Feeling privileged to be chasing my fifth star amongst the unicorns in Boston

‘The voice in your head saying you can’t do this is a liar’

This was a fantastic message on a banner at mile 23 of the 123rd Boston marathon, which I was blessed and proud to complete on Patriots Day, 15 April 2019.

Roll back 26.2 miles and I was privileged to stand on the start line of the Boston marathon looking forward to my ninth marathon and hoping to collect my fifth ‘star’. There are six major marathons of the world – Berlin, Boston, Chicago, London, New York and Tokyo, known in the running community as ‘stars’. If you are lucky enough to finish all six you get a special ‘six star medal’ and, to date, only 5,500 people globally have achieved this feat. I would love to be part of that community, to prove to myself and others that you can achieve things that you thought were impossible.

I say ‘lucky enough’ to achieve this because running the six marathons themselves is perhaps the easy part! You need to be able to invest in travelling across the world, which to many would not be possible and I feel very blessed that I am able to do this. You also need to train for six marathons, which means that your desire to achieve this feat can take up a lot of your free time and take you away from your family and friends. I know I’m very lucky to have an incredibly supportive husband, family and friends who cheer me on through my training and the events themselves.

I have never felt more privileged to be on the start line than at Boston. 95% of the runners have achieved an amazing marathon time to qualify for the event. I’m not quick enough to qualify – to put into context how gifted those that qualify are, the qualifying time for my age is 30 mins quicker than my PB. My PB would only qualify a woman aged between 60 and 64! I know that I’ll never be quick enough to qualify and so I feel very grateful that I was given a charity place, making me one of only 1,500 charity runners in the event.

My training had been tough, as usual, but had gone relatively well. The week before the marathon had been spent, as usual, reviewing weather forecasts! The organisers had sent weather warning emails to all runners telling us about forecasts of torrential rain and cold, windy conditions and giving guidance of how to avoid hypothermia! So I turned up with every bit of wet weather gear that I owned!

Travelling to the start line, the forecasts looked to be accurate. It was like a monsoon – torrential rain, thunder and lightning. I knew I couldn’t control the weather and so I tried to focus on things that I could control – eating enough, drinking enough but not too much, being positive and enjoying the experience. I don’t expect to run the Boston marathon again and so I wanted to soak up the atmosphere. Thankfully, by the time I started running, the rain had stopped. It had, however, turned into a very hot day leading to different challenges.

Crossing the start line, one of the amazing volunteers shouted ‘you’re running the Boston marathon today – how cool is that?’ and it brought a huge smile to my face as I set off for my 26.2 miles.

Now, the course is known as the toughest marathon course of the major marathons but I had underestimated just how tough it would be. It is technically a net downhill course but it really didn’t feel like that at all! The first 16 miles are net downhill, there are then 5 uphill miles before 5.2 miles which are net downhill. Well, that is the theory…! Actually the whole course is constantly up and downhill – there is no respite. By mile 9, my legs were exhausted from the hills and the heat and by mile 16, my calves were screaming with pain. It therefore made it a tough day.

The crowds, however, were wonderful. We passed through many residential districts where families were out on the lawns handing out drinks, home made cookies and even beer! We passed colleges where students made so much noise that I couldn’t hear my music. Trains passed us honking their horns to cheer us on. The police were out in force, a poignant reminder of the tragedy here six years ago, and fist bumped and high fived everyone. Unicorns, the symbol of the marathon, were everywhere. It felt like a carnival and I felt truly blessed to be part of it, even through the pain.

The section between miles 16 and 21 was incredibly hard. I tried to run up the hills but my calves were so painful, I was worried about not being able to complete the course and so had to do a mixture of running and walking. I wasn’t alone in doing this and the support from the crowd and fellow runners was inspirational.

Once I’d started on the downhill section at mile 21, I started to pick up my pace, and then at mile 22, the heavens opened and I ran the last four miles in torrential rain and freezing wind. This was mentally exhausting which added to the physical pain!

But then I turned into the finishing straight. For the final half mile you could see the finish line ahead of you, the road lined with the flags of all the runners’ nationalities and with crowds of people 10 deep on both sides who were cheering, waving and willing you home. It was very very moving and will be one of my moments that I remember forever. I crossed the line sobbing with emotion – pride, relief, happiness, exhaustion and disbelief. It was incredibly special.

I hobbled to the hotel where I had arranged to meet my husband and two friends who were both also running. As I entered, the hotel staff cheered me in and I fell into my husband and friends’ arms. We had one aim for this marathon – to all finish with smiles – and we achieved it!

Next year, together with my wonderful running family, I hope to be in Tokyo to aim for our sixth star if we are lucky enough to get a place in that marathon. I never thought I would be able to run a marathon, let alone nine, and there a lot of moments of doubt on Monday. I truly believe a lot of marathon running is a mental battle and you need incredible support to achieve your dreams. I know I wouldn’t achieve marathon success without the support I receive. Everyone is always so generous with their kind words, their interest and their messages. I can’t put into words how much it all means to me. Thank you everyone so much.

Another great banner on Monday was one for ‘Hamilton’ fans which said ‘Don’t throw away your shot’, a reference to one of the songs in the, in my view, inspirational show. The song focuses on the need to take your chances and to make the most of the abilities that you have. I’m not a quick runner and will never be but I worked hard to be in Boston in the only way I could. Even through the pain, I wasn’t going to throw away my shot and all of the runners around me were not going to do so either. Once again, it was a moving and inspiring human experience and one that I felt utterly privileged to be part of.

And now, once my calves are recovered, I’ll be moving on to the training for a summer ultra marathon..!

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