Athens, August 22, 2004. It is the morning of the marathon, the long day before the longest race.
I wake at 9.30am because my bottles for the race must be with the organisers by 10. I have been in Athens for a week and the problem has not been waking but sleeping. I lie in bed waiting for sleep to come, remembering Dad’s advice about imagining myself on a beach.
I try to relax but too often lose the battle. Night after night I have been getting up to go to the bathroom much more than normal. Is it because of the heat and the amount I’m drinking? Is something not right with my tummy? Is it that I’m just awake anyway and so then need to go to the toilet? Why is it that every morning I get out of bed and don’t feel properly rested?
Today, though, is not the day for questioning. It is the biggest day of my running life and I can get through it by eliminating all doubt from my mind, thinking of all my hard preparation and treating it like any other important race day. To fend off unwelcome thoughts, I stay busy.
I make sure the bottles are ready and then have breakfast. Later I chat to Gary (my husband) on the phone. I hang around the apartments chatting to the others: Liz Yelling and Tracey Morris, Jo Pavey and, in our apartment, Michael East, Lee McConnell and Hayley Tullett.
My breakfast is the same as always on race day: porridge, banana and honey. After eating, I ice the vastus medialis muscle above my left knee. It has been a nightmare for the past two weeks. Although you don’t use it to run, it is in constant use as a stabilising muscle on hills and uneven ground.
My determination to run in the Olympic marathon has never wavered, but there have been bleak moments when I have wondered if I am going to be able to make it. After icing my leg, I lie on the bed to relax. It kills a little time. Time is also spent going to the toilet.
This is how it has been for the previous five or six days. My food is being passed rapidly and, looking back, my stomach has been feeling terrible for a while. On my last couple of evening training runs I had to stop at least three times in the 40 minutes. Right now, that can’t be a problem; it has to be just nerves. It will be fine in the race, I tell myself.
A little after 1pm, five hours before the start of the race, I eat my last meal. Another big bowl of porridge, some banana, some biscuits, a yoghurt and a little chocolate: fuel for later in the day. After eating, I relax again, take a shower and then go for my pre-race ice-bath.
Athletes mix the ice and water depending on their appetite for discomfort. Some like it colder than others. I like it very cold and this afternoon I am thinking I will stay the usual 12 minutes. Ten, at the very least.
I climb into the iced water. It is very cold, but rather than handle it as it usually does, my body begins to shake. First a little, then violently. “Out,” says Gary, “you’ve got to get out now. You shouldn’t be shaking that much.”
The other marathon runners on the team, Liz and Tracey, say that the water is really cold, but they didn’t shake like that.
There is another, more pressing concern. Since eating almost two hours before, the food has lodged in my stomach. My stomach feels bloated and awful, as if I’ve eaten too much. I feel dizzy and nervous, as if I know something is not right. Rather than the excitement and anticipation that comes with the approach of a big race, I feel only nerves and dread.
I know something is wrong.
The food that I have eaten feels as if it is too much for my digestive system. All the visits to the bathroom have signalled a problem: is it the anti-inflammatories that I have been taking to keep the inflammation down in my leg? Have they upset my stomach?
However, worrying about that doesn’t help and will only make things worse. I try to sit calmly as we wait to leave. Gerard (Hartmann, my physiotherapist) comes to join us and I hear Gary tell him that I am in a panic and they must calm me down. Gerard stretches me out and my legs feel OK. It is time to leave.
By the time we arrive in the BOA minibus, it is less than one hour before the start. I begin to relax and feel a little better. There are things to focus on now.
Nike had developed an ice jacket to help to keep me cool and ideally it needs to be worn for an hour before the start. But now there is not enough time and I can’t really jog and stretch properly with it on. Anyway, although everyone says it is hot, I don’t feel it. I want to jog just a little. Not too much, but enough to make sure my leg is OK and also to help to stimulate some bowel movement because my stomach still feels terrible.
In the final countdown to a big race, Gary gets very nervous and wound up and today is no different. He wishes me good luck and then disappears, accepting that there is nothing more he can do for me.
I don’t do my last stretch with Gerard; I feel loose anyway and my legs actually feel the best part of me. Yet I still feel a little rushed and I notice my hands are shaking a lot as I tie my laces. I try to chat, to reassure myself that I feel fine. Someone says the temperature is 39C but that the road temperature is about 45C. The heat doesn’t concern me; there are so many things on my mind, but the heat is not one of them.
Just before the 20-minute call through to the start area I have my last visit to the toilet. This is normal; I am usually one of the last to go before the start. Yet this time something is wrong. I have been aware for the past few days of the frequency of the visits to the toilet and have a vague sense that what I am eating is simply being passed through my system. I look now at what has been passed; it is white, virtually the same porridge I ate 41⁄2 hours ago. It scares me.
Alex (Stanton, my coach) returns with Bruce Hamilton, the UK Athletics doctor. I do some strides. I do feel OK, my leg is hardly stiff at all and my stomach feels better. “It doesn’t matter anyway; there’s nothing I can do about it now,” I tell him. “I’m here and I’m racing, no matter what.”
At the beginning of the race, I ran on the right-hand side of the road because that was where there was most shade and less of a camber. Through the first 10km, I felt OK. If there was a slight worry it was the sense that I felt I was running faster than the split times showed. It was taking too much effort for the pace I was going.
But my mind was sharp. It’s a hot day, well over 30C; just relax and you will begin to feel better. Keep going at this pace; when you get on to the hill you can pick it up, do a couple of surges and then a long, sustained surge near the top.
After 10km, my stomach began to give me trouble and I needed to go to the toilet, a physical demand that my mind was well used to handling: don’t get stressed, if you stay calm this will pass. You’ve had these problems in your past two marathons; they come and go. Except that this time it didn’t go away.
Prevented from doing what it wanted to do, my stomach began to cramp violently and the more I fought it, the worse it got. Liz Yelling had told me that in the Berlin Marathon she had had to go in her shorts while running. Although it was uncomfortable, she felt better after doing it. If Liz can do that, so can I. To hell with vanity. There was no way I was stopping.
I tried to empty my bowels as best I could while running and for a while it did feel better. But after a bit the cramp returned, got worse and I had to do it again. From the 12km mark, I was fighting this problem all the time. My stomach would cramp, I would feel awful until I could relieve myself a bit, then I would feel a little better for a while until it returned again and again.
After about 18km, we got to the tougher part of the course and, once on the hills, the Japanese runners began surging. Suddenly my legs felt really tired. At this stage, I must have known I needed energy because all I could think about was getting from drink station to drink station, not for the fluids but for the carbohydrate energy. In normal conditions, I drink about 100ml from each bottle; now I was drinking 200-250ml. After each bottle I would feel a little better for a short while.
At the very moment Mizuki Noguchi made her break, I was having really bad stomach cramps. When they eased, I started to work my way back. My mind stayed strong. Don’t panic here. You know you can run the closing 10km of a marathon faster than most people.
Near the crest of the hill, about 12km from the finish, I was closing on the Ethiopian, Elfenesh Alemu, who was in second place. I overtook her. Then Catherine Ndereba came alongside; we ran together going up the hill before I pulled away from her. Coming down the hill, my legs felt really sore.
It was a weird, empty feeling, not like I was in pain from running hard or specifically sore muscles, but rather that I couldn’t seem to control my legs properly.
Early on, I had run on the right side to get some shade, but now this was involuntary. My brain kept sending the same message. Yet my legs wouldn’t respond. My body kept drifting to the right and I was powerless to prevent it.By now, my mind accepted that there was a huge crisis and around the 36km point I knew I was in big trouble. I could hardly pick my legs up at all; they were like sore lead weights. I felt so empty, yet I was only 1km past my last bottle. You’re not going to be able to get anywhere near the next drinks station, let alone to the finish. You can’t do this, you have nothing left.
No, I can’t stop. No. Not now. It’s only four and a bit miles. This is the Olympic Games, I can’t stop. I have to keep going until I collapse.
But you can’t; physically you can’t. Your legs are just too sore and dead, too exhausted.
It got to the point where I couldn’t put one foot in front of the other. And I stopped. Although I had done it, I couldn’t believe I had. What have I done here?
For a long time I had felt that I was running up and down, instead of forwards. Now I felt that I physically could not run another step. By stopping, I created another kind of hell. My mind couldn’t believe what I had done. Maybe I could recover a little and get going again. I tried but could get nowhere.
Other runners went past and seeing them go by was awful. They’re still in the Olympics, you’re not. I then went to the other side of the road, where there were fewer people, and although I was in shock, I just wanted to get away from there. There must be some sort of transport to get me back, but where is it?
All the time I was crying and saying how I didn’t understand what had happened. Then the medical van came along. They checked my pulse and blood pressure because they imagined that it was probably heatstroke. Pulse and blood pressure were normal. They put me in the van, wrapped a blanket around me and took me back to the stadium. Sitting in the van, I couldn’t cry any more because I had cried myself dry.
What I felt then was sheer numbness, of being in total shock. I wanted to disappear, to hide from everything. I couldn’t cope with the fact that all the work, all the sacrifice, all the expectation had come to nothing. I couldn’t cope with my anger and emotions. I dreaded the looks on the faces of the people I cared about and felt I had let them down.
At the stadium, Bruce Hamilton, the UK Athletics doctor, awaited my arrival. He took me into a room and I changed out of my wet and dirty kit. Then I lay on a table. I couldn’t stop shaking. Mum and Dad came in. Mum was crying. It was good to see them, I needed the hugs. I felt that I could just go into a deep sleep, a coma almost, right there and then and I wouldn’t have wanted to wake up for some time.
Bruce examined me and said that my spleen was a bit swollen and my stomach pretty battered, but my vital signs OK. “We need to get you back to the (athletes’) village,” Bruce said, “to get proper scans and blood tests as well.”
By the time I got to the medical centre, it was shutting down. They checked everything they could. The heat definitely hadn’t affected me, I was totally hydrated. I had run more than 22 miles of a marathon and my urine was still clear. What happened to me had nothing to do with dehydration or the heat. I had just felt totally empty out there, a feeling that I can hardly describe even now.
I sat on the kerb and cried my eyes out because I was so exhausted, so gutted, so angry and so helpless. Part of me hated myself and my body for being so weak and for giving up, part of me accepted that this was the end of the road; I could go no further. None of me wanted to accept the situation I was in. I was still in a state of shock over what had happened.
Even with all the problems, I had never envisaged it ending like this. I wanted to go back and start again.
Then there were two English accents, voices that were faintly familiar. Jane Caine and Mel Hare were a little older than me, but we had been at Bedford & County Athletic Club together — Jane a high jumper, Mel a sprinter. Although their faces were familiar, I couldn’t come up with their names.
“What are you doing here?”
“Paula, we’re here supporting you.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry. I don’t understand what happened to me, I just don’t understand.”
“Don’t worry about that now. We’ll find someone to take you back.”
“I just want to get out of here.”
“Do you want me to ring your Mum?”
“Yeah, but I don’t know where we are.”
“Shall I ring Gary?”
“No, Gary might be mad with me.”
Jane and Mel had met Mum and Dad in Athens and they exchanged mobile phone numbers. They rang Mum, but inside the stadium and concerned about what had happened to me, she couldn’t hear her phone. So she missed a call from people who could have given her a precise update. The girls spoke to a volunteer and asked why there wasn’t a van to pick up those who had to stop. “You get a van here now,” Mel said to the guy — and she was not a woman you wanted to argue with.
Then Bill Foster, a good friend from Loughborough, was there. He gave me a hug and I almost collapsed against him. Bill is a marathon runner, had even run the Athens marathon. I don’t know why, but it felt as if he understood what I was going through. I just kept repeating: “I don’t understand. What happened to me? I’m sorry, I’m sorry . . .” I was shaking but didn’t feel anything now — just totally empty.
“There’s a guy here,” he said, “who’s got a car and can get you to the medical staff at the stadium.”
“I can’t do that,” I said, “because I’ve been to the toilet in my shorts and it’s somebody’s car. I can’t do that.”
“Come on, that doesn’t matter,” Bill said.
Gary: There was this big sigh from the crowd inside the stadium. I felt totally helpless. My wife is sitting on the side of a road, totally distressed and I am trapped inside this stadium looking at her on a big screen. The protocol for an athlete who stops in a marathon? It was something we would never, ever have considered.
“She looked awful, like I had never seen her before. I had to turn away. It’s horrific to watch someone so close to you going through this . . . I couldn’t bear to think what was going on inside her head.
“Later, she was lying on a physio’s couch in the medical room when I saw her. She looked drained, broken-hearted. The worst thing that could have happened to her had happened. I put my arms around her. There was nothing I could say, all emotion had gone. She was numb now. It was like part of us had died, or at least a part of our lives had gone.”