The plan was for Harry and I to run the race together, a mother and son team running in solidarity with a nation of mothers and sons, fathers and daughters. I wanted to aim for a good for age time of under four hours. Harry has a different approach than me to training and I had genuinely wondered if he would be able to keep up with me, which seems a ridiculous concern now. But as I have learned over the last couple of years, things don’t always turn out as planned.
I felt really emotional being back in Palestine, and getting ready to run. There’s something about the place that has captured my heart, particularly in the way it has framed the last couple of years. In 2015, I had found a lump and ran the 10k because I was injured, going back home to a doctor’s appointment that would set in motion a gruelling nine months of treatment. Last year I was out the other side of that and ran the half marathon, but looking back I was still quite lost and wounded, although I didn’t realise it at the time. This year, I was just a runner to the new people I met, and didn’t feel the need to explain my cancer back story. Running has been the constant through all of that, one of the main things that has kept me anchored to myself, and that helps me plan for the future. It was always going to be an emotional race.
The night before, we went to the pasta party in the local Peace Center, expecting to meet loads of other runners, but there were very few people there. I didn’t feel great but tried to eat as much as I could, and then had an early night. It took me ages to get warm once I was in bed, and I slept really badly, waking often from strange dreams about parkrun. When I was sick around 2am, I blamed the lukewarm pasta but as nobody else in our group was ill, I think I must have picked up a stomach bug somewhere. My immune system doesn’t seem to have recovered completely; I’ve had three colds this winter when before I would rarely get ill so maybe I’m just an easy touch for any germs that come my way.
I went down to breakfast and ate a few slices of banana, determined to get to the start line, but unable to stock up on hummus, pitta and falafel as I had expected. This year the organisation of the race had changed hands from Right to Movement who set it up, to the Palestine Olympic Committee who has been a partner from the start. The Scandinavian attention to detail was sorely missed and it was even more chaotic than usual. The marathon, half marathon and 10k were due to set off at 8am, 8:15am and 8:30am respectively but when Harry and I lined up at the start line we were surrounded by children, half marathoners, and 10k runners. We all set off at the gun, with a few people slowing to a walk a couple of hundred metres down the road, and the marathoners speeding off into the distance.
I ran most of the first four miles, although walked up some of the hills. There were roadworks on part of the route so for 100m or so we ran across bare earth, around potholes and over rocks, then past Banky’s Walled Off Hotel, along the separation wall and through Aida refugee camp. I think there were marshals on the route but it was hard to distinguish them from spectators, as they did so little to show us the way or cheer us on.
By now, I was walking more and running less; I just had no energy. The marathon route is two laps of an out-and-back course because you can’t go for 26 miles in Palestine without passing through a checkpoint. We got to the turnaround point and I knew I wouldn’t be able to do more than one lap. Having been determined to finish the race together, Harry and I talked about whether he should go on ahead. He was going to do the full marathon, and although he was happy to stick with me for the first half I didn’t want to hold him up too much because it was getting hotter. He left me at around mile 7, and I kept walking, walking, walking. A couple of miles later, I jogged for about 30 seconds, but had to stop to throw up at the side of the road. A shopkeeper brought me tissues and water, and a Palestinian Red Crescent ambulance stopped to check I was ok. I climbed in and abandoned the race.
In a strange way, it was a relief to throw up because that told me I’d given it my all and didn’t have anything left. I always have a mental battle with myself when I run. The default mantra in my head is ‘I can’t keep this up’ even when I’m fit and healthy, so it was hard to judge what I was capable of and what to pay attention to. This was my body saying to me, ‘hey, it’s time to stop running’, another example of bodily knowledge, and I was happy to listen.
The ambulance dropped me off about a mile from the finish line, so I walked to the end, and saw Harry going the other way, heading back out for his second lap, looking strong with a big grin on his face. I headed back to the hotel for a shower and a cry, and then went back to the finish line to cheer on the rest of our runners who were out on the course. It didn’t take long to get things in perspective. It’s just a race, albeit the most chaotic, significant, joyful race I ever do.
Each year, we’ve had an incredible group of people come to join Team Amos to run in Palestine and this year was no exception. Alan and Joanne came over from Kentucky; Alan is running one marathon a month this year and Joanne did the half. They had done the Jerusalem marathon and half a couple of weeks ago, and soaked up the different perspective that being in Palestine gave them. Eamon joined us from Northern Ireland for his 41st marathon, and made friends with everyone he met. He took time out to visit the Church of the Nativity the day before to honour his running friend, Andy, on the day of his funeral. Tara had signed up for the half, but felt so good after the first lap that she headed out for another, stopping only to WhatsApp her supporters from the hotel to tell them she was doing a full marathon after all, and arriving back to find her sponsorship had gone up by another £400. Jess and Atika decided to do the half when they got here and walked most of the way, surrounded by a group of children. Paul was back to do the marathon for the second time and came fourth overall, no mean feat for a man in his sixties, only three minutes off winning the $1000 third place prize. Harry finished in 4:08 with fantastic negative splits after running with me at the start, an incredible achievement considering his longest training run was 14 miles. There’s been a lot of talk recently about UK races not being measured accurately. The marathon runners were misdirected on the second lap, and so the race was at least 2k short. Perhaps it was a good job I was nowhere near good for age standard this year, because it would have been frustrating to think that I’d got it and find out that I hadn’t.
People like me will come and run this race regardless of how its organised, but I hope the POC will learn some lessons from this year to make it an even better event: clearer start times; marshals and clear signs along the route; water stations for the duration of the whole marathon; medals for everyone at the finish line; an accurately measured course.
I’m disappointed with my run of course, but as always it was a wonderful week with inspiring people in an amazing place. I’ve got unfinished business with this race; I’ll just have to come back again next year.