It had been coming since Monday April 20th, 2015. The day after which I said ‘never again’ seconds after crossing the finish line in Manchester 2015 I suddenly said ‘maybe’ after learning I’d recorded a Good For Age time. Suddenly, the complexities of qualifying for one of the World Marathon Majors through a ballot had been removed. I had my ticket. I’d be daft to run another marathon. But then I’d be daft not to run London.
It’s Saturday 23rd April, 2016. I hadn’t had the most ideal night’s sleep, having opted to be a responsible householder and mop my kitchen floor and other assorted chores. Thankfully though the kids woke me up early, they did at least let me kip on the couch a bit longer which went towards helping my morning. Though it wasn’t to last. You see, on Friday night, I finally realised London’s baggage policy. The kitbag. So I had to go from a big holdall to economising down to a single reusable bag for the journey. I was then panicking with about 15 minutes to setting off about whether I had everything, thinking a charger plug wasn’t in there, emptying my bag and then realising it was in there all along. Eventually all my belongings seemed to be together, and I set off from home with just enough time to buy a BLT sandwich on my way to the train station.
It was great to board the train and then to be able to converse with people who are off to do the same thing and understand you. I was talking to a 60 year old who was still running sub 3:15 for the marathon and had been running for half his life. I hope for his longevity! Just shy of three hours later, I was leaving the train at King’s Cross, it was straight to the underground to start navigating the Tube. My planning for this journey had been meticulous, so I was drilled on what lines I needed to jump on from one station to another.
Finally I arrived at the Expo. I wasn’t too sure to expect. Would all the cashpoints charge for withdrawals? Turns out, they don’t! Would food and drink be extortionately priced? Not exactly. Would I feel ripped off? Absolutely not. In truth I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it turned out this was a runner’s market, a glorious one at that, and not where you’d just turned up to collect your race number in the presence of an official. I even took part in a sleep survey as I entered and received a sheet with some useful advice. Walking around, it was difficult not to have my head turned. I ended up getting a multiple deal on Clif Bars, a Spongebob Squarepants running vest for half the RRP, and some Event Clips for my race number. Chatting away to staff at the stalls about potential future plans/dreams (delete as financially appropriate), checking out the kit the astronaut Tim Peake would be running the marathon out in space, the list is endless. After sitting down centre stage to watch Martin Yelling’s pacing presentation, the lack of caffeine had caught up, so a lemon & ginger tea later, I was up and slowly out of the Expo. Wow. If that was my first time in one of those, it probably won’t be my last, if it matches up to that.
It was time to leave for the digs but needing to stop off at the Asda in the Isle of Dogs for something for tea and a couple of important supplies. Walking across Mudchute Park, I eventually reached my accommodation close to the River Thames, where I would be staying for the night in the room paid for through AirBnB at a snip compared to the many hotels in the area. Arriving at the house, I immediately went upstairs to my room and emptied my things out onto the bed, wondering if they’d all fit in the kitbag. I eventually got my pre race tea – sweet potato with tuna pasta and edamame bean salad – and joined two of the other guests, Alan and Max, also down for the marathon, in watching rubbish Saturday night telly on the BBC. Eventually I went back to my room around 9:30pm to go watch Eddie Izzard: Marathon Man, and to do some stretches and exercises to help prepare for the morning. Watching that programme, and watch Eddie achieved, was hugely inspiring and emotional. It also reminded me of a wonderful quotation by the great Nelson Mandela.
“It is impossible, until it is done”
Race Day – Sunday April 24th, 2016
I felt as calm as could be the morning of the race as I went through my pre race ritual of porridge, banana, and this time, orange juice. I prepared my High 5 Zero infused drink and around 8:00am left with Alan and Max for Island Gardens DLR, taking the short, crowded trip to Greenwich. It really felt like marathon fever now – the mood was a really happy one on the congested DLR carriage, all spilling back onto the street three minutes later. I would split from my housemates thereon. They were in Red. I was in Green. Zone 2. It was a walk up from Maze Hill Station, albeit a very leisurely one, and soon the presence of more people became apparent. I took a call from my wife and was conversing about the build up when I saw a vaguely familiar figure within the running community. It was no other than the man in the Big Pink Dress, raising money for Breast Cancer Now. And he was more than obliging for a selfie with me!
Maze Hill was full of fellow runners ready for the ardour. Baggage trailers were busy loading the identical kitbags. Moving on, I made sure I used the toilet for the one and only time, and try and keep any nerves from reaching my bowels again inbetween. One last conversation with my wife and one of my daughters – the other was still fast asleep – and then the bag went on the trailer. A Clif Bar was consumed. I saw many runners in fancy dress posing for a world record attempt photo like it was some night on the slosh. I carried out my warm up. Breathing, stretching, dynamics, jogging up and down. All in a relaxed manner. I saw a brilliant Velociraptor costume. I saw many runners, all gearing up for the same thing as I. Including the great ‘401 in 401’ Ben Smith.
I was trying to keep warm in the cold April air, having opted to wear just the usual shorts/vest combination. The sun would try to emerge but even so, being there was something in itself. I couldn’t believe my luck. Here I was, at arguably the biggest road marathon in the world. That time at Manchester had earned me a spot in the front pen at the London Marathon! Maybe a little naive of me not to consider so, but what the heck.
10:00am approached, and the biggest race of my life yet was now almost here. The countdown began. 10…9…8…7…6…5…4…3…2…1…
I settled into an early rhythm and tried to establish a steady pace. 6:57 for mile 1. Then a 6:48. We converged with the runners from the blue start. 6:37. I felt like I was starting too quick, but as the runners from each start zone converged into one mass, it felt like slowing was difficult to measure. But my breathing felt relaxed. I’d done my warm up just right. I was calm and starting to feel right at home amidst the wall to wall humanity. Runners everywhere. Crowds gathering everywhere. Lots of hand slaps and high fives for the kids. Then a big shout from the MND Association supporters who could see me in the charity’s colours. I was buzzing off this atmosphere, but maybe a little fidgety, seemingly keeping one eye on the watch too often and the headband I was wearing was starting to irritate.. Indeed I ended up taking off the headband after five miles because the weather seemed warmer than anticipated.
The first major landmark, the Cutty Sark, heralded 6 miles, and what a magnificent sight that was, if only fleeting, for there was a race to be run. I went through the middle miles and was still ahead of the pacers at this point. I wasn’t sure I really wanted to be. Before long, the Green 3:00 pacer went past, but I didn’t feel to be slowing. I took some jelly beans (sporty ones) and took on water and later Lucozade Sport to keep up my energy levels, around the hour mark. I wound up reaching halfway in 1:29:10, and I’d overtaken the pacer again. The sub-3 seemed on. I was running the miles well. I was being expressive, along the previous miles handslapping supporters, rallying the crowds 4 or 5 deep, even waving to a camera. I’m traditionally introverted. Running, it seems, is my release. Yes, so far, so good.
But trouble was figuratively afoot. For I had what seemed like pins and needles in my feet. But not my legs. And this definitely wasn’t blisters either. In any event I was beginning to feel like the intensity was creeping up, but we went through the magnificent scene at Tower Bridge and went on to lay down a 6:35 at mile 15 and the differential to 3 hours was still building. Not since the first mile had I gone above 6:52 pace.
I was starting to really try and focus. The race is a bit of a blur from this point as the hills sapped a little more energy from my calves, which were seeming getting the jangles too. A 7:05, uphill, but then a 6:52 for mile 16 and 17, as the race journeyed through the Isle of Dogs and past Crossharbour. The ship was steadied. I tried envisioning a xSpongeXCore song, a band who splice and Spongebob Squarepants with hardcore metal (seriously), as a mental distraction, but all the focus soon went back on the race. Gels were getting harder to consume, and I seemed to be taking on only as much fluid as I could handle. A shower invigorated me, and gave me that impetus to continue trying to force the pace.
I knew that when the Green and then the Blue 3:00 pacers passed me that I was hanging onto this goal for grim life. Every time I passed a checkpoint, I was trying to calculate what I might need. Maths equations. Not easy to do and a bit consuming of the task at hand. The pacers were now ebbing slightly further away, and the Red pacer passed me around mile 22. I remember seeing Colin Jackson on BBC duty out on course, but I didn’t feel like bugging him. I was in a fight. I remembered the Mandela phrase: ‘It is impossible, until it is done‘. I carried it on to the 24th mile. Passing through a tunnel, it was at this point during Manchester 2015 where my body introduced me to the wall, giving me no choice but to experience sheer exhaustion. This time, I made the choice. I came to accept. It wasn’t to be.
I moved to the left and stopped beside the railing. Two wonderful ladies supporting Breast Cancer Research runners asked how I was. I assured them I was fine. I told them my goal but that the time didn’t matter, I just wanted to finish. My calves seemed to be getting what my feet were getting for the last 11 miles, except they were almost on fire. Maybe the lactics? A 20 second stretch apiece, I set off again. Now if anything, it was ensuring I had a Good For Age time, and I still had a more than comfortable margin. I suddenly felt I had a bit of a second wind. I lengthened my stride. Past a lady holding a sign saying ‘Running Better Than The Government’ (damn right!). The cobwebs had been blasted away. Mile 25, done. 6:59. Wow. A sub 7 minute mile at this late stage. Could it be? Past Big Ben as we went through Mile 26. Down to the last kilometre. I needed 2:40 for three hours. No chance. Now, I was beginning to fade, right as Big Ben chimed its famous bell for 1 o’clock. I didn’t even think about the ‘wall’. I didn’t even look left towards Buckingham Palace. I just looked forward. I just wanted the finish line. I gritted hard, turned the corner into the Mall. There was the finish line. A man in a flower pot costume passed me. I didn’t care. Even going backwards, I was pushing forwards with resistance. Teeth gritted. The finish line approached. ‘Hold your finger in the air as you cross the line to show you’re #OneInAMillion!’ I gave them one on each hand. I crossed the line. I then switched off my Garmin. Guess what Marathon Foto captured?
I had done it. Marathon number 2. Finished. Exhausted. Knackered. Absolutely punch drunk joyful. It all seemed to be going off. As I caught my breath, the flower pot man was next to me. An official walked up to him with what appeared to be a World Record certificate for, presumably, fastest marathon as a flower/plant pot. Fair play! Agh…I was so exhausted. Had the ‘wall’ got me on the line? I didn’t even consider that. I got my medal. A happy moment. Next, the goody bag. Now all I wanted was my kit bag. I ambled down awkwardly. We saw the elite results on a board. A new course record by Eliud Kipchoge! We heard Callum Hawkins’ time. Must have been some race. Back to earth. I stopped by a tree to do some stretches. I was really, really tired. I got my finishers shirt out. On it went. The MND Association vest back over the top. Over came the photographer. I pulled a pose. On I shuffled. My bag was on the very last trailer. I finally received it back and made my way towards Horseguards Parade.
Here I laid down on a patch of grass and sensing I didn’t want to cause any alarm, I immediately gave a thumbs up. And just as immediately four paramedics from St John’s Ambulance circled me as I lay on the deck. ‘Are you OK?‘ they asked. I assured them I was, it was just tiredness, and I asked where the physio tent might be. They pointed me in the direction and agreed I would make my own way down. I gave myself a few more moments, talking to my wife and sister, and then my father, who sounded so happy and proud. I finally looked at the medal. Wow, I’d earned this. The sesamoiditis, the dodgy knees, the lost days of training to sleep, work, family and other things. The troublesome ITBS. The defining block of training in the middle which assured me I could be ready. The bruised ribs a few weeks before. All of it worth it, for this. Yet I still I had one order of business to carry out long before my train home that evening.
In the week or so leading to the race, I realised that it was possible for me to fit a trip over to Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The personal significance of this is one I am proud to share with you. My mother passed away on the very day the 2012 London Olympics finished. Inspired by these incredible British heroes, inspired by the incredible Paralympians, inspired, in passing, by my mother, I would go on to begin running again, and begin my transformation into the positive runner I am today. For myself, the trip to London was to bring my running journey full circle, and to actually go and visit Olympic Park to see the stadium where many unforgettable moments were created.
Having briefly got lost trying to navigate the Westfield Shopping Centre, I eventually found the entrance to the park. Inside I walked. I headed further down and there indeed was the stadium. To the left, the giant twisting sculpture, the Arcelormittal Orbit. I was finally here. The place where Olympic dreams were realised. The place where a legacy, however you define it, was created. And maybe it was intended for the next generation of rising stars, and not necessarily a 28 year old needing a new direction, a new purpose in life. But indeed I am a part of that legacy in how it inspired me.
A few people passing by kindly stopped when I asked them to take a photo of me with the medal in front of the stadium, acting as a backdrop. We got talking about the marathon and though they hadn’t taken part they were complementary towards me, as I was towards them. As they headed down the nearby steps, I turned to head back towards the stadium, but not without looking back at the stadium one more time.
“We did it, Mum. We did it”
And with that, it was back across London to go visit Choccywoccydoodah, take a walk through the streets and to go somewhere for a pint, before finally sitting down on my booked train seat for the three hour journey home.
It amazed me just how many people, whether they raced or not, took an interest, whether asking how you did, or even just shouting ‘congratulations’ as we passed by on opposite escalators. Kids wanting to look at your medal on the tube. It really seems as though this race brings London together. Not many races in the world, I believe, can claim to do that.
A fine word for the organisers, who from marketing the race, to the Expo, to the volunteers, the directors, the baggage operation, the city, heck, everything on the day – purely world class. By far the most efficient handling of such a major event I think I’ve ever seen. I did say I would only do London once. Now? I’m not so sure. Though there’s other things to tackle right now. I mean, how do you prepare for a marathon like Snowdonia…?
***A big thank you to Mike Curtis for the action shot***