The 2015 Virgin Money London Marathon was the race I never thought I’d be capable of doing. Don’t get me wrong. I love distance running. In fact, I prefer a modest plod to an all-out sprint. But a severe cartilage tear in the left knee four years ago had seemingly ruled me out of ever doing another marathon. Until six months ago, after a chance conversation with my physiotherapist, Stuart Mailer. I said it was my dream to run one more marathon and we came up with a plan where the knee just might be able to cope with the distance. Fortunately, we decided to combine optimism with realism. We agreed I wouldn’t run more than twice a week, and I’d get the leg muscles really strong and have plenty of rest in between each run. Stuart’s advice, along with my restraint when it came to the frequency of runs, got me to the start line – perhaps not as fit as I would have liked, but mentally ready. And most importantly, the knee was ready, too.
So what happened? The atmosphere was every bit as special as I’d heard. At the start line, I made friends with one of the pacers who had only just completed Marathon Des Sables, where her boyfriend had proposed in the desert. ‘He got down on one knee and I thought he was going to be sick!’ She laughed. I also spoke to Shannon, a female lawyer from Essex, who was doing her first marathon, and Alistair, a good-natured Scot who had completed Loch Ness Marathon but hated the hills. He was looking forward to the flat terrain of London.
The first half of the race was fantastic. The first six miles seemed to fly by in no time. I looked at my watch and was surprised to see I’d been running for a whole hour. I got to mile ten feeling pretty strong. Then I started to get sciatic nerve pain at the bottom of my left glute. The pain intensified. By mile 14, it was quite severe and I was fortunate enough to have a personal trainer friend who had come to watch give me an assisted stretch on the pavement. By mile 19, I stopped again to stretch and was invited by the St John’s Ambulance Crew to stop and have a free five-minute massage. It really helped. At mile 22, Women’s Running Fitness Editor Anne-Marie Lategan appeared and I had another assisted stretch on the pavement. It’s the first race I’ve done where I’ve been laid out on my back three times!
My nutrition strategy worked well though. It came from High5 gels and the crowd. I know you’re not meant to take on board anything the crowd offer you, but I knew my body would cope with Jelly Babies and fruit, so I gobbled up sweets, orange peels and bananas, while feeling very fortunate. The crowd couldn’t have been more generous.
You always learn something about yourself when you run a marathon and London was no exception. I learned that if you want to have a completely pain-free marathon experience, where your muscles feel strong and robust enough to withstand the distance, you have to train more frequently. More than I did. I should have done more strength work and more single leg balance, but real-life got in the way and I didn’t do as much as I’d been told. I paid a price on race-day and the marathon would certainly have been easier. From mile 16, it was really only my mind and the crowd that carried me along.
But on a positive note, my knee held up surprisingly well. My goal, from the very beginning, was to complete the Virgin Money London Marathon without experiencing severe knee pain. I didn’t want to have to hobble over the finish line, or even worse, pull out entirely because I couldn’t weight-bear on the knee. The goal was simply to finish, pain-free and to feel that I hadn’t caused the knee too much long-term damage. We achieved that goal. And I got to experience the magic of London.
Follow Chris on Twitter @writefitchris