So I went and ran a 27th marathon, after I said I was done with marathons. And honestly, I really should have been done with marathons…
The night of Boston Marathon my niece Abi (who lives in Denmark) messaged that, inspired by all my running antics, she was going to be taking on her first marathon in Copenhagen at the end of May! When I ran there for my second attempt over 26.2 in 2016, Abi had come along to do parkrun the day before – 5km was about as much as she ran at the time. Slowly over the years though she’d become more keen on the sport and after supporting me back then and her boyfriend in 2018, she had decided to step up to the full distance. How exciting!
Immediately I knew I had to be there to cheer her on – but then when I checked the website and saw that there were still entries available, it crept into my mind that maybe, perhaps, I could run it too. Boston hadn’t gone to plan, and theoretically I still had all that training in my legs- so why not give it another crack.
Secretly, I signed up. That is, I only told Sye and my coach that I was running it (although a few French running friends figured it out). I had this idea that all the external pressure had lead to my downfall at Boston, so if I just flew under the radar and didn’t make a fuss about it, then I could just get out there and run. I would run fast, sub-3:20, and then head back to 40km to cheer Abi through to the end.
Secretly too, my right ankle was giving me grief. It had been aching for a few weeks, not too much but just enough that I knew it was there. Wrapping it in a bandage helped, and it felt better when I ran, enough that I was confident that it would last the distance. Ish.
It was a lovely sunny weekend, and it was great to be a voice of wisdom for my nervous but excited niece. We ran a slow parkrun together the day before, before picking up our bibs and getting excited about seeing our names on the start-list. She had put in the training and knew she would probably get around, but just didn’t know what sort of difficulties she would face on the way there. Me – I wasn’t thinking about the race too much, just focussing on helping her relax and be ready for race day.
A nice and early alarm and we were off to the startline. Copenhagen is only the second marathon I’ve run twice, but it was nice knowing what to expect, and nice to have a local to make sure we didn’t get lost on the way ?There was plenty of time to go to the loo a few times (unlike in 2016 when I was just coming out as the gun went off!), munch on a banana and strip down ready to race.
This was to be my first marathon wearing a sports bra, my first marathon in a long time without wearing a tutu or the orange Julia shirt, and probably the first marathon when I left my phone in my bag rather than carrying it with me (mistake!). I didn’t want to attract attention, didn’t want the cheers that normally come with my kit, just wanted to run fast.
Coach Ben had laid out a race plan simple to those from the past: start slower, pick up until halfway then steady home. There were pacers for every 10min time goal, and so I positioned myself behind the 3:30s, thinking that I could eventually catch up to the group ahead and have a nice buffer to go sub-3:20. The initial pace felt awkward, until I picked it up after 5km and could settle a bit more. I chased down the 3:30 pacers and overtook them at 10km, and continued making my way towards the next group.
The sunny weekend meant a warm day for running, and as I came over a bridge I realised that I was pushing the effort a bit too much for the weather and so dialled it back. But even with the adjustment it just still didn’t feel right. I continued on for a few more kilometres but couldn’t find the same pace as before, that level of continuous-chugging-along which ticks off the kilometres. I felt like I was slowing down, I thought about dropping out, it was way too much effort.
And suddenly, just past 19km, came the peace of knowing I was done. D-O-N-E. I’d run my 26 marathons, and I was finished. I didn’t need to prove anything to myself or anyone else, this just wasn’t working for me anymore. I needed to take a break, this would be my last marathon for a while.
My family had said they would be waiting at 28km for Abi, and so I made slowly made my way to them, taking lots of breaks to try and reduce the gap between myself and wherever she was behind me. Now that this marathon didn’t matter to me anymore, I wanted to run the last third of the race by her side and help her through the tough sections.
Cathy, my sister, and David, Abi’s boyfriend, were waiting and waving as I came up to them, but thankfully didn’t act too surprised when I stepped off the side of the course and told them my plan. I think they understood what I hadn’t yet, that this was just all a bit much. David went and bought me an ice-tea which I quickly sculled, and we chatted and waited for my superstar niece. We could tell from the tracking app that she was moving nicely, and was doing a great job at pacing her first marathon. [Yes, there’s a brilliant 40:25/km split in the middle of my race!]
We screamed and cheered for her as she came past, and I jumped in beside her – only then realising that she might not want my company! Thankfully she was OK with it, but determined that we had to go at her pace – of course – and not to expect too much chatter.
She had been in good spirits when I met her at 28km, but soon after she developed a stitch which stuck around for the next 8km, and I could tell that she was struggling but putting on a brave face. We walked when she needed to and ran when she felt she wanted to get moving again. Eventually it was easier for her to keep moving rather than stop at the aid stations, so I took care of fetching drinks and fuel and making sure she had what she needed. High-fives and encouragement were delivered with every kilometre passed, and we continued our way towards the finish.
Abi was so strong. Her family was waiting at so many points along the course, and I was as impressed at how many times we saw them in the last 10km as they were of her. I too felt privileged to get to share this experience with her, it was worth everything which had come beforehand. As we came down the final straight towards the finish I decided to sprint ahead and let her enjoy her moment in the spotlight alone – she ran that race like a champion.
My ankle held out for the race (hoorah!) but other than that, it wasn’t at all what I expected it would be. I don’t think I believed it in it enough, certainly wasn’t ready to dig down deep when I needed to. And that’s OK, I learned a lot (and got a swanky new bag in celebration of the 40th edition of the race).
I said to people after the race that Copenhagen felt like a fling after a break-up, when you try going back to a relationship only to figure out that ending it was the right decision all along. But at the same time, it was a great experience – I went in expecting to run a fast race but instead got to share the race helping my niece, something which could only have happened by letting go of my own goals.
Marathons… I might be back. TBD. There are still some things left unfinished. But right now let’s just cheer on my incredible niece Abi, the Marathoner!