Sarah Freeman: My marathon journey – via a country road

Cartoon of Sarah Freeman by Graeme Bandeira
Cartoon of Sarah Freeman by Graeme Bandeira
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IT WAS last New Year’s Eve that I made the fateful decision. At some point after Auld Lang Syne had been sung, and just before our usual game of tequila slammer Trivial Pursuit, I announced that I was going to run a marathon.

I don’t remember whether anyone there that night believed me, but they would have had good reason not to. I’m not even sure if I believed it myself.

But on Sunday morning, I will be on the start line of the Plusnet Yorkshire Marathon.

I suspect I will be nervous, terrified even, but when I look back on the last 10 months, it’s also been life-changing – brilliantly and amazingly life-changing.

You see, I’m not a natural long-distance runner.

A few years ago when I ran my first Great North Run, I stopped smoking the week before and it was no more than an hour after crossing the finishing line before I lit up again.

I’d tried to give up countless times. I’d used patches, had hypnotherapy, read self-help books, but it was no good. Marlboro Lights were my abusive lover and each time I would rip off the patch, hide the book under the bed and beg them to take me back.

Suddenly, and unexpectedly, I stopped enjoying smoking. I no longer liked the way it made me feel when I woke up and I didn’t like how I planned my days around my next fix. I quit three years ago while on holiday in Italy where smoking still remains compulsory for the over-fives. It was the easiest thing I have ever done.

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But there was another demon in the wings, another reason why I wanted to run the marathon. I come from a long line of committed and accomplished drinkers. My Dad liked a drink. So did his brother. It was something they’d inherited from their own father, along with a peculiarly large second toe and bad teeth.

Dad wasn’t a vodka-bottle-in-the-top-drawer kind of drinker. In fact, I don’t think I ever saw him drunk, he never passed out (he liked it too much to forget a drop) and didn’t suffer hangovers. He was kind, loving and funny, but he also never missed a night in the pub. The same at lunchtimes if he wasn’t at work. When he died suddenly just a few days before his 60th birthday, it wasn’t all to do with drink. He’d suffered an aneurysm, but we all knew that he would probably have been able to claim his pension if he had heeded the doctor’s advice a few years earlier to cut down on his alcohol intake. He would also have seen me graduate and when I got married I wouldn’t have needed my brother to walk me down the aisle.

I don’t drink like Dad. I can give up alcohol in January without difficulty, I don’t mind being the designated driver and it’s some years since I was able to spend week-nights down the pub. But that glass of wine, which turned into two, three and sometimes four, had become a regular occurrence and there was something at the bottom of each glass, something in my DNA that made me all too aware that I could become my father’s daughter.

There was also a landmark birthday. My decision to run a marathon came six months after turning 40, six months after discovering that I was the heaviest I had ever been, six months after realising that I hadn’t been able to halt the ageing process. And so I started running. Seriously running.

The training app I downloaded in May tells me I have completed 557 miles (it doesn’t record the number of boiled eggs I’ve eaten, but I supsect it’s about the same). Some of them have been gloriously easy. Some have made me want to weep. For a while my legs refused to go beyond 12 miles. I tried different routes in an effort to outwit them, but each time they found me out.

Eventually though they realised resistance was futile and a couple of weeks ago I made it to 20 miles. Without stopping. I have run in the pouring rain and the blazing heat, I have dodged lunatic dogs and narrowly avoided stepping on hedgehogs and small children with scooters. I have spent most Sunday afternoons with hot water bottles strapped to my thighs and along the way I have also learnt a few things.

I have learnt that Johnny Cash is the perfect running partner. It’s something about those Nashville rhythms. A marathon equals four plays of his Greatest Hits album - it ends appropriately with Hurt - so not only are my thigh muscles well-developed so is my appreciation of Country & Western music.

I have learnt that however much you deny it, there is no better feeling than overtaking a fellow runner. If you can do it while not appearing out of breath, it’s even sweeter.

I have learnt that running gives you a different perspective on the place that you live. In the last 10 months, I have seen streets I never knew existed and said hello to dozens of complete strangers, including the old man who stands outside his gate for hours just to pass the time of day with whoever wanders past. I suspect it’s the only company he gets.

I have learnt that running is good for the soul. There have been times when I have had to drag myself out for a run and days when I have wanted to head back before reaching the top of the road, but I’ve never felt worse after a run, only better. Much better. Running gives you time to think and when you’ve run out of thoughts, you can just press the pause button and for a little while think absolutely nothing at all.

Every one taking part in tomorrow’s race will have a different story about what brought them there. Many will be running in memory of lost loved ones, others will be marking their own fightback from illness and, for every elite runner hoping for a personal best, there will be a hundred others for whom that race means so much more.

As someone wiser than me once said: “If you’ve lost faith in human nature, go watch a marathon.”

I don’t know how long it will take me to get round those 26.2 miles tomorrow – I’m hoping for around the four-and-a-half hour mark – but I do know that while I have lost a stone and a few inches around the waist, in the last 10 months I have gained so much more.

• Sarah Freeman is Features Editor of The Yorkshire Post. She is running in aid of Yorkshire Cancer Research. To donate, go to www.justgiving.com/Sarah-Freeman74/