35. Stratford saplings and The Seeds of Doom

Three months to go, exactly. Time for some real action, some solid workouts. Routine five milers and run-walking twelves just won’t cut it now, won’t get me to The Embankment in April, let alone to the finish line on The Mall.

tramway-bridge-stratford-upon-avon-and-london-eye-at-night.jpgI’m back in Stratford-upon-Avon today, the town where I grew up. Scene of my most recent marathon tableau, a grateful and joyous homecoming for the local boy.

The meticulously planned, yet widely unexpected metamorphosis from boyhood wimpishness and utter athletic indistinction to the cool, calm and rakishly collected 3:59 marathon runner.

Well, it looked good on paper, and in my dream issue of the Stratford Herald too, but reality had kicked in somewhere amongst the mists of marathon’s dreaded mile 20. “Run a dream marathon for 20 miles, and suffer like hell for the next 6.2“, as Shakespeare himself would have put it, in describing probably 90% of all the marathons that have ever been run, anywhere, by anyone and everyone, except for Paula Radcliffe.

Today I’m on a repeat run, or at least part of it, as I set out for one circuit of the two-lap Shakespeare Marathon course. It’s marvellous running, even in a grey January, with little traffic when I brave a mile along the pavement-less stretch of the main Evesham Road towards Welford. After last week’s struggle, I’ve got a stash of fresh digestives in my pocket for once, and a larger drink bottle sloshing annoyingly on my back.

Two biscuits and a lemon barley every 35 minutes, so ordered this Rock Doctor, and it all goes by relatively smoothly. I manage to schedule a biccy for the lower slopes of Rumer Hill, which helps. It’s a long time to be out on your own, running and working hard, staving off the possibilities of uncertain collapse, and resisting the urge to walk (more). But I get round the 14 miles.

On runs like this, what really amazes me is that I have ever even contemplated running the two laps, the full 26.2, when one seems mad enough. But I did the distance here once, and I will do around London in April again (I hope). Truly I am indeed crazy.

Immediate proof of this opinion isn’t far away and I dash out again, before rigor mortis sets in, for another spot of eco-terrorism, secretively planting saplings at an undisclosable location. Safeguarding the beauty of the local environment by masking the 24-hour lighting of the Coach Park which the thoughtful council have considerately planted on the edge of the floodplain. My action’s not exactly legal, but hopefully a judge might view such wantonly green vandalism favourably one day. Straggling stands of 40-60′ mixed deciduous species nearby bear tribute to a worthwhile cause. Just how a four-year old potted Christmas tree, more used to life on a Surrey patio, will settle in amongst such company is as yet unclear, but it will be fun to watch through the years ahead.

Solid progress, and I throw it all away with over-keenness. Not much stiffness on Sunday, but I should really take Monday off too. I don’t, and trek the grey Crawley lunchtime five miler instead. I swap over from my running watch as I leave the office. In the depths of settling in to the Radio Five Live news behind the swishing wiper blades, I vaguely wonder what that strange popping noise might be as I drive away.

A fruitlessly puzzled hunt at home and in the car floor well later, I duly recover my crushed Swatch from Security the following morning, still reading 6:01 pm. Heading into Crawley in search of a replacement, it’s just two miles each way, and foolishly I decide to jog it. The seeds of doom.

Thursday looks like a lunchtime meeting, and so I reschedule my ‘sorta-long’ 7 miler for Wednesday. It’s the third day in a row. Red warning lights flash but are ignored by the foolhardy pilot. No food first either, since the 11 o’clock sandwich is relegated behind another meeting. Hurry out, feeling fine, and reel off the first 2.5 miles effortlessly and too quickly. Red-line approaching, and blue smoke appears in the rear-view mirror as I head up Prestwood Hill. Just 3 flat miles back to the office, but it’s long enough to give up running, entirely and for ever, on three separate occasions. Engine burn-out has come home to roost, with the RAC nowhere in sight.

After my shower, that new watch reveals an overall time, including three pathetic walk breaks, which is exactly the same as a solid run over the same route the week before. Stupidly, I decide to take up running again, just one more time (again).

Why do I do it ? Well, one evening last December I walked back from a function at the Globe Theatre to Waterloo. Foolishly, I decided to try out the Millennium Bridge on foot. The one from the Tate Modern to St Paul’s. Marvellous stuff, the view over the Thames on a winter’s night. Strolled along the North Bank for a while, and suddenly I heard it. The ‘Chariots of Fire‘ which they play at full volume in the Blackfriars Tunnel at 23 miles in the London Marathon. It’s fantastic inspiration at a time when you’re digging deepest.

You’ve just stumbled over the cobbles past the Tower of London, run through a chasm of spectators lining Upper Thames Street, and down into this dark underpass.

Then suddenly you emerge upwards into dazzling sunshine alongside the River Thames, with the giant wheel of the London Eye circling high on the opposite bank. The view opens up ahead of you for the first time, and far away through the flowering cherry trees lining The Embankment, you catch your first sight of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament at 25 miles. It’s got to be one of my all time greatest running moments.

Three more miles of speedwork today. Lungfulls of hot iron. Legs of molten clay. And all in search of those cherry trees on 18th April.

Related articles:
23. The uncertain glory of an April day: Shakespeare Marathon 2003
149. In at the deep end – Stratford 220 Sprint Triathlon
3. Running in Shakespeare Country
36. The Embankment, inspiration and reality
115. A postcard from Greenwich Park
2. My first marathon: London 2001
42. Twenty six times two – marathon dreams in the Surrey Hills

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