My Unfashionable Cancer Marathon
It’s 8.57 on 13th May 2018. I’m amongst around 2000 runners waiting for the countdown to Shakespeare Marathon in Stratford on Avon. Alongside me on the other side of the railings are my husband, youngest daughter and her fiancé, more excited I think than I am.
I’m wearing the same gear I had on for the Birmingham Half Marathon seven months ago, green vest printed on the back with the charities I’m running for and on the front Missfit, my business and social media name. My leggings are a multicoloured design called Hip Hop that I made myself. The race number 1018 is attached to the front of my vest top with race clips that read ‘Run Like You Stole Something’ and my Asics trainers have a colourful graffiti pattern, I guess I’m quite noticeable. Normally I run in a cap but I’ve opted to wear sunglasses and hope the sun doesn’t make too strong an appearance, I overheat easily. The most important piece of kit I have on is my Garmin watch to help pace myself.
During training my pace has increased the further I’ve run. Previously I set an average time of 8.30 when running shorter distances. I’d ambitiously set out to run a marathon pace of 9.30, what a fool I was. The seconds ticked over into minutes the longer I ran until I hoped for a marathon pace of around 10.20. The bib number 1018 gave me hope that I may match that on race day.
As we wait in Stratford town centre I’m approached by a man who holds out his hand and tells me what an inspiration I am, he’s read the local news story about my marathon attempt. All around me are runners wearing charity vests. MacMillan used to be the most popular with Cancer UK always having a good show. Today it seemed that Mind, the mental health charity that came out tops probably to coincide with mental health awareness week. Next to me is a very nervous young lady, it’s her first attempt at a half marathon, both full and half start the course together with full doing a second lap. She’s envious of my support team who are encouraging me as we wait for the klaxon. The guy starting the race is Steve Edwards, world record marathoner running his 822nd marathon this will be his 22ndShakespeare Marathon the first having been in 1985. The start rope is lowered and we begin to move forward, slowly at first then momentum gathers. We cross the timing mat at the start line and the small chip attached to everyone’s trainers is activated, the race has begun. Some of us will be running for just over an hour others for more than six hours. The distances each have a different coloured bib, for the marathon mine is red, most around me seem to be white for the half.
For the first part of the run we skirt around the town centre where support from spectators is excellent. Stratford on Avon is the most picturesque town I’ve run through but my focus is on getting into a steady pace. Negotiating bends and keeping away from the barriers takes concentration with so many runners for a while, I have a dread of tripping over and ending my race at the beginning. I’d been positioned relatively near the front of the crowd at the start which meant I was being passed by more experienced and/or energetic starters. Avoiding feet and elbows was tricky until the road widened and we ran out into more suburban streets then out for a short stretch on the Evesham Road.
By this time the field was evening out more. We reached the first drinks station just after mile two, I always run with my own water bottle. For this race I added an electrolyte tablet as with one kidney I worry about dehydration. In a running belt I also carried two energy gels and some jelly babies. I don’t normally run with my phone but carried it so that I had contact with my husband – just in case. For the next couple of miles we wound around country lanes and then started to ascend to the village of Luddington. My hill training paid off as this barely challenged me. There was already a queue waiting for the loo at the first WC station just before the four mile marker, thankfully that urge wasn’t on me, yet. We wound around more country lanes and past houses whose occupants made the special effort to stand out and cheer us on. Kids holding bowls of jelly babies and motivational music along the route are always welcome together with the shouts of encouragement and there was no shortage here. My favourite resident was the guy spraying passing runners with a hose pipe, I was straight through that no messing.
By now runners had begun to settle in to their pace and small groups were forming. I’d run past a couple of people only to be overtaken by them a little further on. Faces and charity vests became familiar as well as running styles. Quite a few runners were ‘Jeffing’ by now, the run/walk method so called as it was taught by Jeff Galloway as a way to increase distance and endurance. I was overtaken by a guy dressed in full Shakespeare costume who must have been sweltering as the heat was really turning up by mid morning. Then I heard an odd squeaking noise approaching and turned to see a man carrying what appeared to be a large backpack heading past me. As he moved in front I could see it was a huge rubber boob complete with nipple, two hand prints and the slogan Cop-A-Feel, a breast cancer charity. I ran behind the squeaky boob for about 4 miles.
As we neared mile eight the hill appeared. I’d heard about Rumer Hill and my husband drove me over it a couple of weeks before the race to familiarise me with the course. Facing it on foot was another thing entirely but I kept running, reaching the brow was a real achievement. Just after this on the first lap we turned off and headed back picking up the Greenway near to mile ten which is a gritty surfaced trail along a disused railway line. This track had a slight incline and by this time the sun, which had hovered around all morning decided to come out and play fully. For me this was the toughest part so far, there was hardly any shelter from the suns rays and the incline was taking its toll. The worst part was knowing that shortly before mile twelve we would split from the half marathon runners and it would be game on for the big one. The cut off point for the full marathon was if the first 11.9 miles was not completed in 2hrs25. I passed this point at around 2hrs5.
We crossed an old iron bridge spanning the Avon before reaching another drinks station and WC point at the divide. The most welcome sight here were volunteers handing out wet sponges from a large barrel. I made good use of one on my head and back. It had dawned on me earlier as the sun beat down that I’d forgotten sun lotion and I could feel myself slowly frying. As we parted from the shorter distance and headed past mile twelve I felt like crying. It was the realisation I had it all to do again and more.
As we curved around back out onto the main road I knew I could take it easier as I’d reached the marathon stage before cut off. It wasn’t long before I stopped to take a walk and text my husband to let him know I was on lap two. He’d hoped to see me at the half way point so I’d presumed he’d not made it on time. It turned out he’d been directed to the wrong place and saw only the half marathoner’s heading back.
I checked my Garmin as we reached the half way point 13.1 miles, my personal best had been 2hrs 8 minutes and I was falling behind this by over five minutes. I heard a couple of runners behind me discussing how it had taken us longer to reach this stage than it had for Paula Radcliffe to complete a full marathon. The thought of running the entire course again was now beginning to fill me with dread. The sun was getting stronger and shade we’d enjoyed earlier now all but gone. Approaching 14 miles we were leaving the town behind again and heading out on country roads.
It was now more apparent that more than half the field of runners had opted for the half marathon. Those of us still going were spread out along the undulating roads, at some bends I felt as though I were running alone. Climbing the hill at Luddington again was tough, I’d taken to Jeffing myself by this time and hills were a definite walk pace. I also took advantage of the portaloo, no queues now, not even another runner in sight. On we ran through picturesque villages, past pubs which were by now filling up with lunchtime customers who cheered us on. When the 18 mile marker appeared I knew what would be next, Rumer Hill part two. This time I don’t think I could’ve run had I wanted to, my legs were beginning to feel painful. I couldn’t even trot down the hill as my toes were also feeling sore. I took advantage of my more leisurely pace this time to take a photo from the top of the hill, it was a beautiful view.
This time around we kept straight on taking a longer route through Long Marston and down to join Greenway South. The 20 mile marker felt surprisingly good as I told myself it was just a 10k run to the finish, 10k’s nothing, I run it often, just not after 20 miles! What I didn’t anticipate was the ferocity of the sun by this time. I’d already topped my water bottle up once and by mile 21 had to stop to refill it again. There were very few running now, I think we were all Jeffing. Passing each other back and forth. I’d set my sights on a woman called Hannah who’d passed me earlier and was determined not to let her out of my sight, but as she edged out of view I knew I was fading.
Mile 22 was my wall. I’d text my husband to let him know how far I’d got and tried to remain positive but I felt beaten. Although there was only just over four miles to go it felt an impossible task. The gravel pathway seemed to keep rising along the horizon and there was little shelter from the sun. I could feel my shoulders sizzling and my head was aching. As for my legs, they didn’t even feel as though they belonged to me. At mile 23 there came relief by way of another bucket of sponges, cold water down the back of my neck gave me a boost and I pushed on. I took a photo of the mile 24 marker so my husband would know I was nearing the finish line. Normally the remaining distance would take me around 15 minutes but with my pace dropping to a staggering (literally) 11 minute mile it was going to drag. Along this last stretch was the official race photographer who called for me to look across and smile. Surprisingly I look remarkably fresh in the resulting photo – obviously wasn’t pushing hard enough!
The final stretch took us off the Greenway and back along a road before a sharp turn down a small track that lead to the recreation ground and finish line. I managed to maintain a steady jog now, every muscle in my legs ached and my toes were very sore but I wanted to run to the end. As the main field came into sight so did my husband who, after shouting encouragement while I plodded towards him then ran alongside me till we reached the final stretch. I was on my own running down to the finish, my name was announced and I was praised on my choice of leggings. Crossing that finish line was incredibly emotional. I’d imagined it over and over, from first applying through training and along the route that day. The finish line was hugely significant marking 5 years since my cancer diagnosis. My daughter and her fiancé held up a banner alongside my husband as I crossed the line. The medal was hung around my neck and I collected some water and a much needed banana.
My tears came as soon as I met my family. It was such a huge achievement. I’d proved that a cancer diagnosis wouldn’t hold me back in any way. In fact I’d achieved far more in the past 5 years and was probably fitter now than ever. As for my time, 5 hours 15 minutes and 52 seconds. A far cry from my predicted 4.30-5 hours but a result I’m extremely proud of nonetheless. Things I learnt from running a marathon; there’s nothing wrong with jeffing, respect those hills, don’t forget your suncream, carry business cards – I’d have sold loads of my leggings and most important it’s tougher than you think. I said that this would be my one and only marathon and I stick to that statement. Many people have told me I’ll change my mind but I’m very sure I won’t. Long distance running is not for me. I ran a marathon for a specific reason, I trained thoroughly and ran it to the best of my ability. I chose Shakespeare Marathon because it was so well run with more than half the proceeds going to local charities. The marshals were all volunteers who along with the organisers made the race extra special. As I’m also writing a book it seemed the most apt marathon to enter and of course it’s a beautiful setting – I’d highly recommend it.
Thank you so much to everyone who has supported and sponsored my milestone race. To date I’ve raised over £1400 which will go to kidney cancer research and patient care via Kidney Cancer Support Network & Facing Up To Kidney Cancer. I am now a marathon runner and a cancer survivor.