My head has cleared (a bit) and my emotions have calmed down (slightly) - enough anyway, I think, to start to tell of how the greatest weekend of my life unfolded.
I feel ready to tell how wonderful things happened even as I stood at the start, music pumping, adrenaline rising, atmosphere building. Amid the thousands of runners lining up with me, I felt a tap on my shoulder and a fellow runner introduced himself. He had seen my story on the marathon website and had recognised me by my Running With Diane/Breast Cancer Care vest.
We shared our stories and two people who clearly would never have met each other had it not been for running and not been for Rotterdam joined hands across an ocean. It was a pleasure to meet Luis Tapia Soto, my new-found friend from Mexico who has his own cancer charity initiative back home and is doing fantastic work around the world, running and raising the profile of his cause, Kilometros y Sonrisas (Miles for Smiles). Learn more at www.facebook.com/kilometrosySonrisas?fref=ts
Then, we were off. The mission had begun. And ahead of me lay a defining 42K. The first few steps were full of nerves, but soon everyone settled into their rhythm and as the giant Erasmusbrug came into view at the end of the first kilometre, we were all just glad to be on our way at last.
There was something in the back of my mind even then, though. Something which had been bugging me for 12 months. I knew, somewhere up ahead, was a stretch of the route which ran through a particularly vocal, raucous and ultra-supportive section of the crowd, a stretch on which I was first told last year that I would not finish the race in time and that I should withdraw.
The crowd here are amazing, no question about that. It’s hardly surprising. The stretch is home to some of the city’s most popular bars and the guys started “cheering” runners a good few hours before I approached.
It’s one of the best sections of the route – but sadly for me it was as far as I got in 2014. That part of the route had been playing on mind the whole week. I could see it in my mind’s eye, I could hear the marshal’s car approaching and easing up alongside me and I could still hear the marshal’s voice explaining that I should stop.
Only one thing would banish that awful memory and that terrible feeling, that moment when my heart sank – it was to make sure I gave them no opportunity to do the same thing again.
So when I hit it over 30 minutes sooner than last year, I allowed myself a relieved smile. I squeezed between the cheering hordes who had now narrowed the space available to run through to a single file. High fives, slaps on the back and mine and other runners’ names chanted in encouragement – an incredible feeling when everything is going right.
And at that stage, everything was going right. I had taken it easy (as instructed!) early on, sticking to a metronomic pace for the first third of the race. I knew my legs were stronger but I hadn’t expected to go quite this smoothly. I had underperformed at Trimpell three weeks earlier by going off too quickly and blowing up after 17 miles, struggling to complete the last three. Now I had passed 17 at Rotterdam with plenty left in the tank. Just by taking it smoothly and gently.
I knew there would come a point where the wheels would start to creak and wobble and look as if they were about to come off but it wasn’t happening yet. I was over 20 minutes inside my Trimpell time when I hit 20 miles in Rotterdam.
At 21, I started to feel it, then worse at 22 and 23 before I steadied the ship. I thought at one stage (20 miles) that I would finish well within the time limit. At 23, I wasn’t so sure and at 24 and 25, it looked increasingly unlikely. I know I had the consolation that I had already ensured that I would be allowed to finish. However long it now took me to reach that line, I knew I would receive a medal and official time - even if I was over the cut-off mark. But that would have been settling for less - after all, I had set my heart on coming in under five-and-a-half hours and I was desperate to do it..
Then Diane stepped in. She must have decided I needed a lift for the last mile because suddenly, seemingly from nowhere, two members of the volunteer support crew, a young woman and a man, ran out and greeted me, asking me if I’d let them run with me to the finish.
Miraculously the pace stepped up – as shown in the pace chart analysis of the whole race. Steady for 30K, gradually slower for the next 10K and then up again for the last 2K.
These two wonderful young people – it is now my mission to put names to these faces and get back in touch to thank them both properly – were my saviours. Sent, I have no doubt, by Diane to get me home inside the closing time.
My legs felt lighter for them being there and it was a joy to have them running alongside.
They shared with me the mile of the race I had lived over and over again in my head for nigh on 18 months. A slow right turn onto a main strip called Blaak and then the famous sharp right onto the legendary Coolsingel for the last 600 metres to the finish in front of the Stadhuis (City Hall).
I had dreamt this moment a thousand times and now here I was. With Diane filling every thought and matching every step, I ran through the banks of crowds still there at the finish - still cheering every runner after over five hours. It was the most exhilarating experience of my life.
When someone asks you why Rotterdam, just tell them about the buzz, the atmosphere, the crowds. The entire city comes out to celebrate you running and to give you support every step of the way. Nothing else happens in Rotterdam for those magical hours. Every single person in the city joins in. Even the last few runners home are treated to a hero’s welcome from them, nearly three and a half hours since they cheered the winner over the same line.
When someone asks me why Rotterdam, I only need to mention one name. My inspiration, my guide, the love of my life, my driving force. My Diane.