Back in April 2019, I got the chance to help Smile Train with our largest athletics event of the year: The London Marathon. I felt honoured to speak to our 36 runners the day before, telling them my story and personally thanking them for raising thousands of pounds for children born with clefts. The day itself was one of the most inspiring events I’ve ever been to – cheering on runners from across the globe, all costumes, shapes and sizes to raise millions for charity.
Back in the office on Monday morning, my euphoria continued, and I spoke whimsically about one day running a marathon myself (bearing in mind I’d never run more than 5 minutes in my life). Our athletics manager saw his opportunity and causally suggested I could run a half marathon. In my head I felt like this would be achievable – I had just witnessed incredible heroes running double that distance and thought a half marathon would be a good starting point as an amateur.
When I say I was a complete novice, I really mean it – I signed up to the Royal Parks Half Marathon without any appreciation for how far 13.1 miles really is. I soon realised that I would be running the distance from my house to the next town, about a 25-minute drive away. 13.1 miles (or 21km) may seem like a small distance to some, but I cannot emphasise how ridiculous it sounded to me, knowing I’d be running for well over 2 hours straight, not to mention the fact I’d need to train for the run!
I started by getting myself kitted out with some proper trainers, I even went to a special running shop where they filmed how I run. Turns out I go over slightly on the inside of my foot (overpronation), so I needed super supportive shoes to try and correct this issue. I built up my running each week – starting with a 1 mile run in 15 minutes, building up to 3 miles at the weekend. I’d printed off the training schedule from the Royal Parks Half Marathon’s website, but used this more as a guide than a rigid timetable. My goal was to finish and not get injured along the way, no matter how long it took.
As the evenings got longer, I could run after work – soon I was completing one or two runs every week, with a longer run at weekends. It was sometime in August that my knees really started to hurt. I’d always tried to warm up and cool down as well as I could, although I knew I was playing a guessing game as to what muscles to stretch and how. In the end, I had to take about 3 weeks off from training to try and rest the pressure on my knees. After speaking to my Smile Train colleagues, they suggested I see a physiotherapist. Although I’d tried to rest, I knew I needed to get back to training without causing permanent damage, so this sounded like a good idea.
The physio said that my knee issues were common for people who take up exercise suddenly, especially for those who overpronate (go over on the inside of their foot). He asked if I had to keep on running (as he thought it would be best to stop altogether). When I explained my half marathon was about a month away and that I was running it to help children born with clefts, he could see there was no way I was going to back out. He suggested some elastic knee supports which would get me through the final stretch of training (which admittedly made me feel a tiny bit like an old granny with bad joints).
Luckily the supports helped massively and with just over a month to go I restarted my training. Following the physio’s suggestion, I mixed it up a bit by going to the gym once a week to work on my quads, and then was sensible about not overdoing it on the longer runs (walking when necessary). This enabled me to build up the strength needed to support my knees. My final three weeks were the most intense (but still not too bad) – a 4 mile run in the week, then 5 miles on the cross trainer and 6 on the bike at the gym with maybe 30 lengths swimming, then a longer run at the weekends (9-12 miles). I was so proud of how far I’d come (pardon the pun) and my fitness levels reached a peak they’d never seen before.
By race day, I was so excited (and nervous) to put all my training to the test. My adrenaline was pumping and I couldn’t wait to get going. I’d been told it can be tempting to sprint the first mile to keep up with other runners, but that if I did this the rest of my race would be hellish. I did my best to heed this advice, but seemingly settled on a compromise: usually I can keep running for the first mile before I need to walk for about 20 seconds, during the race I made myself continue for the first 2 miles, determined not to be the first person needing to walk for a moment. This turned out pretty well as the race didn’t suddenly feel tougher than I’d expected – thank goodness! Although it wasn’t easy, and some stretches felt longer than others, the Royal Parks Half was an incredible experience.
Within the first ten minutes, we were running past Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, then up to Trafalgar Square and onto the Mall toward Buckingham Palace. It felt like such a privilege to run along roads usually heaving with traffic, seeing places one after the other that I’d usually jump on the tube to get to. The atmosphere was amazing too. I had underestimated the joy and power of people cheering you on from the side-lines – as we entered back into Hyde Park, I ran through a tunnel-like wave of charities with banners, drums and sirens cheering us on. It was honestly electric, and just when I started flagging I managed to see my mum, dad and brother who were tracking me on the Royal Park’s running app. It felt so good to see their faces, their cheers spurring me on to finish another mile.
The final mile was probably the toughest. I could feel my sore legs with every step, my knees were starting to protest, and I was truly ready for the run to be over (for the record, anyone who runs the full marathon is actually inhuman – getting ‘half way’ and being ready to collapse gave me a brand new appreciation for those who can run double the distance and finish with a smile on their face!). As I passed the 12-mile mark, I discovered a new determination that I hadn’t found on my training runs – only one mile left, one ‘little’ mile. Suddenly all the months of training, all the blisters and stretched muscles, all the people who’d supported me and all the children I was running to help spurred me on to complete the last mile (without a single walking break).
Crossing that finish line was one of the best things I have ever experienced. I could barely walk and kind of jelly-hobbled my way to get my medal (yes, I now officially have a running medal – who’d have thought!). While I knew my goal was to finish, in the back of my mind, I really wanted to do it in less than 3 hours. I know to some this will seem very slow, and originally I’d wanted to do it in less than 2h 15m (averaging about 1 mile every 10mins), but after the setbacks I’d had, I was delighted to complete my first half in 2h 37m 13s!
Of course I didn’t take on this mad challenge just for the ‘fun’ of it. I ran 13.1 miles to help children born with clefts. Cleft repair surgery can cost as little as £150, so I hoped to fund surgery for three children by raising £450. By the time I crossed the finish line, I’d raised over £1000 – enough for seven cleft surgeries! I was absolutely overwhelmed to receive such generous support. Whilst I spend every day working to help children born with clefts, it feels incredible to be directly responsible for inspiring friends and family to donate to Smile Train and transform children’s lives. It definitely made all the training worth it, and the run was such an awesome experience that I would absolutely recommend it to anyone.