There is no doubt that running the Virgin London Marathon 2017 to raise money for Breast Cancer Haven was the biggest mental and physical challenge I have ever undertaken… as much as there is also no doubt in my mind that it is the best thing I have ever done in my life, and it is now my proudest achievement to date. 

But let’s rewind a bit to October 2016. 

I had just found out that I hadn’t been successful in securing a London Marathon 2017 place by ballot. No great surprise, as the ballot is hugely over subscribed, and chances of securing a place through it are very slim, but all the same, I was gutted. I work for a local PR agency here in the beautiful Hampshire countryside, and it was whilst moaning to my boss that I hadn’t got in that she presented a solution so obvious, it seemed a wonder I hadn’t considered it before. 

“Look, Soph. You would have run the marathon for charity, right? So get a charity place and bloody well run it!”

Choosing a charity was not difficult, as Breast Cancer Haven is a cause that is close to all of our hearts at work. My boss, Jo, is involved with the development board for the Wessex Centre, and we all helped out at various fundraising events throughout the year. Being involved in the charity this way meant that I had heard from women and their families who had been helped by Breast Cancer Haven, and their stories stood out to me. For me, running for Breast Cancer Haven felt like my way of reaching out to them - I lost my mum at a young age, and whilst it wasn’t to breast cancer, I felt like I could completely understand the heartache these families were going through and I wanted to do something to help. 

So that was it, all signed up to run the London Marathon 2017… which was ages away, right? After a feeble attempt at beginning training pre-Christmas (read as: completing a 5k run on a Monday and then feeling like I was done for the week), training was stepped up a gear in January after a meeting at Breast Cancer Haven in Wessex, where we met the lovely Dave King, a man of many marathons who had devised a training plan for us all and passed on some nuggets of wisdom. The meeting was both inspiring and terrifying in equal measures, but it was lovely to meet other members of the Breast Cancer Haven London Marathon team, and to share our experiences to date. 

And so proper training began. Three shorter runs during the week, one long run at the weekend. It doesn’t sound like much, and if I had a pound for every time somebody said, “oh, I would have thought you should be running a *lot* more than that!”, I probably would have smashed my fundraising target twice over. But one thing I learnt during this time is that the only person who truly knows your body and knows what it is capable of, is you. There is no point continually thrashing yourself and pushing your body to the limit with every single training run, because in a very short space of time you will get poorly, and, more importantly, you will start to hate running. And there is no point in starting to hate running in February when you still have quite a few weeks and a whole lot of miles to go until the finish line (gulp). 

Did I keep to my training schedule? On the whole, yes. But every now and then, birthdays, family engagements, work commitments, illness, holidays - just life in general - all got in the way and every now and then I’d miss a run. But I think the best advice I received from Dave is that training for a marathon is not like revising for an exam - you can’t cram for it, and there’s no point running yourself into the ground trying to catch up on missed miles. I actually enjoyed the training to a certain extent! It’s an amazing feeling when you finish a long run and you realise that you have farther that you have ever run before, and even more so when you realise that runs that previous felt daunting are suddenly your easy “short” runs (my friends and family never failed to find it funny how blasé I became about running 13 miles - a half marathon!). I think it also helped that I never really set myself a time challenge; I just knew that I wanted to complete it with a smile on my face without stopping (spoiler alert - I did!). 

But what about the fundraising? It’s true, being set a target of raising £2,500 is scary as hell. At times, it felt scarier than the marathon itself. It’s a huge chunk of money, and at the beginning I definitely felt a bit lost and overwhelmed. But there are two things I would urge you to remember here - one, you’re not on your own. I found Team Haven to be a fabulous, lovely, friendly bunch, who were always on hand to offer support or fundraising advice. Secondly - you’re running a marathon! That’s downright amazing, and chances are, everybody else will think so too. I was so amazed by the generosity of my friends, family, colleagues, and even people that I didn’t know who reached out and donated incredible amounts to help push me towards my targets. I also contacted local businesses and committees, and once I was over that first £1,000 hurdle, it felt a little less daunting and a lot more exciting. Try to enjoy your fundraising as much as you can, and also, crucially - I would say start as early as possible! The sooner a decent chunk of that £2,500 is secured, the better you will feel. 

Towards the end of my training, it did start to feel very tough. At the end of my two longest runs (19 and 20 miles respectively), I’m not too proud to say that I did sit down and burst into tears. And when tapering finally arrived (the period of training right at the end when you ease off running to let your body rest and recover), I was so excited to be training less that I almost wasn’t nervous about the marathon - the finish line was in sight! 

When race weekend arrived, it started to feel very, very real. I stayed over night in London before hand so that I was able to go collect my race number on the Saturday, and having it in my hand felt surreal. But the atmosphere at the Excel, where the Marathon Expo is held, was absolutely incredible. Everyone seemed to be on a nervous, excited high, and, contrary to the usual London experience, everyone on the tube was chatting and sharing their training experiences. Then suddenly the morning of the marathon arrived, and we were heading to Greenwich for the start. The next hour or so passed in blur of finding the right start line, loading my bag onto the baggage lorry and taking my space in the crowd. Weirdly I don’t think I felt nervous at this point - there was just too much to look at and I was so excited to get started. 

The 10am start is a slight anticlimax, I’ll warn you now - as you’ll find yourself walking for ten minutes just to reach the actual start line! But once you’re over that, the crowd of runners thins out pretty quickly and it won’t be long before you find your feet and your pace and suddenly all the training will kick in. I was really lucky and I had a fab team of family and friends who came up to London to watch me, and I managed to see them at eight different points. The first couple of miles felt surreal, but once you reach Greenwich the crowd is just indescribable. I can’t stress this enough - put your name on your top!! Hearing complete strangers cheer your name as you go past will make you feel absolutely invincible, and at times it gave me the push I need to keep putting one foot in front of the other. 

Strange as it sounds, I enjoyed every minute of it. Yes, it was tough, yes, I was completely running on empty by the end and yes, I walked funny for about five days afterwards, but it was absolutely incredible. All in all, I raised a grand total of £2,715… for which I am so completely and utterly grateful to every single last person who was kind enough to sponsor me. 

So, with all said and done, I would recommend to anybody considering running the London Marathon (to raise money for Breast Cancer Haven of course!) to just put aside any doubts and go for it! If you’re prepared to be committed to both your training and your fundraising, there is absolutely nothing standing in your way. 

Oh, but I would warn of one thing - the marathon bug is most definitely a thing. Bring on marathon number two!