Or How I Learned To Stop Being A Greedy Speed Obsessed Freak And Love The Bomb.
The London Marathon has come and gone for the year. To put this post into perspective, London has consumed my life for the past year in one way or another. It has been the one event in my life that has always been on the horizon, so there were always going to be extremes of, or just plain out odd, emotions on the day.
When I signed up for my place with Anthony Nolan I almost randomly plucked an arbitrary number out of the air and thought, “3h30m, I can do that”. Back then, that was ambitious. After a 3:54:44 at Loch Ness in October this seemed a little more likely, with better preparation in training, on race day and on an easier course come April.
And so in the early new year the training kicked up in terms of intensity, yet I still clung on to that 3h30m target. I ran the Alloa half in 1:27:51, yet held on to that now conservative target. Then with three to four weeks those targets started falling, new goal of under 3h20m. Then onto final race strategy, and I decided that nothing else apart from under 3h10m would do. That also included a plan to accelerate markedly from mile 20.
On race day that optimism still shone. As did the sun- it was supposed to be overcast and possibly wet, but the sun was glorious, perhaps too much so towards the end. Despite a crowded train from London Bridge to Greenwich, preparation was perfect before the start line, well rested, well fuelled, kept warm perfectly, moved as close to the front of my pen as I could make it. As we waited I had a lovely chat with Alice running for Mind – she was also going for sub 3h10m, but with equal rather than ascending mileage. I managed to start further forward than she did, and saw her going past me before Cutty Sark. And then – the gun went, we all shuffled forward slowly, and then we were across the line.
Weaving was to be the order of the day. The first few miles involved a lot of surging into gaps, pulling back and going into a different channel, constantly watching the feet. You’re always warned not to waste energy here but I didn’t listen to that. I wanted to keep all the miles steady and to do that I needed some clear air. The first few miles went okay, keeping the pace back to 7:15 miles at the times when there was enough space that I began going too hard. Keeping the pace back was a challenge when a large *insert race sponsor* apple was pulling away from me on my right. There was another odd moment as someone cut right in front of me to be sprayed by holy water at one of the churches we passed. I saw at least two churches where this was happening.
When the different starts combined the weaving started again. I won’t go on about it too much, but I can only remember stopping weaving by around mile 22, which at least meant I was constantly overtaking runners. As I climbed through the positions I got to see lots of North Herts Roadrunners as well as Anthony Nolan runners and cheer them all on. At one moment then there was a runner cut right in front of me to get water. Watch your race etiquette runners, and if you make a mistake apologise.
Running back west the docklands towers were tempting in the distance. First up on the sights tour was rounding the Cutty Sark, which was impressive due to the ramped banks of supporters. Shortly after I caught a sight of my family and gave them a wave- this was the best I got of them, and their attempts to keep up with me and find viewing spots was less successful than my own race. The next section though Rotherithe I remember as being pleasantly and surprisingly ‘residential’, people sitting outside houses with cups of tea, on grass banks either side of the road. Splits were still bang on, 7:15 miles being ticked off with obvious regularity.
The high point of the race for me, the best landmark and moment was coming up to crossing Tower Bridge. The half way point was within smelling distance, the crowds here were great, and the knowledge that everything was going to plan was fantastic. Turning off to the east the docklands beckoned. At the half way point I turned to a runner next to me and said, “I thought this was a half-marathon!”. This got a laugh. Here we also got to see the elites coming back down the highway, so the group I was running with weren’t doing too bad!
At this point I almost put my foot on a bottle and tripped. Another poor element of race etiquette that goes hand in hand with the crowds. A brief note on my nutrition and hydration – everything was going to plan. I didn’t put any of my water bottles in dangerous locations when I was done with them. I did find that I didn’t really like jelly babies when running and almost got some sicks from the first one, so didn’t use the rest of them.
The docklands were where my race started going completely the wrong way. Going through a tunnel my Garmin lost satellites and on coming out my mile pace had gone completely the wrong way. Instead of accepting this and running comfortably I tried to catch up to this and sped up. looking at my 5K splits I went dead fast through the docklands. I believe that my Garmin was mucked up by the tall buildings around it further, and I started to feel a bit odd. The heat was leading to a bit of a headache. I was starting to see people collapsed and being treated by the St. John’s ambulance people. Luckily all of those people that I saw were okay, unlike the tragic case of Claire Squires, which I wasn’t to find out about till later that evening.
At the turn heading back west at the twenty mile mark the plan to accelerate to 6:50 miles didn’t happen. Previously in the first half I was holding it back, but not knowing that my Garmin was going to get confused leading to myself spurting round the docklands, I think this led to myself struggling at this point.
Back down the highway I just started trying to keep the miles at the previous 7:15’s to take me through to around 3h12m. Back down the highway I took some sadistic pleasure from seeing the interesting costumes and people who were going to get round in times they would be pleased with, but ones that I would have to have muscles blow up to complete the race in. Small, little horrible thoughts like this kept me going.
The miles kept on slowing. I tried pushing on, keeping the miles down. The front of my thighs started twinging and I really felt like I was falling away. I was increasingly negative here, questioning why I’d ever want to try and run this hard through the wall ever again. I knew the dreams were slipping away. Sub 3h10m had been and gone, 3h15m was going to be a struggle, and being the first and fastest Anthony Nolan runner home just wasn’t going to happen. That sub 3h15m would mean I could reward myself with a colour-coded purple Xempo vest, which seeing as the equivalent half marathon time is 1h30m, I thought I should do easily. Going into the final tunnel was tough. It was finally cool, dark, quiet and alone. People were stopping around me and the temptation was so great. My face throughout read all the pain I was feeling physically and of the disappointment. I kept on pulling through, knowing the Anthony Nolan cheering point at 24.5 miles. At this point I looked a bit dead, but this pulled me on through.
Little things kept me going. I had my pride, that 3h15m might be there with a pinch, and constant shouts throughout of “Go on Goose!” and “Where’s Maverick?” drew smiles and increased efforts. The atmosphere throughout meant I could barely remember the music from my iPod, and the fatigue meant that the landmarks meant more to the audience and TV coverage. Beyond the Cutty Sark, Tower Bridge and the docklands I can barely remember any of the others. Buckingham Palace could have been demolished and I would not have noticed.
The inability to stick to strategy, the near sunstroke and flat out marathon fatigue meant that that final stretch down Birdcage Walk and the Mall meant that my mind was far from the joyous final stretch that TV coverage and some snaps make it look like. On the straight my Garmin ticked over 3h15m. I was gutted. I crossed the line a long slow eight seconds later. The longest eight seconds of my life.
Where was the joy? Where was the relief? The feelings I had were very odd. I was kicking myself. I couldn’t, and wouldn’t allow myself to celebrate. I slowly moved myself forward, got my chip cut off and my medal hung around my neck. There was an obligatory post-race snap, picked up my goodie bag and then began a walk to pick up my heavy bags from the baggage lorries, and then the slow walk out of the finish area, meeting up with the Anthony Nolan people and being led to the Northumberland Hotel.
I was second back to the hotel, maybe third or fourth fastest apparently. I felt very odd. I was not quite distraught but annoyed, kicking myself slightly. Everyone around me though was congratulatory. Obviously I was one of the many people who were raising just over £2000 for Anthony Nolan, but in their view my time was fantastic, something I should be pleased with. I hugged the CEO of Anthony Nolan, Henny Braund, but little did she know that I felt it was a hug of comiserations. I got some food, met my family and again my feelings were the same.
It is sometimes easy to dismiss peoples congratulations. Personally you feel that they don’t know what a good time is for yourself, that they don’t know how hard you trained and why you should feel annoyed by a supposedly good time. But slowly I began to realise it was they that were right. My post marathon lull had just kicked in really early. They reminded me that my initial target was 3h30m and I had smashed that. They reminded me that I had broken my PB by 39:36. They reminded me that I was 22 years old with near two decades of prime marathon running years ahead of me.
I have also since realised that it is great that I wasn’t triumphant. 3:15:08 wasn’t enough for me. I’m hungry, and I want that sub 3hr marathon one day.
I also realised why I was running. The money I was raising for Anthony Nolan will create just over twenty spots for potential life saving donors, life saving donors like my mum. This is obviously a far greater achievement than any time I could have run, and as inspired my next challenge. After the Edinburgh Marathon next month, I decided to sign up for the Dublin Marathon in October. For Edinburgh the challenge is again to try to go under 3h10m as my last chance to get a good-for-age time for London, and then on to try and find a new donor for the Anthony Nolan register for each mile of the Dublin Marathon. You could be one of those by joining the register here, and then let me know! All they want is your spit.
The fundraising total at the moment stands just short of £1,800. You can help me inch that amount up to my £2,012 sponsorship target. So as always, don’t forget to sponsor me here.
This blog will continue on into the future – for more Virgin(?) London Marathons and whatever else VLM can stand for – Very Long-distance Machine?
Cheers for reading,