Lessons from London Marathon 2017

If you learn anything from marathon running, it is to learn to manage your inner voice. Running for so many miles, both in preparation for the event and the actual event itself, you are forced into a process of introspection which you cannot escape. My inner voice in particular is of the pointedly unkind and pervasive sort. It reminds me constantly of my failings and that everyone is always fitter, faster, and runs with more finesse than I do.

My inner voice is also singly exceptional in finding me reasons to stop. There’s a park bench generously situated on the edge canal (I can picture it clearly in my mind’s eye as I write. It is that clearly imprinted in my memory). I calculate that the elevation of the hill would be much better for you if you walked. Oh, look at the little ducklings. We love ducking don’t we? The sun’s out – surely you’ll need your sunglass now, but alas, they are at home next to the couch.

What is even more perplexing about the process is that you are doing it to yourself – willingly. The cross you bare is your own – no one has forced you into this undertaking and you can, if you so chose, stop at any stage.

If you think you are resilient enough to complete the training without any of these troubles you are wrong. Embarking on any marathon training thinking it will be easy is like running fool’s errand.

Yet, we do. And this, our biggest weakness, that we are amateurish, becomes our biggest strength. We foolishly fumble our way through training plans developed for other people, run at paces across distances our bodies are neither prepared or built for. We eat a hodge-podge of food, increasing elements that make no real difference (low-glycemic or not), and wash it all down with array of booze (up to the penultimate week of training because I’m tapering in the last week, of course).

But it is in all of this that we have an opportunity to find a sense of ourselves that isn’t always
available to us. We push our bodies across the 16 weeks of training to a point where, in my case anyway, it learnt to hide away the niggles and pains I would feel for days after a normal run. It would always find that little something extra when I realised I had missed the turn to start the return journey and I would have to cover another 5 miles. When I can think of nothing worse than running 8 miles on a Wednesday, after a long day at work, in near freezing conditions and the blisters from the weekend run have only started to stop hurting…it pushed me through. But better than all this it helps you contain your inner voice. Not completely, but enough to give you some space to start enjoying your running again. Even if it was just a slow recovery run.

On marathon day, when everyone else is running passed you, your inner voice is there with you too. It hasn’t abandoned you. True, it’s laughing at you, calling you names and willing you to stop. It finds its voice about mile 15, by 20 miles it is bellowing in your ears and by 23 miles it is having an orgy of self-gratifying humiliation at your expense. But it’s there. This is no Gethsemane. Of course, after 16 weeks of training you’ve trained your legs, your core, your lungs and all those little systems that work amazingly in support of you covering the 26.2 miles but you’ve also trained your mind to ignore your inner voice, to block out it’s message and instead channel its focus into helping you through those last 6 miles.

And it’s at that point that you start to notice things.

The sound of someone calling your name. The London City AC banner standing out against the noise and multitudinous array of similar ones. Cheering club members emerge in a sea of unfamiliar faces (thanks Denise and Stefan), friends positioned where the crowds have thinned and the skyline bleak; like Poplar, to cheer you on and tell you are beating Gordon Ramsey (thanks Alison and Matt) and friends and loved ones planning their London Marathon support strategy in more detail than your entire 16 weeks training (thanks Zoe and Amy).

These are moments your inner voice cannot touch. No one can. They too are the moments, now after running two marathons, that I remember most vividly. They are the moments you should think about signing up for, and ultimately, they are things that make marathon running worthwhile. Not your time, not you pace or the medal at the end (both of which are already at the bottom an unremembered draw). These things don’t really matter. What matters is taking control of the voice inside you that challenges your self esteem and self worth and learning putting it back in its place. Your Vo2 max will fade, but your new strength of character will not.

Will I run another? Well, I’m not sure. I know of a bench, on a hill, with little duckies wading in the water that I wish sit and watch in the sun. I’ll have to get back to you. Adrian Donovan