Running the London marathon

What’s it like to run the London marathon?

Last weekend I ran the 2016 London marathon. When the ‘You’re in’ magazine landed on my doormat last October I was excited, nervous and frankly amazed (only 1 in 15 entrants secured a ballot place). I was even more excited and nervous six months later.

Getting to the start

I wasn’t the only one. The 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!

On the way to the blue start, Blackheath
On the way to the blue start, Blackheath

It’s hard to envisage how much organisation must go into getting 39,000 runners ready for 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 area, with luggage lorries, changing areas, information point and toilets.

Ah the toilets. Female urinals. 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).

Decisions, decisions!
Decisions, decisions!

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.

The baggage lorries
The baggage lorries

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. It took about ten minutes from the race start to the time I crossed the start line. This doesn’t matter as your final chip time takes this into account. The five hour pacemaker was also in this pen but I stayed 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 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 quickly learnt 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 wavered at the start about whether to wear my jacket or start in a T-shirt. I chose 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 don’t think many people heeded the information in the Spectator’s Guide about staying away from this area!

Waiting in the start pen
Waiting in the start pen

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. There were long queues at the first few toilet stops and I didn’t want to waste time. 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 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 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.

Heading over Tower Bridge, London
Heading over Tower Bridge, London

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. There’s music for all tastes too; brass bands, drummers, pipers and a street rave. Even a group of portable church bell ringers. But sometimes I relished the quieter parts of the route, away from the shouts and cheers.

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 liked them before the marathon but am not sure I can ever face one 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 hardly ever get stitch! 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.

Almost finished
Almost finished

Fortunately my mind decided otherwise; I wanted my medal. I let the last few miles pass in a blur. Head down and one foot in front of the other. I almost missed Mo Farah running towards us at one point high-fiving the runners.

The finish

I counted down the miles, then the 100 metre markings and finally the last 385 yards (interesting mix of measurements). It was such a relief to reach the finish line and receive my medal, I really didn’t enjoy those last few miles.

Finished!
Finished!

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.

Fifteen minutes later I received a congratulatory text from a friend who’d been tracking me. She let me know 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. But I cannot miss out the cheering spectators and helpful marshals, perfect weather and world-class sights. I don’t plan to run again though; my knees tell me it was a once in a lifetime experience. 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.

Share this:

22 thoughts on “What’s it like to run the London marathon?”

  1. Jolly well done, I’ve only walked one but can agree those last few miles are tough, seemingly stretching on forever. Such a great time too – all that training was clearly worth it. After I walked my last marathon I said never again…might have just signed up for another. Oh dear! 😉

      1. Hi – I just read this on the eve of running the London marathon tomorrow. Which is my first ever marathon. It really helped to know what’s what. Best for now Julian

  2. I want to run but I dont have the kit. I know that its the determination but I really dont have money to buy shoes.

    YOu are so amazing. I wish I can tell you how I look up to people with so much focus! Congrats and you deserve to wear that medal all the time that you want =)

    #pocolo

    1. I wish I could say that shoes don’t matter Merlinda but…… That said you can get ones much cheaper online than in the running shops if you know what kind of runner you are.

    1. Thank you. I enjoyed writing the blog too, good for me to record the pain just in case I ever think of entering another marathon!

  3. Hi Christine, a huge pat on the back. I bet the support was fantastic, which was one of the reasons me and my husband wanted to do it. We applied view the overseas ballot for several years but never got drawn. The Athens Marathon has little support during the run in comparison, so can be lonely in places.

    Raising £600 must have taken a little of the pain away? How that chap is doing 401 marathons in 401 day, I can’t imagine! That takes guts, determination and sprinkled with a touch of insanity! How long was it before you could go down stairs forwards?

    xx

    1. Thanks Debbie. The ballot is open again now if you fancy a flutter! I can walk down the stairs quite happily now – it’s such a cliche about running marathons but very true.

  4. That is so interesting. I’ve never thought about how they get so many runners in the right place at the right time. Or about the loos! Really interesting write up……although I don’t think I’ll be putting my name down anytime soon. Hope you are feeling recoverd now. Huge well done!

    1. Thanks Cheryl. I guess they have lots of years of experience in organising the race now, although I rather think a man organised the ladies urinals 🙂

  5. Your story is inspirational! I can only run for 20 minutes at the moment as I’ve only just started. I don’t think I could ever reach your dizzying heights – huge admiration!

    1. You can do it! I was only running for 30 mins or so at the start of the training, you just need to follow and trust your plan.

  6. Sorry I am so late commenting on this but many many congratulations. What a brilliant time, too! I love your comment on the female urinals – I was so mortified having to go in them before I raced too back in 2009. But I was so desperate!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *