Reflections on My First Marathon – Sajjad Panju

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An exhilarating test of physical and mental strength culminating into a deluge of emotions!

To succinctly capture my experience of running my first marathon, I would like to share my reflections in the following stages.

Signing up

Running a Marathon had always been on my bucket list. When a few friends from my running community, Stanmore Jafferys, were training for the London Marathon in 2022, I really wanted to join them. However, I knew I wasn’t ready. I reluctantly “settled” for running my first half marathon instead and set a target of doing the London Marathon the following year. During this time, I worked on becoming a better runner and getting my body ready for a marathon.

However, due to personal commitments and the timing of the London Marathon in April 23, this target slipped away and the sheer dismay of watching 50,000 runners take the streets of London left me with a void. In other words, I had a huge FOMO!! Fortunately, it turned out a few SJ runners had signed up for the Berlin Marathon later that year and encouraged me to join. I remember thinking, this was my chance, and I had to do it! With some convincing of family and juggling my personal commitments, especially given my planned move to Kenya around the same time as the Berlin Marathon, I managed to find a way to make it work and signed up for the marathon!

Training

With only 12 weeks to properly train for my first Marathon, I knew I had a huge task ahead of me, and with the help of my running friends, I started cracking on my training plan.

Losing precious training time due to travel commitments and illness, I remained focused and kept a positive mindset. The real test came when I injured my Achilles tendon just 5 weeks before the big day! This meant I had to rest and as a result lost time on feet. At this turning point, I had to pivot my training plan and stay mentally strong.

With recovery underway and the clock ticking, I slowly picked up pace with a few short runs and managed to complete The Big Half at a steady pace to test my Achilles tendon. Thankfully, my Achilles held up well albeit with pain and inflammation the next morning. At this point, with just 3 weeks to go, I had to accept the possibility of being at the start line in Berlin with an injury!

Marathon Week

I spent this week mentally preparing myself for the big day and finalised my race plan along with my pacing, fuelling and hydration strategies. I also prepared my meal plan for the week leading up to pre-race breakfast. More experienced runners would know that this is a key part of the race preparation.

Race Day

Having spent a good part of the night tossing and turning whilst anxiously thinking about my first marathon, I woke up with just 5 hours of sleep. Despite the lack of sleep, I was feeling pumped to take on this momentous challenge!

Breakfast at the hotel was filled with fellow runners, all making sure they got their necessary fuel in. Trying to keep calm and hold my nerves in, I got into my race kit and proceeded to the start point. The journey to the start line was special, it was surreal seeing thousands of runners from all over the world walking in one direction towards a single fate that united you. We had all been through months of gruelling training. The big day had finally dawned. Entering the race village, I was welcomed by a buzzing atmosphere and enjoyed soaking up the race day vibes as I proceeded to my starting corral.

All kitted up and ready to set off, I told myself this was my moment. I started to visualise the next 42.2km that lay ahead for me. And then the time came. My wave was flagged off and I was on the streets of Berlin for my first marathon. I paid careful attention to my race plan and maintained a steady pace until the half-way point. Having reached the half-way point in just under 2 hours, I was delighted. My Plan A of running a sub-4 hour marathon was within reach. I completed a further 5km at steady pace and felt really good.

However, totally oblivious to what is coming ahead of me, I experienced sudden and sharp shooting cramps on my right leg after the 26km mark. This was the turning point! Not having experienced this before, I tried to persevere on. The words of my fellow SJ runners, Ali Momin and Abbas Bhimji speaking about their experiences with cramps at the London Marathon started to play in my head. And this was it! Now I “felt” what they had experienced. This was where the true marathon begins, I told myself, I must keep pushing! I stopped on the side to stretch my right calf. Every time I tried to pick up pace, I felt the cramps come back and had to dial my pace down.

Having battled through a few more kilometres, I began experiencing shooting cramps on my left leg! Plodding through the pain, I reached the 32km mark – the infamous mile 20 that had taken many marathon runners! I had to re-assess my plan and settle for Plan B, given that the initial target of sub 4-hour had slipped away. With 10km to go, I remembered the famous words of the fastest marathon runner of all time, Eluid Kipchoge, “Pain is where success is. Pain will be there, accept it, embrace it.” I had to keep fighting!

Suffering from cramps in both legs, and my body depleted to the point where the energy gels, water and electrolytes were not helping, I watched my pace drop to below 6:30 min/km to 7:30 min/km at the 38km mark. This was disappointing. But with just over 4km to go, nothing was going to stop me! I pushed myself ever so slightly, picking up water at every station and even a banana for a strong finish!

As I looked up to the skies, constantly speaking to God, and hailing the crowds around me, I reached the 40km mark. The end was near, and I remember telling myself I could still aim for a 4:15 finish. The next couple of kilometres were hard. Several bends in and out, I had to dig deep and made the final turn catching sight of the iconic Brandenburg Gate up ahead. One of the most famous sites in Berlin, the Brandenburg Gate stood as a proud symbol of unity for the people of Germany. I must succeed and found the energy to make a strong finish. I raised my arms in the air and thanked God for giving me the strength to get through this huge challenge! The raucous cheers of the crowd carried me through the final few hundred metres, and I crossed the finish line completing my first ever marathon with a smile in 4 hrs 14mins 🙂

An end to an amazing weekend in Berlin with cherished memories and so much to learn from!

I would like to give a huge shout out to the following amazing people without whom this Marathon would have never happened!

To my amazing wife Fatima Zahra for all her support, not only for making things work for me to do the Berlin Marathon, but also for her patience, sacrifice and encouragement in this transformation journey I have been through.

Ali Momin for his coaching on all things running related. He has always been there, right from the start of my running journey 3 years back where I couldn’t even run a continuous 3km!

Ariff Sidiq for his expert knowledge on long distance running and invaluable support, tips and encouragement.

Ashiqali Damani for his coaching on nutrition, body composition and strength training. He is always there to answer my questions and has great knowledge on different food groups. In fact, it was Ashiqali who got me in good shape to run my first marathon.

Abbas Bhimji for sharing his personal experiences and for pushing me to sign up for the Berlin Marathon.

Nadim Kapadia for his continuous support and guidance throughout my running journey.

Sarfaraz Bandali (aka Sublo) for his great advice and tips on recovery when I injured my Achilles tendon. That ginger patch worked wonders!!!

As a final note, I would like to end by saying that the beauty of running a marathon is that even though running is an individual sport, yet we all share the same goal. Every runner is different, every runner has their reason for completing a marathon, yet we are all able to run together, share our experiences and learn from each other – a great example of unity and brotherhood.

To all those out there who are thinking of running a marathon, I would say do it! This is an experience you don’t want to miss! An experience of a lifetime and one which will teach you so much about yourself!

Pain is short lived. Finishing is everything!