London Marathon – With a Stroke of Luck

by Lotty Bradford

The quick read – After 15 years of trying, I finally managed to get a place in London marathon thanks to getting a club place via Keswick AC. It was the most incredible day. The whole event was like nothing I’d ever experienced before and was even better than I imagined. The crowds were on another level. I crossed the finish line with all the emotions. One truly truly memorable day. 

The long read – The journey to London started a long time ago. Bear with me…… It’s a late April Sunday morning in 2008 and I’m sitting on the sofa like thousands of other people watching the London Marathon on the TV. What a spectacle! I’d never really paid it much attention before, but here I was watching it intently; seeing such a huge range of people all making their way around the streets of London looking like they were having an amazing time and it was really inspiring. There and then I made the decision that next year I was going to do that, I was going to run the London Marathon. 

But there were a few things ….

Firstly, I wasn’t a runner! I was a mountain biker. Other than doing the odd Race for Life with work colleagues I hadn’t put on a pair of running shoes since school cross country days. Running 26 miles was going to be some feat, but it was for most people so I figured I wouldn’t be alone.  

Secondly, it’s bloomin hard to get a place! Who knew that you couldn’t just enter the draw and get a place?? 

Thirdly, just a few months beforehand I’d suffered a stroke and as I sat on the sofa watching the marathon I currently couldn’t walk a single step unaided. 

Early 2008 at the age of 28 I suffered a stroke which resulted in paralysis of my left side. Fortunately for me the stroke didn’t impact my cognitive function or my ability to swallow, I was still able to communicate and importantly (!) eat and drink without issues. I just couldn’t walk and I couldn’t use my left arm (thankfully again, I was right handed). 

I spent several weeks on a stroke rehab ward alongside a bunch of folks much older than me. I was a bit of a ‘novelty’. The physios loved me and hated me in equal measure. I was super keen and eager to get on with the rehab (unlike a lot of their patients) but I was impatient too and never followed the plan and did far too many exercises and exhausted myself. The frustration was huge, but eventually we found a balance. They learnt how much to tell me to do (when not being supervised!) knowing full well that I’d do more and I reluctantly learnt that this wasn’t going be fixed overnight and that exhausting myself wasn’t going to make the process any quicker, if anything it made it longer. I just wasn’t a very patient patient, but I just had to get myself well enough to be allowed home. 

Eventually that day came. I’d insisted that I would ‘walk’ off the ward and I did, albeit with the help of a Zimmer frame, but not long after passing the door threshold I had to concede and do the rest of the trip to the car in a wheelchair. 

So here I am, 28 years old and barely managing a dozen steps and even then only with the help of walking aids. But I had grand plans that this time next year I was going to run a marathon. Naivety and optimism in equal measure!

The phrase learning to walk before you run had never felt more apt. 

So with the 2008 London marathon complete and feeling inspired to give it a go and have something to focus my recovery on, I entered the ballot for 2009. It’d be 6 months before I heard whether I’d got a place or not. 

October came and with it the marathon magazine landed on my doorstep and with a stroke of luck it was a – “sorry not this time”. This rehab malarkey was taking a lot longer than I expected (not to the clinicians but it was to me). I’d just enter the ballot again and try for next year instead, I’d be ready by then for sure. 

Whilst I was getting more and more mobile I was still some way from being able to run. I was walking unaided for short periods of time but was still heavily reliant on walking sticks. These were wooden walking sticks that Carl thought would be highly amusing to nail the little metal shields to that ‘old folks’ have! They really weren’t a fashion accessory for a 28 year old!

Bit by bit mobility returned and two sticks became one and one became none. The journey wasn’t smooth or linear and many times I had to remind myself to look back at how far I’d come and whilst it still felt like there was a mountain to go, I was now at “base camp 2”. 

Many months passed by and eventually I got to the point of doing the couch to 5km. 

By this stage though I was feeling more and more isolated from the world and my friends. Despite being more mobile and being able ‘do’ a bit more I was a long way off being able to join them on the mountain bike trails and out in the countryside. My balance was shocking and there was no way I was going to be able to ride a bike any time soon. I was determined though that I would get running and when they all went biking I would then go for a ‘run’ and at least then I’d be able to get out, share some time and space with them, be in the hills and countryside and importantly sit and have a debrief coffee and cake! 

After completing the C25K I joined a small local running group called John’s Joggers. I’d had another ‘sorry not this time’ magazine from London marathon, but again I was a little relieved as I was still a long long way from that kind of distance. 

It was with John’s Joggers that I managed to build myself up to 10km and in January 2011 that I completed my first 10km event. I’d run once a week with John’s group and once on my own at a weekend. 

A few weeks later I entered an online competition to win a fitness holiday in the French Alps. I mean, who wouldn’t want to win a fully catered holiday to the Alps!?! With a stroke of luck I won!!! How amazing. I read the brief and details of the win. I could choose to go on a sports camp with a sports professional either swim, bike or run based. Well my swimming was sh*t so that was out of the question, I couldn’t physically ride a bike so that was out of the question, so running it was. And well, I was a ‘runner’, wasn’t I?? I’d just run 10km, and the details said you needed to be able to run 10km. Winner winner. June came and I was off. 

I had the biggest shock of my life. The folks who were on the camp were ‘proper’ runners with multiple marathons (many running sub 3hrs!) under their belts and some even had world titles to their names! What on earth had I let myself in for?!? Who knew there was such a thing as two runs in one day???!? Despite the initial shock and upset of feeling so very out of my depth I had the most amazing week. I came home with a new found confidence and group of fantastic friends and I’m still in touch with many of them now. Olympic marathon runner Liz Yelling and her coaching husband Martin Yelling gave me more in that week than they could ever have possibly known. They taught me that I was as much a part of the running community as any of the ‘fast’ runners and that we’re all on our own journeys of progression regardless of our starting point. 

I came back from that run camp with a new found confidence and joined a ladies running group called Smiley Paces. The most incredible group of women where I made life long friendships and had some of the most challenging and fun adventures with.

The years rolled by and the ballot entries kept going in, but the response was always the same – ‘sorry not this time’.

My running was getting a bit better though and bit by bit I was running further and further (but perhaps not faster and faster!!). 

I ran marathons and ultras but London never came round. My reasons for wanting to do London were nothing to do with running the marathon distance, it was about the journey I’d been on and the purpose that that event had given me in my darkest days. Running a marathon somewhere else just wasn’t the same. 

Whilst the running had started on tarmac, my heart was very much in the hills and on the trails despite the difficulties they posed to me. My balance was still not great but they were all do-able if I just took my time and was careful. 

Roll forward to 2021, I’d still not managed to get a London place and we’d moved to the Lakes. But I’d found a new ‘tribe’ and had been warmly welcomed into Keswick AC and was gently being introduced to some Lakeland fell running – a whole new level of testing my balance! Whilst I’d ventured to some Peak District fell events, these were another level! Late 2022 and the Keswick AC London ballot was open. Just before Christmas the ballot was announced – I’d got the club place!!!!! 

Wowzers! It was finally happening. New Year’s Day and the training plan kicked off. 5 weeks in though I got a chest infection, a course of antibiotics and steroids would sort it and then I’d be back to training. But alas it wasn’t to be, three more courses of antibiotics and steroids later and I was categorically told that I would not be doing London this year. Deferral was the only option. 

Who knew that the road to a marathon had the ups and downs and set backs that a stroke recovery had?? Nothing was linear and there were hurdles along the way. 

Roll on 2024 and training commenced again. As with all of these things it wasn’t a smooth journey but thankfully no chest infections this year, just the usual winter cold and a bit of a calf tear. The long runs built gradually and I was thankful for the company and the support on many of them from Nicky and Dan Steels. The weeks ticked by quickly and before we knew it we were heading in to April. Nicky and Dan were a week ahead of me as they were doing Manchester. So my final long run was a solo effort, who on earth was I going to talk to and distract myself with now?!? 

Taper time came and the usual, ‘I can feel a niggle’ , ‘I can’t run a mile at the pace I’m aiming for let alone 26’ all crept in, but folks reminded me that this was normal and how it should feel. 

As the day approached the emotions were building and the nerves were increasing. It had taken so long to get to this point, the journey to the marathon wasn’t the last 16 weeks, it was the last 16 years. With all of the doubt about whether I’d walk again let alone manage anything more than that; was I really going to be one of those people running past the Cutty Sark and over Tower Bridge?? 

The weather forecast was perfect; cool conditions, dry, slight breeze. I was so thankful that it wasn’t going to be a warm one – I can’t regulate my temperature too well now and don’t cope very well with the heat. 

The size and scale of the event is quite incomprehensible – the expo and number collecting, the start funnels and the number of people all making their way to the various starts was just insane. 

Finally, it’s Sunday morning and I’m waiting at the red start area at Greenwich. Carl is as cool as a cucumber and helping to quash my nerves and anxiety but he can’t step into the start area with me, so we say our goodbyes and off I go alone, hopeful that I’ll manage to spot him on the route somewhere (but having supported him a few years before I knew how hard that was going to be). 

The toilet queues were immense! But it helped to pass the time and meant that I wasn’t sitting filling my head with nervous worrying thoughts. Wave pens were called and before I knew it I was being channelled along to the start line. With a big roar from the commentator, “Red Wave 7 you are go go go!!!” . We were off. 

Remember, remember don’t go off too fast, it’s downhill slightly at the start and it’s super easy to get pulled along with the crowds. Hold back and stay steady. Remembering Martin Yelling’s words to me from a couple of days earlier, the first 6 miles should feel easy, if they don’t then you’re going to fast. 

I found my rhythm. There were people lining the streets from the word go. Shouting, playing music, banging drums. This was like Manchester marathon at its prime and we hadn’t even reached the ‘busy’ parts of London course. It was going to be mad! 

Nothing really prepares you for the attack on your senses that is about to happen. The crowds build and build, the noise gets louder and louder and the grin on my face got bigger and bigger. 

Before I knew it I was at the Cutty Sark, TV cameras were there and the crowds roared. Heading round the back of the boat and there was Carl, prime spot (he’d found his way into the exclusive New Balance arena and had a prime front row spot!!). I heard him call my name and I threw him a big wave with giddy excitement. This was happening, I was actually running the London Marathon. 

I had a glance at my watch and checked the pace I was at, feeling ‘comfy’, but running entirely to feel, I wasn’t going to be a slave to the watch. Today was all about the experience, the crowds and taking it all in, the time would be what it would be, I was here for the journey and I was blooming well going to make the most of it! 

The miles ticked by and the music changed but the volume didn’t – the crowds were having a marathon of their own – they were utterly unbelievable. 

30km in and I was having a slump. Then Holly’s words came to me – ‘when the going gets tough, remember your “why”’ and that was all I needed to give myself a jolly old kick up the bum, pull my socks up and crack on again. 

Carl had hoped to get to see me just past the half way mark on the out and back section but with the crowds as thick as they were he didn’t manage it, but at the time I just thought I’d missed him. So I was thrilled when I then saw him just a couple of miles from the finish – the last boost that I needed to get this “done”. 

I was feeling good, less than a parkrun to go, whatever was left in the tank, now was the time to use it. Before I knew it I was in front of Buckingham Palace and the final run down Horse Guards Parade was there. 

The tears were streaming down my face, all the emotions came pouring out. I pulled myself together for the finish line; I couldn’t be a blubbering wreck as I crossed it! The watch was stopped and I looked down to see that I’d run sub 4.30. I was thrilled to pieces. Some 30 minutes off my PB but that was never the goal today. 4:26:03 official time with some pretty nifty pacing, my final mile being my quickest and a negative split to boot. 

That was the most incredible experience. One that surpassed all of my hopes and expectations. That young, frightened and scared me from 16 years ago had put all of those demons and worries to bed; I’d not only taken part in the London marathon, I’d run it, all of it! From those tentative steps with a Zimmer frame, the endless physio sessions and steps made with sticks, I’d learnt to walk, I’d learnt to run and I’d run a marathon. 

So it was with a stroke of luck that I found running and with it I found a new ‘tribe’. I found some of the most amazing friends a girl could wish for, I found places that I would never have visited had I not been running and I found the kindest and most generous community. 

So yes, having a stroke was sh*t, but my world would have looked a whole lot different had it not happened. 

Thank you Keswick AC for giving me the opportunity to run London, to wear the Keswick AC vest and to be a part of a truly awesome tribe. 

The Lakeland 50 is just 12 weeks away and that is going to test me to a whole other level. Not just the distance but the night running on terrain that I struggle with in daylight! Sadly no matter how many of Dava’s awesome downhill skills sessions I do, I’ll never be great on rough ground! But where’s the fun in only ever doing things that are ‘comfy’??

The list of thank you’s is a big one – but the biggest one goes to Carl for being there throughout this journey, for having my back and for being my biggest supporter. 

I was asked many times if I was running for charity, so a few days before the event I set up a JustGiving page for a charity close to my heart; Child Action Nepal where I’d volunteered for 8 weeks back in 2006 and supported ever since. 

I’ve had some amazing donations and I’m

Incredibly grateful for all of them, but if anyone would like to add to the pot then the link is here.

Thank you so very much.