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.

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Running the London marathon 2016: February update

Update: follow the link if you’d like to jump straight to my report of running the London marathon.

I cannot believe I’m already writing my February update. The month has flown by and the London marathon is now less than 60 days away, a scary thought. How am I getting on?

Training

On Saturday I ran the longest run of my life. 14 miles. Woo hoo! Two months ago I couldn’t contemplate running this far but I’ve trusted my plan and, dare I say, it wasn’t too bad at all. Although my legs are still a little achy.

I’ve missed out one training session. During half term we went to London for the day; I was supposed to run for 50 minutes that evening but we didn’t get home until 8pm and the thought of heading back out wasn’t appealing. In fairness I had been on my feet for most of the day and must have easily walked 6 miles.

The only other training I’ve changed was a speed session. To put it bluntly, I just couldn’t be bothered. I much prefer to pootle along at my own pace and although I know speed sessions are beneficial I don’t enjoy them. That said, I have managed to take 30 seconds off my Parkrun personal best this month so all the running must be doing me some good!

Touch wood I haven’t picked up any injuries from running yet. I do have neck and back problems but that’s more to do with age and years of bad posture. Aside from this I get niggles in my legs which last about a mile and then just as I’m starting to worry about them they’ll stop and something else starts hurting instead.

Gear

I’m slowly getting to grips with my new Garmin watch. It’s definitely more accurate than my phone app which was over-estimating both my distance and pace (pity). Despite the time it takes to locate a GPS signal I find it much easier to access and use whilst out on a run. The downside is that I’m having to carry my phone too in case of emergencies.

The trainers are still comfortable and the roller is being rolled on although I’m yet to be convinced it makes the slightest difference.

Food and drink

All of the marathon advice I’ve read stresses the importance of correct fuelling. Most seem to advocate gels and energy drinks but I’m not too keen on using these so I’ve been practising eating real food (Nakd energy bars) whilst I run. I haven’t choked yet!

Similarly I don’t generally drink much if I’m running but I know that if it’s a warm day I’m going to have to. I don’t normally carry a water bottle but will force myself to do so on longer runs so that I can get used to drinking on the go.

The month ahead

March is by far the hardest month of the training plan with four very long runs scheduled. I’m already struggling to find new and interesting routes so I think I’ll be pretty bored of running by the end of the month. I’m off to Belfast for a few days after Easter so will somehow need to fit runs in (and take all my running gear in my plane hand luggage) but at least I’ll have somewhere different to run.

According to the plan I should also be scheduling a half-marathon in. The organiser of the the local half-marathon I’m interested in obviously isn’t following my training plan as the date clashes with my longest run! I still haven’t decided what to do but am wondering if it’s a bad thing to delay my long run a week (into my taper period) or to run an extra 7 miles after I finish the half marathon. Watch this space…..

Are you training for the London marathon? Do leave a comment to let me know how you’re getting on.

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