Blood, Sweat and Spirit

Why would you do it? Train for months, neglect your family – and all to run 26 miles of pure agony. Because therein lies life, says Julie Welch.

(This article was first published in the Independent on Sunday on 16 January 2000. It is reproduced here on the Serpentine website by kind permission of Julie Welch. Julie is also the author of "26.2: Running the London Marathon", a book about a number of people's experiences of the London marathon. It was published by Yellow Jersey Press and is available 'used' on Amazon).

I got it before Christmas, a bug, a virus that I've had every year for the past four. It's caused by the same thing every time – the arrival through the letter box of a rather dull-looking envelope that nearly goes in the bin with other junk mail until I realise what it contains: hope, pain, magic, rage, fantasy, disappointment, exhaustion and rapture.

I've got a place in the London Marathon again.

I know the symptoms, the cause of the disease. I will get concrete-hard calluses on my heels, blackened toenails, metatarsals that crack like dry twigs when I step out of bed in the morning. Between now and 16 April I will go off-line socially, all my spare hours spent running, my conversation pared down to training schedules or whether to go for motion control shoes or cushioned. No one will ask me anywhere because I will have become a running bore. And I won't only be boring, I'll look weird. Running apparel is functional, not alluring. I'll spend my days in thermal tops, damp T-shirts, Lycra shorts with a pattern designed by blind confetti-throwers. It's not even as though I can make a fortune from writing about my obsession. Not unless the market picks up for self-help manuals about Middle-Aged Women Who Love Running Marathons Too Much, or The Little Book Of Isotonic Drinks.

I will lose touch with my sons, my family. I will only go around with other people training for the London Marathon, lovely people who would never cross my path if it wasn't for running: midwives, quantity surveyors, recovered drug addicts, telephone engineers, proprietors of ironing service companies, jobbing gardeners, singers in girl bands. At this time of year they are soul mates, comrades in arms, the only people I want to see, the only ones who can understand my fixations.

Above all, in the coming three months, I will be chasing my nirvana – the sub-four-hour marathon. Every year is the year I'm going to run sub-four. Twenty-six miles in less than four hours – it's not much to ask. Given a strong heart, youth and a bit of determination, a beginner can do it. OK, I'm half a century old, but my friend Max won't see 70 again and he gets depressed if he isn't through the finish line and into his tin-foil blanket in time for lunch. And to put his 3hrs 30mins in perspective, whoever wins London 2000 could be home and dry in not much more than 2hrs 7mins.

But I come to the marathon from a background of almost awesome unathleticism. My sole track triumph at school was in the obstacle race when I was seven (I seem to remember there was a heavy drop-out rate in the starting line-up due to German measles). For a good 15 years of my adult life I smoked 40 cigarettes a day, went everywhere by taxi and was proud of my ability to consume my 21 weekly units of alcohol in a single lunchtime. When I was 40, I couldn't run upstairs, let alone 26.2 miles. On a scale of fat blobbiness, I was definitely at the Pavarotti end.

Now I'm fit, strong and hardy, but much good will it do me when it comes to standing on the start line in Greenwich Park this April. Last year I did 20-mile training runs every Sunday through March, flung myself resolutely into speedwork sessions, had gait analysis, renounced booze, embraced pasta. Then I went out and ran London in a time of such humiliating extenuation that the winners would have been able to go round twice, and then jogged over to the Ritz to blow some of the winnings on tea.

The thing is, I'm just not shaped like a runner. My legs are short and my frame is dumpy. My style is idiosyncratic. I lean forwards, glare at the ground and pump my right arm vigorously. If ever you need to pick me out in a group of runners, I'm the one who look as though she's pushing an imaginary Hoover. It takes me eight minutes 45 seconds to run a mile. That's on a good day, a very good one. More often, we're talking something rather tennish in nature.

I've run the London Marathon three times now, so I know I can do it. Non-running friends say, "You've proved your point, so why not pack up?" Well, why don't I? In fact, the one thing I never question is why I go back again and again to this annual festival of trashed dreams, this activity that engulfs so much of my time and earns me diddly-squat, this thing that makes me red in the face and ensures that for 48 hours after every race I walk like John Wayne. It's just not possible to intellectualise about it, though just say the word and I will tell you everything about how the Marathon exposes you to all your qualities, good and bad; how a journey on foot through London mirrors life with all its glories and pitfalls; how each Marathon plunges you into a different sea of feeling – one year joy, the next fury, the next despair, the next wonder.

It must be something to do with the distance. Because of the way we are made, 26 miles is just too far to run. You can do 20 miles and feel OK afterwards. The extra six are the dark night of the soul. The physiological reason for hitting the wall is the metabolic changeover that takes place after so long on the road, when the body has used up all its reserves of glycogen and switches to burning fat. You are only wishing GBH on the runner who's just steamed past you because you're dehydrated. These seem such prosaic explanations for the psychological and emotional battering that takes place in the last few miles, pushing yourself to put one foot in front of the other, floundering, walking, then shambling into a run again, swept along in a current of grimacing fellow-sufferers who are all experiencing their own individual drownings. The last stage, from Limehouse to the Mall, must be one of the loneliest six miles on earth.

Shortly after my second London, when I hobbled into a smart Covent Garden restaurant for lunch with some dedicatedly sedentary friends, they sighed and sympathised and then asked, "Why do you do it?" "Because," I said, "it puts me completely in touch with my power." I know, though they were too polite to do so, that they were itching to say, "Are you mad?" Probably, in their terms, I am. I make jokes about my marathon running because if I owned up to how passionately, mystifyingly in love with it I feel people would think me gushing, hearty or, worst of all, deranged, the kind of crazy you're anxious will sit next to you on a train.

You have to run the Marathon to know what it does to you, to understand why your eyes fill up as you pass over Tower Bridge into a city free of cars, to experience – and I don't say this lightly – the almost suicidal desolation of dragging yourself from Mile 22 to Mile 24, and the sweetness of deliverance when you cross the finish line and wonderful, smiley people hang a medal round your neck and give you a white-bread cheese-and-tomato sandwich. How can you explain that it's as glorious at that minute as caviar and champagne? How do you tell someone who has never run for hours in a 30,000-strong human pack that it puts you in touch with all runners everywhere, past and present; that to run a big city marathon is to log on to the collective unconscious?

I know that a lot of club runners, the sort who clock up 60 training miles a week and effortlessly take in three marathons a year, think that London is old hat, a spent thrill, a devalued circus, not a patch on the Throgmorton Ultramarathon (or whatever). They can think what they like. I just look at the sheer numbers who turn up every year to do it, in times that range from just over two hours to nearly a day, and marvel at what the human spirit is capable of.

I used to have this dream as a child. I'm speeding away from the goal mouth at Wembley having just completed my hat-trick for Spurs in the FA Cup. I'd wake up to the sad recognition that I would be forever ruled out from such a feat not just by gender but by my stupendous lack of talent. I'll never know what it's like to hold a Centre Court crowd in the palm of my hand, or be King of the Mountains. For me and the thousands of others who line up in Greenwich on 16 April 2000, this is our chance to take part in a great sporting event.

I haven't run my sub-four marathon yet. I can't see this year will be any different from the others – not without a leg transplant, anyway. I hope it will be better than last year, when I set off too fast, drained all my reserves by Jamaica Road, and staggered up the Mall like one of the undead with the timer past 5.00. Perhaps I might barge across the line in four and a half but oddly, the more I think about it, the more I know it's unimportant. Every London Marathon so far, I've discovered something much better about myself than the fact I can run 26 miles more or less slowly – the knowledge that I can make it through, on my own.

26.2: Running the London Marathon by Julie Welch, published by Yellow Jersey Press.