It’s official. I am a marathon runner. This is the good news, the bad is I haven’t been able to climb the stairs since.
By god it was tough and I blame Mrs Canavan completely.
I entered not because I had any desire to run 26.2 miles (does anyone?), but to keep Mrs C company. She has become fixated about running in the last 12 months or so, mainly because, I think, it allows her to spend lengthy periods of time not in my company.
She announced recently that she had entered the Belfast marathon and asked if I’d come and support her. Rashly, I figured running it but would be preferable to standing around for five hours waiting for her to finish (as it turned out, standing around would have been much the better option).
I’m not quite sure why Mrs C opted for Belfast because there were several other, much closer-to-home marathons we could have entered, such as Manchester or Blackpool.
The latter, for instance, would have involved a nice lie-in and a hearty breakfast, followed by a leisurely three-mile drive from St Annes to the start line. Instead we had to get out of bed at 3.30am on Saturday to trek to Manchester Airport to catch a flight to Northern Ireland.
Aside from the early start, this wasn’t ideal because, as I may have mentioned before, I detest flying.
Let me give you an example. Ten minutes after take-off, there was a sudden spot of turbulence. The rest of the passengers on the plane thought ‘that was a sudden spot of turbulence’, then carried on chewing wine gums and doing the sudoku puzzle in the paper. My thought process, on the other hand, went like this: the pilots – who I’d eyed suspiciously as I was queuing to get on the plane and figured one of them looked shifty – had engaged in a brief but violent tussle. The shifty one had knocked the other unconscious, and was now about to fly the plane straight into a large building. That, without a lie, is how my mind works.
It meant I spent the rest of the flight on edge, looking at the cabin crew for any remote sign of panic, and wondering if I should ask the head air stewardess if she’d mind phoning the pilot just to ask if everything was Ok (the only thing that stopped me was Mrs Canavan telling me she’d divorce me with immediate effect if I did).
Of course, we landed safely with no fuss (the pilots must have made up), though on the downside this meant we had to go through with the marathon.
It took place on Monday and the start was quite jolly. There were 3,000 or so folk doing it and everyone was friendly and in good spirits as the horn sounded and we took our first steps. ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ said someone, hilariously, as we passed the first mile marker.
Running at the pace of a tortoise with two fractured tibia and a hip condition, I managed to quite enjoy it up until about mile 15, when my legs began to deteriorate in quite alarming manner. This may or may not have been linked to the fact that a couple of miles earlier, at the halfway stage, someone was handing out half-pints of lager.
This happens during a marathon – lots of kindly local people line the streets and hand out various things, like water, jelly-babies, and sarcastic comments (one bloke shouted, in reference to my speed, ‘blimey, are you running backwards pal?’ to which, if I’d had the energy, I would have responded by punching him in the face).
But back to the lager. Nearly every runner ignored this offer and jogged straight on, instead choosing to feast on energy gels, protein bars and all sorts of other fancy-dan nonsense. But I’d been running for more than two hours and there was no way I was going to turn down a spot of ice-cold alcohol. I can’t tell you how lovely it tasted.
Alas, you never see Mo Farah having a sip of Heineken mid-run and there’s possibly a reason for it.
However, I kept going, just, and aside from a toilet break (running a marathon does funny things to your bowels; indeed, they say it’s risky to pass wind after mile 19) made it to the end.
The moment that most sticks in my mind occurred a couple of miles from home when, as I was particularly struggling and making a strange inhuman wheezing noise which suggested I may topple over at any moment, a middle-aged woman - sat in a deckchair on the pavement eating grapes and sipping what looked like a pina colada - said ‘don’t stop, you’re nearly there’.
How thoughtful of her.
Mrs Canavan and I are now marathon runners and the medals are hanging in the downstairs loo, though our legs may never be the same again.
Visible legacy - after years of peace
While we were in Belfast, we had a mooch round the city and – as you do – partook in a few touristy things.
The most interesting was something called the Black Cab Taxi Tour, which is essentially a history of the political troubles which haunted the city from the 1960s to the late 90s - when the IRA were most active - and being driven to key areas in the conflict like Shankhill Road.
It was fascinating stuff, though quite startling to learn that despite the fact there has been peace since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, there are still gates dividing Catholic and Protestant areas that are shut each evening.
A so-called Peace Wall, 45 feet high in parts, runs for three miles through the city. I asked our driver if he thought it would ever be taken down. He grimaced. ‘Doubt it – it’s too risky. These people, the Catholics who want an independent Ireland, and the Protestants who want to remain part of Britain, work together in the same places but they live in their own communities and it’s still tense’.
3,500 people, mostly civilians, died throughout 30 years of the troubles in Northern Ireland. It might be a peaceful place now, and the people of Belfast are incredibly friendly and warm, but it seems it’s going to be a long while yet, if ever, before all problems are resolved.