What am I doing here? What the hell was I thinking? I can’t stop thinking about the order of the alphabet and how it can only be a matter of time until someone genetically manufactures a unicorn and how it’s going to change the world when they do. I think I might have completely lost my mind.
I’m 22 miles into my first ever marathon, which I’ve decided to attempt without any sort of training along the banks of Loch Ness, and at this point it’s feeling an awful lot like the worst decision of all time – worse even than the time I decided to use a melon and some empty beer bottles to set up a bowling alley at a flat party. And that was a really bad decision. There was melon everywhere.
I could use some melon now. Or at least some water. Or a car to get in or get hit by. Maybe I’ve hit the wall – the soul-destroying wall that I’ve heard so much about. No. Not now. I’ve only got four miles to go. I must not hit the wall. I must skirt around the wall. I’ve got a mountain to climb but I’ve come so far now, and there was a reason for doing this at some point. I’m sure of it.
I refuse to be defeated by a blockade that exists only in my mind, and in the 20.5 million results that come up when you stick the words ‘hitting the wall when running’ into Google, of course.
And there’s something in that. Because if I didn’t know that there was a wall to hit, then I wouldn’t have considered that I might be about to hit it in that most awful of lulls at mile 22, and I probably wouldn’t have lost my mind and started talking about unicorns or melons, either.
But everyone knows about ‘the wall’. It’s the Frankenstein’s monster of the running world, and its ubiquity means that whenever you start to struggle on a distance run, you’re no longer facing only yourself, you’re facing a mythical barricade, a sign that you’ve gone too far – a reason to give up hope. I guess that was why I was doing this – running a marathon without any training or without looking at any advice or tips online. Because fuck the wall. If we didn’t talk about it, it wouldn’t be there, and I wouldn’t be mourning the intense irony of Daniel Bedingfield’s wildly meta ‘Gotta Get Thru This’ playing through my headphones while my shoulder scraped past it; the most famous fictional obstacle in the world of sport.
"I stumble down the road looking like I’m having a spasm while trying to stomp out a dance routine from a Drake video..."
It doesn’t stop with the wall, either. There's an abundance of advice online on how to solve problems you never knew existed. They range from ‘How to Prevent Your Nipples Bleeding Mid-Race’ to ‘How to Poop Before a Race’ – not even why or where to poop, but HOW. If you’re running a marathon, you’re presumably old enough to have figured out basic bowel movements.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I think it’s awesome that there are so many training plans online for runners to follow and use in preparation, and it’s great that so many articles are readily available to answer questions which are genuinely frequently asked. But when was the last time you heard anyone ask another human being how to take a shit in all earnest?
I’d always thought that a marathon required months of sweat, dieting, and intense preparation – it’s recommended that you train for between 12-20 weeks beforehand – but was this view just a product of society stripping the accessibility away from the most coveted challenge in running? What would happen if I just turned up on the start line, fit and healthy from regularly riding my bike, but not having done any sort of training, and just gave it a bash? I wanted to find out.
And with my basic human knowledge of how to use a toilet, I felt like I was already one step ahead.
The challenge also had a more personal side though. See, I didn’t particularly like running when I decided to take on the Loch Ness marathon. I found it tedious and tiresome. But I liked the idea of running, the simplicity, the fact that it doesn’t require any gear or money or organisation, and after all, why have a mind if you’re not prepared to change it?
More than two million people run every week in the UK alone. They run to blow off steam, to better themselves or to chase a sense of achievement. If I could tap into any one of these then I could not only show that the marathon is much more accessible than your web browser might have you believe, but I might even find a new hobby in the process.
As soon as I got to the start line in Loch Ness, I had a feeling I might be onto a winner. I might have been about to go through hell, but I was going to be doing it in a heaven of greens and blues. Dense forests and wild hills rolled as far as the eye could see from the drop off point, with beautiful lochs punctuating the colour chart and the marathon route carving through the scenery like a smile through the perfect postcard.
The surroundings were a much needed pick-up, because my lack of preparation was starting to wake up my nerves. I turned up on race day having completed two runs in the past year and wearing a knee brace I was hoping, without any guarantee, would allow me to struggle through.
One of the first things I noticed when we got to the start line was that a lot of people were wearing bin bags too. Between that, the portaloos and the giant queue for coffee, the place looked like some kind of post-apocalyptic base camp throwing a neon-themed party. It was a strange environment to say the least. It was also an incredibly friendly one.
I got speaking to a few folk sporting bin-bag chic who explained how it helps keep the wind and rain off before the race. Another fashion trend was the overwhelming amount of charity logos on show, and each fundraiser I spoke to seemed to have their own heart-warming tale. I was also surprised at the range of people running; from young to old and in every shape and size, and particularly inspiring were the visually-impaired runners lining up next to their running guides.
There was so much enthusiasm and positive energy around, though the chatter went silent with the starting gun; giddy laughter being traded for steadfast smoulders as timers clicked on.
Jogging past the pipe band lining the start of the race felt like that point in Harry Potter when the Tri-Wizard crew trade the carnival of Hogwarts for a terrifying maze where they no longer know who’s their mate and who’s just there to run the Baxter’s Loch Ness marathon. Or something like that.
At this point I had been told the adrenaline would take over and I’d be eager to take off. I was stoked to get going, but I was in no rush. I walked about half of the opening mile to save my knee from blowing up on the downhill and within about five minutes I was almost at the back of the pack. It may not have been a great start for the self-esteem, but there was plenty of time to go. This was a marathon, not a sprint. Literally. One mile soon turned into two at a jog, and two turned into four and six without much notice.
We hit the banks of Loch Ness around the nine mile mark. The course flattened out here and offered the chance for some more consistent flat-road jogging. I put into action the breathing techniques from the Saturday morning yoga class I’d been falling over in for the past few months and while a whole host of others around me checked their watches and fiddled with energy gels, I continued to plod along, dreaming of nothing in particular and getting lost in the views.
I was really starting to enjoy myself. I wouldn’t say I had hit the ‘runner's high’, but with music in my ears and only having to take out my phone to skip the occasional bad song, I managed to get a steady pace on the go. My cluttered brain was reaching a state of sedation watching the sun gleam off the water of Loch Ness.
I felt the first twinge come out of my knee a couple of miles out from halfway. With this in mind and a rather daunting 15.2 miles left on the counter, I decided to steal a few miles on the walk. With the trees clearing to show the water of the loch crashing beneath the valleys, I probably would’ve fallen over if I’d been running anyway.
It was becoming clear that if I had chosen a city marathon I would’ve struggled significantly more than I did. I like my hills and open air and the romance of the view never fails to inspire. In this case it got me back on the jog.
An energy station and a bunch of weird little jelly-cube things later – I’m told they're called Shot Bloks – and I’m back at it, strolling through mile 13. Intel has dripped down from people who actually looked at the course map that there’s a hefty hill waiting at mile 18, so I run strong to the bottom of the hill and catch my breath strolling up. I remember a passage from Christopher McDougall’s ‘Born to Run’ where the world’s top ultra-runners recommend walking uphill, as you’ll save energy and barely lose any time.
We reached the end of Loch Ness around mile 16, and despite some twinges in the knee, I’m still going strong. Sociable conversation with nearby strangers makes the time fly by.
A few red-faced runners power up the hill but I resist the temptation to join them. There’s still 8.2 miles ahead, and there’s no need to trash my quads even more than I already have. The longer the race goes on, the more folk seem to be pulling up at the side of the road.
The top of the hill arrives and with drum and bass in my ears I’m flying forward, feeling stronger and faster with every stride and showing no signs of slowing down. It was a thing of beauty, and with just over six miles left on the counter, there was no reason why it had to stop. Except of course, it did. And when the pain hit in, it hit in bad.
I had somehow run the first 21 miles of the marathon in around 3 hours and 15 minutes, far faster than I had expected. But I’d be paying for it with every step from there on in.
Mile 21 saw each step get heavier and the meditative silence replaced by nervous rambling. Mile 22 saw my hamstrings squeal, my body crumble and my train of thought turn to outright lunacy. This is where the no training thing started to feel like a rather unintelligent idea. My wind-up toy of a body was running out of turns.
I forced myself not to stop. If I came to a halt, I couldn’t guarantee I’d start back up again. It felt like all the optimism had been drained out the world. But I could not hit the wall. Giving up now would be giving up in sight of the mountain summit.
I pushed the negative thoughts to the back of the mind and focused on the positives – you’re 22 miles into a marathon, your knee is still fine and even if you walk it now, you’ll still finish.
I had to actively swing my arms back and forth to get my legs moving again, but it worked. I was off, albeit slowly but with a new air of stubborn confidence. Another mile done. Three to go. I hugged the dude behind the counter for giving me a bottle of water. He hated it. Two to go.
I re-enter Inverness for the first time since 7.30am, and think I simply can’t go on. But wait. What’s this? It’s a guy called Steven shouting encouragement and telling me I’m still on for 4:30.00 and I tell him he has the same name as my brother but spelled differently and I ask him what he thinks about unicorns and genetic engineering and we run on together.
We pick up the pace and mile 24 passes after what feels like an age. My hamstrings go again and I leap up like I’ve taken a bullet, somehow managing to plod on. Every mile now feels like two. Mile 25. I refuse to slow down now. But it’s such a struggle. Why is it such a struggle? Because you’re running a marathon with no training. You’re an idiot. But you’re going to make it.
I cross a bridge and a police officer says something in a Highland accent. I don’t understand him but it sounds encouraging. I charge forward and pull up in agony. It’s my hamstrings again. My quads are burning too. My right toe curls inwards and I’m unable to prevent it from doing so. I stumble down the road looking like I’m having a spasm while trying to stomp out a dance routine from a Drake video while onlookers shout encouragement I can’t comprehend. I don’t know which direction to stretch first, but eventually it sorts itself out.
The finish comes into sight moments later. Let’s get this over with. This time I sprint with success. Though watching the footage back, it was more of a light jog than a sprint. I cross the line in 4:22.46 and I can’t believe it. It’s far faster than I’d imagined.
I collapse on the floor and lie there never planning to move. When I eventually get up, realising how unsustainable it would be to live on the sidewalk of a pavement in Inverness, I find my muscles have almost completely seized up. I waddle over to get my medal with all the poise of an inbred penguin coming down from a drug-bender.
It was an amazing experience and something I would definitely recommend, though a little bit of training probably wouldn’t have gone amiss. Other than those deadly final few miles though, I don’t feel like I’d missed out on much by turning up to the start line uneducated. If you’re fit and healthy, I’d say there’s no reason you can’t run a marathon without the months of training. Don’t let yourself get bogged down in answers to problems that don’t need solving.
The personal take away from the race was wildly positive. I’m far more keen on running now, particularly on the meditative qualities, different, and more vacant and hypnotic than you can find on a bike, where you rarely get away with zoning out altogether.
One day later and my legs are killing me. I look over to the Loch Ness marathon medal hanging on my door and give a wistful sigh. I’ve caught the running bug, but I can’t get out the door. I am absolutely ruined, and will be for the next few days.
The mountain has been conquered at a price, though there’s no doubt that it was well worth the payment. There’s a monster in Loch Ness alright, it’s just not in the water, and it’s a beautiful beast.