Getting to the Start

During the mid noughties I decided I wanted to run a marathon. Applications for the race I wanted to run open up nearly a year in advance, in April, but you have to wait until around October to find out whether you succeeded in the lottery draw for places. At the time I lived barely half a mile from the start line of the London Marathon. I applied, and I began to run. Not everyone is blessed with the rich training ground I enjoyed.

Set in southeast London, Greenwich Park is full of wonders: deer, trees that date back to the mid 1600s, and a line in the ground separating the east of our planet from the west. The National Maritime Museum runs along the bottom of the park, near the river, and later provided the backdrop for the equestrian events at the 2012 London Olympics; the museum houses treasures from Captain James Cook and Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson. (Although that title seems a bit of a mouthful, his full title is almost as impressive as his deeds.) Looking down on this museum, from atop one of the highest points of London, is the 400 year old Royal Observatory, whose own museum houses John Harrison’s marine chronometer, the device that solved the problem of longitude, and arguably helped the British Empire reach the extent that it did. The park is truly an embarrassment of riches.

When Greenwich Park became too small for my running, I ventured to run behind it, on Blackheath Common. With an elevation of  about 150 ft (50m) it could get very windy, and you sometimes had to take care not to entangle yourself in the lines of the many kite fliers taking advantage of the flat expanse of land. On occasion, I even ran under the River Thames, through the foot tunnel on the other side of the 18th Century ship – the Cutty Sark – once one of the fastest sailing ships in the world.

That summer was a glorious exploration, and so as I write about this time, nearly a decade later, I can’t even recall the extent of my disappointment when I received the email telling me that I didn’t get a place for the following year’s race. I took the winter off entirely and then reapplied.

The exploration and education of my own city continued the following year. Marathons are not as long as the training required to prepare for them, and even the park and heath, which had seemed enormous when slowly walking them with family and friends, quickly shrank in size. My typical training session was soon taking me in excess of 14 miles, and I uncovered parts of London I had never known existed, like Eltham Palace, an Art Deco wonder, once owned by the millionaire Courtaulds, and still displaying some of the original 15th Century Tudor architecture from the original structure. When I received the email telling me I had a place, I continued running, this time through the streets, and through the dark nighted London winter, where the sun rises around 8am and sets before 4pm.

At that time, I had never heard of iliotibial bands, the gluteus medius, or foam rollers. Knee pain caused me to pull out of the marathon. I thought running was uncomplicated (and now, years later, I know more about anatomy, physiology, and running related injuries than I ever thought I needed).  Luckily, I was able to roll my place into the next year’s race. When the same thing happened the following year, with the same knee, I lost my spot in the event entirely. I went to a specialist in body movement, who told me I just wasn’t designed to run a marathon. I gave up. Sort of.

In 2009, I moved to Chicago. I found myself working with a crazy Venezuelan who thought it might be fun to run the Chicago Marathon. Curiously enough, I found myself once more living just half a mile from a start line. Friendship, and a bloody-minded attitude, prompted me to sign up. There was no lottery this time, I was in. WE were in.

For the whole of 2010, whenever anyone asked me my marathon goal, I gave only two responses: to get to the start line, and to have my knees in one piece when I was 50. Time was of no importance. If I hurt, I stopped. I recall doing just that on several occasions. I learned the difference between discomfort and pain When you feel discomfort, you work thought it; when you feel pain, you stop. But after failing to run in the London equivalent, I still recall the ever-present anxiety I felt that I might not even make it to the start one more; I wrapped myself in cotton wool.

Peer support certainly helped. I learned about foam rollers. I learned downward dog, and pigeon’s pose, and I foam rolled my iliotibial bands until I didn’t want to smack someone in the face with a wet kipper. (Anyone who has ever rolled their ITB will know well this urge so smack someone with a fish.) And because I was both more informed, as well as unattached to a time goal, my progress to the start line was more balanced than it had ever been. I was assisted by regular massage, as well as by the articles on injury prevention, which I read voraciously, and by the people with whom I found myself spending time. I was able to get to the start line in 10/10/10 – my inaugural marathon – on a mercifully easy date to recall and convey (regardless of whether you read it in US or UK date formats).

I had spent five years getting to the start of that run. Part of that time was down to the need to accumulate sufficient knowledge, and part was developing my body’s capacity to last. I did finish, but that is irrelevant now. Simply getting to the start was everything. You learn, and you grow, and you assemble a toolkit of knowledge that equips you to deal with the peculiar set of challenges you face. We are all built differently, and my process took as long as it took to coalesce.  It had begun with a simple goal, to run a marathon, but as I look back now, the goal was only important because it caused the journey to be. A goal is important in overcoming inertia, and in generating that early momentum. However, the achievement of a goal is an ephemeral thing, rather it is the journey that is the joy, and the time that journey takes is of no consequence.

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