So, I did it!
Yesterday I ran my first ever marathon! People had warned me otherwise (too hilly, apparently), but the Brathay Windermere Marathon turned out to be the perfect place to start with marathon running.
I’m still on a blow-out of a high: my mind is in the clouds, back on the roads around Windermere, anywhere but here. I will try my best to summarize it appropriately – watch out, this post could be longer and more winding than yesterday’s race!
We decided months ago that driving up from Yorkshire to the Lake District and back in one day, plus running our first marathon, wouldn’t be a sensible thing to do. So I left my Mum to arrange accommodation near enough to Brathay, as well as booking a couple of decent places to eat before and after the race.
My parents picked us up on Saturday afternoon and we hit the roads, the car loud with conversation and rattling with nervous energy – I had put in hundreds of miles of training, and had invested so much in one race, while my Dad (also running a marathon for the first time) had been injured from day one, and had done practically no training other than a couple of half marathon races in the run-up to Windermere. I kept nervously asking him if he was ok, worried that he might not really be ready for such a bit physical ordeal.
We arrived in the Lake District and headed straight for the Expo to pick up our numbers and goodie bags. The Brathay 10 in 10 was going on at the same time (the last race coincided with the full marathon on the Sunday), and so the atmosphere was already quite pumped and exciting. The 18 amazing runners were hobbling around in towels with their legs strapped up with tape; seeing them boosted my confidence a little, as it reminded me that everyone here was actually just a normal person with a day job, a family and a love for running! We collected our numbers and had a chat with some of the people holding stalls at the Expo: one lady who was a running coach and had written a book about people who run over 100 marathons, and a couple who were providing the energy drink for the run. I was reassured that it’s only really hilly for the first 17 miles, after that it’s an easy ride…!
We piled back in the car and headed to the B&B to check in and then head out for some food. It turned out that this would be a luxury marathon experience, as my Mum had booked us in at a 5* guest house and asked for superior rooms! Far from the hostel accommodation that I’d had in mind when I’d asked her to look into it for us! The place was absolutely stunning in every possible way, and set me in a really relaxed mood for the first time in days. It had a massive, 5 acre garden, which I roamed around that evening to stretch my legs after the journey. We then headed out to a vegetarian restaurant in Ambleside, and again my Mum had come up trumps when we were faced with a menu of carbs! I had gnocchi with a tomato sauce to start with, and then spaghetti pomodoro as a main. Delicious! We arrived back quite late, but I took advantage of the complimentary camomile tea and ginger biscuits while I wrote in my diary before bed.
As I had been expecting, I slept reallyreallybadly that night. It took me ages to drift off, and then I woke up at 3am and didn’t really get back to sleep. I watched the sun get brighter through the curtains, and just waited in nervous anticipation until it was time to get up and get my running kit on! It was the first really beautiful day in ages; the birds were singing, the sky was faultlessly blue, and the mist over the valley was rising and promising some warmth for the day. Daniel went out for a run at 6am, while I sipped a peppermint tea and ate some Soreen, and worked out how exactly I was going to arrange myself. Running kit on, bags packed and hair clipped and waxed into place (my hair is always a point of trouble for me when I run – I never know how best to arrange it), we went down to an amazing breakfast buffet of cereals, juices, fruits, yoghurts and the option of a full veggie English breakfast. I reluctantly refused all the decadence, and stuck to a huge bowl of porridge made with water, with loads of honey and a banana. I didn’t even have tea as I didn’t want any reason to stop unnecessarily during the race. We then got straight in the car and headed back to Brathay, ready for the run of our lives!
The atmosphere was instantly wonderous, as soon as we arrived into the massive field of a car park. Everyone was in a good mood, the sun was shining, and the lake stretched out for miles behind us. It felt fantastic to actually be there, after all those months of training! The 10 in 10ers were due to set off for their 10th marathon in 10 days at 9:30, so we went to watch them have their pep talk and set off on the last leg of that massive journey. It was incredibly emotional, and I wasn’t the only one to find my eyes welling up as they huddled together in lycra, strapped up and ready for one last massive push. Little by little the atmosphere and adrenaline was working its way into my bloodstream, and I found myself looking forward to getting going on that amazing course!
I faced the dreaded Portaloos with as much bravery as I could muster (“Daniel, quick, hand sanitizer please!!!”), had the first few swigs of energy drink and put on my running shoes: we were ready to go! I kissed Daniel and my Mum goodbye and we set off to the starting field to warm up. We heard the pre-race announcements from the organizers and then an amazing drumming band started up, and lead the march to the starting line on the main road. A lady from my running club came over to say hi, and we walked down together, enjoying the atmosphere and excitement that was surrounding us and welling upwards in a massive frenzy.
I was stood a little too close to the front for my liking, but as the roads were closed I was confident that it wouldn’t really matter anyway. My Dad asked whether my shoes were done up ok, so I tied a triple knot in the laces (which are a little too long), just to make sure. The drumming stopped and everything fell silent, the way it always seems to do just before a race, and then ‘beeeeeep’ and we were off! I wished my fellow Strider a good race and reminded my Dad to take it steady, and then there I was, running a marathon! Crossing the starting line is still so vivid in my mind; I was so aware that once I was through that was it, no turning back and, as far as was possible, no giving up. The drummers were playing again and the crowds were roaring and clapping, but I was so overwhelmed with panic, fear, and the realization that my shoes weren’t done up right, that I couldn’t relax into it and enjoy it.
The first couple of miles were always going to be warm-up miles – just to set the pace and to find my ‘running zone’. However, I found myself running as I would a half marathon; my pace was way too fast, and I was trying to keep up with the crowd, which was hurtling past me alarmingly. I was also very conscious of my shoes, which felt as if they were slopping around on my feet. As I hadn’t done a warm-up jog (the field was too bumpy and the prospect of 26.2 miles seemed to not warrant a quick jog around the car park!) I hadn’t tested how my shoes felt, and I couldn’t rid my head of the fact that they were too loose. I was uncomfortable, running too fast and massively overwhelmed, and for the first couple of miles I felt like a rabbit in headlights. I ran past Daniel and my Mum on the wrong side of the road, too, so they were unable to get a decent photo of me passing by.
At about mile 4 I had come back down to a more steady pace. I had planned to run at 10;30/mile, but I was running at 10/mile and felt comfortable – I was worried that a slower pace would actually feel less easy as I had so much energy, and so much training behind me. The route was incredibly hilly, not so much with big ascents, but more continuous ups and downs, as well as a lot of long, mild inclines that were quite hard work. We arrived in Hawkeshead and I was starting to really enjoy myself, so I finally decided to make the feeling complete by stopping to tie up my shoes – those triple knots didn’t help matters and loads of people shot past as I frustratingly fiddled with my laces! I got started again, and set my pace back up nicely, running close behind a couple of women chatting happily as they ran. I always prefer to run alone, and never ever with music, but during a race I do like to hear other people chatting away around me – it sets a good, sociable mood without me having to take any part in it!
The miles seemed to simply fall behind me, and there appeared to be a mileage sign or a drink stop around every corner! There were refreshments (water, energy drink and Kendal mint cake!) every 3 miles, and I had planned to take on water at each of these points, as I didn’t have any of my own. I took my first gulp of energy drink at mile 6, just before the biggest hill of the race which stretched right from mile 7 to mile 8. At this point I was the only one around me who wasn’t walking – I find that jogging lightly on my forefeet takes up less energy than a striding uphill walk, and morale remains high as you reach the top without stopping, too! At mile 8 my knee started to twinge, and I remained conscious and nervous of it for some miles ahead. Still, I knew things were going to hurt more with every mile, so I tried my best to enjoy being relatively pain-free while it lasted!
Energy started to wane a little at mile 9, so I took my first energy gel, which left me feeling fantastic again. The first real discomfort started at mile 10, when my feet were aching from the road. I always wear the lightest possible socks when racing, but they do tend to leave my feet feeling raw after about 10 miles, and this was no exception. Still, the miles kept coming, and I was running very comfortably behind a group from Ripley AC, who helped me keep an absolutely solid 10/mile pace.
Up until now we had run through countryside and woodland, and right down the western side of beautiful Esthwaite water, but I hadn’t had a glimpse of Lake Windermere since changing in the car park! At mile 13 we reached Newby Bridge, and here the tip of the lake shimmered out behind buildings as we ran past. The streets were lined with people clapping and cheering – it really was absolutely incredible, and I was amazed at how much I’d enjoyed myself so far, especially in light of the wobbly start! I was also feeling incredibly confident in my running, and 13 miles in I still felt as strong as I had at mile 5.
The roads had been closed to cars for most of the first 13 miles, but the second half took us up the eastern side of Lake Windermere, right along the A591 and A592. The roads were coned off at the side to make room for us, and though the traffic was passing regularly, it was all very respectful of the runners, and most cars cheered and beeped as they passed, which was very encouraging! From here much of the course is a blur, though I know I still felt strong at mile 15 as I was thinking about the first 15 mile run that I did, which was a killer fell run over Ilkley Moor in the rain and wind! Things couldn’t have been any more different on this race!
What I do remember is the long hills, and the realization that I didn’t have enough gels on me to get through without hitting zero. I remember desperately searching my bag for an energy bar and coming out with a block of dates, and I remember gnawing on them like a complete animal! Mile 17 came and the lady from the Expo was right, as the roads flattened out and houses lined the route, with massive rhododendrons in a range of amazing colours bursting from almost every garden. People were in their gardens clapping and cheering, but my humour was long gone and all I could focus on was the increasing pain in my entire body, and the many miles which were still there ahead of me.
By mile 19 I was starting to feel really bad in my knees and hips, and every step hurt. I stopped at the drinks station and the relief felt like angels singing inside my chest and legs, and the more I stopped the more difficult it was to start again. I gnawed on an energy bar and dreamed of orange juice, recovery shake and ginger beer.
At mile 21 I was set to give in. Seriously. My brain was mush, I felt sick, the muscles in my entire abdomen – from my diaphragm to the top of my groin – were burning with every breath, and somehow I couldn’t seem to get any air into my lungs. I decided to give in to my last precious energy gel, and then to the last drops of energy drink. I knew I was taking on too much water, too, but it was addictively refreshing, and I kept pouring it over my head which sent shocks down my spine and woke my mind up a little. We came to a downhill in Bowness on Windermere and I remember calling out in agony as my knees crunched under my weight. At the penultimate drinks station I topped up my bottle with energy drink – it had bits floating in it from the road and tasted horrid, but I didn’t care at all! I knew that if I didn’t get my mind back I’d be giving in very shortly, so I filtered through some subject matter to see if I could find anything that my brain would allow me to focus on. My up-coming wedding, Daniel, university, work, friends – none of these things that I so often think about on long runs triggered any sort of spark in my brain. So I decided instead to remember a time that I had felt this bad in the past. And the one person that got me through that agony got me through this one, too: my Uncle Rob, and how amazing he was, and how much I miss him.
So I continued running, and the mileage signs started to get huge. 23 miles?! No way! I passed a couple who had given in to an ice cream van en route – brilliant idea, and a shame I didn’t bring any money or I’d have joined them! I was in so much pain that it couldn’t get any worse at this point, so I kept going, one foot painstakingly placed in front of the other. 24 miles, my word. By this stage we were approaching Ambleside, and I could actually see the finish across the lake – there was a huge hot air balloon on site which we’d watched being fired up that morning, and I had a clear view of it between the trees. I ran ahead of the man in front of me and pointed it out – he grunted in recognition.
I ran through Ambleside, groaning with every curb and cobble, and almost knocked over a group of old ladies who were intent on crossing the road right in front of me. It turns out that absolute exhaustion turns me into a social nightmare. By this point I knew I had to make it, and that I’d do it much more quickly than I’d anticipated, too! I was expecting to complete the race in around 5 hours, though had optimistically paced myself for 4;30 – from my watch I could see that I’d be comfortably between the two times, and I was delighted and rather impressed with myself!
Mile 25 came, and I reminded myself that this mile was the reason I’d put myself through all of that – this was the mile I had to enjoy. And I guess I did, to some extent! I particularly enjoyed seeing the number 25 on the sign, and knowing that I’d run incredibly far! The road ahead seemed to go on forever, and helpfully (not) there was a long ascent ahead, up which I could see runners struggling even to walk in the last few hundred yards of the race. I kept running, and kept passing people limping to the finish, and I couldn’t help feeling so grateful that my agony was consistent throughout my body, and not concentrated in one joint or muscle. I was a little wary of my calves, which were so tight it felt like they might actually pop, and I was trying to decide whether a ripped calf muscle would be worth it in the end. Probably.
I turned a corner back into Brathay Hall, and saw the big yellow Mile 26 sign as if it were the sun landing on Earth right before my feet. Two men ahead of me were trying to run, but one, in a red tshirt, was struggling big time, and slowed to a sorry limp just as I passed. His friend was being so encouraging ‘just keep going, just keep going’ he kept repeating. Then I saw my Dad, with a medal around his neck, and I was so proud that I managed to find a bit of extra energy somewhere inside me. (It’s all so vivid as I type this that this paragraph might go on for some time) I kept running, up the hill, up up up, and the finish line was there, right ahead, lined with what seemed like thousands of cheering happy faces. The grass was covered with a big rope mat, but still my knees cracked and crunched under me as I ran over the uneven surface. I saw Daniel and my Mum, taking photos and cheering, and wow, this was it!
Then, out of nowhere, the man in the red tshirt came crashing past me, and almost knocked me to the floor! Not exactly good etiquette if you ask me. Then there was the finish line. And a medal and a really kind face handing it to me with some water. And the man in the red tshirt bent in half and dribbling onto the floor (I sort of hope he was sick, is that bad?). I wandered in a daze through the crowds and collapsed into the grass. Everything hurt everywhere, like I’d never felt before, and I just called out and drank some water and called out some more. Everything hurt, everywhere. I got up with Daniel’s help, and I remember looking into the grass and realizing that I’d actually done it – I’d actually run a marathon, and something welled up inside me and for a second I was about to cry. Then I hurt so badly that I had to walk around.
I made up some recovery shake and went and stood in Lake Windermere, up to my mid calf. The rocks hurt underfoot but the cold water was fantastic and soothing. I looked out to the largest lake in England, which I had just circumnavigated and then some in 4 hours and 43 minutes, and it was shimmering and so beautiful and huge.
We got back to the B&B and I had a bath and got into the most comfortable clothes imaginable. Each individual toe was sore, my hips were bruised, the sides of my ribcage hurt to touch, the backs of my thighs felt bruised, my arm was stiff and painful from holding the water bottle. I say all this in the past tense, but it’s still true today. We snuggled up on the bed and put on a film, drank sweet tea and ate crisps and cereal bars. I lounged like this for as long as I could, then that evening we went out for an amazing meal at another amazing veggie restaurant, but this time there wasn’t any mention of pasta on the menu! Another successful choice on my Mum’s part! Watercress soup, loads and loads of fresh white bread with butter, butternut squash and goats cheese with a sundried tomato salad, gingerbread cheesecake with strawberries and a huge glass of wine. Marathon complete, wonderful day complete, fantastic marathon experience complete!
And I seriously enjoyed my veggie full English this morning!
So, to summarize, this was the perfect first marathon. For runners such as me, who love a few torturous hills, it was a great race. The winner came in at 2;40, which suggests that it’s not one for a PB, if that’s what you’re after, but if you love a good atmosphere, fantastic organization, and a really well-rounded racing experience, then this is the job. It was worth every 5:30 start, every painful uphill sprint, every 20 mile run, in fact, it was worth every minute that I put into it. I want to go back and do it all again just like that, but this time I’ll check my shoes first!