to thank the delightful Irishman whose front garden I collapsed onto around the 21 mile mark. He had been registered to race himself but had fallen ill and so hadn’t managed to train properly. I told him about my brother’s plight. He offered me a cup of tea. I turned it down, but somehow his kindness and enthusiasm revitalised me anyway.

Around 23 miles, a big crowd caught up with me, amongst them some idiot with a load of pink balloons attached. Brain quietly mentioned that this was the four-and-a-half hour pacemaker, and somehow I managed a big push in a desperate effort to put some distance between me and him. After what seemed like a Herculean effort I looked over my shoulder to see that I’d gained only about twenty yards, and try as I might, I couldn’t hold them off. Entering the final stages we re-entered the Georgian part of the city. Erin and her mum waved me on near Trinity College with half a mile to go, and some absurd part of my brain suggested a final sprint. I overtook about a dozen people and sailed over the finish line. My watch showed 4:37:01. A personal best.

Me winning the Dublin Marathon. The 7008 people who crossed the line slightly ahead of me were all disqualified.

Someone gave me a medal, someone else a t-shirt. A third person removed the timing chip from my race number, and asked what my initials were. He then wrote ‘NJH’ on the battered piece of paper, as he put it, ‘just for the craic’. Odd, I thought. It hit me again that I had no idea what to do. My whole body was completely ruined. Every instinct told me to sit, but there was literally nowhere to do so. I was hopelessly disorientated and began to wonder how I might find Erin and her mum, or indeed my hotel. I resorted to simply sitting in the middle of the street to consider my options. I began to shiver, hard, and thought the St John’s Ambulance tent might be a good place to visit. They gave me a space blanket and ordered me to replace my damp t-shirt with the brand new dry one I had just been given. I realised that all the people I’d seen instantly donning their new gear weren’t, as I’d thought, very uncool, they were actually quite clever. I hobbled out and found Erin, who helped me to the hotel. I remember speaking to Dave at this point, I think it safe to assume a phone was involved. A very hot shower and the application of every item of clothing I’d brought went some way to warming me up. We decamped to a restaurant, pausing to cheer on runners still at it. I ordered three pints of water and one of Guinness, and felt a lot better.

Since then I’ve never run more than six miles in one go, having vowed never to do anything quite so stupid as run a marathon again. Whenever anyone asked what it was like, I answer simply that 26.2 miles is really really far. And yet I still enjoy distance running. Now back in Oxford I’m enjoying the flat terrain once more, slowly building up the mileage running with Erin, now my fiancée. We’ll be entering the Reading half-marathon in the Spring.

I’m afraid I don’t really know why I run, any more than Dave does. Since Dublin I’m actually more impressed when people tell me they’ve done a marathon, not least because most people do a far better job of it than I did. I’m not going to urge you to run a marathon, because in many ways it is completely awful. Instead, I’m going to suggest that next time someone points you to a justgiving or facebook page announcing that they are running their first, second or umpteenth marathon, sure, give them a few quid, but go and support them. Wave, cheer, and hand over water, high-fives and energy gels. Scoop up what’s left of them at the finish and buy them a beer. They’ll appreciate it more than you could possibly imagine. 

Extraordinary, eh?

Thanks, Nick. And sorry.

Happy running,


P.S. Hello Croatia!

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