I woke at 5.30 to the sound of rain pelting down in the darkness outside. Every possible cliche went through my mind: was I tough enough? Was I brave enough? Was I completely mad? After so many months of training I would find out what I was really made of. It felt like being sixteen again and waking on the morning of my first exams: the performance I put in over the next few hours had the potential to change the rest of my life completely. Nine months ago I was lost and broken: flattened by the circumstances of my life to such an extent that my doctor was using words like 'depression' and 'nervous breakdown'. Now, having mapped out a route back to sanity and purpose, to looking after Grace and looking after myself, I had to travel the final, toughest part of the journey.
And I had to do it alone. I planned to leave well ahead of the rest of my family and see them later by the side of the route. I wanted to be alone in my final preparations. I shivered, and got up and got ready.
Before departing I looked into Grace's room to say goodbye. Her hair was fanned out on her pillow; her duvet a tangle of knots. Against the noises from the rest of the house that signalled it would soon be time to rise, she clung tightly to sleep. I went to her and kissed her eyelids gently and she murmured: "Please run slowly Mummy, because when you're finished and we come back, I've got to do my homework."
Downstairs as I stood by the front door, Betty bounced up to me in her pink sleepsuit, her hair a wild mess, chuckling. "Runrun, Mummy!" she exclaimed, pointing at my now-familiar clothing. "Runrun!"
On the tube, the overhead lights were harsh against the darkness of early morning. Some way down the carriage sat a grumpy-looking man in a tiger suit pretending to look at a map of the race, betrayed in his small piece of theatre by the nervous flicker of his eyes. My running partner Karen and I sat side by side, swaying with the motion of the train, watching him and giggling nervously. I suggested that perhaps his discomfort stemmed from the fact that he'd discovered there was no way to pee while in his suit. She thought that perhaps he wasn't running at all, and just liked to go out as a tiger on Sundays. The train nosed deeper and deeper into central London, where more and more runners boarded. By the time we arrived at our final stop, we were all wedged close and starting to sweat: all these participants who had been dutifully hydrating themselves ahead of the race according to sporting advice, were now sweating it out instead inside a hot tin can.
Outside the sky was steely, though the rain had stopped. We walked and talked nonsense to each other, babbling to cover our nerves while observing the scene in front of us: crowds of runners converging on the race point, queuing to check bags, to use toilets, to visit the rows and rows of canvas tents that flapped in a cold breeze that brought with it the scent of Deep Heat. We stood on the edge of it all for a moment and watched. Stewards wearing thin plastic anoraks and tangles of coloured lanyards and passes around their necks patrolled the queues for the toilets, braying metallically through megaphones that there were separate urinals for men around the back. About half of the men who were lined up peeled off in grateful relief to look for them. Those still waiting for the stalls coughed and shuffled their feet. A sense of nervous anticipation lay over the scene like mist.
As we made our own preparations I eyed the crowd. Everyone looked lean and limber. In front of me stood a man wearing a see-through white tee-shirt that clung to his every rippling abdominal muscle as he brushed his hands through his Hollywood hairdo and stretched expansively. Beside him stood a golden woman with a long vanilla plait of hair and honey-coloured sinewy legs who looked like she'd never broken a sweat in her life. My heart started thumping uncomfortably. Where were the reassuringly chunky ones? Where were the runners that looked like mums who ate chocolate? Where were the ones with slightly mottled purple legs and a bit of a wobble round the middle? O god -- what had I done?
But then it was time to run. Joining the blue-banded runners aiming for a time somewhere between two and two and a half hours, Karen and I stood shoulder to shoulder in a crowd at least fifteen people wide that reached down the avenue as far as we could see. A sudden bang -- the official starting gun -- elicited a round of exited applause and some whoops. And then we stood for another five minutes, hopping from one leg to another and shuffling along bit by bit as stern-looking people around us checked water bottles, food supplies, headphones and playlists. And then there was the start point and the big red digital clock.
I don't remember much of the first three miles. We were moving, running, looking at each other occasionally, raising eyebrows and smiling and not thinking much. The first part of the route took us out of the path and down along the side of the river towards Temple. It wasn't very nice -- a long, straight road past bands of runners already coming back up the other side. I was starting to feel uncomfortable and realised I'd put far too many clothes on. Karen and I kept pace, watching what those around us were doing. To my immediate right an odd character loped along, wearing 70s Dunlop 'bumpers' as my Dad would call them, that he flopped down hard with every huge stride he took. Every ten or so strides he would stop and walk, wiping sweat from his face. Then he'd start up again, flailing and thumping along. To Karen's left was a wheezy breather: a man in a pale blue tee shirt with a similar complexion who looked to be in extreme discomfort after three and a half miles.
At this point I decided I wasn't going to last the whole run if I didn't take off some layers, as I was starting to feel horribly hot. Glancing about I saw that although the runners were still bunched tightly there were few spectators along this less picturesque part of the route. Quickly and still running I peeled off my vest, emblazoned with the National Autistic Society logo, and then took off the surplus tee-shirt I was wearing beneath it. At that point I glanced up and realised there were about 300 people watching from a bridge above. Karen laughed and handed me back my vest as we ran beneath the bridge to cheers and whoops from the spectators.
Around five miles Karen got a stitch and slowed. I stayed just ahead of her as we moved through Theatreland and turned left at Trafalgar Square, glancing back regularly to check her progress. "Go ahead," she mouthed, waving me on.
And then we were back into the park, streaming around the front of Buckingham Palace and down along a packed road of runners and spectators, flags flying, drums thrumming, cheers and whistles urging us along. I knew my family and the NAS crew were waiting at 7 miles and ran craning my head to see them. Suddenly to my left there was my sister, anxiously scanning the crowd. I jumped and waved and ran to her and she spotted me, and her face immediately lit up and then contorted into tears as a rush of emotion hit her. My mum and dad and little sister and baby niece all yelled my name and jumped up and down with glee. Delighted and thrilled, I moved up a gear and rocketed past them grinning, to where my husband stood with the kids and the NAS staff, all waving madly and cheering. Moving faster now I could see Chris, and the boys and Betty and there, there was Grace -- her sweet, sweet face and her hair blowing in the breeze -- looking happy and anxious and pleased all at once. A huge sob escaped me. I blew kiss after kiss at her as I ran past. How could I have thought I was alone?
Suddenly I had wings. From miles seven til ten I was absolutely flying: totally wired and excited and fuelled by a massive adrenaline rush. I could do this. And more: I was loving it. I overtook people, motored through the bends and handled several inclines with ease. I caught up with the pacesetter bearing the flag for 2hours 10 minutes and passed him. It was beyond wonderful. My legs were like pistons. I felt sure and strong and absolutely invincible. The hair on the back of my neck tingled with the pleasure and excitement of it. At ten miles I saw my husband and kids again, calling and clapping. Grace had her arms out over the barrier, reaching to me. "Mummy!' she shouted. "My mummy!"
At this point I thought: we look comfortable. I'm running with a pack of proper runners, and we're easing along. Then I noticed the people on the other side of the barrier, pushing back up the hill. These people were ahead of us. Some of them did not look comfortable. Some of them did not look well at all.
We surged downhill and turned -- it was ten and a half miles along and suddenly I did not feel like an Olympian any more. My legs felt thick and my feet were landing heavily. I was starting to feel a bit sick. At mile eleven I was suppressing extreme discomfort and the first whisper of panic. At mile twelve I suddenly remembered that the race was not 13 miles at all, but 13.1 miles. Suddenly that 0.1 mile was a game-changer. I couldn't possibly run more than 13 miles. I would never do it. People were passing me now on either side: people who had kept something in reserve. They were checking their watches, nodding with satisfaction, going up a gear. Neat ponytails bobbed in front of me. Straight-backed muscle men went into fifth gear and whooshed past. I let loose a torrent of obscenities under my breath. I'd done this all wrong. My run was more of a stagger by now. Beside me another runner slowed to a walk, shaking her head with regret.
I told myself: I will not walk. I will not.
Ahead of me was a sign announcing that there was 800 metres to go. It might as well have said another 8 miles. By now I was weaving with exhaustion.
Then came a sign saying 400 meters, and I thought: maybe.
Then came a sign saying 200 metres and I could see the finishing line. I experimented, asking my legs to move faster. They did. I asked them to go faster still. They did. I straightened my shoulders. I was running, properly running again. The crowds of spectators on either side of me were three-deep and roaring approval. A massive grin split my face. I was purely, blissfully happy.
As I went over the finish line my body suddenly spasmed with sobs. Around me people bent over and grabbed their knees, or clutched each other in ecstasy, or shook hands and blew out hard. The first person I saw in the crowd was my sister. I made my way to her on legs made of water and she held me fast while I cried. "My sister," she told me. "Oh, my sister." We were both crying and laughing. My mum was there and hugged me. My dad appeared, so moved he could hardly talk. My little sister hugged me so tightly that what little puff I had left was expelled and I had to ask her weakly to let go now.
It was an age before my husband found me. The wheel had come off Betty's buggy and he and the children had to struggle with it across miles of mushy park grass to get to the end point. Grace was crying with frustration at being unable to find me in the crowd. Betty was wearing a National Autistic Society tee-shirt the same size as her. The boys looked weary. My husband looked weary. But then they saw me and rushed to me and I was enveloped in love and kisses and congratulations.
From the tangle of arms and heads, Grace's face emerged. She gazed up at me. I will remember that look for the rest of my life.