Last time I posted, I wrote about my worst running memories. I have no idea why I chose to write first about the very few crappy things which have happened to me while out running. When I think about all my running memories, those hiccups are never uppermost in my mind.
When I think about my years — decades! — as a long-distance runner, I generally think of all the great things that have happened. The things which keep me pulling on my trainers even when I’m feeling down, or it’s cold outside, or the pull of the sofa is strong. Long-distance running is a tough old lark and the good memories are there to remind you that the pain and the strain are worth it.
So now, to achieve balance — three highlights from my 27-year running career.
1. The best of my running memories? Finishing my first marathon!
During my Erasmus year in Munich (2002–3), I’d started running longer and longer distances. A little later, in my first few months in Vienna in 2004 when I didn’t have a job and couldn’t afford to go to a fitness studio, running was my best option for staying fit.
My running kit was still quite basic at the time (think: cotton leggings and an old hoodie from The Gap) but a lack of synthetic fabric didn’t stop me from getting out and about in the city. By creating new, longer, hillier running routes, I got to know Vienna very well, very quickly.
Around Christmas time in 2004, I received a group email from a colleague at the law firm where I had landed a job, suggesting we put a team forward for the relay competition in the next year’s Vienna City Marathon (VCM). If we ran in the firm’s branded t-shirts, one of the partners would cover our entry fees.
I’d been playing with the idea of developing my running career by doing a full marathon for some time and this email seemed like a sign. Before I could overthink the matter, I replied to say I wanted to get involved. But could I maybe run the whole thing?
(This is a great way of forcing yourself to do stuff you’re scared of, by the way. Just say “yes”, publicise your intentions and let the resulting pressure do the work.)
The big day
With my training all done and dusted without major incident or injury, I lined up with thousands of other competitors on that sunny May morning almost 18 years ago. Never having run so far before (the longest you run in training is about 32km), I had no clue what might await me over the next 42.195 km.
But everything went swimmingly. And, with bouncy young legs that still shook injury off like snow from an overcoat, I didn’t feel any strain at all until about 36km. It was then that the course took us slightly uphill out of the Prater park to the Obere Donaustraße and back towards the city centre. Ouch — suddenly, this was hard! But I could do it. I’d long since broken the back of the race. Only six more kilometres to go.
Nevertheless — those final few kilometres back to the finish line at Heldenplatz were HARD. And they were a blur. I was so intensely focused on marshalling all my mental strength into keeping going that I only have the briefest snapshots of memories. Asking a fellow runner who had slowed to a walk if she was OK. Cheering crowds at Stubentor. Wanting to run a more efficient line on the edge of the street, but realising I was too tired to negotiate the tram lines there. Finally spying the finish line and knowing it was time to summon the last scraps of energy from my shoelaces and step up into a sprint finish.
I hadn’t set myself any specific goal as regards time, and was ecstatic to finish with a time of 3 hours 49 minutes. I remember the unbelievable feeling of relief and happiness as I collected my medal and walked through into the courtyard of the Hofburg. Buying my finisher photo later, I realised just how much effort I was expending at the time — I looked about ready to cry!
The pain was so worth it. I’d blown through all my previous boundaries of what I thought I was capable of, running-wise. Suddenly, a whole new running career full of possibility opened up to me. And I’d pocketed an achievement that no-one could ever take away. I still look at that medal with great pride.
2. Olomouc half marathon, 2018
For my half marathon weekend in Olomouc (CZ), I had bought some heavily discounted rail tickets which the Austrian Federal Rail (ÖBB) offers for early bird bookings. These “Sparschiene” tickets are super cheap, but are never direct connections. On the way to Olomouc, I had to change trains in the Czech town of Přerov.
On the train platform, I struck up a conversation with two other Austrian men who were also on their way to do the relay half marathon with some Czech colleagues. We chatted on the connecting train before saying goodbye in Olomouc.
A little later that afternoon, I ran into the same guys in the supermarket while stocking up on snacks for my customary pre-race “stuff-yer-face” fuelling programme. One of their Czech colleagues was with them.
Now, Czechs are the most hospitable people you can ever meet. While Brits would probably be quite put out by someone just swinging by their house unannounced, Czechs and Slovakians have it ingrained in them to always have their fridges stocked for the event that someone randomly drops in to say hello. It is a kind of cultural expectation that you invite them in and feed and water them.
And, clearly, this hospitality extends to random strangers you meet outside your home too. Without question or hesitation, upon learning that I was acquainted with his friends, this fellow invites me back to his house for spaghetti and apple strudel. I felt a little like a stray cat being taken off the street and into someone’s nice warm home and also like I was imposing a little…but forgot all my worries as soon as I smelled that apple strudel.
This unbelievable hospitality and unquestioning generosity makes Olomouc half marathon one of my favourite running memories. It’s also one of the reasons that the Czech Republic is one of my top travel destinations.
3. Brno half marathon, April 2019
The Other Half doesn’t run, doesn’t like running, wants nothing to do with running, and cannot understand the drive to go out and run in all weathers or sign up for a race. When I race in other cities, it’s mostly a solo getaway. And who doesn’t need a couple of those in a long-term relationship? It’s essential to have your own space sometimes and running creates that kind of space for me.
So it was a rather special occasion when TOH said he would like to accompany me on my half marathon trip to Brno in April 2019. I think the good Czech beer was the main motivation for him rather than any genuine interest in my running career. But I wasn’t going to look the proverbial gift horse in the mouth and was simply happy to have him along.
I had suffered from ankle ligament issues during training, so it felt like an achievement to have made it took the starting line at all. While the race had a good atmosphere and the Czechs were all out in force in their best sports gear (the Czechs love to go all-out on brightly-coloured, top-of-the-range sports kit), the weather was anything but splendid. The rain set in about halfway through the race and just got heavier. By the time I approached the finish line, I was soaking wet.
The last couple of km were slightly uphill (SO kind of the race organisers, there’s nothing a runner loves more than an uphill finish…NOT) so I was feeling pretty miserable and like I just wanted to get this all over with and get into some warm, dry clothes. But seeing The Other Half standing behind the barriers on the finishing straight in the pouring rain, cheering me on and looking genuinely excited to be there made a downer of a run into one of my best running memories.
Afterwards he said: “I felt SO proud of you, out there doing your thing”.
It was one of those moments that I loved him so much it hurt.