Marathon man: Mike Conlon finishes the race with grace.

Surviving the wall of pain

Published:  18 May, 2009

LONDON MARATHON: A personal perspective from Mike Conlon of Twyford Bathrooms.

“What am I doing here?” Strange words maybe as you’re standing at a start line of a race that you have supposedly trained for over 12 weeks, but nonetheless there I am thinking: “Why? Oh, why?” limbering up next to a 2.5m pink nurse called Nessa, a colourful but clearly nervous, giant Rubik’s cube and a 120kg  muscular ex-army trooper wearing a sign saying, 'Hope you win Dad!' – he obviously hadn’t explained his chances of success to his son or daughter but given his size, I wasn’t going to be the one to point it out.

Each year, the London marathon brings out many characters. This year, I was one of the 34 000 or so runners determined to run 26.2 miles in aid of, in my case, a children’s charity.

Just in case anyone is vaguely interested in why someone so obviously built-for-comfort and clearly not for distance should venture out on such a ridiculous pursuit, here is a personal and step-by-step recollection of my greatest-ever personal achievement.

It had been a wonderfully enjoyable evening and the fourth, or maybe it was the sixth ( it could have been the tenth for ) glass of red wine had gone down all too easily.

“You know that apparently there are 50 things you should do before you die!” said the blurred face across the table that earlier had belonged to a friend, “and one of them is a marathon – we should do that while we still can.” He was drunk, but sadly he remembered, because three weeks later he called me.

“We’re in!” he proclaimed in a rather apologetic but still excited voice. “We are in the London Marathon – can you believe it?”

I couldn’t. And I remained pretty much unbelieving until at 0944hrs and 59 seconds on 26 April 2009, standing in Greenwich Park in London next to Rambo, a nurse big enough to give an elephant an enema and a guy dressed  as a giant toy from the 1980s.

Running a marathon in your head is nothing like running a real marathon. Running a marathon in London I would argue is not like running a marathon anywhere else.

The encouragement and the support of the crowd was amazing, but above all, the driving force was that we were doing it to make a difference to children all over the UK thanks to the NSPCC (National Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Children).

Each year charities and supporters put effort into the event simply to raise enough funds to function. The really sad part about this is that they never actually reach the level of 'enough' and so in the case of the NSPCC, they cannot help as many children as they would like to.

If running the race was amazing, the training was boring. I had been informed that all you have to do is to follow the training programme and the training programme has one golden rule – you have to run a long way, and often.

That is not 'me'. Having only followed the training programme to a fashion, I was counting on hope and ignorance to carry me through. Luckily for me, I am blessed with an abundance of the latter.

So there I am striding the streets of London waving to family, friends and people I have never met and will never see again. Nine miles in and I was feeling surprisingly good, despite the fact that both Rambo and Nessa have long since left me. But, I had equally left the Rubik’s cube for dust way back.

My secret weapon in getting the spectators to cheer me on was that I had opted not to run in the very green, but rather uncomfortable NSPCC running vest, so I was showing no allegiance to any particular charity.

Therefore, every time I passed one of the cheering points set up every few miles by the many charities represented, I could claim to be one of 'theirs'.

Over the course of the day, I was loudly cheered and encouraged by the NSPCC, British Heart Foundation, Guide Dogs for the Blind, Macmillan Trust, Royal Lifeboat Association, Help for Heroes and a group of pensioners from Yorkshire who were raising money to repatriate penguins. Apparently this is a bigger problem in Skipton than any of us realised.

Thirteen miles appeared and I was still feeling pretty good as I crossed Tower Bridge and headed off towards Canary Wharf and the district of London renowned for housing the greatest banking brains in the world.

The training seemed to be working because I passed two guys dressed as a camel and a paramedic carrying a stretcher. Maybe I was all right at this running game after all.

Nineteen miles came and went and I felt that there must be something wrong. Where was this infamous 'wall' runners talk about? With only seven miles to go, I was in good shape and heading for a personnel best.

Twenty-one miles and the crowd started to thicken out and get noisier – cheers and shouts of encouragement rang in my ears mixed in with Abba’s, ‘Take a Chance on Me’ that my kids had downloaded onto my MP3 player. Then at 23 miles, out of nowhere, it appeared.

I had not seen it in the distance. No one had pointed it out, but sure enough I had found it. Not the finish line but the 'wall'. On reflection, I think it was more like an entire construction site.

It was like nothing I have ever experienced before. A feeling of nothing left to give, pain in every part of my body and my brain explaining in very short words of four letters to stop running. But there were still three miles to go…

And then when I thought I could not sink any lower, when the hurt could not be any worse and the pain was at its peak, he appeared, like the fifth horseman of the apocalypse, damning me to an eternity of shame and ridiculing me in front of 100 000 spectators and over 20 million television viewers. At the 24 mile marker, the Rubik’s cube passed me.

Four hours and 50 minutes it took me to run the marathon and, looking back, I loved every minute of it. But more important than any time or cramp or wall was the fact that friends, family, colleagues, customers, suppliers and strangers donated over £5000 to the NSPCC on the back of it.

As for my running days, let’s leave at: 'great experience, great adventure, never to be repeated'. Unless I see that Rubik’s cube again…

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