… I told myself again and again as I travelled on the DLR from Stratford to Greenwich at 7:15, Sunday morning. Bonkers – can I really be doing this? Why am I doing this? Can I do this? What is nearly 57 year old me, up 'til a year ago never run since I was at the Roan School For Boys (more of this later), doing here? I genuinely, for the first time in my life, pinched myself to check I was not dreaming. But then, I reason, you've put in the hours, you've done the time, you didn't collapse at the end of your last half marathon – you're better prepared for this than Mo even.
I arrived in very good time at the red assembly area in the park. After two (minor) comfort calls and bag drop-off I was fortunate to bump into the RealBuzz “three amigos” and friends and it was good to hang around with them for a few minutes before Jim (aka GlosHawk) declared that it was time to go our separate ways, as we prepared for our date with destiny. I duly headed off to red 6. Someone had said that, however well you prepare, you will always start off wanting another wee! And that was playing on my mind. As the clock approached ten we edged forward, and I found myself right next to:
1) A chap named Dave, sporting a blue wig, a blue thong, a load of blue balloons, and nothing else.
2) The runners world 3:56 pace runner.
To break four hours – an omen – this was surely my destiny. The whistle blew and we headed off out of the park gate, turn left and off through the start.
Now when I were a lad, at the Roan School For Boys, and before the London Marathon was even a twinkle in Chris Brasher's eye, there was a tradition that the first years (modern “Year 7s”) played a chasing games every lunchtime on that part of Blackheath known to us as “the dips”, before maturing into lunchtime football either on the heath or in Greenwich Park. As we headed past the dips, a lady next to me commented bitterly “it's so easy for the blokes isn't it”. Eyes left and I spotted a row of chaps brazenly urinating straight into one of those dips I used to know so well. Well “when near Roan” I though, skipped over the pavement, and joined them (hmmm - from what I've read that's probably not something that you would do after dark these days).
So, back on track, and that was definitely the last I would see of the 3:56 man. We headed off towards Woolwich, and at Little Heath a very special moment for me as we passed the top of Heathwood Gardens, Charlton, SE7, the road where my grandparents lived for all their married life (around 60 years). And then to Woolwich, where I was born, and John Wilson street where the routes converged on the nice downhill stretch and along the lower road, back towards my spiritual home, the Valley, home to Charlton Athletic Football Club.
I was expecting team Pullen to be by the pub the Antigallican, near Charlton Station, but as I desperately sought them out, no sign. We carried on, then just before the Greenwich flyover a huge shout “GO DAD” - there was daughter Madeleine, plus Weymouth best buddy Jon and son Elliot (quick compute – where is other daughter Anneliese? - apparently Madeleine forgot to tell her they were going there!).
So on, through Greenwich and around the wonderfully restored Cutty Sark, another iconic memory from growing up (not just the ship – the pub of the same name too!). And out through Deptford, the Evelyn estate, where I got involved with some project when I was at school which ended up with me singing and playing the guitar on local radio – how strange that the marathon “project” would result in the same thing happening 40 years later! And then on towards Tower Bridge.
Everything seems so much bigger when you were a child. If you'd asked me then I would have said that the trip up from home to Tower Bridge was a marathon in itself, but today we weren't even half way. Team Pullen (now complete) had headed up to the CLIC Sargent cheering point on the bridge, but I was on the wrong side of the road and missed them. Over the bridge, and soon the half way point was reached in just a few seconds over 2 hours. Sub four there for the taking? But it was getting hotter and the heat was taking it's toll. Not long after half way body called a conference. “Listen boys, I really don't think I can stick with this pace. I suggest we turn it down a notch otherwise we're going to end up walking or something worse”. Furnace and Freezer! Heart and head were of one accord “we dream the same dreams” - days like this don't come along every day, and finishing times are a fickle slave to fortune – yes turn it done.
Then a really nice moment. Now I've been something of a fund-raising Rotweiler these last ten months, but I was recently affected by the documentary about the inspirational young terminal cancer sufferer Kris Hallenga and her charity Coppafeel, and had decided that one of their runners should benefit (running for Coppafeel requires that an absolutely giant boob be worn on your front). A quick google revealed a lady from Falmouth was doing this, so I (anonymously) sponsored her. And suddenly there was a giant boob in front of me, and as I passed I glanced at the lady and she looked awfully familiar. Are you Nicola I asked. Yes she replied, clearly somewhat surprised that a total stranger should ask such a question. “I sponsored you” I said, a quick hug, and onwards.
One of the lessons from a dress rehearsal was the danger of over-heating. I like to run with a shirt under my running vest, but I had determined today that the under-shirt should be deemed a disposable item. And as we moved on I decided that now was the time to dispose of it. So I stopped and stripped off (hmmmm – the third time I have found myself stripping in public during the “project”). I threw the undershirt into the crowd, and they promptly threw it back (cheap joke – in reality I just abandoned it at the roadside), vest back on and back into my stride
Then as we headed through Canary Wharf another huge “GO DAD – GO DAD” (the support team was now complete). And eventually we struck east towards the City and our final destination. I (perversely) liked the bit where you see the runners heading off to the Isle-of-Dogs on the other side of the road. But by now they were more stragglers – it must be better for the likes of Mo to see still really good runners left that far behind.
But there was still a good way to go, and it was starting to become a real struggle -take a drink at every drink station – keep going – mustn't stop – disagreement – body says “walk” - head and heart in perfect harmony “we came here to RUN a b&££$y marathon so RUN a b&££$y marathon we will” - keep going – keep going – check Garmin – 10 km to go (but according to Mr GlosHawk more likely to be 11 :-( ) - head music – Dusty “I just don't know what to do with myself” - sing it - the whole song and then check Garmin again – it counts down a lot quicker if you sing the whole song – Jerusalem - “And did those feet – in ancient times” - both verses – and the introduction – and that magnificent bit at the end – check Garmin again – if you can just keep going – you run this distance all the time – you run this distance for fun – this is just a Saturday morning park run.
And into the underpass. We're told this used to be a silent place – a place of contemplation, but now there's loud piped music. Or according to Chris from work a place to find yourself ankle deep in male urine, but now there are (unused) portable male urinals on the pavement brazenly out in the open. Then out into the open air, and the Embankment. At some point another huge “GOOOOOO DAD”. And at some point a first glimpse of the Elizabeth Tower (known to you and me as “Big Ben”). But how close is it? I tend to stick to the sides of the road, seeking shelter, and as I do that the “go on Keith's” from the crowds intensify. Couldn't help but wonder if this was a direct result of how bad I was looking. And it was getting to be a real effort to acknowledge them – no energy for any “high fiving” any more.
Past Big Ben – and on into Birdcage Walk, and then a sign 600 metres to go – and on – and there's Dave from the start adjusting his thong ready for a grand gesture at the finish – but where the $%^& is the 400 metres sign? - that can't be right – we must be upon it – we pass it, and before I was expecting it we swing around to the right, then right again – and like a mirage in the desert, there is the finishing line – so close – no more pain - it's nearly over – sprint (sort of) – sprint – those around me hold their hands up – forget Garmin (for the record officially timed at 4:17 flat) – this is your moment – hands up through the line – you've done it – YOU'VE DONE IT – you've run (not walked) – you've run a marathon – you've run the LONDON MARATHON – YOU ARE A MARATHON RUNNER.
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