Just what happens when an astonishingly unfit and apathetic student tries their hand at completing a marathon – without any training whatsoever? Peter Molloy shuffles his way to finding out
The panic didn’t set in at all until Sunday afternoon. It was just after 3 o’clock, and I was walking through the entrance of the Main Hall in the RDS.
Being here in any capacity other than as an exam attendee is unusual enough for a UCD student. Normally towards the end of the year, a visit to the RDS means a dog-eared history text book under arm and a jumbo plastic bottle of water in hand; ready for last minute paragraph scanning and the usual scrum at the seat number board. Not today, though.
As I make my way inside, it suddenly starts to dawn on me how utterly out of place I am here. From left to right as far as I can see, the hall is filled with lithe, frighteningly fit-looking people. Intense looking stretches and warm-ups are being carried out against the pillars and walls of the hall; the snatches of conversation I can hear as I move through the throng fail to fill me with any sense of confidence.
“I made three hours alright, but I’m hoping to crack it this year…”
“Yah, so doing New York as well next week really seemed like a natural progression…”
Were that not enough, everyone – and I really mean everyone – is dressed from head to toe in combinations of running gear, leggings, and sweatbands. This is only registration, the day before the race, and everybody is girded for battle already.
I glance down guiltily at the telltale bulge of a cigarette packet beneath the distinctly non-sporty pair of faded jeans I’m wearing, and swallow nervously. This is definitely not my bag.
I join the queue winding its way up to the balcony of the hall, where I go to a desk to receive my race bib, complete with electronic timing chip. As I move by another desk, a sensor bleeps and my name and race number flash up on a display screen. This is assembly line athleticism.
Far more importantly, it means I’m properly committed to this now. No turning back.
I move back downstairs to receive my complimentary goodie bag from one of the female volunteers manning yet another row of desks.
“Good luck for tomorrow,” she smiles, handing me a plastic bag full of giveaway boxes of cereal and travel-sized deodorant. I don’t think either of us knows just how much I’m going to need it.
Bank Holiday Monday begins with the painful realisation that my little Features project will imminently be becoming brutally real. Just after 7:30 in the morning, I’m pacing in a cloud of tobacco smoke in the back garden, desperately trying to remember why on earth I’m doing this.
Like many stories with unhappy endings; this one began with what seemed like a tremendously good idea. It was the end of August, and planning for Volume XVI of The University Observer was well underway when our incoming Deputy Editor had a brainwave for one of our Semester one issues.
“How about,” he said, looking at me over his desk, “we register you to run the Dublin Marathon in October?”
I had to hand it to him – it wasn’t a bad suggestion. I effortlessly make the shortlist for one of the least athletic and competitive people in the Observer office. The outcome of tasking me with an activity that required a significant amount of stamina and commitment couldn’t fail to be interesting. Besides, the last Monday in October seemed a lifetime away on a sunny summer day with the leaves still on the trees. What could I say but yes?
Now, however, things were about to get unpleasant, fast. By 8:30am, I’ve slunk in to the very rear of the race formation on Fitzwilliam Street, surreptitiously glancing at the competition ranked around me.
The intervening evening hasn’t made things look any better.
The steps of the Georgian facades lining the start of the route are cracking under knots of spandex and lycra-clad runners stretching, twitching and breathing in and out in preparation for the off. Here and there, the mass of the crowd temporarily parts to allow some sweat-banded zealot to go through one last warm-up, bouncing through the throng like a bad mime artist.
Judging by the array of expensive looking running shoes and singlets on display, the collective stock of Dublin’s sporting goods emporiums must have shot up in the last week. I’m not quite looking the part here. I’ve adorned myself with a faded yellow hoodie and a pair of equally sorry-looking tracksuit bottoms; accessorised by a scuffed pair of Dunnes trainers which I’m depressingly confident won’t be up to par when it comes to arch support. My race number is clumsily sellotaped across my chest. There really is nothing like dressing for the occasion.
Ah, well. At least I have my training to fall back on.
And I have been training hard. Walking all the way from the Newman Building to the Student Centre. From the Student Centre back to the James Joyce Library. Once or twice, I’ve even hoofed it the entire distance from the Belfield flyover to the Arts Café. This is just going to be a slightly lengthier version of the above… isn’t it?
I try to ignore the strains of the Garda Band practising for playing the race off, and attempt to concentrate on getting ready to go. I’ve long since settled on my own particular marathon strategy: it’ll be walking, from start to finish. As recently as a day or so ago, I’d flirted with the idea of running the first mile or so, purely for appearance’s sake. The aghast responses I’ve been receiving from friends and family have persuaded me to face facts and acknowledge that even that is probably beyond me. Even a chancer has to recognise reality occasionally.
Eventually, after a lifetime of anxiously checking and re-checking the time on my phone. and deliberating on whether or not one last smoke will result in me being summarily lynched by the human whippets around me, we’re off.
I’m slightly disappointed. I was expecting something dramatic here, like a race marshal striding in to the middle of the road and ceremoniously firing a starting pistol toward the grey October sky. Instead, the mass just begins to surge forward as one solid body.
By Nassau Street, things are going well. I’m striding along, not much faster than if I was out for a spot of early Christmas shopping. The MP3 player I’d filched from my sister’s bedroom is blaring a pungent mixture of Abba and Rihanna in to my ears. This is actually quite alright.
Famous last words.
As part of the only modicum of research or preparation I’d bothered with prior to the event, I’d chuckled over and over again to myself at the YouTube video of Paula Radcliffe getting caught short during the London Marathon in 2005. How quickly the smug do fall.
The fractional amount of practical information I’d managed to soak up had left me with a fear of becoming dehydrated during the event. What’s the solution for an enterprising young writer? Why, simply knock back enough mineral water to fill a camel’s hump prior to starting. Job done.
Except it isn’t. It’s anything but. As my straggling portion of the procession winds its way past the neon-lit front of the Sinn Féin bookshop on Parnell Square, I’m starting to feel it. By the time we’re passing down the North Circular Road, things are becoming dire. I start to shoot glances at inviting looking front gardens and alleys as I chug past. Solving things a la Radcliffe is beginning to look more and more appealing.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to see the squat plastic frame of a portable toilet in my life. Suitably refreshed, I slump to the pavement and fish into my tracksuit pocket for my sweat-stained pack of cigarettes. This is tough stuff, and this first water station only represents the three mile mark.
I clamber back to my feet and keep on going through the wrought-iron gates of the Phoenix Park.
Something highly unexpected starts to happen as I continue on over the side roads and avenues of the park. Despite my best efforts at weary cynicism, I’m actually beginning to get in to the spirit of the thing. My phone is shrilling every half mile or so with calls from girlfriend and friends.
At first, the inquiries are solidly anxious and curious. “You actually got up? You really are doing it?”
As the miles count off, pain-stakingly slowly, the contact takes a more encouraging tone.
“Well done – keep going.”
From nowhere, the hazy idea I originally had of giving it my best shot for a couple of miles or so and then bowing out is being replaced by a desire to grit my teeth and actually finish the thing. Determination? Drive? This is new and very much unexplored territory.
As I lope out of the Phoenix Park and on to the Chapelizod Road, I take the opportunity of another water stop to halt myself for a moment and lean against a stone wall to light a cigarette. I’m exhaling and mentally weighing up the mere twenty or so miles still left when an unmistakeable American accent hails me from behind.
“Blow it all over me!”
My mind is still frantically working on all the different comic directions this can be taken in when the chirpy, pink tracksuited owner of the voice appears at my shoulder.
“I’m a smoker,” she explains, nodding her head at the smouldering coffin nail between my fingers. “I need my fix.”
I decide to prevent the situation becoming any more bizarre by simply proffering a Lucky Strike and my lighter.
As she takes a grateful first drag, my interlocutor introduces herself as Kim O’Connor, an insurance worker from Kansas. O’Connor – and another half-dozen or so members of her family – are in Ireland for an extended break. The previous few days have seen them tick off tourist staples like the Guinness Storehouse and the Book of Kells; now they’re running a marathon to conclude their time in the capital.
I’m tempted to ask where the urge to spoil an otherwise delightful holiday came from, but I decide to keep my mouth shut. Shuffling along beside O’Connor as our wheezy portion of the cavalcade clears Chapelizod and moves along toward Crumlin, she elaborates on what has her out pounding Dublin pavements on a brisk October Monday. She’s there to raise as much money as possible for leukaemia research, “and have a good time here while I’m at it.”
Admirable stuff. I’m not quite sure my moral fibre is quite so Kevlar-like, though. For all my newfound sense of spirit, I’m beginning to feel it now.
The halfway point arrives mid-phone call update to the same Deputy Editor that started all this in the first place. It’s after half-twelve, and he’s just out of bed. I can’t resist a slight tone of weary smugness, though in his defence he’s been awake until four that morning putting the final touches to that fortnight’s issue.
I progress on past Crumlin Children’s Hospital, doing an Oscar-worthy impression of a particularly lethargic pensioner. That’s a rather futile metaphor, though, because here and there along the route I’ve actually seen several pensioners, and they’re not doing half bad. In fact, some of them are out-pacing me.
My feet are sorer and sorer now. I haven’t dared look at any of the water station pitstops, but beneath the protective covering of St Bernard’s best rubber and the double layer of socks on each, I’m beginning to get the distinct idea that I may be doing a considerable amount of damage to them.
A refrain starts repeating itself over and over again in my head. “I’m not even paid for this. I’m not even paid for this. I’m not even paid…”
The stretch from Terenure to Milltown melds into a bizarre blur of the gates of fee-paying secondary schools. I mark my progress by limping painfully past the entrance to Terenure College, Rathdown, Alexandra College, and on again. It’s well past two in the afternoon now, and I can’t resist mocking myself with the certain knowledge that the winner of the marathon is most likely at home with their feet up by this stage.
I try to distract myself from the thoughts of my own athletic inadequacy by craning my neck to assess the company I’m keeping here at the tail end – not that that offers much to soothe my strained ego.
I seem to be the notable exception in a group of middle-aged women marching along in determined lockstep. Here and there, intriguing snippets of pre-menopausal conversation prick my nosy ears.
“She seems to be studying each night, and the exams do seem to be going OK for her. But, you know, you just can’t force them to study, they have to do it for themselves.”
I’d almost struggle forward to concur with Fidelma’s sage advice, if I wasn’t so tired.
As we hit Clonskeagh, another subtle change in proceedings asserts itself. This is home ground now, and it cheers me up somewhat. The first sight of the grammatically-trying “University College Dublin Dublin” crest on a gate is a curious source of inspiration. I begin to straighten my back a little bit and square my shoulders on the approach to the N11.
This, at last, is the home stretch, but as it progresses, it’s also proving one of the hardest yet. I’ve long since lost count of the number of complimentary 250ml bottles of water I’ve choked down as I go, and my face is a glistening, scarlet patchwork of perspiration.
Eventually, I find myself moving with painful slowness past the front of the RDS. Queuing for registration almost exactly a day ago seems only the vaguest of memories now.
When the finish line on Merrion Square arrives, I’m too exhausted to even muster a grin. I mutter a greeting to the Observer photographer who’s trekked out on his Monday evening to cover my moment of triumph; and then slouch forward to the finishing official, handing back my race bib and barely even registering the medal that’s pressed into my hand. I struggle to collect my thoughts. I’m not sure, but it almost appears that I’ve completed a marathon. In a mere seven hours and forty-one minutes.
For the moment, all I can properly focus on is the last cigarette that I’ve been saving and savouring for past three miles, and the hot meal that I can only hope is waiting at home for me.
It’s only later, when I’m sprawled in bed well before nine o’clock, post-dinner and lengthy shower, that I can give it some proper consideration. I’m flicking through the souvenir programme that I received as part of my registration pack that long day ago. It’s full of page after page of glossy platitudes about “the world’s friendliest marathon”, and glowing endorsements of the tremendous sense of self-worth that can seemingly only be gained by hauling yourself through forty-two kilometres of marathon course.
Yesterday, I would have dismissed it all with a dubious snort. Now, though, it doesn’t seem quite so foreign. I don’t think I’ll be in any particular hurry to strap my runners on again, but perhaps – just perhaps – the athletic types might have been right on this one.