Running my first marathon, in Dublin in 2004, was easy compared to recovering from it.
The morning after, I could hardly walk. It felt as if my feet had been torn off and I was tottering around on the stumps of my ankles. So much for my plans for a leisurely day off work and swanning around town.
This hasn’t put me off, though. The 2013 Dublin Marathon will be my fourth time running in the event and my seventh marathon in total.
I had started training from zero, as a complete marathon beginner, six months earlier. I was already walking for forty minutes to and from work every day, so I figured my general health and fitness weren’t too bad.
Still, my first training run was actually a wheezy run-walk-run of 30 minutes. At that point 26 miles of running seemed an almost abstract concept.
But after a month I made it through 30 minutes of running, and then by the start of June I was running for an hour.
In July I ran my first race, a five-miler in the Phoenix Park, with my first taste of a race-day buzz and my first official result for a race. This was the day when I first started to think of the marathon as a concrete task. I started following a beginners’ training schedule by Eamonn Coghlan in The Irish Times, and I followed that five-mile race with the ten-miler and half-marathon in the Dublin Race Series building up to the marathon.
That summer I trained in the Phoenix Park five times a week – in the evenings during the week and in the mornings at weekends. My usual route followed the hilly roads that you might know from the last few miles of the Frank Duffy 10 Mile and the Dublin Half Marathon, so I was already building up strength in my legs. It was an Olympic year, and to be training for a marathon while also watching the athletics action from Athens gave me a strange feeling that I was part of the same sport. (I’d never had that feeling while watching World Cup football because it seemed so distant from our park kickarounds.)
A month before the marathon I moved out to Malahide, and so my taper runs were along the sea at night towards Portmarnock: a memorable route and experience. My training had gone well, and I had the advantage of inexperience – the prospect of my first marathon felt like an adventure, so I was mentally fresh and positive.
I don’t remember too much about the race itself. The weather was dry and sunny. Before the race I saw the elite athletes warming up in a side street by the start area – they looked like hardened stick insects; not only their limbs but even their bodies and heads were long and thin. It was my first time seeing world-class athletes who weren’t muscular.
I had no race objective other than finishing. At the start line I didn’t know what time I’d be aiming for, but based on my times in shorter races that summer I had a vague desire to beat four hours. Nowadays I’d always advise first-time marathonians (marathoneers?) to work out a realistic target time by doing a half-marathon or ten-miler as part of their training.
The Dublin Marathon start in 2004 was different to this year’s race – we set off from Nassau Street and around the back of Trinity College, then turned from Pearse Street up to O’Connell Bridge to join what is now the usual route. The finish was also different – still on Merrion Square as it is now, but instead of running straight up from Nassau Street we turned right to finish in front of the old National Gallery entrance.
Things that are normal to me now were surprising to me in that first marathon. Crowds of spectators at Dolphin’s Barn edged into the road and narrowed the course, making me feel I was on one of those frenetic Alpine stages of the Tour de France. I was a little spooked, I must admit. Around halfway we were being offered everything from plates of sweets to tubs of Vaseline, as if we were passing through a north African bazaar.
Passing the Dropping Well pub at Milltown, I resolved an age-old philosophical debate – yes, there is a distinction between the mind and the body. I learned this when I could feel my body trying to stop running, and my mind stepped in to issue a counter-command. Without consciously wanting to, I had almost stopped, but fortunately I kept going right to the end. I can’t remember anything in particular from the last few miles of the race.
Turning the final corner of the 26.2 miles, I saw on the finish line clock that I was well under four hours, so I was able to ease up and enjoy the run-in. My finishing time was 3:54:27 – although the more immediate thrill was in having finished a marathon rather than the exact time.
If you’re getting ready for your first marathon, enjoy it. That might sound strange advice, given all the talk of physical and mental distress, but it’s a fantastic experience and a proud achievement.
Plus, it’s great preparation for your second marathon!