Don’t do anything different on race day. Simple enough instructions.
The pre-race plan was to stay with friends on Saturday night, and travel into London from there the following morning. Two-thirds of the way round the M25 I realised I had forgotten to pack anything to eat for breakfast. A frantic Google search ensued; the nearest Waitrose (the only supermarket chain that I know stocks my particular brand of porridge) closed at 8pm. Google Maps estimated we’d just make it. At 7:56pm we pulled up at the front door and I dashed inside. A second unscheduled stop, this time to Tesco to buy the right milk to go with the right porridge, and serenity was restored. You’re now thinking I’m a fussy eater, but I’m really not. And I’m normally very well organised too.
On Sunday morning we travelled up to Lewisham by train. At the station there were lots of people doing as the race day instructions had told them; getting off the train and switching platforms for the DLR to Greenwich, getting off the DLR and switching platforms for the train to Blackheath. We left the station and had a leisurely walk up the hill to Greenwich Park, it took about fifteen minutes. You win some, you lose some.
Greenwich Park was awash with runners. I dropped my kit bag off at the lorries early as there was nothing in it I needed. It wasn’t as if I’d remembered to take tracksuit bottoms to keep my legs warm. At least I’d packed my running gear, and a throwaway jumper to wear pre-race. I then located the entrance to my start pen (4), and plonked myself down on a park bench midway between it and the male urinals. I was feeling quite relaxed, watching the world go by, chatting with a couple of fellow bench warmers. The start pens began filling about 45 minutes before start time; with people clearly determined to spend as long as possible on their feet. Then there were the inevitable late comers, scurrying across Greenwich Park to deposit their bags before wagons rolled.
With 15 or so minutes to go I made my second, and final, use of the toilet facilities and headed to my pen. Soon we were counting down to the start, and within a few minutes of the gun going off we were across the line ourselves. My London Marathon had begun! I started my watch as I passed over the timing mats. I should have checked the official clock too, but it didn’t occur to me at the time that it might be important later.
Of much of the race itself I have only limited recollections in truth; less specifics and more a general sense of the occasion.
People had told me beforehand not to make the (potentially catastrophic) mistake of going out too fast in the first few miles. The course profile on Strava shows miles 3 and 4 as being downhill, and I guess this must be so over the piece. It didn’t seem that way to me when I was running it though. The early miles are residential, and so spectators are often spread out. Mostly people from local communities gathered together, or stood on the steps of their homes, or leaning out of terraced windows. Or, in one particularly memorable case, positioned on the balcony of their home with two massive speakers, blasting out Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now at full volume.
This was my first marathon, and I’d trained hard for it. I’d followed a plan since the beginning of the year, designed around a 3 hours 30 minute finish time. Training had gone pretty much as well as it could have, a few niggles but no injuries. Managing to hit the targets in the plan left me with anticipated fatigue, but hadn’t completely wiped me out. By the time I reached the 3-week taper phase I’d completed four 20 mile long runs, including two on consecutive weekends.
My taper was awful for the first fortnight; I felt lethargic, my legs were heavy. My asthma flared up as the weather changed, and that coupled, I think, with some anxiety about running my first marathon and all that it meant, left me tight-chested for much of the time. I eased down on the speed work, dropping some interval repeats that I felt were becoming a little too much for me. During the final week the fog lifted, I felt more relaxed, and at ease. My only remaining concern was if it was too hot on race day — the heat, my asthma, and running, do not play well together. Checking the forecast during that week it didn’t seem that I had much to worry about; rain in varying degrees was forecast for most of the day.
As it turned out there was no rain at all. Conditions were near perfect from start to finish, cool and cloudy.
I didn’t settle on a pacing strategy for the race until it had already begun. I realised only the day before that it didn’t actually matter what time I did — so what if the wheels came off later in the race? And thus there was no need to be deliberately conservative and aim for 3:45, which had been my goal for so long.
I started off just running comfortably ‘to feel’; making sure my breathing was steady, my legs felt good. That I could easily hold a conversation — if I’d had anybody to hold a conversation with. I checked my watch intermittently during the first few miles. Not to see whether I was on pace, but to check what pace I was running at, and for reassurance that I wasn't going too fast. I was settled at around 5 to 10 seconds above 8 minute mile pace.
Every now and again for the first couple of miles I’d look on the floor for this ‘thin blue line’ that denotes the exact 26.2 mile distance, and shortest route around the course. Being on the red route there isn’t one, I suppose. Not until it merges with the Blue/Green start. There was a left turn coming up ahead, with a constant stream of runners passing by from right to left. As we filtered round and joined them, a chorus of disapproving boos rang out from the other side of the road! The two groups ran alongside each other for a while before merging together as one. And behold, as if by magic, a thin intermittent blue line appeared.
I didn’t notice any landmarks as such until the ground changed beneath me, and we were running on a kind of paved area. We looped round on a fairly sharp left-hand bend. As we came out of the turn I looked up and left, “Oh wow, that’s the Cutty Sark right next to me. I remember this bit from watching on television” I thought.
Generally speaking, at the pace I was running, and the position I started from, there was no great problem with not having enough space to run in. I’d been advised not to snake all over the road weaving in and out of people, but as it turned out there was no great need to. Once in a while I’d find myself stuck behind people running together, and would have to either run round or between them. A few times I made the mistake of getting myself caught over towards the side as we ran through a water or lucozade station - even when I wasn’t taking anything on board. That’s one time when people do suddenly cut across you and cause you to break stride, or pull up abruptly. Another is when they realise they’ve run past their supporters and decide to turn round and go back to them. You also have to be careful of bottles dropped in the middle of the road — which I assume is a result of selfish people not giving a damn about the rest of us out there. I mean there’s plenty of opportunity to discard them to one side.
Around mile 9 I saw a Run To Live t-shirt up ahead, and as I got closer recognised it was Sara. We exchanged pleasantries — she was looking as good as I felt.
As I approached mile 10 I decided to see how I was doing time-wise. I looked at my watch and worked out that I must have crossed the start line around four minutes after gun time. My average pace was 8 minutes and some seconds. I didn’t know exactly because when you’re out there you are running more than the actual distance. There’s GPS inexactness going on, and there’s also that magical thin blue line. One minute you’re tracking it like a guided missile, and the next you lift your head or your attention turns elsewhere, and when you look back down it’s shifted right over to the other side of the road. I was still feeling very relaxed and comfortable, so I thought I’d try to up my speed a little; get my splits, at least according to my watch, under 8 minute mile pace. I still wasn’t looking for any particular time. At the pace I was going I was heading for a three hours and thirty something minutes finish time. If I could maintain it.
I knew our charity supporters, and hopefully my family, would be around mile 13, just after Tower Bridge. That was quite a memorable moment running across the river, looking up at this amazing structure above me. As we turned right I saw a couple of the elites scorch past on the other side of the road. I saw the flags of Rays of Sunshine Children’s Charity, and as I ran past I saw Alison waving to me — the only person I saw spectating that I knew the whole way round.
I have to confess I wasn’t much of a tourist. I didn’t exactly take in the sights. I recall the Shard standing tall way up ahead of me at one point. And running through Canary Wharf was quite memorable too — not only the imposing buildings, but also the closed-in atmosphere as we ran between them, lined with noisy spectators.
My nutrition strategy was to take on a gel somewhere around every 4 miles, or 30 minutes. I was carrying six, but I’ve found that after five I just struggle with any more; so had Shot Bloks to use for the remainder of the race. I probably took water bottles a couple of times in the first half of the race, and once or twice in the second half. Two or three swigs and discard (sorry Mum, I know it’s a waste). I avoided the Lucozade Sport like the plague — even though I had practised drinking it during training. At half distance I took a water bottle and added an electrolyte tablet. I carried that for a while, and probably drunk half of it. I’m not sure whether I needed it, but psychologically it did me good if nothing else. I’d never completed a marathon before. I was worried about ‘the wall’. I didn’t know what to expect later in the race, when I got to distances I’d never been to before. If something happened at that point it’d be too late.
The next part of the race, up until 40 km was really about ticking off the miles. Running from mile marker, to mile marker. And I even found having the metric 5 km markers at certain points in between helped me. Each one was a step closer to the finish. I still felt good, and I was just running quite happily from checkpoint to checkpoint. The atmosphere was amazing. You’d make a turn and there'd be a sudden barrage of cheers, a band playing, or drums beating — I remember drumming on the roundabout beneath a flyover. That was loud. Now and again the atmosphere, the crowd, the backdrop, would literally give me goosebumps, and make the hairs on the back of my neck stick up.
At around fifteen miles the outsides of my thighs began to hurt. I thought it unusual, in all my training runs, including the 20 milers, I’d never experienced it before. The fact it was bilateral probably helped, it reassured me it wasn’t an injury. And there wasn’t much I could do about it in any case, so I didn’t start stressing too much. As the race progressed the muscles became progressively more sore; but it was bearable, and never interfered with my running form.
A few times after passing mile 20 I got a little carried away, and started thinking about the finish. Only 10 km to go! Only 5 miles to go! I can run that easily! I’ve done it, I’ve run a marathon! Each time I reigned it in fairly quickly. Now was not the time to be getting carried away, or taking anything for granted — I was running farther than I’d ever run before. Just keep concentrated, keep knocking out the miles, Nick. The finish will come soon enough.
For a while I kept wondering if the mythical beast that is ‘the wall’ was up ahead. No, not between miles 20 and 21. Not between 21 and 22 either. I don’t think there was an actual realisation that I wasn’t going to hit it, more that it just faded out of my consciousness.
As I passed the 40 km point I checked the official time clock. 03:24 and change. Adjusting for what it took me to cross the start line that was 03:20, with 2 km to go. Or so I thought. A marathon is 26 miles 385 yards, which I knew. Or 42.195 km, which I did not. In my head I was thinking — and this was the first point during the day that I had — I could get under 3 hours 30 minutes here. 10 minutes for 2 km, 5 minutes per km, 8 minutes per mile. Just keep running. However, that failed to take into account those additional 195 metres.
We passed in front of Big Ben and I realised there wasn’t long left. I started to well up, for the first time in the day. Not a good idea. Not conducive to nice, steady breathing. Put that on hold until later.
As I came down Birdcage Walk, and passed the large red 800m to go sign, I still felt strong. I thought I’d make a run for home. That didn’t last long. I was sure the next large red box up ahead must be 400m to go … you’ve got to be kidding me … 600m to go. I came round the bend and passed beneath the 385 yards to go banner. Then I was on The Mall. I could see the finish … and the clock. I started to increase my pace. And then I started to sprint. This is crazy. I’m sprinting at the end of a marathon. I vividly remember the clock ticking round to 03:33:33. I had no idea how far I had left to go. I had no idea if I could get there before it reached 03:34:00. To hell with it, just give it everything you’ve got. Like the last interval of a speed session — leave it all out there.
As I got closer I realised I might just do it. I might just do it.
I think I’m going to do it. I think I’m going to do it.
I’m going to do it. I’m going to do it.
Oh my god. I did it! I did it!
Well, I think I did it. Did I do it? Who knows, all my timings were approximate anyway.
Whatever, I’d crossed the line. I’d finished. I’d run a marathon. I’d run the London Marathon. I was breathing so hard, and the sprint to the line left me feeling queasy. I couldn’t quite believe I had actually finished. Something that I had always wanted to do. Something that events of recent years had left me needing to do.
As we funnelled through I collected my medal. It was an emotional moment for me. I stopped for the official photo, collected my goody bag, and finisher’s t-shirt. As I walked down the line of lorries to retrieve my kit bag my chest was tight; from the exertion of finishing, from the emotion of finishing. But it soon eased. What an amazing day. What an amazing experience. I’d done it, an ambition for as long as I could remember. I’d completed the London Marathon.
I made my way through to the runners meeting point. And only then did I discover what my actual time was … 3 hours, 29 minutes and 55 seconds. I’d started at 10:14:05, and crossed the finish line at precisely 13:44:00. It was the perfect end to a perfect race.
To say I’m chuffed is an understatement. I still can’t quite believe how perfectly things went. But for me this was always more than just a running race. It turned out to be an experience that will never be surpassed.