It's been almost nine months since my last blog (and last marathon) so this one is overdue. I apologise in advance for the fact it is really really long!
Last time I left you, I'd just completed my 10-marathon challenge and my adventures raised awareness of male eating disorders, and over £2k for Beat! Since then, I've graduated university, moved to London into a flat with my girlfriend Coralie, and was fortunate to land myself a job at parkrun working as their Marketing Executive overseeing social media and newsletters for the 14 parkrun countries worldwide.
Back in September I secured one of the semi-elite international runner places in the 2017 Tokyo Marathon, giving me the opportunity to complete my fifth World Marathon Major with just Chicago as the only one left off my list. All sounds dreamy right? The downside is I've been injured on and off pretty much ever since I entered the marathon!
There have been various issues which have ranged from strange, unlucky and self-enforced. I also missed two marathons and two half marathons during that time. I've struggled with my hip, back, knee, tib post, tib ant, achilles, toes, tendinitis, shin splints and heel pain. I've had x-rays, massages, seen four different physios, tried hot baths, cold baths, heel raises, foot orthotics and eventually after baulking at the price for weeks, an MRI scan!
I found it very difficult being injured and being let down my body, something I had taken for granted when I was running marathons week after week for my fundraising challenge. Coralie has had to put up with very dark periods where I struggled to get out of bed, or spent evenings crying or sulking. My life is surrounded by running, and so when it was taken away from me, I felt like a complete fraud.
But with so much financially invested in running the Tokyo Marathon, from the costs of flights, hotels, race entries and day trips, plus spending money, pulling out of the race was never an option and so I just had to keep up my fitness by spinning to get myself to the start line in one piece. I spent 3-4 months cross training over the autumn and winter spending hours and hours spinning on the bike in our flat. By early February my MRI scan had come back to show achilles tendonitis and a stress reaction in my left ankle, but no ruptures or fractures so I decided I had to try and get some running done if I was going to attempt the marathon.
I kinda figured out that since the orthotic, I'd developed some biomechanical issues with my foot placement so since correcting that at the start of February I made a conscious effort to correct my alignment, and before leaving for Japan I managed to get in a few easy paced 6-8 mile runs, two 10 mile runs, an 11 mile run. Then, the week before the marathon and the day before our flight, I completed my longest run since August which was 14 miles. I felt my right quad and my left calf both getting progressively more painful towards the latter part of the run, but at least I had completed half the distance I was going to have to run in Tokyo...
We left Brentford on Monday of race week to start the long journey to Tokyo from Heathrow, via Beijing. Coralie is not the best traveller (a colossal understatement) so with a 10-hour flight followed by four hours in transit and another three hours to Beijing, she was being a little hero. Our flights with Air China were pretty uncomfortable so sleeping was near impossible, and we had just a handful of movies to pass the time - Ghost, She's Got Mail and 13 Going On 30 to name just a few of the "classics" on offer. As you can see, it was all a bit too much for Coralie when we got to Beijing and I returned from the toilet to find her faceplanting her bag somewhere in the terminal..
Eventually we made it to Japan! I have been in love with the country ever since watching Lost in Translation several years ago. Arriving at our hotel in Shinjuku late Tuesday night, we unpacked and went to bed ready for two days of sightseeing. In the middle of the night I got up to go to the toilet, except for one small problem - it wasn't the middle of the night, it was actually midday! We had both forgotten to set alarms and slept for more than 12 hours solid. Once I had finished my panic attack, I woke Coralie up to break the news that half of one of two sightseeing days was now gone and we had better get our arses in gear!
The days were packed with so much walking! From the beautiful Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden near our hotel (which gave Coralie the chance to show-off her uncanny ability to look like a teenage Duke of Edinburgh student in photos), to Meiji Jingu and Shrine, the chaotic Shibuya crossing at rush hour, and the spectacular (and free) views from the observation deck of the Tokyo Metro Government Building
We also spent time in Harajuku which is just carnage, and completely surreal. It's a full-scale attack on your senses with bright lights, signs, music, jingles and thousands of people packed into narrow lanes and tiny shops. We stumbled across an Owl Forest (as you do) and stroked some owls (as you do). Yes, apparently owls can be stroked.
Finally we headed off for dinner. One thing which is cool in Tokyo is that you order your meal and pay at the entrance of the restaurant via an electronic menu before you sit down, so no money changes hands inside. Now as bad as it sounds, you aren't really taught how to use chopsticks back in Suffolk where we grew up, so we asked for cutlery with our meal. The waitress informed us that they did not have any knives, but returned later with a pair of scissors! We declined..
Still unsure what the day or time was, we retired both exhausted and looking forward to a nice restful evening's sleep. However, the sleeping fun and games continued on Thursday - I woke up and rolled over to check the time.. it was 1:15am and I was completely wide awake. Excellent! After an hour or so of tossing and turning, I gave up the fight, watched a movie on Netflix, waited for the sun to rise so we could go for a run and accepted that it was going to be a very long day!
We headed out early doors for a 10k and the only other runners we bumped into Sophie Raworth and Susie Chan! Next up was the world famous Tsujiki Fish Market, followed by a trip to the Expo to register. Upon arrival I was given two wristbands to wear because, to quote "I was special" which I thought only my Mum called me. We were told if we lost or broke either wristband before Sunday, we would not be able to participate in the race! :-|
The Expo was huge and full of so much free stuff, from dozens of leaflets, alcohol-free beer, heat pads, gels, and banners. The fact that we clearly would not be able to read any of it did not seem to deter the enthusiastic event staff. Coralie made me a sign which nicely summed up her concern that I would run like a maniac and hurt myself again!
At expos I usually go crazy and buy everything, but this time I was a bit more reserved. After putting two t-shirts and jacket in my basket, it did dawn on us both that if I didn't finish the marathon, I'd be stuck with a whole load of running kit emblazoned with the name of a race I had travelled around the world to DNF! So I just opted for a nice navy jacket and left the tags on - if I finished the race I would wear it, if not it would be going on eBay!
The rest of our day was packed full of more sights in Akihibarra and Asakusa and amusements and arcades, which are impossible to avoid in Tokyo! We had become a bit obsessed with this crazy drumming game where you had to play the drums in tandem along to a Japanese song. The food was also incredible and really cheap, with enough seafood, rice, noodles and ramen to feed an army, or at least two hungry runners.
Now as I mentioned earlier, whereas I have travelled quite a bit, Coralie has not and this meant there were a few instances where she came unstuck a little bit. The first was sliding doors - I lost count of how many times she tried to push them open or walked into them! Then there was good old "Shinjinku" known as Shinjuku to you and me (and all the locals she asked for directions..).
Japan is notorious for the complexity of the toilets, which offer everything from a heated seat, sprays, gadgets and various water pressures. However, her favourite feature by far was the music - yes you can select the option to play music whilst you do your business, perfect for those who are prone to stage fright..
After two amazing but exhausting sleep-deprived days walking miles travelling around and exploring this incredible city, on Friday we had a day trip out to explore Mount Fuji and Hakone on a coach trip, after heading out for another early 10k. The mountain is notoriously shy hiding behind clouds, but we were lucky to have a brief interlude of blue skies to take in the breathtaking beauty of Japan's national treasure (and more DofE photos of Coralie..).
However the highlight was the venue for lunch which had the drum game! By level 3 we had begun to draw a crowd and everyone else wanted a go. After lunch, we then explored Lake Ashi by boat and cable car. Everything was going swimmingly until two Polish tourists asked us about Brexit, at which point Coralie internally combusted. On the trip we also met a really nice couple of runners who also happened to be members of our running club, Serpentine! The trip was rounded-off with a return journey to Tokyo Station by bullet train which was rather different to the Abellio Greater Anglia train from Liverpool Street to Ipswich...
On Saturday, aka Marathon Eve and potentially my last day alive (am I laying it on too thick?) we took part in the nauseatingly named Tokyo Marathon Friendship Run, a 4k non-timed run next to the Expo with around 2,000 other runners from all over the world. Typically I do my own thing before a marathon, but it was actually a brilliant event and a perfect prelude to the big day.
There was a carnival atmosphere with free face-painting, live music, dancing, a Japanese rhythmic gymnastic warm-up and a performance from a Japanese comedian (who I will mention again later). We bumped into Mount Fuji, and there were more high-fives and selfies than you could ever know what to do with, a local steel band playing Jackson Five hits, free chocolates being handed out mid-race (obviously essential for a 2.5 mile run...) and a head-band and buff presented to all finishers.
The weather was glorious and it was really special to share part of the marathon experience with Coralie, given she was in for a rough day on Sunday supporting me! My legs were actually still feeling okay - I'd managed 17 miles in the three days we'd been in Japan and certainly my confidence was boosted knowing I was not having any negative reactions.
With my running now done until the marathon begun, it was time to rest up. We looked at going to an onsen (a Japanese spa) but we subsequently found out that onsens do not allow people in with tattoos, so I was banned! Apparently tattoos are associated with the Yakuza, which will probably be the first time I'm mistaken for a member of a Japanese organised crime ring. Instead we headed back to the hotel to fuel for the big day that had loomed over me for so long.
Over the next few hours, I can honestly say I've never eaten so much food in my life. It was actually a bit embarassing. For lunch there was porridge and toast, with a side order of spaghetti (that age old Japanese dish...), then we headed out for an early dinner. We had found a restaurant nearby that offered free, unlimited refills of rice (you couldn't have made it up) so dinner included three bowls of white rice and a bowl of salty chips!
Having eaten all the rice in Japan, we retired to our room where I prepared my kit and had a bath. I got into bed with my legs smothered in voltarol and wrapped them in cling film, a tip Noel Thatcher had given me back in January and something I had been doing for the past fortnight to try and ensure I was fresh to run the following day as I built my running back up. Next thing I knew, it was 5am, I was turning off my alarm and it was MARATHON DAY! It was finally here.
The day that had consumed my thoughts since September had arrived. At 5.15am I headed out for a mile jog around the block to get everything switched on and awake before breakfast. My right quad felt fine, although the right and left feet were both a bit sore. But it was as good as I could ask for and a million miles from where I thought I would be as recently as January.
We were lucky to have a kitchenette in our room, so I tucked into three slices of white toast with jam, two apricot and almond Eat Natural Bars, and two bottles of Pocari Sweat (a Japanese electrolyte drink). The next task was to strap myself up. I figured that if anything was going to pack up during the marathon it would be my feet. I'd also had problems moving my two little toes on my left foot, so they were strapped together.
We made our way to Shinjuku (or Shinjinku in case Coralie is reading) on the metro and I said my last goodbyes to Coralie, who looked as though she was sending a loved one off to war never to return! She'd seen first-hand how I had unravelled under the stress and worry, and faced the brunt of the pressure and desperation I felt to make it to the start line (and hopefully finish line) - looking back I'm sure anyone else without her heart and warmth would have had enough and walked away.
As you would expect the security was tight but the organisation of the event was incredible. The Japanese love running and it showed with the passion and enthusiasm of the thousands of heroic marshals and volunteers. I was starting in the sub-elite pen, Block A, so after checking in my bag I climbed the stairs to our starting pen, just a yards few from the official start line. The queues for the toilets were huge as you can imagine, and the only criticism you could aim at the event was there was nowhere to warm-up. I managed half a mile circling the portaloos, and bumped into Tim Newton from my old running club in Ipswich. Tim had had his own injury woes in the build-up, so we wished each other well before joining the tens of thousands on the start line.
By this point, I was surprisingly calm - certainly as calm and relaxed as I had felt for several months. Just being there felt like a massive weight had lifted from my mind and my shoulders, and I felt very much at ease. I had spent months worrying would I make it to this point and for so long I felt helpless. I'm an introvert, and when I get injured I isolate myself; rather than leaning on the support of friends, family, colleagues and training partners, I bottle everything up. I think "yeah I'm fine" became my catchphrase! I'd deleted my Strava account a long time ago and consciously avoided races.
To have spent so many hours in the small spare room of our flat spinning away on a static bike with my headphones in, it felt like an incredible release to be back on the start line of my first race since the summer, surrounded by other runners, ready to take on a marathon together. I was back where I belonged, my identity was back, and I was ready.
Strategy was another matter and it was very difficult to know how to run the race. Obviously beating my PB of 2:34 was completely out of the question, but I still knew I was in good shape aerobically as I had cross-trained so relentlessly. And for the past few months I'd also adopted a high fat, low carb diet and since then I've felt stronger and leaner. The issue was completely physical; at what pace would my right quad give in? How slowly would I need to run to stop my feet throbbing? And how much could I push my calfs and shins on a run that was both faster and twice as long as my longest training run? There were so many unknowns.
I decided that sub 3:00 had to be the goal. I'd run all four of my previous World Marathon Majors in 2:49 or below, so if I could continue that streak it would be incredible. I was going to try to run sub 7:00 min/miles for as long as I could, reassess at halfway and then again at mile 20 - if I got to either! Listening to the Japanese national anthem minutes before the gun, the one I knew was certain was that whatever happened, there was no way I was not going to cross that finish line and I was ready to run myself into the ground. At 9:10am, the gun went off to put me out of my misery and we were away, showered by cannons of confetti.
We started on both sides of a road which was separated by a raised curb and there were chaotic scenes as at least three runners in front of me tripped and fell into the oncoming sea of runners. I passed another runner who had clearly fallen as he was bleeding from the forehead and shoulder. I stayed out of trouble and picked a safe line through the first mile, which was all downhill and fast at 6:04. The first 5k flew by in 20:55. The pace was very comfortable and I was consciously trying to think about everything except my legs. I figured the more I expected something to breakdown, the more my body was likely to oblige, so best to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the crowds and the scenery.
I had arranged to see Coralie at 11k, 22k and after 33k, so that was my focus. 3 more miles were ticked off and I felt strong. The confidence in my cross training was justified. I decided to take my first gel at the 10k marker. Now gels are revolting at the best of times, but almost immediately after finishing it I got a sharp stitch in my left side. Handy! A minute or so later, I was then sick in my mouth, before spitting it back out! Clearly gels were not going to work, so I made the decision to throw the other four I was carrying in the bin and rely on sucking my trusty rhubarb and custard sweets and water to get me round.
Moments later I picked Coralie out in the enormous crowds which was an incredible boost. Neither of us said it, but I think we were both probably surprised and relieved. The rundorphins and adrenaline that I had longed for for so long were back. I'd felt as though I'd lost my identity as a runner, and that I was a fraud living off past runs, so it was liberating to be inside the barriers with a number on my chest.
I was cruising along ticking off the miles under 6:40, well below the 6:52 required for a sub 3 marathon. Surprisingly Coralie had popped up again at 15k and I passed the Wilson Kipsang and the leaders coming in the other direction. Each mile I completed I was calculating how much time I had banked to use later should anything untoward occur. When I got to 10 miles however, I realised that I had actually run 10.1 miles and therefore the pace on my watch was misleading, meaning I had only around 80 seconds in hand - one bad mile and that would be gone.
The course was approaching a long out and back section either side of the halfway point. I pushed on to try and bank more time whilst I was feeling strong, and the next three miles were all below 6:30, getting me to the halfway point in 1:27:31. My joy at confirming I was on for 2:55 and surpassing my expectations was short-lived as I began to feel my right quad get progressively more uncomfortable. I passed Coralie again at 22k who later revealed I looked terrible as this concern must have been clearly written all over my face.
The 14 miles I had run the week before had been my longest run since the summer, so it is probably no surprise that it was at this point the demons started appearing. After a mile of panicking, swearing and trying to think of a solution, I figured out if I opened out my right foot to point more towards 2 o'clock, things seemed to settle down. By mile 16 the pain had subsided and I was buoyant. During this time my pace had actually continued to quicken, and I now only had 10 miles to go as we passed through tall building and shops of Ginza.
It was at this point I began to realise that I was almost certainly going to run sub 3:00, even if I imploded. I was getting faster and had reached the stage of the race where other runners were fading, and the buzz of passing dozens of other runners only fuelled my determination that I was going to finish the race. It was a feeling I wish I could bottle up, as the next 10 miles were pure happiness.
It's incredibly unnerving when you lose all confidence in your body. You get to the point where you wake up expecting to feel pain, or to feel aches and pains on runs as your body continually lets you down and fails you. Running, arguably the most natural of human movements had become completely conscious and deliberate, and to be honest just not very fun.
But somehow, here I was running in one of the world's biggest and most iconic marathons, in my favourite place in the world, without any pain whatsoever, and under no pressure at all. I wasn't thinking about anything I was doing, how my feet were landing or my legs were moving, I was just running. In my 15 previous marathons, never before had I ever felt so relaxed and joyous and all I wanted to do was run as fast as I could to restore my faith and confidence in my body.
The freedom and elation were pushing me on and at the 19 mile point I saw the 41km marker on the other side of the road, signalling the entrance to the home straight. Seven miles out and back stood between me and the finish. I felt invincible by this point, and my pace was now well below 6:20. I saw Coralie again at 34k as we passed Tokyo Tower, and I remember just shouting at her "It's going really well!"
Shortly after, I noticed a runner in a red vest and green shorts - he looked familiar. It was the famous Japanese comedian from the Friendship Run! It would be fair to say he was certainly not cracking any jokes or laughing, and I felt sorry for the fact everyone in the crowd was recognising him as quite clearly he wanted the ground to swallow him up.
With 5 miles to go, I did the maths and worked out if I ran the last 5 miles in 6:10 or quicker, I could dip under 2:50. Everyone knows that in marathon running, a 2:49:59 or a 3:19:59 or a 4:09:59 sounds so much better than a 2:50, 3:20 or a 4:10! However almost immediately both my left and right quads began to scream, we turned a 180 at the turn-around point into a headwind and I realised that was not going to happen! I had gotten a bit cocky and the marathon had bitten me, so it was time to back-off and remember my pre-race aims.
But amazingly after a 6:31 23rd mile I was back pushing the pace again and I saw Coralie for the fifth and final time. Deep down I have no doubt we were both as surprised as each other that we had made it to that point, in that time, and in the video she filmed you can clearly see and hear the joy from both of us!
The last 3 miles flew by and to be totally honest, I really didn't want it to end. I had longed for this feeling of care and pain-free running and they were my quickest of the race, 6:13, 6:12 and 5:59. The last km was all on a straight narrow cobbled road which felt like a tunnel of noise with crowds cheering and I was loving every bit of it.
All that was left to do was to turn left at the historic Tokyo Station and enjoy the home straight. I crossed the finish line in 2:50:38 - a negative split of 5:24 after a second half of 1:22:07. I was (and still am) ecstatic. To run 2:50 without a single major injury or stoppage occurring was beyond even my most ambitious of dreams. You can view my Garmin stats here.
Looking back at the way I ran the second half of the race and the last 10k in particular, I could perhaps have been more aggressive from the start and backed myself more, but who's to say I wouldn't have run it to trouble and not finished at all. I thought I would be overcome with relief and emotion at the finish, but instead I was just so flipping happy! I wore a stupidly big, smug grin as I enjoyed every inch of the wobbly stumble through the finish area, collecting a finishers towel (of course), tons of random snacks (Calorie Mate anyone?), drinks and my medal.
Anyone who has run a marathon, or any race for that matter knows that the medals mean so much more than the cheap metal and fabric they are made of. They represent months and months of emotional, physical and financial investment which impacts on all aspects of your life and those around you. It was my 16th marathon and undoubtedly my sweetest. never has a medal meant more to me, and it certainly ranks well above anything I have ever achieved, as for so long it felt like such a pipe dream.
There was a very moving moment at the baggage collection area where all the marshals and volunteers had formed a guard of honour to greet the finishers and applaud those of us who had taken on the marathon and come through the other side - still standing, albeit a little more unsteadily than three hours previously.
Coralie and I were reunited and no words were needed. We simply hugged for an eternity and we both knew that we had reached the end of a long and testing journey that had put our relationship fully to the test, and we had come out the other side stronger than ever. I had put her through such a difficult experience during which she was helpless, yet she had stood by me and I will always be grateful.
We made our way to the Imperial Palace via a bakery, where I inhaled a quiche, sandwich and pain au chocolate in approximately 4 seconds. Fittingly the sun was shining, the sky was blue, the cherry blossoms were beginning to appear and the mood was euphoric. The rest of the day, our last in Tokyo, was spent exploring Shinjuku, eating ramen and of course playing our drumming game!
Japan is somewhere that I loved instantly, and it was even better the second time around. My advice to anyone would be to just go - it has everything. Beautiful scenery, temples, parks, nightlife, shopping, incredible food, endless sights and unique experiences. On top of that, the people are the most hospitable, kind and generous you will meet anywhere in the world and it is an extremely safe, clean and easy place to navigate. We will 100% be returning to Tokyo again soon!
There was no lying in on Monday as we were up at 4:30am to catch a flight as we rounded off our trip with three days in China. We landed in Beijing to be greeted by grumbling immigration officers and a city that clearly did not want visitors, despite money that has been lavishly thrown at tourism. Walking (okay hobbling) through Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden, we both longed to be back in Tokyo and amongst the Japanese people. China in comparison was dirty and just had an unsettling atmosphere that meant you always felt on edge.
Tuesday we had a day trip to The Great Wall of China. It had always been on Coralie's bucket list to visit the Wall and run the annual marathon that takes place on it (which after climbing the steps was quickly removed from the list), so we were both excited. However when booking the trip before Christmas, I probably didn't fully consider that I would probably be in a bad way 48 hours after the marathon, and needless to say it was a truly horrific yet hilarious experience!
The views were breathtaking and it is an architectural masterpiece, but my quads and feet were so shot to bits I think I may be the only person to end up walking it backwards! There were two silver linings - there was a handrail (I'm not sure that was there in Genghis Khan's time...) and realising that our hotel had a free underground spa, which allowed us to soak our weary legs and reflect on a truly incredible trip for so many reasons.
It's now a week on and the DOMS have settled. Unsurprisingly the pain in my left heel and shin have returned, I still can't really move the two little toes on my left foot. It's not horrendous, and since the marathon did not make it any worse that it was before I intend to start running again next week, but I don't really know what is causing the nagging issue. I just have this pain and discomfort in the outside half of my foot, the bottom of my foot, and on the outside of the shin above the ankle bone. I'm waiting for my referral to come through to see an NHS podiatrist, but in the meantime if anyone out there has any ideas I'm happy to send you my MRI results!
But most importantly, I have my Tokyo medal and the memories of a trip we will never forget. I genuinely don't think I will ever stop smiling whenever I look at it, or when someone mentions Japan. I am immensely proud of myself for perservering and it was worth every second spent spinning.
Next up for me is the Reading Half Marathon, which Coralie and I are both running, followed by the small matter of the London Marathon! But this experience has made me realise that I need to appreciate running more and the sheer joy it brings. Times and PBs are all well and good, but simply being out on the trails or pavements is a liberating gift that is precious and fragile.
I've signed up to lots of low-key trail events over the summer where times and PBs are less important than the challenge and camaraderie of finishing, which I hope will help me stop putting so much pressure on myself. Coralie will be running the Abingdon Marathon, whilst I've signed up to my first ultra marathon in October, the Stort 30! A marathon + a parkrun, what could possibly go wrong?
Hopefully I'll see some of you on the start lines. It's been nice chatting to you again. I'm off to install my heated toilet seat and to find myself an owl...