Tuesday, 8 October 2013

The Sixth Half

I did it! 21 kilometers, a full English breakfast (albeit the veggie version), a day of napping and a good night's sleep later, I'm sitting in the autumn sun on an early October Monday, revelling in that post-achievement satisfaction and internally applauding my decision to take the day off work.

Yes, my knee hates me a little, but it's hands down the only part of my body bemoaning my decision to take on the 13 miles yesterday. My thighs feel strong and firm, my calves tired yet solid and - perhaps most importantly - my mind shamelessly proud.

The weather was picture perfect. I woke up early, laced up and carbed up and by the time I was standing in the muddy field, checking the safety pins fastening my start number to my vest, there was nowhere I would rather have been.

16,000 runners all sharing that pre-race cocktail of anxiety, nervousness and excitement with a twist of nausea; adrenaline so dominant you could almost taste it in the water trickling from the nuzzle of the complimentary bottle: enough to keep dehydration at bay but not so much that it would force us to make a beeline for the port-a-loos within the first three miles.

Then came the gun shot, but unfortunately, that pulse spike and heart rate acceleration was followed by a rather anti-climatic wait as the thousands of runner filtered across the narrow starting line, like sand through an egg timer. Just a few grains at a time.

Music blaring in our ears, well-wishers shouting out from all angles and in every direction we look, bright t-shirt signalling the tens of thousand of pounds that will be flowing into the kitties of dozens of charities as we brace to conquer our athletic feats.

And then we were off.

As we snaked along the south side of Hyde Park, everything became remarkably quiet, allowing us to settle in to that natural rhythm of heart beat, gait, breath and arm swing all working in perfect harmony.

Nature's Spectacle

The course was more beautiful than many of us had expected - especially the royal parks debutants like myself. Through the shadows of Westminster Cathedral, the route took us across the Thames, glittering in all it's autumnal glory, and back along the Embankment, the trusty London Eye towering above us and watching our every step.

Back past Buckingham Palace - a quick wave to QE2 - before meandering up horse guards parade and along the iconic mall - usually a victim of London's rush hour but just for one day a glorious path through the Big Smoke's West End reserved exclusively for us runners.

For me this was the point where I entered what I term "the zone": a state of near meditation where my sense of time and space becomes eclipsed by all the things I love about running.

I don't need to think or worry about direction or route, feel neither hungry nor tired (yet) and am able to fully trust in the current of fellow athletes pulling me along, being gently guided in the right direction by a host of ushers.

We zigzagged through the city's green oases, past ponds and in between clusters of trees, along an undulating track.

At times mile markers seemed to follow each other very quickly, at other times the 1.6 kilometres seemed to stretch on, but the cheers of onlookers, motivating signs and intermittent water stations ensured that no single mile seems too much of a struggle.

A few times, a daring squirrel darted in front of me, and one even ran along side me for a few meters before veering off into a bush.

Natures spectacle was beautiful and all the while, the entire route remained drenched in the rich, golden autumn sunshine.

Crossing the Line

Before we knew it, we were circumnavigating the majestic Albert Memorial - Queen Victoria's devastatingly beautiful declaration of love to her late husband. Scores of tourists chanted encouragement at the train of runners on the home stretch.

By now the lactic acid had started gripping our calves and thighs but as if immune to it, the mob sped up, powered by the prospect of finishing and the infectious energy emanating from the crowds, flanking both sides of the track unbroken.

Again, I seemed to lose sense of time and place and forgot even about the now searing ache below my right knee cap. It's all irrelevant compared to the swelling feeling of elation.

And then suddenly the finish line is there and I'm flying over it, arms and legs flailing a little out of control, heavy as lead. But I'm done.

Sixth Time

After a drink, a banana, an intensive stretching session and a check on my finishing time (certainly no personal best) I realise that this is my sixth h
alf marathon. I fondly remember the tears of joy I cried on completing my first, in Zurich back in 2006 with a school friend, but also note how far I have come since then - as a runner but also as a woman.

Running is a passion but injury and illness has taught me that not running is no disaster.

How ever long I am away from it, it will always be there for me when I return. Like a soul mate or sister - however long we spend apart and however long it takes us to warm to each other again - we'll always reconnect and perhaps our relationship will be even richer than before.

The physiotherapist has told me to take 10-14 days off running before recommencing my marathon training. I intend to follow his advice.

My body has earned it and my soul will be grateful too. And when we do lace up and hit the road again, we'll have one more half marathon under our belts to be proud of - one more shared victory - and a relationship that is perhaps that little bit stronger and that little bit more capable of taking on out next hurdle: the titan's challenge. 26 and a bit miles. 

If you're interested in taking part in The Royal Park's Half Marathon next year, click here

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