START SLOW - THEN EASE OFF

Yesterday was the London marathon. Two apples, a camel, several celebrities and an amazing man with cerebral palsy all crossed the finish line. Every marathon I watch reminds me that I should never have run away from repeating the feat of finishing the NY marathon in 2005. This is what I wrote then about that experience.


As I lined up on the Verrazano bridge almost at the very end of the trail of 42,000 plus runners for the New York marathon I read this on the back of a t-shirt: Start slow – then ease off. I knew I was with the right crowd. The next 7 hours were a very long, slow, run. It is my running and it has changed my life forever. I saw NY, a city I have been visiting since I was 11 years old, in a new light. I met people from every socioeconomic, age and cultural group. At times I was smokin’ high and other times I wondered if there could be a lonelier place on the planet. But mostly I was smiling, conscious in the knowledge that I was in the process of shedding skin.

The first thing I noticed as we queued up for the bus to take us to the start of the race was that all the French and Italian runners had their countries of origin prominently displayed across their bodies. We Brits were in fancy dress. There were the firemen from South Wales in full gear, the Macmillan Bear, the Army lads in uniform with heavy backpacks and the ladies who showed off fabulously decorated bras. Elvis, of course, could not miss the event and the boys in kilts showed up. Our friend Tony said a fully clad British rhino passed him. The United Kingdom could be proud.

Mine was not the run I expected. I was frightened that I would have to fight my body and pain and anxiety to get through 26.2 miles. Instead I found that I was there to celebrate. It was a celebration of hard work towards what seemed an impossible goal for someone with no running talent. I still have no talent. But I have enthusiasm and I have dared to hope and to dream and to have faith. I have not felt so much joy apart from the birth of our beautiful sons. And, like childbirth, it was not all pleasant but you are changed forever. Get this – I am now an endurance athlete. Yeah baby that is what I am putting on the CV from now on.

Marathoners have many stories. I chatted to a couple that had amazinhazen.org splashed across their backs. Hazen is their 4-year-old boy with cancer and they were raising money for his hospital treatment. Just that week he had had 4 days of chemo but they said he was going to meet them at the finish line. I met a man running in memory of his wife Sharon who had died almost a year to the day. He was trembling and tearful before the race but his buddy was running with him and somehow you knew that he was going to be okay with such a solid friend. There was the couple – she a veteran of 21 marathons and he 30. I explained it was my first. They told me to get a move on. I also met crazy people like the man who commanded “And now you will talk with me” which gave me a serge of energy to leave him in the dust. The only other times I had that outpouring of energy was when I saw our sons on the course – at miles 8, 17 and 21. Oh, and I felt really full of energy at mile 18. Just when I should be hitting the wall I was fantasizing I was Paula Radcliffe and wanted to run like the wind. I could practically hear the Chariots of Fire music. Maybe I was hitting the wall after all.

Because I ran for Great Ormond Street Hospital – in a top specially customized - many assumed I had or still have a sick child being treated there. I told them about brave Olivia and the fantastic treatment she had received. She and her parents had even come from London to cheer us on.

They say that Americans are really friendly but having lived in Boston I could not agree with what they said. But lord have mercy did the American citizens come out to support the marathoners. I had whole bars full of drunken folks on First Avenue chanting my name. In Brooklyn one woman had a Trinidadian flag and when I shouted I was a Trini her whole posse nearly picked me up to lift me all the way to the finish. Total strangers told me how proud they were of me. Other runners told me to keep going despite the unusual November heat, blisters on my toes and the nagging feeling that quitting wasn’t such a bad option after all. And the support did not end there. Friends Gary and Clare and their kids George and Lucy appeared about mile 18 with a huge banner that my little boy proudly told me said “Ingrid, Avi, Go, Go, Go”. George and Lucy had made it specially.

Oh I have almost forgotten to tell you the best bit. Somewhere on the Queens-Boro Bridge, where no spectators are allowed, and the landscape is bleak and unforgiving, and you really have to remind yourself that running over this bridge, on this day, at this time, is all you ever wanted to do in life, there I met Erica. We began running together. It was her forth marathon but she was ready to quit this one now. She had stomach cramps, she was depressed – you name a negative emotion and she was full of it. I don’t know why but I made her a promise. I said that no matter how slow she went and no matter many times she had to stop I would stay with her to the finish. She did not exactly cheer up but she did grab hold of my hand and make me repeat my promise in all the official languages of the United Nations. For the next eight and half, slow, miles Erica literally latched on to me. People who know me will attest to the fact that I am not a cheery person but this woman had a transformative effect on me. I became a cheerleader for anyone I met who was struggling or being negative. And the worse part is - I really enjoyed buoying everyone up. Finally one guy yelled out, “Shut it Pollyanna”. I blew him a kiss and continued on with a permanent grin on my face. They say everyone deals with the wall in a different way.

That our sons were witness to this achievement was only possible because darling Charles left his home in Connecticut on a Sunday morning when he could have been having a lie-in, organized everyone and took them to various spots to see us. Jolie took time off from work, flew in from Chicago to actually stay and help with the kids. When she rubbed my legs that night and practically fed me soup I knew we had chosen an angel in our sons’ godmother.

And my top tip after all that I have been through?
Do not use a portable toilet at any gathering of 42,000 people. It is just plain rank.

By the way - I crossed the finish line holding Erica’s hand.

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