The day starts as usual. I wake and lie quietly thinking. I know my daughter is going to wake soon. Then I hear her call. I get up, make a pot of tea and pour myself a cup. By now she is singing to her dolly. I go in and draw the blinds, pick her up. We have to look at the garden before leaving her room, so I move to the big window with her balanced on my hip. We talk about the colour of the sky, the trees, the vegetables growing in the vegetable patch, the blackbird shaking a worm. Then we go to the living room and sit in the big old armchair. I sip my tea and breastfeed Evie. We look at each other, and I talk to her. We play the usual games; she shoves her toes up under my nose and insists I sniff them. I inhale and pretend to choke and splutter from the stench despite the fact they really smell like some delicious fruit. She momentarily stops feeding and giggles helplessly. Then we continue, smiling at each other. I drain my cup of tea, still hot and comforting, and consider another.
Today, I will have a bigger breakfast than normal. It’s going to be a big day.
I make Evie porridge with fruit, tiny alpine strawberries from our front garden under the kitchen window. They are so incredibly sweet and full of flavour. I am sure that they have all the favour and nutrition of a big strawberry squeezed into a tiny, deep red fruit. I have to watch Evie when we are outside or she will happily strip the bushes and eat every last one. Fortunately they have fruited prolifically this year.
I have muesli with almonds, raisins, sliced banana and yoghurt on top. It’s delicious but I struggle to eat it all, already getting nervous. Evie finishes her breakfast and begins to attack daddy’s bran flakes.
I go through to the bedroom to choose what I am going to wear. This isn’t usually something that takes long, but today I choose carefully, breathable, light clothes, shorts; a hat; double layer socks; a vest and waterproof. I smother myself in sun cream but wonder how long it will last.
I already have a small bag packed with snacks, water, fruit, and my mobile phone. Mum comes to pick me up and I kiss Evie goodbye. She is going to have a day with daddy. No doubt they will spend most of it together in the garden, digging, planting, watering, climbing the trees, exploring. For a second I feel a pang of envy and want to stay, but I reassure myself that I will be back home soon enough to hear about their adventures.
In the car I attach my race number to my top, sip water and talk to mum. I am nervous and chatter away, but mum is quiet and calm. I know it’s a front, she is probably as nervous as I am. I try to focus on the landscape from the car window as we leave the downs and the countryside changes from our green hills and broadleaf woods to flat marshy brown fields dotted with sheep. We get nearer to the sea. I have calculated the drive as around 26.2 miles, ironically the same distance I will run today. I try not to think about how long it is taking to drive it.
Finally we arrive at the marathon start, right at the top of the cliffs overlooking the sea. I get out of the car and lace my trainers, fuss about with my clothes and tie my hair up for the 100th time, hoping it doesn’t all fall down and smother me as I run. Then we join the line for the toilets. I am jumpy, like I’ve had too much coffee. People I don’t know wish me luck and I feel overwhelmed, smile and wish them well. Say I hope to see them at the finish. In the toilet I wish away the remaining minutes to the race start. Someone in the toilet next to me is sick.
Finally we are called to line up at the start. There are the usual race announcements and commentary over a loud speaker which no-one can quite hear. My big sister has arrived and stands with my mum on the other side of the tape giving me tips. Suddenly she and mum look at me in my long sleeved waterproof and say “are you sure you want to wear that, it’s really very hot”. I hadn’t noticed but now realise I am already feeling sticky and faint. Quickly I pull it off and the three of us rush to re-attach my race number to my vest before the starting horn goes. Then I am off, I smile and wave, and relief washes over me as my legs take me away from the crowds, the loud speaker, the fast food vans and portable loos.
It is a hot day, but I am comfortable enough. There is a breeze coming off the sea that feels so good it spurs me on, and I love looking at the sandy beaches far below. People are sunbathing, running around and throwing sticks for their dogs. For the first few miles the biggest hurdle is not running too quickly. I time each mile and keep forcing myself to slow down. I need to conserve my energy for later on. The second half will be more of a challenge.
I pass Bleak House, the home of Charles Dickens, and marvel at its great stone walls. The walls around the garden have big shells set in the outside and the footpath curves around them. Then I see the front runner approaching. He has already been to the seven mile turn point and is on his way back. Someone calls out “clear the path, front runner coming through!” and the street clears.
First comes a guy on a mountain bike, red in the face and bouncing down the cobbled street like a lunatic. I wonder at how hard he is having to work to keep just ahead of the tiny thin man running so fast behind him.
I barely see the front runner pass me. There is just a rush of air and he is gone. I smile and start to run again, that sense of anything being possible filling me.
Just around the corner my mum and sister are waiting, smiling and waving madly, cameras flashing and bouncing up and down. Tears sting my eyes and I am filled with love. My family is everything to me.
The first half of the marathon goes well, but I face a real mental hurdle when I reach the half way point and those doing the half-marathon race run over the finish line. I imagine them going home to their families and a hot bath and contemplate the long hard miles still ahead of me. Other runners around me are complaining about the heat and wishing for the rain that was promised on all the weather forecasts. For some reason it is always hot when I run marathons.
I keep going, now and again forcing myself to nibble on a snack although I don’t feel hungry. By mile 17 my body is really starting to hurt. IPods and mp3s have been banned from this race and I reach a deserted stretch of the coastline where we run along the bottom of the cliffs close to the beach on a hard white concrete surface. Many of the runners that set off with me finished at the half-marathon point, and the marathon participants are stretched out so thinly I only occasionally see or pass another runner now. This is the hardest part of the run so far. I feel lonely and tired. My daughters face fills my mind. I picture her laughing, concentrating hard on mastering a new skill. I focus on the curved almond shape of her eyes, her turned up nose, and for a long time she carries me on. I realise how important it is to me to make her proud. I imagine her when she is older and sat at school telling her classmates “my mummy runs marathons”. Whenever she sees a runner now she says “Mummy running”.
The path curves around the cliffs and now all of the beaches are deserted. These are much more stony, and covered in seaweed.
I am pleased when I reach the next marshal station and accept a bottle of water. Their friendly words are a comfort after such a lonely stretch. I reach the turn around point which takes me through a few streets where people are sitting on deck chairs in their driveways to watch and encourage the runners. I smile and wave, keep running. I play around with different paces, sometimes jogging, sometimes stretching out and running faster.
Suddenly at mile 22 my body cramps and I go from a steady run to a complete standstill. Everything seems rigid and pain courses through my body. I look at my watch. I have been running for 4 hours. If I walk the rest of the way it will be a time of more than 5 hours. Disappointment fills me and I start to cry. A little whingeing voice inside my head says “but I wanted to make the finish in under five hours” and then another voice (I don’t know who she is) says, “well you’d better get on with it then”. I realise I still have a choice. We all, always have a choice, and I force myself to run. It hurts but I push harder and run faster. I am taking longer strides and suddenly seem to be passing more and more runners. Margate appears ahead of me and I can see the last hill just before the finish line. It feels easier and easier. As I race along I see a runner up ahead that I noticed at the start. She is clad in black lycra, chiselled, has professional kit and in my imagination, sponsorship from Nike. I fly past her with glee and race up the hill as if I have just been sleeping for the last 25 miles. I speed towards the finish and round the bend, “Looking good number 273” a voice in the crowd shouts. I cross the line and I am grinning, laughing, and hugging my mum and my sister. Then suddenly, I desperately need to be at home with my husband and daughter. I want to be with them so badly I feel like I could run home and I urge mum into the car. The closer I get to home the happier I feel, and soon I am there, kissing my daughter, one arm around my husband with her in the middle. I bath quickly, and she is in my arms again in the old armchair, feeding contentedly. I wonder at my body and its ability to handle all the challenges I give it. I listen to their stories about the day and I tell mine. My husband and I talk about what vegetables to plant this autumn, and the areas of garden we want to clear next for more vegetable beds. I feel contented and safe again as I hold my daughter in my arms for her last feed before bed. I am so grateful that I have been able to combine the things I care about most. First, second, third and always my daughter, breastfeeding her, now past her second birthday and into her third year, the time to watch her grow and help her take her next steps, my husband, who I adore, teaching one day a week, and running.
I remember the first days running again when Evie was about 8 months old. I would take her in her pram and tell her the names of the trees that we passed, point out birds, and stop in fields to sit and give her a feed when she got hungry. So for all the people that like to say breastfeeding brings limitations, I would be really interested to know what they are, because I haven’t found any yet. Anything is possible and the only person stopping you is you.