Chasing six stars and 7,000m: via several laps of a lake and a sub four hour marathon

It always seems impossible until it’s done

I have always loved this quote and it has encouraged me many times when I’ve considered things that seemed beyond my capabilities. Over the last year, it has helped me to cope with the strange world we have lived in. If we had known last Easter that, a year later, we’d still be unable to live our lives normally, I think many of us would have said that it would be impossible to cope with that reality. But, we are coping – we’re making the best of what we have, we’re enjoying special moments and we’re dreaming of our futures.

As I’ve written about previously, I started 2020 with a dream of completing the Tokyo marathon and getting my six star medal for those runners privileged to have completed the six major marathons of the world and then heading to Kyrgyzstan to climb to the summit of Peak Lenin at 7,100m, all to raise money for the wonderful Cancer Research.

That dream clearly didn’t happen in 2020 but I spent the spring and summer training hard, running and walking with my rucksack full of weights, so that I would be ready for those special events in the future. As well as keeping me fit, this helped me mentally to keep focused on something that I could control, to cope with feelings of helplessness brought on by the challenges of the pandemic. By the autumn, I didn’t know whether my six star run and my mountain climb would go ahead in 2021. Together with my wonderful running friends, therefore, I decided to enter a socially distanced marathon on Easter Saturday 2021. It was a goal and I love having a goal to aim for! And what a wonderful event it was!

For those of you that are runners, you may know what is meant by a ‘BQ’ – a Boston marathon qualifying time. To enter the inspirational Boston marathon, 95% of runners have to meet tough qualifying times for their age groups. When I ran the Boston marathon in 2019, I couldn’t get in via the qualifying standard and so I was incredibly lucky to be one of the 1,500 runners who got their place through a charity. In the blog that I wrote about that day, I talked about the fact that this was my one shot at a Boston marathon medal as I would never be fast enough to get a qualifying time. Yesterday I achieved my BQ and I haven’t stopped smiling since.

I’d always wondered what I might be able to achieve in my running if I could invest some more time into my training but with a busy work life, with a job that I love, this wasn’t possible without sacrificing even more time away from my wonderful husband, which I wasn’t prepared to do. Having signed up for the marathon, I decided that, as I wasn’t commuting, I should invest that time in running and see what was possible for me to achieve. My wonderful running friends encouraged and inspired me and shared with me a training schedule that they had used previously to achieve fantastic improvements. I took at look at the first week of the schedule and almost discarded it. It required me to run six days a week, with speed runs, hill running, long distance runs and lots and lots of miles in training. The first week, and then every week of the schedule it turned out, required at least 40 miles of runs. In my usual training programme, I would run only one week of that distance and that was my ‘long run’ week before I would start tapering for the marathon itself.

I therefore didn’t allow myself to look beyond each week so that I didn’t get too daunted. Each day, I would look at the run planned and think ‘this is the run that I won’t be able to do’ but surprisingly my legs held up and slowly but surely I progressed through the runs.

I also decided to try and lose a little bit of weight, to help me in my running and to help me get up the mountain in due course. I had never dieted before and wanted to do it safely and so I worked with my personal trainer to reduce my calorie intake a little whilst making sure I was sufficiently energised for my training.

The combination of the training schedule and losing weight meant that my pace was slowly improving. At the start, my best marathon pace was about 9 min 25 sec per mile and if I ran miles under 9 min mile pace, that was a quick run for me. Over the weeks of the training programme, my pace gradually sped up, with me regularly running under 9 min mile pace, then 8 min 30 sec mile pace and then towards 8 min mile pace. I logged all of my times but didn’t really believe that it would be sustainable over the longer distances.

When I started my marathon journey, I completed my first marathon in 5 hrs and 44 mins and a 5 hour time was a target for several years. I still remember the elation I felt when I broke that barrier! When I got stronger through having a personal trainer I broke 4 hrs 30 mins but never thought I would be able to break 4 hours. It seemed a barrier that was beyond me. But my training was showing that this could well be a possibility for me, which I found incredible.

With the lockdown rules changing, it was only a week before the event that it was confirmed that the marathon would take place. Never did I think I would cry with happiness at the thought of running 26.2 miles but I did! It felt like, for me, the start of some normality returning.

I stood at the start, with nerves and a huge amount of excitement. Training had gone well and I knew I was the best prepared I’d ever been for a marathon. I also knew, however, that anything can happen over 26.2 miles. I was so happy to be back doing something that I loved and I wanted to enjoy the day. I knew that, if everything went well, I should achieve a PB time and that I may be able to break the sub 4 hour barrier which, to me, would be an amazing accomplishment. My friends and my husband were talking about me being able to get a Boston marathon qualifying time, which for my age group was 3 hrs 50 mins, but I didn’t really believe I could do that.

The route was four laps up and down both sides of the beautiful Eton Dorney Olympic rowing venue. Being a flat area and a lake, the wind was incredibly strong and, whilst it was technically laps, because of the up and down format, and the fact that the wind blew across the lake, there was only about a half mile stretch where the wind was behind us! It made for tough conditions! It was fantastic, though, to see runners several times and I could see my two running friends regularly as we crossed each other and so I knew how they were getting on, which was incredibly inspiring throughout the event, particularly as no spectating was allowed and so my husband wasn’t able to cheer me on.

The first two laps went well and I went through the half way point at 1 hr 47 which was very quick for me. Previously, I had always slowed a lot in the second half and I assumed the same would happen and so I didn’t allow myself to think about the finish time but just to focus on putting one foot in front of the other.

The third lap also went well and I had maintained my pace for much of the time. I looked at my watch as I started the fourth lap and thought that a sub 4 hour run might be possible. My legs were, though, starting to ache and I knew the final lap would be very hard. I had read a quote once which said that the last five miles of a marathon are where you need to be courageous and that is what I focused on as I went past the 21 mile marker. I was slowing a little but I pushed on and was given a huge boost as I went through the 23 mile marker and saw one of my friends having finished and so knew he had got a fantastic PB. I then saw my other friend coming back on the finishing straight, knowing that she too was on her way to an amazing PB. We gave each other thumbs up and I felt inspired for my final two miles.

I looked at my watch at the 25 mile marker and saw that I had 35 mins to go to achieve my aim of a sub 4 hour marathon and 25 mins to go to achieve a Boston marathon qualifying time. I started smiling and I don’t think the smile left my face for several hours! I still didn’t allow myself to believe I would achieve it, though, as a mile is still a long way to go in a marathon and an injury can occur at any time. When I got to 100m to go though and saw, and heard, my friends screaming my name, I knew I would achieve it and my legs managed to speed up to take me over the finish line. I stopped my watch at 3 hrs and 37 mins. I couldn’t believe it as I picked up my medal. My friends came over and I showed them my watch and we celebrated, laughed, cried and screamed ‘Boston qualifying’! I think everyone must have thought we were mad!

I never thought I would be capable of this type of time on a marathon. I appreciate it is only a marathon and, in the scheme of things, particularly this year, it is unimportant but, as usual, I found the event so inspiring. I always think that you see the best of the human spirit at a marathon – people pushing themselves beyond what they thought they were capable of, people supporting those around them, even those they don’t know, by words and smiles of encouragement, people giving up their time to allow events to happen and to help people achieve their dreams. This year we have seen the best of the human spirit every single day, doing exactly these things, and it has been so uplifting.

I therefore left the marathon smiling and inspired, not just delighted to have been able to achieve something that for me was very special but that it was the start of normality returning. I was left reflecting on the following:

If you love something, do it with all of your heart

Surround yourself with people who lift you higher

And, it always seems impossible until it’s done.

And now, onwards to the mountains and Tokyo, whenever they may be.

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