From two hour jogs at 4.30am and aching knees to a radically different diet, why I'm finally ready to run that marathon
For years Belfast Telegraph Deputy Editor Jonathan McCambridge has held onto a dream that one day he might just run a marathon. Now, on May Day, he hopes that ambition will be realised... but it has taken months of gruelling preparation.
Some might say it's a mid-life crisis. Others may think it's a massive over-reaction to the first signs of the dreaded middle-age spread.
Whatever the reason, and I'm not entirely sure I can explain it myself, but I am preparing for my first marathon. In my 40s and with no significant previous experience of running, on May Day I will be taking to the streets for the daunting 26.2188 miles of the Belfast Marathon.
Or perhaps I should say, I think I will. I've definitely entered, paid the fee and I have my own running number, timing chip, energy gel and sponsorship form to prove it. The intent is definitely there.
It's just that there's a large part of me that can't quite seem to come to terms with what I've let myself in for. As if I still believe I'm going to come to my senses one day soon, order a giant pizza and balance it on my stomach as I lounge on the sofa settling instead for a marathon session of Making A Murderer on the TV.
Perhaps it's just that the idea of finishing a marathon for a non-athlete like me is just too big to contemplate. Not long ago, I would have found the idea of running four or five miles a huge challenge. The thought of 26 of them strung together? Well, that's just plain daft.
Whenever I think about it I can't get away from the realisation that it's going to hurt. It's going to hurt a lot.
Let's step back in time. About a year ago I started running as a hobby to try and improve my fitness. I vividly remember my first abortive attempt at pounding the pavements. Within two miles I had been reduced to a sweaty, stumbling, wheezing mess. Only my pride stopped me from flagging down a passing car to give me a lift home.
Despite this inauspicious beginning, I decided to stick with it. Soon I had joined the Parkrun revolution. This involves running a timed 5k in my local park every Saturday morning. Similar events take place all across the UK and are credited with improving the fitness of tens of thousands.
After a few weeks, my times started to improve and I found I was no longer being lapped by grannies out walking with their shopping trollies. Eventually I got my 5K time below 20 minutes and allowed myself to temporarily bask in the glory of a small achievement.
But it wasn't enough. Throughout my adult life I have always had a half-baked idea that some day I would finish a marathon. The thought was locked latent somewhere in my mind along with other fantastic notions, such as writing the next great Irish novel or breaking a story bigger than Watergate.
As each year passed and my waist inched outwards, I knew the chances of completing such an athletic challenge were diminishing.
But the idea refused to go away and my enjoyment of the Parkrun challenge sparked a renewed enthusiasm for exercise. I started to complete some slightly longer training runs and still felt okay. Perhaps the marathon was not so far-fetched after all?
At the end of last summer I entered a half-marathon to test myself. If I could complete 13.1 miles comfortably then I would be confident about graduating to the full distance. Looking back, I now realise I was woefully under-prepared for a competitive race.
I hadn't trained properly and didn't give any thought to how to fuel myself or pace the race. I simply made my way to the starting line and took off blissfully unaware of what lay before me.
For about eight miles I was travelling happily. Then big problems struck. It started with a crippling pain in my left calf which gradually travelled through the rest of my leg. My energy levels completely collapsed and hundreds of better prepared runners swept past me as my brisk pace was replaced by a painful hobble.
I had heard runners talk of 'hitting the wall' and I suppose this was my version of it.
I was in real distress but my innate stubbornness refused to allow me to stop. I limped to the finish line at almost walking pace determined that I would never run again. The idea of competing in a marathon was now surely nothing more than fanciful nonsense.
But over the days, my aching limbs began to heal and I went back to the comfortable and familiar Parkrun. As summer turned to autumn and then winter my annoyance that I had got the half-marathon so badly wrong grew. Against all reason I found that I still wanted to take on the 26 mile challenge; except now I vowed I would do it properly.
And so it began. In the dark, bitter days of early January I embarked on my own tailored four-month marathon training plan (it's at this point that I start hearing the music from the Rocky films in my head). Short fast runs for pace. Medium steady runs. Long slow runs for endurance. Interval training. Running up steep hills. Pilates for flexibility. ViPR (Vitality. Performance. Reconditioning) training to strengthen leg muscles.
Very slowly my ability to run long distances began to improve, but the challenges kept coming. I work long hours and have a demanding toddler son who takes up almost all of my attention away from the office. As the training became more intensive I found myself struggling to fit it all in.
The only solution was to invent new time (bear with me). I started setting my alarm earlier in the morning to squeeze in the training runs before James woke up. First to 6am. But as I got closer to race date the runs got longer. The alarm went back to 5.30am, then 5am. This week I was up at 4.30am for a two-hour jog.
The training in the black early mornings went on right through the long winter in the most horrendous of conditions - snow, ice, gale force winds and driving rain were all encountered regularly. I ran straight into the teeth of Storms Gertrude, Henry and Imogen while most sensible people were still asleep.
You can't run 30-40 miles every week without it having a big impact on your body. I have watched my arms, legs and stomach dramatically change shape. I have battled problems with aching knees, hips and calves, blisters on my feet and cracked and broken toenails. I'm not even going to talk about nipple chafing.
The everyday process of eating and drinking becomes a lot more complicated, too. The body is not equipped with enough fuel to run distances more than 20 miles. I have to ensure that I eat enough carbohydrates, so that my muscles do not exhaust their supplies of glycogen during the long training runs. That's a lot of pasta, rice, nuts, seeds and grains. This is topped up during exercise using an assortment of foul-tasting energy gels.
I drink water constantly (at least three litres a day) to keep my hydration levels stable. This ensures that I'm running to the toilet enough times in a day to convince people who sit near me at work that I have a serious problem with my bladder.
Having come this far, I am now just a month away from race day. I've bought my new trainers, a runner's watch for pace and various garish luminous yellow and green running tops. I guess I'm really going to do it.
My training programme has made me pretty confident that I can get through to about 20 miles in a reasonable state. After that it's into the unknown. The scary part is not having any idea how your body will react during those last long six miles.
I hope I can finish. I hope I can run a respectable time. People tell me the adrenalin of the day and the support of the crowd carry you through to the finish line. I've got a feeling I'm going to need all the help I can get.