Last weekend I ran the London Marathon in a personal best of 03:14:42. Now I’m writing from a hotel terrace in Zacatecas, Mexico, having flown out to Mexico the day after the marathon. Since then, I’ve bathed away the last of the aches in a thermal spring bath in Aguascalientes, broken my four month training dry spell in style at Mexico’s biggest state fair and done nothing more strenuous than walk to the nearest bar, restaurant or museum.

The timing of this holiday was not accidental. Last year, aiming to break 3:30 in Brighton, I ran 3:19. It made me smile as I crossed the finish line and enjoyed a celebratory cocktail. People congratulated me in the weeks afterwards saying “you must be delighted” and “I bet you’re so happy right now.” But all I felt was spectacularly flat and a bit grumpy.

Apparently this is quite common – something to do with having focused so much time and energy on a specific goal and not really having given much thought to what happens next. For some serious athletes it has even led to depression. So, in a bid to put all thoughts of the marathon out of my mind for a bit and to disrupt my routine so completely that I wouldn’t feel the disruption caused by not having a training plan to follow, I went on holiday.

I realise I’m spoiling that slightly by writing this blog, but a) it is siesta time and b) you have all been so supportive that I thought I should at least let you know how it went.

“The fear” kicked in the night before. I know “the fear” well – it involves the kind of butterflies that make you feel sick and stop you being able to think straight, meaning that getting organised for race day takes twice as long as it should.

Thankfully it was gone by the next morning and the excitement started to mount as soon as I got to Clapham Junction station and saw other people carrying their telltale official red drawstring kit bags. By the time I got on to the train to the start line at Waterloo East, every single person on the platform was a marathon runner.

A soon as I’d found the Green Start (there are three starts to reduce congestion in the early miles as so many people take part) I found someone I knew from one of Save the Children’s corporate partners. We spent the next hour getting ready together which really helped make sure the nerves didn’t come back and meeting some great characters including Joe, who was trying to break the world record for the fastest marathon in a three piece suit, and Bea, who ran her first marathon two years ago aged 63 in less than 4:30, which secured her a Good For Age place in this one.

I started alongside the 3:15 pace runner, and kept up with him for around the first 5k, when I overtook. The first nine miles went by in a complete blur or cheers and music. I couldn’t stop grinning. Despite knowing I was going far too fast (I ran the first 10k in less than 45 minutes) I carried on at that speed until I passed the amazing Save the Children cheer point at Surrey Quays, where all my colleagues were making loads of noise. I then forced myself to slow down to a more steady pace which would have me finish in 3:15 if I maintained it throughout, including a bit of leeway created by my early speeding.

This tactic worked well until about mile 20. Sadly, they always say the best marathons are run at a steady pace throughout…and my final six miles were far from enjoyable. I slowed down considerably, whether due to heatstroke (which I realised I was suffering from after the race), bad pacing or a combination of both. I didn’t really take in much of where I was, the sights along the river or the cheering crowd – I just focused on putting one foot in front of the other, by this stage safe in the knowledge that provided I didn’t stop, I’d done enough to achieve a PB. I did better than that though; I crossed the line in the best possible time I could have hoped for throughout my training.

So, how do I feel about it? Objectively satisfied, but a little scared to probe further into my emotional response, especially while I’m sunbathing on a terrace. I feel better prepared for the post marathon blues this year as I’ve still got 2350 miles to go to ward them off. And next year (and I realise it’s very easy to say this now) I might just forget the PB quest, chill out and enjoy the whole thing as much as I enjoyed the first 9 miles this year.


Why we are all Boston

I’m very sorry for not writing for a while. It’s now less than a week until the London Marathon, and it should be a time for mounting excitement (and nerves). Instead, like much of the world, I’ve spent today fixed to footage of the bombings at yesterday’s Boston Marathon.

It’s hard to express anything about what happened without resorting to the stock phrases that appear whenever an act of violence like this occurs. Senseless particularly springs to mind. Somehow, this seems even more senseless than usual. It has had a really profound impact.

Part of this is to do with how easy it is to relate to the people in the pictures we’ve seen on the news all day. Either running or supporting, I’ve been at six marathons in the last two years. I know how the people in those pictures were feeling seconds before the explosion; the euphoria at having the finish line in sight, the carnival atmosphere of the day. Close up, in the pictures of the finish line, you can’t even tell it’s Boston. It could have been Brighton last Sunday, could be London this Sunday.

But it’s more than the familiarity of the scene and the people in it. 25,000 runners had their own stories of determinations and sacrifice. Half a million spectators were cheering on family and friends and rooting for runners they didn’t know. Spectators make the race. I’ve never failed to run a marathon in a time faster than I was expecting, and I can’t attribute it to anything other than the phenomenal support from the crowds.

As a “cheerer” you care about everyone that passes. You call out their names and it makes you stupidly happy when they smile back. When you see someone flagging, you share in their pain, you genuinely will them on. It’s enjoyably strange – for the brief moment when someone passes you, you are entirely emotionally invested in that complete stranger’s life. The boundaries come down and there’s no real difference between you. Yesterday, half a million people felt that. The Boston Marathon – like all marathons – is a rare mass demonstration of affection and goodwill, of indiscriminate love.

What’s so heinous is that somebody was there; somebody felt that, and they blew it up.

We were talking in the office earlier about what effect the bombings might have on the London Marathon this weekend. I’m really grateful for the “show-must-go-on” attitude from the event organisers, the police and everyone involved. But will people be scared? Will the atmosphere diminish because the vital spectators who make the marathon what it is stay away?

I don’t think so. On Sunday, not only will hundreds of thousands of us line the streets to race or to support, and care about each others’ stories, the causes we’ve chosen to run for and our triumph or disappointment at the end, but we’ll be thinking of everyone caught up in Boston. We know them, the barriers are down and we love them too.

In other updates…

Fundraising – £1,265.17
Thank you so much to everyone who has sponsored me, all my wonderful work colleagues for baking cakes and taking part in our Grand National sweepstake last weekend to raise funds and to everyone who is following this blog. I promised I’d make a donation on behalf of each of you, and here it is: www.virginmoneygiving.com/AlessandraMartines

Mileage – 705 (398 cycling, 307 running, swimming, other)
Yes, I’m still under. And I’m on holiday in Mexico for two weeks after the marathon and don’t intend to do much. But I’m not worried, more certain that I’ll catch up – that’s what summer’s for after all.

The big day
Quite a lot of people have asked me how I’m feeling and I’m not really sure. Is “I don’t know” a satisfactory answer? I would love to beat my PB (03:19:37) but I know it will be by a very narrow margin if I can do it at all. I managed 20 miles in just over 2.5 hours a few weeks back, which bodes well. (This was part of the Hyde Park 20 Miles Marathon Prep Race – www.theraceorganiser.com which I would definitely recommend. It was well organised with a great pace team who were spot on despite gale force winds and driving sleet.) Anything can happen on the day though. Let’s say I’d be thrilled with a PB but not too unhappy with something a bit less….

Mother’s Day

Happy Mother’s Day everyone! I’m going to confess I haven’t spent it running (don’t worry, the run is rescheduled for tomorrow instead). I haven’t spent it with my mother either because she died nine years ago from Motor Neurone Disease.

I was trying to think, if my mother were alive,what would we be doing today? Some kind of lunch, and walk? Given that my sister and I are adults and no longer live at home I imagine it would be quite different to how we used to spend it ten plus years ago.

Then, we would have been in church. We’ve never been a religious family, but my sister Daniela and I were Brownies and then Girl Guides and Mothering Sunday was one of the “Church Parades” where attendance was strongly encouraged.

I’ve never held religious beliefs, and my mother’s death probably showed me that I couldn’t (if you can’t bring yourself to envisage an afterlife even to console yourself when your mother dies, then you really can’t believe). But I did enjoy the Mothering Sunday service, full of spring morning light and flowers and happy hymns. Mothers you certainly can believe in. At the service, we’d receive posies of the spring flowers Mum loved so much (we’d have put them together the Friday evening before at Guides) and give them to her.

As well as flowers, Mum adored wildlife (we used to joke that the only thing stopping her from being a full blown “twitcher” type birdwatcher was too much of a sense of humour), being out and about in the outdoors (it was her ambition to walk the West Highland Way in Scotland for her 50th birthday- we did it as a family in her memory 6 years later), she was incredibly sociable, keeping in touch with friends from school, university, travelling, and even some of her old teachers. And she loved playing tennis.

We’re still pretty much in the dark about what causes MND. However, research has shown that people who have higher levels of testosterone may have a predisposition towards it. This would explain why it is more common in men than women, why incidence is higher in people whose ring fingers are longer than their index fingers, and why, it seems, that an uncanny number of people with MND are passionate about sport.

My mother was one of them. She was games captain at school, gained a half blue for tennis at Cambridge University, and met my Dad through a social tennis event. Two more inspirational people I’ve found out about through the MNDA are Mark Maddox, a semi professional footballer from Liverpool currently living with MND, who is filling his life with as much travel and sporting challenges as he can (www.markmaddox.co.uk), and Andrew who has run 36 marathons, and who will also be taking part in the Brighton marathon this year, with his nephew Chris pushing him round in his wheelchair (www.pushing4achange.blog.co.uk). In Italy, there is arguably greater awareness of MND than in the UK due to the 5 professional footballers it has affected since the 80s, and in the US, MND is known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, after their most high profile casualty, a baseball player.

As a runner, it feels unnerving that what conditions us to love to run also makes us vulnerable. What a cruel irony – exactly the people, you could argue, who value their movement most have to be robbed of it agonisingly slowly. People who are used to pushing themselves to their limits in search of PBs or winning the league, striving constantly for improvement are reduced to working just as hard physically and mentally, in an effort to slow down the deterioration.

My mother used to work out in the gym, with weights, something I also enjoy. Fairly quickly after diagnosis, the weights were swapped for lifting a 500ml water bottle in tiny, tiny bicep curls, then a pepper grinder, then nothing at all, and eventually her own arms became too heavy for her to lift. We’d have to arrange them for her delicately on cushions so the pressure of her own – by then minuscule – body weight didn’t cause her pain.

Today’s run is rescheduled for tomorrow, after work. I’ll take in St James’ Park, Hyde Park, Battersea Park and stretches of the river. I’ll be thinking of Mum, and, I have a feeling, even and especially when they start to ache, loving the freedom the use of my legs gives me, which we sports people so easily take for granted.

Running solo

Thank you to everyone who read my last post and has signed up to follow my blog to help me get more views than my flatmate Matt. He’s sitting opposite me writing his latest post as we speak so the moment of truth is only a few minutes away. . .

Matt starting an outrageously successful blog was an unusual enough happening last week, but over the past few weeks something even more unusual has happened. Running seems to have got suddenly popular amongst all my friends. This started with Lauren, who, until recently, we all thought was an anti-exercise stalwart. Anti-exercise at cab-home-from-the-station-instead-of-walking levels.

But her cousin has been diagnosed with cancer, and she’s signed up to one of Cancer Research’s Race for Life events on 14th July in support. Then, more of us joined her. We’re now up to a team of five ladies, possibly six, depending on whether the pledge made last night in a bar holds firm. We have one (possibly two) total newbies to running and exercise, one “lapsed” runner who has always done some kind of sport on a regular basis but hasn’t run for a few years, two who run distances around the 10k mark fairly regularly, and me.

Due to our very different standards, the “team” part of the training will probably be in the post-training brunches. This couldn’t have worked out better. A team effort provides the motivation to get up, and go out, and actually do the training, with the enormous carrot of getting to spend time with people that you know and love and always want to see afterwards.

But you still get to run alone.

And here I confess to being a very antisocial runner… I cannot really understand why you’d want to run in company when you could run on your own. If it’s a very short run and running is really the secondary purpose after chatting, then fine. But for a long run, and on a regular basis?

Today I went on a 15 miler, mainly along the south bank of the Thames, joining it at Putney and following it round to Chiswick Bridge and back. It’s great to have such an unbroken stretch – you can fix your eyes ahead of you and not have to worry about stopping to cross roads or dodging gormless Sunday shoppers. I switch my brain off entirely or let it wander, occasionally brought back to reality by some external stimulus, like a rowing boat passing, which in turn sparks a new wave of reminiscences and thoughts around rowing days at university, and I’m back off again, retreated inside my own head.

You can’t do that in company. You have to converse.

At some point everyone who runs gets asked (and starts to ask themselves), “why do you do it?” It’s a hard question to answer; there are so many reasons, and sometimes none at all. They change with the day, season, your frame of mind. I think solitude is one of my constants though – I run to be alone.


Mileage update: 399 in total (252 cycling and 147 running, swimming, cross training etc)

Followers update: thank you to the 13 people who signed up to follow already! If you haven’t yet, please click “follow” on this page and enter your email address before the end of March and I’ll donate £1 to Save the Children and the Motor Neurone Disease Association on your behalf.

Fundraising update: £1,037 – thank you so much everyone for your generosity!


It’s my birthday, follow my blog!

Something unusual happened earlier this week. My long-time friend and now flatmate, Matt, started a blog. He likes to eat, and drink, and he especially likes seeking out the best places to do both of these things. So he’s started a blog about his discoveries.

So far, so perfectly within the ordinary. But his first post received 300 views. Now, I appreciate that food is probably more interesting than running, but 300 views?!! He didn’t even promote it except by putting it on Facebook! Basically, I’m jealous. I’ve never had anything like 300 views…

So, as it’s nearly my birthday, could you please do me a massive favour and subscribe to my blog? And if it being my birthday isn’t incentive enough I promise I will donate £1 to Save the Children and the Motor Neurone Disease Association for everyone who subscribes before the end of March. I shall pay it onto my virginmoneygiving page for all the world to see, so please don’t let it be an embarrassingly small donation.

As Matt was generous enough to mention me, you can find his blog, called The List, at www.speakeasyfindhard.blogspot.co.uk.

Now, please help me beat him.

A bit of renewed determination

This morning I ran the Portsmouth Coastal Half Marathon.

It’s a great course, with all the hardest ‘coastal’ parts in the first eight miles- it takes you along gravelly off road paths and sections of beach where your feet sink into a mixture of shingle and sludge, and over grassy playing fields. Then, knowing the technically hardest part is behind you, there is a glorious long, very straight ‘home straight’ along the seafront promenade where you can pick up speed again. Except it’s not the home straight. At around eleven miles, exactly as you are starting to push for the finish, it tests your mettle by taking you past the finish line and and out along the seafront in the opposite direction to loop back round.

I finished in a dubious 1:39:39 – a full five minutes slower than the same course at the same point in my training last year.

There are some explanations for this. First, the race conditions were worse. The wind was far stronger than I remember last year and the playing fields were so sodden they might as well have been ploughed – last year we were in the middle of a drought. I prepared better last year, timed my breakfast better, was better hydrated.

Most importantly, on the day of this race last year I was on the best running form of my life. At eight miles I was remonstrating with myself for running far too fast, without succeeding in slowing myself down. “Martines, it’s too early for this kind of speed, you’ll never keep it up til the finish…” I did. I was chasing a six foot beanpole called Mark (he had his name written across his t-shirt shoulders where my gaze was fixed in focus). At about eleven miles I overtook him, at which point there was no way I was slowing down, in case he whipped out some sort of sprint finish, where the length of his legs would be a definite advantage. I flew over the finish line – the sixth woman to cross it – and struggled to breathe properly or stop coughing for quite a while afterwards. That felt like glory. I want it back.

So – are those good enough reasons to explain away five minutes? All of these factors could justify a couple of minutes, maybe even three, but five minutes can lead to only one conclusion: more training required.

If I’m honest, when was the last time I went to bed with truly aching legs? And woke up with the ache still there, accompanied by a sort of grim satisfaction at going off to exercise them some more? I’ve been paying lip service to my training plan this year, and if I want a PB in the London Marathon (which I do), that stops now. Bring on the next 8 weeks of training. Bring back my glory….

You ain’t seen nothing yet.

A quarter of the world’s children running on empty

I’ve just been on a blustery winter run in Battersea Park. It was beautiful, running towards the lit Albert Bridge and feeling the wind come off the river. With every step, I felt more relaxed.

Now, back home, I’m hungry. I’m waiting for my potatoes to boil. Quite impatiently – I’ve covered nearly 20 miles today and need to replenish the calories. Thankfully, I can look forward to a filling, nutritious meal, unlike a quarter of the world’s children. While in recent years we have made great progress on many development fronts, hunger still lags behind. It claims the lives of nearly 300 children an hour. For many more children it is a life sentence; they grow up physically stunted, and to put it crudely, mentally stunted too, as their brains are deprived of the nutrients they need to develop. They do less well at school and earn on average 20% less as adults.

At the end of last month, Save the Children and a consortium of over 100 NGOs launched Enough Food For Everyone IF, the biggest campaign in history to end hunger. Think Make Poverty History, but in the age of social media.

It centres around four simple, tangible IFs, the obstacles that currently stand in the way of everyone having enough food. We can end hunger if:
– we give the poorest people the power to feed themselves
– we stop corporate tax dodging
– we use land for food, not fuel
– we force global corporations to play fair.

Sound too simple? Well, that’s the nature of mass-mobilising campaigns – complex issues around committing to minimum levels of aid, multi-national corporations that pay no tax to the developing countries they operate in, land used for biofuels and government and corporate transparency must be condensed into easily-digestible, 140 character friendly chunks. If you’d like the detail, there’s a detailed policy report to back the IFs up.

My potatoes have not only boiled now, I’ve sautéed them. Along with the fish fillet and broccoli, it’s just what I need after the day’s exercise. At the moment the ability to “waste” calories by jogging a couple of laps of the park purely for your own enjoyment isn’t even a dream for too many people – it’s inconceivable. Do what you can to change this now. Join the campaign.