It’s now been almost seven months since I ran the Paris marathon – one of the best, most transformative experiences of my life.

Not being a keepsake type person, the lengths I’ve gone to to commemorate the achievement just goes to show the profound effect running the marathon has had on me.

There’s been some small things I’ve already shared, such as the good luck charm for my Thomas Sabo bracelet I received from my parents in the week before the race…

And the tshirt I bought for myself to remind me why all the early Sunday mornings would be worth it…

And the spur of the moment but slightly more permanent ink I got at Abraxas in Paris the morning after…

But my most recent addition to the seemingly never ending list of Parisian reminders is my bib number, which has been beautifully framed by Rabbit in a Frame.

My picture in no way does justice to how gorgeous this item is

I never keep my race bibs but I really liked the design on this one – the skyline, my name, the date and my starting pen all made this one a bit more personalised. Mike at Rabbit in a Frame was really great and when he found out what he’d be framing suggested that it shouldn’t be overpowered by the frame, and instead look like it is suspended within it, which I love.

I paid £35 for the service (which includes free pick up and drop off within pretty much all of East London – mine was picked up from my office and dropped off back at my house). The prices have gone up slightly since I used them back at the beginning of the summer, but for a bespoke and convenient service I still think it’s really good value.

And now my Parisian collection is complete.

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Fairly often, after someone has run a marathon, they either say in passing, or in a race report, that it was “the hardest thing they’ve ever done.” As much as I think it’s important to carefully consider your decision before signing up to a marathon (it’s not something to be entered into lightly blah blah blah…), I also want people to know that if I can do it, anyone can.

Really, that is the truth. No one is more surprised than myself that I ran a marathon. I’m sure anyone that was with me or heard about my experience at the Copenhagen half would also agree. Pretty much anyone I went to school, college or uni with wouldn’t have seen it coming. But even still, it wasn’t the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And here’s why:

I’ve been spinning. And spinning is the devil’s workout. It’s hard, it hurts and more often than not, it’s boring as hell. (Admittedly, I’ve recently been to a couple of Bangs‘ classes at Boom Cycle, which are, by all accounts, the antidote to the usual spinning crappyness.) But if you can survive the torture of spin on a regular basis, you’ll be okay.

I’ve been to track. At track you have to run really fast and try not to cry. Or be sick. And then you have to do it at least seven more times. You’ll feel like an Olympian when you’re flying round the corner into the straight, but again it’s hard and it hurts. But when you’re running your long, slow marathon pace it really will feel like the easiest thing in the world.

I had a lot of long run practice. Although a couple of the distances were altered slightly, I don’t think I missed a single one of my long runs during marathon training. And once you’ve conquered 18 miles on a Thursday night after work when the only thing keeping you going is thinking of as many words as possible beginning with A, then B, then C… Or had a mini tantrum at the entrance to Hyde Park 17 miles into your 20 miler because you had more than enough half an hour ago… Or broken down in tears in the hail in Greenwich Park and sulked off onto a bus… Or had to talk yourself out of a panic attack on a busy, sunny Saturday afternoon along the Embankment… then the glory of the day itself will be easy.

I’ve been heartbroken. This may seem a bit melodramatic, but during the marathon when I was having a tough time during the 30-something kilometre section, I thought back to December last year when I was lying on the sofa bed in my old flat crying harder than I ever have before. I honestly didn’t know how I was going to feed and dress myself that day, let alone do anything else. That day was exactly 16 weeks out from race day. For the next six weeks I hauled myself to work and out for runs whilst I was numb and sad. I rattled around my empty flat on my own. I searched for somewhere else to live when it was the last thing I wanted to do. But I got through it. And I did think back to that time when I was in so much pain, and the pain I was in whilst running paled into insignificance in comparison. If anything, it helped. I was actually having fun in comparison.

So the point of this post wasn’t to moan, or for pity. It was to say that we are all much stronger than we give ourselves credit for. We are adaptable. We’re capable of not only coping, but doing well under pressure. We all go through a lot in our professional, personal and fitness lives, and sometimes it’s good to reflect on this.

Take time to appreciate how toughness (big or small) has made you tougher. You are stronger than you think.

And once it was done, there was the aftermath.

I was very surprised, to say the least, that no actual tears fell from my eyes until at least two minutes after I crossed the finish line. After being told that I seemed “determined” to make the whole experience as emotional as I possibly could, I sort of expected to spend the whole weekend weeping from one hour to the next. However, it was only once I walked up to the line of people giving out medals that I finally started to cry.

Medal round neck, orange wedges grabbed and bag collected, I plonked myself on the tarmac in the middle of the finishing area. It felt a little bit like being in a marathon warzone, as a medical vehicle drove through in one direction and a man on a stretcher got carried in the other. I changed into my flip flops to reveal what really had been going on in my left sock (just a massive blister, thankfully – and don’t worry, I’ll spare you that photo).

Medal selfie taken and uploaded, I got a text from Steph, letting me know that her, Leah and their respective support crews were waiting just outside the gates of the finisher’s zone. I waddled over and the hugs from both Steph and then Leah really set the tears off properly.

I actually really love these two photos that Steph took of me – I might be crying but I’m also smiling, and I don’t think they could’ve captured how I felt at that point – literally 10 minutes after finishing my first marathon – more perfectly.

After a while, we headed back to our hotels for a shower and nice long sit down. As I was let into the Metro with my medal as a ticket, it felt like a proper marathoner’s moment. I phoned my Mum and just said ‘I DID IT!’ (well, and a few more words that might have contributed to this month’s slightly silly phone bill).

That night, I met up with Shane, Martyn and Leo for a race debrief over dinner, where I bought a ridiculously expensive half bottle of Champagne which I couldn’t even finish, because surprisingly enough, running a marathon makes you pretty tired. Not tired enough to actually sleep that much though, and after only about 6 hours sleep that night, I woke up wide awake before 8am the next day.

The next day was equally as beautiful as the marathon day itself. After talking it up quite a lot, I woke up on the Monday and decided I did actually want to mark the achievement in a more permanent way. Shane and Tika accompanied me to the tattoo shop (I went to Abraxas), where I got something typically Parisian inked on the inside of my right ankle. We then went for a celebratory drink, before meeting Nadia and her boyfriend Matt for a spot of lunch. It was a gorgeous day in Paris and we sat outside soaking up the sun and post marathon relaxed holiday vibes.

Then we headed over to the Eiffel Tower for a bit of a medal glory photoshoot. Honestly, my phone is full of these, but here are the highlights…

The dorkiest person in Paris, maybe even France…

Along with my favourite shot of my new ink. My Eiffel and the Eiffel. What a bloody fantastic weekend.

Today is London marathon ballot day (it’s already closed, so if you haven’t already entered, well, then soz). Every year, it seems to get more and more silly, with people staying up until midnight refreshing the website, panicking they won’t be able to get their entry in before it’s full. They may have had a point, it was all over by 09:50. I know I am surrounded by a lot of other runners, but this time around it seems that 99% of my Twitter timeline/Facebook newsfeed/people sitting near me in the office have thrown their name in the hat.

And in a few weeks, marathon madness will kick in again, as those that have chosen to run an autumn marathon will begin their 3-4 months of training. The day after Paris, I found myself Googling ‘Berlin marathon charity places’, but I’ve come to the conclusion that one marathon is enough for me for this year – although if you see me thinking otherwise either on here or on Twitter, please stage an online intervention!

With all this marathon hype around, I think it’s important to actually think through the decision properly. So, if you are thinking of signing up to your first marathon, either this year or in the future, here are some tips I’d give to all first timers (all purely based on my own personal experience, of course)…

1. You have to really want to do it

I got a ballot place in the Nike Women’s Marathon in San Francsico last year. I paid my $100+ and posted on every social media channel that I’d got in. But as soon as I put that training plan up on my wall, I just knew it wasn’t going to happen. The training terrified me, going to the US on my own to run a marathon terrified me, training through the summer terrified me. I didn’t really want to do it.

A marathon is a MASSIVE commitment, I really can’t stress this enough. Yes, some people are better at slotting it into their lives than others, but it will still have a huge impact on the lifestyle of you and others around you. Think about how you will fit it in around work, holidays, partners, parents, dogs, cats or anything else you also need to prioritise. Long runs are called long runs for a reason, they pretty much take up whole days. If you’re good with this, then excellent – go for it.

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2. Pick your race carefully

Personally I know that I’d really enjoy running the London marathon. But I know that I prefer big races. I like the security of knowing that they’ll probably be a fair few people running slower than me. I like running with lots of people around me, I like running on roads and I like running in urban areas. I wouldn’t enter a small, rural, trail race because I know I wouldn’t enjoy it.

So, think about what you want from a race and find it. If it’s a race you’re not excited about, you’re not going to enjoy training for it.

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3. Be realistic, be sensible

If you only run a couple of short distances a week at the moment (as I did), going straight into a 4 runs, 25+ miles a week training plan is not going to go down well with your body. Don’t be a complete slave to the plan, and don’t beat yourself up about not sticking to it. I think I only managed to run 4 times a week on one or two occasions in 4 months. I still survived. To start with, I planned to do some of my training runs before work. Then I never did them, and felt incredibly guilty. As soon as I realised there was absolutely no point trying to train on weekday mornings (because it just didn’t work for me), I felt so much more relaxed. I found other, better times.

Be honest with yourself about how much and when you can actually run. Don’t run injured, don’t run when you’re completely knackered, and don’t run unhappy. None of these will help your training.

4. Do yoga, buy a foam roller, get sports massages

I was doing a lot of yoga before marathon training started, and although it dropped considerably as the mileage increased, I made sure I went to at least one class a week as well as doing some home practice. It’s brilliant strengthening and strectching without feeling like it’s a chore.

A foam roller is your friend (especially in the evening of your long run day) – stick on an episode of Sherlock and get yourself on your living room floor.

I swear that getting regular sports massages were one of the reasons I stayed completely injury free through training. I went originally when I had a problem, but continued getting them every 3 or 4 weeks or so, and in increasing frequency as race day got closer. And if you find a brilliant one, like Simon, it’s also a good opportunity to chat running with an incredibly knowledgable nice bloke.

5. Have a damn good time

As much as training for a marathon is tiring, expensive, time consuming, lifestyle altering and potentially really boring for all the people who have to listen to you talk about it constantly, it is also an amazing, challenging, strength building, confidence boosting and fun thing to do. It will all be worthwhile when you cross the finish line – just remember to enjoy (as much as possible of) every single minute.

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Just look at how gorgeous it was! The skyyy was so blueee…

Okay, not too much gushing about the beautifulness of the weather reflecting perfectly the beautifulness of the day… let’s talk about the race…

After Steph sped off into the distance approximately 0.23 seconds after crossing the starting mat (such an awesome one, she is), Leah and I were left to savour the fact that OH MY GOD WE ARE ACTUALLY RUNNING A MARATHON.

Start-10k

For the first 10k, me and Leah ran together. We didn’t plan to, but we found ourselves falling into the same pace for this first section, as had happened for the first 7 or so miles of the Brighton half marathon. Within this first hour we saw Leah’s boyfriend Jason, had an interesting near miss and synchronised squeal coming through the first water and snack station and quickly saw Zoë too. We were definitely having a lot of fun…

Leah’s photo

As expected, I needed the bloody loo from about two miles onwards. I managed to internalise this thought until just before we got to the first park (Bois de Vincennes) at mile 5, but was glad when I saw loads of people running off behind trees, bushes and fences.

We passed over both the 5k and 10k mats within one second of each other, in 32 mins and 1:06.

My resolve to hold on was pretty damn rubbish, and straight after the water station at 10k, I seized the perfect opportunity and joined about 3 other runners for a communal wee in a bush. My new short shorts made this all a lot simpler!

10k-21k

This brief interlude into the foliage meant I lost Leah. I don’t really remember too much of this next stretch, other than it being the hottest part of the race. The sleeves soon came off after this picture and I was even more glad I opted for shorts (which I had only tested on one four mile run, five days before the race – not usually advisable, but in this case worked out okay).

I made sure I was getting through a 500ml bottle of nuun every 10k and also took a Torq gel at 5 and 10 miles. I don’t know if it was the heat, because I’d trained with both nuun and Torq and had been fine, but this combination made me feel really, really sick. Like I actually threw up in my mouth 2 or 3 times during the race kinda sick. NICE. (I cannot promise you this is the last mention of bodily functions.)

From around 10-11 miles I started to struggle a bit, and promised myself that when I hit mile 12, I could put a headphone in and start listening to my playlist. Despite being an ardent ‘I don’t run with music’ type for the past 18 months or so, this really did help and I couldn’t have got through the race without it.

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As the ‘SEMI’ arch came into view, this song came into my ear. It really was the most brilliant, beautifully timed moment as the chorus broke as I crossed the mat and the words IF YOU GAVE ME A CHANCE I WOULD TAKE IT, IT’S A SHOT IN THE DARK BUT I’LL MAKE IT just felt so absolutely perfect.

The fact that I was halfway felt like a huge pressure had lifted – I had to run less that I had already run from here onwards.

21k-35k

Somewhere shortly after halfway, me and Leah found each other again! We crossed the 25k, 30 and 35k points together. I loved that this happened, it was so good to share so much of the race experience with someone I’d shared so much of the training experience.

My memory of this part of the race is hazy at best, but here are a few of the highlights (not sure you can call all of them that):

  • I noticed my first group of spectators drinking red wine at the side of the road. Feeling as sick as I did, even the sight of this almost made me do a little puke.
  • The seemingly neverending up and down along the main road along the Seine, including lots of small tunnels and the one SUPER LONG WEIRD DISCO TUNNEL FROM HELL. It was dark, noisy, humid, for a while I couldn’t see the light (literally) and it was the only point of the whole race I felt even remotely panicky. And then you had to climb a pretty sharp slope to get out of it.
  • My second wee/first portaloo stop. For a while, I had considered just ducking behind a parked car. But after a small tussle with a steward who tried to use the portaloo ahead of me (I wish I knew how to say ‘I don’t think so, lady!’ in French), I regret not taking that option. Seriously people, if you ever run this race, trust me when I say the bush/tree/sign/side of the road is always more preferable than using the portaloo. I’ll say no more.
  • Running past the Eiffel Tower. Being impressed that Leah had the energy to take a selfie, because I was more than a little indifferent at this point.
  • BANANAS! Thank goodness for the bananas which meant I didn’t have to rely on anymore gross, sweet, hot tubes of gel!

35k-42k

After this a few amazing things happened…

I hit mile 19, the furthest I’ve ever run before the race. And I felt better than I did when I had run 19 miles.

I hit 20 miles and for some reason as soon as I passed the marker, I just knew I’d be able to do it.

And I stopped for a quick selfie at mile 21, imagining that all my Run Dem family were there, but also knowing they were all cheering virtually.

The final 5-6 miles felt surprisingly and overwhelmingly awesome. I didn’t even get a hint of hitting any kind of wall. From 20 miles onwards, I worked out that I still could have a stab at a sub 5 hour time. It was going to be really close, but it was possible. This thought (along with knowing that I just really, reeeeeally wanted it to be over now) was what kept me running. I ended up only walking through water stations for the whole thing. The last 5k was relentless – all in a park, everyone else walking, spectators all over the place.

42k-FINISH!

It wasn’t until I turned out of the park after 42k that there were barriers in place and thick crowds lining the street. As I got to the final straight, I threw my water bottle off to the side and (what felt like) sprinted (looking at the video, it wasn’t) towards the finish line, arms in the air.

I honestly don’t think I’ll ever forget those last few hundred metres. Steph was at the sidelines SCREAMING my name and I felt like I was flying. I came in at 5:01:00. In a way I’m annoyed at that one minute. But I also know, if I’d done something to lose that one minute, my race wouldn’t have been the same. And I can honestly say I loved every single one of those 301 minutes.

I finished feeling strong, proud and happy.

That is all I could ever have wished for.