Running a Marathon: An Interview with Bel Ellison

BONNEE CRAWFORD: On Sunday 15 October 2017, you were one of 32,000 people who participated in the Medibank Melbourne Marathon Festival. I know you had been training for that day for a long time, what first made you decide you were going to participate? 

BEL: I decided to do the marathon in January of 2017. I had been at the point where I was wondering what I was going to do with my running. A lot of people had suggested that I should do a marathon, but you go through the usual thoughts of ‘No, that’s too much work. Forty-two kilometres—that’s a really long distance’. But the more it was brought up, the more I thought about it, and I went, you know what? I have my health, I don’t have any significant injuries, and I have the time to train properly for this. I might as well do this while I have the chance, because I don’t know if I’ll have another chance to do it in the future. That’s what really made me decide to do it. I spent ten months training all up for it, which was a lot harder than I thought it would be, but I’m really glad I did it because I can say now that I’ve run a marathon. I can tick that off the bucket list.

BONNEE: Can I just ask, why does this marathon happen? Can you share about the purpose behind the Medibank Melbourne Marathon Festival?

BEL: You’ll find with organised runs there will be two purposes to them. The first purpose is giving people an opportunity to run the distance. With the Melbourne Marathon, a lot of people do it because they want to run a marathon. But you’ll also find with organised runs there’s a second purpose, and that is to raise money for a certain cause. For example, in the Run for the Kids, their designated charity is the Good Friday Appeal, which raises money for the Royal Children’s Hospital. With the Melbourne Marathon you could also pick the charity that you wanted to raise money for, say Beyond Blue or a charity that you’re personally involved with. That’s mostly how I’ve noticed organised runs work. So, two things: it gives people the opportunity to do the run, and it’s raising money for a good cause.

BONNEE: How far could you run when you first started training for this marathon?

BEL: When I first started training, I think the longest distance I had done was eight-kilometres. I was an avid runner, but very much short distance. I was probably doing about four or five five-kilometre runs during the week. It takes about 20 minutes for me to do that. I went from 8 to 42[km] in about 10 months, which got difficult because you need to do it over a long period of time so you don’t really fatigue your body. What I would do was I would do short runs during the week, 5, 7, 9[km], whatever I could fit in. And then on Sundays, I would try and do a longer run, but every two weeks I’d try and increase the distance. The first distance I did was 10[km], then two weeks later I’d try and do 12[km], two weeks after that I’d try and do 14[km], then 16, 18, 20[km]. It starts adding up. 

BONNEE: So you were setting goals along the way to help train yourself up for the big day. Training for something like a marathon takes a lot of discipline and can have a huge impact on your body and your day-to-day life. What measures did you put in place to ensure you achieved your goals?

BEL: One of the big things I had to do was modify my diet. I noticed that I wasn’t actually eating enough to do long distance running. I noticed because I started losing a lot of weight. I was like, ‘Ah, I am a stick with boobs. Oh dear’. I was a skeleton with boobs, actually. I needed to start eating more because I noticed I just didn’t have enough energy in my day-to-day life and training.

I found that I’d start scheduling my runs into my phone. So, as I’d put in my social engagements and my due dates for assignments, I’d also put in every fortnight ‘doing 18 kilometres’ or ‘doing 21 kilometres’. Actually book it in because you know sometimes life just happens. A friend says, ‘Do you want to get lunch on Sunday?’ And you go ‘I’ll just check my phone. Oh, I have to do my training. Can we do it in the afternoon or can we get dinner instead?’. You have to be very disciplined about it and it does get frustrating.

BONNEE: Can you tell us a bit about what kind of diet modifications you made?

BEL: Eat a lot more. Eat a lot more protein. One thing I did was I started using protein powder, and I found that it made a huge difference to my energy levels. I was already on iron tablets, so that helped. […] I also started eating a lot more cashews, started focusing on trying to eat more good food and a lot of it, because otherwise I’ve never eaten much. Carb loading is important, particularly the night before a big run. That always works for me because I love pasta, so it’s just like ‘Aw yeah, it’s pasta night!’. And you really do feel the difference if you don’t do stuff like that. Your runs are that much harder. Particularly when you’re trying to do 20-plus kilometres. You’ll get to the point where you have to stop every kilometre because you either don’t have the energy, or you’re getting stitches, or you’re mentally falling apart. You don’t realise how important diet is until you really physically push yourself like that.

BONNEE: It couldn’t have been an easy goal to achieve. What were the biggest setbacks you faced leading up to the marathon? Did you ever consider giving up?

BEL: My biggest hurdle was the mental battle, because I found with the marathon the first half of it is purely a physical battle. The second half of it, it’s a physical and a mental battle. I found when I got up to a half marathon I was feeling good—I was feeling great. But training beyond that got very difficult very quickly and you have to find ways of getting through the mental fatigue. I remember training and feeling like I wanted to cry at times like, ‘Oh god, I’ve still got two kilometres to go’. Little things I did were—say in the second half—I’d get out my iPod and start listening to some really upbeat tunes like ‘Lift’ by Shannon Noll and really happy music like ‘Timber’ by Ke$ha—really upbeat, pop-y tunes to get your adrenaline going again. A lot of it is digging deep and telling yourself that you can make the distance.

[…] My best friend gave me some really good advice. A couple of days before the marathon, I was really starting to doubt myself and whether I could actually go the distance. And I was telling him, ‘Look, it’s really bizarre, but I’m scared of the distance itself’. He told me this: ‘In cricket, batsmen call it the nervous nineties—top class batsmen who freeze up when they’ve scored 90-99 runs because all they can think about is “will they make it to 100?” So it’s very common for sports stars to feel daunted by a task. But in cricket 100 runs is just a collection of 100 balls they’ve faced, and it’s the same with running. There’s no difference in the kilometres you run, it’s just when you look at them all together you get daunted by the task. Don’t think of it as one big job, think of it as the first kilometre, and how you’ve run a kilometre many times before. A marathon is just a collection of one kilometre runs. A bunch of steps are easy when you break it up. Just take it one step at a time’. You know when you just received the perfect piece of advice? I felt so much better afterwards. I’ve got a great best friend, I have to say.

BONNEE: It sounds like you’ve had a lot of support on your way to the marathon and you really pushed through with your training. How did you go on the day?

BEL: On the day, I felt pretty good because I was able to get through that anxiety of ‘Oh god, can I actually do this?’ thanks to my best friend and a lot of people who I reached out to and who reached out to me in the lead up to it, which I’m very grateful for. I have a lot of awesome people in my life. So when the day came around, I felt pretty confident in myself that I could do it, and I just kept reminding myself the last training run was 40 kilometres. Today I’ve got to run 42[km]—I know I can do it.

I felt good on the day and it still was hard. I still remember that 30 to 40 kilometres were just [groan]. Like, okay, I’m going to walk for 500 meters and then I’m going to start running again. It actually gets to the point where it’s less painful to keep running than it is to walk. I really enjoyed the day though. I really enjoyed running with all these different people from all walks of life. I really enjoyed seeing just different people run. Like, I saw grandmas doing the run, I saw a bloke doing the marathon while pushing his disabled son in a wheelchair, I saw families doing it, I saw a Muslim woman in a headscarf, covered, doing the marathon. It was really inspiring, and the vibe was so positive and everyone is so supportive of one another. It was a really awesome day.

BONNEE: Would you participate again in future? What are your plans now that the marathon is over?

BEL: I would love to participate again if I had the chance. As I’ve said, I don’t know if I’ll get another opportunity and that’s one of my big motivations in doing it. I’d love to do it again because it was such a positive experience. I think for me personally, it’s really important that I do things that challenge myself because it keeps you balanced, I find. And it keeps you focused on, what can I actually do with my life? Am I making the most of what I have now? So yeah, I would do it again if I had another chance. And I think it’s really important to challenge yourself.

BONNEE: Has the marathon had any other impact on your life and on you? What did you gain from the experience?

BEL: I gained from the experience that … to me, it really was a reminder that I really can do something if I set my mind to it. I think in my case in particular, I doubt myself a lot. I think to myself, what am I doing? I can’t write an essay. Am I even a good friend? What am I doing? I’m just a terrible person … not to that extent, but I doubt myself. And I think being able to do that really reminded me that, yes, I can actually do a task if I set my mind to it. Yes, it will be hard. Yes, I’m going to have trials and tribulations along the way, but if I set my mind to something I can do it, and for me, I really need that reminder. I’m sitting here now nearly four months later and I’m like, ‘I ran a marathon. I actually did that, go me. I’d like to thank me, and I’d also like to thank myself.’

BONNEE: The last thing I’d like to ask is, what would you say to someone else who was thinking about participating in a marathon? Is there any advice you would give your past self?

BEL: I would tell my past self … it’s going to be hard, but if you have the opportunity, you have your health, and you’ve basically got the chance, I’d recommend it. Some people just aren’t going to be able to because of injury or time. Having enough time is essential to train for it properly. But if you’ve got the opportunity to do something like it, I would recommend it because it’s one of those things where you can look back and say ‘Yeah, I ran a marathon’. I’m going to be an eighty-year-old lady one day, but I’m going to be able to say ‘I ran a marathon’.

What advice would I give? Don’t give up, and don’t be afraid to talk to people about how you’re feeling about it. It’s okay to say, ‘I struggled with training today’ or ‘I don’t know about this marathon thing, am I silly for wanting to do a marathon?’. It’s okay to doubt yourself, and you will doubt yourself. That’s all part of the process, but you will get through it. If you’ve got really great people in your life, they will support you, and they will give you advice, and they will push you to achieve your goal.

Bel Ellison is currently studying a Masters of Communication at Deakin University. She has previously completed a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Secondary Education.

Bonnee’s work appears in the TabooEthereal, Contact, HarmonyGenre, Prelude, Home, Wild, Freedom of Expression, O’Week, Awkward, Time, and August editions of WORDLY Magazine.

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