What is it REALLY like to run the London Marathon?

Most of you know by now that I have proved conclusively that couch potato to Marathon finish line CAN be achieved, from a reclining start, in a period of 6 months. But only just.

Last Saturday evening I caught the train down to London, waved off by my darling wife and youngest daughter at the station.

I was destined for a tiny hotel in Docklands – close enough to the Marathon start point for me to be sure that I could get there in time on Sunday morning. It was nerve-racking actually: whilst I slept OK, I awoke to the realisation that I really was attempting to run the full 26.2 miles of the London Marathon that day. In a few hours time. Ridiculous questions crowded my thoughts: What exact time should I go down for breakfast? What time should I put my Dementia Revolution running top on, affixing my London Marathon running number to the front? How much water should I drink this morning? Would my hamstrings give out after 2 miles, forcing me out of the race before it had even really started? Would I make it to the Finish line? Is this the last day of my life?! (a ‘drama queen’ soundtrack seemed to be playing in a loop in my head).

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On the platform, ready to go …. and kit hanging. Nothing left to plan.

The Docklands Lodge Hotel is right on the marathon route, close to the 20 mile marker. “Will I see that marker again soon?”, I wondered as I set off for Poplar Station. By the time I found the train to Greenwich I was really feeling the pressure. Around me, silent figures shouldered their see-through Marathon kit bags stoically. “Are you ready?” I asked the runner I sat next to on the DLR. “It is a long way” he replied, curtly. When we arrived at Greenwich Station the tube driver wished the marathon runners luck. ”I ran it myself 4 years ago” he enthused as I thanked him. He turned away. “Hard” he muttered, as if to himself.

It is strange to be so nervous. I had done the training, following an online training program. Yes I had damaged my Achilles tendon and had to stop training for a period in the middle. Yes I had strained a hamstring two weeks prior. But I was OK now. I had put in the miles – building up to the obligatory 14 mile and 18 mile training runs. I had picked up my running number, timing widget and kit bag from the ExCel event on Thursday, and fitted the widget to my shoe as instructed. I had my nutrition gels, and of course my jelly babies snuggled in my running belt. I had rested for a week.

Surely I was ready?

I was certainly not alone. Of the 414,168 applicants for the Virgin Money London Marathon 2019 a total of 42,905 other runners had secured a place and were headed for the Start. With so many participants, runners have to be separated into three groups, each starting from a separate start point and, at each start point, runners set off from their allocated zones at ten minute intervals. Your group is advised by email in advance and your zone is printed next to your running number. Everyone runs the same distance of course and the three groups converge after a few miles. But it is pretty difficult to get over 40,000 runners on the road! I had been allocated to the Red start point and, because I had predicted a relatively slow Marathon time of 5 hours, was allocated to Red Zone 6 – in the last mass group to set off, starting at 10:48am.

The hardest part of the start is the waiting. I took off my jacket and track suit and dropped my numbered kit bag at the correct truck from the long row of lorries lined up in the massive waiting area in Greenwich Park. Luckily for us overall, the day was cool, with no wind and no rain. But cool means cold when one is standing around waiting. And waiting. The organisers did their best to keep us entertained and before long we got to see Andy Murray get the race underway but my start time was still 45 minutes away (I generously gave Sir Mo Farah a head start). Eventually it was time for the Zone 6 ‘mass start’ thousands to line up. I can see the quiet determination on my face, tinged with fear, on the selfie I took as we got ready to go. Race time!

Zone 6, 10:48am and we are ready to go

Zone 6, 10:48am and we are ready to go

With a wave to the TV cameras as we passed over the red pad at the Start, and the widget on our running shoes triggering our recorded start time, we were off. I was amazed to see two or three people stop and walk after less than 2 miles. It was going to be a long day for them. I had decided that, however slowly I went, I was going to run the whole way except when saying hello to my darling wife Fawzia and my support team (children George, Will, Katie and Amara and Katie’s boyfriend Sam). The first planned meeting point was at halfway – Dementia Revolution had 10 ‘Cheer points’ around the course including one on the north side of Tower Bridge. I had heard how difficult it was to spot family members in the massive crowd so we had agreed that they would stand at the Cheer Points at 14 and 23 miles.

Running en masse was odd. On all my training runs I had been accompanied only by my training partner, Pickle – our two-year-old dog. Now I was surrounded by thousands of runners on all sides. Water bottles get discarded and need to be avoided. A vast amount of track suit tops and sweatshirts get discarded. The clothing is a windfall for the clothing banks that collect it but discarded bottles and shirts are a real hazard for runners running in a close packed group. But to be honest the first half of the race passed without much incident. I twinged my hamstring in mile 4, which was initially painful, but found that I could cope with it by taking paracetamol and slowing my pace. The route was lined with cheering crowds from the start but I put my earphones in, connected Strava (running App that told me how fast I was going every half mile so that I could judge and adjust my pace), put on some music and got on with it. Before long I began to see landmarks that I knew from when we lived in Bermondsey – and eventually I passed Boss Street where our flat was and I knew we were about to turn right on to Tower Bridge. Hurray! Almost half way, and still running. Trenchtown Rock/Bob Marley spurring me on.

Almost half way. Arriving at Tower Bridge!

Almost half way. Arriving at Tower Bridge!

I have always loved Tower Bridge but this was a special moment, crossing the river with new energy and turning right with the expectation of seeing my support team soon. Of course the mental challenge after crossing Tower Bridge is that one sees fast runners on the track on the other side of the road heading left to the Finish line. How on earth can they possibly have run so fast? They are more than 10 miles ahead. For some it can be a bit troubling to turn right away from the finish line whilst others are heading in the opposite direction but I was prepared for it. And Fawzia and co were just round the corner.

One of the strangest experiences of the race was about to hit me – and them. For some reason we all began to feel deeply emotional. Perhaps it was because Dad’s plan to run the London Marathon was actually HAPPENING? Perhaps I was really appreciating the support I had needed to get this far, as well as the fact that they were all there cheering me on? What ever the reason we all agreed afterwards that it was a powerful moment as I found them at the Cheer Point, waving their Dementia Revolution stuff, wearing Dementia Revolution T-shirts and tattoos and shouting like crazy! ”Go on Dad. So proud of you!” they yelled. As a father, life doesn’t get much better than the moment when your children tell you that they are proud that you are their Dad.

“As a father, life doesn’t get much better than the moment when your children tell you that they are proud that you are their Dad.”

Then we went our separate ways: I headed off in to Docklands for a long, winding 10 mile slog – broken only by the joy of running down West India Avenue towards 1 Canada Square. This was the point at which I broke through the 18.5 mile mark – the longest distance I had ever run before. I knew that if I was still able to keep going at this point then I would be on the home straight (literally – after Canary Wharf the route turns back towards Tower Bridge and the Embankment for the final sector). Passing my hotel obest 2019-04-28 13.55.45f the night before was a good moment too.

My support team headed in the other direction – to a relaxed lunch at Côte Brasserie in St Katherine’s Dock. It wasn’t until after the race that I reflected on the fact that, whilst it was me that was doing significant exercise, it was my support team that were adding fuel. I was missing out on lunch. I was eating running gels every four miles and sipping water every half mile, but was it enough?

After lunch Fawzia and co sauntered back to the nearby Cheer Point at mile 23. I was on that Home Straight by then. But all was not going quite as planned. Around me, runners were showing significant signs of stress. A shocked runner was stopped by the side of the road every 5 or 10 yards. The pace had slowed significantly. I put on a brave face when I saw my supporters but I was in pain too. But it wasn’t ‘The Wall’ by that stage. On the running app I can see that my pace was really consistent up to that point, increasing speed very slowly over the race. I said good bye to the family swiftly though as I did not trust my legs to get started again if I stopped for too long. Running a marathon really does take you in to unknown territory in terms of endurance.

For me The Wall moment came at about mile 24. Spectators were shouting “Nearly there!” but my eyes were telling me different: The Embankment is longer than I ever remembered. What a slog. “Can I make it?” I wondered. I slowed my pace further but refused to stop running. At one memorable point I was overtaken by a walker! That spurred me on and before long I was seeing signs saying “5/8ths of a mile to go”, “800 meters to go”, “364 meters to go” and so on. Unbeknown to me George and Will had nipped down to watch from a point just outside Buckingham Palace where the route turns in to the Mall for the final few yards to the finish. Delightfully Will videoed his athletic father as he sprinted towards the finish line. The resulting video – now known as the Blistering Pace video due to the commentary from George amidst the laughter – is one of my favourite images of the event. Blistering pace? OMG I was going SO SLOWLY. But I was still going, and still technically running, so that is all that matters. (People who run a marathon always seem to say “I did it in x hours” but I was not interested in the second half of that. I just wanted to be able to say the “I did it”). As for those elite runners with their fluid running and their incredible speed, I don’t know quite how to describe them. Absolutely astounding. I will watch every marathon with humble awe from now on.

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I finally crossed the line and my phone bleeped with a text from the timing system: finished in 5 hours 43 minutes. There were still thousands of runners behind me but many, many more ahead of me. I was handed my medal and my phone rang almost immediately: it was Fawzia. All I can remember is that she was incredibly excited but I could not really hear her. I was beginning to feel extremely sick. I actually cut the call before she had finished and tried to recover. I decided to keep moving and it was a good choice. The sickness subsided. I walked on and picked up my Finisher pack including T-shirt, water, apple and foodbars, foil blanket and other stuff. Then I had to wander down the numbered line of lorries to find my kit bag. It seemed to be a long way. St John’s Ambulance teams were attending to various crumpled runners by the roadside. Pain and joy, in a heady mix. “Are you OK” asked one of the attendants. All I could reply was the same as I’d heard earlier: “It is a long way”.

And if you want to have a nice, comfortable perception of a straight forward London Marathon, or you are an athlete who knows all about proper nutrition before and during a race, then I suggest you stop reading now. If however you are a normal mortal like me then read on …

Eventually I got to Horse Guards Parade where my family and I had agreed to meet at meeting point H after the race: H for Haworth. As I approached the meeting point I was aware that my sight was ‘a bit funny’. It was as if I was looking through a pane of glass with droplets of water on it. After a few short minutes, George and Will arrived. Congratulations were cut short as they could see that I was suffering. I rebuffed the suggestion that I might need a doctor. But I began to feel worse. I had to take off the medal and pass it to Will because it was simply too heavy. I could hardly stand. Then I looked up … and realised that I did need medical help:

Horse Guard Parade as it was meant to look ... and how it looked to me!

Horse Guards Parade as it was meant to look … and how it looked to me!

In the care of St John’s Ambulance team

Will ran off to get help. I couldn’t walk and felt absolutely terrible. I was frightened by the failure of my sight and by the fact that I could not hold my own head up. I used George for support and eventually Will got back with a St John’s Ambulance team and their wonderful wheelchair. Humiliating? No. I was beyond caring and slumped into the seat. I couldn’t even lift my own feet onto the footrests. “Sorry about the bumps” they said. What bumps? It was the most comfortable seat I could ever remember. I was soon inside the medical tent for blood tests, blood pressure, heart monitor and eventually, once dehydration-driven low blood pressure had been diagnosed … a saline drip. I missed the Dementia Revolution after party. We cancelled the family supper celebration. I now need to ‘Offset’ my use of St John’s Ambulance resources with some fundraising for them too – all because my drinking strategy had NOT been adequate! Finally we took some pics of me being treated, just for fun (“You English people have such a strange sense of humour” mused Fawzia) and then, after two hours of friendly but efficient attention by the dedicated Dr Ramayooloo and her team, I was fit to go.

As we wandered back past the Finish line I was shocked to see runners still coming in. A long day!

On the way home I thought about what I had learned …

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The Marathon Miracle

All in all I actually really enjoyed the race. Yes there were 10 or 20 minutes afterwards that were hell. But I loved learning about myself, supporting a charity, bringing the family together and all the other parts of what I now call the Marathon Miracle. I am incredibly grateful for the support I received – from family, friends and physio. No I won’t be doing it again. Yes YOU should have a go.

Thank you to all my sponsors. A great result!What about fundraising? Well I am delighted to report that we smashed the £2,500 target that I set myself 12 months ago. More than 30 generous individuals and companies have helped me raise £3,240 with Gift Aid so far. A great result. A massive THANK YOU to each and every one of you!

 

http://www.letchworthphysiotherapist.co.uk/

Help needed from all: the brilliant physio Sally Richt
http://www.letchworthphysiotherapist.co.uk/

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Dr Ramayooloo’s team doing a great job.
(She was doing her 7th Marathon of med support. What dedication!)

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Pickle: my faithful running companion …

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Footnote:

So I have run a marathon, walked barefoot over burning hot coals, climbed a snowy mountain with seal skins fixed to my skis, started my own business in China, brought up 4 children, learned to ride horses by taking up polo (fantastic game – thanks for the reminder about this one, Jane) and attempted to get a painting into the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts (failed twice). What next: Skydiving? Learn Mandarin? Suggestions please :-)

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Comments

  1. Jane Byrne  May 4, 2019

    You forgot to put learnt to ride a horse and play POLO on your list!!
    Fab article! Really enjoyed it and felt your pain – from the safety of my kitchen!!
    xx

    Thanks for the reminder, Jane. Have added it to the list :-)
    S