With carbo loading, catching up with friends and a sleepless Saturday night in the Royal Borough undertaken, the 6am alarm on Sunday morning felt pretty hard.
Despite the recommendations of many experts, my breakfast was like Rihanna's wardrobe: only half done. I had in fact remembered to bring along a plastic bag filled with a few handfuls of my familiar 'long run' usual of Swiss supermarket-brand chocolate muesli, but forgot to get any milk. Instead, I crouched down on the bathroom floor (so that Love Chunks and Sapphire would not be woken up); hastily gulped down three 'protein balls' I'd sampled at the runner's expo the day before and washed the sticky scraps of lingering seeds down with a godawful sample of coconut 'water' flavoured with 'coffee.' All was expunged with a half bottle of water and a nervous wee.
A shaky couple of selfies were taken - one by Sapph who did get up and insist on a 'full body shot.' No slim greyhound, me, but my chunky trunks and Achilles bandages were about as ready as they'd ever be.
A short tube ride to Simon's hotel - his lovely wife (and my friend) Gianna was in good spirits for us; I hid my nerves by goofing around and having ANOTHER wee. In their bathroom.
I'm the sort of person who immediately wants to know where the nearest toilets are: in cafes, on trains, at tourist spots, in friends' houses...... My friend Jill can attest to how many times she found herself waiting as I 'ducked in' for a wee during our travels. The marathon map had been reviewed at length and it was quite literally a comfort to know that toilets were being provided at regular intervals throughout the route.
Simon's sister, Pauline (far left in the picture below), lives in Bermuda and was running in her TENTH marathon, this one as a 'training event' for the ultra triathlon she was doing later in the year. Her daughters Tor and Jessie (both doing their second marathon), were running for the same charity as me: Action Against Pre-Eclampsia. Less than a year ago, Tor had suffered the condition when pregnant with her baby girl.
A tram ride to Kings Cross station on still-silent streets took us to the train that had been exclusively arranged for the 40,000+ marathoners. The carriage we were in was lively with chat, jokes and the smell of liniment. We sipped from water bottles, munched on energy bars and tried not to slide off the carpeted seats in our skin-tight lycra leggings.
Arriving at nine am, an hour before the start, was in no way being anal as the site itself was enormous. Dozens upon dozens of trucks were lined up, all neatly numbered for us to stow away our belongings until we saw them again past the finish line. My belongings were mostly in my bum bag (hotel key, ipod, headphones, iphone, energy gels and a hanky), and my thoughts were also bum-related: The queue for the portaloos - at our four stations - were each a half a kilometre long. I needed to stake my spot. Immediately.
Best decision I ever made. Simon played his boy card and found a tree, but we gals nervously stretched our calves in the line, jiggled our thighs and noted how quickly the time was flying by. Rolls of toilet paper were passed down the queue to avoid any dripping disappointment when in the portoloo pod itself.
The relief of making it into a surprisingly clean toilet and out just as the overhead PA instructed us all to get ready at the starting line - in the finishing time we estimated - was immense.
An enormous cheer erupted at 10am, but there was no discernible movement forward for us, standing next to the 'Five hour finish' flag. I can only imagine how frustrating it must have been for runners twenty or more years ago knowing that time was ticking even though they had yet to cross the starting line. All I could do was hope that I'd laced up my own magic individual timer chip to my shoelaces tight enough.
At 10:23am, we shuffled over the starting line. Simon and Pauline were running alongside me; Pauline leading the way in dodging around the other runners. There was no clear space to spread out so a lot of ducking and diving was required.
"Well done, Pauline, you're looking good!"
Oh, so that's why everyone had their names written on their t-shirts: the crowds that packed every single centimetre of the route were reading them and yelling out encouragement. Ah well, in my navy and black I'd just have to stay anonymous... "Go for it, blue cap!" "You can do it, Cappy!" Bless them: they had made up something to call me, and it was far better than Big Nose or Bubbling Buttocks....
"Bloody poms and their imperial measures," I panted to Pauline. "Running miles takes FOREVER compared to kilometres!" Each mile was marked by an arch of red balloons and my squinting eyes were always searching for the next one. It was with an immense feeling of disappointment to see the beloved balloon display in the distance only to reach it and realise that it was for a charity cheering spot and not because another mile had been covered.
At the six mile mark (around 10km) it was time for me to take my first energy gel. The plan was to not stop running at all during the event, but of course that was the moment for the zip to bust on my bum bag and my uncoordinatedly sweaty finger tips just could not rip open the top of the gel pack. So, I stopped, calling out, "See you Simon and Pauline - run like the wind!" before using my teeth to rip the top off, suck down the cola-flavoured ooze, slug down a bit of water and push on again.
Not too much water slugging though. My biggest fear was having to do a wee (or worse) during the event. "Sip little and sip often," was my mantra, especially when I discovered that the loos on the route now had lines of at least a hundred dejected-looking runners (or, in their case, non-runners) sadly but urgently waiting for their turn.
Love Chunks and Sapphire were part of the charity cheer squad on Tower Bridge at roughly the half-way mark. However, with the road festooned with abandoned water bottles and surprisingly-deep and frequent pock marks in the bitumen, my efforts to spot them in the crowd were less than the ones to keep remaining upright and uninjured. They were there somewhere though and I knew it. Sickly sweet to say, but utterly true. My heart beat loud and strong for them both on that famous landmark.
My caution at not trying too hard to spot them in the crowd wasn't unfounded. A young girl saw her mates in the crowd, whooped a greeting and made her way over to their side of the road to give them a high five when she trod on a water bottle and instantly pitched forward, smacking her face onto the gravel and burning her hands. My gasp of sympathy was all I could do to help before first-aiders picked her up and carried her, now sobbing, to a chair.
The next ten miles were the cruellest of all. No cheer squad for me ahead, still completing Mile Thirteen and yet could see the runners on the opposite side of the road returning from Canary Wharf and having the joy of seeing Mile Twenty Three and a glimpse of St Paul's in their (much swifter) sights. Ah well, there was more plodding to do, each step stickier than the last due to thousands of empty gel packs covering every surface that the water bottles didn't.
After doing all of my training with music, the iPod and earphones stayed in the bum bag during the race. It seems foolish to write the word 'race' because it wasn't. It was a Challenge, a Day, an Event, but never a 'race.' The only victory would be in finishing it.
The calls from the crowd; the music played by fans and bands in pubs, gardens, balconies and roundabouts; the hilarious signs made for friends and everyone ('26.2 miles. Because 26.3 would be stupid'), and the runners around me were all the entertainment and inspiration that I imagined. And more. "You are all sexy. You are all people I want to have sex with. You are sexy runners and you will finish. Sexy sexy sex!" called out one bloke who ended up with a sore hand after receiving more than his share of high fives from laughing marathoners as they passed.
I overtook ten rhinos, one eight foot tall light house, several fairies, a twenty-strong team of ghurkas wearing 25kg packs and boots; a strawberry, the Gherkin building, a karoake singer who carried a cordless microphone and speaker stack as he ran; the armless Black Knight from The Holy Grail and the world record contender doubled over as he carried a Smeg fridge on his back.
I was overtaken by three other rhinos, a bagpipe player, half a dozen bananas and a gorilla. Sapphire reported later that the poor Gherkin building smacked the top of his head several times on the red final timer screen at the finishing line before figuring out that he'd have to lean to the west and edge in that way.
Thankfully, the imperial measurement sticklers eased off at Twenty One Miles when markers for kilometres also appeared. Thirty Five Kilometres. This was the longest I had ever run in my life and the calls for "Cappy! Go on Cappy!" and seeing the Millennium wheel on my left and Big Ben up in the distance changed my grimace to a smile. It was still difficult to believe that I was there, doing it, in my favourite city in the world. Chubby, daggy, chocolate-addicted old me.
My pace was distinctly slower in the second half than it had been in the first half. It had been this way in all of my training runs too and was not something that was going to upset me or make me stop. My heart rate felt steady - no uncomfortable puffing, but my legs....! Numb feet, shins with a pulse of their own and every bone below my waist seemingly on fire.
Big Ben looked magnificent up close and to run up to him, along the back of the houses of Parliament on a road specially closed for me (okay, and 40,000+ others) was an incredible feeling. Exhaustion and exhilaration blended into an emotion that is not possible to describe and may not be one that I'll ever experience again. The faces of LC and Sapphire swirled in front of my burning eyes before my legs dragged me on to Birdcage walk, turning the corner and seeing Buckingham Palace looming up.
And kept looming.... Was I on a treadmill? Had the movie stopped running and I was at a standstill? Had I fainted.....? It was here that they thankfully started counting down in two hundred metre stages.... 1,000...... 800 ...... 600 ....... 400..... 200.....
Ducking and diving even as I passed over the line, I burst into tears. Dry ones, as my face was encrusted in salt powder, but sobs engulfed me for a few moments as a volunteer deftly removed my timer chip and another one handed me a Finisher medal.
It was a warm day, and this "Cappy" was finally grateful for having man-hands large enough to grip water and glucozade bottles the entire way; be able to smile at the kind comments from the crowds and - even more importantly - not faint like four other people did around her as they shuffled through St James' Yard to meet up with their loved ones.
Four hours and fifty two minutes from start to finish. Elite runners would have enjoyed their victory, had a long hot shower, completed a lengthy press conference, inhaled a banquet and had an hour long massage in that time but it was 'under five,' and good enough for me.
It was also the longest I'd ever gone - in waking hours - without a wee! I cried again when LC and Sapphire were spotted. Maybe it was a pointless and vain challenge, but they had been with me for every sweaty, sticky and slogging step of the way.
I am so thankful to them both.