Mid-January, feeling rather bored at work, I phoned and entered an Evening Standard competition, hoping to win a pair of trainers. Not that I am (or was) a runner. It was just a competition to break the boredom of mid-afternoon. And a new pair of trainers sounded nice. A couple of days later, I got a letter through the post from Associated Newspapers announcing that I hadn't just won some trainers, but also a place in the London Marathon.
My first reaction was panic. I don't run. I'm 36. I've never run. Once a week doing weights and occasional sparring sessions were the beginning and end of my fitness routine. I'm not overweight, but I'm not super-fit by any stretch of the imagination.
But I couldn't back out. The fates had clearly spoken. I needed to run the race. Self respect required it. And I had 12 weeks to prepare.
My first stop was the book shop where I bought all the marathon for beginners/dummies books I could manage. Most seemed to be co-written by some bloke claiming to be a Penguin. But whilst owning them was a small comfort, reading them was terrifying - they all seemed to assume that you would work up to a marathon over a period of months; the most ambitious suggested 20+ week programmes, starting some time in early December.
Rather despairingly, I bought the February edition of RW, largely on the basis of a front page that promised training schedules to get you round in only 16 weeks. But I had only 13 to go... In the absence of any alternative, and with time ticking away I started on week 3 of the beginner's schedule. Rather worryingly, the schedule suggested a half-marathon on 13 March. On my first time out running (albeit rather slowly), I barely made it. I pulled up out of breath and with aching calves. The half-marathon, and FLM beyond it, seemed unattainable.
Hours of plodding at what seemed a ridiculously slow snail's pace round the local park and beyond, interspersed with manic Kenyan Hills and threshold sessions followed. Followed by close consultation with p56 of the February edition of RW. Things seemed to be getting easier, but when you're training on your own, its kind of hard to know how well or badly you are doing compared to the rest of the world. And the rain, sleet and snow seemed to only hit on evenings I was trying to run. It was getting harder to keep to the schedule. But (give or take the odd missed recovery run) I stuck to it.
With Mar 13 approaching, I decided to brave the most scary challenge so far in the training schedule and registered to run the Brentwood Half-Marathon. About the same time, I discovered the RW site and starting reading up on what a race is about. About the most useful advice was an article about run/walking – finally, a guaranteed way to get round a race without falling apart. In the excitement, it was about the only advice from the site I remembered as I started in Brentwood, along with sticking to a plan and avoiding getting carried away.
With a run-walk of 9:30ish-minute miles and a minute's walks every mile, I found myself (to my surprise) feeling strong after 10 miles and able to (relatively) sprint the remaining three miles to come home in just under two hours. It looked as if the training was working - for the first, time the FLM was something I just might be able to do.
The next four weeks went by in a bit of a blur of longer and longer runs and mid-week speed sessions (with the odd weekend sparring session by way of cross-training), culminating in a late-March attempt at my longest run - three hours plus, with a rough target of 18 miles. I managed it, and without noticeable ill effects - just a few small blisters.
Things were going well. Then - inevitably - it all went wrong. With only weeks to go, the Easter long weekend was ideal for training. But I felt a bit jaded on Easter Sunday, so took the day off and planned my last semi-long run for the Monday - but given that I was starting to taper, maybe I'd do just 10 miles. I pulled up after five miles and an hour with excruciating pain in both knees. I couldn't go on. Frankly, for a good 12 hours I could barely walk. Was it runner's knee? It certainly left me depressed and dejected.
Having surfed the RW site for possible similar sob stories, I discovered I wasn't the only person suffering from late injury and last-minute doubts. I also discovered that quitting wasn't an option anyone was choosing. Emboldened, I decided to keep hoping for the marathon, but to effectively 100 per cent taper from then on. Total rest was the only way I could stand any chance of making it round the FLM. I couldn't risk aggravating any developing injury. So no more training - just wait and pray that the training of the previous couple of months had done its job.
The day before the marathon I risked a short run to check things out. Everything seemed okay. I felt strong, like I was running with a firm hand pushing me forward.
Everything seemed easier and faster than ever before. I started to feel good about the following day. But some doubt remained - was this something I was really able to do?
Come the day, there was no time to harbour doubts. Waking early, I joined the flood of people flowing from home to Waterloo to Waterloo East to Greenwich. An endless stream of running shoes, tracksuits and FLM kitbags. I was babbling to total strangers crushed up close to me in the train.
Following more RW advice, I found a toilet queue, and stayed there - on and off - for the next hour. Probably the best move of the day given the stench coming from the portable toilets on the course...
I started at the back of the Red 9 pen, somewhere close to the Frankenstein Policeman. The sheer mass of people was astounding. And the madness going on all around. South-East London pubs all blaring out music, clog-wearing female morris dancers, Indian drummers, jazz musicians. It seemed like barely minutes later and we were six miles in.
And then my feet started to hurt. Badly. My legs were okay; I was run/walking 9:30-minute miles with a minute's walking every mile, and it was going well. But in my shoes things were messing up.
At eight miles I stopped and looked inside my socks. There were bloody blisters under each big toe, and huge blisters on the inside of each foot - under my Compeeds. But it was too early to pack it in - I pulled my shoes back on and decided to head on despite the pain.
Soon I was crossing Tower Bridge and on towards Canary Wharf - swept on by the great wave of humanity. Still sticking to plan, getting water, hitting the gels every half hour. My feet were hurting, but no more than at six miles. Other than that, I was feeling pretty strong; I was starting to wonder if I could run faster (though - luckily – I was prevented from ever trying by the mass of people around me).
At 17 miles, I started to worry - 18 miles was close to where I was expecting The Wall. But pretty soon I was through 19 and heading for 20 with no noticeable change to how I was feeling.
At about 21 miles I guessed I must have somehow got away with it. I'm not sure how – it was probably by following RW advice on hydration/nutrition in a race. It was almost an anti-climax - I had hoped to triumph over at least a little grim adversity other than my bloody feet. Gaining confidence, I started to speed up and at 22 miles decided to stop taking walk breaks and head for the line. Looking at my watch, 4:30 was well within reach and I was determined to get it. Pushing on down Westferry, the stragglers were still walking up towards Docklands, pursued by the street cleaners, but ahead were more crowds and clearer roads.
And then eventually the finish. 4:26:18. Mission accomplished. There was no wall, no collapse, only throbbing feet to worry about. It had gone better than expected, and almost wholly non-traumatic (apart from my feet).
Are there any morals to draw from this? I'm not sure. But I had harboured some doubts as to whether the training plans in RW were genuine, or just a way of sucking in gullible wannabe runners with front-cover promises of the impossible.
Some posts on the forum seemed to suggest that in some way a 16-week (or in my case 13-week) beginner's plan isn't real training, because it neglects months of "base training" and mixes up all sorts of different and incompatible routines. But Sunday proved them and me wrong. Twelve weeks ago, I wouldn't have made it past the five-mile marker in the race; today I finished fast and strong - perhaps in a relatively slow time, but as it's my first race, so who cares. And 17,419th out of 35,000 isn't bad for a first attempt.
Without the training schedule and advice picked up from the RW site (both articles and in the excellent posts from the many runners who make up the community around the RW forum) I would never have made it. Today, I am a long-distance runner (of sorts). And next year (ballot allowing) I'll be back, properly trained, and with a mission to carve at least 30 minutes off of my time.
I've got the bug, you see. I think you may have turned me into a runner.