MARATHON



MARATHON WOMAN

Nowadays you can’t throw a stone without hitting an amateur triathlete, I should know, I’m married to one. Every second house in our neighbourhood is home to a lycra clad speed demon. If middle aged men aren’t climbing on to their bikes, middle aged women are slipping into the sea in the middle of winter, and the people in between are power walking, jive talking and living their “best lives”.

Adults are now investing in activities that were once reserved for Olympians, while counterbalancing this by also investing in ‘themselves’. When I’m not throwing rocks at triathletes, I’m throwing them at people in the deliberate act of mindfulness.

I applaud mindfulness, and indeed triathletes, and every strain in between, it’s just a comment on the often sisyphean nature of our society. But whatever way you bend or flow, it’s all good, we’re all just trying our best (except those of us who throw stones - note to self!).

I’ve been known to set some crazy life-goals myself from jumping out of airplanes to climbing Machu Picchu, but there has always been one Olympian-esque goal in particular that has eluded me - completing a goddamn marathon.

I have an interesting health history and my heart pumps at about 30% so in theory if I curled up into a ball every day, unfurling only once to climb into a box of Krispy Kremes, that would be ok. But for reasons, largely unknown, I have retained a functionality that allows me to keep plodding along.

So I registered to walk the ‘virtual’ New York City marathon. Despite many kind offers from friends to accompany me I was determined to do this by myself. I needed to know I could do this by my wits alone so the next time I am seriously ill (unfortunately it won’t be ‘if’, it will be ‘when’) I will know I am strong, and I have the medal to prove it.

I told no one other than my husband that my chosen race day had arrived. I called a cab at the crack of dawn and drove all the way to the beautiful coast of Killiney. There was me and one lone dog walker sucking in that salty sea air as we walked in quiet tandem down the ancient hill.

It wasn’t long before I passed Bono’s house and dove into Dalkey village for my first toilet stop (petrol station restrooms are better than a portaloo, not much better mind you!). I buzzed along by Bullock Harbour where some tourists wondered where they were. I hit the Forty Foot and caught the first sea swimmers of the day, brazen in their bikinis as I zipped up my jacket and snuggled into my snood. Making it to Dun Laoighaire harbour, where morning life was well underway, I followed some middle-aged muckrakers as they powered up and down the marina frantically discussing their fraught friend. With barely a woof, I fell in with some dog walkers and eased my way along the path to Seapoint. At Blackrock I luckily found another water closet.

I’ve always wanted to do a marathon but it just seemed like something other people did in the tip top of their health, not somebody missing organs, with their lungs scarred from radiation and a heart like a crumpled shopping bag. But I've never been one to do as expected.

While passing St Vincent’s hospital at the 10 mile mark I was forced to a halt by a railway crossing. ‘Now’s as good a time as any to check my heart’, I thought, ‘Got the hospital right there’. Heart rate was fine, still under 130 bpm (I was conscious not to walk fast, I had to keep my heart rate from climbing high and triggering a fatal rhythm - great name for a band by the way). I felt well hydrated, I finished my water and started on the electrolytes.

I got to Sandymount Strand and made the mistake of trying to pace myself with a twentysomething that had just stepped out of her car. Even with her head buried in her phone she was doing a blistering pace. I did think of shouting ‘Wait, anonymous-person-who-doesn’t-know-I-exist, you’re going too fast!’. I switched it to ‘You know what anonymous-person? We’re done! OK, done, you hear me?’. Of course she had gone so far ahead of me she was actually on her way back by the time I caught up to her, I gave her a sideways ‘Happy now?’ glance - she looked right through me.

I had run half marathons in the past but since my heart failure I was under firm instructions from my cardiologist not to run anywhere ever, so a marathon was out of the question...right?! During lockdown I walked, a lot. I’m a pretty active person anyway, but walking during lockdown became my jam.

By the time I got to Dublin’s Docklands I was still fresh, I declared it lunchtime and sat on a cold steel bench beside a pigeon and ate a bagel. We watched the cold Liffey lash against its walls and listened hard to the faint strains of trad Irish music coming from somewhere (a pub? … the water? ... my soul?). Walking purposefully into a posh hotel I availed of their facilities, a few stretches and I was back on the road to Clontarf. At about mile 17 I got to Bull Island and took a step back in time. I walked over the wooden bridge and let the town and city fall away, the rain came in. The elements, like a demented devil, beat me on my face, my chest and whipped my back. I pilgrimaged as far as the Statue of Our Lady at the tip of the island and the rain immediately stopped. ‘Thank Christ!’ I said out loud to Our Lady but I couldn’t stop for tea, I had to keep going.

I was starting to feel the challenging part of the challenge. I compete with nobody but myself, but it turns out I’m fiercely competitive. I didn’t want to complete something comfortably, I wanted to dig deep, to stir that inner strength I have needed to rely on so much in my life. I wanted to know it was there.

I was facing into the dreaded mile 18, the infamous ‘wall’. I had been feeling pretty good but mile 17 with the rain and the nor’wester walloping me in the face, I was starting to question my resolve. When I’m faced with adversity, I break things down, all I had to do was get off the island, that was all I asked of myself for mile 18 - get off the bleedin' island. This is not where this ends, on a flippin' jut of land on the Northside of Dublin opposite some random chipper? This ends at the beach - preferably on a yacht on its way to the Bahamas. To get me over the hump, along the wooden bridge, and far away from the chipper, I put on a podcast about London during the war (to quote the Billy Liar movie “A man could lose himself in London”). Next thing I knew I was storming Dollymount Strand feeling friggin invincible - second wind, baby!

At 22.5 miles I stopped at Sutton Cross, toilet time, barely a drop. I noticed in the second half my need to go to the bathroom was less, obviously I was expending some water through perspiration but I’m not the biggest sweater, I felt more like my body was replete with fluids. I could feel my rings tight on my fingers, they were slightly swollen. I deliberately eased up on the hydration. Hydration is very important but if you are exercising for longer than 4 hours be careful of overdosing on water and remember to include electrolytes - Ideally don’t exercise for more than 4 hours!

Around mile 23 I hit the Portmarnock Greenway, a gorgeous idyllic car-free cut through the countryside with poppies and daisies and sheep grazing in fields, with a hint of a tint of evening shade. By now my second wind had blown away. I had cycled the Greenway many times and would have described it as ‘flat’, however, now that I was in my 6th hour of walking I could feel every slight incline in that road, it is definitely undulating. I was looking at the sheep looking at me, I thought about taking a photo of them and then I got all Logan Roy about it and thought ‘F*****k Offff’. I had a similar thought when night strollers passed me with welcoming smiles and gyrating elbows.

Of course I smiled back and as we know happiness is contagious, by the time the Greenway had humped its last hill and flung me onto the road to Malahide, I was feeling evened out. There were no aches and pains, I was in the home stretch, I was ascending into Nirvana. Dom and Roisin were on their way to pick me up, there was some chatter on the texts about swim class, ‘I can’t deal with these mundanities’, I thought, ‘I’m in a transcendental state, fortheloveofgod!’.

I used to wonder why anyone would want to do more than one marathon in their lifetime but in that moment I knew why. I knew the answer to everything, my mind and body had finally completed the total eclipse, I was at one, a living breathing God. Then my phone buzzed.

“Will we meet you at the castle?” came a text from Dom. Now who’s having notions?! Malahide Castle was at least 2 miles away from my finish, which was out of the question. “Beach” was my succinct response. ‘I can’t text’ I realized ‘I’m an athlete, goddamnit’. I put my phone away, watched myself click over 26.2 and pushed on a further 0.3 until I got to the beach.

Once I stopped I frantically fooled around on Strava to make sure I got my New York City Marathon digital medal (the real one is in the post). Then I did some stretches and chilled, I felt good. The ‘swim team’ were caught in traffic so I moseyed on over to Spar, feeling very chuffed with myself. As I stood in the fluorescent lit store, reflecting on how my surroundings were like a placenta of plastic provisions. I also reflected on my marathon, I recognize that I push the limits of my ability (much to my cardiologist's constant worry). I appreciate real strength does not come from the outside in, it's not captured in a medal. My next challenge will be to slow down - from the inside out.

That said, I have the health history of someone who was dipped in a nuclear reactor and I just walked a marathon! The next time I am in a hospital bed I will remember that moment and I will know I am strong. In the movie version of my life, Eye of the Tiger will start playing over the supermarket sound system “Went the distance, now I’m back on my feet, just a girl and her will to survive”. If things had gone wrong on the walk the movie could play The Final Countdown (both classics).

I thought about telling the teenager behind the counter of my achievement, but when I watched one set of her fake eyelashes slowly drip off her eyelid, as her edward-scissor-hand nails absentmindedly clacked out a text, I figured she’d probably just Logan Roy me under her breath (‘F*****k Offf’).

I emerged to see my husband and daughter both running towards me arms outstretched shouting ‘You Did It!’. They were brandishing a medal, one you’d find in Pound Shop with faceless bodies running on the front of it, the sticker on the back noted my name and date and ‘New York City Marathon Finisher’... even Logan Roy would have had a tear in his eye.


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Comments

  1. Bravo, Sheilagh!!! So cool and great read as well. —Patrick

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    1. Thanks a million Patrick. At the end I would have made mince meat of an In n Out burger!

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  2. Tears in MY eyes at the end (F*****k Offf Logan Roy!) AH! SHEILS! Such a pleasure and a thrill to read. I was with you every step of the way... Laughing out loud, giggling to myself, eye-rolling at the madster characters and vicariously getting my steps in - all while taking in the cultural sights & sounds of Dublin's fair city! SUCH brilliant writing, and SUCH an achievement (ye madster!!!) N xox

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    1. Aw, thanks a mill Niamh! I thought of you as I took that hidden road you introduced me to in Blackrock. We have to get a walk n talk on the books before the month is out! Dying to catch up xx

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  3. I'm pretty sure that extra 300m qualifies you for ultra marathon status!! Congrats!

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    1. Hahaha, let's not forget the shimmy into Spar, it all counts! πŸ‘ŠπŸ˜‚

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  4. Just fantastic Sheils, what an achievement and great account of it all, a coastal tour of Dublin πŸ‘

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