Plans for half-century marathon to be the last may yet come unstuck
If there is any phrase more associated with the marathon than “never again”, it must be those words that worm their way into your head just days after the event as the body recovers from the trauma of running 26.2 miles: “One more time.”
Just as the final miles of the classic distance are for many runners a nightmare of tightening muscles, light-headedness and intense physical pain, the days that follow often bring with them a giddy desire to do it all again.
It might be driven by annoyance at having hit the wall, or a desire to strip a few minutes off a personal best, but either way the marathon bug seems to be a recurrent condition.
How else to explain the ever-increasing array of events from which to choose during the current running boom?
Yet all of us run out of road at some point or another, and increasing age takes its toll, particularly in such a gruelling event as a marathon. The time it takes to recover from a long run grows, making training more of a chore and more intrusive on the day-to-day of life. Niggles turn into full-blown injuries and ambition flags. For many, families grow as the years pass, placing other demands on time.
I thought I’d reached my “never again” moment five or six years ago. I had decided to give it one last whirl on a pancake-flat course in northern Italy.
Yet the day turned out hot and my muscles were weary, and somewhere well short of 20 miles I slipped a few gears.
The final straw came when my friend, an ex-smoker on his second marathon, pulled up alongside in the final miles and then disappeared into the distance before me.
“Maybe it’s time to hang up the running shoes,” I thought, as I slogged across the finish line, “and to spare my lower back any further pain.” In the years that followed, there was less running, a bit more cycling and, as it happened, more child-rearing and more work.
Yet the bug never goes away. There are few physical challenges as definable and, ultimately, as achievable as a marathon. Everest is too expensive now, an Ironman triathlon is too hard and cycling around the world takes too long.
On any day of the year, you’ll find two or three marathons taking place somewhere in the world, and the choice includes routes around some of the world’s greatest cities.
And so the idea grew that not only would I run one final marathon but that I would mark a significant birthday this year by attempting a personal best.
For me, after a dozen or so marathons run in varying states of preparedness, that stands at about three hours and 19 minutes, set a long time ago on a weekend visit to Bilbao.
Some things have changed since I first started pounding the streets regularly. The popularity of running has soared. There is far more science involved, some of it dubious and much of it of little relevance at the level of the ordinary runner. The internet is available as a ready source of information, advice, mutual support, scare stories and training plans.