As a Garmin Connect user I've had a section under Personal Records that's been noticeably empty since I started running: 'marathon'.
My PBs for all the other distances have been carefully logged and gleefully updated following a good day at the office, but the marathon column has been teasing me ever since I secured my London place last August.
And then Sunday happened!
Yes, I've finally earned my stripes and can proudly add a time of 04:17 over 26.2 long and gruelling miles to my collection of running achievements. I am a fully fledged member of the marathon club and boy does it feel good.
For an event that's world famous for its visual splendour and screaming spectators, trying to capture the experience via your keyboard isn't even beginning to do it justice. But for a blog it's the only tool I have in my box, so here goes... Be warned, it's also quite long so get yourself comfy.
Marathon day started early. Very early! I was in a lovely hotel enjoying the spoils of a free room upgrade, but that didn't stop me waking up at 3am. I dozed a bit through to 4.30am but by then I was wide awake and eager to just get on with the day. It wasn't nerves, just anticipation of what was to be the climax of several months of training. I checked the weather forecast for about the 50th time that week and pulled back the curtains to see...puddles, but the rainfall seemed to have stopped. Fortunately that's how things stayed and while it might have been a little murky and chilly for the crowds it was perfect for us runners.
After breakfast I crammed everything but the kitchen sink into my kitbag and headed for the DLR at Tower Gateway. I got chatting to several runners en-route to Greenwich, some first timers like me and other more seasoned competitors giving wry smiles as we wondered what it was going to feel like running beyond 20 miles.
I managed to meet up with a work colleague at the Red start who was also running his first marathon and we wished each other good luck before heading off to our respective pens. As the masses assembled I was blown away by the sheer scale of London and it's amazing things go as smoothly as they do. Presumably it's a case of 35 years of practice being put to good use.
I was in pen 8, so a long way back and it took over 20 minutes to get across the start line. Again the feeling was eager rather than edgy – having come this far I really just wanted my London adventure to get under way. It was obvious that the opening miles were going to be pretty congested, but I was surprised to find that it never really let up until well after half marathon distance.
I had an idea of what pace I wanted to stick to, but without turning into the rudest runner in London it simply wasn't possible. And besides, getting too hung up on splits would mean missing out on fully enjoying the magical sights and sounds of this magnificent city on marathon day. So I just decided to go with the flow and looking back I'm glad I did.
Mind you, talking of splits and pace my Garmin gave me an almighty fright when it declared after mile two that the lap memory was almost full. Imagine having every training run logged but not the big race itself! Fortunately, despite a warning message on every subsequent mile, it did retain the data and everything has since uploaded to Connect without a hitch.
But less of the digital memories, what about the real ones?
The first 10k went by smoothly and was very enjoyable – lots of smiles amongst the runners and lots of support, much more than I expected in the early miles. I did wonder if there might be something in my water though, because after seeing the famous Save the Rhino costume at the start line I naively assumed that was the only one. Are they breeding?! I lost count at seven over the course of the day, including one with a sticker on his side that declared this was his tenth consecutive London Marathon. Impressive stuff.
Sticking with costumes, I also passed the Wolverhampton Bobsled Team who were gunning for a world record in their Cool Runnings costumes complete with homemade sled. These guys are fantastic – I’ve seen them at local runs including the Birmingham half marathon and they consistently raise money for Asthma UK. A quick shout of “go on boys” as I passed and then it was time to focus on reaching Cutty Sark.
People describe the marathon as one big street party. Well it was already warming up nicely, but Cutty Sark is equivalent to when the booze is liberally flowing, the music turned up to maximum and everyone is up for a wild time! Of course I’ve seen it on TV, but the buzz you get coming around the corner for real to cheers and screams is quite something. Whether you’re running as an elite for two hours at world record pace, or walking the course for over eight, they treat you like a sporting hero and it’s immensely satisfying.
As if things couldn’t get any better I then saw my dad and stepmom right at the front by one of the cheering stations. What a treat! That set me up perfectly for the next few miles.
If Cutty Sark was raucous and fun then the next landmark was the one to get emotional about – Tower Bridge. It’s just so iconic and to run across it lined with people all clapping and cheering you on is an absolute privilege. You just can’t experience London this way on any other day. I did everything by the book – looked up to the sky, looked across the river, looked over my shoulder as I headed away and waved manically at the photographers and TV cameras as I passed. And I didn’t stop smiling. Who cares if my pace was off target, why on earth would I want to rush things and shorten this experience?
But a few minutes later and it was time for a reality check. I hit the halfway point and, as if any reminder was needed about the challenge ahead, St John’s were attending to a fallen comrade on the side of the road right at that point. There’s still an awful lot of hard running to do…
Isle of Dogs was pretty uneventful, although again no shortage of supporters which was contrary to what I'd been told – so much for thinning out! I saw my favourite banner of the day here too – “Run faster, the Kenyans are drinking all the beer!”. They'd better not, I've got quite a thirst on... I knuckled down and put in some really consistent mile splits each around the nine minute mark. I had hoped to see my dad again at Mudchute, while my mum and uncle were planning to be at Crossharbour. But neither made it – the DLR was way too busy so they cut their losses and went to get a spot near the finish instead.
A pity, but I wasn't lonely for long. Canary Wharf...oh my goodness! Two things that stood out. The noise, which sounds more like a rowdy football stadium, and the stunning sight of a sea of runners stretching out in front of you in between the buildings. Quite something.
One thing I haven't mentioned yet is a rookie mistake I made right at the start. After entering the pen I started to feel the urge for another toilet stop. Ignore it, must be nerves – you'll be fine once you get going. But that took over 20 minutes. I should have used the time more wisely, because now I'm approaching 19 miles and I'm feeling very uncomfortable! I hung on for two more miles but it was no good, the lure of the red sign saying “toilets 200 yards” was too great and I veered off track for a comfort break. In all seriousness it was stopping me drinking enough fluids, so forget the time and get yourself sorted.
Yet breaking my stride, and seeing any chance of a four hour marathon go out of the window, did mess me up in the head a little. I have no idea if it was my take on the dreaded wall, but I seemed to lose interest. I don't remember feeling too tired or pained to run, but more a sense of “well, it's not really worth it now”. Whatever, it lasted for around two miles with lots of stop/start running and a fair bit of walking too.
And then the crowd came to my rescue. It's as if they have instructions to look out for any runners who are walking, grimacing, dragging their feet and looking down. They target you and channel all their positivity your way, calling out your name and practically commanding you to get moving again. It's humbling, what have I done to deserve your support and respect?
Well thank you London, thank you to all those generous people around Tower Hill and Monument. A quick look at my watch and I've got two and a half miles to the finish. I break my vow not to drink anything but water and practically neck an entire bottle of Lucozade Sport which seems to help. Now, go..!
I'm thrilled I got moving again, and at a decent pace, because emerging from the tunnel and hitting Embankment is probably my marathon day highlight. The streets lined with spectators, Big Ben and the London Eye visible ahead. The noise, the charity cheering stations and the sense of occasion just overwhelming. Keep running, don't stop and soak up every last moment of it.
Embankment surpassed even the finish for me. I'm sorry I missed my wonderful family who were yelling my name from St James's Park, but by now all I can do is visualise Buckingham Palace knowing that practically spells the end. The 800m sign appears and I know I'm going to finish strong.
Striding for that iconic finish line on the Mall a stranger calls to me and grabs my arm. We're going to have a #handinhand moment just like the winners did back in 1981. So for a few precious seconds Casey from the States becomes my new best friend, we cross the line together and pose for the obligatory selfie.
It's done, it's over. I'm relieved and also slightly disappointed. Not because of the time, not because of walking but because this eight month adventure of training, fundraising, blogging and planning is now over.
It took an age to get through the crowds to my meeting point (typical, my surname begins with a T so it's about as far away from the Mall as possible!). But when I did, looking my usual shade of post-run pale grey and feeling rather queasy, I met my family and quietly tried to take in the enormity of it all. The praise, the hugs and kisses, the photos...I've only been for a run, is it really that big a deal?
Actually, yes it is. Because not many runners achieve this and however you get to that finish line in whatever time gives you every reason to be proud. The medal stayed on for the rest of Sunday – in the hotel, at the pub and on the train. I'm still looking at it now...
Would I run London again? Maybe one day, it would be an honour to experience it all again. But I shan't be rushing to enter next year's ballot. It's such a massive event with all the hype and anticipation around it I feel I want a slightly calmer experience for my next marathon.
Now hang on, that means you're contemplating ANOTHER marathon does it? Well...it would be a shame to have come this far and not maintain my fitness levels. Besides, I've got a target time to beat now and we all know what runners are like when you give them a target................!
Thanks for reading (more a book than a blog) and for all your amazing support and words of encouragement along the way. Whatever happens next I'll be sure to seek guidance from the Buzzers.
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