At 2:23pm on Sunday 13th April, I crossed the finish line of the 2014 London Marathon in a time of 4 hours, 18 minutes and 37 seconds. I had a smile on my face and agonising pain in my legs but I had successfully completed the task that a few days beforehand I wasn’t even sure I was going to attempt. It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t fast but I finished it and, all things considered, I’m happy with that.
The run itself went as well, if not better, as I expected. It was a beautifully hot day (well, apparently not that hot but it felt like it was well over 20°C) and I started the race calm, relaxed, happy and pain-free. I had stuck to my plan of having no plan and had resisted the urge to bring my Garmin “just in case” because I knew that if I was wearing it, I’d start stressing over pace and time which I didn’t want to do. I found a comfortable pace early on, easy to do when surrounded by so many people, and stuck to running comfortably – low heart rate, easy breathing, barely pushing it. I was stunned by the sheer exuberance of the crowds even in the first miles through Woolwich and Charlton. Early sunday drinkers crowded outside pubs that had inspirational music – well, “Eye of the Tiger” – blaring from speakers; masses of people lined the streets cheering, shouting encouragement and holding signs of support while children held their hands out to be high-fived by passing runners. It was incredible and unlike anything I’d ever experienced and enough to put a smile on even this old dour face.
The miles started slipping by and the first 10km seemed over in no time as we passed the Greenwich Naval College (scene of the final showdown between Chris Hemsworth and Chris Ecclestone in “Thor: The Dark World”), past the Cutty Sark and then up through Surrey Quays. I kept an eye on the clock at each mile point and worked out that I was roughly sticking to 8:30 miles which I was happy with.
At about 8 miles I felt the first twinge in my right calf. Since my run the previous monday, I had been foam-rolling, self massaging and stretching like a maniac to make sure my legs were in the best condition they could be and paying particular attention to the recurrence of the injury from December. I knew from that point on that it would be a matter of time before it would work against me but I would carry on running while I still could.
And run I did! In fact I made it to 12 miles before I stopped running which, between you and me, might actually be the furthest I’ve ever run in a single stretch because I am in inveterate, unapologetic run-walker in every race I do. The only reason I stopped at that point was a quick call of nature at the first queue-less portaloo. Once out, I rejoined the crowd and headed north of the river over Tower Bridge and reached half way in just under 2 hours. My pace had dropped a little but I was fine with that. I stopped briefly to pop some more ibuprofen to see if that would help alleviate the pain in my leg and made a plan to keep pushing to at least 15 miles. I took time to applaud the runners heading back the other way past me and then pushed on up to Canary Wharf.
I was grateful that much of the next section was in shade because I was beginning to feel the heat at that point. It’s a sign of how prepared I was for the race that it was only while standing in the start pen looking around at the other runners that I realised I hadn’t even considered bringing a hat. Or sunscreen. Or anything useful. Not that there was much I could do about it except carry on running. 14 miles passed and then 15 and my calf was really beginning to ache and the noise of the spectators cheering was beginning to overwhelm me. Ahead there was a tunnel and I figured this would be some respite from the heat and the noise and would be the point where I had to start walking. I got two right – a steel band had set up in the tunnel and were banging out a solid beat which reverberated through my entire body as it echoed around the tunnel. It was anything but inspiring or encouraging and I couldn’t wait to push on.
At mile 16, down on the Isle of Dogs, I made a conscious decision to walk at least half if not all of the next mile to see if that would give time for the painkillers to kick in and ease the strain on my leg. With 10 miles left, I reasoned that if I could even maintain a pace of 5 miles an hour, I only had two hours to go. But even my walking plan fell by the way side as I was passed by a chap dressed as a bottle of London Pride and “Dave”, wearing very little but a blue wig and bright blue thong and carrying a load of balloons. It wasn’t competition that spurred me on to run, it was just the atmosphere. Heading back up to Canary Wharf, I started to see more people who had collapsed and who were being attended to by marshals. A guy in front of me jumped off the road at one point, obviously hit by sudden and debilitating cramp. I felt bad about carrying on but I was hardly in a state to help and nobody that I saw was left struggling or alone. A small, selfish part of me was also glad that I wasn’t that guy and that my race wasn’t yet over. I don’t like that part of me very much.
I don’t know what happened to those runners but I hope they recovered well enough to push on and finish no matter what their finishing time.
Coming to mile 18 and I called my wife to tell her how I was doing. She was in town with the children and, ever the optimist, was ready to come and see me at around mile 25. I told her I was still plodding on and that I would be an hour and a half or so from that point – two hours at most if I walked. It was lucky I made the call when I did as around the next corner I was hit by a immense wall of noise. The cheers of the spectators were so loud and echoing off the skyscrapers making it seem like there were millions of people rather than mere thousands. The sound was oppressive and went straight through me. I’d been listening – or trying to listen – to music on the way round which is not something I usually do but I had made an exception as an attempt to shut out the world as much as I could. I gave up at this point and turned the player off because I couldn’t hear a damned thing.
I hobbled on out of the morass and back onto Poplar High Street and the road to the finish. Passing mile 20 was, as promised by the interactive VLM map tips, a real lift as I knew I only had another 10km to cover. I gave running another go and managed most of the next mile before going back to run-walking. I didn’t care how much it was going hurt or potentially damage my calf – ticking off that extra mile a little quicker would bring me that much closer to the finish. I hit 35km in about 3:30 and and reminded myself that 7km was easy, just a warm up! At mile 22 a group of people (who I later found out were the London City Hash House Harriers) were standing outside a pub offering beer to the runners. I didn’t process this until after I had gone past and briefly deliberated whether to go back or not but I had momentum and wasn’t going to break it. (My thoughts went something like “Oh! Giving out beer to runners – cool! Hey, wait, I’m a runner; they had beer. I could have been a runner with beer! Bugger!”)
At this point we were going past the half-way mark again where previously we had seen the lead non-Elite runners going past. There were still a throng of competitors headed past the 13 mile point going the other way and I was in awe of them pushing on and knowing that I’d probably be at home, 45 miles away, by the time they got to the finish. While technically an ultra is any distance over 26.2 miles, for these guys, this was an ultra and I slowed to applaud and cheer them on just as I had the lead runners when I’d been in the reverse position. Mile 23 took us past the Tower of London and then on to mile 24, 2 miles left. I checked my phone to find a text from my family telling me exactly where they’d be. I hadn’t expected to see them because the crowds along the Embankment can be ridiculous but they had managed to get up to the barrier. Through the Embankment tunnel, which again I walked because of the shade and because this time there was proper respite from the noise, plus had to save all my reserves to make the last mile count.
Now I might be getting sentimental in my old age but seeing my wife and children on the course was the highlight of the day for me. I ran over them and gave them all a massive hug. Then my wife raised an eyebrow and said “Why aren’t you sweating?” For a moment I thought she was either being sarcastic – I knew I’d been sweating buckets – or was she having a dig at me not running hard enough. “I’m all sweated out!” I replied! Later on I’d realise she was right, I wasn’t sweating because I was massively dehydrated. I gave them all one final hug and with a massive smile on my face set off to conquer the last mile.
Everything hurt at this point. My injured calf had all but seized up, my other calf was sore, my hips were aching, my quads were dying and my hamstrings were tightening up. It wasn’t going to stop me, of course, but I knew it was just going to be a case of holding on. Ahead I saw Big Ben and The Houses of Parliament although, for the life of me, I couldn’t recall where the hell I was meant to go after that, despite 5 or 6 years working in London. I followed the crowd, trying to run when I could and walking (briskly I might add) when I couldn’t. On to Birdcage Walk and limping up to mile 26. Ahead of me I could hear the Blue Peter theme tune and wondered why it was playing until I overheard the tannoy announcing that Blue Peter presenter Helen Skelton had just finished. I hadn’t spotted any celebrities or people I knew on the course and stayed tucked away in my own little world, despite the fact that there were several bloggers, twitterers, people from club and coaching group running.
Suddenly, a couple of runners came past me with the flags on their back announcing they were the 4:15 pacers. Time was arbitrary at this point but I decided I couldn’t finish just behind them. I decided to push hard for the last 600m but my legs totally failed to respond with anything more than a jog. I gritted my teeth and decided to ramp up to at least catch the pacers by the 400m mark. I couldn’t believe how much this hurt – even finishing the Lakeland 100 had been relatively easier than this and I sprinted the last 400m of that. I pushed a little harder and then pushed a little bit more, trying to kick some life into the old neurons. As I picked up speed and passed the pacers, one of them called out “Do it lad! Sprint finish, all the way!” My inner Gunnery Sergeant Hartman screamed at me: “Are you quitting on me? Well are you? Well quit then you overweight, under-trained, slimy piece of shit and get off my course!” 200m and I was in front of the pacers and I could see the finish line. My technique, judging from the photos, had gone to hell and I raised my arms in what I thought was a victory pose but in retrospect looked more like someone was holding a gun at me. But I crossed the line running and I had finally finished my first marathon. It’s just a shame that the two pacers I had raced were 3 or 4 minutes behind schedule! Oh well!
So that’s the story of my inaugural city marathon, successfully completed despite me doing what I could to stack the cards against me. Not pretty, not fast but finished. I still have a lot more thoughts to share and more analysis to do, for my own benefit if not for anyone else. Would I do it again? Typically, straight after the event I didn’t think so. The noise and the crowd and the sheer number of people was far too much of an overload at the time and one of the first things I wanted to do when I finished was find a nice quiet place to hide. But two days later and I’m considering it – but only if I can do it properly; uninjured and having actually trained properly. There’s no point in just doing it to finish again.
I came, I saw, I winged it.
(Unashamedly nicked off Twitter – credit to the owner and the RunLikeAGirl facebook group. Will remove on request!)