‘Are you okay mate? You don’t look very well.’
These are the words that you normally hear from about mile 20 onwards on your London Marathon journey, not at mile three, which is exactly where I was when I heard them on that memorably wet April race morning in 2005. I was still plodding around the streets of Greenwich when I saw a friend of mine on the roadside. ‘God, you look awful,’ he added, just to give added encouragement, and then off I struggled to see if I could make it to mile four.
The reason for my troubles? Five stones and 11ft of Anthony Nolan Trust superhero costume. This was my most ambitious outfit yet and one that would get me a Guinness World Record if I fulfilled a number of conditions. One of these, which was looking increasingly unlikely even at this early stage, was of course getting to the finish line, but perhaps as worrying was the condition that no part of the costume was to be removed at any stage…
Obsession with fancy dress running
My obsession with fancy dress running started with my first ever marathon, over 60 marathons ago, with the 1997 Flora London Marathon. I’m not sure why, but for some reason I decided in my first ever marathon that I would be dressed as something. As I was working for a catalogue company at the time and they said they would give me some charity sponsorship, a catalogue seemed the obvious choice. To make sure it all matched, I used face paint. As I ran down The Mall to the finish with blood running out of every orifice mixed with red face paint that I’d smeared over the bits that hadn’t got involved with the blood, I realised there was a lot more to this fancy dress running lark than meets the eye.
From there I graduated to a cottage, an igloo, which got stuck in customs, but that’s another story, a computer and a massive hat (another long story), which were all well-made costumes but all untried and definitely untested. Then I stumbled upon a couple of London’s more familiar characters: the rhinos and the Mr Men.
It was one of the most amazing things I have ever done and although it’s not the heaviest outfit I have worn on those fateful 26.2 miles it is probably the most awkward.
I did the worst of these first, and to be honest I was glad I got the rhino out of the way before I’d heard how dreadful it really is. Someone did tell me it’s like running in a giant packet of crisps – and by that they meant the noise not the weight! It was one of the most amazing things I have ever done and although it’s not the heaviest outfit I have worn on those fateful 26.2 miles it is probably the most awkward. It comes in two parts and you remain fairly convinced that at some point the costume’s head will fall off even though you lashed it to the body with 200ft of piano wire. It just seems like it should do.
Worst of all is that all you can do for the duration of the race is to look down. You see nothing of what is going on ahead or beside you and you hear even less. It’s all about looking at the floor and trying not to lodge the horn in someone’s backside, which did unfortunately happen on a couple of occasions. I trained hard for this race, including a few months of weight training and a six-week course of hypoxic training – where you replicate high-altitude conditions in an oxygen center – which was challenging and hurt me for quite a few weeks afterwards. But what amazing support you get from the crowd!
Blood, sweat and nearly tears
After that, two successive years of the Children with Leukaemia charity’s Mr Men followed. The famous Mr Tickle and the not so famous Little Miss Sunshine seemed relatively painless, but with these characters’ width became the issue. Many runners became inconvenienced by Mr Tickle’s enormous arms and irritating milkshake, especially in the last few miles when people in front tend to stop through exhaustion with little warning. A nice patch of Velcro on the inside of the costume gave me my first sign of blood at mile 20 and by the time I’d finished Mr Tickle was going from orange to red. In meetings the following week I had a real job explaining why I had a three-inch scar on my forehead.
A nice patch of Velcro on the inside of the costume gave me my first sign of blood at mile 20 and by the time I’d finished Mr Tickle was going from orange to red.
In 2005 I stepped up again and went for height. The official charity for the Flora London Marathon that year was Help the Hospices and their mascot is Sunny the Sunflower. Perfect. Well, it actually wasn’t, and after a few miles of hauling this beast around London it was clear that blustery conditions, the tall buildings of the capital and 10ft of sunflower don’t mix. Two weeks later I started a six-month course of physio for a stress fracture of the back. A month after that, I started planning for 2006 and the Anthony Nolan Trust superhero.
I trained harder than ever for that race, but nothing prepared me for it. It took two people to carry the costume into the Expo during race week – an indication that perhaps we’d got this one wrong. I got incredible support for this one from the crowd, but it was tough and I almost cried when I turned past Buckingham Palace and went down the home straight. I managed to keep the costume on the whole time, which helped me achieve one goal that year – even though toilet stops proved difficult and upsetting for anyone watching. It was a brutal day but there is something about the London Marathon that inspires challenges. It is one of the most invigorating days of your life, and I love nothing more than those unrelenting five hours every April.
Why would you want to do this every year? Not sure really. I’m just off to the physio to sort out some costume-related niggles – so I'll have a think on the way …
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