Written by Katherine Piercy
Any runner will tell you a marathon is as much about mental strength as physical. Indeed running itself is a very mentally demanding sport, your body gently reminding you that walking is easier, and then starting to shout that stopping is the only thing which will make the pain go away. To push on through these barriers without rest is indeed mentally challenging.
I started my marathon day at 6.30am. The alarm on my phone buzzed into life, telling me that my restless sleep was at an end. The hills outside our apartment window were still hidden in darkness and the rain drummed steadily on the window pane. Here came the first test of mental strength. How easy would it have been just to curl back up in the warm duvet and forget this whole marathon lark. Somehow I found the strength not to.
Out in the street me and my boyfriend, also dragged into the cold and the rain, headed through the sleepy Bregenz streets towards the harbour. Though my running clothes were safely hidden under warmer and more waterproof layers, I wasn’t looking forward to the moment when they would be revealed. Arriving at the harbour, day had begun to break and we gazed out at the still, clear blue waters of Lake Constance, its edges stretching far beyond where the haze of rain would allow us to see. Soon I would be running passed this harbour, little legs already having clocked up 6miles.
Entering the theatre on the edge of the lake, though its main stage floated upon it, I collected my all important running number and electronic chip before we began the walk through an avenue of autumnal horse chestnut trees to the ferry, which would bring us to the picturesque island of Lindau, ready for the start of the race. Already by 8.30 I would have crossed a border, from Austria to Germany.
Standing in the shelter of the ferry ticket office I eyed up the competition, huddled together like penguins. Some wore plastic ponchos, others just braved the weather in their running gear. Most runners were men, though around 300 women took part out of 1000 participants. Incredibly 51 nationalities had made their way to the ‘Bodensee’. During the race I spotted runners from Hungary, Switzerland, America, and for most of the race I found myself being overtaken (and then overtaking) a slightly rotund Icelandic man. Size matters less on long-distance runs amongst the amateurs. As I said it’s as much a mental game as physical. Few were in my age bracket. Runners often say that sprinting is a young man’s game and long distance running an old mans. Before you start to worry that women are not getting their dues it’s actually said that women are better in endurance races, pacing themselves much more steadily than the men.
As the ferry carried us out across the smooth pale surface of the lake we watched the high hills around appear and disappear through the misty curtains of rain. As we pulled into the harbour at Lindau the famous Bavarian lion and white washed tower guarded us on either side. Expensive looking sailboats sat safely within the harbour walls, their masts jostling for position.
On land another tower dominated the edge of the water, looking rather like something Rapunzel might have been incarcerated in. At its side a high metal fence separated off the starting line. Sections were marked out for groups of runners, depending what time they were hoping to achieve. I would be stood in the 4hr section, though I had originally assigned myself for the 4hr 30 group, but that part of the start line looked embarrassingly empty so I’d shuffled myself forward so as not to look too unfit.
Before the race myself and Chris wandered the streets taking in some of the sights of Lindau, a pretty and historic place. Many a building was painted with fabulous medieval scenes, or boasted ornate details such as multi-coloured tiles or beautiful carvings. Most of the other runners were sat within the few open cafes, drinking a last coffee or enjoying a pre-race cake. Though already hungry the idea of having anything in my stomach during the race didn’t appeal.
Come start time I slipped off my warm and comfortable clothes, and headed into the runner’s only section. Chris, my dad and Anne, a Germany friend of mine, would be waiting for me along the route to cheer me on, but the start I had to face alone. The rain had thankfully stopped but as I stood and stretched I could already feel the cold creeping in. Around me running partners chatted, women took selfies and the most serious runners brought themselves to the very rope which divided the running sections. In between the competitors were several pace markers, the flags on their backs indicating runners should keep up with them if they wanted to finish in 4hrs 30, 4hrs, 3hrs 30, 3hr and the very fastest at 2hrs 45. The winner of this marathon would finish in 2hrs 21minutes. It still baffles me that humans can keep up such speeds for such long distances.
The race started with the sounding of a horn. In the weeks leading up to the marathon people often asked me if I was nervous or excited. I guess I was neither in any great quantity. I had done my training, I had worked hard, and no matter what I knew I would have completed my marathon by the end of the day. If there’s one thing I can rely on its my legs. Ask me to climb a mountain, walk 20miles, stand up all day handing out newspapers, and my legs will get me through it. Of course they’ll hurt and moan, and I may not do it as quickly as planned, but I always know I’ll get there. And as the race started I knew that was all I had to do; get there.
The route of the race takes the runner off the island of Lindau (across a bridge, no swimming required), along the shore of Lake Constance from Germany to Austria. Soon is begins to wind through parks, industrial estates, villages centres and then out for a brief trip into Switzerland before curling its way back to the town of Bregenz. The best views were of course on the sections closely hugging the edge of the lake, where the vast expanse of water could be seen, long-legged huts perched occasionally above it, small bridges allowing their owners access for water sports or general hut activities. At one point the race crossed over a large river, tumbling over rapids below as the runner bounced across the bridge above.
Along the route groups stood watching and cheering, some looking out for a particular someone, others simply watching the crazy spectacle. My Icelandic companion seemed a particular crowd-pleaser, high-fiving almost all he met. It seemed to me these occasional high-fives, or even just the cheers from the crowds, acted like a booster button to the individuals they were aimed at, like in Mario Kart when a player passes over the yellow stripes and suddenly zooms off. Even I had my name called a few times, and high-fived some of the smaller watchers, who held out their gloved hands in a line just waiting for a passing runner.
For the first 10km of the race (the whole race was counted down in kilometres rather than miles) I felt the joy of finally being there, after years of contemplating and months of training. The views were nice, the people friendly and I felt good, if a little stiff from cold. I think this is why, when my companions glimpsed me at the 10km mark I was just behind the 3.5hr marker (something I was unaware of at the time). More fool me for starting fast. Everyone warns not to get caught up in the crowd and race off, something I well knew to avoid.
By halfway I was feeling rather more tired than I’d expected. Foolishly I had opted not to keep an eye on my watch, which would have told me my pace, feeling I might be disappointed in myself. Around me everyone was running well and running fast, so I kept pace with the group, feeling perhaps it was the mental strain rather than the physical which left me feeling tired.
By 30km I realised something had gone terribly wrong. I was very very tired. In Switzerland a long slow trudge up a shallow hill left me feeling like this marathon idea had taken me completely out of my depth. Helpful signs along the track read ‘Smile, you paid for this,’ in various languages. Another said wisely, ‘The pain will fade but the pride will stay.’ I knew it was true. And I knew I would never again be competing in a marathon. I had one chance to prove to myself what I could do and this was it. I’d promised myself no stopping, no walking. So I kept going, even as the muscle seemed to have been completely stripped out of my legs.
It may seem odd but I must admit I had very few thoughts throughout the race. My only thoughts were things like, ‘oh no I think that’s a blister forming,’ or ‘hope my dodgy knee doesn’t go,’ or mostly ‘why I am not at the next kilometre post yet!’ All rational thought went in the pain and exhaustion. If I can summarising what remained it would have to be a ‘Finding Nemo’ style ‘Just keep running, just keep running.’ Such was my lack of mental resource that I couldn’t convert miles into kilometres in my head and therefore had to guess that the finishing line was somewhere between 42 and 44km. If it had turned out to be more I may not have made it from pure disappointment.
Along the route people rang cowbells, rattled rattles, played steel drums. At water stations fruits were being handed out and I even took a home-baked biscuit from a small girl along the way. Her young brother offered me a Schnapps to go with it. I declined.
As I reached 34km I hit a mental wall. The idea of having another 10km to go (I’d decided the race must be 44km) left me somewhat doubting I could keep my promise of not stopping to walk. Around me fit looking men were falling behind as they walked off the pain in their legs before starting to run again. I wasn’t even stopping for water, a water pack on my back providing me with what I needed. Towards the end I did take two offered cups of coke, simply for the sugar hit they provided. Most of the cups ended up down my front as I refused to stop even to drink these.
For the final 10km every kilometre was hard-won. I felt I was slowing so much as to be barely moving but I pushed myself on knowing I needed to finish the race. I can safely say I have never had to push myself so hard or exert so much will-power. I kept an eye on the people around me to see how they were doing. A woman in a blue top who had remained just ahead of me the whole race disappeared, I didn’t know if she was ahead or behind. The Icelander began to walk. People I hadn’t seen since the beginning of the race started to reappear. I had no idea if I was doing well or badly, to be honest I didn’t care as long as the finish line appeared soon.
As the final kilometres came into view the spectators were beginning to disappear. It felt somewhat like we were the last few souls limping into the final stretch. I exchanged a grimace with a female runner beside me, she looked equally in pain. Cleaning up dropped cups at the side of the path a man saw us passing and said the magical words, ‘Only 1700meters to go’. I pushed myself on.
The final few hundred metres of the race came into view as I entered the sports stadium in Bregenz. Cruelly you passed through several arches before reaching the arch which represented the finishing line. But as I spotted it I found reserves I didn’t think I had and sped up. At my side I heard a shout, my boyfriend Chris and friend Anne were cheering and waving, snapping photographs when they could. Then I spotted my dad, running alongside me in the stand. It was most definitely the best moment of the race. As I crossed the finish line and bent double, so relieved to be done and assuming I had been far slower than I had hoped. Looking at the clock above me I was proved wrong. Chris had throughout my training insisted my marathon time would be 4hrs. I on the other hand had insisted it would be 4hrs 30mins. I came in at 4hrs and 56secs. For once I was pretty happy to be wrong.
And then it was done. For two days after the marathon my legs ached like never before and I found myself descending stairs like an arthritic crab. On the inside of my thigh a bright red rash appeared from the rubbing of my shorts throughout the race, whilst scabs appeared on my shoulder and lower back from the bottom of my bag and its straps. But now, several days later, the scabs have healed and I can skip down stairs once more. Running a marathon has been a lifetime ambition for me. And in doing so I managed to raise £1,400 for the Borneo Nature Foundation, money which will hopefully go towards protecting Borneo’s rarest habitats and species for future generations. I also got to cross three borders in less than 4hrs, on foot. I’ll remember my run for the rest of my life but in the end the poster was right; the pain fades and the pride remains.
You can still support Katherine’s amazing fundraising efforts here. Thank you!