Running the London Marathon – a first-timer’s experience
I clearly remember watching the first ever London Marathon. My funny old black & white portable captured the day perfectly – it was grey. Very grey! The guys pounding the streets of London in the drizzle were sporting heroes. They were also serious athletes. The concept of the ‘fun runner’ or ‘jogging’ were yet to be imported from the US. Here we had 6,000 hardcore, long distance athletes showcasing their grit and guile at a time when running around in a pair of very short split shorts and a vest was seriously unfashionable.
Any exposure to a marathon before April 1981 could only have been during the Olympics. But I already knew the score. Running 26.2 miles was to be respected. I remember watching Dick Beardsley and Inge Simonsen crossing the line together. And like a great many other sporting moments back then, it inspired me. I may even have thought to myself; I’d love to run a marathon one day.
I did take up running and completed a half marathon in 1983. And again in 1984, though I didn’t manage to improve my time of 2 hours. When I started running again seriously in 2009, my original goal was just to be able to run three miles in reasonable time. I then thought five miles sounded like a pretty cool target. Then a friend suggested doing a 10k race.
After that, I hit upon the idea of trying to run a half marathon as a 40+ year old faster than I did as a sprightly 16 year old. A 1:48 for my first half marathon outing went a long way to reassuring myself I wasn’t quite dead yet!
But somewhere deep in the subconscious there was that image of two runners in grainy black & white holding hands and breaking the tape. It was that and the nagging feeling that most runners seem to experience – you’re not a ‘real runner’ unless you’ve done a marathon.
After another couple of half marathons I made my mind up that I wanted to run the 2012 London Marathon. Thirty years on from that first race and the year London would host the Olympics. It seemed right, somehow. I applied in the ballot and eventually broke the news to Liz that I was thinking about doing a marathon. When I found out I’d been unsuccessful, there was only one thought in my mind. Get a place, somehow. Anyhow!
I started researching the charity route and unashamedly tweeted the fact that I was a media-friendly ‘run-for-hire’ and looking for a marathon place. Almost immediately a charity called Merlin replied saying they would love to offer me a place. It wasn’t supposed to be that easy. I hadn’t even had time to think about it and now someone was saying ‘you can go to the ball’.
So there I was. Lying wide awake at 5:30am in a friend’s spare room in Pimlico not quite believing that I was just a few hours away from running the London Marathon. I gave up trying to get back to sleep after another hour of fretting about the alarm going off. I kissed Liz goodbye and crept downstairs. My son Ned passed me on the corridor and took my place in the bed!
I headed off to Pimlico tube just before 7:30 with my red London Marathon bag proudly slung over my shoulder. As soon as I got into the station I was joined by other red bag carrying runners and we greeted each other with knowing looks. I changed at Victoria and our numbers swelled. We walked up from Embankment to Charring Cross station en-mass and by the time I got onto the train for Maze Hill you couldn’t swing a cat never mind get a seat.
The ‘gallows’ humour’ helped relax me and a lot of the stress of making it to the start line began to drift away. I was on the train now and nothing could go wrong! The train heaved into Greenwich station and the vast majority of the runners got off, heading for the red start. We continued for one more stop and I stepped off into the sunshine for the short walk up Maze Hill to the Green Start.
At the entrance to the Green Start I bumped into Tim Heming from The Sun who had given me so much help and advice in the build-up. The Green Start is tiny compared to the 20,000 people who cram into both the Blue and Red start. Once inside, I made for the toilet queues that were already about 100 metres long before checking out the celebrity area. The only person I recognised was Danny Crates the Paralympic athlete I’d met through SportsAid a couple of weeks earlier.
I had time to get changed, apply handfuls of Vaseline to my toes and check my race plan one last time. I rang Liz to say I’d got to the start OK and answered more good luck texts. I fashioned a rather attractive sleeveless top from my bin liner before dropping my bag off on the trucks that take everyone’s stuff to the finish. I then realised the best thing to do was to get into the toilet queue again for one last pee. Time was running out but I held my nerve – I really didn’t want to start with a full bladder – and sure enough other people in front bottled it (so to speak!) and dashed towards tents and other relatively secluded places. I still had to run to the start line and couldn’t actually get onto the road. I started by one of the entrances into a pen halfway down the field.
The Green start has around 3,000 people – about the size of the Norwich Half Marathon – so when the gun finally went, it only took a few moments to filter through the gate and onto the road. I heard a loud shout of “Gordon” from behind and looked round to see Jem Walters waving and shouting “good luck”. I just started to jog as we passed under the start line, I fired up the Garmin and we were off.
It felt fantastic to be finally running – after all the tapering and the stress about getting to the start line – it was an absolute joy to just run. The Green start has a sharp right turn almost immediately and there was a huge crowd of supporters and photographers waiting to try and spot the celebs. The cheering just makes you smile involuntarily. It was a smile that was to stay on my face for the next 26 miles. Jem soon pulled alongside for a chat – he was focused on a sub-4 and in good shape to do it. He quickly moved on and I settled in with a Harry Hill, a couple of Stigs and “Arg” from the reality TV show “The Only Way is Essex”.
The Green Start goes through the residential streets of Greenwich and Blackheath for a mile and a half before merging with the Blue start. Seeing the mass of runners converging from the right was the first real impression of the scale of the thing.
I soon became aware that I was getting quite hot. I was already sweating. It wasn’t even 10am and while we were in the sun, it wasn’t hot by any stretch. I started to worry. This was crazy, the first five miles were supposed to be a ‘gimme’ – a steady jog to conserve energy for later. I checked my Garmin, I was on schedule – I’d wanted to start no faster than 9:30 minute mile pace. I started seeking out shade but through Woolwich the roads were fairly open. I also decided to start taking on water straight away rather than wait until mile six as planned.
As we ran towards Woolwich Barracks we passed the Olympic shooting venue. There was a test event taking place so there were gunshots ringing around and crowds of competitors and support staff watching the race. We passed the newly built shooting centre – white buildings with what looked like huge red bullet holes indenting the walls.
Turning left down towards Woolwich I grabbed more water before seeing the massed ranks of the red start merging from the left. It is traditional for the blue and red starts to boo each other as they join but there were huge smiles all round.
I’d split my race into five mile sections – partly to break it up but also to make my timing and refuelling easier. I had a target pace for the end of each five mile section – the plan was to try and increase the pace by five seconds every five miles from 9:30 minute mile pace to 9:15 at 20 miles to give me a chance of reaching 9:09 pace by the time we got to the Mall and a 4 hour finish. The reward after each five mile section would be a gel! I was steadily getting on top of the over-heating problem. The combination of a slight slowing below target pace, water and shade seemed to sort me out. As we turned left back towards Greenwich, Woolwich Road offered far more shade and also the best entertainment so far in terms of the crowds.
Everyone says put your name on your vest and the crowd shouting your name will really help keep you going, but nothing had prepared me for the scenes through Woolwich, Greenwich, Deptford and Rotherhithe. Kids sticking their arms through the barriers to hi-five the runners, crowds of people shouting your name and some fantastic pub bands gleefully playing to crowds fifty times bigger than they normally enjoy! Toothless frontmen and overweight guitar heroes, acting out their festival-fantasies on the back of trucks or outside pubs that were already doing a roaring trade.
I was feeling normal again after the over-heating and I was happy with my pace. I had slowed to 9:40 minute mile pace for the first couple of miles but was able to hit my first target of 9:30 pace at the end of the first five miles. As a result, the run to Greenwich and through to Bermondsey was one of the most enjoyable experiences of the whole day.
I had been particularly looking forward to Greenwich after having such a great time there a year earlier with the kids. The Cutty Sark was also now about to reopen after the fire that swept though the famous old clipper and I was looking forward to seeing it in all its splendour. The crowds in Greenwich were enormous and the route around the Cutty Sark, now raised high above the cobbled road by the new visitor centre around the hull, was fantastic.
After Greenwich I started thinking about my next five mile section – it was probably the part of the course I knew least well but I shouldn’t have worried. The crowds were fantastic with loads of “Go on Gordon” shouts as I kept close to the barrier on the left of the road going through Deptford and up to Rotherhithe. The first Merlin cheering point was around Mile 9 and I made sure I was on the right side of the road. I saw their turquoise balloons and a huge cheer went up as I approached.
The road through Rotherhithe and onto Bermondsey was far better supported than I’d expected. A mix between industrial estates and fairly new housing, the smell of BBQs began to mingle with crowds sat on grassy verges. I was feeling good now and chatted to a couple of runners. But I was keen to press on and I wanted to get to half way on target.
I knew Tower Bridge was coming but the massive crowds on Jamaica Road and Tooley Street meant I wasn’t quite prepared for the simple, sharp right turn which brought the landmark into view. It was exhilarating and I suddenly thought it would be a good idea to ring Liz. Sadly, I couldn’t get through and in the end only succeeded in worrying her as she got a missed call and no way of knowing if I was OK!
The section along the Highway was tough. I knew there would be ups and downs. I stayed close to the crowd and just waited until I came out of it. It was a section I knew fairly well being the road between News International, The Sun and The Times’ Wapping base and Canary Wharf where I’d go to meet journalists from the Independent and the Mirror. Part of the problem was that I knew I should be speeding up on this section, but I felt crap and that was starting to get to me. It was on this stretch that the roadside offerings from spectators took a turn for the better. I grabbed some slices of orange and pieces of banana which were fantastic and definitely helped sort me out.
Turning onto the Isle of Dogs you go through a long tunnel to be greeted by the site of around 300 men relieving themselves up against the wall. I realised it was pretty much the only part of the course that was out of view to spectators. The smell of piss was rank but the cool shade was welcome and coming out again into the sunshine I was starting to feel better. However, any thoughts of pushing on were frustrated as the road narrowed and we began to bottleneck quite badly. I started hopping on and off the pavement to get by people but still couldn’t find a rhythm. I was getting frustrated.
As we turned left at the southern tip of the Isle of Dogs the road widened out again and I was able to get a rhythm going. There was also a shower point here – I tried to run through the showers every time I saw them and it really helped cool me down. The crowds heading toward Canary Wharf were massive and I could feel myself running really smoothly again. If anything though, I got a bit carried away. My mile splits for 18, 19 and 20 say it all: 8:48, 8:23, 8:23. Previously I’d been averaging 9:12 to 9:19s. I didn’t know the splits at the time plus somewhere in Canary Wharf I started thinking my Garmin was going wonky. It suddenly started suggesting I was on 9:11 pace, way ahead of what I had been doing. Looking at the data now it seems like it couldn’t cope with the tall buildings – the map shows me zig-zagging all over Canary Wharf.
I realised my watch had me half a mile or more ahead of where I really was – so I passed the 20 mile marker and the watch said 20.6 miles. As a result, I really couldn’t work out where I was or how fast I was going. I tried to slow down a bit as I thought I was probably going too fast with still six miles to go but I felt great – right through Poplar High Street where many runners say they hit the wall. On through Limehouse and back toward the
Highway again where the fun runners and fancy dress masses were walking in the other direction towards the Isle of Dogs. Around this point I started to see a few runners collapsed by the side of the road. Other runners would suddenly stop right in front of you or veer across you to grab a water. I was going faster than most of the runners I was with but couldn’t get past people.
By Tower Hill I was feeling a bit strange. I was absolutely exhausted but I was still flying along. I couldn’t understand how I could feel so tired but still be running well. It felt like I was in some kind of trance almost – an outer body experience. Maybe it is what elites call being ‘in the moment’? I was just happy it wasn’t called ‘hitting The Wall’!
I was concentrating so hard for the last 5 miles on just keeping the pace up and convincing myself it didn’t hurt when really every muscle was screaming. I kept my head together by counting to 100 over and over again for the last few miles but I was still overtaking people and going well.
The last mile or two was thoroughly uncomfortable. Whenever I’d had low points during the day, I would just move over to run nearer the crowd. Hearing “Go on Gordon” hundreds and hundreds of times is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before and gives you an enormous buzz. But by the time I got to Embankment the noise was becoming overwhelming. The “Gordon” shouts seemed more intense and I started feeling a strange kind of stress. I was going as fast as I possibly could – I was at the end of my rope by this point – yet I felt the crowd were all just shouting at me and telling me I had to go faster. My head was all over the place. I couldn’t work out my pace or why my legs were even still going round, so a few thousand people shouting at me was enough to tip me over the edge.
I tried to get my head together by concentrating on spotting the second Merlin cheering point which I knew was coming up but I was almost at Big Ben and hadn’t passed them. I thought I was really seeing things when race organiser Dave Bedford came running towards me at about mile 25 with a medical team close behind. Finally I glimpsed the Merlin banners on the right hand side of the road and just about managed to get over and raise a smile and a wave.
Going past Big Ben felt like a major milestone – just Birdcage Walk to go – it did feel like I was finally on the home stretch. Seeing our friend Rachael shouting and waving like crazy on Birdcage Walk was a massive boost and then I saw the turning and Buckingham Palace. I moved to the inside as I knew Liz and the kids were in the grandstand thanks to Merlin, so I made sure I was in position. Seeing the finish line was amazing and sure enough Liz and the kids were jumping up and down and screaming. It was an incredible end to an amazing day.
I could hardly walk through the clearing area – there is a little ramp you have to go up so that seated marshals can clip the timing chip off your shoe. I couldn’t get up the ramp to start with, gabbled something incomprehensible to the woman that tried to help me and then pretty much fell down the other side.
I was sunburnt, blistered and broken. But I did it! I gave it everything, smiled all the way round and then blubbed like child at the finish!
All the way round I had been thinking about the money we’d raised and the fantastic support everyone had given – it genuinely helped get me round and made the whole experience truly unforgettable.
On a much sadder note, I was desperately sorry to hear about Claire Squires, the young woman who died so close to the finish. Truly awful and tragic news.
If I’m being picky, perhaps it was a bit too hot, a bit too crowded and a bit too hard to keep a consistent pace with so many people weaving around in front of you. Maybe 4hrs 5mins is a bit annoyingly close to sub 4hrs but I know I gave it my absolute all, so none of that matters and I honestly couldn’t have been happier.
To put the last few miles of a marathon in context, I thought I was really struggling to maintain my pace (in fact I just about managed to maintain even splits – slowing down very slightly) but according to the London Marathon website I passed 1,373 runners in the last 7km and only 27 runners passed me in that time! I was incredibly lucky to avoid ‘The Wall’ considering it was the first time I’d run beyond 20 miles but then maybe all that training, all the cycling sessions on the turbo in the shed on those freezing cold February nights paid off.
Meeting up with Liz and the kids afterwards proved a nightmare. I was desperate to see them but the crowds in St James’s Park and Horse Guards Parade were enormous and we couldn’t get a signal on the mobiles. In the end I had to send a text and suggest we met at the Army & Navy Club on Pall Mall. I needed to say a big thank you to the Merlin team at their after-race party and it also meant we could get drinks, something to eat and (for me) a massage!
They greeted the runners like returning heroes which was really cool – I said my thank yous, booked a massage and went back outside to try and spot the guys. Finally I spied them coming up Pall Mall – the kids were completely shot after a long day in a big crowd and Liz had done an amazing job of keeping them going. I got them all drinks and snacks and managed a quick plate of lasagne before getting called though for a massage.
I was pleased to hear that I hadn’t done any serious damage to my legs and I cut the massage short because I really just wanted to be with Liz and the kids and try and share something of the day with them. We decided to head to China Town for a proper family party.
Walking through London I felt about 9 feet tall. I spotted other red bag carrying, medal wearing heroes and we exchanged knowing looks. It didn’t matter how long it had taken, whether it was a Personal Best or a Personal Worst – we’d just run a marathon. We were real runners.