It was somewhere around the twenty five mile mark it really started to sink in. Not only was I doing a marathon but I had now almost completed one. These next twelve minutes accumulated eight months of work. Eight months of uncertainty and eight months of full focus. Twelve minutes for this last mile because at this stage and in this heat, on what God decided was the hottest day of the year so far, all hopes of a good time had gone out the window. I was pushing on with a heart full of hope and a belly full of jelly babies and Energizer orange. Stopping for seconds only to stretch in order to finish strong, I only had one wish; to finish in under five hours and to cross that finish both with a smile on my face and my hands in the air. Don’t vomit, don’t collapse, end like a champion in full strength of those I’m doing it for.
In memory of Toni Louise Harte
For me it wasn’t about medals or times, it was about setting a goal, to end my twenties with a bang and run in memory of one of the sweetest funniest young women I ever knew. I wasn’t around when Toni Louise Harte got sick. Mostly living away and generally leaving her and her family to it; I didn’t want to bother them when she was fighting the cancer to get better. When she died I felt like a special kind of joy had left the world and I was so very sorry I had taken for granted that she would get better. Toni was on this planet for a short bit special time. She taught everyone she knew how to enjoy life, how to treasure the special funny moments, to love an adventure and to be strong through the toughest of times. I was lucky enough to know Toni from back as far as when she was four and the whole way through her life. I ran this marathon in her honor. As a way to pay tribute to a young lady who without knowing it gave me and everyone she met so much. As an apology for not visiting when she was sick and assuming she would get better. And as a way to give back to those amazing Clown Doctors who are in the wards to make all these amazing young people smile. My chosen charity in Toni’s memory was ‘Aoife’s Clown Doctors Ireland’.
Becoming a butterfly
In these last twelve months my life has changed irrevocably. From a cloud of self-doubt, insecurity and anxiety has blossomed a butterfly with colourful wings of steel; beautiful yet powerful, vulnerable but unbreakable. It's difficult to put the journey into words. It flies by like a flash until you reach the end point to reflect and realise maybe it's just the beginning. The marathon finish line has passed and I'm left staring into the void of what next, while desperately holding onto enjoyment in the moment to appreciate what I've done.
For the marathon was a lot longer than four hours, fifty seven minutes and twenty seconds. It goes back months, even years of preparation, of falling flat on my face again and again in a haze of fatigue and negative self-talk. Each time I'd dust myself off and look for the next thing. Over the years I took part in a few races, a few classes but nothing ever quite stuck. The commitment to stay true to myself never lasted.
The self-doubt and negative self-talk lingered in everything I did. In myself, how I look, my work, my blogs, my hobbies; I never felt good enough in anything. Living in imposter mode full-time, I never recognised myself in anything I did; because I never felt like I belonged there or deserved it. I won awards, achieved amazing things and while I recognised my achievements, I never felt good enough.
Something shifted in me in late 2018, something that told me "it's time". Time to show up for myself, to move forward, to shine and go for the big one. It was time to pick a big goal and commit my heart and soul to it. It was time to wholeheartedly believe in myself. The first real shift came for the Ardagh 10 mile challenge. Hesitant to sign-up for it, I thought I wouldn't be ready for it on time and it would be difficult to commit to a race so soon after Christmas. Putting all the negative thinking to one side, I signed up and over the next few weeks I put the work in. I remember the elation I felt one cold Friday evening in December, about a week before Christmas, when I completed a nine mile run around Ballinalee. It was dark, it was cold, I was after finishing a week of work and went for it. I was shivering, couldn't feel my hands and by mile eight and a half, I was pretty sure I peed myself. Those nine miles were the start of my self-belief growing. I completed the Ardagh 10 mile challenge, laying the ground work for what was to come.
The commitment to running has been a huge part of what has changed me, but not all of it. Saying "running changed my life" would be misleading to those also seeking real change. "Running helped shape the person I knew I wanted to become" is a more accurate description. Running, quitting alcohol, clean eating, vitamins, work life balance, therapy and studying coaching all combined has what's changed me for the better. The goal of ending my twenties with a marathon in memory of Toni Louise Harte was the inspiration. However, a lot more had to happen in order to line everything up for this life changing year; or first six months of 2019 as it happens to be.
Over the course of the training there was a lot of falling, dusting myself off and getting back up again. There was a lot of days slacked off training but more often than not days where I got the head down, the runners on and did it. What was different this time round was my values had changed; recognising that all my past failed attempts were down to not actually wanting it enough at that particular time. This time I really wanted it, I had a goal to finish out the decade on a high and a higher purpose of doing it for something that much bigger than me. Knowing that this was not only about me but it was about all those people who would never get the opportunity to run a marathon. Knowing that I had been gifted this opportunity of life, of health, of a body which I had abused with bad diet and poor exercise but now shone with gratitude for.
Finding that knowledge inside yourself, that life is a gift we have to return eventually, without knowing when; that's when the fire inside lights you up. That fire is your soul burning to give you that belief for what you already have inside you; that yes, you can do this.
That fire has raged in me and rather than put it out, this time I let it burn. I let it fuel me to keep going, to put in the hours of training and set everything aside for a few months to focus. Once I allowed that, I really found a love for running. The freedom of heading off on your own, with music in your ears to see new places. The joy in experiencing new things and seeing brand new places in your home county for the very first time. The awe in knowing you've seen things that few people have seen and been places that few people have been. Running became therapeutic while also allowing me to be a tourist in my own neighbourhood. While running I learned to focus on the present moment, rather than getting stuck in my head and cursing the miles I had to put in, I got stuck in my soul and really noticed everything around me. The sights, sounds and smells became so vivid and a lonely, long run on the Royal Canal became a true blessing.
There was so many proud moments after that December nine mile; my 27 minute 5k, my 58 minute 10k, the half marathon at Lough Rynn, the 14 mile around Ballinalee, the 16 and 18 mile along the canal. The most memorable sunny Sunday on that 20 mile run all the way from Longford's harbour along the Royal Canal, running into Richmond harbour right to the edge that if I went any further I'd need to swim. The elation of each of these runs, markers ticked off for the big day.
I managed to acquire an injury only three weeks out from race day. This injury was when I knew for sure I had changed forever. Previously, an injury like this would have seen me quit, throw in the towel and feed my negative self-talk. It would allow me buy into my own narrative of "you will never do this" and give up there and then. Something like this would have fit in with how I used to see myself, and by quitting it would allow me to feed that negativity bias about myself. But not this time. The shift had come and this was no injury and certainly no way out. This was simply a blip in the road, a growth opportunity to work with my physio, get some decent rest and let the universe decide my fate. This was not time to back out. This was time to work harder on my mindset, determined to not be defeated. So I worked harder than ever over the two weeks I couldn't walk, never mind run. My pelvis had slipped back out of place and I couldn't feel my left leg; like when you lie on your arm too long and it goes dead. Not ideal so close to the race but like any sharp incline, you have to get up it to get over it and then enjoy the easy downhill. While the easy downhill didn't really come, I overcame and held my pelvis together for race day.
As the hotel was close to the start line, I was comforted by the fact I could get a good rest before strolling down that morning. Having found the start point on race day eve, I felt fully prepared and in the zone for what the morning would bring. As the race would begin at 9am, I set my alarm for 7am knowing I had plenty of time to get ready and get going. Throughout the night I dreamt I missed the race having slept in. This lead to a somewhat restless sleep but even still, I rose fresh and confident for the day ahead.
Having prepped in advance, I had little to think about. My clothes were laid out, my race number pinned on my shirt, tape for my pelvis which I had to strap on and my breakfast to fuel me for the day. Having such strict dietary requirements, I didn't want to risk a hotel breakfast knowing hotels would cook oats in milk and I eat mine with water. Preparing some quick oats and fruit, I had my breakfast in the hotel room but nerves started to settle in and I was unable to stomach anything. Armed with a bag of jelly babies, and my partner Paul keeping me calm, we set off at 8.15. The support crew of my Mam and sister were already waiting at the start line having left Longford at 5.30am to be with me!
An upsetting but on recollection funny moment happened just outside the hotel door. We stepped out to a beautiful June morning, really fresh and already warm and sunny to what was about to be one of the hottest days of the year. Having trained throughout the winter, I was accustomed to carrying jumpers and raincoats on my runs. As we began to walk, I was stricken with panic as I turned to Paul "I forgot my raincoat". At that moment this seemed like make or break for me as I burst out crying; "what if it rains and I don't have it?". Always the coolest customer in every situation, Paul was able to comfort me in that it was already warm and would be a really warm day, the jacket would be an extra load I didn't need. Somewhat unsure but willing to trust him, he embraced me until I was calm and we continued on.
Used to travelling to races and being there in plenty of time before any start, I again got unnerved knowing the race would start in about thirty minutes and I had only just reached the start. Lots of smiling and cheering in the form of Paul, Mam and Leah, I was really grateful to have such a support crew. The race start was a lot of fun, buzzing with energy and music. We had an energetic warmup with a local fitness instructor, followed by a Viking drumming session which really brought enthusiasm to the morning. Settling into it, I said my "see ya laters" while my family wished me good luck. As the gun went off and I started moving one foot in front of the other, "this is it" I thought excitedly, "I'm running a marathon."
The first mile was a lap of the city, looping back passed the starting line where my support crew were cheering me on. It was around this time I noticed some runners had earphones in. I left my music at home as the race rules said headphones were not allowed for insurance purposes. Not wanting to risk being disqualified for the sake of tunes, I obeyed the rules but sort of now wished I hadn't. Too late to worry about that now. Knowing I had got this, and this was the time to enjoy it, I smiled and kept on going. We ran through the fabulous Waterford city, up the Quays, taking a right turn over the first bridge out of the city
Coming up on the first three mile mark and I felt strong. My watch told me I was exactly where I wanted to be as I kept the pace. The struggle in the first three to four miles was the amount of people. Used to running solo for hours on the Royal Canal, it was overwhelming moving past bodies and having crowds around me. However, as we moved out of the city, over beautiful bridges and on to the fantastic Waterford cable stayed bridge, I was bursting with energy and positivity; absolutely loving every step. At this point, not having music didn’t bother me as I was really getting into the groove and enjoying every moment. How exhilarating, feeling so alive.
This feeling stayed with me throughout as each mile passed like clockwork. We were met along the way with bands and DJs playing music to keep the energy pumping. I was feeling incredible and loving it. Running consistently and very aware of my pace and abilities, I kept good time and felt great for it. As we left the main roads to merge onto the Waterford Greenway, my heart soared; how lucky was I to get to see this. The words from Gerry Duffy kept running through my mind “we get to do this!!” I felt so blessed to see such spectacular scenery along this fantastic county in a way which very few people would get to experience it. We could have been anywhere in the world, New Zealand maybe! Yet here in beautiful Ireland, I was running 26.2 miles along the most fantastic views I had ever witnessed; what was not to love. This kept me moving and being present with what was around me distracted from not having my music. In fact, the music would have taken from it. The greenest of green along a narrow pathway as the sea moved up to meet us. It was the most beautiful summers day and while not ideal for running a marathon, I appreciated the beauty of it all.
We moved between Greenway and main road to loop round to a different section. Feeling strong I increased the pace at mile nine, mostly trying to make up time as I searched for a toilet knowing I’d need to stop for a quick pit stop. Typically, while there had been pit stops every three miles, mile nine didn’t have one and I had to make do. Coming in to mile ten my energy was still thriving. The pelvis tape had started to wear and I had to pull it off but I was feeling strong and undeterred. Pulling it off and rolling it up in my hand, another brilliant moment when on passing through what seemed to be a visitor/ garden center I spotted a bin and aimed beautifully; got it in one. Some onlookers cheered at my aim which spurred me on; I was loving this.
The turning point both literally and figuratively came at mile twelve. I was going strong, hitting two hours ten on my watch; a really good pace for me. This was the point where the half marathoners made for home while those doing the full turned off to keep going. It was here the gravity hit me. The energy of the other runners had kept me going but now I was looking onwards at one lonely distant runner ahead and seemingly nobody behind. This was where the real race started. I saw the sign for mile twenty three on the way back but knowing I had to run eleven more miles just to get to that point. The crowds dispersed, the energy and the noise died down and from here it was a race against my mind. Adapting a flow mindset, a strong focus kicked in.
While I was far from last, I was definitely in the last fifty or so and very much alone in the race. The stronger marathon runners up ahead and some, including the winning men and women, already looping back; amazing to witness. Keeping my mood up, I really focused on being present and enjoying the scenery. It was all I could do as I kept moving. The remoteness of the Greenway a massive contrast from the city scape and busy first half. However, the beauty of it all still struck me as I really wished I had some music. That was the toughest bit, keeping the energy flowing while singing to myself in my head.
At this point the heat was massive as I passed many runners who had started to walk. Walking was not an option for me but I slowed my pace, conscious of wanting to finish strong. Passing smaller crowds of spectators, at the coolest restaurant I’ve ever seen in the form of train carriages along the old railway, any bit of cheering was welcome. Around mile fifteen, my saviour came in the form of a man whose name I can’t recall now. He caught up with me and we ran together for awhile. I told him this was my first marathon and he encouraged me by saying how well I was doing. We ran together for a number of miles, talking about why we were doing this, our motivations, our charities and he told me about all the marathons he has run. We kept together for awhile as the time went by quicker. The company was great, really lifting my spirits.
Coming into mile eighteen, my pelvis started to slip as I could feel a slight numbing in my left leg. Letting my new found friend know he was welcome to go on ahead, we split as I slowed my pace in order to keep running so I could finish in a run. We met again a little up ahead has he passed me again having stopped for a loo break. This comadre was fantastic, a really enjoyable part of the race.
At mile twenty I said “this is it, the furthest I’ve ever ran and I still have about an hour to go”. This was the part I was dreading, how do you keep going for another six miles? I was about to find out. I had been hoping for a 4.45 marathon but the extreme heat paired with my pelvic injury following me for three weeks meant that was out the window. Grateful to be running the marathon, I didn’t mind this at all as I re-calculated what pace I could do in order to keep running, not cause more injury and still finish in under five hours. At this stage my pelvis was rubbing against the nerve in my leg but pausing to stretch a few times I was still confident I would finish strong.
Those last six miles were a test of my mental strength as I sang Queen’s “don’t stop me now” while praying to Toni Lousie to get me across the finish line. “This is for you girl, keep me strong”. Coming into the last mile I was greeted with supporters, jellies and more Energizer orange which at this stage was sweating out of my pores. Faced with one more bridge crossing before turning left towards the Waterford Arena and that beautiful sight of the finish line, I was bursting with joy. This is it, I’m about to finish a marathon.
The final few meters as I ran around the Arena car park and up the finishing chute. At this point I was finishing alone in a race that felt like it was all for me. The MC roared my name over the speakers as all the onlookers cheered for me. He called me out letting everyone know it was my first marathon; everyone was so supportive. Focusing on the finish I could see my wonderful support crew waiting; a smiley Paul, Mam and Leah jumping up and down cheering as I raised my arms and crossed the line. My Garmin showed 26.2 miles in 4:57:20. I was thrilled.
Emotionally and physically wrecked but ecstatic. We went to the grass as I plopped myself down tearing off my socks and shoes. Paul handed me a protein bar forcing me to eat. At this point all I had inside me was that half eaten porridge, about one million jelly babies and a gallon of Energizer orange; I felt sick. I tried to get sick but nothing would come up so I just sat with the nausea until it passed, gratefully nibbling on the bar. What a super support team as Paul got me an ice-cream and Leah helped me to a shower. That spitting water from the gym shower in WIT arena was without a doubt the best shower in my life. Following a welcome change of clothes I came back to life as I recalled the event to my family. They had been extremely worried about me in the heat and admitted they half expected to get a call from the emergency crew. Oh ye of little faith! I finished, uninjured bar a twinge in my leg; now a marathon runner.
Throughout my training I often heard people saying that once I cross that finish line I’ll get the bug to do it again. For me however, it didn’t come. Having achieved what I came to do, that was it, never again. I embraced my achievement but that buzz never came. It was a silent gratitude, knowing how far I had come in so many ways and what it had taken to get there. I completed this entire journey alone; an internal battle which I had won. Looking forward now to reducing the training and having a thirtieth birthday to plan, the marathon was well and truly under the belt. The well wishes and fundraising continued to come in and I was truly overwhelmed to raise €1000 for my chosen charity Aoife’s Clown Doctors Ireland.
Finishing is only the beginning
Self-development is exhausting but rewarding work and like any perfect puzzle coming together, all of the parts fit to make it whole. My perfect parts would not match someone else's puzzle but like every beautiful picture, each one has its own unique, individual strokes which make it perfect.
What I've learned this year is one person's marathon, is another person's skydive or painting. When setting goals it's so important to align them to your own values, not society's expectations of good achievements. This often leads to people going for the wrong goals or others carrying guilt about not completing a similar goal to someone else rather than looking at their own values. Since the marathon I have reassessed my own values and what new goals I would like to achieve in the form of some creative endeavours.
It took awhile to get back into training, life took over and without a goal to focus on I fell out of the habit. On reflection the whole marathon journey was incredible and one which I really loved yet didn’t fully appreciate at the time. It is still overwhelming and incredible to think, “yes, I did that”. It also took awhile to align my achievements with myself, feeling like it was a dream or something that happened to someone else. However, as I slowly picked back up the training, that buzz I didn’t feel at the finish line finally came. And yes, I will do another marathon. After all, “we are the lucky ones. WE GET TO DO THIS”.
Thank you to everyone who supported me, wished me well and donated to the cause. Thank you to Paul for his unwavering support throughout my training and many moods. Thank you to Mam and Leah for making sure to be there for me always. Most of all a massive thank you to Chelsea Harte for her support in running in memory of her daughter and for encouraging me in the twelve months previous before I started. To Shannon, Sandra and all of Toni’s family who inspire me everyday with how they have dealt with their loss. To everyone who has lost a loved one but keeps up their own personal marathon; I salute you!