Running a marathon may not be everyone’s ideal way to celebrate a major milestone, but when I came up with the concept of 50 Challenges, it seemed the obvious way to mark my half century and the launch of this new movement. But with setbacks in training, including problems with fuelling and missing toenails, would I be able to deliver on the day?
Running has provided my sanity and my strength for the last 4 years, and has been pivotal to helping me emerge from the Foul Forties stronger, physically and mentally, than at any other time in my life. The timing of the New York marathon – the day after my 50th birthday – combined with my daughter’s long-held passion to visit NYC, made this the obvious way to celebrate my half century and officially launch 50 Challenges to inspire, support and celebrate those aged 50+ to do more, achieve more and be more.
When I booked my place in the marathon at the beginning of the year, it seemed like a perfect plan. But that was before the reality of arduous training and injuries combined with dietary complications, the day-to-day challenges of running a business and family, trying to get 50 Challenges off the ground and organise a family trip to New York – all at the same time – sank in. Three weeks out from the marathon, I seriously wondered if I had bitten off more than I could chew.
The first injury to overcome was to my ankle, which I had sustained prior to running the Rome Marathon in April 2016, and which I considerably aggravated by deciding to undertake the marathon anyway. Putting the injury under that amount of duress meant that I was unable to run for the rest of 2016. I tried cycling as an alternative, but didn’t really get on with it: the downhills seem too easy and the uphills too hard; I prefer the more consistent exercise of running.
At the beginning of 2017 I determined to get back into my running shoes. I got a referral to a physio from my GP, had acupuncture from Alison Arden Acupuncture and started training with Florentia Anastasiou of New Generation Personal Training to help me run smarter and stronger. After a couple of months of physiom acupuncture and gym work, I began my first tentative runs along a disused railway line near where we live; being flat and off road, it was the ideal way to begin to test my ankle without exerting too much pressure on it.
Training twice a week with Flo, I gradually built up my running strength until I was back out three times a week on the railway line and comfortably running 6 miles. In June, I started my formal marathon training; the programme is 16 weeks, four runs a week. Experience has told me that illness and life normally get in the way, so it is worth building at least a couple of weeks into the training plan, so I allowed myself five months. Starting that early meant that when we went on our family holiday to Spain, I had to run 13 and 15 miles, which – as a fair Celt/Saxon – I find tough in the heat; but by setting the alarm early and running at sunrise, I managed.
More problematic were my dietary complications. Suffering from IBS for decades, I was put onto the FODMAP diet; I won’t bore you with the details, but it is highly restrictive with the aim of identifying your personal IBS triggers. Although I now know what my triggers are, I am now far more sensitive to them. Unfortunately, one of these is fructose-glucose, the main ingredient of most of the energy gels on the market. I experimented with a number of substitutes on my longer training runs, but nothing seemed to get me the energy I needed without upsetting my stomach.
Things reached their nadir on my longest training run: 20 miles, three weeks before the marathon. During the first 10 miles, I trialled bananas with healthy sweets and brazil nuts. It didn’t work: I simply didn’t get the energy I needed to carry on. Half way into the run, on country lanes with no public transport, for the first time ever I ever nearly called home for a lift back. The fuelling problems, combined with a lack of sleep from the number of things I was juggling at that point, meant I was utterly spent and simply had nothing left to give.
I kept going for one reason: you never run a marathon in training, so you enter the race not entirely believing you can do it. What gives me the mental belief that I will complete the 26.2 miles is knowing that I have done everything that the trainer who developed the programme has told me to do. If I had given up at 10 miles, I knew it would be highly likely that I would give up during the marathon, as I would have been psychologically unprepared for it. I was carrying a couple of emergency energy gels with me, so I decided to take one to see if it would give me enough of a boost to carry on. It did.
Unfortunately, difficulties with fuel weren’t the only problems I was facing. It’s a part of a runners’ life that you lose toenails; for me this is usually only as a result of the actual marathons, but my toenails had become very fragile due to medication I am taking and were becoming bruised and swollen from even quite short training runs. A few weeks from the marathon I doubted that they would be up to the race.
Then two weeks from D-day an old hamstring injury flared up. I paid an emergency visit to Vital Hands Sports Massage and started praying that it would be alright on the day. With my second challenge being to raise £50,000 for the MS Society before I turn 60 – and a lot of sponsorship already committed for the NYC Marathon – backing out was not an option!
ARRIVING IN NEW YORK
Fortunately, the taper works wonders to heal the body ahead of the big race, so by the time I did my final gentle jog around Central Park to check out the finish line three days before the marathon, I was feeling bouncy and as though my aches and pains would probably hold out. New York was everything we had hoped it would be – and more – with walks along the Highline, visits to the Empire State Building, Ground Zero and Staten Island, and entertainment on Broadway and from The Nicks. My parents, brother and his partner flew out in time for my birthday, but the celebration meal was a nervous affair for me: all I could think of was the need to get in some carbs and protein and get to bed early.
One of the unique challenges of the New York Marathon, which I hadn’t anticipated, is that you have a very early start. The race begins on Staten Island; the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge onto the island is closed at 7am for the race, so you have to be at the marathon village before then. This means a 5am start to be on the official transport buses by 6am, then three hours waiting in the cold before the starter’s gun. It’s one of the things that makes it such a tough race, which I had completely underestimated. However, when it does start, it does so in style, with New York, New York serenading you onto the bridge that takes you back to Brooklyn.
It was a fitting beginning that saw me bounce along for the first half of the race. When I commenced my training, I was aiming for an average pace of around 8:40/mile. With the problems along the way, I had long abandoned that goal, but for the first half of the race I had to reign myself back to 8:30/nile, mindful that if I allowed myself to go too fast I would struggle later on.
However, it was very much a race of two halves. At mile 14 is the Queensboro Bridge: ¾ mile up relentlessly on the same gradient on hard concrete. That was when the race began to get tough. For the next 11 miles, I could feel my energy being sucked into each step and watched my pace slowing on my watch.
Everyone says the crowds are what makes the NY Marathon, and they are right: they are noisy, encouraging and almost ever present – there was so much to listen to that there were very few places when I put my earphones in. The crowds were definitely one of the factors that got me through, along with the excellent live music. But, as I got to the point where I couldn’t stomach any more gels, with another eight miles to go, it became very much a mental effort to continue running. NYC is the only marathon that I have had to pep talk myself through from mile 18. One of the mantras that I kept repeating to myself in the final miles was: I am 50 and I am really doing this! Fortunately, at mile 24 we entered Central Park and it was mostly downhill from there; when I passed my family for the final time, they thought I was still going strong!
My elation at crossing the finish line was a combination of powerful emotions: joy at actually making it, a sense of overwhelm at having been able to bring everything together in time to launch 50 challenges, pride that I had kept going when so many things seemed stacked against me completing the marathon – and absolute, utter exhaustion! Once I was over the line, it was all I could do to shuffle like a zombie – but I was far from alone in that!
As I limped forward, I received the news that I had achieved a personal best of 3:53:24. With all the problems I had struggled with during training, and the gruelling nature of the course, I never envisaged that I would achieve a PB. It was a great personal achievement, and a fantastic way to launch 50 Challenges.
Needless to say, that night and the following days were a fabulous celebration with my family, as we continued to enjoy New York. But, for me, it will always be much more than a family holiday. It was where I put to bed the ghost of my Foul Forties, and entered my next decade with the energy and determination that I intend to be the blueprint for my mid-life. #50Challenges launch - Goodbye to New York.