I will never forget the feeling of dread, rising from deep within me the night before, praying that that I would magically wake up ill enough to avoid the torture, the agony, the humiliation.
The ‘magic illness’ never came though and through rain or shine I would always rise with the lark and face up to the fact that I would have to take part in the monthly ritual of the school cross-country run.
Sadistic P.E. teachers would run with nettles behind the poor souls who made up the back of the field, while the popular, sporty, gifted boys at the front would sprint off into the distance to take the glory and the inevitable fawning of the female half of our year.
Mercifully, I was never quite bad enough to occupy the very rear of the pack - they really had been at the back of the queue when God was giving out bodies able to move with any sort of co-ordination - but I was close enough for it to be a constant concern. Certainly, close enough to put me off running for life. I was useless at most sport, but at least other sports (with the notable exception of rugby) could still be enjoyable, even if you did not possess the requisite skills to be successful at it. Running seemed to me to be a joyless, pointless grind that only terminally dull people who hadn’t discovered football would actively choose to pursue.
And yet there I was, in April 2006, lining up in Paris, ready to drag my body round 26.2 miles. Out of choice.
5 hours and 15 minutes later, I can only say I had one of the most transcendental experiences of my life, crossing a finish line that an hour - and, indeed, a lifetime - previously had been just an impossible dream. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but worth it. Two more, equally difficult, equally slow marathons followed, before I realised - as if I didn’t already know - that I had reached the limit of what my body could achieve. But all three of them were amazing experiences.
If I can do it, anyone can, no matter how unathletic you are, but a bit of guidance - real, honest guidance, that the shiny running magazines read by people with talent won’t provide - will go a long way to helping you…
Anyone can do it, it doesn’t matter how much you’ve run before and no one will be laughing at you
Honestly, it's like Facebook. Everyone thinks that everyone is looking at their posts and profile all the time, when in reality, everyone is too obsessed with their own posts and profile to care about yours. Lots of people fear that stepping outside their house in running gear will immediately lead to people pointing and laughing. They won't even notice you. And don't worry what level you start at: the important thing is starting. You can only run for a minute? Fine. Next run try two minutes. Then five minutes. You'll be amazed how quickly you can increase your tolerance.
The right gear is not optional
Forget the equipment guides - this is all you need to know. Spend whatever it takes on the right pair of running shoes - and go to a shop where an assistant will watch you run and advise you (nb. they won't laugh at you either). Messi wouldn't play the World Cup Final in slippers, just make the investment. Running socks are also essential, preferably the 'double sock' type: blisters are the last thing you want to be worrying about. Otherwise, t-shirt and normal shorts are fine. Plasters over nipples always. I learnt that the hard way. You may need vaseline for other areas - see how you go in training. Buy a water bottle and practice drinking small amounts whilst running. Buy those energy gels and get used to eating them: you'll thank me when they kick in on mile 21. Don't alter anything at all about your equipment on the day - a tiny difference could change things for the worse.
Listen to your body in training, don’t listen to it on the day
You can start as late as three months before the big day and get ‘match fit’, you just need to stick to a routine. Build up your training slowly: three short runs (of increasing length each week) in the week and one long run (again, building up) at the weekend. So, depending on your starting ability, by about your third or fourth week’s training, your short runs might be 3 or 4 miles, while your long run will be 8 miles or so. Step this up so you aim for 20 miles on your long run two weeks away from the race. If you don’t feel comfortable moving up the distances that quickly, then don’t worry. Before I ran my first marathon my longest run was ‘only’$2 16 miles.
There’s no point injuring yourself in training - better to try and wing it on the day when you’ll have support and you can rely on mental power to get you through. A common injury is shin splints - if you get these, just stop running for a good few weeks and do swimming or exercise biking instead. Don’t rush back to training too soon, there’s no short cut.
Running a marathon will hurt you in ways you never even thought possible. It is utter agony. But it’s worth it for that finish line. When one part of your body moans at you during the race itself, just ignore it - there’ll soon be another part of your anatomy that complains even more and that will take priority. Even if you pick up an injury, you can run through it and worry about recovering later.
Run it for Charity, it means you can’t pull out
Human beings are weak-willed creatures. Even with our best intentions, when the going gets tough, we look for an easier option. Actually, that's probably smart. But one thing we fear more than pain is humiliation. If you're running for charity, with hundreds, or thousands of pounds for dying people riding on you getting to the end, then you won't have a breather and look round for a nearby bus when the going gets tough.
Don’t get carried away at the start
You can run through pain, but you're not a miracle worker. If you were running 10 minute miles in training, and you do the first five miles in 35 minutes, then that is not going to be sustainable. It's so easy to get dragged along with the spectacle, with the other runners, with the excitement, but just go at your own pace - if anything, slow yourself down, you can always use that spare energy later on. The field will soon spread out and you'll find similar runners to yourself.
Break the race into chunks, but don't keep looking for the mile signs
Everything is easier in bite-sized chunks. Getting over halfway is a massive confidence booster. But don't pin all your hopes on rounding the next bend to see that next mile marker you've been dragging yourself towards. The disappointment when it's not there - and not even in the distance - is shocking. Try as much as possible to just keep a constant rhythm.
Follow that rhino
By about halfway round, you'll be running with people of similar ability to you. And people of much higher ability who, for some unfathomable reason have decided to make the hardest thing in the world even harder by running it dressed as a rhino. Pick that rhino, or someone who looks like you feel, and use them to drag you along. Imagine how embarrassing it would be if someone lugging a giant rhino suit along still managed to run it faster than you - it would just be unacceptable wouldn't it? I lost my personal rhino battle in London, but at least it meant I finished.
Music is crucial
Running is boring, we all know that. But music is great. Use the time you are about to waste on training to listen to tunes. EDM-heavy hi-NRG playlists are obviously a given, but don't overlook the option of taking a rare opportunity to listen, in full, without interruptions, to a classic album (here's some suggestions). By the time Shine On You Crazy Diamond Part IX kicks in, you'll be so engrossed that you won't have noticed that six miles have just flown by. Also - pro tip - crossing the finish line to Take That's Rule The World will make you feel like the greatest human who has ever lived.
Don’t get caught up in talk about times
Running a marathon is like getting a degree. At the time, everyone stresses about their grade, but once you're out of University, no one will ever ask you what your mark was - they'll just know you have a degree. Similarly, no one in the real world cares how slowly you ran a marathon - just that you've run one. If your primary concern is simply making it to the end, then time talk will simply encourage you to go too fast, too early. And, let's face it, you can always just lie - no one will ever find out.
The wall is a very real thing
Everyone will talk about 'The Wall' and how to avoid it. Moses Kiptanui might be able to get round it, but let's face it, you're going to hit it. What this means is that point when everything hurts, and - just to give you that extra kick in the teeth - breathing becomes difficult too. You will need to slow down, you may need to walk for a bit - or even quite a bit - but it will eventually go, and this is where those energy gels that you ate back at mile 12 will really help you.
Get supporters in
Anfield, Old Trafford, The Nou Camp - these cauldrons of football all intimidate the opposition, and inspire the home team. You are no different (well, you're substantially worse at football, but let's not get into that). It's impossible to understate how much of a boost it is seeing a family member or friends on the sideline cheering you on. It's good to know exactly where they are before the start of the race, so you can use them as an 'interim' aiming point, mentally, ideally from mile 14 onwards. there's plenty of good online maps, and you should also take your phone with you, just in case any plans change. Also, make sure you have your name on your running top in BIG LETTERS on the front and the back. People shouting your name out in encouragement can push you through those difficult miles.