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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