There’s no doubt marathon training is tough for anybody, especially if it’s your first time, but I have a very personal reason as to why it was so hard for me.
I don’t want running a marathon to be something I dine out on forever, although I honestly think it may be the biggest thing I’ve ever achieved. It’s not something I would really like to do again but I’m glad I did it and I learned a lot about myself whilst doing it.
Seeing everyone training for their spring marathons makes me think about my own marathon training experience. As hard as I found the actual marathon, it was the training I found really tough, especially the longer runs. All but one I did by myself, which sent me to some dark places mentally and physically – but I’m so glad I did it that way, as it really helped me work through the grief of losing my dad.
Some of you may know that I lost my dad in November 2013 to pancreatic cancer; again, this is something I try not to bring up too much as I worry about it just becoming a sob story, but losing a parent really does completely change your life. In the December, I started going to the gym and running and at the time I attributed this to helping me through grief, although considering the amount I was training and how obsessive I was about it, it was clearly just a way to gloss over my grief and distract me from what was really happening in life.
You know what? I think that’s okay. I don’t think there’s one-size-fits-all way to deal with grief, and doing what’s best for you at the time is the only way anyone gets through it. I still had darker moments when I’d be alone at home, pre or post workout, when the grief affected me, but when you lose somebody any distraction is welcome at first, and this was just my extreme form of it.
Since then I’ve always trained, the amount I did and the intensity has calmed down a lot, and eventually my mind calmed, too, although I hadn’t dealt with my grief… not really. It was just something I’d tuck into my back pocket, which fell out occasionally, only for me to stuff it back in.
A year or so later after my exercise regime had chilled out, I spotted a giant blow-up running shoe in Spinningfields advertising the Manchester Marathon, offering a free goodie bag for anyone who signed up there and then. Never wanting to miss out on a freebie I signed up without thinking twice about it, never having considered running a marathon before!
The training began, and long runs were usually bracingly cold – although I managed to get away with not getting wet at any point – alone, in the silence, without any music. Since then most people I’ve spoken to say their long runs were usually with others and always with music, but to me at the time, with no marathon training experience, this wasn’t something I even thought of.
If I had music or been with others, then my experience would have been something entirely different. I don’t think I can explain to anyone just what goes through your head on a long run – we’re talking three, maybe four hours on your feet here, cajoling your body to move at a pace beyond that of a snail. I couldn’t recall what I thought about even if I tried, but what I do know that my mind whipped around like a wet chamois leather, and I wrung it out completely, so that by the time I got home I was both mentally and physically exhausted.
I couldn’t get away from what I was thinking – there were no distractions other than my own mind when you’re two hours into a four hour long run – so you have to just work through it. Accept what you’re thinking, notice that these are just thoughts, and move on from them. Meditation 101 I know, but I was never very good at the whole sitting quietly and imagining my thoughts flowing away down a river. I clearly had to thrash mine out in a much more energetic way – in a way that suited me and how I think.
Marathon day came and it was harder than anything I’ve ever done before, except lose a loved one, of course, which was one of the things that kept me going while running when I was telling myself that it was too hard. I finished in a pretty respectable chip time of 4:27, and raised money for Pancreatic Cancer Research, another thing that kept me moving until the end.
It’s not like you ever forget the loved ones you lose, and grief never really goes away. It still grabs you at inopportune moments, poking you with reminders and “what ifs”. Thanks to those dark times training for a marathon, I’m just better equipped with working through the grief now – because it’s not about hiding or ignoring it – it’s about embracing and moving through it.
Running a marathon was maybe the biggest achievement of my life – maybe not athletically, but mentally I wouldn’t be the same now had I not done it.
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