18 October 2010

Prince Edward Island Marathon 2010 – a bittersweet day

Last Sunday I ran my first marathon - 26.2 miles, or as they say in Canada 42km. I have been running for three years up to fifteen miles a week so reckoned I had built a good base from which to launch a sixteen week marathon training programme.

Despite injuries earlier in the year I had managed to raise my mileage steadily until I was covering thirty-five miles a week including long runs of sixteen and nineteen miles. Eventually however the training took its toll with sprains, strains and general exhaustion. I allowed myself two weeks of light training and the aches subsided but my ankles in particular were tender. Nonetheless by race day I was still hopeful of completing the marathon in four and a half hours, a realistic goal considering the times I had consistently run in training.

Sunday dawned cold, windy and raining and the surf on the north shore was boiling as we swung into Brackley Beach Car Park. Runners were milling around, stretching and warming up under the shelter of trees and in the lee of low buildings. The girls looked wet and bedraggled in the early morning gloom and must have wondered just why we had dragged them out into the wind and rain!

As 8am approached I lined up near the back of the two hundred and sixty five participants. This is a very small event – forget the tens of thousands of London, New York and Boston. At the gun we set off into the rain with the wind whipping at our backs. I discovered straight away that my iPod was stuck on repeat and, being blind as a bat without my reading glasses, I couldn't change the playback settings so stuffed it in the pocket of my drinks belt and ran in silence. What a bummer after crafting a fantastic fifty-song playlist!

I let faster runners disappear into the distance and settled into my own pace, monitoring my progress against a small laminated chart I’d made, showing kilometre split times. At the halfway point, twenty- one kilometres, we turned off the roads and onto the trail. I was on track at two hours and thirteen minutes and I reached the thirty-one kilometre mark spot on at three hours thirteen minutes...

Then I hit the wall. My knees buckled repeatedly and each time I limped and hopped until the pain eased. My pace dropped and runners began to pass me. The rain fell and the wind blew and at times it was all I could do to keep grinding away, one foot in front of the other with short strides. My knees, ankles and hips protested with each pace and I felt cold wet and miserable. I managed a weak smile for the thin groups of supporters who had valiantly turned out along the route.

By now I could see no one in front and no one behind me, yet I knew there must be more, trailing at the back. As I stumbled the final ten kilometres I lost huge chunks of time. Four and a half hours was no longer on and indeed I would drop twenty-five minutes in the final ten kilometres. Gatorade, water and energy gels were available at regular points. If nothing else, I should probably have drunk more.

I don't know how I finished the final drag of six kilometres from Sears into downtown. I limped and gritted my teeth and grunted in pain and watched stragglers pass me. I stopped to take a shoe off when some padding on a sore toe broke free in my sock but other than that and a couple of stops to stretch my legs, I ran the whole distance.

I finished in four hours and fifty-six minutes. My race number had long since blown away in the wind but my shoelace-mounted timing chip triggered a display in the commentator's booth as I approached the finish line and his excited voice boomed my name over the public address! Michelle and Cheryl were there to cheer me home and I all but collapsed into the arms of the volunteers handing out "space blankets." I limped to the car and when we got home my lips were blue and I was shivering. A half hour soak in a steaming hot bath followed by an hour in bed pulled me back closer to the land of the living.

This morning my muscle stiffness is bad and I can barely hobble from one room to another! I wish I could say running my first marathon was a profoundly uplifting, emotional experience but I can’t. It was horribly hard under nasty conditions and I just felt lousy, wet, cold and miserable. I hurt like hell and I am disappointed in my time which was dragged so low by being unable to jog above a brisk walking pace for the final ten kilometres. I know I was capable of a more respectable performance.

To balance this bleak summary I must acknowledge that this was my first attempt. At the ripe old age of fifty-three I accomplished something fewer than one in a thousand islanders did. (Of the two hundred and sixty-five participants over two thirds came from off island.) I completed the training through all weathers and despite injuries, I finished the marathon and I didn’t come last! I made a decision, committed to it and achieved my aim.

It’s still only a day ago that I ran forty-two kilometres. It’s too soon to make objective statements about the future. I want to say I hated it and I will never again put myself in such an uncomfortable place. I shouted those very words somewhere along the Confederation Trail with only the wind for an audience. It’s still a true statement as I sit and type this. When the pain has receded and the cold, wet memories have faded will I think differently? I might.

Lessons learned:
1. Set off even slower
2. Check iPod before abandoning my reading glasses
3. Drink more en route
4. Wear warmer clothes if it’s blowing a gale and raining
5. Run fewer runs in training but make the weekly long run longer and slower.

Thank you to Michelle for the amazing photos.

PS: belatedly I should add that two years on I trained again and put myself in a good position to retry. In 2012 I finished in four hours thirty eight minutes and felt much stronger. There is a full review here. My recovery after the second attempt was astonishing. I barely limped the following day and only a week later ran 10k.


C.J. Duffy said...

I have nothing but admiration for you as I know that, as much as I may suggest otherwise, I could not do what you have achieved. It is nothing short of incredible. I defy anyone to say it isn’t. You have trained religiously. You have trained intelligently. You have studied, in that methodical way that is so you, which shoes to wear, what energy drinks to consume and even created a chart to measure your own efforts. Of course you have made mistakes but who hasn’t, who doesn’t? For goodness sake even great athletes commit errors but the one thing you and they share in common is determination.

Your determination was as gritty as can be imagined, admirably so and if gold medals were awarded for such a quality then you would be an Olympic champion. I am confident that in the eyes of Michelle and your children you are a god among men and quite rightly too.

It may sound pretentious of me, even schmaltzy but I am damn proud to have a friend, albeit long distance who has achieved what you have.

Well done mate!!

Michelle B said...

I'm in awe. At 31 I cannot imagine even training for such an event. You watch me struggle through 5k!

I am hoping this misery will be something like childbirth -you cry out NEVER AGAIN in the middle of it and curse yourself for being in such a situation (remember how crazy I thought I was for wanting to go medication-free near the end of my labour?!) but when it's over the memory of the pain starts to fade and a second go at it doesn't seem quite so impossible.

I enjoyed so much watching you train and seeing your excitment and cheering you on. It was an incredible thing -an amazing, inspiring accomplishment.

Perfect Virgo said...

CJ - what can I say? Thank you, that's rich praise indeed. In time I'm sure I will see the enormity of what I have done. Right now it's difficult to see beyond the cold, the wet and the pain. Being greedy, I demanded more as a return on my considerable investment!

I do know that it was only the grimmest of determination which kept me moving for the final hour and a half. That finishing line and Michelle waiting in the rain was a sight for sore eyes!

M - despite disappointment in my performance on the day, I am proud of my achievement and agree that time is a wonderful healer. When my old bones have healed maybe the streets of London or somewhere on a warm spring morning would bring different details to the end result.

I'd take a second shot at the marathon over childbirth any day! Thank you for your unswerving support throughout the months.

S said...


The two people before me summed up my thoughts. I sit here (lazily) at my computer and I'm in still in awe at your achievements.

From what you've shared here and in previous posts, you've always been determined and focused. I'm sorry your music was not available and that you suffered so much. Still, you stuck it out admirably. Yes, for all the yucky parts, do keep reminding yourself to be kind to yourself and pat yourself on the back for this feat.

I think when we undertake goals different from the norm, those are an accomplishment to be very proud of!

Very best wishes to you, Michelle, and your daughters. I think I kept it to myself when I read through your blog of decisions to England and back and forth. I'm delighted you four are deservedly happy.

Life CAN have a way of working out with dreams coming true.

I know that firsthand, even through the heartaches,


S said...

Oh my, here's another addendum. I just read CJ's comment more carefully and he's used a word I almost used in the post as I gushed, but didn't know if you knew the Yiddish word "schmaltzy."


Perfect Virgo said...

S - nice to see you again! Thanks for your very kind comments, not only about the run. It's ten days since the marathon and I have recovered somewhat. Long distance running takes an incredible draw on the body's reserves and I am not back to normal yet.

Psychologically I feel much better about my achievement now and believe I can attempt it again.

Schmaltzy... yes, I know that word!