In distance terms, a marathon is 26.2 miles, whereas in common usage the word “marathon” can mean much more than that finite measurement. The word can also be used as a modifier, such that (for example) a task or activity could be prefaced with “marathon”, and as such that task or activity is immediately transformed into something difficult or long-lasting. (“Marathon” could also mean the former name for a Snickers chocolate bar, or indeed a place in Greece that Pheidippides might have started from on his trip to Athens, but I digress.)
My marathon journey has a dual meaning. First, it means the turgid, wheezy, sometimes boring but generally inspirational 40+ km traipse around the streets of London, completed in 4 hours, 35 minutes and 20 seconds. Second, it means the marathon journey from a cancer diagnosis, where by a variety of small steps – often with a lot of help along the way – I have gradually moved from surviving to living. What follows are a few eclectic and perhaps even related thoughts on both those journeys.
Before that, let me rewind to 2011, when I ran the Edinburgh Marathon in a personal best time of 3 hrs 46 minutes and 40 seconds. I will not be so arrogant as to say that was a skoosh, but I was happy with how I performed. At that same running event, teams of four could participate in a “Marathon Relay”, sharing 26 miles amongst them. The relay is a great way to get less committed runners involved in a bit of exercise – I participated in a team in 2008, running eight miles. All runners share the same course. Only the most churlish of full-marathoners would feel they were somehow better than these part-timers, right? Well, maybe I was guilty of being a churl. I would be lying if I did not acknowledge that I felt a smidgen of smugness as I jogged past those relay runners (marked as they were by a specific label) in my fastest marathon effort. Some of these relay-ers slowed down to walk, even though they were not running the full marathon. I mean, come on! The shortest leg was barely four miles. Disappointing, eh?
Fast forward to 2014. A few friends suggested forming a team for that year’s Edinburgh Marathon Relay. To give you an idea of how this fitted my treatment schedule, I had my last chemo in December 2013, my RPLND/orchidectomy on 29 January 2014, then the relay fell on 25 May 2014. The surgery knocked me for six. (Not actually a cricketing analogy: I was banned from driving and doing anything energetic for six-weeks.) 2013’s chemotherapy and the unavoidably sedentary lifestyle it entailed had taken its toll. Be that as it may, I knew I had to stop feeling sorry for myself. I also knew the psychological benefit of having something in the diary to aim for. As the race neared, I decided to give the relay a go, on the obvious stipulation that I would take the shortest leg. I managed, but I stopped to walk three times. I mean, come on! Just three years before I had managed a comfortably sub-4 marathon without stopping, and now I can’t manage four miles?
And therein is probably the most important lesson I have learnt. Never judge someone unless and until you know the full story. That day in 2014, someone with my 2011 mindset probably ran past me, and saw this ostensibly fine person struggling to manage four miles. Here comes the first cancer contradiction. Physically, cancer has not made me a better person, far from it. In terms of temperament, bar the odd horrible mood-swing (sorry, folks), the opposite is true. I hope I was not quick to judge before. I know I am not now.
So here I am running in London in April 2015. The crowd is exhorting runners to feats of physical exertion, by way of chants, wine gums, percussion and comedic signs: one sign promises “NAKED CHEERLEADERS 1 MILE AHEAD”; another proclaims “I LOVE YOUR STAMINA CALL ME”. I am wearing a Cancer Research UK vest with my name on it, so the occasional personalised chant comes my way. I get into the high teens then the low twenties of miles, slogging away, thinking… well, lots of things. Any distance runner will tell you your mind wanders a lot, hopefully wandering into happy thoughts to keep you going. One recurring thought I had on this run was that I had sponsorship money behind me, and that really does keep you slogging. Another thing I had behind me was experience, both in terms of past marathons and indeed past events. Sure, my body was struggling after 23 miles of running, but I was not having a massive pulmonary embolism or anything. (Admittedly I needed a bit of help to get through that particular episode, but there we go.) Marathon exertion is, in the main, temporary and opted into. Other conditions are not.
Here comes the second cancer contradiction. Alan Stubbs (ex-footballer, current Hibs manager and TC survivor) wrote about cancer stripping you bare and making you realise just how vulnerable you are. Strangely, and simultaneously, it also makes you invincible. Sure, you have a ticking tumorous time-bomb that needs to be defused that makes a mockery of any claim of invincibility, but you also acquire a certain swagger of “Yeah, I got this” when anything short of cancer happens. Overplayed, that can make you dangerously heartless, but every so often it comes in handy. Soldiering on in a marathon might just be another example of that swagger.
So I swaggered on and made it to the finish on the Mall. My journey there was more convoluted than I imagined it would be when I entered the London Marathon in 2013, but I made it, in a time just about 50 minutes off my previous best marathon. All things considered, I am happy with that. I think that is as near an end to my marathon journey as I will ever find, metaphorically and literally.