Ellie Walsh

Confessions of a First-Time Marathon Runner

‘I’d love to run a marathon’ is an often muttered phrase between friends. I was one such mutterer, and because I was sporty and had done two half marathons I thought, how hard could it really be?

Let me just set the record straight for the muttering marathon-wannabes among you. It is really hard.

I was one of the lucky few who received a ‘You’re In’ magazine on my doorstep back in October. An ‘own place’ runner, as we are affectionately known in the fundraising world. Choosing who to raise money for was a pretty simple task. I have worked for SIA for more than a year, and I have the pleasure of seeing all the great work that my colleagues do every day.

Initially, my reaction to getting a ballot place was sheer delight… closely followed by gut-wrenching panic. The realisation that in six months’ time I was going to have to run a marathon, seemed like an impossible feat. This was cemented by the somewhat unsuccessful training runs before Christmas. There may have been a lot of wheezing and aching muscles after a measly four miles; just 22.2 miles to go. No problem. However, as the weeks went by I suddenly found myself running a 10K on a Wednesday evening and considering it a ‘short run’.

Then, before you know it, comes the dreaded 20 miler. It is an event in every first-time marathon runner’s training programme that is met with excitement and despair. I was fortunate enough to have a very selfless friend (perhaps too much for her own good) who agreed to follow me around Milton Keynes on a bike (at a snails pace) for four hours. She got an Easter Egg (and a rather sore bum) for her troubles; it was Easter Sunday after all! Without her support, I very much doubt I would have finished the run and I recommend it to anyone embarking on a long training run; just make sure you have enough Jelly Babies to feed you both for four hours, or one of you will be very grumpy. Also prepare yourself for the final hour of the run where, not only do you begin to wonder why you’re running on a Sunday for three hours (with another hour to go), your lucky companion may start to question her sanity too. My friend talked about food for a solid hour; luckily I wasn’t hungry.

At this point, you will also find yourself chatting quite nonchalantly about ‘fuelling’ (what civilians call eating) and where you need to apply vaseline for a long run. This is completely normal and your friends and work colleagues won’t bat an eyelid… promise. Even when you tell them that you had to take a sneaky wee in a bush because you over-hydrated, feeding your recently acquired sports drink addiction.

Then comes the glorious ‘taper’. I must admit, getting up at seven on a weekend to fit in a run or going out straight after work when it is pitch black and freezing cold, didn’t really float my boat. So, the taper was pretty heavenly. I felt like I had gained hours of free-time, my legs finally stopped aching and I went into a complete state of denial.

Marathon? What marathon?

However, I still enjoyed all the extra calories that come with being a marathon runner (perhaps a little too much). Please note at this point that running miles and miles for months on end doesn’t mean you can eat whatever you like and still lose weight… in fact, I put it on. Oops. In the last week I overdosed on pasta and bagels. Seriously, I won’t be eating either for quite a while.

Then I went to expo and the reality of what I was about to do hit me. At this point I had gone way over my fundraising target of £500 and all these people were expecting me to run the London Marathon. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t keep thinking ‘what if I can’t actually run that far?’. This was one of the hardest things I found about being a first-time marathon runner. I didn’t know if I could physically do it. I had done 20 miles, just, but that had been three weeks ago! I couldn’t imagine going any further, especially without my bike-buddy. However, veteran marathon runners told me that I had to trust my training programme and stick with the taper, even though I was itching to try one last long run, just to make sure.

The big day was looming and I had given so many people my marathon number to track me online that I knew I had to get to that start line and keep moving until I got to the end… failure wasn’t really an option.

Once you’re on a windy hill in Greenwich with a timing chip on your shoe and proudly sporting your SIA running vest, you have a moment of realisation… I am going to finish this marathon no matter what happens. It is an incredible feeling; knowing that you are one of the thousands of people you see on TV every year, getting ready at the start line.

The first few miles went by so quickly. The route was still tightly packed with runners and they carry you round the course. There is such a sense of pride and you can tell that everyone is running for something they believe in. That they have spent months training, endured painful sports massages, and experienced unmentionable chafing, to reach this point. I had done all my training alone, apart from the one run with my bike-buddy, so being surrounded by people who had committed to the same training as me was quite humbling.

For the first half of the race you feel like you are floating around the course and you can’t help but high-five small children who treat you like a celebrity. In order to make the race manageable I divided it up into milestones. My first milestone was the Cutty Sark, which was only at mile 6, but it is always the place they show on the TV. The next was Tower Bridge. I would advise any marathon runner to use Tower Bridge as a milestone during their run. The atmosphere is unbelievable. It is the first part of the course where you honestly feel like a rockstar. People are shouting your name and there is a hive of activity. It also means that you are nearly halfway, which in someways is great and in other ways has you thinking ‘can I run that distance again?”. The answer is yes.

Then comes the rocky 13 to 20 miles. Or ‘no mans land’ as I like to call it. You’re not quite on the home straight but you’re starting to tire. Luckily I had my first supporting friend at mile 15, so I was concentrating on getting to her, and then the wonderful SIA team and my parents at mile 17. Seeing their happy faces at the SIA cheer point, with a fantastic ‘Go Ellie’ pasta-themed banner was such an uplifting experience. I stopped and chatted to them, running can be very lonely, even when you’re surrounded by crowds. My mum provided me with my next batch of Jelly Babies, but to be honest I hadn’t finished the first lot. Not only do the crowds cheer you on, they also provide you with food! I had a fantastic variety of sweets and even a wedge of orange at mile 16!

Then came mile 22. Until this point the race had been pretty bearable, but I can honestly say I now fully understand why they call it ‘hitting the wall’. I don’t often cry in public, but I was so psychologically and physically exhausted that as I walked down the side of the road I was fighting back the tears. This is where the crowds really come into their own. I thought people would ignore me when I was walking, choosing to concentrate their efforts on the people who are running, but I was mistaken. So many people spoke to me as though I was a friend, telling me how well I had done to reach that point and that there really wasn’t far to go. Now, I’m not going to lie, as they said this I did think in my head ‘four miles feels quite a long way right now’, but their words of encouragement keep you going, and when I felt strong enough to run again I did, and people supported me just the same.

By this point I had been caught up by the 5 hours Pacer (an experienced runner who has a big flag on their back telling you what time you are likely to finish in). He could see the people around him were struggling so he shouted out to us: ‘You have two kilometres to go. You wouldn’t get up on a Sunday morning to run two kilometres, so let’s go!’. At that point, anything anybody says in a motivational tone is profound. So somehow, I’m still unsure how, I mustered up the strength to run the last 2K in the quickest split of my entire race! Running down the Embankment, Birdcage Walk and then finally The Mall is without doubt the best part of the race. It is like a huge party with everyone willing you to finish and sharing in your achievement.

Getting across the finish line is a feeling like no other. The sense of achievement is overwhelming and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t shed a few tears. Then they place a heavy medal around your neck and all the months of hard graft and the emotional meltdown at mile 22 are soon forgotten.

As one of the many fantastic supporter placards on the course said: ‘Pain is temporary. 26.2 miles is forever’

If you have been inspired by Ellie’s story and fancy trying a running challenge, visit our Events section.