“Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up, it knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn't matter whether you're the lion or a gazelle-when the sun comes up, you'd better be running.”
As I stood outside City hall, wrapped in a bin bag, and stinking of ZamBuk ointment to prevent chafing, I definitely felt more like the gazelle. Surrounded by thousands of would be lions, all of which I was sure, would run faster than me, proverbially eating me alive.
What am I doing here?! I thought. I had never been a sporting person. I'd never won a medal for any sort of sporting endeavour. I'd dislocated shoulders, knees, fingers; forever the "in nets" guy in playground football, and all of a sudden I was about to run a marathon.
"Superman!" came a mildly familiar voice through the buzz of training programmes and diet plans. "You ready to ace this?"
Sarah and I had barely met. In fact, we'd performed an acoustic version of Rihanna's "We found Love in a hopeless place" and that was probably the longest we'd ever spoken for if you could call that conversation, and for some reason she'd decided to run the first leg of this marathon with me.
The klaxon sounded, and I cast my down feather-esque bin liner to the side. It had begun. As I looked around, I saw runners wearing compression socks, waistbands of energy gels, special tape to improve muscle strength, headphones, watches and camelbaks filled with specially formulated hydration mixtures to see them round the 26.2 mile course. I was armed with the free bottle of RiverRock water, a funsize bag of jelly tots, and 3 ibuprofen tablets tucked into my headband. Ah shit...
Instead of launching into a conversation of marathon jargon, Sarah proposed we present a 3/5/10 year plan for our lives. As our legs ticked over into East Belfast, and up the hill past the Strand Cinema, we talked of travels, universities, writing books and favourite foods. The crowd weren't quite screaming encouragement at this point. In fact the most passionate exclamation I heard as we made our way through the Eastern section of the course was a lady shout "Luk at the short his shorts are!"
The distraction of conversation meant mile 5 came as a shock. Five miles!? After the initial fear of having come that far and not realised it, a wave of excitement came over me. This is how I have to run this race- meeting people and letting them escape from their cramping muscles by telling their stories, or if they were too fatigued to talk, distract them from the pain by telling mine. Through sharing life, and treating the race as life, I'd survive the end I thought. In fact, I'd not only survive, but thrive.
"Right see you later" Said Sarah as she peeled off and patted me on the back. WHAT?!?! Her leaving meant I'd finished leg one! How could this be possible? Had I started too strong? I hadn't even opened my precious riverrock!? SURELY I'd made some sort of mistake.
It wasn't until I doused my head with some of my precious water that I realised I just had to find another Sarah. That was it. Talk with someone, and it'd all be ok.
I was alone as I crossed the mighty Lagan river, and trotted along through the city centre, onto Castle Street and the Falls Road. In the shadow of Divis Tower, I saw a man dressed all in white. White vest, white shorts, white shoes, white baseball cap. Only his red number pinned to his back set him apart as a full marathon runner, and not a washed up tennis pro. His head was down, and his heels were dragging. "How could he be in this shape on mile 8?" I said to myself.
"Fancy a jelly tot?" I asked without introduction as I pulled along side him. It seemed the sweets I tried to leave behind, but were forced on to me by my mother would have a use after all.
"Oh yes please" puffed the man as we passed by freedom corner displaying a variety of famous faces that battle oppression around the world.
Of all the guinea pigs I could have been presented to trial my marathon small-talk technique on, Mark was one seriously lucky find. Before we crossed through the peace wall, we discovered that, although 30 years apart, we'd gone to the same primary and secondary schools, were in the same house for school competitions, had the same grumpy old history teacher who apparently hadn't changed over 30 years, and both spent our teenage years roaming the same streets of North Belfast getting up to no good.
I was inspired. He was inspired. He told me he had no one out supporting him, and so our conversation had inspired him to continue, and that he nearly dropped out before the jelly tot. "Off you go" he said. You've got other people to talk to, don't let me hold you back!"
Once more I was alone on the road, but the race was about to enter the hills of North Belfast. My home turf. I knew I'd have friends supporting me on the Antrim road, and so I concentrated my mind on how I could look impressively macho, and gallop past them, giving them the impression I wasn't at all beginning to hurt.
As I clipped past the Marrowbone park, I fell into stride with a woman wearing a tye dye running shirt. We nodded hello, and began to awkwardly mantain the same pace for a mile or so. Descending to the Westland, I noticed she was crying.
"Are you OKAY?!? Do you need help?" I asked as we continued running.
"Em, this is ridiculous, Can I hold your hand?" She said as she wiped her cheeks.
"Emmmm, OK?" I said with a slight chuckle. Working at Corrymeela for the year had led to me finding myself in all kinds of bizarre, and intimate situations with complete strangers. This was just another day at the office.
"I'm sorry", she said as we skipped along past the golf club. "It's just, well, I've just adopted two young children from the Westland area. I've never been, and I didn't want to spend time here, but thought it was important to know what it's like, so I thought I'd run the marathon, and be forced to keep going, and not hang around"
I was stunned to silence. What could I say?! The bravery of this woman to share this moment with me was so overwhelming that I actually forgot I had just reached the half way point in my journey.
"Thank you" she said.
"No problem" I said.
"Off you go now. I'm waiting for my parter to bring me some energy gels so I'm going to take the antrim road slowly."
And with that we parted ways. I was more inspired and energised than ever before. It seemed the numbness in my mind had moved into my legs, and the pain I had started to feel subsided.
Reaching Gideon's green, and the exposed cycle path along the lough was like entering Mordor. All of a sudden we were running into the wind. The rain began to lash down, and all around were bodies covered in tin foil blankets, that had given up once the race entered the high teens. Medical professionals came past on bikes, as runners began to clump in tight groups, working like a Tour de France peleton, and sheltering each other from the elements. I looked up. A sign said 17 miles. With out even thinking, I screamed "Single figures!!!!!!!" My mind subconciously calculated that 26-17 was nine. This was do-able. I might actually be about to become one of those people who can say they've run a marathon... With my exclamation, came cheers and pats on the back from my small group, and we tightened our shoulders to the wind and picked up the pace.
The apocalyptic weather continued as we crossed into duncrue industrial estate. Cool fm pods made up for the lack of spectators, and top40 hits carried us back towards the city centre.
Throughout the route, there were energy stations providing complimentary water and energy gels to runners, but, as I emerged from sailor town, and came down tomb street, I was almost moved to tears by what I saw. An elderly man had parked his car next to Royal Mail, and set up a tiny table, like those we used to write exams on, at the side of the road. "Enjoy your run, keep smiling" said a hand written A4 sign by his car. On the table were twix's, mars bars, cups of orange cordial and celebrations. This wasn't an official aid station, this was just a kind man inspiring others.
Alone once more, and on to the final leg, I met two ladies who were checking their watches against their stride, as we passed maysfield leisure centre and joined the towpath.
"How we doing?" I asked.
"We're on for 4 hours, but leave nothing behind."
Wow. Could I really run a sub 4-hour marathon? It had been a secret goal of mine, but its said that on your first, you should just aim to finish. In that moment I decided I was going to do it.
As I began the long slog up the Ormeau road and into mile 24, I began to seriously struggle. As if to symbolise my fatigue, I began to notice the green balloon attached to the back of the 4-hour pacer, bouncing around in the wind, and slowly but surely catching up with me. I couldn't even consider picking up my pace, and so as he drew along side me, I resigned myself to trying to hold his pace and finish as close to 4 as I could. We gave each other the obligatory, exhausted runner, nod of the head.
"You're doing well" he puffed.
"Aye, I'm aiming for sub-4 here, so to me you're the devil." I joked.
In response, this total stranger slapped me on the bum and said "GO ON! You're way under 4 hours! I'm just speeding up to pull this lot up the hill!"
Sure enough, I looked behind me, and there was a large group, battling with themselves to cover the final two miles.
Could I do it? I dug deep and concentrated on just one more turn of the legs.
Reaching the roundabout, and turning down the Ravenhill, I saw a friend of mine. A fellow volunteer from Corrymeela. Upon seeing me, she began running down the road shouting "He's coming!" Suddenly a group of 4 or 5 of my friends were running along beside me, cheering and asking me questions.
"Talk to these people Aaron" I said to myself. "You've talked to strangers all day. These are your friends. Talk to them."
But I couldn't. All I could do was muster enough strength to keep looking straight ahead and pick my knees up. With a wave to the Corrymeela crowd in a garden across the road, I entered the final mile.
Was I actually about to do this? An entire marathon? As I turned on to the embankment I looked at a guy around my age, walking by the side of the road. "Come on. Almost there." I said. He looked at me, and burst into tears. We entered the final driveway to the Ozone complex together. The supporters lining the barriers screamed our numbers, and it was done.
A full marathon. I'd just run a full marathon in 3 hours and 55 minutes. In my city. I was ecstatic. My teary companion came to me as a volunteer hung a medal round my neck and wrapped me in tin foil. There was no speaking. We just high fived, and he left.
There was only one thing left to do. Hobble over to the Hospice massage tent for a free rub down. I just didn't know whether it would be weird or comforting that my mum was the masseuse.