Sometimes you stand on the start line of a race and you feel pretty confident that you know how things are going to go. Sometimes you stand there and know that you won’t do as well as you’d hope because haven’t trained enough, or you’ve had an injury, or for one a thousand other reasons. On very rare occasions (at least in my life), you stand there and suspect that it might go better than you’re expecting, but you just don’t know. At the start line of the 2015 London Marathon, I was in that third group.
My First London Marathon (probably not my last)
My training had gone more-or-less according to plan. I hadn’t had any injuries. I’d tapered well. I’d carb loaded well. I felt rested, energised, focused and ready. I’d got to the starting area in plenty of time. The bag drop had been simple. The weather had improved to be almost perfect running conditions: cool, cloudy and not particularly windy. But, because I’d taken a slightly different approach to my training, I felt less sure about exactly how well I was capable of going.
But let’s wind back a bit, because this was my first London Marathon and one of the main reasons for writing this blog is to keep a record of the day. If city road marathons are even vaguely in your zone of interest, then the London Marathon is an epic experience. My sense of anticipation was already heightened.
Wake up! It’s time to run.
I woke up a bit earlier than my alarms (yes, I set two of them). I didn’t feel particularly nervous. I just felt ready. I got my breakfast sorted and re-checked my race bag was packed. I enjoy pre-race breakfasts, so I didn’t rush. A quick change and then it was time to catch the train to Waterloo. At the station there were already around a dozen red race bags on the platform and that number grew steadily as the 0720 approached. At each stop, more red bags boarded the train. At Waterloo, you could see people getting off trains and converging on the underground entrances or towards Waterloo East to head to Blackheath.
The train to Blackheath was standing room only. Getting off the train at Blackheath gave my first flavour of how the race might feel when running. There were people carrying race bags everywhere and it was just one steady stream of people heading towards the start lines. It was very overcast and there was a light drizzle hanging in the air. More intangibly there as a hum of energy as people chatted excitedly about the forthcoming run.
Good For Age
I was very lucky to have qualified for a Good For Age entry for this year’s London Marathon, so I was starting on the main red start line, but from the other side of the road in a dedicated starting area. We would essentially be in pole position when start time came around. I can’t tell if you miss out on some of the atmosphere by being enclosed away in that smaller area. There are about 2000-2500 Good For Age runners. A significant proportion of them were crammed like sardines into the marquee that was designated as the changing area. It was cold enough and damp enough to make sheltering from the weather the wisest choice. A major advantage of this smaller area was the complete absence of queues for the portaloos and baggage drops up until close to the starting time. There were decent queues for the last minute loo visits, but that’s to be expected and they moved quickly enough.
I couldn’t decide what I should wear to run in. I hate feeling the cold, especially in my hands. I knew I’d be running in gloves. But would I go for a long sleeve t-shirt, a base layer, a vest, a combination? I just couldn’t quite work out what the weather would feel like. In the end I went with a quarter-zipped long sleeve t-shirt over the top of a running vest. I figured I could always unzip the long sleeve t-shirt and roll the sleeves up if I got a bit too warm. In the end, that’s exactly what I did. I had underestimated the warming effect of being surrounded by a sea of runners.
Sitting in the changing marquee, I tried to relax and conserve my energy. I didn’t feel particularly nervous. I chatted a bit to a few people around me. I gave one guy my spare black bin liner to wear at the start (yes, I came prepared). I felt good Karma from that little act. I double checked my gels. I tied my timing tag to my shoelaces, pinned my race number to my top and then it was time to queue up at the start line.
I was surprised at how close I ended up being to the actual start. I knew I wouldn’t have to suffer the annoyance of taking 10 minutes to cross the line as some people are unlucky enough to have to go through. But I wasn’t expected to be more-or-less within touching distance of the start. Being crammed in with hundreds of other runners meant it was still warm at the start line. 1010 came around and we were off.
Don’t fail before you even start
I don’t remember much about the first 2 or 3 miles. I was really focused on making sure I was running at the right sort of pace, trying to keep my position on the road, avoiding tripping over the other runners and trying to run as smoothly as was possible considering how many people were around. I’ve been at busy starts, especially in half marathons, but this was something else. Normally, within a few miles the field has thinned and you can run your own race quite easily. At London, I don’t think the field had really thinned that much even by halfway.
The volume of runners meant that I nearly came a cropper within a half a mile of the start. The route crossed an entrance to a pedestrianised area. I didn’t spot the thin bollards that designated the area until I nearly clattered straight into one. Fortunately, a quick body swerve took me safely around it and I avoided bumping any other runners too.
Making the Pace?
At about 3 miles, the various routes joined up and I found myself more-or-less next to the 3 hour pace makers. I thought this was interesting, because I’d been doing just over 6:35 min/mile for miles 2 and 3, so I should have been a bit ahead of 3 hour pace. Over the next 10 or so miles, those pace markers would pull away slightly from me. Although they were still in sight, by about halfway they were probably a quarter of a mile ahead of me. Funnily, I didn’t feel at all worried by this. I knew I was running well and I could see that my splits had me ahead of a 3 hour pace, so I figured they were probably going off a bit harder because you usually end up going a bit further than race distance in these busier races. It’s so busy that it’s almost impossible to stick close to the ideal route. At London this is marked by a dashed blue line.
I’d worked out that I’d crossed the start line about 45 seconds after the official start. As I went past the first few mile markers, I checked my pace on my Garmin against the official clocks. I reached 10k in 42 minutes. I was slightly ahead of schedule, but I also felt really comfortable. I decided not to get carried away and just consolidate for a few miles until about halfway and then I could take stock of where I was. I eased my pace back from around 6:40 min/mile to about 6:50 min/mile. It may not sound like much, but 10 seconds a mile can be the difference between a comfortable run and drowning in lactate.
I was so focused on avoiding other runners and monitoring my pace and trying to run well, that I wasn’t really absorbing the atmosphere or sights yet. In these early miles, it was really being surrounded by so many runners that was the most marked thing and that was carrying me along really nicely. As I eased my pace a bit, I started to absorb the noise of the crowds a bit more. But I still was almost all the way around the Cutty Sark at 7 miles before I realised where I was. I actually said to the bloke next to me that I’d nearly run past it without looking, which was a bit odd given how iconic it’s supposed to be.
As we approached Rotherhithe, the field was starting to thin slightly. I could run a bit more easily and I could appreciate the noise and support of the crowds. The whole route seemed to be lined with supporters. Most races I’ve done have a few areas where there aren’t any people, but not here. I’d stuck to my nutrition plan and had a gel at about 30 minutes and again at 50 and 70 minutes. I’d picked up a quick drink at every other drink station. I was aware that I was feeling very warm, so I was careful to try to stay hydrated, but equally not to glug down too much and get a stitch.
Just before halfway, the route goes over Tower Bridge. There had already been a few moments where I couldn’t help buy smile, but Tower Bridge may be the point on the course that sticks with me for the longest. The noise was incredible. I was just shaking my head and grinning like a loon as I ran over the bridge. It felt amazing. How can you not be inspired at a moment like that? I went through halfway and worked out that on the race clock I was just inside 90 minutes, so I knew I was still on track for my target of under 3 hours. I felt great. Even so, I told myself to stay consistent and stick on the 3 hour pace of around 6:50 min/mile. If I still felt this good at 16 miles or so, I could kick on then.
As an aside, one of the things I’d been focusing on in the couple of weeks leading up to the race was my mental attitude. I had made a conscious effort to talk to other people and myself about the idea that I wanted to suffer in the latter stages of the race. I wanted to know that I had put everything into the race. This wasn’t about being reckless and blowing up. This was about a controlled level of exertion that would require me to really dig into my reserves of willpower. It wasn’t time to go into that zone yet, but I kept thinking about it. I wasn’t going to ease off.
Desperately Seeking Paula
From around halfway, there is a mile or so where the route doubles back on itself. The 13 and 14 miles on the outward side line up with around miles 21 to 22. I kept looking over to see if the elites were coming through. It’s always amazing to see them bounding past in the other direction. But I was actually running just a bit too fast to catch sight of them. The routes diverge again at about 14 miles and at this point they would have been around 5 miles ahead of me. This is a staggering thought really. I remember feeling a bit disappointed, because I’d also hoped to see Paula Radcliffe running in the opposite direction, because I figured the crowd noise would be unforgettable. But Paula was probably “only” about 2 miles ahead of me!
As you go around the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf, there are a lot of bridges or areas surrounded by skyscrapers. There are two consequences. It makes the GPS go a bit wonky, which makes it hard to be sure of your pace. More importantly it concentrates the sound of the crowds. For sheer volume, these were some of the noisiest spots on the course.
I was starting to kick on a bit now and I tried to push my pace down to about 6:40 min/mile again. I still felt comfortable and figured I’d try to accelerate again at about 22 miles. I was starting to overtake a few people as we went through 20 miles. I felt really strong. It’s amazing how motivating it is to start catching and overtaking people. I could also see that I was closing the gap to the 3 hour pace markers again.
Feeling the Flow
The crowds were really getting bigger and noisier as each mile closer to the finish came along. And I felt I was really starting to get into a bit of flow. Even though I was aware of the noise and even though there were still moments that I couldn’t help buy grin at the support, I wasn’t really taking it in. I was focused on staying close to the blue line and on dodging round other runners as I caught them and overtook them. There weren’t many people going past me now. It’s quite a feeling. I was really starting to fly along. As the race went along the Embankment through miles 24 and 25, I was starting to talk to myself, to challenge me to start hurting, to look for that pain. It spurred me on. I was trying to hurt. I needed to go faster. I could go faster. It just kept coming.
I was definitely in a state of flow now. I felt lighter on my feet (although I’m sure if I saw a video I’d be plodding), I was bursting past other runners. At about 25 miles I knew I was going to comfortably beat 3 hours. I had a little secondary target of finishing in under 2:58, because a very good running friend had clocked 2:58:01 at Manchester the week before. Me? Competitive? The only thing about this state of flow was that I didn’t absorb the experience. I was just running. I didn’t really take in the crowds around me. It’s a bit of a shame, because I know that the experience was epic, but I sort of missed it.
Also at 25 miles I started to get a few twinges of cramp in my left calf. No need to panic. I’ve had that sensation before. Sometimes it just runs through. I just focused on landing lightly and trying to tweak my stride a bit to give my muscles a slightly different sensation. There were more twinges, but it wasn’t getting worse. I just had to keep accelerating.
Compete to the end
Soon, there were signs for 800m to go, 600m, 400m etc. Then I could see the finish line and it was time to try to sprint. I was close to 2:58. 3 hours was sorted barring, or perhaps even in the event of, disaster. I had to keep digging. What could I achieve? Then I crossed the line. I’d have to wait for the official time a bit later, but I knew I was very close to 2:58. I briefly felt quite emotional. All the marshals are congratulating you and it’s an incredible feeling. There were definitely a few pricks of tears at the corners of my eyes, so I can appreciate a tiny little bit of what Paula Radcliffe must have been experiencing.
That’s All Folks
Then it was time to grab a goody bag, collect my race bag and attempt to find the changing areas. This was probably the only bit of the race that was anti-climatic. The changing areas were poorly signed and there were no marshals to guide you. And they were nothing more than a few barriered off areas. That was a bit disappointing. Before I’d tried to find those changing areas I’d bumped into the chap to whom I’d given my spare bin bag. He’d finished in about 2:55. Phenomenal effort. Good Karma all round!
I posed for an official photo and then I phoned Helena and my parents. I scoffed my Chia Charge flapjack and downed my recovery drink. Then it was time to think about heading back home to see my boys. Speaking to H allowed me to get my official time: 2:57:59. Result! And H explained that she and the boys had been able to see some video footage of me crossing the finish line. That made me feel even happier.
If you’ve got any comments or experience to share, I’d love to hear from you.
- Did you run London this year?
- Have you run London before?
- Could you find those blooming changing areas?