My marathon was hell - here's why I'm glad

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It was at mile 17 that I slowed to a walk and finally started crying. With nine miles to go, and stomach cramps, I didn't know how I was ever going to finish this marathon. Taking those heavy, defeated steps felt like the loneliest walk in the world. But then cheers erupted beside me: "You can do it!", "Keep going, you're doing great!", "Go, Amy!" The amazing crowd - the unsung heroes of the London Marathon - lifted me up. And as a fellow runner passed by, he tapped me on the shoulder so gently, so intuitively, I picked up my feet and started running again. I didn't have the energy to even thank him, let alone turn my head to him and smile, I just had to keep going. The crowd roared as I picked up pace. I felt buoyed for another mile. But it was an ordeal far from over. 

In the week before the race, I'd been pretty nervous - training had felt more of a struggle than my previous marathons back in 2014 and 2015, and my confidence in running, as well as in life, has been a bit wobbly lately (though I'll save all that for another blog). However, the night before, I thought I'd finally psyched myself up enough.

Standing on the start line, I looked at my arm to see "You got this!" written in the shaky purple pen I'd scrawled on an hour earlier. And as we set off, I felt amazing. Incredible, in fact. I had 9 miles of perfect running, and during those gloriously sunny miles, my mind travelled to post-race celebratory dancing. I had a sub-4 pacing band around my wrist - it was optimistic, but I thought I'd use it as a guide. I'd run my last marathon in 4hr 09 minutes, so it didn't seem impossible. In those first few miles, the world seemed mine for the taking.

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But then halfway round, after Tower Bridge, I developed terrible stomach cramps. An agonising sharp pain that running only exacerbated. 'Please make it stop,' I whispered to my body. 'Please don't let me down.' But as the pain refused to diminish and mile 13 turned to 14 and heaved its way into 15, dark thoughts crept in and began to nudge out all the positivity. 'I'm not going to make it,' I thought. 'All the training, and this is it...'

 By mile 17, I texted my boyfriend one word: "Terrible."

 Not particularly sporty before I turned 30, running has always been a challenge for me, both physically and mentally, and it felt appropriate that the official charity of 2017's London Marathon was Heads Together, with a campaign to end the stigma surrounding mental health. Running is my therapy: it is no surprise that taking it up has coincided with me feeling more secure, body confident, balanced and positive. That is not to say that I don't struggle at times (who doesn't?), but exercise has become a much-needed tool to help me deal with life's stresses. Running this marathon for Heads Together and Samaritans felt like a perfect way to give back and help the conversation about mental health.

But suddenly, running - my salvation - was the thing causing me the stress. I was meant to be bossing this race. As a journalist who has long-documented her running journey, who regularly writes about health and fitness, I told my readers that I had one goal: 'To do this smiling.' Suddenly, I couldn't even do that. As the grimaces grew, and the pain lingered, I set myself a rule: I could walk each time I stopped for water. That seemed reasonable. But soon I was sporadically walking outside of this allocated slot. Soon, as the crowd cheered me on, I no longer felt able to pick up the pace. I felt like I was disappointing them.

For my previous marathons, I had run smiling and carefree, ignorant of 'the wall' that so many runners collide with. I felt like I had the key to 'running happy' secure in my pocket: positivity. It is something I talk about again and again: the importance of pushing out self doubt and powering up on the positive vibes. But I didn't realise until this weekend how fragile that positivity can be. How my own reserves had been more depleted than I realised.

Thanks to Aly for the sign! 

Thanks to Aly for the sign! 

Somewhere around mile 15 I ripped off the sub-4 pacing band, jettisoning pressure and expectation. I decided to ignore my watch for the rest of the race. Just getting through it became the motivation. Deep breaths, one foot in front of the other, take it slow, just f**king finish it. And as I passed other runners digging deep themselves, I reminded myself that running a marathon is HARD. That's why people are so generous with sponsorship, that's why it's an amazing achievement, that's why you need to train for months.

And as I struggled on alongside people taking part in memory of loved ones, including a man running for Pancreatic Cancer UK, who had a sign on his back saying his dad had lost his fight the previous night, I sobbed for the heartbreak of life and for the awe-inspiring grit and determination of humankind. Here I was surrounded by 40,000 people all going through their own epic journey. I felt honoured and privileged to be there amongst them.

And yet, and yet, my own demons were getting the better of me. I had kindly been given my marathon place through Virgin Active, who had set me up with a PT during my training - and here I was, running on behalf of a gym (a gym!), feeling like I was the worst runner in the world. I thought of all the people I talk to on Instagram who I try to help see how great running can be, but now I was wishing every single second of this race over. I wanted to make everyone proud, but in those moments of exhaustion and pain, I felt like a failure. 

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When things got really bad around mile 22, my brain defaulted to the go-to criticisms that running has magically helped me ignore. My mind told me, 'This wouldn't happen if you were thinner,' and 'Don't eat after this, you don't deserve it' - all kinds of crazy thoughts that I've worked hard over the years to ignore. I look back now (writing this with a delicious sandwich on my desk) and can see how easily the gremlins find ways to creep in when cracks appear. I don't really know why those thoughts came up then, but in the middle of a marathon, I'm alarmed that my mind twisted in search of retribution.

Thank god for my family and boyfriend who I knew were at mile 23, and who had been texting me constantly with messages of love and encouragement. Knowing they would be there gave me life, and as I ran past them I cried, grabbed their hands and high-fived my four-year-old niece. My sister told me afterwards that she'd turned around and asked, "Why is Auntie Amy crying? Is it because she didn't win the race?" Seeing them put me back together, charged up my energy and gave me fight for the last three miles.

By this point, my stomach pain had pretty much gone, so all that was holding me back was exhaustion (ha!). Deep breaths, one foot in front of the other, take it slow, just f**king finish it, I told myself again. The inking of "You got this!" on my arm, now a sweat-smudged purple smear, still helped, and as even as a Womble overtook me in the final 400metres, I did a little sprint finish and held my hands up in the air because I had well and truly earned that finish line.

 I burst into tears when my medal was put on over my head. I kept crying when my boyfriend called. I was still crying when a Samaritans volunteer walked me to the after-party for a massage. And the thing is, it's hard to know exactly why I was sobbing so much. It wasn't the finish time of 4hr 40mins that really upset me (it's a dream finish time for many) - it was the lingering sensation of feeling like an imposter, it was feeling like I'd let people down. 

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It took about 12 hours for the immediate exhaustion to dissipate and for clarity to appear. Bloody hell, I've just run my third marathon, I thought. That's something. And slowly, as I processed what happened, I began to feel OK with the fact that this marathon hadn't been so great. After all, I write constantly about getting into fitness, taking on that first run, making steps to feel more body confident - it reminded me that I don't ever do it from a place of superiority; it reminded me that I still struggle with this stuff, and that when I write about what helps, I do that because I know what works for me too. The marathon exemplified for me how I'm actually just your average person: not particularly athletic, just someone who keeps trying, and then tries again.

Looking back now, I can see that the number of people I let down is zero. Fitness is hard and life isn't an Instagram showreel - this year's London Marathon was sweat and snot and tears. In some ways, this feels just as worthwhile celebrating as the glory moments. I wish I could control every moment in my life - the weekend's run told me that for all the prep in the world, I can't. Running can be relaxing, therapeutic, strength-giving and inspiring, it can also be challenging too. And it is in those challenging moments that you often face yourself, and realise you're stronger than you think. Even through tears.

 I reckon there's still one more marathon in me - I'm not done with those 26 miles yet. But for now, I'll revel in this experience, grow prouder by the second, build back my confidence and feel more inspired and awed by the determination of runners than ever before. 

 Find me on Twitter and Instagram: @Amy_Abrahams

I ran the London Marathon with Virgin Active to raise money for Heads Together and Samaritans. If you want to sponsor me, please click here.

 

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On body confidence and self-representation (Because we are more than just pictures on Instagram)

Thighs, two ways, plus slightly horrible 70s decor while standing by a lift. (All the glamour...)

Thighs, two ways, plus slightly horrible 70s decor while standing by a lift. (All the glamour...)

I don't really want to post this picture - I've had it on my phone for two months now. It feels, I don't know... exposing. Plus who knows if I even look like that now. But you know what? Fuck it. Fuck it all.

I have been having so many talks with people lately about body confidence and body positivity (and the struggles to find it) and about how being happy with ourselves feels like so much effort - whether you're 15 or 55 - to the point where it can feel too exhausting to even try sometimes... Well, for me, part of smashing through this self-scrutiny is by being honest. Honest with myself, honest with the representation of myself, honest about my feelings.

So here are my thighs, two ways, having just been for a run. No one pose is wrong. It's still my body. But in seconds, we can shift our bodies to look a certain way and I think we need to remember that. Instagram images are just one particular pose caught in one second. Images can lie. Images can deceive.

I'm not saying don't enjoy your best angle. Please do. Please celebrate yourself and feel good. But we are more than careful poses. My body changes constantly. Learning to love it is about learning to love it not just when I feel like these thighs are camera-ready.

It is about learning to appreciate it when it's just slumped on the sofa. Or laid out in bed.

When it's sat down, belly round, thighs spread against the chair.

It's facing it, and appreciating it, all ways. All angles. All poses.

It's about not looking at photos on Instagram and then ourselves and then back to Instagram and wondering why we can't look like other people. It's about reality vs photo fiction. It's remembering that we don't live in a world of photos. We need to like ourselves off-camera too. We need to love ourselves all ways. So let's keep trying.

It's tiring, I know, I really do know. But it's really, really worth it.

(Ps I can't do anything about the pout. Well, I probably could, actually. Next time. One thing at a time...)

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(Previously posted on Instagram, but I thought I'd share here, too, because I think it's really important to keep hammering home a point. It's a tiny bit edited, so forgive the odd word change...)

Stop gendering my coffee (please, thank you)

 

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It happened gradually, but there's no denying it - I've developed a pantomimical tic every time a waiter gives me the wrong coffee. Allow me to explain: I like my coffee black, my boyfriend likes his white. Sometimes, if he's feeling particularly decadent - or delicate - he'll request a cappuccino. (I know, keep up...) My order stays the same. But wherever we go, there is a good chance - don't ask for statistics, I can't do maths - that the person handing us our coffees will presume the boy's choice is black and mine is white.

Now, I am loyal to my black coffee. It has been my hot beverage of choice for as long as I can remember. What I longed to make mine ever since I was about seven years old, watching, fascinated, as my (lactose-intolerant) father sipped this bitter, dark liquid as though it held magical properties and the key to contentment (sorry if talking about my dad suddenly seems a bit weird and Freudian - it's not, honest. He also used to eat his cornflakes with apple juice, and I definitely don't do that). Anyway, the point is, my coffee is my coffee and it's black, and that's that.

Except that, according to many perfectly lovely waiters handing us our drinks, mine is always the milky one. Mine is the frothy one. The one with the chocolate sprinkles. Mine is never the strong stuff. That's always given to my boyfriend (OK, 99% always).

At first I didn't think anything of it. Then I started to become aware of it. Then I started to mildly expect it. Then it became a 'thing' - each time a vindication of my suspicions that Something Was Not Right. Our current geographic nomadism living in both Leeds and London reveals it is no regional quirk, but a genuine cross-country issue. It is a strange mishap that only occurs when I coffee (yes, I am using it as a verb) with men, so my one explanation for it is that one drink is perceived as more masculine, the other more feminine. And this rattles me.

And it's this rattling that's led to the tic. It manifests as an over-the-top pointed gesture - a cup-and-saucer swappage so dramatic that children three tables away would be justified in shouting "Oh no, he didn't!" each time a waiter does indeed do it again. Sometimes I say aloud to no one in particular, because the waiter is back at his station now, and I am too British to make an actual issue about it, that "The milk is his, I drink mine black" - as though I am doing the IRL version of live-tweeting my coffee experience - which I think is just called living and talking, actually (to be confirmed on Urban Dictionary).

I know this all seems very small fry (feel free to level the charge of #firstworldproblems at me), but what unsettles me is the assumption. The assumption that what we look like, or what our gender is, or what's there between our legs, determines the flavours and foods we might eat (and the colours we like, and the clothes we wear, and the books we read, and the films we watch, AND HOW MUCH WE GET PAID AND THE JOBS WE CAN DO...).

These are the same assumptions that presume I'm the one who ordered the fruity pink cocktail, not the bourbon, or that the burger and chips must be my boyfriend's, because surely I'm the salady type? Clearly there's something about having a vagina that affects your digestive tract, rendering it incapable of processing anything other than tiny leaves and finely chopped cucumber. Who knew?

Yes, there are terrible, troubling problems in the world right now, awful things we should be thinking about constantly and trying to fix, but these small, seemingly innocuous assumptions are the little things that, day in, day out, contribute to making it harder for us to live more freely as ourselves. Little ant pincers clinging on to misogyny, gender stereotypes and unobtainable body ideals, racism and homophobia and fear of otherness. Little ant pincers of judgement, imperceptible, but powerful and determined, strong with conviction, hard to shake off.

And before I have the Union of Baristas on my case, of course we all make these judgements and assumptions every day. It's hard not to. It's evolutionary, this sizing up of each other, getting the measure of a person, piecing together little clues to try to get the bigger picture in just a few seconds. But it makes us lazy - we resort to superficial shorthand. For me, while not a gender thing, I can be guilty of thinking everyone else has life more sorted. I take outer confidence, beauty and thinness as markers of happiness - I forget we are all just trying to stay afloat sometimes.

But surely we are now far enough ahead in the existence of humanity to keep presuming men and women are so different to the point of how frothy they like their coffee? This is the same bullshit that motivates advertisers to depict women as having orgasms over low-fat yogurt - because nothing gets our pants wetter than a guilt-free* dairy snack. You know what? In all my 34 years, I've never invited friends round to eat yogurt. In fact, I don't think I've ever eaten yogurt with another woman. Maybe you don't know 'til you've tried, but I don't think that particular pastime is for me. Stop marketing foods as gendered. Seriously, stop it.

Because this is not just about coffee. It's an old and tired narrative that tries to keep people in boxes. I don't want a pink drink because I'm a girl. I don't want you to judge what I eat because I'm a girl. I don't want to nibble food because I'm a girl. I want to shove it all in my mouth and not feel transgressive for having an appetite. We need to smash these tiny assumptions one by one because they help absolutely nobody.

Because this is about far more than just coffee.

(Except when it is about exactly that. So please give me that black Americano - it's mine.)

 

 

*And 'guilt-free' food can fuck off. But that's another blog...

Bradley and Irina? I've been that girl crying in public. It hurts like hell

I had a relationship where I cried constantly. At first our union was beautiful, as all relationships start out. But after a time we began fighting relentlessly. I'd go to bed crying. I'd wake up sad, feeling empty yet simultaneously heavy inside. I'd walk down the street, eyes streaming thinking about what had just been or what next fight awaited. Seemingly simple, enjoyable things such as choosing a restaurant together often left me in tears. Doing our weekly Tesco shop could quickly morph into us screaming in each other's faces. Let's not even talk about car journeys. 

We were two good people - and I do believe that - yet we became very bad for each other, he brought out my frustrations, I brought out his temper, and everyone could see it. We once arrived at a party to be introduced as "Oh, these guys? They just fight, that's their thing." But I didn't want it to be my 'thing'. It <wasn't> my thing. I'm usually so fucking docile and accommodating I get annoyed with myself for not being more of a diva occasionally. Yet there I was, the girl having fights with her boyfriend in Soho Square, on the Tube, in the local shop, at a toddler's birthday party. There I was suddenly, wherever we went, dabbing my eyes. 

My 'Wimbledon' moment wasn't blasted on screen for everyone to see, but it felt just as public...

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