Six-years ago this week, I completed my second marathon. I’ve done 34 since but this weekend will be different. The London Marathon is always different, and this year doubly so in the circumstances. Whether you think I’m virtually running a marathon or running a virtual marathon (hopefully the latter), the collective emphasis for thousands on Sunday will be on the indomitability of human spirit, of an endurance and togetherness that we must all show in these challenging times. The 40th race is like no other, the need for running to set a tone of humanity has never been more important.
The four London Marathons, in the images above, tell a story of their own, but running has always represented much more than sport to me.
I don’t credit it with rescuing me from the abyss of mental illness; I had overcome that demon in the years following my final suicide attempt in 2006. However, it has been absolutely pivotal in driving a mental wellbeing far beyond anything I could ever have wished for. Purpose, discipline, energy, determination, resilience, compassion, supporting others… they are just some of the words and skills which are critical to the runner’s armoury and also incredible traits to take into our relationships and work.
When I started the running journey in 2013, I was free of clinical mental illness but it didn’t mean I was mentally well. At 19 stone (120 kg), I was lethargic and bereft of energy, had moments of discipline and determination but only fleetingly, and was unable to show compassion to others when I really still didn’t truly understand how to love myself.
When I say that running transformed my life, it is no exaggeration. And when I say that running a marathon is a metaphor for life, that is also no exaggeration. They are both long journeys, and they will both be filled with moments where you feel invincible and others when you feel that you cannot take another step. What the marathon taught me is that we learn the most and gain ultimate satisfaction from the steps we take in that moment where giving up seems the easiest option.
And that’s where we come to this weekend. As a society, a country, a world, so many lives feel shattered right now in the debris of Covid. But just as there was life before 2020, so will there be life beyond it; we don’t know what that life looks like right now, but there will be a time when we can see our friends and family openly and not live in fear of this virus. More than that, the skills and resilience we learn in somehow crawling through this most difficult mile of our collective lives; well they will be the skills and resilience which allow us to thrive in the marathon of life beyond.
The great Eliud Kipchoge is well known for smiling when he runs. Less known is the academic research, at Swansea and Ulster Universities, which found that runners were up to 2.8% more economical with a smile than when frowning when it comes to conserving energy. It’s a great analogy for life; when we hit the wall (and we inevitably will at times), we give ourselves so much more of a chance to overcome when we approach with positivity.
Across the UK on Sunday, there will be thousands of people running the streets, footpaths and fields of our country, all proudly wearing their London Marathon numbers. It is not the crowning moment they wanted or expected, but it is a day on which they will realise that they are capable of something they never thought possible. This year, above any other, they have shown a tenacity and determination which richly merits a moment in which they are celebrated.
So please cheer them loudly, many of them are changing the lives of others on behalf of charities who so desperately need our support. They will also be transforming their own lives.
And this will be the most difficult London Marathon of all. I genuinely think the crowd support is worth about 3 or 4 miles at London; every ‘you can do it’ and jelly bean makes a difference on marathon day.
This Sunday, of course, please don’t give out jelly beans and please stand a few metres away, but when you see someone coming with that number, scream loudly enough to embarrass yourself and that happy runner, so loud that the rest of the street starts cheering too.
On a personal level, many of you will know my journey through mental illness, suicide attempts and homelessness. I am privileged to have the life I now do but also know that I could not have done it alone. My personal journey does not have this ending without Mind, the mental health charity.
However, those charities need your support now. If you are able (and I fully appreciate that these are not easy times), even the smallest donation could transform and save a life. You can visit my fundraising page by clicking the button below.
I will be running approximately 13 and a half laps of Battersea Park on Sunday morning, starting around 7.30am, in order to complete my 26.2 miles. Thereafter, I am likely to be refuelling heartily at BaBaBoom on Battersea Rise… it’s all about being #poweredbykebabs!
If anyone feels kind and foolhardy enough to come and look after my crate of water and gels, I may even buy them a kebab too!
And do keep an eye out for the BBC coverage of the day, as my journey and fundraising will be among those featured.