As I parked outside the hotel to unload our luggage, I was aware of a rather disappointed looking figure in a wedding dress staring at me. What had I done?
I looked at the entrance to see another bride looking equally disappointed. Had I innocently stumbled into a jilted women’s convention? Then I noticed the photographer. I’d inadvertently driven the car right up to the entrance and ruined the intended wedding photos. I reversed the car gently out of shot and gave the first bride a thumbs up. She smiled and returned the gesture.
Yes, two brides. We were in Brighton, a week after the first same sex marriage in the UK – where else would you expect to see one? Brighton is the UK’s answer to San Francisco, with a large homosexual community and the only Green Party MP in the country. Brighton does things in its own way and makes it work.
We were staying in The Grand Hotel, one of the most prestigious venues in the city. Lady Barton St Mary and I lived in Brighton when we were students. My everlasting memory of The Grand was standing outside it in a crowd with thousands of mineworkers, with a cordon of London’s finest Metropolitan Police protecting Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet members from any interference. As the miners shouted their protests at the curtained windows of the hotel and the front line of officers lightly kicked the protestors in the shins to elicit a reaction,we vowed that one day we would return and stay there.
Now here we were, in the lobby of The Grand, with a grand piano and a huge reception area and bar, tastefully decorated and, well, grand. The immense staircase, with a huge glass dome seven floors up that can be seen from the ground floor.
I imagined the corpulent figures of those politicians years ago, reclining on sofas whilst chaos reigned outside. I chuckled to myself, thinking of those photographs of liberators in Iraq, standing, smiling, posing, in one of Saddam Hussain’s palaces, amused at my overdramatic comparison.
We had booked room with a sea view on that seventh floor, looking out at the desolate skeleton of The West Pier. I could remember what it was like 30 years ago, closed even then, a tired but historic relic, waiting for somebody to restore it to former glory. Arson had ensured this would never happen.
But I had returned for a specific reason, to run in The Brighton Marathon. Outside, workers in luminous jackets were busy erecting steel barriers to hold back the crowds and it all started to feel very real.
Lady Fairfield, Young Mr Raggett, Miss Lucy, Miss Mia and Nanny Janet were also staying at the hotel. They wanted to go to Pizza Hut, so we arranged to see them later, preferring to eat in Brown’s, the restaurant on Duke Street.
“Have you been here before?” asked our waitress.
“Actually, I haven’t, but my wife has,” I replied, looking at Lady Barton St Mary.
“When was that?” enquired the waitress.
“I think it was in 1982,” Lady BSM offered.
Saturday saw another parting of the ways for our group. Nobody else seemed remotely interested in attending the running exhibition at The Brighton Centre, so I went alone. It was here I collected my race number, had a chat with the Cancer Research support team and met the pacers. There were also motivational talks.
“Tomorrow, as you pass by here, the crowd will be immense; if you’re wearing your name on your vest, everybody will shout it out. You will feel like a superstar.”
I could feel the excitement build and the emotions rise inside me. What would I be like tomorrow? My mobile phone rang.
“Where are you? We’re on the pier now,” said Lady BSM.
“I’m still at the expo,” I explained, not realising I’d spent 2 hours looking around.
“You’re still in there? How long does it take to look at running things?” she laughed.
The pier was fun. There was a Deal or No Deal game, which proved to be a winner with Young Mr Raggett, marching off with the top prize – I never found out whether he claimed his giant inflatable hammer; another memory of my dad breaking an antique gaming machine and running away (see previous blog); a helter skelter ride and a spin on The House of Horror, where Miss Mia and I tried our best to scare and be scared.
We all gathered for an evening meal in the hotel restaurant. It felt to me like a celebratory event, the calm before the storm. Tomorrow I would run further than I had ever ran before, hoping for a sub 4 hour finish. We returned to our room at 10 pm – 10pm! On a Saturday night! In Brighton!
I prepared my kit, had a final look at Facebook, appreciated all the good luck messages I had received and tried to sleep. Finally it came, accompanied by a dream about turning up at the start line to find everybody else had started half an hour ago, but if I could swim across the river that had formed across Preston Park I could still take part. The Sexton and Steeley were there, dismantling the start and flirting with Paula Radcliffe.
“Pillock,” said The Sexton, laughing heartily.
I was in the breakfast room at 7.00am, then back to the room for last minute preparations. I walked out of The Grand into the greyness of the day, immediately covered in a coat of fine, misty rain, a two mile walk to the start of the race. It appeared my dream wouldn’t become reality, but I decided to follow the man in the MacMillan Trust running top just in case. He slowed down and I caught him up.
“Is this the right way to the start?” he asked.
“I believe so,” I answered, feeling confident that I did. I may not have lived here for 30 years, but I was sure I could find Preston Park.
As we walked together, the immense task that lie ahead bonded us. The MacMillan runner was called John Miller. John worked in social housing, was an amateur boxer and had decided to try and run a marathon. He’d done all the training but was still nervous. At this point, I made a terrible realisation. I’d left my bum bag containing the photographs I intended to carry around the course back at the hotel. This had been an important part of the race for me; I could hear the speaker at the expo explaining how something wouldn’t go to plan on the day; The Sexton’s laughing face and image in my mind. You pillock.
I explained my predicament to John, who handed me his mobile phone. Lady BSM arranged for somebody to pass me the bag at mile 13, outside The Grand. Thank you, John Miller, 4167. We shook hands in Preston Park, wishing each other good luck.
(I checked later to discover John finished in 5hrs 15mins 41 secs – his next fight is in Bethnal Green in September).
So to the start of the race and the inevitable wait. Trying to focus. Staring at Paula Radcliffe, a tiny waif of a woman, who was capable of running over 26 miles faster than any other human being in 2003. The hooter sounded, we were off, but it still took 5 minutes to reach the start line. I looked up to see Paula smiling down at us, hand raised. I high fived her as I ran past – I high fived Paula Radcliffe; but then so did so many thousand other people, poor girl.
As we ran the first mile around the park, I realised we were in Preston Drove. I lived there as a second year student with three other flatmates. Lady BSM used to visit regularly, when I did my best not to show how much I fancied her. As we approached the end of the road, dozens of male runners rushed to the bushes for a pee. I imagined the 20 year old me, sitting on a bench in a leather biker jacket and red trousers, with a bottle of Pilsner and a roll up, shaking my head at these losers.
Down towards the seafront, the crowds grew.
“Come on, Rob!” somebody shouted encouragingly. I raised my hand and said thank you. Ten seconds later, another encouraging call. Throughout the race, I looked at the faces in the crowd, smiling back at me and shouting my name. Incredible.
A parade of vintage scooters driven by vintage mods passed in the opposite direction, followed by a line of mini cars, all tooting their horns. I’d been in organised runs before, but this was something else. I tried my best to keep a good pace, hoping to catch the 4 hour pacer. The route out to Ovingdean meant the crowd thinned out – again, a cheer went up from the runners as we caught a fleeting glimpse of the elite runners gliding back into town. A little bit later, I saw the 4 hour pacer pass by on the route back and calculated that I was a couple of minutes behind him, but t my present pace, I would be catching him at 11 miles.
Sure enough, at mile 11, there he was. Just stay with him, Rob, a voice said. But no. Let’s get ahead of him, I thought. Just a little, then my time will be well under 4 hours.
The approach onto the promenade was awesome. There was the pier, the streets lined with thousands and thousands of people, all smiling, all cheering, the trademark positivity and encouragement of Brighton more than evident.
“Go on, Rob!” somebody shouted. There was Chris and Laura, Sue’s daughter, smiling at me, a happy, huge smile, just like her mother’s. They’d made it on the train from London, just to watch me run past for a few fleeting seconds. I gave them my best wave, shouted ‘Hello! Thank you!” and pressed onwards.
There was The Grand Hotel, with Young Mr Raggett stretched over the barrier with my bag. I smiled and waved, took my bag, dropped it, picked it up and carried on. A fleeting glimpse of your loved ones after nearly 2 hours means more than you can imagine.
Off out towards Hove, onto urban streets, all lined by residents, bands, a Gospel Choir, music blaring, people waving, holding placards, shouting my name, “Go on Rob! Looking good! Keep going! Nearly there!”
All of this was becoming a rather bizarre dream. Without the river or mocking Sexton.
I approached the road to the power station, the section of the race known as ‘the road to hell.” I didn’t know that at the time, thank goodness. At mile 20, I felt good, but my knee brace had loosened and was falling below my knee. I stopped and readjusted it as quickly as possible, knowing that any lack of motion could lead to me seizing up. Mile 21 and 22 passed, only 4 miles to go. Just a short training run around the block, I told myself. Stay positive. I glanced at my watch. 3 hours, 18 minutes. I could finish this race with a time of 3hours 50minutes!
I pressed on, mile 23 completed. It was at mile 24, when everything seemed perfect, when lactic acid took over. Suddenly, my right calf and foot seized up in agonising pain. I tried to drag my leg behind me, but remembered the advice from the expo. I stepped to the edge of the road and stretched my leg, desperately trying to get some feeling of normality.
After 5 minutes, I was back on track, turning into the cacophony of noise from the crowds on the promenade once more. I opened my bag, pulled out the photos of my parents and Sue, holding them high above my head.
The crowd roared its approval, thousands shouting encouragement and I was revitalised. I had to make it in under 4 hours. The pacer had overtaken me, I had tried in vain to catch him, but no joy. I persevered as the man from Channel 4 TV appeared with a cameraman to interview me ; yes, I had enjoyed it, the crowds were amazing, it was all worth it, this is for Albert and Cis and Sue… then the home straight, unbelievably, inexorably long, like a bad dream – would the finish line ever appear? Then I was there, over the line, finished. I stumbled about until a very kind man in an orange jacket put his arm around me. Was I OK? he asked – You’ve done very well, excellent, you should be proud of yourself. With a brief hug he was gone.
I could hardly walk. I glanced at my watch. 3 hours, 59 minutes, 57 seconds. I’d succeeded with 3 seconds to spare.
It took me 45 minutes to reach the race village, where Lady BSM and Young Mr Raggett waited for me. I could feel the emotions rising. I still couldn’t walk properly and Young Mr Raggett gallantly offered to carry my minging body back to the hotel to meet Sue’s daughter Laura, her husband Chris and family. I had to refuse the offer, since all my internal organs felt a bit loose.
It took an hour to return – by The Brighton Centre, I saw a familiar face – Maria, who had run The London Marathon the year before, had travelled to Brighton to support me. A wonderful surprise.
Then onto The Brighton Metropole, where I finally met up with Laura and the emotions were released, tears coming too easily. We hugged each other for a long time, a young lady I’d met a handful of times, remembering her mother and my friend.
Then it was time for photos and more hugs, a welcome massage and some coffee. My family and friends gave me one last embrace and made their departures, leaving me to return to The Grand with Lady BSM.
Was it worth it? All the training runs in the dark, the rain, the cold? Getting up early on Sunday mornings? Watching my diet, avoiding alcohol, doing sit ups and planks and other core exercises? Dealing with aches and pains, blisters, blackened toenails?
Yes. Yes it was. To run through the place where I met the love of my life, being supported by thousands of strangers as well as my loved ones, was a lifetime experience.
More importantly, I’d raised some money for a charity dear to my heart.
Would I do it again?
If it wasn’t for the cramp, could I get under 3hours 55minutes???
Maybe I could…