Last weekend I ran the 2016 London marathon. When the ‘You’re in’ magazine landed on my doormat last October telling me I’d got a ballot place I was excited, nervous and frankly amazed (around 1 in 15 ballot entrants secured a place this way). Fast forward six months and I was even more excited and nervous.
I wasn’t the only one. My train to Blackheath was packed with runners discussing finish times, training plans and previous races. Chatting to each other helped settle the nerves but there was no getting away from the challenge of what we were about to do. As we disembarked a helicopter overhead was transmitting pictures of us streaming up to the start area. We were famous!
It’s hard to envisage how much organisation must go into getting 39,000 runners ready for the start of the marathon but from my perspective it was seamless. Runners are split between three different starts; red, green and blue, which all join up by the third mile. Each colour has its own start area, with luggage lorries, changing areas, information point and toilets.
Ah the toilets. I’m really not convinced that female urinals will catch on. I have never seen so many perplexed women holding up bits of cardboard and wondering how to use them. And what to do with them when finished! (Note to organisers, next year put the rubbish container inside the urinal area).
Fortunately there were alternatives to the ladies urinals, as long as you didn’t mind queuing. The portaloos certainly seemed the more popular option.
The baggage drop took seconds, as did the pick up afterwards. With time to spare I decided on one last cup of coffee before the run. This wasn’t my wisest decision of the day but I never say no to coffee.
Although I’d arrived early the minutes flew by and it was soon time to find my starting pen. I was in pen nine, the final pen on the blue start, so there was a delay of around ten minutes between the start of the race and the time I actually crossed the start line. This doesn’t matter though as your final chip time takes this into account. The five hour pacemaker was also in this pen but I tried to stay clear of the pacers as they were usually surrounded by crowds of runners.
So how did the race go?
London marathon miles 1-6
These were my novelty miles. Running past houses whose residents had come out to cheer us on. Hearing the race marshals shouting “Hump!” every few hundred metres to warn us of road humps. Spotting the Guinness World Record contenders and feeling relieved that I didn’t have to run as a dinosaur or carry a boat. High-fiving the children beside the road and trying not to miss any of them out. I learnt very quickly to avoid the plastic bottles in the road after the water stations and not to stand on sticky gel sachets.
The weather was perfect for running; cool, mostly cloudy with a slight breeze. I’d been wavering at the start about whether to wear my jacket or start in a T-shirt and was glad that I’d chosen the warmer option. Although if it had warmed up much more I’d have been faffing around re-pinning my number onto my T- shirt whilst running.
Six miles in and the crowds were out in Greenwich town, drinking beer at 11am and making lots of noise around the Cutty Sark. I couldn’t see that many people had heeded the information in the Spectator’s Guide about staying away from this area!
London marathon miles 6-13
These miles were great. I was still fresh enough to enjoy the experience and towards the end it included my race highlight, Tower Bridge.
However I was regretting my last minute cup of coffee. The toilets were stationed every two miles or so but the queues were quite long at the first few stops. This didn’t appear to affect the men who were relieving themselves wherever there was a gap in spectators. I eventually took a break and queued for a few minutes but the relief was worth it.
As I ran on one of my favourite diversion tactics was reading the spectator’s signs: “If Donald Trump can run for President you can run 26.2 miles” and “Smile if you’re not wearing underwear” (I was, but couldn’t help smiling anyway).
On to the best part of my race. Everything I’d read about Tower Bridge at mile 12 was true. It really is a fantastic experience to run across the bridge, cheered on by the crowds. I couldn’t resist another quick break, this time to take some photos.
London marathon miles 13-18
After Tower Bridge the route turns right along The Highway and you’re passed, on the opposite side of the road, by the fast runners approaching their 23rd mile. I looked over enviously. When it was my turn to run back I looked at those just passing their 13 mile mark and wondered if they had similar feelings. Particularly given they were being overtaken by the road sweepers and followed by coaches to pick up retiring runners.
Everyone who runs the London marathon talks about the support from the spectators and volunteer marshals. Some parts of the road are lined with charity supporters, others with family and friends. There’s music for all tastes too; brass bands, drummers, pipers and a street rave. Even a group of portable church bell ringers. But I actually relished the quieter parts of the route, sometimes the noise was just too overwhelming.
Ben, the man running 401 marathons in 401 consecutive days, and attempting to raise £250,000 for anti-bullying charities was running near me for some of the way. Wow, I could hardly walk the following day let alone run another marathon. I also ran beside a man with ‘Sexy’ printed on his top. The spectators loved supporting him!
Towards the end of this section I’d eaten most of the food I’d bought along. Most runners used energy gels, and spectators were handing out jelly babies and Haribos, but I relied on my stash of Nakd bars. I quite liked them before the marathon but am not sure I can ever face eating them again.
London marathon miles 19-26
These miles were hard, very hard. I always knew I was going to finish but my running reduced to a shuffle, interspersed with bouts of walking. At around 19 miles I got stitch. I never get stitch, and surely it should have happened sooner in the race. Added to this, my knees and shins were screaming with every step. Did I hit the dreaded wall? I don’t know, but my body had decided it was time to stop.
Fortunately my mind decided otherwise; I was determined to pick up my medal. I just let the last few miles pass in a blur, head down and focussing on putting one foot in front of the other. I almost missed Mo Farah heading towards us at one point high-fiving the runners.
I counted down the miles, then the 100 metre markings and finally the last 385 yards (interesting mix of measurements). I was so relieved to reach the finish line and recieve my medal, I really didn’t enjoy those final few miles.
After the medal came the goody bag queue. I received a huge T-shirt, a bag full of snacks (mostly distributed to the family later) and a welcome bottle of water. I thought about getting changed but couldn’t bear to bend down to do so. And there was no way I was going to take my medal off!
I still had no idea of my chip time until about 15 minutes later when I received a congratulatory text from a friend who’d been tracking me. I was very happy to learn I’d run the London marathon in 4 hours 28 minutes and 2 seconds. I’d also raised almost £600 for Style Acre, an Oxfordshire based charity that supports adults with learning disabilities.
So how do I sum up my London marathon experience? If I had to define it in just three words, they’d be noisy, inspirational and painful. The spectators and marshals were fabulous, the weather perfect and organisation second to none. But my knees have decided they’ll only run shorter distances from now on. And it’s only fair to let someone else take a chance with the ballot.
If you fancy running the marathon next year then pop over to the Virgin London marathon website for more information on the ballot and other ways to enter.
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