Marathon runner on the feeling of representing England for the first time over 26.2 miles

On Sunday (May 14), I represented my country for the very first time, writes Anya Culling.

I could have viewed the race as an epic honour, an insurmountable, once in a lifetime competition. However, this would have been an obsolete attitude to adopt. The race was also about meeting and connecting to athletes from other nations and learning from one another.

When I was offered the opportunity to race the Copenhagen Marathon for England, my mind went straight to fear!

My coach [Nick Bester] and I discussed at length about whether I was ready or not. I wasn’t fearful of the other athlete’s personal bests. Yes, they were impressive, but their mental strength was even more amazing. I was scared I would fall short, stand on that start line and crumble under the pressure. This marathon block was a mental build.

Nick Bester and Anya Culling (SpartaLob)

Everyone knows that a marathon is a battle with your mind and I feared that would be my Achilles heel. I needed to train my mind to become an enabler rather than a disabler. I would dread a session or hard run workout because I was so scared, putting so much pressure on myself.

Over the four month build-up, I learnt to adopt the mindset of ‘what if it could turn out better than you could have imagined’ – that’s exactly what happened in Copenhagen.

We stayed in the race hotel with many other elite athletes. I shared a room with Phily Bowden who had the race of her life on Sunday. She finished third with a time of 2:29:16 and was the only athlete who wasn’t Kenyan to be on the podium in both the male and female races. Everyone helped and supported each other through those pre-race nerves.

We all ate meals together, shared stories of races that we’d done before and went for shake-out runs as groups. Plus received messages from the same therapist. On the start line, the fist bumps and the words of encouragement confirmed we were racing for ourselves and not against the clock.

I had Nick [Bester] running alongside me and we had formed a solid group by the 5km mark.

We clipped along nicely at around 3:35min/km. I had my sunglasses on while trying to make sure the sweat didn’t wipe up off the splits written on my arm. The sun quickly heated up like a celestial fireball and I knew it was going to get tough.

Splits on Anya Culling’s arm (SpartaLob)

It was an honour to run in an England kit and Copenhagen will always be such a special race for me. When the going got tough I kept reminding myself of the little English rose printed on the back of my race knickers and my surname in bold across my chest.

The aim was to get bored before it got tough. Get into a rhythm, switch off and sleep run. Try not to surge when I see what I can only describe as the inception of hooliganism in athletics; 30 of my closest friends and family in matching personalised bucket hats blurring in and out of focus around me in the heat.

At the 13.1 mile point I felt good but everyone knows the true half-way mark is 30km. This is where the wheels started to come off and I realised I was completely cooked. My pace dropped slightly at 34km but this is what I had trained for. I stopped looking at my watch and knew I needed to stay strong. It’s the mental battle I had been preparing myself for.

This last 8km is what I was most proud of. I gained two places to show I was still competitive. It was 23 degrees by this point and while the sun burned down on the road, the fire was in my belly. I knew I was still on for a two minute PB.

I didn’t allow my brain to think a single negative, that’s a waste of energy. I am strong. I am in control and it’s not over until I say it’s over. I know my body can do so much more than my brain tries to trick me into thinking. I ran across that finish line, towards Phily [Bowden] who was waving the English flag.

I embraced her and our England team staff. Three teammates crossed the line within a second of each other shortly after me. I was trying to cry but didn’t have a droplet of water in me. My Dad made up for that as his eyes welled up.

The marathon isn’t about running, it’s about an insane amount of human energy and emotion. Every single person has their reasons for running 26.2 miles, whether it’s challenging yourself, or for someone else who is going through something even more than you. No matter your time, everyone is just trying to run their best. The marathon could rival literature for the home of love, rapture and heroism.

Finishing time: 2:34:45

Second Brit, eighth finisher. seventh fastest marathon time from a Brit in 2023. 

Average Pace: 3:40/km (5:63/mi)

Elevation: 147m

Average HR: 174

Cadence: 204 average, 250 spm max.

Nutrition: 1 x Maurten 320, 1 x Maurten 120 (split between 6 bottles), 2 carbon gels, 1 normal gel.

Fastest km: 3:27

Slowest km: 3:49

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