"Hello," said a little voice, as we approached the 5 mile marker, "is this your first marathon?"
"No, it isn't, but is it yours?" I replied.
"Yes. I just want to finish it. I really hope I can."
"Me too." I sighed.
Four months have passed since setting out my manifesto for improving my running manners; approximately the same amount of time you're supposed to spend building up to a marathon. Except I didn't. I won't bore you with the reasons; you don't need to read that. What I did do, in a feat of will over reason, was go from zero to 19.4 miles over the course of a three-week training binge and turn up in Manchester last weekend with 3 main aims:
1. Finish with a smile,
2. Avoid, if possible, being trampled to a gory death by the 5 hour pace group,
3. Photobomb as many pictures as I could.
Up the road were blogging chums and running rockstars, Laura and Liz. The out-and-back sections early in the course provided reassurance that they were pacing it well for their respective targets and I felt proud watching them race purposefully past in the opposite direction. We may have only met once previously but we've followed each others training and racing electronically for some time within the online running community; the value of which they recognise to be so powerful that they've put their hearts, souls and technicolour compression socks into making the UK's first running bloggers' conference, Write this Run, happen next weekend.
Our paces matched comfortably so our conversation continued and I discovered that my new companion's name was Jill. Not because she told me but because she had the foresight to have it printed in huge silver text across her vest and because the loyal supporters of Manchester marathon were so happy to cheer. Over the course of the miles that followed, I learned that she was running her first marathon, aged 50, to raise money for a local cancer trust. She hadn't run previously but she had prepared methodically, overcoming injury, and was determined to finish the marathon. I grew instantly fond of her conviction, which glimmered from beneath her warm and modest demeanor. Neither of us had any reason to speed up or slow down so we continued on our way, step-by-step, together, towards the finish line.
Pushing through mile 19, Jill announced she was struggling and that she would need to slow for a while. I asked if she'd like me to stay with her and finish together. She took some convincing that I would be happy to do this but accepted the offer with a smile. Little did Jill know that I was in uncharted waters here: I had never run this far with another runner for company, let alone a stranger. In fact, I hadn't broken wind for nearly 3 hours, concerned my new running companion would think it rude. But what Jill had given me was a purpose to keep on running and a new target for this marathon.
Approaching the finish, we saw Jill's husband and 15-year old son; they couldn't have been more proud of her and rightly so. I feel I ought to issue a public apology at this stage; unaware who they were at first, I simply saw a camera phone and pulled out my best jazz hands, thinking momentarily of my own race aims from earlier in the day. If I spoiled a cherished family memory then I am genuinely sorry.
We upped the pace for a final sprint and finished together with arms aloft, grinning widely. She hugged me and thanked me for the support and I filled with pride for what she had achieved that day. Who knows why Jill chose me to start chatting to, but I will always remain glad that she did. There is every possibility that we'll never meet again, or maybe this funny little running world will ensure we do - either way, thank you, Jill, for letting me be part of your day.
With the completion of marathon number 7, I believe I may have stumbled upon lesson number 5 for being a better runner: take genuine joy from other people's achievements, even if that means you have to stifle a fart for 21 miles.