The Big Two Zero

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I can still clearly remember my first running milestone, or what felt like one anyway. It was early 2006 and, after racking up a few weeks of leisurely jogs, I was ready to log what I considered a ‘real’ run. From home in Falmer, East Sussex I could take a walking path all the way to the market town of Lewes a few miles east. And so with little to no running knowledge, little to no running experience and the heaviest cotton running apparel imaginable, I was off.

I never made it to Lewes itself but did make the outskirts, clocking up a total of roughly four miles. Four whole miles! I’d never run so far. Running for 40 minutes! Me? Woah. A feeling of joy, of something fresh, of feeling alive like never before. That day changed everything. Not just because it set me off on a running lifestyle which has carried on to the present day, but because it showed me what a powerful tool running could be for getting out of my own head and getting my thoughts in order. 

I consider this my first milestone. 

Fast forward a couple of years I had my second (first 10-mile event) and then quite a few years later, my third (first half-marathon).

And then yesterday…

When I decided to sign up for my first marathon, I researched and devoured hundreds of training plans. And whilst they all varied in structure and format, one unavoidable truism always popped up—the long run. Of course, I wasn’t surprised about seeing it there. I knew I’d have to gradually push that distance up if I was ever going to run a marathon. But now actually thinking this through, I felt panic. The numbers propelled fear to every limb of my body. Long runs of 12, 14, 15, 17, 18, 20 miles. On finishing my first half-marathon at a hobble and with scream-inducing cramp, I vowed that that was it. No more running these kinds of distances. And how the hell do so many people run marathons and ultras? 13.1 miles had beaten me. 

A couple of years later and at 13.1 miles, I feel good. The pace might be slower than that half-marathon but my legs are fine and mentally I feel like I’ve got much more in me still. 

In training for this marathon, I’ve found a decent ‘out and back’ route as I like to call it. Heading out of Tallinn’s medieval Old Town, I pass by the commercial port area and before long I’m on the coastal promenade looking out to the Baltic Sea. After 5 miles or so, this gives way to pine forests at the sea’s edge (my favourite part). Then, making a sharp left turn around the bay, you can run at least another 5 miles up through the area of Viimsi, passing shops, restaurants, houses and then green fields. 

The one benefit of running out 10 miles is that there’s only one way home—another 10. I’ve never been a fan of running loops and the idea of running around a track is not something that appeals. For me, part of the run has always been about discovery. New sights, smells, architecture, trees—whatever it might be. It’s like seeing the world again for the first time. I got to experience that feeling on this run, having run out on my route further than ever before.

At mile 15, things start to change. Here, I know exactly how far it is until home. And it’s here that I get that feeling that all runners must all get at some point in their lives—I’m bored and can’t this run finish already? With 5 miles left in my first 20-mile run, this is not a good thing to hear from a chattering mind. I try various methods to get my head clear—to forget about the distance left, the slight twinge I feel in my knee and my to-do list for the rest of the day. Music usually helps in this instance. I find at these times that it’s not the latest tracks that do the job. I need something from my formative years—something that is hardwired into me. In my case, that’s punk-rock from the early 2000s and the classic rock tracks that my dad would play on car drives when I was a kid. So I line up a playlist I’ve created for exactly this type of situation and get back to work, aligning my steps and breath at the same time (also a very useful trick I go to often).

I look down at my running app. 19.97, 19.98, 19.99 and 20 miles! 20 miles done. It’s a relief. I take a minute to crouch down, feeling 100x better than I did in my first half-marathon two years ago. Yes, my legs are heavy and I have a niggle in my lower back but overall, fine. I take a walk around the neighbourhood to loosen up before getting home and then slump onto the living room, attempting a few half-hearted stretches and gulping back water. 

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When I began looking at running my first marathon, the number 20 always stood out. Psychologically, it just looks so much bigger than 14 or 16 miles. So, I'm definitely adding that as a milestone in my running journey. It may not have been a race, a quick pace or anything record breaking but for me personally, it was all three of those things. It wasn’t just about this run but all the other runs I have completed over the last 4 months to get to this point—the point where I can run 20 miles and still be well enough to be out and about later on in the day with just a little soreness in my legs. 

I can’t linger on it too much, though. In one month’s time, I’ll have that plus another 6 miles to get through. And it scares me. Those last miles will be the most demanding I’ve ever run. But I take reassurance in the fact that when I started this process, 20 miles seemed an impossible feat. And when I ran 4 miles through the East Sussex countryside some 12 years ago—well, that also seemed unachievable to my 18-year-old self too... 
 

Piers McEwanComment