I’m weeping again. While I was writing this post yesterday I googled pictures of the London Marathon, finding scores of images showing elite runners zipping over Tower Bridge and around Parliament Square. That long swing onto Birdcage Walk in front of Buckingham Palace and down the Mall is very familiar. I’ve seen it twice and dreamed it dozens more, but it’s the look on ordinary runners’ faces as they approach the finish line that really hits me in the chest.
Not everyone runs with photographs or messages pinned to their shirts, but most of us non-elites have a story. It’s the weight, the importance of these stories at the toughest points of the marathon that can overwhelm you, and I know it’s not just me. I sobbed across the finish line in 2007, and a runner in a Cancer Reseach vest hugged me – you can do that with strangers at the end of 26 miles… I plucked at my Children with Leukaemia shirt and told him about Juliette. He cried, and told me about the daughter he too had lost.
Today I’m looking at lace minute race instructions… attaching the timing chip to my shoe and trying to remember different parts of the route to calm my nerves, but it’s that surge of joy seeing the finish line that keeps popping into my head. At that point during both previous marathons I was almost hallucinating with exhaustion. On Sunday, my family and various friends are coming to watch, but Elodie will be working. This morning she told me the real reason why she won’t be there.
Apparently I looked a wreck at the 25-mile point the last time she watched. “Mummy,’ she said, “I’ve had to see you suffer too much, mentally, but to see you suffering physically was unbearable.” I haven’t lived through what she has, so it hadn’t crossed my mind that she would find it hard. I’m proud of my sensible and sensitive oldest girl.
Despite knowing what’s coming, I’m incredibly excited about Sunday and as I’ve written before, it feels different this time. The first marathon I just wanted to finish, uncertain whether I could. With the second I wanted to prove I wasn’t a one hit wonder. But this time? I know I can finish a marathon and having run two, I have nothing to prove. Yes, I’m raising money for a fantastic charity that supports bereaved children – the motherless Prince William is the charity’s patron – and to date, I’ve raised more than £3000. But this marathon more than the others, is for me. I’m five years older but fitter than ever and the difference this time is in my head.
I have had to work at running long distance – I was never one of those long-limbed girls at the head of the cross country pack at school – I was the one trying to cheat and cut out some of the laps. I liked sprinting (it was over quicker) but I wasn’t fast. I used to run a mile or so along Crail beach when I was at St Andrews in a vain attempt to counteract the pack-a-day and tequila shot habit, but I’m no natural runner. So for me, even contemplating a distance of 26 miles is huge. I’ve written here and elsewhere how I used long distance running after losing Juliette as a punishment for me being alive. This time I run with gratitude that I am. That, and a dollop of pig-headed determination to finish in the fastest time I can.
So, I’m a bit emotional, but in the past few days I’ve had two taps on the shoulder from the past to heighten things. Katy and I are in contact. Elodie, unbeknownst to me, has been talking to her for a while. It’s not easy contemplating the way Katy has grown up leukaemia-free when Juliette didn’t, but she is a gorgeous and sensitive young woman and I’m glad to know her. Although she was only four when Juliette died, for nearly twelve years she and her family have remembered Juliette’s birthday, anniversaries and have marked them by releasing lanterns. I found contact with the family too difficult so I had no idea, and it’s incredibly moving that they should quietly remember my lovely daughter in this way.
The second whisper from the past (thanks to marathon fundraising) was a message from someone I haven’t spoken to in several years, who spoke about Juliette and my mother, Meg. Poppy has given me permission to quote her:
“I remember Juliette so well! I looked at the photographs you attached to your donation page including the hilarious one of Elodie and Juliette in (I’m guessing!) Meg’s shoes, and recognised Meg’s house and the kitchen and that pale blue aga and it took me back so quickly. Juliette was an incredibly sunny and warm little girl, and so remarkably brave through everything. I also remember how wonderfully close the children were to each other, and in particular that lovely and deep bond Elodie and Juliette shared. One memory I’ve never forgotten was sitting talking to your mama in the kitchen one day, and remarking on the fact that Juliette used to walk around on her tiptoes quite often, in an almost otherworldly way. Meg said to me that she’d noticed Juliette talking in a corner one day, and when she asked her who she was talking to, she said “the angels, can’t you see them?” For such a little girl – albeit with an enormous personality! – she had a profound impact on those around her, and I consider myself lucky to have known her.”
I’ll have that funny, bright, extraordinary little girl in my heart on Sunday, willing me on. I know I have readers from different parts of the world (thank you so much for that) and if you could please send me positive vibes for this Sunday too, it would mean the world to me.