23. The uncertain glory of an April day: Shakespeare Marathon 2003

“O, how this spring of love resembleth the uncertain glory of an April day” – Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act 1, Sc. 3
holy-trinity-church-stratford-upon-avon.jpgPicture a fine and blustery English spring day in Stratford-upon- Avon. I’ve returned from Guildford to my home town for this weekend of processions marking the Shakespeare Birthday celebrations.

An East End boy, I moved to Warwickshire at the age of 9, and these streets I know so well are today lined with flags from over a hundred nations, flying briskly in the breeze.

“Now go we in content…” – As You Like It, Act 1, Sc. 3
Lining up outside the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in warm sunshine, reflecting on London and Chicago behind me, I am instantly humbled when my neighbour tells me this is his 126th marathon. Just the third for me and the day’s long road is frankly unimaginable at this moment, but soon we start and it all begins.

The first landmark on Waterside is actors’ haunt The Dirty Duck, the pub formerly known as The Black Swan. It’s 1 pm, and the happy customers on the beer terrace wall wave their glasses temptingly as we go by.

Then a quick circuit of the Old Town, past Hall’s Croft, the Guild Chapel and King Edward the Sixth’s Grammar School, where the bard himself crept snail-like and unwillingly to school just four centuries ago. New Place gardens, site of the poet’s retirement home, flash by in a blur of runners, and then it’s a right turn before The Garrick Inn, down Sheep Street and back to the Theatre. I ease over to the edge of the road and raise a filial high five to my Dad, before a second chance to long for a lunchtime lager at The Duck.

Slowly finding a rhythm, we head towards Shottery, where my sister greets me at 3 miles, just near Anne Hathaway’s cottage, home of Shakespeare’s bride. And then we head out into the countryside. Through the quintessentially English village of Luddington, with apple and cherry blossom, magnolia, thatched cottages, and an ancient church alongside the River Avon.

The locals clap politely from deck chairs as they sip afternoon tea or an early sherry on immaculately tended front lawns. It’s not quite the twelve-deep crowds of London’s Tower Bridge, nor the whooping and hollering of Chicago, but it’s motivation all the same.

“Wisely and slow; they stumble who run fast” – Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Sc. 3
There are 2 600 half marathoners today, and maybe 600 attempting the full course. I’m trying not to be seduced early on by the enthusiasm of those running the shorter distance. My goals today are: 3:50 (dreamworld if all goes perfectly); sub-4; PB 4:05; finish. 3:50 is instantly dismissed by the wind, but the miles tick by on cue and I’m even a little ahead of my main pace target at five miles. The plan is to run within myself and leave something for the spectre of Rumer Hill up ahead. My efforts are constant, but somehow I contrive to lose a minute within the next two miles. It’s just the wind, not a gale but 15-20 mph and gusty.

“To climb steep hills requires slow pace at first” – Henry VIII, Act 1, Sc. 1
Over the river at Welford-on-Avon, and a gradual climb up to the Bell Inn. There’s a drinks station at the village green, beside the maypole no less, and rousing cheers from every verge. Then it’s onto Rumer Hill itself, the stretch I’ve trained for all this winter. Just 120′ climb over a quarter of a mile, but at the end of a long, gentle haul up from the river. In December I had to walk the summit on my first attempt. The field slows now, but there is not one doubt in my mind today and I sail over the top. The steep descent is smooth and fast and then we turn blissfully downwind. I pass the four miles back to town along The Greenway talking to a West Bromwich Albion supporter who’s mourning soccer relegation and looking for 1:59 in the half. He’s tall like me and we make good use of the tailwind, regaining all we’ve lost on the way out, and I leave him on good pace for his time.

“I am a feather for each wind that blows” – The Winter’s Tale, Act 2, Sc. 3
At Hathaway Lane my sister is there again before I bear down into the breeze and out of town into the second lap. 1:58:35 to the half, and it’s going to be close. The 126-Marathon Man is just ahead now, and we run together to mile 15 before I ease gently away up the short but steep Luddington Hill. My reward for escaping is to run the next two miles alone, straight into the headwind. It feels much stronger now, although maybe it’s just the lack of shelter from fellow runners. But I know these lanes like the back of my hand, and I’m happy running on my own. Happy to relive so many training runs of a long winter with just this day in mind.

“Have patience, and endure” – Much Ado about Nothing, Act 4, Sc. 1
Across the river again into Welford. There’s an amazingly patient and vocal crowd next to the bridge outside the Four Alls pub. Cheering each of us in turn, for the runners are thinning out now and we each have a whole table to choose from at the feed stations. As well as a good fruit drink to enjoy, there’s enough water to splash a cup on my head every couple of miles. Just after the next soaking, I see my family drive by on their way to a vantage point up ahead. I must make a dishevelled sight as I wave and grimace. It’s getting close to the limits of my schedule now, but there’s nothing to do but push on. A marshal shouts out that I’m 306th in the race, so I callously reel in number 305 and just keep going.

This time, the foot of Rumer Hill sees a sudden gaggle of walkers, no doubt feeling the mental strain before the anticipated physical pain ahead. At 18 miles, it was always going to be cruel, but it’s in my plan and I shred the climb now, no two ways about it. The steep descent is a different story, and I’m struggling to stay on my feet, more braking than freewheeling. At the foot my family are lining the road, clapping wildly. I raise a shaky smile, and steal another banana. Tiny mouthfuls as I’m suddenly queasy, but it seems to settle me a little and that’s another mile endured through the pretty village of Long Marston.

“The weakest goes to the wall” – Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, Sc. 1
The schedule is getting critical now as we turn back downwind at 20 miles, but so are my legs. Just a 57 minute 10k required for the length of The Greenway, but I know I’m fading fast. I walk the next feed station and struggle on torturously round about the pace until I meet my support crew again at mile 22. How I wish I could smile to reward their loyalty, but I guzzle some of the honey and salt drink they offer and my stomach recovers. It’s “only” the legs which are unwilling now. At 23 miles the game is all up really, but I’m on my favourite trails now, and it lifts my spirits.

Although it’s still one hell of a struggle, and despite some shameful walking breaks, incredibly not one more runner passes me in these last five miles. Across the river for the last time onto a desolate and deserted stretch on the edge of town, I’m glad there’s no crowd to see me toiling here. Mercifully I time a running patch to meet another family hidden in the hedgerow by the roadside. It’s fantastic support for so thin and sorry a field.

There’s just one runner in sight as I loop homeward at mile 25. He’s unaware I’m going to catch him, and certainly he doesn’t care, for just in front of me he darts into the bushes to be violently sick. “Nearly there, old chap,” is the best encouragement I can muster, since to be honest, I don’t feel that good myself. Then it’s onto the river bank at last, past the weir and the next group of spectators. They cheer enthusiastically and, ridiculously, I find myself shouting “All the way now !”, as out of nothing at all I summon up a hopeless lope, or is it a lopeless hope ?

Holy Trinity Church and Shakespeare’s tomb limp by, then the courting benches of my youth, and the Avon Ferry just before the Bowls Club. Small, but familiar landmarks as I count down the distance. Amazingly, my family is there again opposite the Royal Shakespeare Theatre with 400 yards to go. The swans sail serenely by on the Avon beside me, but this is no longer anything resembling a stroll in the park. As I turn onto the grass for the run in, two chasers come into view just 40 yards behind, but no bloody way are they getting past me now.

“At your request my father will grant precious things as trifles” – The Winter’s Tale, Act 5, Sc. 1
My soccer team West Ham have been fighting a crucial relegation game at Manchester City this afternoon and at times I’ve been wondering if I’d learn the score, or rather if I’d even want to. But when I run across the bandstand, with 50 yards to go I hear it. “West Ham won !” shouts my Dad. I raise my arms in triumph there and then, and I’m so elated that I forget to salute the finish. 4:06:54 official time, must be 4:06:33 from line to line, and I’m the 264th runner home.

Emily, aged 8, and William, 7, give me huge smiles and hugs as I stagger to a chair, and even Olivia (19 months) demands a seat on my painful legs as she steals the marathon finisher’s banana. I slump there and I ache, how I ache. As I’m encircled by my entire family, I know that I’ve left absolutely nothing back on the road. I’ve given it my all, I really have.

“My endeavours have ever come too short of my desires” – Henry VIII, Act 3, Sc. 2
So what does it all mean ? I trained harder for this than any race I’ve ever run. The preparation went well, I did all the long runs, pace runs, tempo runs, hills and more hills, a good taper, and Olivia even allowed us some sleep the night before. I reached the start line rested and in good shape, and I defeated the dreaded Rumer Hill, not once, but twice in the same afternoon. But this just wasn’t the day. Not a gale, but maybe wind enough to sap the legs. Those legs which yesterday weren’t quite capable of the sub-4 I’ve trained so long to achieve. And not even a PB, at 50 seconds outside my Chicago time.

“Not the ill wind which blows no man to good” – King Henry IV. Part II, Act 5, Sc. 2
But just finishing this marathon, in the town where I grew up, surrounded by everyone important to me, really it means much more than that. To run faster is always the goal, but to give your very best on home turf, and in the circle of your family, truly this is the achievement of a different kind of day.

And West Ham won, too.

Related articles:
149. In at the deep end – Stratford 220 Sprint Triathlon
3. Running in Shakespeare Country
35. Stratford saplings and The Seeds of Doom
101. The sun’s gonna shine – Abingdon Marathon
116. London is Olympic – The London Marathon
4. GO British ! Chicago Marathon 2002

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