We were barely a quarter of a mile into the fabulous new Portsmouth Coastline Marathon when a chap, who’d read my book and liked it, came up on my left-hand side and said “Are you Phil?”
I glanced to my left to say yes and ran straight into a lamp post. My swelling pride lasted just about a nanosecond before the awful, clanging impact sent me reeling backwards.
I felt terrible – terrible for repaying my fellow runner’s friendliness by the disconcerting spectacle of me head-banging a piece of street furniture. Just a shame it wasn’t a settee or something rather softer.
For several seconds, I couldn’t think straight, but then came the gush of blood – and boy, did it bleed in the way that head wounds usually do. It was like turning on a tap. But fortunately, help was at hand.
The poor chap – known in the twittersphere as #gearselected – was solicitousness itself as he persuaded the occupants of a parked car nearby to part with a wadge of tissues which I duly drenched.
It took me back to that moment five minutes into the New York City Marathon when a chap tripped and crashed down onto his knee. It was obvious he was out of the race, and you just knew what everyone else was thinking: that could have been me.
I staggered on. When you’ve written a book called Keep On Running, not continuing wasn’t an option, and maybe I ran on shock for a while before the impact properly hit me. At four miles, thinking of the miles stretching ahead, I was within a whisker of pulling out.
But that’s when that old cliché about marathon-running rescued me. The only person you run against is yourself. Everyone else you are running with.
And what a superb bunch they were. I lost count of the number of people who checked I was OK. I wish I had a mince pie for every runner who said “You’re going to need stitches in that, mate.” I had the distinct advantage of not being able to see what I looked like.
Their generosity of spirit kept me on track. In my confused mind, I was Terry Butcher playing on in that vital World Cup qualifier in Sweden, blood dripping down his shirt.
But you don’t bash your head like that without paying a price. At about 20 miles, as we came back alongside the eastern road, I started to lose a sense of height and depth. It became difficult to judge differing levels, and the short drop to the beach to my left was giddying in a worrying way. I wasn’t at all sure I was seeing it properly. My only option was to walk.
And that’s when yet another runner spoke to me: “We’re all keeping an eye on you, mate,” he said. And so they did. Just before South Parade Pier, with barely half a mile to go, with a head that felt like every single Christmas carol that has ever been written was being played in it, I was inches away from the absurdity of packing it all in. I was conscious I wasn’t running straight, and my head hurt like hell.
I hope these words reach runner 660. He told me he would get me over the line and he did, by which time someone else had warned the paramedics that I was coming. They were waiting for me, and the care was terrific – even if the wait at the minor injuries unit at St Mary’s Hospital wasn’t much short of the time it had taken me to run the marathon.
The upshot was five stitches to my forehead, lots of questions about what day it was, who was the prime minister, lights shining in my eyes, high-blood pressure, slow pupils, concussion and very likely a broken nose. Apparently they don’t X-ray noses. This morning, it’s roughly the shape of the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.
Oh, and two eyes that are turning black.
It’s been a groggy, thuddingly-painful, sleep-free night, but looking back at yesterday, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I love marathons, but more and more I am realising that it is one’s fellow marathoners that make marathons the insanely-seductive events they are.
And I think I have just discovered the very best pain-killer there is: the kindness of runners.
Keep On Running, newly-subtitled Ideally Without Hitting The Lamp Posts, is available from Amazon: