Sunday 21st April 2013 had finally arrived. All the anticipation now sated, by a bright, sunny, early morning. Having scrupulously packed my kit several times on Saturday afternoon I was readier than I ever could have been. Kit on, and out the door by 7am to catch the 8 o’clock train from Charing Cross. My first realisation of just how big the London Marathon is, was the number of people on the W7 bus from Crouch End brandishing the easily recognisable red plastic kit bag. You’re under strict instructions to pack your kit using only this bag for it to be loaded onto the transport at the start. And boy, were there a lot of bags about.
The surprise of the bright sunshine was a welcome sight after the major cold challenge that had been overcome through the six months of training since this blog started. However, this would become less welcome as the day, and race progressed – more on this later.
As the numbers of red bag toting runners increased at main transport hubs and eventually on the train at Charing Cross I began to realise that 37,000 runners was going to be an impressive sight once we were released from our various starting positions – Red, Blue (Me as part of my running club place), and Green (Celebrities and VIPs including a range of TOWIE ‘stars’ and a guy who’s publicity blurb purported to suggest that “he would be best known to everyone for almost reaching the final of The Apprentice in 2012”. Now that is celebrity!).
Arriving at Blackheath, the excitement really began to hit home as you traverse what must be the steepest hill of the event up to Blackheath and the start. Exposing my race number to gain entry to the blue area, I was snapped by an official photographer beaming like a mad man as I broke through the entrance and into the Blue start. Although at least an hour and a half before the start, there were already a large number of people there, many lying down basking in the sunshine.
I made my way towards my start gate 4 (based on my estimated finish time) and waited for the barrier to shift to enter the pen where we would all gather like lemmings ready for the off. What I didn’t realise was that dressed in my de rigeur bin bag which allowed me to baste gently in the early morning sun I was actually entering the land of 24 – that Kiefer Sutherland programme where each moment is carefully packaged to build the tension and time seems to pass like a Nan-esque jog.
Trying to gather my thoughts as the pen slowly filled, my Garmin watch seemed to develop its own obsession with eking out every possible second of time to its fullest extent. Einstein may have been impressed, but I was less sure.
Look down again…
Few words were exchanged in the spot I was in. Rather like one of my earlier blogs, we were all probably in exactly the same place desperate for the race to start, scared not to start our watches too early in case they switched back to power save mode just before the start line leading to a furious flurry of button pressing to get the damn thing started as we cross the line, keen not to show that we are nervous and although we are trying to remain nonchalant and calm this is the critical time when nerves do kick in. Yet despite this being very similar for everyone – no one said a thing. Murmured requests to pass the item of clothing to the side were the only noises I was aware of, oh and that splashing sound at the side you only get when someone takes a wee onto a grassy surface as nerves got the better of the bladders of some.
We cheered Mo when he was announced as race start moved nearer. More from a genuine pleasure to release something before the start. At that point I made a mental note to remember the very clear instructions of my 8 and 5 year old daughters who, when hearing that Mo was running a few weeks before, had told me “Can you get his telephone number?”.
“Yes” I thought, “if I do catch up with him I’ll want more than his bloody phone number”.
The immaculately observed 30 second silence for the terror at the Boston Marathon and the subsequent applause that followed brought everything back into perspective and we readied ourselves for the start.
What surprised me was how quickly I passed through (my race times show it was just a few minutes), I had been prepared for 10/15 minutes, but this was not the case as we quickly passed by yet another phalanx of runners relieving themselves at the side of the course as we turned the corner into the start straight. Yes a lot of pre-race advice focuses on emptying your bladder as close to race time as possible, but that is ridiculous and rather disgusting in my book.
I had a clear plan in mind that I wasn’t going to get carried away in the early stages of the race, rather I would concentrate on getting into a steady stride and running rhythm without weaving and bobbing inside other runners. This I’d done in my very first marathon in Brighton and boy had I paid for it between 16 and 18 miles. A lesson learnt, never forgotten.
However, I was brought out of this focus within the first mile having to weave round two runners already walking despite the general jogging pace of others around them. Yes I understand that in a marathon of this scale there are innumerable race plans which people are running too, but my feeling was they should have started at a more appropriate starting pen than in the early part of the section I was in.
I’m not going to detail every single section of the race, but I’ll summarise key moments from my run which illustrate again key things I learnt. One of those is that everything that’s said about the support from spectators at London is absolutely correct and a little overwhelming at the same time. The sheer noise of support is immense – everywhere. The crowds at Cutty Sark are phenomenal and this does add massively to the experience in the early stages – when the scenery of this part of south east London perhaps doesn’t match the aural wonder that accompanies it.
The overwhelming nature of it comes from the fact (as Sarah Niblock identifies in her own fantastic blog entry) that there is very little opportunity to collect your own thoughts, your progress in the race, how you are feeling and what you might need to be doing about it. It’s almost as if you are swept along by the noise waves rather than propelling yourself physically and mentally through the race. Whilst on occasions this was a welcome distraction from the voice in my head (which previous readers will know I have written a lot about) there were also occasions where I wanted to have a few quiet thoughts with myself which may have benefited my overall racing.
For this I was quite unprepared, and I think we may need to build into future training schedules more indiscriminate shouting and cheering by the passive coffee drinkers in Hampstead as we pass by them on training runs.
However, this is not to undermine the value of your specific supporters and the monumental difference and lift you get from spotting that familiar face or faces in the crowd particularly when it has been planned. There is also a particular relief to this because I have always found during marathons that I get very emotional, even tearful, as I pass through the agreed ‘cheering point’ without having spotted those special people that make so much difference to your race experience. You run a rich gamut of emotions as you go from worry about missing or not spotting them, wondering if you’ve got the wrong mile marker, or are you so deluded that you have looked straight at them without recognising. This transforms to a pure joy upon spotting them waving, high fiving, even a quick hug as you pass by. Never underestimate the power that this simple act has as you wrestle further with your marathon demons to get to the finish.
By mile 13 the ‘heat’ or should I say, previously not experienced warmth, was starting to get to me. I knew I was about 2 minutes behind my target pace for a 3.30 finish, but I felt relatively fresh and confident that I could make that time up in the second half of the race. However, trying to press between miles 14 and 15 did not bring the expected required pace increase to make that time up.
Perhaps I was distracted by the 3.30 pacer stopping for a wee at 17 miles, or was it that truly bizarre runner who kept stopping periodically to take photos of the route before sprinting off to repeat the act a bit further down the course. I’m not even sure he had a race number on and as I narrowly avoided him I made my feelings known.
I brought out my own ‘tactical nuclear weapons’ much earlier than I had intended at 17/18 miles when my chanted mantra ‘run strong’ came out to help me overcome these distractions. I even tried a new ‘dig deep’ chant which helped for a little while, but became less clear to me as I felt I was struggling more to get through the race.
“Di geep” anyone? No it didn’t work for me either!
At 20 miles, I had to face up to the fact that my target slot of 3.30-3.42 was going to be beyond me as the 3.45 pacer eased past me. I tried to keep up and stay in touch, but it wasn’t happening and there for me was a key decision point.
I could beat myself up about it, keep pressing, and perhaps cause myself to blow up to finish way below what I had targeted. Or, I could accept where I was, what pace I was running, and maintain that to come in at an eminently respectable time, that was on this occasion outside what I had targeted.
And this is where my training really came to the fore. I was able to make that decision. I concentrated on focusing on the 24+ mark where I knew Jane, Ellie, Emily, my Dad, Heather, Patrick, Elise, Rebecca, Freya, Ian, and Alison (and subsequently Birgitte all the way from Germany I found out) would be and use that as a launch pad for the final 2ish miles. It worked. With iron calves, hips, glutes, and hamstrings I passed by an almost frantically worried wife with yes a very pained expression on my face, but an internal satisfaction that I had overcome the worst of what the London Marathon had to throw at me, and the knowledge that I would now finish.
I’ll pause here to reflect briefly on the challenges faced by your spectators. Jane’s worry was escalated by her knowing what my target was. Upon seeing the 3.30 pacer pass by and no Simon she was a little concerned. The 3.45 pacer and again no Simon was tantamount to an announcement of my demise. So the relief on her face at 24+ was also palpable.
The lesson here – and one I forgot to articulate to Jane – was that the target is just that and in the marathon there is always a better than even chance that it will be missed because of the myriad of things that can happen to you whilst running for 3,4,5+ hours. Therefore advise of a much wider window in which you’ll pass by to save your supporters unnecessary worry.
The last miles along Birdcage Walk and up the Mall were phenomenal. There’s something about the reddy-pink tarmac that brings a special touch to the finish. Are we running on red carpet no, but we are celebrities and more so than ‘getting close to the final of the Apprentice in 2012’.
The finish is basically chaotic. Climbing a small ramp to have your timing chip removed seems like Everest. For me everything hurt. This was the most I’d felt this in all my four marathons and it showed post-race as it took me almost a week to resume a standard walk rather than the glorified hobble I’d perfected.
I collected my goody bag which bizarrely contained one of those Maggi cook chicken in a bag kits. If only I’d known I could have hauled the chicken round with me so that I could have prepared that sumptuous feast upon my return.
After collecting my returned red bag I lost track of time somewhat as I recovered by the side unable to really stretch or change much of my clothing, despite preparing meticulously for this. Seeing some of the Synergy Gang by tree ‘S’ was a great fillip and helped me regain the energy for the cruel journey home. Whoever thought it was fair to have a down escalator out at Westminster tube station obviously has a very strange sense of humour, but I’m sure the three flights of stairs I gingerly traversed must have done me some good.
So what did I learn from my London Marathon experience. Knowledge of the course does help, although not hilly in Crouch end terms, there were very many more steady inclines than I had expected. This I will use to my advantage next time – yep I’ll run it again, but in 2014 it will be a return to Brighton for me and Shor’Nam (see Sarah Niblock).
Reaction and congratulation as you return from the race is amazing. Why shouldn’t I wear my t-shirt and my finishing medal across London. It was great, as was the round of applause at the Maynard and the pint on the house that accompanied it. Tip for next year – you too could manage this just by showing up dressed like a runner at about 4pm without having run the thing but that seems a lot just for a pint.
The final thing was how much I enjoyed the experience. I finished in 3hrs 48 mins and 15 secs which although outside my target time was my second fastest marathon time. I never expected to become a Marathon runner when I first entered the Crouch End 10k in 2008, but that is what I am.
And there’s more Marathon runners about than you’d expect. I went to see a number of Thrash metal bands at the Forum in Kentish Town the Sunday after the Marathon. Of course still proudly wearing my Finishers t-shirt. So after the first three bands had finished playing someone sidled up to me and said “Did you run it then?”
“Yes” I said.
“Me too, I’m a drummer in a Speed Metal band and I did it last year, but had to give up at 20 miles, but this year I got round in 4hrs 30mins”.
“Well done” I said.
A little more small talk and the lights dimmed and we were treated to a mighty fine display of the art of Thrash music.
And the name of the band of the marathon running, speed metal purveying, drummer?
Cavity Search! Now that’s celebrity…
To Synergy Running Club for giving me the opportunity to run.
To Sarra and Tony for coaching and training and injury advice.
To all the Synergy runners who’ve unwittingly provided me with at least some of the material I’ve written about, rolling time is often the most productive time.
To Jane for her support, editing and polishing the text that’s eventually appeared on the blog.
To everyone who sponsored me which with Gift Aid meant we raised just over £1,000 for the Place2Be.