Yesterday my two-year journey to run The London Marathon ended. I did it! It was the most epic and amazing experience, more than I imagined and perhaps even more so given my deferral and all the surgery of the last year. This post is my recollection of the day – before I forget any of it – and perhaps of some use to other first time marathon runners.
The day before and the marathon Expo
I had been increasingly nervous all week. Worried that something would happen to stop me running. Anyone who so much as sniffed in my vicinity was glared at in case they were harbouring the plague and on my taper runs I was terrified I’d fall over on something! I discovered that “taper madness” is something of a known phenomenon amongst runners, so I wasn’t alone in my paranoia.
Since I applied for London we’ve moved to Bristol, so doing the event involved an overnight stay in London. I had booked, at great expense, a self-catering apartment for us all for two nights so I could have the food the night before and breakfast that I wanted. Before heading to the apartment we drove to the ExCel Centre to register at the Expo and pick up my number. The literature sent out by the marathon suggests you avoid the Saturday as it will be very crowded, however number pick up took only a few minutes. We didn’t browse round the Expo and all of the stands as that was very busy, however if you just want to do a quick dash in and out for your number pickup that part wasn’t bad at all.
Practical details at the Expo – you pick up your number after showing photo ID. The colour of your number corresponds to which start – Red, Blue or Green – you will set off from. There will also be a small number for the pen you are in. The faster your expected time (given when you apply) the closer to the front you will start. Your individual time is taken from the timing chip you fasten to your shoe, also given to you at the Expo. You are also given a large kit bag which is the only bag that you are allowed to hand into the baggage lorries on the day. You put a sticker with your number on it onto the bag.
We then heading over to our apartment just next to Liverpool Street where I laid out my kit for the next day then proceeded to pace around and worry about all possible eventualities until at last it was time for bed.
The day of the race
I did get some sleep the night before – about as much as I would normally get in an unfamiliar place. I then managed to fuse all of the lights in the apartment and explode a pot of porridge in the microwave – all before 6am! Organising all of my race gear the night before however was a good plan as I didn’t need to think straight, just get dressed and leave. It was really quiet out on the streets as I left the apartment, but as I got closer to London bridge I was joined by a lycra clad army all heading over to the station. I stopped to take a photo of Tower Bridge as I crossed over, only just allowing myself to believe that in a few hours I’d be running over it.
As a ballot place runner I was starting from the Blue Start and had to go to Blackheath Station. Even if you had no clue about London transport there would have been no concern about getting on the wrong train. At London Bridge they were announcing the names of the starts, and which train to get on. It was just a case of listening and then going to the right platform where frequent trains were arriving to take runners to the starts. There was something of a “school trip” atmosphere on the train with everyone heading off to the race. I sat next to a lovely lady and we chatted about races and how we thought today would go. Both of us were a bit worried about how hot it was going to get.
At the Blue Start
Just walking up to the Blue Start enclosure felt exciting. I saw the hot air balloons, and people were stopping to take photos. I tried to post a photo to Twitter but had no data. Do not expect to be able to use your phone or data connection for the entire day! Only runners are allowed into the enclosure, so there really isn’t much point supporters coming to the start line. I’d already seen that information and had left my family back at the apartment. It’s better that friends and family go and find a good place to watch the race than hang around near the start.
I had expected it to be busy and a bit stressful inside the enclosure but it wasn’t at all. I spotted some fellow runners from Southville Running Club so said hello to them and then had a wander around. It was already getting quite warm and most people were sat on their kit bags watching the big screen which was relaying camera footage from our start and also the other starts. On the screen I watched the wheelchair, disabled and then the Elite Women start.
The announcements were clear and kept us informed as to when to do things. With half an hour to go I went to the dreaded portaloos and then took my kit bag to the baggage lorries. I’d been given a tip to take a backpack as it would be easier to carry about than the big drawstring kit bag, then at the last minute put the backpack into the kit bag and hand it in. I’m glad I did as the official bags are not easy to carry. The bags were big enough to put a reasonable sized bag in, along with a jacket or other warm clothes.
Then I headed to my pen to wait for the start. People had warned me about how busy the pens are, however it wasn’t horribly cramped – no worse than the starts at Reading or Ealing Half. You do end up waiting for a while, however everyone was friendly and enjoying the atmosphere. We knew the race had begun as a wave of applause started from the front and then very slowly we started moving forward. It took about 7 minutes for me to get to the actual start line and then I could begin running. It was nothing like as crowded as I imagined and I set off with the rest of my pen at a steady 10 minute mile pace, as I headed over the line the noise of the crowds really got going and I only then accepted that I was indeed here – I was going to run the marathon!
I’d followed all of the advice in my training plan and from the session I had been to at Southville Running Club and followed a proper taper for the first time ever. This meant that the niggles in my hip and knee that had plagued the last few months were a lot better and I felt pretty good. I stuck to my plan of ten minute miles for the first half and just enjoyed running fairly slowly. There were supporters lining the route, with my name on my vest people would call out my name every hundred yards or so, I soon learned to stop looking in case it was someone I knew!
I had broken the race down into segments, the first thing I was looking forward to was getting to The Cutty Sark at around mile six, and you hear the crowds there before you see the ship. I thought the support from the crowds was amazing up to this point, but it was nothing in comparison to the noise that hit as I ran down to the ship. All the way around the crowds are yelling and banging those inflatable sticks, it’s brilliant and a bit overwhelming!
As I left The Cutty Sark I started to think about the next section and Tower Bridge after mile 12. Halfway didn’t seem too far off and I kept up my 10 minute mile pace and enjoyed the support, I spotted a couple of other runners from The Prince’s Trust around this point as well, we exchanged smiles and waves. Quite a few people had started to walk and people would sometimes just stop suddenly in my path, we were all still running as a fairly tight group. The water stations were the worst part as people dived in to grab a bottle or lobbed a half full bottle towards the side. I had been sticking to the right hand side to try and avoid people bashing into my elbow – however I soon realised this just made me a target for missiles!
I was dreading the halfway point as in training this is where my elbow starts to give me real trouble. I seem to have some residual nerve damage from the break or the recent operation and after about 13 miles I get sharp nerve pain down my arm, this continues until my arm eventually goes numb 3 or 4 miles later. Before I even got to that point however a runner behind me stumbled and crashed into my arm, the shock making me stop suddenly – tweaking the tendons in my hip. I’d already resigned myself to the fact that with so many people running so close someone crashing into my arm was inevitable, the fact it also aggravated the hip problem I’ve been training through was annoying.
Arriving at Tower Bridge was an amazing feeling, really lifting my spirits from the occurrences of the previous mile. As with The Cutty Sark, running over the bridge was like running through a tunnel of noise, with the crowds filling the walkways cheering and calling the names of anyone with a name on their vest. I’d looked forward to this point and no sore elbow or hip was going to spoil it! Over the bridge and the halfway point was in sight, and I started to look forward to the first cheering point for The Prince’s Trust between miles 16 and 17 – where my daughter and husband were.
By now it was starting to get very hot. I do not deal well with heat – I’m from the North and designed to deal better with icy sideways rain than heat. I had already planned that if it got hot I would walk the water stations to ensure I drank enough water, if I try and drink and run I just don’t drink enough. I’ve had the experience of overheating and becoming very dehydrated during a race and I wanted to finish, not collapse at mile 25! So I started to follow this strategy, my arm and hip were also now really sore slowing my running down. I did some maths and knew I could come in under the five hour mark as long as I didn’t get slower than 12 minute miles. As I went through the 16 mile mark I started looking out for The Prince’s Trust cheering point, I saw them as they saw me and a huge roar went up. I didn’t see my family at all but I made sure to wave at the supporters. Just a hundred yards or so further on I had another surprise when I saw friends from Maidenhead Athletics in the crowd. I waved to them and the support made the next mile or so seem much easier.
The next section of the course goes through Canary Wharf, there were huge crowds of spectators here and lots of charity cheering points. While the charities reserved their biggest cheers for their own runners they were doing a great job of supporting every runner. It was so hot but my strategy of making sure I drank enough was paying off and I felt ok, in pain but ok. I was seeing more and more people who were not doing so well, and were being treated by the side of the road. As predicted my arm and hand were going pretty numb at this point, giving me one less thing to worry about. The next cheering point for The Prince’s Trust would be at mile 23. I knew I was slowing down and wasn’t sure what I could do about it. At mile 22 I had run further than I have run before, my longest training run being just under 22 miles.
I was struggling up a hill and felt an arm around me, “come on we’ll run up this one together!” People in the crowd were shouting “you’ve got this! You are nearly there!” It was so hot.
The mile 23 cheering point made a huge noise, I grinned and waved and hoped I looked less of a wreck than I felt and ran on – to the Victoria Embankment. The finish was less than a 5K away and the noise of the crowd was building and building with every step.
Coming down Birdcage Walk and onto The Mall is every bit as epic as you imagine. I felt so sad for the runners who were being treated by the roadside here, so close to the finish, I hope they managed to make it to the end after being treated. I realised that despite the pain I felt ok, I was here, I was going to finish. The announcer was telling us to smile and look our best for the cameras; to make a clear run for a gantry and not to have our finish photo next to someone in a silly costume. I could have been surrounded by bananas and rhinos at that point and not cared. I’d finished. Through the line with an official time of 04:54:24.
There is a hugely efficient system in place to process runners as they come through. I got my medal (it’s lovely!) had my chip removed and then a post race photo was taken. Then I walked through to get a goody bag including a t-shirt and on to the baggage truck to pick up my kit bag. The baggage people were so efficient they had my bag in hand to give me before I even got to them – I expect my slow hobble gave them plenty of time.
The Prince’s Trust had a post race reception where, with I met up with my family and other Trust runners and had pizza, champagne and a massage. Laying in a restaurant while someone rubs your legs is an odd feeling, however nothing is normal on a marathon day!
The relief of having got here, having done it is immense. After the disappointment of having to defer last year, and the fact I’m still coming to terms with the likelihood that my elbow isn’t going to get a whole lot better than it is now, I needed to do this. I needed to do this to prove that I’m not broken. I needed to do it to prove to myself that I could. I can. I’m a marathon runner, and watch this space as I’m now looking for my next challenge!