Friday, 20 September 2019

I ran the London Marathon

The marathon is only 26.2 miles and takes between 2 and 7 hours depending on your fitness and running ability.  My journey was a lot longer. 

At the Livability offices with Francesca and Ralph
My journey began on a cold and wet January evening in 2018 at the Livability head offices.  I had been asked to talk to their London Marathon runners about what services Livability provide and how they had made a difference since my stroke two years previously.  I had a great time at the event and my talk seemed to go well.  What really impressed me about the people there was their desire to make a difference and to raise money for Livability.  There was a real mix of people from those who had run many marathons to those who were new to running.  The people made an impact on me and I did feel slightly jealous that they were going to do something that I felt was out of my reach.

During the evening one of the Livability asked if I wanted to do the marathon at some point I replied that I would love to but felt it was something beyond my abilities.  Up until that point I had only ever ran a half marathon and I found that tough.  They suggested that if I was interested then to let them know. After travelling home I received some nice messages from people who had attended the event and how much I inspired them.  It was simple messages like this that made me think further about entering.

The story jumps forward a few months to early April 2018.  I received an email from Livability asking me if I was interested in registering an interest in applying for one of their charity places for the 2019 London Marathon.  I thought there is no harm in simply registering and my running was going well so it felt like an easy thing to do without having to make a commitment.  I had been discussing running the marathon with my son Ben so we both decided to register.  I didn’t expect to hear anything for some time and I also expected not to get a place after all I wasn’t the best candidate to run a marathon.  I received a response within a couple of hours saying that both Ben and I had places.  So much for having time to consider whether I could do it.  I could not really believe that they had offered me a place. 

It was a tough decision for me to make.  I am sure most people would be very quick to make the decision to accept; after all it is one of the toughest marathons to get into.  As many of you know running a marathon is not just a case of turning up and running 26.2 miles.  For me the decision was a lot tougher.  How would I get round, I would need a guide; would I be able to fit in the training given the level of fatigue I suffer post stroke combined with working 3 / 4 days per week; is it sensible for a stroke survivor to run a marathon; would I be able to raise the target of £1,875, £3,750 if Ben and I did a combined fundraising effort.  I also had to consider whether Stephanie would want me to run.  I know that she was not a massive fan of me running races as my stroke happened after a race.  Having discussed all of the issues with Stephanie and Ben we eventually agreed that I could run.  Both Ben and I responded positively to the invitation.  Ben and I were part of the Livability team that would run the 2019 London Marathon.  Even now that still feels a scary thing to say.

I had just over a year to get into a level of fitness that would enable me to run the marathon.  With all things like this there is an almost childlike level of enthusiasm in starting the training.  I was definitely motivated towards getting a great time at the marathon.  With all these things you have in mind a target time in mind.  In my registration of interest I had put down that I hoped to do the marathon in 5 hours.  The reality was that I really wanted to do it in less than 4 hours.  Looking back now that target was almost ridiculous, however I had done a half marathon in 2:03 and I was not at my greatest level of fitness so 4:00 hours appeared a reasonable target.

The next problem was trying to find someone to run with me as a guide.  Although I don’t often run with a guide I knew that I needed one for the marathon.  It wasn’t just that I needed someone to guide me round I needed someone who could keep an eye on me making sure I was cognitively capable of running.  Also with the massive number of runners it was important that I stayed safe and kept everyone around me safe.  Having a half blind person running around is a recipe for disaster!!  Sometimes things happen in life that are just meant to be and how I got a guide is one of them.  I told a very good friend, Kathy that I had got a place in the London Marathon.  This is the exact response I got a couple of hours later:

“Brilliant news. Funny I was talking about you today. My friend Kevin who is Dr ran VLM on Sunday.  He has decided to do his running course for visually impaired and I mentioned in passing that you had applied for 2018 and not got in. He then said well if he wants someone to run with him I am more than happy!! He doesn't want to do it for himself again but to help someone else!  Then I walk out of work and see your text. How very weird!!!”

Kevin and I at the Snetterton half marathon
So not only had I found myself a guide for the day he was a doctor and a cardiologist at that.  One of Stephanie’s fears was that I would over exert myself and collapse.  Having a doctor running with me was like having my own personal medical team with me on the day.  It couldn’t have been planned any better.

I am a very organised person so the next few months I began my training in earnest.  I planned a few races and even arranged with Kevin to run a few events so we could practice running together.  Having a guide runner is not something that is particularly easy to pick up so you do have to train together.  To be able to run together you have to communicate well and gain trust from each other.  I have to trust my guide to direct me round obstacles and he has to trust that I will do as he asks.  It isn’t that simple.  Kevin wasn't always able to join me on all of the runs but he arranged for one of his friends, Julian, to run with me on a 20 mile race.  

I soon realised that my hope of a sub 4 hour marathon was unachievable.  Although the training was going well I was more concerned with getting my distance up and less about increasing my pace.  A 4:30 marathon was now my target.  It was a lot more difficult to train during the autumn and winter as it was difficult to train in the evenings.  I am fortunate that I have good running friends particulalrly George and Stuart who continually supported my training efforts and accompanied me to a number of races.

During this time Ben and I were starting to fundraise, the target of £3,750 was a long way off. It hadn’t been that long since I had raised £2,800 for Livability so I was worried that people would not donate having donated so recently.  At first the sponsorship came in very slowly and it was a big worry.  I had already decided that if we fell short I would make up the shortfall.

At this point everything went downhill over the next few months with a combination of issues keeping me from training.

The most significant of these was that just after Christmas my mother fell ill and was admitted to hospital.  Unfortunately she had pancreatic cancer and died in mid-January.  This was devastating for all of my family as it happened so quickly.  I remember doing a training run shortly after she died and I was about 5 miles into the run and I just stopped and cried.  It was so tough, I managed to jog / cry the rest of the way home.  My training at this point took a massive step backwards.

I also had to cancel an important run with Kevin as Stephanie was unwell.  This also gave me additional worry and this impacted on my training.

The final problem was that three weeks before the marathon I had a blood pressure check and it was 220/110.  This was a significant problem probably brought about by a combination of things such as my mother’s death, a stressful time at work, worrying about Stephanie and worrying about the marathon.  My consultant said that I could not run the marathon unless my blood pressure significantly improved.  I was put on blood pressure medicine and told to rest. 

So in the final few months when I should have been increasing my mileage and pace I had actually reduced the mileage and had to run at a gentle jog.  Things were not looking good at all. 

With a week to go we were also £800 short of our fundraising target.  The generosity of my friends and family continues to amaze me and in the last week we raised that money so on the day of the marathon we had hit our £3,750 target.

It had taken a lot of effort, sweat and tears but I finally made it to race day.  I am sorry it has taken such a long story to get here!!

People always say what a wonderful experience the London Marathon is but nothing truly prepares you for what it is actually like. 

The day began early with a nice healthy breakfast with Stephanie at our hotel.  The hotel we stayed in was not too far from the finish line, it also had laid on a coach for their guests to get to the starting line.  Ben joined me at the hotel as he was getting a lift on the coach.  It was quite a sobering journey as all we heard were the people in front talking about the number of marathons they had done. 

Ben and I before the start
The coach dropped us off in Greenwich Park not far from the start.  We had to be at the Livability meeting point at 8:00 for a photoshoot.  It also gave us the opportunity to meet other Livability runners.  I had been in contact with a number of them over the recent months as there was a
Facebook Group for Livability runners. It was great to put names to faces.  There is a real sense of anticipation and nervousness with all my fellow runners.  It’s been a long time coming and all are running for many different reason but the prime purpose is to raise money for Livability.

The Livability marathon runners 2019

After the photoshoot we went to our starting area.  Kevin and I went directly to the start pens and to zone 5 and we were the first ones there.  Kevin wanted to make sure that there was a gap in front of us when we started so it would be easier for me.  What many people don’t realise is that there is a lot of waiting around before the start of the marathon.  We were at the start pen at 9:00 but passed the start line at 10:37.  So we were hanging around at the start on our feet for over an hour and a half.  My first mistake of the day was that I didn’t take anything to keep me warm until the start of the race.  My fleece and tracksuit were now on a lorry after having to drop them at the bag drop.  Other people had old clothes that they discarded just before the start.

Kevin and I before the start
As the time got closer stewards came to the front of the pens, they were going to walk us to closer to the start.  One issue we had was that I was put in zone 5 and Kevin for some reason had been put in zone 6 even though he was my guide.  A steward noticed that Kevin was supposed to be in the slower zone and said that he had to move to the slower pen.  Kevin asked the steward to read the word on the front of his vest.  In great big letters was the word “Guide”.  Kevin also showed him that we were joined together by a tether.  The steward realised what the situation was and said it was okay.  Everything was very light hearted and there were lots of friendly chats going on around us.  We were all in the same boat and all hoping to do roughly the same time.  I said to Kevin that I hoped to go round in 4:45 and if we went over 5 hours then something had gone wrong.  We had already planned out the pace I was going to run.  I would plan to run at 6:30 per kilometre for the first half of the race this was will within my capabilities, I had never run a half marathon slower than that.  I would then try and keep this pace up for as long as possible but gradually reduce to a 7:00 per km for the rest of the race.  This would keep me on target for a 4:45 marathon.

We were led through the zone by the stewards and then waited for what felt like an eternity until we were called onto the road where the start was.  Again there was more waiting but eventually we started moving forwards.  Eventually at 10:37 we crossed the start line along with 43,000 others all setting out on this epic journey. 

The first few miles were nice and easy, it is slightly downhill and as a result it is easy to get carried away with the adrenaline and go too fast.  Kevin was very conscious of the pace and we kept at our target pace.  After 4 Km every km was within 1 second of each other.  Everything was going well.  Kevin and I were working well together as a team, the road was busy but most people were running and litter on the road was light.  The crowds were amazing cheering you on, having your name emblazoned across your chest meant that people were constantly calling out your name.  People also saw that I had a guide runner so that meant even greater cheers and encouragement.

I first started to feel something wrong with my foot at about 3km; my right foot had pins and needles and as I progressed it started to get more uncomfortable.  I assumed that it was just restricted blood flow so I moved my foot around in my shoe trying to release any restriction.  I didn’t say anything to Kevin until about 8km.  By this time my foot was very uncomfortable and I was starting to get shooting pains through my foot.  We decided that I should slow down with the hope that the problem would solve itself.

There are a number of places on the London Marathon course that are considered iconic and as such the crowds are a lot larger.  The first of these was Cutty Sark (at 10k), the crowds were massive and they are all shouting out your name.  It really does give you a lift to hear your name being called out.  The downside of this is once you are past there you come back to earth.  The euphoria of the cheers lessened and the reality was that I still had 32km to run and my foot was getting more and more painful.  I know Kevin was concerned about my injury as he kept asking if I needed to stop for a rest.  I didn’t want to stop but we did slow down at 14km to roughly 8 minute kilometres.  My foot was still getting worse and this meant that I was not running very comfortably.  As a result I started to get cramp in my legs.  It never rains but it pours.  To set this in context in the months leading up to the marathon I had been running in excess of half marathon distance (up to 20 miles) on numerous occasions and cramp had not been a problem.  But here I was after only 8 miles struggling to keep going one step after another.

The crowd continue to support us as we went round I am sure they could tell that I was in a lot of pain so they seemed to cheer even louder.  Kevin was constantly talking to me and keeping my spirits up.  One of the difficulties of being a visually impaired runner is that you and your guide are two people wide and getting through gaps is therefore twice as hard.  Kevin was great at moving people out of the way with a friendly word.  He also had to constantly tell me that there was an obstacle such as water bottles, odd bits of clothing and other litter on the ground.  This may not seem a bit problem but as I cannot see low down easily I rely on looking ahead and noticing these things, however as there were so many people I could not see far enough ahead. I was relying on Kevin telling me that there was an obstacle.  Kevin also had to plot a course through the crowds trying to find less populated parts of the route.  I am sure our route looked like a drunken pub crawl around London as we were going from one side to the other rarely seeing the blue racing line.  Whilst this meant we did quite a lot of extra distance it was important to keep us both safe.

There were times that I could have easily thrown in the towel and just said enough is enough.  At about 10 miles I was getting to the point where I could have given up but something happened that made a massive difference.  They estimate that there 750,000 spectators for the London Marathon so the chances of seeing someone you know by accident is remote.  I was struggling along and I heard my name being called out and for some reason I looked round.  In the crowd was someone I met at the Livability reception when I started this long journey that January evening in 2018.  Fortunately there were no barriers at the side of the road so I stopped and got a great big hug and some words of encouragement from her and her partner Ralph.  I don’t think they know how much those few words of encouragement meant.  I remember what I said at that reception that there would be bad times but that it was important to think about the challenges faced by Livability’s clients every day and to keep going.  Francesca and Ralph if you ever read this thank you so much you do not know what a difference seeing you made that day.

I was still hobbling along with the pain in my right leg getting worse and the cramp was in both legs and I still had 16 miles to go.  I don’t really remember the next few miles but eventually we were coming to Tower bridge.  This is probably the most iconic viewing point in the whole race.  The bridge was packed with spectators on both sides.  It was here that one of my favourite memories of the day happened.  I was clearly struggling and it was obvious to the spectators that I was.  I think this together with being a guided runner made people chant my name.  As I ran over the bridge the chant was picked up by the next spectator so the whole way across the bridge I was swept along with the chant of “David, David, David….”.  Absolutely unforgettable.  Kevin had to tell me to slow down as I had unconsciously picked up the pace.

Tower Bridge is just before half way and the finish seemed a long way off.  It was at about half way that Kevin decided we need to stop and try and sort things out.  I sat down at the side of the road and once Kevin had reassured the numerous St Johns ambulance people that I was okay, we assessed what the situation was.  First of all he took my shoe off and examined my foot.  He said it wasn’t caused by lack of blood flow so loosening my shoes would not help.  He also stretched out my legs to help relieve the cramp which was incredibly painful.  I remember Kevin telling me that it would be okay to stop and that it would not lessen my achievement.  He told me afterwards that I said in the sternest voice he had heard me use “I am never giving up”.  The one thing people would say about me is that I am not a quitter; once I start something I will not stop until it’s complete.  Kevin then gave me the option of walking the rest of the way.  He said I will still finish before the roads reopen.  Again I said that I wanted to continue to run.  I say run but it was more of a tortured hobble but it was running.

Kevin and I arriving at the Livability cheer point
The good news was that every step was taking me closer to the finish.  My next target was 16 miles where the Livability cheer point was.  It was also where Stephanie, Bethany (my daughter), Samuel (nephew) and Kathy (the friend who had introduced me to Kevin) were waiting.  The time between halfway and 16 miles was the toughest part of the race, I don’t honestly know how I got there but I know that without Kevin I would have stopped, his company and encouragement was immense.  I kept thinking that the cheer point would be soon but it took ages to arrive.  When we at last saw the cheer point I was so relieved.  To see all the Livability team plus my family and friends all cheering me was so emotional.  I stopped just to give everyone a hug and just to be with everyone was a real lift.  I know that people were worried as I had taken a lot longer to get there than they expected.  They knew that something had gone wrong.  Stephanie told me that Livability had some tickets in the grandstand on the Mall and that they would be there to cheer me in.  The time to continue came round too fast and we were off again.

I had now done 16 miles and only had 10 miles to go.  I think it was a combination of the lift from seeing everyone plus 10 miles was a distance I used to run regularly in my training that meant I felt I could complete the race. It wasn’t getting easier as the cramp was terrible and the pain shooting up my right leg was as bad as ever.  I just felt I could overcome it.

Once you come out of Docklands and onto the embankment you can see the Houses of Parliament in the distance.  That was a massive target to aim for and the finish line was not far from there.  The crowds along the route were amazing and they really keep you running even though you don’t want to. 

Running down the Mall
Before too long we were at the Houses of Parliament and there was only a short distance to go until the finish.  When you turn the corner, run past Buckingham Palace and get on to the Mall you know you have done it and I felt a massive feeling of euphoria.  As you run up the Mall you wave to the crowd who are cheering like mad.  I saw Stephanie and Bethany in the crowd and that put a massive smile on my face.  As I was running up to the finish line the emotion of the day took over and I remember crying.  Never underestimate how important achieving a massive goal is to you.  I could not believe it I had run the London Marathon.  When I crossed the line the first thing I did was give my hero Kevin a big hug.  The finish line video shows this moment and it brings a tear to my eye every time I see it.  I crossed the finish line in 5:43 so much for my target of 4:45!!! 
Kevin and I just after finishing

Ben and I at the Livability reception

Meeting up with everyone a short distance from the finish was lovely, there were hugs all round.  I had achieved something that not many others do.  There couldn’t have been many other diabetic, partially sighted, cognitively challenged stroke survivors running the marathon.   After running for so long I could hardly stand up never mind walk.  Somehow we managed to get to the Livability marathon reception and had some well earned food and drink.  I missed lots of the people as they had already been and gone.  The welcome there was as warm as it would have been if I had finished in 2 hours.  It was great to catch up with the Livability team and to share marathon stories with them and the other runners that were there. 

Even now writing this a few months afterwards I still cant believe I did it.  Its difficult to express what it feels like to do the marathon.   I am really proud that Ben and I raised almost £5000 for Livability.  I can never repay them for how much they helped me but this has gone a small way towards that thanks.  My injury turned out to be nerve damage in my right foot.  It is almost five months after the marathon and still have no feeling in two toes and it is still uncomfortable to run.  Was it worth it - absolutely and I am entered into the ballot for next year so you never know I may be having further blog entries about running a marathon. 

I have always said that I am nothing special all I have tried to do is live my life the best I could given the circumstances that life has put in front of me.  I do know that what I have done is unusual and if by doing it helps others then maybe it is more than just getting on with life.  

To finish I will finish with quoting from a card that Kevin sent me after the marathon.  I had sent him a small gift and a thank you card.  To me, he is a hero.  This is what his card said:  "The truth, however, is that you have no need to thank me because by running with you I received far more than I had to give.  Every time we ran together, I was witness to the bravery and dedication required to fight back from a serious illness.  To be in a team with you was truly inspirational"



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