I’m just four days away from the London Marathon.
Four months of training have somehow shrunk to four days and a single two mile jog.
If I can think of little else but the race on 18th April, it seems a good time to take my mind off the road ahead, and to look back on the journey that has brought me here.
It’s a journey that started on The Embankment one chilly night in early December, as I left a party at the Globe Theatre on the South Bank. I walked across the floodlit Millennium Bridge to admire the view.
That reflective walk brought me eventually onto the London Marathon course, as I walked, dreamed and finally had to run to catch my train from Waterloo station.
A whole winter and a passage into spring have gone by since then, and I’ve experienced it all. The highlights and lowlights of just one season in one lifetime.
A sunny January afternoon beneath St Paul’s, a dank FA Cup Sunday spent toiling across a soggy floodplain. Smelly cowsheds along disused Sussex railway lines, a lap of the Shakespeare Marathon course in Stratford-upon-Avon, and a falling winter’s night under purple-grey clouds in Lincolnshire. Rediscovering East Grinstead as a mountain-top village at the furthest point of a solitary 3 hour run.
Spring sunshine whilst running 20 miles with my old training partner beside the River Thames from Reading to Pangbourne. Countless conquests of Prestwood Hill under the Gatwick flightpath, exploration of ever more remote (but always identical) 1960s housing estates. Speedwork and stiff legs.
The Pilgrim’s Way. A busker playing The Verve beneath The London Eye. GPS and Jihad. Canals, railways and Madrid. Sharks in the London Aquarium and tennis balls trapped in the Thames’s tidal flow. Running through rain-drenched Georgian streets in Bath. Arsenal unbeaten, a miracle for Deportivo, and Arsenal humbled. West Ham’s decline through, and out of, the First Division play-off places. University top-up fees. Letters of dismay to Labour’s Nick Brown, Tony Blair and The Independent newspaper. Chaos in Iraq.
A December dream, and an April reality, envisaged on a hundred drives through darkness, dawn and dusk in the Surrey Hills. Tiredness and tapering. The evolution of life from Tower Bridge to The Mall. Snowdrops in Shalford, crocuses in Crawley, and daffodils in Dorking.
Cherry blossom along The Embankment.
Since that evening in December, I’ve averaged thirty miles a week. Five hundred miles and 70 000 calories, worth about 9 kilos in all. In previous marathon training campaigns, my weight has come down only slightly, because I’ve eaten just as enthusiastically as I’ve trained. This time, I’ve tried to eat as normal, and sure enough, in eighteen weeks I’ve lost 8 kg. And 82 kg does feel good, even if I’m bound to put on a little weight this week.
Now the miles are behind me, I’m looking forward to the race, and my loyal support group will soon be waiting for me along The Embankment. But even after half a million steps, it’s hard to believe it’s time to run my fourth marathon, a return to where I ran my first, three years ago. I do feel trim and in good shape, if not quite as fit as last year in Stratford. The course in London is flatter, but will be much more congested. The weather forecast looks reasonable at this stage. My shoes are ready. I’m ready.
So what will Sunday bring ? If I’ve really no idea, then it’s because I’ve learned it’s almost foolish to predict performance. It’s way too far for that – too much can happen, with so many variables, and so few equations to solve them beyond mile 20. Some would say that this is the attraction of the marathon. The embarkation into uncharted territory. The lure of the unknown. A short, yet exquisitely sharp-edged corridor, linking anticipation and experience with accomplishment.
It’s often said that the race itself is a reward for what comes before. And yet, through every moment of delight or despair when Sunday comes, this time I’m certain that the true glory of the marathon is the journey itself. Not just the long road from Greenwich to The Mall, but the much longer journey from dream to reality. From the rash moment of commitment, through all the months and miles of training, to that shivery smile on the start line. A voyage lasting months, not hours, yet passing through the same twilight zone of pain and self-doubt which ultimately forms the stairway to achievement. A metaphor for human life itself.
I ran three miles yesterday, as slowly as I could. After months of trying to run further and faster, now it seems I just can’t slow down. It was a warm afternoon, and a pair of pensioners were walking into town. On this, my shortest, slowest run so far, came the warmest encouragement I’ve yet received. “Well done”, smiled the old boy as I scampered past. This journey’s almost done.
If I told you that I’ve enjoyed every step along the way, it would be untrue. Just as I couldn’t say that I’ve never once regretted starting this journey. But I can tell you that it has been worth every effort, just to get this far.
And on Sunday morning, in London, I’ll be ready to run.
100. Half a million steps
47. A taper text
115. A postcard from Greenwich Park
36. The Embankment, inspiration and reality
39. Woking – from Necropolis to Technology Junction
46. On the front line – Crawley’s echoes of Madrid