26.2 take home messages from 26.2 miles

I recently ran my first marathon – and I write ‘first’ because it certainly won’t be my last! As marathoners have a stereo-typed habit of going on a bit (and I’m aware that I have bored others when talking about my training), I’ve decided I’m going to say this only once, unless people specifically ask.

This post is in two halves. The first is about the marathon experience itself, while the second is life lessons from marathoning.

1.  You meet all sorts of inspiring people. And I don’t mean rhinos, superwoman or scoobydoo – I mean the everyday runners. Like the ones (like myself) just wanting to do a marathon, or the one doing his twelfth, but the first since being given the all-clear by his cardiologist. It’s worth involving yourself in conversations to see where it takes you! Best quip: pointing at the elites on their return leg, someone said “that’ll be us someday!” to which one wag replied “no way. I like my booze too much.”

2. No matter how much prep you do, it can go awry easily. I had a 3 page document detailing carb-loading, mantras, expected challenges, nutrition plan, packing list for the night before, even transport to/from start and finish. On the day, my transport to the start changed last minute because my train was cancelled. My nutrition plan went out the window because my gels and water were sloshing around in a way that didn’t happen in training. The challenges were not all what I expected. I expected this, to some extent, as a season marathoner had told me “I’m sorry to say but there’s no real preparation for running a marathon, other than running a marathon.” Next time will be easier. har-har.

3. Running 8 miles with cramp in both calves is the hardest thing I’ve done physically. It seems they were asking why the flip I was doing this.

4. Three strategies for combating cramp. 
i – run/walk scientifically. One man was doing a ratio of 100/50 steps; another was doing it by time.
ii – run/walk non-scientifically. My strategy as it made me feel that it kept the walking to a minimum. I reckon I walked only about a mile and a half (5.7% of the whole thing).
iii – try and stretch it off by the side. When I finally tried this strategy (mile 23.8), I lifted my right leg up to the curb, at which point the cramp in my right calf froze it in place while my left knee buckled – and I couldn’t move. I hoped that a marshal would come to my aid, but feared that if they did it might be my race over!

5. Sports massage afterwards, thanks to SAMH! Nearly as painful as the run but SO WORTH IT!

6. There’s a reason blokes cover their nipples with plasters, not compede.

7. A there and back route is a little frustrating.  But it did mean being able to watch the elites, if briefly. And even they appreciated the cheers from us slow-coaches, as evidenced by their smiles!

8. However. By the same token seeing and in one case hearing the pain of nearly elites when they had 6 miles to go was vastly discouraging.

9. “Training is harder than race day.” NOPE. Mental challenges include: keeping it slow, keeping it smooth, keeping relaxed, keeping on going when you realise, at mile 18, that your cramp is going nowhere. Physical challenges include: not being able to drive down with your feet because you can’t actually lift your legs, holding your torso upright so you can breathe right toward the end; breathing properly while being oppressed by the heat. The unknown unknowns were terrifying. I had no idea what was going to happen after 3 hours. Would my head go swimmy? Would my ankles and knees just give up? None of that happened, but I didn’t expect cramp, and that cramp to occasionally turn into twitching, some of it quite terrifying as I thought it was going to make me collapse!

10. “Training is harder than race day.” YUP. If you train by yourself and rely on some very useful subscriptions, there’s a lot of work and planning you need to do (you can get some logistics managed for you by a personal coach). And the logistical challenges of fitting the runs in was nightmarish. One of the most important questions on our household Sunday night calender session was “what runs does Ewan need to do, and when?” Also, if you run solo, you don’t have…

11. Other people! Race day crowds are ace! Dancing, singing, high fives, sprinklers and water guns, African dance tropes, jazz quartets, signs – “blisters are temporary, pride is forever”; “toenails are so last year” and my new mantra “if Trump can run, so can you!”

12. Tight shorts. No chaffing. Not a bit.

13. The pride of running a marathon. Yes, I ran a marathon, but it’s sort of marred by that darned 5.7%. That said, I am experiencing the ‘wow’ factor from others who are simply amazed. but I know I could do better! Even at mile 24 I was not thinking  “never again” but “when?”

13.1. PR’ing on your half marathon time = great. But not advisable during your marathon when you have to run that distance all over again…

Life lessons from the marathon. 

14. Go slow. No, slower. It might hurt, but keep it slow.did go slow during the first half (honestly!) but I should have gone so much slower! We rush so much in our daily lives, we are scarcely aware of what we are doing. Going slow in the first half, I realise now, meant forcing myself with every ounce of strength I had, to go even slower! Next time I will do this. It will  will hurt in the short-term, but overall I will enjoy the journey to the finish better. So often we are thinking of getting to the destination, but not really thinking about the individual moments.

15. Mental strength isn’t everything. There’s a lot of stuff on the web about how much a marathon run is mental. Yes, if I were mentally stronger I may have nailed my pacing in the first half and ran through the cramp and the crippling heat and come up with a better time. But you know what? It doesn’t matter – I still got to the finish line! Sometimes we place too much pressure on ourselves to be mentally well all the time, when that just doesn’t happen.

16. Therefore, sometimes you just have to keep moving. There wasn’t much point in dwelling on my cramp, which was with me for the last 8 miles. After two miles of trying to figure out how to shake it loose, I realised the better question was “how am I going to run despite it?” The answer: just keep moving. This is true about depression, too, or any low mood.

17. You can deal with the unexpected. I wish I knew how I made it through the heat between miles 20 and 26.2, other than adapting my pace, and accepting that sometimes walking was what was needed. I expected it to be hot, just – not that hot.

18. Cheering strangers on is an incredible thing to do. There is nothing quite like a fellow marathoner encouraging you on; you know that you are both going through similar pains. How true is that of the rest of us, during our normal day-to-day life?

19. You have more supporters than you think you do. I was really amazed at how much people donated to SAMH. I was delighted  with the ‘good luck’ card and bottles of lucozade my immediate colleagues got me before the race! And the amount of likes on my finishing Facebook post… Don’t forget how much people do actually care, even if you don’t feel like they do!

20. If you don’t try, you won’t know. We think we know when really, we don’t. I am susceptible to this. I predict the future, how people will react. Yes, there was a lot of uncertainty about whether I could make the start, let alone the finish; I got to the sign up page at least four times before finally biting the bullet. But I finally did so after I texted my wife saying “at the sign up page again. Can I do this?” and she replied “you’ll make it happen.”

21. Success is made in small steps. It is important to not dwell on the really long term. None of us can see the future. When I started couch to 5K I thought “I’m not going to make it to the end of this run.” When training for the marathon I didn’t feel like I was making much progress. There were encouragements – when I hit 15 miles, when I hit 20 miles (10 one day, 10 the next) at estimated marathon pace, but overall… no. Looking back at my race day splits, I shaved 44 seconds of my half marathon time. GREAT (if I was stopping there!)
I am more active that I was five years ago – in life in general. This could be because running has increased dopamine levels, but I really think it’s just because my mind is more active because I’m running more; I’m thinking more. But it’s been a long road. Some of my goals when I was low included “make the bed” and “do the dishes”. Now, I have aspirations greater than that. Cutting my marathon time down, perhaps? running an event in another country? Maybe. How about doing another half marathon first, eh? I have non-running goals, too!

22. When it gets tough, just do it anyway. Yes, sheer grit did make a difference in the latter parts of the race, and in training: “well, I know I need to…”

22. But be prepared to change your plan. Training taught me how to be adaptable to my body. Oh great, groin injury – time to do light jogging, not that stair session. Oh brilliant, a very necessary trip to minor injuries – will I recover in time?

23. Having an achievement, no matter how small, can change your outlook for the day.
I definitely won’t forget sitting on the stairs doing my laces up at 7am on a Saturday (having waved my wife off to work) and having a massive ‘bleurgh’ moment. It took me a while, but somehow I got myself out the door, a straight trajectory from where I was sitting.Yes, it took about 20 minutes to stand up and walk two metres to the front door. Whether I nailed the workout is immaterial. The fact that I got out there was accomplishment enough, and that served as encouragement to me for all I had to do that day.

24. Run your own race. Out of 6568 runners I came (drumroll not necessary) 6208. Which makes me think of sports days where I would invariably come in last, or second last, to my embarrassment (every time). But now, I really couldn’t care less. We compare ourselves to others too much. Some healthy comparisons are fine; we can and should be inspired by others better than ourselves, and we can be motivated to improve. But at the end of the day, would I have felt any better if I had snuck in below the 6200 mark?

25. Don’t do it alone
. I signed up to some really useful blogs and sites. This was incredibly helpful, but I now realise that if I had got a personal trainer, either in person or on-line, and a personal training plan, I could have done so much better. So much like in real life.

26. Climb your mountain, whatever your mountain is. This point comes from Dick Beardsley. OK, I’ll never be as fast as him. But his recounting of his 1982 Boston Marathon on a Runner’s Connect interview got me through a whole lot more than just the training and race day.

26.2. Take a moment to consider where you are. You might just enjoy it. I enjoyed the vast majority of the marathon, a far cry from the vehement hatred I had of school cross country.


Aye, I write, but – why?

“I’ve never been much for arts for arts sake
If it doesn’t do anything for us
why do we spend so much time doing it?” – Agnes Török, Manifesto.

Here’s a confession: I really like Sir William Topaz McGonagall. His poetry is a lesson in how not to write poetry. He does have quite clear rhyme schemes, but he is consistently inconsistent in his rhythms. He never shows, he tells. He seems to write a poem once, and then move to the next without revisiting and refining them.

But his sheer doggedness is admirable. To have fruit and vegetables thrown at you and then not just continue to ply your trade, but tour the country – and then go abroad! To hike in terrible weather 60 miles to give a private performance to the queen, despite having a letter of rejection from the Queen at his request to become poet laureate! And he wrote about everything. Having read through all of his poems, I have a deeper appreciation for the history of our country.

In short, he believed in his work, and believed it should be shared. I think we could take a lesson from that. He had a vision that he was to be a poet, and he lived that out. Maybe not the way he wanted, but he carried on. It took me years to reach a point where I owned the fact that I wrote, and I know others who are in that process of admitting to themselves and their circle that they write.

We should consider why we write, or are involved in any of our hobbies.  As you can see from the amazing diagram below, a lot of us spending a lot of time doing things we won’t get paid for. The majority of us outside of work are hobbiests.

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Thousands of people run marathons for fun yet only a handful will ever reach the podium; thousands of young people and adults skateboard, but only a minority will become pro – and even fewer will actually make a living from it; few writers reach the point where they make money from their writing; even fewer will have it become their main income source. Clearly we don’t do it for the recognition or the money.

Writing as a hobby?
Oxford defines hobby as “an activity done regularly in one’s leisure time for pleasure.” Writing can be fun people watching, scribbling notes, the excitement of a difficult line coming together, when you nail a performance. However I cannot claim that it is always a pleasure to write, just as it is not always a pleasure to run. I have taken embarrassing lengths of time deciding on the minutiae in pieces that probably won’t be read beyond my immediate circle. In one case I took about three months deliberating between a dash and a semi-colon. Decisions about syntax, punctuation, formatting, research and taking comments from trusted advisors can be hard (“lose the first stanza”). So I probably can’t claim it as a hobby, other than I do it regularly, and in my own time.

If writing is meant to be shared, shouldn’t it be disseminated to as many people as possible?
Yes, if it is good writing!  I value Stephen Covey’s circles of influence. It is wisest to focus most of your energy and time on those areas of life which you can actually directly influence. What are the groups and networks we are part of?  I have sought publication in the traditional manners, and will continue to do so. But I am excited at the prospect of sharing my poetry in the circles I have – open mic nights and online – because of what Anges Török speaks so powerfully of in her poem Manifesto.
Poetry should change us for the better. I believe art was built into God’s kingdom, and we can use it to point out things that are wrong with the world and how it can be redeemed. Not all art should do this all the time.

We can make the world a better place through our writing. I think I am a better person through writing – not because I write, but as I write. The majority of poems I write will never be shared. For instance, this morning I was working on an acrostic based on a minister’s heading in a sermon. Each heading started with ‘p’ – so instead of ‘marriage’ he said “public permanent promise with a purpose.” An intriguing phrase, which demanded a poem out of it. This is proving a difficult one to write, but at the very least, it is clarifying my own understanding of marriage, which will benefit my own marriage. Writing can also be cathartic. I have written in times of despair, but in brighter times I have reworked those into poems which could be read by others – both the writing and the rewriting help process the event or emotion.

Poetry can also make people laugh – intentionally, not like McGonagall’s! I once wrote a very silly poem about an air freshener. I performed it at an open mic, and people laughed at the punch line. Job done.  Similarly, word is getting out among the children at work that I have a youtube channel. If I can get some of those children excited, or even enjoying poetry, in a new way – job done. Poetry should also make us think about the world we live in. If I receive even one reflective “hmm” during or after a recital, I know that I achieved my goal for that poem.
My circle of influence is tiny. But as I continue to write as much as possible, my writing will get stronger (even McGonagall’s did, marginally). Maybe someday this will translate into publication, and a wider circle, and some money. McGonnagal wrote:
“Ah! pity the sorrows of a poor poet, when unable to pay his rent;
An help him to pay it, and he will feel content.”
Not so for me.  If I can write a piece (blog post or poem) that even one person enjoys or is challenged by – I am satisfied.


A fantastically boring poem

The story behind the poem: One morning radio presenter Jez Chalmers (UCB1) made the astounding claim that there was nothing more boring than photos of food. I think it’s safe to say the listeners proved him wrong. I was intrigued at how much effort went into creating dull photos, so I wrote a poem including what I think its all of the items photographed. I probably missed some. It is important to note that I had no fun writing this.




As he vents cool air over the waves,
Jez’ socks cause quite a stir –
noted by some if only for a ‘meh’.

He lays down a challenge –
Is there anything more dull than pictures of grub?
Can you out bore this boring picture?

Some coyly reply.

‘NNCO’ on a postit note. And no,
I don’t know what it means, either.
Nearly No Clue, Officer.

An accidental non-photo. A thumb over
the lens begs the question, what was
marginally less monotonous than a finger?
Likewise, what did the phone cover cover,
and, pray, reveal what was under that tinfoil,
But please don’t show us the contents of that bag of rubbish.

A twist in the BT line which helps keep this game alive,
while someone proves the original point that
“pictures of food are boring” with her rabbit’s breakfast of carrots,
while pigeons pick chips off the road for theirs.

A red pen excites the airwaves.
Hearts race to unhealthy levels,
at least for this game.

A lady strikes gold with a magnolia wall,
and though “watching paint dry is rather boring”,
we have a hotchpotch – an artists’ box, and a shade of green.

Textures plenty, kitchen towel bounty, laid atop the kitchen counter,
just to make it seem less dull, while eeyore sits
at home with some tissues.

A puzzle. A blackened picture, so dark it needs some
computer magic to try and see it clearer. Up the brightness,
and the contrast, zoom in. It’s clearer now but I’m no clearer.
The tagline says it all: “the insides of car vent – may it fill you with as much joy
as it has I.” Well, quite.

A lampshade, a thermostat, some rain on a window pane,
a car dashboard, an in-car vent, a plug and some wall,
a car light control, and the game is a fete accompli
as the creative outpouring of bores
demands my applause.


Rend Collective, 02 Academy. 16 May 2016

Half a decade ago a friend asked me, “what do you make of [insert band’s name here]?” I knew by the wording that this was not about whether I liked their music, but whether I thought they were helpful or harmful to Christians. I answered that I liked their music and they had in the past been helpful to me, but I stopped listening to them because I was looking for a relationship with God based on truth and not just feelings.

I had realised, shortly after the last time I saw them (in 2006), that I was worshipping them as much as I was worshipping God. Many rock concerts do feel like worship, especially when a band plays their greatest hits. There is a fine line in any concert between loving the music and worshiping the creator. I think that it is a particularly difficult line for Christian artists – by which I’m meaning ‘Christians making explicitly Christian music’. During the shows I’d been to by that band, I was confused whether I was at a worship event or a gig, because of the mix of worship songs and performance songs and bible readings with 1990s/early 2000s synth and lighting. I am in no doubt that my hand raising and clapping were as much inspired by the music as by God.

It is a tricky thing for Christian artists to get right, but I think all Christian artists should consider what they are about, and I include myself in that as a writer: Are we Christians making and performing art because God creates art and we want to celebrate our gifts in that way, are we Christians performing songs or artwork which can help Christians consider Christ, or are we Christians helping Christians worship Christ?

I wasn’t sure where Rend Collective stand on this, so it was with a fair amount of trepidation that I went to see them – a full decade after last going to a Christian gig. I needn’t have feared. My gig partner and I arrived somewhat frazzled (understatement) after the support act, to find one of the band members talking about an organisation who rescues slaves in the UK. There was then a video about them and the CEO came onstage to talk about more about what they do. The focus was on releasing slaves in the UK and abroad. Why? Because Jesus rescued us when we were slaves.

Rend has energy in their music and performance. For example, the start to Burn Like a Fire is loud, opening with huge kick drums, but it was the words which carried them through the whole gig. Burn came early in the set. Joy of the Lord, a song about how we should praise even when there is darkness, moved me – “there is strength when I say, I will praise you Lord… In the darkness I’ll dance, in the shadows I’ll sing.” It helped break the darkness of my frazzled arrival and bigger sins in my life. Every Giant Will Fall has a similarly powerful chorus:

“Every giant will fall, the mountains will move
Every chain of the past, You’ve broken in two
Over fear, over lies, we’re singing the truth
That nothing is impossible with you”

Rend had the words projected behind them, which made it clear that everyone should join in if they wanted to – it was the church singing to God, not concert goers singing back to the band. And it made it easy, as it avoided that awkward moment where you’re the only one not singing because you only know half the chorus.

As with any band, there were favourites. My Lighthouse was one, but I can only say that because the singing was louder and the hand raising more enthusiastic. It is easy to see why: “You are the peace in my troubled sea…. You will carry me safe to shore.” Their latest single, You Will Never Run, enjoyed similar levels of dancing/singing/hand raising, with a captivating a cappella introduction, sweeping electric guitar and – yes – powerful words to an easy tune.

About three quarters of the way through, Gareth spoke about how their latest album (As Family We Go) came about. Nothing unusual there, but the rest of the band was offstage, and he was in simple white spotlighting. No synth to whip our energy up. He reminded us how as adults we are terrified of getting out there and trying things again after we have failed, encouraging us to “stop watching others adventures and start living our own.” He gave the analogy of a football team huddling before the game, getting all excited, and then going home to drink some tea: “Church is the huddle, life is the game.” It was a rallying call – to not just worship Jesus here at this concert, but when we get out from here.

Their musicianship was tight. After Gareth’s bit I tried to work out what he was in the band. I got as far as “ah, he’s the drummer,” a statement I had to re-evaluate in the next song after he and half the band had changed instruments. There’s not much else to say about this. As any good worship leaders do, they almost faded into the background, leading the worship.

This is where Rend Collective excelled. With strong words which speak powerfully about what Christ has done, is doing and will do, they led a couple of thousands in worshipping Christ in spirit and in truth. This is best exemplified by the ukulele led How Great is Our God. I was sceptical. surely a uke would make the song trite? Not so – in Chris’ hands, the uke faded into the background while the concert goers sang as one: “how great is our God/ sing with me how great is our God.”

In a different song I panicked when one of them stood on a box for a guitar solo, but both panic and solo were short lived – the solo didn’t go on forever, and was more for the fun of it than the showmanship. Similarly, one band member just started playing the accordion in between songs. He stopped. And then started again when Chris (lead singer) said “there’s not enough accordion in pop culture” to cheers. Again, this was done for the fun of it. The reminder: God gave us gifts to enjoy.

There was a frenzy, but it was through Rend, not because of them. It is clear from their stage presence, their lyrics, their clarity – this was not a Rend show. This was an opportunity for the church to sing God’s praises. Toward the end of the set, Chris said “we are not excited about the thought of you leaving here singing Rend songs, but we are excited at the thought of you leaving here with a spark or excitement about Jesus’ mission.” A welcome call, a difficult act to do, and necessary for the church to hear.