“I was convinced it would all end in humilation” A love letter to the London Marathon from a former scaredy-cat

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Sofia Zagzoule
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Writer Sofia Zagzoule was so convinced she wasn't the marathon type that she didn't even tell friends and family when she signed up for the London Marathon last year. But 26.2 miles later, she's certain that running is anyone's game...

I ran the London Marathon last year. I’m not going to gloat about being a fitness freak who runs 10 miles before breakfast. What I want to tell you is that running a marathon was far from the nightmare I built it up to be (despite my very healthy wine and cigarette habit) and that it’s probably far from the nightmare you might expect it to be, too.

When I was lucky enough to land a place with the Virgin Money London Marathon in 2015, I felt it was a poisoned chalice I couldn’t turn down. It would mean curtailing my very regular nights in the pub and the (more than) occasional cigarette. Anxiety reached such heights that I basically kept it a secret: I was so terrified at the idea that I failed to tell close friends that I was even doing it, having convinced myself that I’d have to drop out, hand back any sponsorship I’d raised and face utter humiliation. 

The way I saw it, the fewer people knew about this inevitable failure, the better.

I didn’t even tell my own dad I was running until there was only a week to go and while some close friends found out when I cancelled a boozy night out three days before the marathon, one of my best friends rang me the day after I’d staggered over the finish line, completely dumbstruck that I’d done it.

I became convinced I was going to wet myself or worse (a fellow runner told me he wets himself every year in an effort to beat his personal best, so whatever works right? Thankfully, I didn't), that I would collapse as my legs buckled under me, that I might actually die. I even went for a free heart screening with the charity I ran for, Cardiac Risk in the Young, convinced I had an undetected heart defect. I didn’t.

But my fears couldn’t have been more unfounded – running the London Marathon was a life-changing experience I completely adored. I was stunned by how much I absolutely loved it. It is now a memory I will treasure forever, not least because of the crazy all-encompassing doubt I faced in the lead up to it.

It's such a privilege to run through one of the greatest cities in the world while it’s closed to cars – running directly up to Canary Wharf is such an awe-inspiring moment it helps distract you from the fact you're, insanely, at around mile 20 – with thousands of other inspirational fundraisers who are raising millions for charity. All the while, heaving crowds line the streets, cheering like maniacs and shouting your name.

And I’d recommend it to anyone – and I really do mean anyone, because as well as hardened drinkers and smokers like myself, it takes all sorts. I saw a man with a running blade in place of his left leg, a barefoot bloke carrying a huge wooden cross on his back, an army officer in full gear and huge boots carrying a heavy rucksack. I even spotted some bright spark cartwheeling the final mile.

So if you think you can’t run a marathon, think again. Do the London Marathon if you’re lucky enough to get a place because I promise, it is truly incredible.

Running the marathon made me more determined to believe in myself, to take a chance, to do something that terrifies me every now and again. A marathon allows you to help yourself while helping others: it’s totally win-win. So what are you waiting for?

What's stopping you?

What if I'm a smoker or drinker who thinks the marathon's beyond me?

So was I. It's fair to say that pre-marathon I was a big drinker, capable of sinking countless flutes of free champers or cocktails at a celebrity press do along with the obligatory pack of 10 Marlborough Lights (which I'd easily get through before bumming a few extras off another partygoer). Takeaways were a regular occurrence (around 2-3 a week) and 4am whisky-karaoke combos not a rarity. If I can do it...

How on earth do you fit in all that training? 

I started training in earnest around January. I panicked about following a training plan and became confused by how many options there were before ditching them all and deciding to run when I wanted to. I committed to a half marathon with more than a month still to go, the Vitality North London Half , which I found really difficult but felt was important in forcing me to run that distance.

Build the mileage slowly. Running home once or twice a week from work was the easiest way for me to fit in around five miles, with the option of going round the houses and increasing that mileage to about eight (though rarely did I do this with the lure of dinner pulling me home). It meant I felt less like a smoke and glass of wine as soon as I got through the front door – not least because a shower and making something to eat took priority – and it also forces you to sidestep those after-work drinks, the leaving do you might have called into. You also sleep better.

Increase to three times a week and you’ve got an impressive weekly mileage early on, while weekends are still free.

Does it completely take over your life?

As marathon day creeps ever nearer, Friday and Saturday nights out are often swapped for big plates of pasta and a night in watching Netflix, tucked up in bed well before 11pm with the next day's long run playing on your mind.

In that way, it does take over your life, but the pay off of feeling brilliant come Sunday lunchtime having nailed a 17-miler around Richmond Park is well worthwhile. And this tough end part of it probably lasts around six weeks realistically, which is pretty achievable for even a hardened Champagne ligger like myself. 

How do you get through a 20-mile run?

The final slog passes quickly, thankfully. After the half, I increased my mileage quite quickly: with only about six weeks to go I did 15, then 17, and my biggest, 20, leaving a seven- or nine-day gap between them if I could. Use these long runs as a rehearsal: wear the same kit and carry what you will on race day (minimal amounts ideally).

Use energy gels (or sweets if you prefer) every 40 minutes – they really helped give me a boost. And don't forget to take water, an Oyster card or debit card in case you're lost or need to get on a bus or train. Your immune system will take a bit of a battering at this point too, so stock up on plenty of vitamin C, make sure you rest and sleep between big workouts and treat yourself to plenty of massages.

How do you ignore that voice in your head telling you to go to the pub?

I'm not saying it isn't really hard, especially when it's freezing, hailing or pouring down. Get a good podcast (I listened to Serial on the move), a mate to run with you or to meet you after for coffee (or cider), and some sightseeing pit stops – pausing on the river in front of St Paul's was my fave and perfect for a Sunday morning smug Instagram snap.

Five genuinely useful motivational tips for would-be marathon runners

Plan beautiful training runs  

Richmond, the River Thames, Greenwich and London's iconic parks are great for this. Get up early and see the capital or the beautiful countryside at its very best on a Sunday morning minus the crowds, and use this time listen to an audio book, perfect your playlist, meditate and clear your head. For many people in the city, running home is the quickest commute they can manage and it helps rack up that mileage.

Stick your name on your t-shirt

And you’ll feel like Paula Radcliffe – it really does make a difference having people call your name. Wave and smile like a maniac too, you might be on the telly! I ran with DJ Chris Evans for one or two miles and you could just about spot me on the BBC highlights. I had my headphones with me, with hours of carefully chosen songs to give me a lift when I hit the wall, but I only got through two songs before I switched it off, unwilling to miss a single cheer from the huge crowds.

Carb load

You’re running a lot. This means less nights out and less wine, but the brilliant part is the amount you can eat. Book that restaurant you’ve been dying to go to for ages, get a table at the all-you-can-eat buffet, enjoy a couple of beers and a roast at the end of a long run because you deserve it. Trust me, the pub is even more inviting after you've done 15 miles and also completely guilt-free. You've done the exercise and you'll drink less – I found is that two pints of shandy were enough, a world away from what I'd normally drink.

Tell yourself you can do it – and believe it

Get in a good mindset, come to terms with those 26.2 miles and enjoy them. It is a mental and physical battle and you have to believe you can do it. Watch an inspirational documentary the night before: I went for Venus and Serena, and with the advice of the greatest female tennis player of all time ringing in my ears, I went for it.

Suck up the support and savour the moment

People told me again and again about the support on the streets of London for the London Marathon but I was still completely staggered by the crowds. Old dears hand out sweets, pubs and houses blast out banging tunes, a huge variety of bands play the whole way round – there’s even samba dancers in carnival costumes and bell-ringers. Little-uns – and the occasional Dachshund – dish out high fives and everyone you’ve ever known pops up to send you scores of lovely messages.

Pasta and praise, really – what’s not to like?

Sofia ran for Cardiac Risk in the Young. Find out more about the Virgin Money London Marathon here.


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Sofia Zagzoule

Sofia Zagzoule is a freelance writer and particularly loves to write about what she loves including, but not limited to, travel, food, fashion, culture and lifestyle