Setting your sights on a marathon in the new year? Here’s how our David O’Neill coped on his debut

MCHG  12-848  Marathon runner and Hemel Hempstead Gazette reporter David O'Neill.
MCHG 12-848 Marathon runner and Hemel Hempstead Gazette reporter David O'Neill.

I’ve been running as a hobby for almost two years, and you can track my progress through two Gaddesden Gallops.

The first time I joined the field, I crawled around the 10km circular course between Little Gaddesden and Nettleden in 66 minutes, trailing behind most of the field.

In the second, earlier this year, I sped round in 50mins 20secs, coming 20th out of 113 – it almost made the weeks I then spent recovering from a knee injury worthwhile.

But there’s a big difference between a friendly 10km event and a full marathon – believe me, I know.

If you’ve got a place in one of the big 2013 marathon events, well done – but if it’s your first time, what are you letting yourself in for?

My marathon debut came in the Amsterdam event, which is not one of the big ones. Without the TV cameras of the world trained on my progress, what was the draw?

Since I began long-distance running, it’s led to injuries in my right shin, the left side of my hip and in both knees.

I’ve had to fork out on physio and sports massage appointments to sort them out, and learned the names of many new conditions I never even knew existed.

They’re mostly caused by the repetitive pounding of the feet and legs on hard surfaces, and are a part of life for most long-distance runners.

Shin splints, runner’s knee, iliotibial band syndrome – I’ve had them all. My own personal favourite is one runners call black toenail – where you pummel your feet with so much punishment that your toenail goes black and then falls off. Nice.

It’s happened twice to the second-biggest toe on my left foot.

I was tempted to create a souvenir necklace while I was waiting for a new one to grow back, but decided against it on grounds of taste.

But let’s look at the positives. I can now run much further without stopping – and in a much faster time.

Each run pumps endorphins around the body – making you feel good for a long time afterwards.

It also helps keep you fit, of course, and if you sign up to your local running club, it’s a great way to socialise, too.

Friends prefer to spend their time locked into the TV and video games.

I’d much rather go for a long run, and see and hear the real world around me, undiluted by second-rate acting, unrealistic plots, or dizzying computer graphics.

It’s a great way to discover areas that you never even knew existed, either on rural footpaths or the alleys and back-roads of urban Hemel Hempstead.

And everyone loves a challenge, so when you’ve done that why not keep running until you reach the point where you feel like you’re about to pass out?

That’s just how I felt after completing the 17th mile of the Amsterdam Marathon back in October.

But that’s OK, because they had pit-stops where pieces of banana and cups of water and sports drink were handed out to those slogging around the course.

It’s amazing how much the human body works like a F1 car. After a few pit stop refreshments, I had the burst of energy and I felt as good as I had done at least five miles before I’d reached that point.

I wasn’t able to keep running at the consistent nine-minute-miles I had done up to then, but I was able to continue running.

A lot more people were overtaking me, but it still felt great.

I had a brief walk after 20 miles – but it felt awful as masses of people rushed ahead of me, so I barely stopped from then on, despite the fatigue and pain.

Things got worse after I reached 20 miles, the distance notoriously known as ‘the wall’.

I was tackling the event in memory of the Gazette’s former Tring reporter Jonathan Saunders, who died from bone cancer in September at just 24.

I got really choked up, and felt my throat well up as I tried to stop myself from crying.

It felt like my usual emotional defence system was breaking down as the weight of all the hardship of what I was doing – and of the world – took its toll.

It became more of a mental than a physical challenge as my body fought against every natural, and quite sensible, instinct telling me to stop.

But the beauty of the Amstel River, the brass band, the calypso drummers, DJs and supportive crowds high-fiving runners as they passed kept me going to the finish line.

I’d raised £826.25 for The Willow Foundation, which funds special days out for seriously ill young adults by the end of it.

The charity had paid for Jonny and his wife Adella to have a weekend trip to Edinburgh in his final days.

It feels worthwhile looking back, after all the money has been collected and donated, but crossing the finish line in Amsterdam’s Olympic Stadium was at the time a bit of an anti-climax.

I’d gotten around the course in 4hrs 15mins – a handsome quarter of an hour within the target I’d set myself.

But I didn’t feel as triumphant as I’d expected to feel. In fact, I felt like asking: “Is this it?”

I wondered what all those months of training had been for.

For months, I had been running until I was panting, pale in the face, sweat-drenched and just about ready to pass out, as normal people walked passed me with their bags of shopping from Tesco – or walking the dog.

The challenge was over – but without anything else to work towards, I felt strangely empty.

At that point, I just wanted a curry and some beer, after touching neither for far too long.

I headed for the nearest pub and, over a glass of Amstel, started thinking...about which marathon I would do next.