The pleasure and pain of a marathon challenge

By Anna Hood

Anna Hood tells her story of how she ran 12 half-marathons in six months.

Anna Hood set herself a goal that became a journey of discovery. Photo / Doug Sherring
Anna Hood set herself a goal that became a journey of discovery. Photo / Doug Sherring

2012. For me this year was to be a game changer. It was time to take a gamble, do things differently, give myself challenges, change my regular behaviour and see what happened.

I started with a sober New Year's Day, a novelty for me. I went for a run in the morning and then to the beach to write my goals. There were many, big and small, but one in particular was to raise $5000 for a Cambodian guide, Samnang Thang. Samnang takes tourists through the Angkor Wat temples, just out of Siem Reap and in his time off teaches people in his village - 90 per cent of whom have no education - how to speak and write English. I met him on a trip through Cambodia, and we had kept in touch. I wanted to help him buy school supplies for his village, pay fees for his own education and also buy a motorbike so he could easily commute from his work as a guide to university for study and back to his village to teach.

And how was I going to do this? Short of raffling off all my worldly goods and spending weekends sausage sizzling, I thought I would run.

Run a lot. I set a goal or running 12 half marathons in six months and I would ask friends and family to sponsor me on my journey.

As soon as I said it out loud I knew I was in trouble. I was now committed but was I confident I could achieve it? Hell no.

Yes, I had run for fitness before and completed three half-marathons and struggled through the Auckland Marathon in 2010, but I am by no means one of those long-limbed people who has run since they could walk. Would I have time to do it? Would I physically be able to do it? Would I be able to say "no" to drinks in favour of going for a jog?

There was only one way to find out and it was time to start booking some flights.
January 14 rolled around fast and as my goal had been set rather spontaneously, some would say I was under prepared. The longest distance I had run for two months leading up to this first half-marathon was 7km. I was terrified I was going to fail on my first run. Adding to my worry was that I'd organised four half-marathons in the space of a month to fit around weddings and work events. It would be initiation by fire.

Nelson, half-marathon number one, was kind to me. It was a beautiful day, the course was relatively flat and took a glorious route along a river. I met some great people while running and although I was nervous during the first few kilometres, once I reached 15km I was feeling confident. Afterwards I was elated; my first one done.

I was and probably will always be nervous before a run. You just never know how you're going to feel, no matter how prepared you think you are. Some runs are amazing and you feel like you're flying; other times they're a grind.

By February 12, I had completed more runs in Lower Hutt, Pukekohe and New Plymouth.

I quickly came to love my weekends out of town, meeting new people and seeing new places. Each run offered a new but incredible atmosphere. A bunch of runners of different abilities get up early to achieve a goal, whether it's a personal best time or just finishing. Could I pick favourites? A highlight was the bag of lettuce, potatoes and onions each finisher received in Pukekohe. I was living the country dream! The waterfront course in New Plymouth was spectacular, and running to the finish beside the lake in Wanaka was incredible. Wanaka was my favourite; it was a beautiful course from the Cardrona Pub down into Wanaka. I met some great people along the way and as it was a gradual downhill course so I achieved my personal best time. I also had a bunch of friends with me in Queenstown so could celebrate with some guilt-free wines.

There wasn't one run in my whole journey when it rained. I thought the sun was shining over me, all I needed to do was stay healthy and injury-free.

As time passed I became more focused. The consistent sense of achievement gave me confidence not only in my running ability but in the rest of my life, and I had increased clarity about who I was and who I wanted to be.

I was aware I was becoming the boring friend who always seemed to be running. Not only did I seem to be turning down endless drinks and party invitations but, when I did go out, I was often reluctant to tell people what I was up to for fear they would think I was nuts. And many did. Not until about run number seven did I feel confident I could achieve this goal and was open to telling people what I was doing and why.

I ticked them off - Auckland Cathay Pacific Half, Coatesville Half, Wanaka Southern Lakes Half, it was all going swimmingly and then, my Everest. Number eight, Tauranga. To be honest, none of the halves was easy, some were more enjoyable than others but there had been moments when those last couple of kilometres felt like f.o.r.e.v.e.r. and only sheer stubbornness kept me from cruising to a walk and strolling to the end.

Tauranga was awful. Everyone has a bad day and this was mine. I could have stopped after 2km, I hated it. Was I running? It felt like shuffling and every part of me hurt from my head to my feet. To keep going for another 19km when I would rather have the St John Ambulance come and rescue me was beyond hard. The only thing that kept me going was telling myself "This is when I am learning something, surely it must be the bad runs that make you stronger and able to push yourself further". When I finished I was emotionally and physically exhausted.

For two days after I could barely walk, all I could manage was work and sleep and worry. I had decided to try for the Gold Coast marathon on July 1 so this was not ideal preparation. Had I done too much too soon? Were my muscles going to repair in time for me to do the necessary training? Had I blown it by having too many drinks in my off weekends. Was I done?

What I did learn is that with an incredible massage from an expert in hellerwork therapy, and some early nights, muscles do repair. In the week after Tauranga
I told myself I had to stick to my marathon plan, which meant clocking up 63km, including a 25km run on the Sunday. Slowly but surely, in no great style, I did it and two weeks later I completed number nine of 12, the Rotorua half marathon. I enjoyed it, too, which felt like a miracle.

From that stage I decided to take the running thing a bit more seriously. More early nights than late ones, more electrolytes than wine and more sports massages. I started to feel stronger. I was running 30km easily and even if I got home from a work event at 11pm I would slip on my running shoes and head out for a midnight run, just me and the local cats out on the streets. I was loving it and my hill training route became my favourite run.

My number 10 in the vineyards in Blenheim was spectacular, and number 11 in Huntly was simply another pleasant jaunt.

When I returned home the Sunday afternoon after Huntly I leaped up the stairs, I was on a high. Eleven half marathons completed in four months. Just one more to go. For the first time I believed I was going to get to my long-awaited finish line and take a sip of the Dom Perignon that had been sitting in the fridge since the beginning of the year.

Then my own personal tragedy struck. The next morning I got up as I usually did, at 6am in the dark and cold, for a little 5km recovery run. I jogged out the door but never found my stride. After a kilometre my left foot was in extreme pain. I loosened my shoe and kept running, thinking it was just another little niggle I could run through. After another kilometre I gave up, the pain was serious and it was time to be sensible and hobble home.

I had some x-rays, nothing showed up. I got some crutches and a moon boot and hobbled around the office. Every morning I woke up expecting to be able to walk properly but each time my foot collapsed beneath me. I would be lying if I didn't tell you I had a couple of pity parties for one, as I felt my dream falling away from me. There were tears.

After three weeks of trying to remain positive, lying on the couch all weekend, having physio treatment for a suspected soft tissue injury, aqua jogging for two hours at a time to remain fit and strong and watching documentaries about marathoners, I went for an MRI.

I needed to know once and for all what was going on.

The good news was I finally had a diagnosis. The bad news was it was a stress fracture and I should be off my foot for at least a month. But I had a half marathon to run in two weeks and the Gold Coast marathon in five weeks ... The past few months were flashing before my eyes - had it all been a waste, all those nights in while friends were out, all those sodas when everyone else was drinking wine, all those early mornings pounding the pavements? I had put myself out there, asked people to sponsor me and I wasn't going to be able to complete the journey. I felt humiliated.

I didn't know how I could resolve myself to a feeling of failure if I didn't achieve my goal. Two podiatrists and an orthopaedic surgeon later I realised that was it for now. I wouldn't be going for a walk, let alone a run for another eight weeks. I was devastated.

I was confined to a pool for exercise. Life slowed down. I was used to running, now walking was a struggle and I moved at what felt like a snail's pace in the pool. I tried to remind myself that everything has a silver lining, I just didn't know what it was yet. I also needed to let my supporters know what had happened but didn't know what to say.

I tried to focus on the bigger picture. I was healthy, I would run again, this is part of life's roller coaster and part of taking risks. I got over the disappointment and started planning for when I could run again. I also worked out that if I counted back from the Huntly run, I had already achieved 12 half marathons in six months and one day by including the Kerikeri half marathon I ran in November 2011. I liked that.

It's true what they say, it's the journey not the destination. I learned so much about myself over those few months; going after that goal was one of the best things I have done. I saw more of my country than I have in years and I knew what my priorities were and what I wanted to achieve. When I was in the middle of my running and friends asked me how I did it, I said there are many things that I have regretted in life but while it is hard to get out the door sometimes, I never regret going for a run. I had grown up in a community and with friends whose hobby is socialising. We do it well and, yes, we have great times, but between work and going out for drinks I have often been left wanting. I wanted to find "my things" - the hobbies, sports and activities that make me happy and make me, me. Running is one of those things.

Do I regret going for that run that morning? No.

I learned more from getting through that injury than I would have from crossing the final line, and I learned that failing is okay. Once I got my head around it, I realised I had still achieved something I could be proud of. Just by putting myself out there and giving it a go I had gained confidence from taking a risk.

I didn't know if I could achieve what I set out to, whether I was capable, but I gave it my best shot. My task taught me about delayed gratification. I would still go out for a drink and meet up with friends but that happened after going for my run. I felt more in control of my life. I had often found myself doing what others wanted me to do, so it was great to have this project and be able to say "no" and put myself first.

There have been many positive side effects from my increased confidence and clarity. I realised how I wanted to spend my life. I have purchased a house, I am now a director in my own business, I have a new passion for aqua jogging which I would have never foreseen, and I know that a few months out of the Auckland social scene is okay. It's still there when the running is over and it's even more fun now because I feel I deserve it. There's nothing like a beverage in the sun after a long run and it is even more rewarding after crossing 12 finish lines.

Why did I get the stress fracture? No one can tell me but I'll be going to a podiatrist before I start long runs again.

I am now planning my next marathon, New York City 2013, where I will run for Rod Dixon's NZ KiDSMARATHON.

I managed half of my fundraising goal for Samnang Thang. Every cent will go a long way to improving his life and those of people in his village.

My tips for starting a running routine and sticking to it:

* Set a goal with a timeline to reach it. Sometimes your health isn't quite the driver it needs to be to kick you out the door.

* Try to eat well and drink less. I am guilty of thinking a couple of beers the night before a run is a good way to carbo load but alas I found that the better I ate and drank the easier it was to get going.

* Coconut water - all natural, no sugar, added electrolytes. Genius.

* Find a breakfast that works for you before a long run. Experiment a little.

* When you start running routes of more than 21km, drop off drink bottles around the course so you're always hydrated (don't forget to collect them afterwards!)

* Be kind to yourself. Sometimes getting up in the morning or getting to your run after work is too hard. You are allowed days off. It won't ruin your plan.

- Herald on Sunday

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n1 at 20 Apr 2014 11:15:14 Processing Time: 642ms