Running my First Ever Marathon in Budapest!

I came to face the biggest physical challenge of my life on the 7th October 2012. After many months of preparation, the Big Day of running the Budapest Marathon has finally come!

I still could not quite comprehend what I had gotten myself into as I was nervously shifting my weight from one foot to other in the long queue at the start line on that chilly Sunday morning, together with 19,000 other runners from many different corners of the world. Then I reminded myself that I had not only got myself into this, but I had also recruited my friend Anita (who I have known since primary school) to join me in this madness!

So how did we end up at the start line of the Budapest Marathon? After doing a number of half Marathons, I found myself falling in love with distance running more and more over the past couple of months. I felt I wanted to push my limits even more to see if I could go even further than ever before. Even though the pure thought of doing a Marathon formed a nervous knot in my stomach, at the same time I found myself getting goosebumps at the prospect of conquering such a distance. I thought there was no better way of doing my very first marathon than facing this challenge in my birth country! The time seemed perfect as well – I had the whole spring, summer and the best part of autumn to train for the race, as opposed to many other Marathons which take place in spring and require you to train through the worst parts of the winter.

Anita and I spent the past couple of months preparing both mentally and physically for this one single event. She moved to Malaysia at the beginning of the year to support the setting up of her company’s new office in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. She wanted to keep fit by taking up running as a new hobby so she started training in Malaysia. Funnily enough, our paths crossed once quite accidentally when I found out that my Hubby Simon would be taking me to Malaysia as a first stop for our honeymoon! I could not believe that Anita and I would meet again in that far away corner of the world! Moreover, it turned out that our hotel (ShangriLa) was only be 5 minutes away from Anita’s apartment by the Petronas Towers. I still remember that very hot and wet morning when Anita and I went out for a solitary run at 5am at the park in the shadow of the iconic Twin Towers. (Yep, I did abandon the marital bed on our honeymoon just to run!) Seeing the sun coming up before everyone else was awake was a gloriously satisfying moment during our run.

Over the past couple of months, Anita and I pushed ourselves harder than ever and we found strength through sharing frequent progress updates on Facebook, which helped overcome the huge geographical distance. I witnessed Anita get into the best shape of her life and totally eliminating the word “impossible” from her dictionary. I have become fearless and found something new to focus on to fill in the void which formed after spending months on planning our wedding and waiting for our wedding day to come.

Unfortunately, I had to face a number of quite serious and unexpected setbacks in the final weeks of my marathon training. Barely did September start when my rent went up by 10%. Then a few days later, my car broke down completely and had to sell it for scrap. Simple things such as doing my weekly shopping and getting to work easily became a huge worry. Just when I thought things could not get worse, the next blow came as I was made redundant from my job shortly after. My balanced, happy and comfortable little world that I had worked so hard for was shaken up within the course of just one week. So I became a depressed shadow of the happily married, energetic and blossoming young woman I used to be as I sank into a dark pit of despair. For a long time, I woke up each morning bracing myself for the next blow to come. I don’t know how I would have survived that dark period without the loving support of my husband, my family and my closest friends. However, putting on a brave face and trying to be strong every single day when all I wanted was to crawl under my blanket and succomb to defeat was quite an energy consuming exercise – not good when you are trying to train for a marathon. I felt physically weak due to the stress and felt I was unable to carry on training at the level I was before these things happened.

However, I forced myself to carry on going to the gym as normal and went out for my usual training runs as well. Even though I could not face any rigorous Marathon training in that state, I did find that running was one of the things that helped me maintain my sanity throughout that period, it was my way of coping. Life is not about surviving storms but learning to dance in the rain. Or, in my case, learning to run through the worst of it. So I ran and refused to let go of my dream to do a Marathon. There were times when I was tempted to pull out for fear of having lost too much fitness, or simply for feeling completely defeated in almost all areas of my life, but somehow I persevered. The thought of completing the big challenge in spite of so many set backs kept me going.

Finally, just before travelling back to Hungary for the Marathon weekend, I could see a silver lining in the clouds above my head. I managed to secure a fixed term contract at a tea making company; then my hubby and I found a place to rent together.

I arrived to Budapest late at night on Friday and as a result, ended up having a rather untraditional dinner with my family at 2am, whilst exchanging post-wedding stories. Originally, I did not want my mum to know at all that I was going to run the Marathon on Sunday, knowing she would  start to panic and try to convince me what a mad and impossible idea it was. Unfortunately, somehow it leaked out…Surprisingly though her reaction was not as bad as I had anticipated, I only got moaned at a few times. We spent the whole Saturday in a lovely spa hotel by Velencei Lake, relaxing, soaking, getting some pampering in the sauna and jacuzzi… What is a better way to spend the day before running 42 kilometres?

My bro’s fiance, myself and my mum – preparing really hard for the Marathon next day

Anita’s parents drove us to the venue on Sunday morning, this way we could avoid the stress of using public transport and battling the queues at the Race HQ at the 56-osok Tere (near Heroes Square). Funnily enough, I found that our parents were even more nervous than us two about the Marathon!

It seemed we arrived at the perfect time as I got my welcome pack quickly and could get into my race gear without any difficulties in the Petofi Csarnok nearby. Just as the whole place started to buzz with thousands of other runners arriving, my good friend Tono came to meet us at the Race HQ. We had just enough time to catch up in a hurry during a clumsy warmup. I knew that my other friends Will and Diane would come and see me at the finish line after church. I felt really encouraged having so many friends coming to see me at the race.

This is where it all started…The race HQ

As Anita and I joined the flock at the start line (carefully choosing a spot based on our estimated finish time), I found myself being in a trance-like state, as if I was dreaming… I saw myself as a teenager – I used to be full of inhibitions and utterly despised all forms of physical exercise and even went to great lengths to avoid having to take part in anything even remotely competitive. (My PE teacher had to resort to bribing me to compete in sports events by offering me a better mark in PE). We had just enough time for a quick pre-race photo together when the drums started and the long serpentine of runners flooded Heroes Square, then straight onto Andrassy Ut.

A minute before the start…

It has started…

I was very much preoccupied by my hamstrings during the first couple of km’s. Stupidly enough, I had done a hardcore kettlebell session in the gym on Friday morning and my muscles were still complaining. Despite doing lots of stretching and getting so much pampering in the spa the day before, I was expecting my right hamstring muscle to let me down at any moment. I had butterflies in my stomach at the thought of having to pull out.

Anita and I had agreed in advance that we would run together. I tried to set a light pace for us – I knew the only way to get through the race was to use our energy sparingly and resist the temptation of running too hard at the beginning when the adrenaline was still pumping so high in our bloodstream, and the spectators were cheering the loudest. My approach was that if after 35k we still had lots of energy in the tank, we could always hit it harder towards the end.

Anita was radiating with excitement – her energy and my cautious approach balanced out our pace nicely from the start. Whilst I was preoccupied with my hams, she was concerned about her knees but we both refused to let our worries stop us. I am sure that every runner has a weak spot in their bodies and it is so important to be 100% tuned into the signals our bodies are giving out – knowing when to stop, ease back or carry on should come as second nature for the seasoned runner. We tried not to run too slow – the sight of the sweeper bus closing on the end of the runners’s serpentine was enough of a deterrent!

After using the first couple of km’s to warm up and ease into the spirit, I took my time to observe our surroundings. Firstly, I had to ascertain that the organising was first class. There were feeding stations at approx. every 2 km’s with plenty of refreshments, bananas and glucose tablets with cheery and enthusiastic helpers shouting encouragements (which became louder and louder nearer the end of the race…). Runners also had the option to choose where they wanted to pick up their own refreshments from (this had to be organised the night before). Whilst Anita was relying on gels and honeyed water, I was perfectly happy with bananas and plain water and some half-melted Snickers bar. I did not really have much chance to experiment with my fuelling strategy during my training runs but I knew that bananas and water could not do much harm. I even brought some porridge from England to have as my race day breakfast LOL.

Most runners eventually encounter some form of discomfort along the Marathon distance… Even though there were portable toilets all along the route, nature decided to call me quite intently just before the half way marker…. I am a lady of utmost dignity, however, I was so desperate for a pee that I had to resort to relieving myself in the cover of a some trees – if Paula Radcliffe was allowed to do the same in the middle of the road in full view of everyone just before winning the 2005 London Marathon, then I certainly won’t feel a lesser lady.

Different groups of musicians kept us entertained all the way through – ranging from a male choir to the national Opera’s singers to a tiny Hungarian folk music band. Occasionally some old school tunes such as Scatman shook up the monotony of running (or more like made us turn our heads in disbelief), making us forget about our pain for a moment.

A number of runners made the effort to dress up for the occasion: we encountered a witch in full gear complete with a broomstick, we ran past a pair of green aliens, a giant Rubic Cube (worn by the Rubic cube world record holder himself!), even chased after a runaway thief with a plush dog attached to his bum as if biting him, a guy sweating hard in full mountain climbing gear.  An old man also attracted a few curios glances as  he was hitting the asphalt barefoot and only wearing rather tight speedos. I wished for a moment that I had brought my wedding dress making this race a “trash the dress” event. However, remembering how much I had paid for the dress quickly convinced me it was not such a good idea after all.

My favourite costume

It was amazing to soak in the atmosphere and see again the most beautiful and iconic spots of Budapest: Heroes Square and the City Park, Andrassy Ut, the Opera, The Houses of Parliement, Margaret Island, the Chain Bridge, Gellert Bath, Buda Castle, the National Theatre, the Market Hall and also spot some new developments which were erected since my last visit about 2 years ago, such as the CET Shopping Centre nicknamed as the “glass whale” because of its nautical structure. I only ever realise how much I have been missing Hungary when I am actually in Hungary and all the memories come back!

The Chain Bridge

The Western Railway Station

The Opera

The Houses of Parliament

Heroes Square

We encountered a few friendly runners, including an old guy who joined us for a short while and told us he had completed dozens of Marathons and how disappointed he had been with his performance but was hoping this Marathon would be his “come back”. We always got a lot of encouragement when we told people it was our very first Marathon. We could have chosen to wear a special sticker on our backs to indicate we were first Marathoners but for some reason, we did not feel it was that important but now I kind of feel we had missed out on so much because of not doing it.

We were extremely lucky with the weather: it was a cool, windless day with the sun occasionally peeking out of the clouds. I don’t know how we would have coped in extreme heat or torrential rain. The rain eventually reached Budapest only just a couple of hours after the race – what a perfect timing! On top of that, the running surface was almost perfectly flat, except when we were made to run up the bridge near Westend City Centre.

Anita and I spent the best bit of the first two hours mentally bracing ourselves for the pains of the second half. I have to say that after we hit the 30k landmark, I began to feel really challenged. My IT band on both sides started to nag me and my whole body started to stiffen up so much that I would have been in real trouble if I had had to bend down to tie up my shoelaces! There came a point where stopping actually hurt more than just carrying on. After a while, you become so accustomed to hurting all over below your waist that it becomes your natural state and then you reach a point where pain does not matter any more, you carry on regardless.  Besides, stopping and giving up so close to the finish would have just been unforgivable, all that hard work and training would have gone straight down the drain. You just have to tell yourself you don’t care how much it hurts, qnd one way or another you will go through that finish line (even if you have to crawl or be carried on a stretcher) with your head high and a big smile on your face. During the worst moments, I tried to visualise the feeling of crossing the finish line and the triumphant feeling that goes with it. I reminded myself that by reaching the 30k mark I had already gone longer than ever before. Fortunately, I seemed to be spot on with my hydration and fuelling strategy as I never for one moment felt close to hitting the dreaded wall. Anita and I pulled each other through the worst bits. In retrospect, I am sure that doing this all on my own would have been much harder! One of our best moments was when our names were called out in the loudspeaker during the final stretch once which gave us an extra boost of energy.

The final 1-2km felt like the distance between two continents. At this point, we saw more and more people walking, or limping even. By that time, I was on the verge of either breaking into tears or letting out a loud swear. However, the sight of the National Gallery on Heroes Square slowly started to emerge from the distance, and the bitter tears I was holding back so hard were turned into a joyous electric wave racing through my whole body and for a moment I felt like a gazelle running with the wind. When we reached Heroes Square again, Anita and I exchanged just one look (no words were needed) then grabbed each others’s hands and burst past a thick wall of cheering supporters, into the finish line, letting out a triumphant battle cry. Crossing the finish line was such an emotionally charged moment that all we could do was hug each other and then we both burst into tears. That moment will be forever embedded in my memory: no matter what the distance is or how bad the pain is, immense pride in yourself is what you feel most once you cross the finish line.

This video is a short summary of the whole race – at 3:53 there is a snapshot of our arrival into the finish line!

The finish

A very proud moment

As we walked past the camera crew in a trance – like state, someone hang a giant medal around our necks, then we heard our names called out by Anita’s parents as they stood by the barriers tearfully, waiting for us. That was a moment when all four of us just cried. We walked past the final barrier in a euphoric state whilst collecting our goody bags, still trying to grasp what we had just accomplished. I was awakened from my dream-like state by the sight of my friend Will who was shortly joined by his wife, Diane. They are two of my best friends from  the “good old times” in Hungary. I was so glad that someone came to meet me in the finish line as well. After recovering from the finish, we collected our stuff from the changing rooms and parted as Anita was driven home by her parents and Will and Diane kindly offered to take me out for pizza. I could not imagine a better treat after my run that spending time with Will and Diane and replenishing my energy stocks with a huge pizza and Coca Cola!

My mum collected me from Budapest in the end and I was grateful that I was driven home and did not have to brave public transport. My mum was pleasantly surprised how “good” I looked when she first saw me – she later on admitted she had expected to see a limping and broken girl. Even though my mum never changed her mind about me undertaking this challenge (namely, that it is pure madness), I kind of felt that because I had massively exceeded her expectations, I had earned some respect in her eyes. It felt great to relax at home, chat to my grannies and then have dinner with my mum, bro and his fiance. By 9pm I was totally exhausted and slept like a baby. I took the next day very easy, spending time with my mum at home. Surprisingly, my muscles were not as sore as I had expected! Unfortunately for Anita, she had to go back to work that day so did not have much of a chance to recover properly.

Parting at the airport on Monday afternoon was not easy, and I always leave Hungary promising to myself that I would return soon again. Even though I do not always keep this promise, I definitely want to see more of my family and old friends  – and of course, try more of the races in my birth country!

Goodbye at the Airport

Looking back, I think doing the Budapest Marathon is one of the best things I have ever done. I am also glad I could share this experience and the whole journey of preparation with a friend. I think we grew even closer to each other through this. Whilst Anita went through an amazing metamorposis of building up her fitness level resulting in getting into the best shape of her life and inspiring so many other people throughout her journey, the best thing I ever got out of the whole experience if I have to sum it up in just one word is resilience. No matter what life throws at you or what other people think you can or cannot do, if you set your mind onto what you really want and refuse to take the easy option of quitting, nothing can stop you. For me this Marathon was more about mental rather than physical toughness, even though the physical side was definitely not a piece of cake, either. Staying focused on just one thing helped me stay not only physically but mentally strong as well which better equipped me for putting myself out onto the job market again and getting my life back to (close to) normal.

People say that there is always light at the end of the tunnel. I can finally see a flickering light now that I have a new job (albeit a temporary one, but they pay me well and I am finding the tea business quite interesting…). My hubby and I have finally found a lovely place to rent (we are moving in next month); and I am coping (mostly) OK without a car. Although there are still some rain clouds above my head and I have not entirely come out of my tunnel, I know that I am a survivor, a fighter and I thank everyone who supported me and stood by me during the past couple of weeks. Your love is my strength.

P.S. Now that I have completed a Marathon, I need a new challenge. Anyone up for an Ultra? 😛

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