23rd April 2017
Time: 4h 22m 0s
Place: 18,533 of 39,349
Gender: 5030 of 14,468
Category: 2750 of 8768
Getting to the start of the London Marathon has not been a straight forward journey for me. Entry through the general race ballot is notoriously hard to achieve, and even more so nowadays when the ballot is open for five days. Estimates put your chances of gaining one of the precious 10,000 ballot places at odds of around 1 in 26, with your other options being a Good For Age place, a UK Athletics Running Club place (one granted per 50 members of an affiliated club), or taking on the responsibility of a charity place with the associated fundraising.
After seven consecutive years of failing in the ballot, I was royally fed up. It seemed that year after year I defied the increasingly smaller odds to continue to miss out on a place which I found endlessly frustrating. My running club is not affiliated to Scottish Athletics, I chose increasing distance over increasing my speed a long time ago, and other than my very first race seven years ago I have never been a charity runner…
When I was offered the opportunity to run the race with Reebok as part of a team of ambassadors celebrating the launch of their new Floatride shoe, I was utterly delighted. Not only a place in the race which had evaded me for years, but the services of a coach, a bundle of kit, and two pairs of shoes as well! I felt very lucky that the blog which I set up so many years ago to write about my training has blossomed into something which attracts opportunities such as this.
Then, the week before the race I got the flu…
I have already covered the gory details in my previous post, but I was very ill in the seven days before the race and was only able to make the final decision to race less than 24 hours before the starting gun went. Not ideal preparation by anyone’s standards, but let it never be left unsaid that when I’m determined to achieve something I will fight tooth and nail until I achieve my goal. I was sitting in a hotel room under a mile from the start of the London Marathon 2017 – and nothing was going to stop me crossing that finish line.
I was staying in Canary Wharf, so my journey to the Red Start was very straight forward. A quick ride on the DLR and I was in Greenwich and walking with the masses to the starting area. I had no idea what the best time to arrive would be, so I aimed for about 8.30am which seemed sensibly early for the 10 am start. I went to the toilet before finding a tree to sit down under and lean against and tried to listen to some music. Unfortunately the mobile networks seemed to be overwhelmed already and I couldn’t connect to Spotify, so instead, I just people-watched and tried to relax.
I was nervous in case I had radically misjudged how recovered I was; perhaps I might get a couple of hours into the race and then have to pull out. Unlike most pre-race nerves I couldn’t rationalise this away – it was a real concern and a very valid one. I kept on worrying in case I had made a poor choice and one that I would live (or not) to regret.
I ate a banana at 9.30am and went for one last pee before moving to my corral. I was in Red 4, which was relatively close to the starting line meaning no half hour wait to get going after the gun went! I had purchased a cheap Primark hoody to wear to keep warm in the final hours which reluctantly I stripped off and threw to the side as we started moving forward; in the sunshine it was warm, but there was an early morning chill in the air which was cold on my bare skin – thankfully I’ve been running long enough to know that these conditions were perfect, and within 10 minutes of the race I would be perfectly warm.
I wasn’t sure how I was feeling; sadly the week’s illness had really taken some of the shine off the experience for me. I was expecting some huge waves of emotion to hit as I finally found myself on the starting line of the London Marathon, but in all honesty I couldn’t think beyond the first 5k. I didn’t know anyone in the Red Start to meet up with, and I’m an antisocial creature at the best of times so I wasn’t talking to anyone around me. I was excited to finally get moving, but was underwhelmed by the starting line experience – the footage you see on the television with the grandstands, the music, and the hot air balloons is the Blue and Green start…the Red Start has a gantry and a timing mat with a sprinkling of people clapping and that’s it – you’re on your way.
I’ve been thinking about how to write this race report in an engaging manner – there is only so much you can say about running the 26.2 mile distance when you do it over and over again, especially if on an occasion your effort is just to finish rather than to reach a goal. There’s no point in listing my mile splits – I ran a metronomic 10 minute mile pace for almost the entire race, splitting the first five 5k splits around 30 minutes each, before slowing a little for the last three 5k splits, recording 31:34, 32:21 and 32:22 in the final 15k after having a couple of short walking breaks. Here’s some of the data provided by the race – a very solidly average performance…
So what did I see on on my 26.2 mile journey?
The first 5k heads out East, deep into residential London; I knew about this but was pleasantly surprised to still see moderate support out and about at just after 10am. People were sitting in their gardens in the sunshine enjoying a glass of fizz with their breakfast, and there were already community bands out performing. We passed a couple of huge Evangelical or Baptist churches where the congregation was out in force with megaphones and music, piling blessings and encouragement upon us all as we danced by.
I loved how engaged the crowds were; every pub was open early and people were getting stuck into the booze and shouting with the enthusiasm that only an Englishman on his third pint of pre-noon Carling on St Georges day can deliver. It’s the British way; if there is live sport on, you grab a beer and go and shout at the underdogs. We’re so used to being shit at sport that we are born happy to get out there and cheer on competitors, especially if they’re not winning. We love to see people fighting hard for whatever it is they are working for, and events such as the 2012 Olympics and the Commonwealth Games have only brought mass participation sport further into the public eye.
By 10k I was beginning to realise there was a common theme to the shout outs being thrown in my direction – they all seemed to involve Jesus in some regard, so I should have been less surprised when I was overtaken by a bearded and shaggy haired man, naked but for a loin cloth and a massive crucifix strapped to his back, running barefoot. Obviously. I’ve come across Barefoot Jesus before and he’s a pain in the backside. His cross has a habit of bashing you on the shoulder, and he doesn’t like people taking selfies with him. You need a sense of humor if you’re going to be that much of a twat in a race, but he obviously didn’t have room to pack one in his minimal attire. He’s been pestering runners at World Marathon Majors around the world for a while, and on Sunday it was my turn…
I feel like it is at this point in the story that I should mention that my friend Mary’s very, very Catholic Mother was quite worried on my behalf when Mary told me that I was poorly, but was still attempting to run the race. Mary’s Mum decided to say a decade of the Rosary for me to help me on my way. Due to me being a massive Atheist I guess the prayers got a little diluted, and what I got instead was my own personal Jesus following me around the course, annoying me into going faster to get away from him. I guess the Lord works in mysterious ways…
Moving on, and a highlight of passing Trinity College was the balcony of people dressed in slightly disheveled Tuxedos and ball gowns still going hard on the Champagne after a marathon session of their own. 10/10 awarded for enthusiasm and some superb singing to Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing. This was quickly contrasted with the slightly more gritty streets of Bermondsey where there were DJs playing some dank beats straight out of their Mum’s front garden bringing a different flavour of party out on to the streets altogether. Everything which I had read and heard was true – the London Marathon is a Tour de Force of the best parts of British culture, served with a healthy dollop of London attitude.
13 miles in
Before I knew it I had danced myself half way around the course and the iconic crossing of Tower Bridge was upon me. Here I took my one and only picture during the race; it was so, so busy that I was scared to drop my phone and then have to stop to collect it, causing a runner pile-up and being a huge pain in the ass.
By now my face was hurting a little from grinning so hard; the vibes from the crowd were INSANE, I’ve never experienced so many people giving a crap about the sport which I graft away at day-in-day-out. They were cheering every single last runner like they meant the world to them, and it filled my heart right up to the brim. Of course I wasn’t feeling great; I was feeling dizzy, nauseated, and coughing like a drain, but those crowds made it easy to ignore the struggle and focus on anything other than my churning insides.
Turning a hard right after we crossed the bridge took us on to the two-way section where the fastest UK club runners were making their way through their last five miles. This was a welcome distraction from the rising temperatures as I saw so many awesome International athletes grinding away – Devon Yanko, Chrissie Wellington, Scott Overall – along with a selection of familiar vests from Scotland including the three speedy Metro Aberdeen lasses who went under 3 hours. I wanted to join in the shouts of support to the other side of the road, but my breathing was a tricky balance and I needed to keep my heart rate under control.
I had known since the start that to succeed in the race I would need to keep my heart rate low and not work too hard – basically I needed to ‘ultra shuffle’ my way around and never get out of breath. Thankfully there are no serious hills on the London Marathon course so trotting around on minimal effort was easy. However, as the heat rose to somewhere perhaps around 16C, it became more of a challenge and I started to feel a bit more ‘spangly’ – dizzy, anxious, and panicky. I took on a sensible amount of water and Lucozade when each were offered, but also used the remaining water in my bottles to cool myself down which helped a lot.
The crowds on the Isle of Dogs were less intense and contrary to many reports I’ve read, there were actually some gaps at the barriers between miles 15 and 20. This was almost a welcome break from the noise, but these were tough miles for me (as they are in every marathon) and I had to play some mental tricks to keep my head in the game. I knew that as soon as I hit 20 I would be fine, and the ‘difficult’ five miles of a marathon are usually over in 45-50 minutes. When you think about it that way, I think it seems much less of a challenge.
One in 40,000
At this point I will address the crowding on the course. We all know how busy the London Marathon is and you just need to look at any of the television coverage of the masses to know how challenging it is to run in your own space unless you really are up the very sharp end of the race. I knew that this was going to be a hazard and I tried to not let it bother me, but by 20 miles in, many of my fellow runners were working my last nerve. Stopping dead in the middle of the road, diving across peoples paths to go and see supporters, throwing bottles or litter with no due attention, slowing to a walk without moving to the side, and then there was the monstrosities which were the Pace Groups; filled with many runners who believed that their right to a time they desired trumped my right to run a safe race… In particular, the Red Sub-4 hour pace group, comprised of a cloud of a couple of hundred runners taking over the entire road, steamrolling past and shoving runners out of the way. I was ‘run over’ by them about 10 miles in and I wanted to clothes-line the whole bunch for their bad race etiquette – very poor behaviour indeed.
But – it’s London, and that’s what you get out there. I’m just glad I didn’t try to achieve a Personal Best as the crowds would have made it impossible and I recorded a distance of 26.7 miles as I ducked and weaved around those who exist within their own oblivious bubble.
The Final Push
As I eased into the last 6 miles the miles became less easy, and I started to have to try a little harder to keep it moving steadily. However, impossible as it may seem, the crowds were getting even more enthusiastic and they pulled me on when I was desperate for just a tiny walking break. I took my first walk of the whole race somewhere in the 23rd mile, and one final one in the Blackfriars Underpass in mile 24, where a festival-sized PA system was blaring the Chase and Status song ‘Blind Faith’ which gave me chills as I got ready to run again. In an amazing bit of timing, the chorus dropped just as I left the tunnel to the roar of the crowd cheering us like heroes as we ran out into the sunshine – it was here that the emotion finally hit and I found tears prickling my eyes as I ran into the final mile of the race.
The finish is just as spectacular as it looks on television. Curving around the last bend on to The Mall, with the flags flying, the grandstands full of people, and the finishing gantries… is an amazing feeling. I looked for the finish line cameras and waved and blew kisses, keeping everything crossed that Kynon and my family would be watching at home. I know I put them through a lot of worry at times and my poor Mother was probably beside herself following me on the tracker all day in case I stopped moving, so I really wanted them to see that I was ok.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were handing out finishers medals in one finishing chute but I didn’t fancy my chances of not throwing up all over the Royals, so I gave that chute a swerve and chose the one right next to it instead. It goes without saying that I am fully on board with their #HeadsTogether charity campaign which has gained so much publicity from the race and associated media coverage. I’m not the biggest fan of the Royal family, but it is fantastic to see the younger generation put their platform to excellent use.
After snapping a quick victory selfie, I began the long stagger to get my kit bag which was unfortunately in the furthest away lorry – a good quarter mile or so down the Mall! I desperately wanted to sit down in the shade but I knew the sensible thing to do was to get my kit so that I could crash and then stay on the ground as long as I liked.
That turned out to be a good half hour – there was a muscle in my back which wouldn’t stop cramping and I felt very dizzy. I found a free patch of kerb next to a lorry and sat myself down and made myself eat and drink as much as I could stomach from the goody bag, whilst wrapped up in my foil blanket like a freshly baked potato. After a short while I managed to make it over to the reunion area where I met the previously mentioned Mary and her husband, Jo, who had come up from Reading to cheer me on, and then we all went to drink wine on the South Bank in the evening sunshine, and it was the perfect end to a pretty damn good day.
Some Final Thoughts
The London Marathon effect is weird. People get obsessed with doing it for a variety of reasons and I’ve certainly been guilty of that for long enough. Outside of the world of running, it’s one of the few races that most people know about and it gets very grating having to explain why you haven’t done it to people that don’t understand. They don’t understand that other marathons are the same distance as London and can be just as tough to run but London is toughest to get in to! Unless you’ve done London, the one race they can relate to, they don’t see you as a real marathon runner. It’s exhausting and boring to explain, especially justifying why running for charity in order to get a place is not really a viable option.
However the flip side of this is that when you DO run London, it’s the one day of the year where there is a huge interest in a sport which normally nobody cares about. Friends download the app and track you, they excitedly tell you that they are going to look for you on the television, colleagues ask how you got on. This is not normally what happens when you’re a long distance runner.
It’s both satisfying and frustrating; running is my hobby and my life. I graft away at it 365 days a year in one way or the other, and for 364 days of the year, nobody gives a shit. People glaze over when you tell them about your training runs, they call you crazy, they try and get you to stay out for ‘just one more’, they cannot get their head around the concept of running an ultramarathon or getting up with a hangover and doing a marathon as a training run for fun. It’s nice to have people care about my sport and be interested for once, but I’ve already done a marathon and two ultras this year so far and no-one outside of my silo of running friends really knows or cares… and I kind of like it that way.
So my final line on it is this – the London Marathon is amazing and every distance runner should try to do it once, if only to remember why they run and what it is that they like best about their sport. Is it the iconic British tradition, the television coverage, the social media circus, crowds screaming your name, tripping over someone taking a selfie, or broadcasting the experience on Facebook Live? Or is it the quiet local races, familiar faces, signing up on the day, pensioners with clipboards out in the rain, and weak orange squash at the finish? There is no right or wrong answer here; running is running and I am not here to pass judgement on anyone’s experiential preference.
London, you were incredible and I’m so glad I finally got to tread your streets and see you at your sporting best. For the first time in nearly a decade though, this year the 1st of May did not see me submit my name into your public ballot and I’m not sure when I will again. That’s the only thing that’s changed though…next April I’ll still be running; pounding the trails out there somewhere in the countryside, and quietly getting on with it on my own terms…
Do you prefer big races or small races?
Have you entered the 2018 London Marathon ballot?
What’s the stupidest costume you’ve ever seen in a race?