It’s a year since I wrote about the first long run of my 2004 London Marathon campaign. A wet and miserable winter run which uncovered some forgotten history on a wooded bluff above the River Wey. A line of tank traps forming the last line of defence for London against a Second World War invasion which never took place.
It was an unexpected and thought-provoking find, and I’ve learned a lot more during my running year of 1 000 miles since then. A year unlike any other I’ve run through.
I could give you the statistics – three half marathons, two marathons, best time, worst time, funniest moment – that sort of stuff, but it was much, much simpler than that.
Rain. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind running in the rain. Some of my happiest times have been plodding through puddles. But when it started lashing down ten minutes before the start of the Bath Half in March, I realised that racing in the rain was a different matter altogether. Maybe it’ll be a dry run for a wet day in London, I joked.
Many a true word, they say, and so it proved. London’s marathon drizzle turned to downpour, I was chilled to my stomach, and spent half the race looking for suitable, and unsuitable, download opportunities. It wasn’t much fun.
But was it really the rain, or the grapefruit squash ? Staying in Primrose Hill has proved a perfect base for many a marvellously scenic London training run – through Regents’ Park and along the Grand Union Canal. West to Little Venice, and east through Islington and Hackney to Limehouse, Canary Wharf and the Isle of Dogs. And back again. But on 18th April 2004, fate decreed that there wouldn’t be any orange squash in the cupboard. A moment of madness, that’s all it took, to fill my drink bottle with pink grapefruit instead. Whatever it contains, glucose or fructose, it might as well have been Lactulose for the toll it exerted on my race.
Old Trafford, Upton Park, the Melbourne Cricket Ground, Alpe d’Huez, Augusta National, Soldier Field, Athens. These are the sites of shattered sporting dreams. And now to this sacred list we can add a roadside rhododendron bush beneath a deluge in Southwark.
Weeks and months of training, hard work, days of planning, and nights of dreaming, all gushing away into the soaking South London undergrowth. 4:18.
There was much, much more to be gained from running that race, from sticking it through. The rewards of The Embankment and The Mall are enough for any runner. And I’m certain that I’d never have finished at all, if I hadn’t been so fit before the race, before the rainstorm. Before that glass of grapefruit squash.
But there was still something more to reach for. Another attempt to be made for belated glory. I’d recovered well. In nine weeks I’d be ready to try again, or I could make myself ready. And that’s where I learned a hard lesson. That at my level, there are only so many races in you. And somewhere between Blackpool’s Golden Mile and lofty tower, the dream finally faded away. 4:10.
In the Olympic summer which followed, at least I could understand Paula Radcliffe’s decision to try again in the 10 000 m in Athens, after her stomach had pulled her apart in the marathon. Since looking back now, the strength in the legs, the resilience, the fortitude, the mental resolve, they can convince you that they’re there, whilst still only being shadows of their former selves. And if everything is geared up to that one race, then perhaps no other day of the year can easily deliver in quite the same way.
At least public opprobrium about an unwise second race was never likely to be a problem for me as it was for Paula. But the impact of that decision lasted a long time. All through a long, listless and sore summer. Tired, uncomfortable tropical runs. Suffering through vacation heat and missing motivation.
Home to more rain. After countless wet and soggy pre-London runs, now I could add some soaking autumn runs to splosh around with the best of them. A cloudburst in Bristol’s Clifton Gorge. Gales in the Great South Run. And on another wild and wet evening, in that same Guildford wood, came the painful run to shake a summer’s long denial. Enforced rest. Seven weeks without running at all.
More rain. Winter rain. Back running now, in my rainjacket received in lieu of a London Marathon place. A breathless, legless way back into any sort of form. Frightening twinges whenever I ran too fast. A lingering lesson to learn hard and well. I hope.
And as for the bright points ? A hundred happy lunchtime escapes and evening excursions across the green and yellowing fields of Surrey and Sussex. A fantastic view opening up en route from the Étoile to the Eiffel Tower. And the sunniest of all my days, in that supposedly rainiest city of Manchester. A place I’d never seen, a distance I’d never understood, for a race I’ll never forget. Just one 10 km inside 50 minutes, perhaps the only one I’ll ever run. And nine sweet seconds of grace to make a perfect trade for so much training, planning and dreaming.
It’s been a full year of running. Like life, it’s had its ups and downs. Running in the rain – it’s a pleasure I’ll keep enjoying. And running in the sunshine, too – let’s have some more of that in 2005. But I won’t be running on grapefruit squash again. Not for a long while.
51. London Calling
64. Olympic laurels – Athens 2004
56. Paris – a view from the Champs de Mars
73. A rainjacket by any other name …
65. In the footsteps of Brunel: Bristol Half Marathon
55. A redemption in Manchester
44. Bath Half Marathon: Minerva’s revenge