Couch To 26.2 Miles – Six Lessons From My First Ever Marathon

Anyone can be a 'runner' – as long as you stay focused and put the work in. Here's what you should know before you start.
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“Oh, I didn’t realise you were a runner.”

That’s what people said to me when I told them I’d signed up for the London Marathon in October 2019. I didn’t like it. What makes someone a ‘runner’?

I wasn’t a pro, by any means. I’d done some running: I’d joined a few parkruns that summer – and before that, I’d only run in school (and hated it). So when people gave me that response, I thought best not to clarify how little I’d run before. I also hid the fact I didn’t own any of the right gear – especially shoes. I definitely needed to buy shoes.

“It doesn’t matter!” I defensively declared. “I’ll train. It’ll be just like couch to 5k, but a bit further!” Cue blank faces, concerned expressions, worried looks – and some manic Googling (from me).

Hours later, I emerged from a rabbit hole of gait analysis, isotonic gel reviews and graphic toenail funerals – and felt like I might have underestimated what lay ahead. Perhaps this was a bigger deal that I’d originally thought. Perhaps I wasn’t a runner.

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That was a year ago. But now, I smugly look back on that moment and know my instinct that the concept of a ‘runner’ is flawed. Anyone can be one – as long as you stay focused and put the work in, you can do it. Because I did.

I recently ran the London Marathon. No, surprisingly not with the elite runners in St James’ Park. I was one of 43,000 people taking part virtually across the UK and internationally.

The pandemic pushed the original April 2019 date back to October, then again a full year to 2021. Runners with or without a place were invited to still complete the mileage on the day. And I knew straight away I wanted to do it – to be a part of something unique and actually achieve something I set out to do in 2020.

I’ve learned a lot over the past year about running, motivation, mental health and myself – horribly cheesy, but true. I certainly don’t know it all but I’ve come a long way and I hope to go even further.

Here are six lessons learned from someone who basically went from couch to 26.2 miles.

1. Not every run will be fun. Not even close.

Some days I’d feel exhausted after barely getting out the door. I’d be too hot, too cold, too wet (especially on marathon day, nice one Storm Alex), tired, drained, frustrated, fragile – sometimes all at once. Other days, I’d feel like I was gliding along gracefully without a care in the world.

Maybe it’s too obvious to say each run has its ups and downs, but my advice? Try and turn them into learnings. I found it mentally reassuring to accept this will happen – so prepare for it, and be prepared to push past it.

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2. You often need to quiet your inner critic.

Socially distance yourself from the voice in your head that will chip away at your motivation. Yes, you can do it; no, you don’t need to stop; pfft, you don’t look silly. This is especially relevant on the day – virtual or otherwise.

Nick Anderson, who works for Running With Us, Cancer Research UK’s Official London Marathon coach, pointed out an unexpected benefit of the lack of a start line this year: “It took the pressure of there being 40,000 people you think might be fitter than you.” Next year, I’ll try to make sure I think the same way.

3. Injuries should be taken seriously.

A fond memory from the early days of training is scoffing at the idea I might injure myself. Turns out, going from ‘Not Much Running’ to ‘Quite A Bit Of Running’ can be a shock to the system. I rolled my ankle in December – it was nothing serious and I was lucky to see a physio, but it put my training back a few weeks.

Many common injuries are down to bad form or from taking on too much too soon (guilty, on both counts). There’s plenty of useful and reliable videos, exercises and tips online to better educate yourself and hopefully avoid this.

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4. Planning how you’ll refuel can be overwhelming but worthwhile.

Pre- and post-run nutrition requires some planning, but what you take during a run is a whole other level. There are so many products out there – from gels to sweets to powders. At first, I wasn’t even sure how necessary they were, but having tried and tested a few (recommended, so you see what you can stomach) I realised how helpful they were. Now, I wouldn’t be without them.

The key is to consume before you feel like you need to and at regular intervals. Anderson advised every 30-45 minutes, or every four miles. For me, squeezy gel sachets worked perfectly. For others they can cause a different type of, ahem, running.

5. Running with others helps you break down what’s ahead.

The merits of running groups are well documented, and I can see why. Of course, it can be good to get out on your own and see how you do, without the distraction of someone to chat to. But I found running in a small group was the best way for me to practise pacing, make the long-runs seem less daunting. Plus, it ensured I actually got myself out the door as the nights got darker and colder.

I ran the virtual marathon with my friend in Cornwall – and it really did make the whole experience 10 times more enjoyable.

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6. You’ll continually surprise yourself.

My training was going well until the lockdown, when it dropped off a cliff. I never stopped completely, part of me clinging onto the idea it might still go ahead. And I surprised myself with how keen I was to run 26.2 miles with no supporters, atmosphere or fanfare.

There’s no denying it wasn’t the same as the real thing, but I took full advantage of the opportunities I suddenly had. Not stressing about time? Stop and soak up the surroundings. About to run six miles head-on into a storm? Sit in a warm car and psyche yourself up to finish.

I knew training for the London Marathon would be draining under normal circumstances – never mind through a global pandemic. And it may not have worked out the way I expected, but I feel extremely fortunate to have been healthy enough to finish it safely. Here’s hoping things are brighter next year, in every sense (seriously, no more storms).

Covid-19 put Cancer Research UK’s life-saving research on pause. To help the charity get back on track to continue its vital work visit