Some people criticise distance running for being a solitary sport. I learnt this weekend that they are wrong.
Saturday night before the race, the Crew Chief and I are tucked away in a corner of a Pizza Express in Greenwich. I cannot eat and can barely speak as I am such a bag of nerves about finally running the VLM the following morning - a race I have been trying to enter since 2008. A plate of pasta and pesto and lightly grilled chicken is gently cooling in front of me.
I am ostensibly worried about my knees. They’ve been a little painful recently, but I had taken solace in the fact that the pain didn’t actually stop me running – in fact I had done my last 20 mile training run with a dull ache throughout. I’d seen a sports injury professional who specialises in knees just a few days before and he had given me some light treatment and a green light to run. But there are other worries. The enormity of the pacing challenge has hit home as I’m now in possession of the rucksack/harness that will hold the pacing flag. It’s not the pace I’m afraid of – I have run many thousands of miles and dozens of races including multiple marathons much faster. It’s the pressure of maintaining that pace consistently, of being accountable and reliable and watched and scrutinised. Barriers around the Cutty Sark and the naval college are being built up around us and my stomach fills with dread at the prospect of the task.
My psyche lurches in the opposite direction on the walk back to our comedy-basic hotel. I regain utmost confidence in my abilities and am certain that the race tomorrow will be easy. Just another marathon. Just another long run really. No biggie.
I drifted through race morning in a daze. People recognised the pacing kit and started asking me questions immediately: Where is pen 6? Where are the toilets? Where should I put my bag? Will you be running that pace exactly? WHERE is pen 6? It’s my first VLM and I don’t know the answers to these questions. The crowds are huge and buoyant and excited and I felt my enthusiasm swelling with them as we get into our pens. A portly runner in front of me was wearing a yellow T-shirt that read ‘Dave – Believe’. I took it as a sign. A very literal sign. This was going to be excellent. A 30 second silence before the off in memory of the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings reminded me to count my blessings.
Mercifully I was not alone – Sam Murphy, the author of Runner’s World’s column Murphy’s Lore was also pacing this group. Between us we got the first few miles under control, all within seconds of our 10:18/mile target. There was little hope of us staying side-by-side as the field was densely packed and we seemed to be doing a lot of overtaking. I saw the Crew Chief as planned at mile 5 and progress was generally looking good. Our only confusion came when the race’s three starts (red, blue and green) merged, because there were pacers in each starting zone and we were running to very different chip times. Sam and I overtook a 4:45 pacer to much muttering, but there was no way for us to explain to the runners around us that we were both right. But I understood their confusion and sympathised – in the sense that all I could do was to keep banging out 10:18s as best I could.
Elsewhere on the course I was privileged and grateful to see old friends cheering me on. Ben, Jess, Sarah, Ed, Tom, Erin, Heather, Adam, Louise, John, Bernie (also Rach, Matt, Ross and Thea probably, though I don’t remember seeing you) – each a friendly face picked out of the monumental crowd that made the whole thing seem worthwhile. The Crew Chief saw me more than I caught sight of her, and became rather more acquainted with the tube than any non-Londoner would really want to on a Sunday. I don’t think I’ve ever run a race with so many friends out supporting, and it changed my mindset and attitude for the better. They reminded me that people believe in my ability to do these things.
But I was struggling. Nothing seemed to click. I remember seeing a sign at mile 9 saying ‘17 miles to go’ and silently despairing at the prospect. The only thing keeping me focussed was the relentless pursuit of 10:18 minute miles, something that Sam and I were still achieving. We rolled over halfway perhaps 10 seconds early.
It wasn’t until around mile 15 that I had to concede that I was suffering, and, more dangerously, slowing down. Lurching to a fence I stretched my thighs and wrenched a gel out of my rucksack. I yanked the knee supports off my knees, as I felt they were limiting circulation to my thighs, and set off again, feeling renewed and refreshed.
I caught up to within 20 metres of Sam but found myself in a congested part of the race, content to hold my place just behind her. The field hadn’t thinned out and in places spectators were spilling onto the road, narrowing the course. I felt a little closed-in and conspicuous with a giant flag on my back. The pacing gear was generally good and relatively lightweight, but the flag was a sail in the wind and a nuisance in tight spaces. As the day heated up I sweated like a turkey at Christmas and the straps started to rub painfully on my neck. I thought of other things. Oddly, I struggled to enjoy or appreciate the crowds and the sights. This is what I had come to London for: a big city marathon with all the trimmings, but for some reason I couldn’t appreciate it. Tower Bridge didn’t even do it for me. All I wanted was for it to be over, preferably in exactly 4:30.
As the pain set in and 17 then 18 miles rolled around I lost some self-awareness, instead focussing on the rhythm of my pace and the number of miles left to go – now in single figures. I recited mantras and zoned out the noise of the crowd. Tough though it was, I reckoned I could stay in this blinkered existence for the next 8 miles. I felt like things were going well.
Things were not going well. The Crew Chief was waiting in the crowd around mile 18-19, though I wasn’t looking at the crowds and didn’t see her. She burst into tears when she saw me, mournfully hauling myself through Canary Wharf with grim determination and apparently a pronounced limp.
The next thing I know I am leaning on a metal fence, arms locked straight and thighs stretching, with my eyes closed and head down. A number of people – I couldn’t say how many – are asking me a lot of questions. I tell them that I’m fine and will be continuing shortly. My legs and the people disagree.
Next I am in a wheelchair, eyes still closed, a mixture of relief and shame pounding my head along with three letters: DNF. Did Not Finish. So many people were expecting something of me in this race. Runners’ World. My contact there, Kerry McCarthy, who has been ridiculously generous to me professionally. Sam, the other pacer. My brother. The Crew Chief. Christ, she would be unimpressed by this. All those people out supporting. All my friends out supporting. Hundreds – if not thousands - of people wanting to run 4:30 who were looking to me for some sort of expertise. The 450,000 readers of this blog. My 2.2 million Twitter followers. My parents. My colleagues. Myself.
I lay on a stretcher inside under an awning erected on one side of a St John’s Ambulance. The paramedic took my temperature, looked at the thermometer and shook his head. He got a different thermometer and took it again. I was 41.1 degrees Celsius. Stripped to the waist, they covered me in soaking wet blankets in an effort to cool me down. My legs cramped up and I could barely move anything from the neck down without huge pain – I suddenly realised how painful my back was, presumably from the rucksack. Painkillers and electrolyte replacements and more cold wet things. Attempts at banter from my part were probably delirious ramblings.
After 40 minutes my temperature had gone down to 40.2. Over the next hour it quickly dropped down to a normal, safe, human temperature. The ambulance crew looked less worried and administered two cups of coffee and three Jaffa cakes, which I devoured greedily. My sister-in-law Erin was the first one able to answer her phone so she made it over to see me first, and went more or less straight back out to buy me some dry clothes. The Crew Chief arrived not long after, tearful, relieved and livid and relentlessly practical as always.
Unbelievably, my mobile rang. A doctor was on the line, telling me not to worry. Strange, I thought, I’ve got a doctor right here saying something similar. Turns out he was calling from the medical station at mile 22, where my brother Nick, sorry, my identical twin Nick, had suffered exactly the same outcome and was exactly the same temperature. Ridiculous. Utterly ridiculous. Erin dashed off to attend to her second Haines twin emergency of the hour, and left Linds to mop up the pieces of my VLM attempt. They would later emerge and get on the sweeper bus at the back of the race, left to endure the longest and slowest bus ride in London. Nick advises against this if you ever find yourself in such a situation. He also later reminded me that in the latter stages of a marathon, 'DNF' really means 'Did Nothing Fatal'.
A complicated and expensive logistical exercise to get back to the airport in one piece and with all the right bags was totally, utterly saved by Louise’s selfless help in moving all our junk around London. Unable to offer suggestions or make any objections, I did as I was told as Lou and the Crew Chief installed me in a hotel near London City airport for an hour’s sleep before our flight, while between them they picked up suitcases from Waterloo East and returned the blasted rucksack to a hotel in St James.
After speaking to my parents in Qatar and my sister in Southampton, I put a note on Facebook explaining what had happened, unable to face the prospect of fielding dozens of individual queries. My phone palpitated with messages of condolence and love and support over the next few hours. It might have been the exhaustion but I burst into tears reading them, in the middle of a hotel lobby. No-one was disappointed. No-one cracked a joke. Everyone wanted me to feel better, not to worry, to look forward to next time, that they knew I would bounce back shortly. One person said I was an inspiration. My dad said he was proud of me. The Crew Chief said she loved me.
Running is not a solitary sport. I promise never to forget that.
2013 to date: miles run - 412.14, races: 2 and a bit, parkruns: 1, miles biked: 18, metres swum: 500