As we approach the London Marathon on the 22 April 2018, I thought it might be of interest to reflect on running the race. The first thing people always ask is “how long did it take you to run the marathon”? Most people reply with a time of a few hours and some minutes. In reality, the time to run the London Marathon is around 16 to 17 weeks. The bit most people talk about, and are interested in, is the last 26 miles of the journey that started around Christmas time in the previous year.
5 days a week for the previous 17 weeks, you practice and prepare for those 4 BIG hours in London. Long-distance running is a selfish pastime; your training comes before just about everything else. A routine of sleep, work, run, eat, repeat, becomes most people’s life if they want to finish in good shape and have a fairly enjoyable day out. So, once you have negotiated all those increasingly long runs, the weekly threshold run and the hill and interval sessions, what’s it like for that one day in London? Well here are some thoughts that went through my head in April 2016 when I was lucky enough to get a place in Virgin London Marathon.
I always find it helps when doing a big (important) race to get as much kit and stuff ready for the big day. So, the Saturday night involves:
• Not drinking too much alcohol
• Laying out your marathon kit so that you can jump into it the next morning. This includes your start-line gear which usually consists of a black bin liner cut to shape with head and arm holes. Food is two bananas.
• Go to bed at a decent time, don’t even think about heading down to the club.
The day of the race is here! You need to be at the start line for an 0900 kick-off. Trains and stations were selected days ago. The route to the station is practiced and your number is ready (it’s your ticket to travel for free). So, it’s a wash and brush up. Running gear is put on. All the parts that might rub over 26 miles are greased – don’t want to be on TV with bleeding nipples or running in a John Wayne style walk. Breakfast is banana number one. Water is taken on board and more bottled for the journey. It is getting close to departure time and excitement is starting to build; the butterflies are up and flying around my internal workings. Loved ones are kissed and goodbyes said in return for well wishes. Stepping out of the hotel is like stepping into a dream; everything seems so surreal and my head is in a half haze. On autopilot, I set off for the station. First stop is the local convenience shop where I buy two pecan and maple syrup Danish pasties and consume one immediately. As I approach the station, other marathon combatants appear and, like condemned men, we head for the train.
This is it! No turning back. I’m one of the first on the train, so sit next to the window. The train waits and waits in the station and slowly fills up with runners heading for the Marathon. As it fills, the atmosphere in the carriage changes from a bright morning that could be a daily commute to work, to one of collective nervousness and anxiety. There is enough nervous energy on board to power the train to Blackheath and the start of the Marathon. There are all shapes and sizes of runners here and you can hear just about everyone complaining about an injury or the fact that they haven’t done enough training – or could there be a bit of underselling going on? I sit looking out of the window as the now-packed train leaves the station. I breathe deeply and slowly to ward off the rising nerves, no need to panic yet. The train makes pointless stops at every station, no one is getting off and there is no room for anyone to get on, so why?
At last the train gets to what I guess is Blackheath as everyone starts to disembark. There is still over an hour to the start, so I follow the throng. I hope those at the front know where they’re going and aren’t just going to see friends. Out of the station, left up the hill and then right on to Blackheath Common. I guess it’s Blackheath and not Regents Park as there is a constant prattle over a public-address system with directions and cheery advice on running a marathon – a bit late in the day I think.
At the runners’ gate there are people hugging loved ones and saying goodbyes as though they may never see one another again. There are also people like me that have long ago said “ta’ra” and are on their own. I draw my running vest, with number firmly attached, from my rucksack like a combatant drawing a sword from its sheath. Security nods us through two at a time.
We are in. From now on it’s runners only. It’s now bright, but not very hot, too cold and early to warm up yet, so I wander around the enclosure. Nothing attracts my attention and I don’t think I could tell you now what was there. My focus is mainly on where to leave my kit bag, and where the start line and the toilets are. Always keep an eye on the toilet queue: the length of the queue is governed by the amount of time before a race: the closer the race, the longer the queue. I sit and visualise from start line to finish line, ticking off the mile signs as I run. I have a plan and I intend to stick to it. Time to head for the start line, so all unnecessary kit is loaded into the rucksack and the bag is handed in to be loaded on to the wagon. A couple of buses full of nervous runners must have turned up as there suddenly seems to be a lot of scared looking people about. My number is checked again to make sure I’m in the correct pen and I join the others, ready for the start.
On the start line we wait, we shuffle forward, I have a feeling of slight apprehension, but not too bad and certainly less than a lot of runners. I close my eyes and run through the race plan one more time. The helicopters overhead are a distraction – I hope one doesn’t fall out of the sky on top of us. The PA bursts into life and the final, final instructions are given. The starting siren goes, and we shuffle forward and then start to jog. Easy on the pace, not too fast too soon and then we stop. Hang on – this wasn’t in the race plan. We shuffle again and then start running. The crowds are immense. The noise and the chatter are deafening. There are runners that look like they couldn’t run to the end of the street, and some that have a most awkward and painful looking running stride; but the vast majority just look focused on getting to The Mall. The first 3 miles are a stroll, or so it seems. My legs are full of energy as I look round at the sights of London. After 7 miles I’m joined by club mate Liz; this is worrying as she is a world apart from me in talent: I should be a mile behind her. I am glad for both of us when she disappears in front of me; it confirms I am not moving too fast. I go back to taking in the sights until I spy another Horsforth club vest. I pull alongside and we exchange greetings, again I recognise this is a faster runner than me and I shouldn’t be here really, so I am happy to see him disappear in front of me.
Tower Bridge, and the chance for spectators to see their runners at the halfway point. There are a lot of people here and I pander to the crowd as they chant the name on my vest. On to the Isle of Dogs. How you perform here probably dictates what shape you will finish the race in as you will have reached the dreaded 20-mile mark as you exit. I feel strong starting this part of the journey and hope it continues for a while longer. The only remarkable thing on the Isle of Dogs is that I actually mange to glimpse my family who are supporting away. Suitably lifted, I head for the Tower of London and the final push for home.
20 miles, I feel great. Just a jog around the block. By 21 miles the story is beginning to change a little: my legs are starting to feel weary, my breath is a little harder to come by. No need to worry yet. I begin to concentrate more and imagine stepping into a box drawn on the ground in front of me. Mile 22 and the signs of fatigue are everywhere. I see one poor chap lying on his side with 2 paramedics in attendance. Walkers start to appear more regularly and still I kick my feet out in front of me, only 3 miles to the final glory mile! Mile 23, things are getting a bit tougher now – I would even say serious! The 3-hour, 45-minute flag carrier comes past me, as does his cohort – there goes the chance of a “good for age” finish. As we get to mile 24, it’s not all bad news. My watch tells me I am still well under 4 hours for the finish and as I push on as fast as possible, I’m still overtaking people that are running. The Embankment looks a little like a war zone: there are people lying by the side of the road, people being sick, people walking and people with other people looking after them. Sill a few of us are running for The Mall.
As we leave The Embankment, the Palace of Westminster looms over us. I can honestly say I have never been so glad to see the Houses of Parliament, only two more right turns to the finish! Again, the crowds are amazing and deafening. I remind myself and my tired legs that “if you have it, use it now”, no point in wishing you could have pushed that bit harder after the finish. Buck House comes into view, “come here you beauty” I think. I turn onto The Mall. My brain has a conversation with my body, Brain: “come on, get a move on, push, push, push!” Body: “Are you having a laugh? You said 26 miles at the start, we’ve done that now.” Brain: “Come on boys, just a bit longer and a bit faster.” Body: “OK, we’ll do the longer but no faster or we might have to press the cramp button and you wouldn’t want to look stupid on telly, would you?” Brain in a huff: “Just get over the line”.
The finish line on The Mall is a bit like the carrot on a stick with you as the donkey. Those last 400m go on for an eternity. Anyway, it does come. I cross the line in 3 hours 52minutes and 19 seconds with a gaggle of other people, whose names I can’t recollect, but we all feel the same elation and relief, I think. It’s handshakes and hugs all round, then the massive feeling of oxygen debt mixes with the elation. This is the point at which you’ll collapse, if you’re going to. A young lady places a medal around my neck and most sincerely congratulates me on a job well done. Yes, I feel proud of my run, but why are tears rolling down my face? This doesn’t make sense. I walk as if I am the only person at the finish and I feel sick, dreadfully sick. I find a pavement to sit on, God my legs are stiff, why are pavements so close to the ground? Someone says, “try a drink” but I would rather punch myself in the face at this moment. The sickness passes and I struggle back to my feet as if my legs belong to someone else. I try to stretch, but body hits the cramp button in protest. I join a queue for a picture with my medal and try to look suitably victorious. The goody bag is collected but not looked at as I now feel so cold that clothing is the only real requirement. Kit is returned in a flash. I am impressed as I start to walk for the exit. The usual realisation that the nearly 5-month journey of work, eat, run, sleep, repeat is well and truly over. It is a feeling of emptiness I don’t think you ever get used to but I tell myself there is always next time and perhaps a good-for-age time. I exit the runners’ area and head for the family reunion area.
Good luck to all those running on the 22 April 2018 in London. Have a great day and enjoy it.