26.2 miles and memories

It’s a few days since I ran the 2015 London Marathon and I wanted to get down my memories on paper before they fall out of my head, and also to share tips with future marathon runners…..so here goes:

I’m sat on a bin bag on damp grass under a tree on Blackheath common and my resting heart rate, usually around 53bpm is hitting 90. It’s hitting 90 because, frankly, I'm worried.

I'm worried because in about an hour’s time I’m going to embark on a 26.2 mile run, the London Marathon.

I’ve trained, 5 months of running and around 3 years of effort in half marathons and 10ks, but I’m fearful because like many around me, I know I’ve not done enough.

The longest I've “run” is 20 miles — but I had to walk/jog the last 4 miles. The longest I've run without stopping is about 16.5 miles, so running 26.2, actually doing it without that overwhelming desire to just stop, to ease up, is surely beyond me.

But aside from the nerves, there’s a strange sense of calm and purpose. I’ve rested well in the week leading up to the day, eaten properly and feel fuelled and ready to go. How long I go, is the unknown.

My training regime has been on the light side. After completing my first half marathon under 2 hours back in October, I had a month and a half of niggles and rest before I really committed mentally to the marathon at the start of December when I secured my place with Action on Hearing Loss.

My intention was to run 4 times a week but with a work schedule that sees me getting up at 2am every Monday, tiredness from the lack of sleep largely ruled out the first two days of the week and three times a week was all I could manage.

I was also concerned that at 42 and weighing 15.5 stone a lot of running could well damage my knees, feet, legs and end my hopes of completing the distance well before the race on 26th April.

And why run at all? To prove I was capable. To inspire my children. To pretend to myself that middle age wasn't really winning. All of the above.

Back on Blackheath at 9am on Sunday, 26th April, there’s the unmistakeable odour of deep heat, terror and excitement hanging over the Red Start assembly area, the mass start that contains everyone from fast club runners, twitching to get started, and the brigades of the British eccentric in fancy dress — I spot an ostrich, 3 Supermen, a man in a giant, tiered pink dress and a Minion (covered in plastic to protect from the rain) within a minute or two of arriving.

https://youtu.be/c9qD6bOqMJs

I feel a sense of dislocation — that I am observing proceedings rather than participating — and after some welcome distraction sitting with friends it is time to say goodbye. I am to start in Pen 8 with the plodders while friends are closer to the action among those who can genuinely say they will run the marathon.

It is a damp day, but the rain stops before 9, leaving the day overcast and cool, perfect conditions for running. My running belt is loaded up with gels, shotbloks and some pain killers to help with my expected ITB pain later in the run.

There are plenty of friends running together, swapping encouraging words, but after saying goodbye to mine I feel decidedly alone. There’s nothing much to be done after dumping my running bag, going for a wee and wishing the best to some other Action on Hearing Loss runners I spot. I half hope they’ll invite me to run with them, and share the emotional load, but everyone’s too nervous before the run to take on board someone else’s concerns.

After a few minutes going through my usual stretches I make my way to Pen 8. It’s odd to stand in that tree-lined road that I’ve seen often in others’ photos.

People are snapping photos, posting last updates to Facebook, Twitter, et al, and a few couples are just hugging each other.

I can feel that well of emotion occasionally threaten to rise and I push it back down. I don’t want to waste nervous energy at this stage.

There are a few burst of “oggi, oggi, oggi” which make me smile, and then the rhino runners come past and everyone cheers.

There’s a clap as we approach the start at 10.10am and I’m trying to keep calm by reading the different running vests.

I take off my t-shirt and bin bag with 5 minutes to go and just before we get on our way a fellow runner — I’ll later learn he’s called Graham Burns thanks to Facebook — strolls along the edges of the pen singing his heart out with a speaker system on his back.

“Don’t blame it on the sunshine, don’t blame it on the moonlight, don’t blame it on the good times, blame it on the boogie.”

These are all welcome distractions.

Suddenly, I realise the actual London Marathon mass start has begun as we start to shuffle forward, the few brave spectators who had come down to the start area follow their loved ones along, albeit on the other size of a large fence.

It’s a bit of a false dawn — it takes 17 minutes before we get across the Start line — but it feels like a lot longer.

I start to need another wee, but it’s too late now, and while I see the portaloos just before the actual Start line a fellow runner, somehow reading my mind, tells me to wait until later in the race.

Crossing the Start line feels somewhat anti-climactic — perhaps it’s because I know now that I really need to pee, but also because all my focus is on staying in the moment, and not trying to think too much about start, middles or ends.

A few hundred yards into the race and I can see an opportunity to relieve myself and I’m one of about two score men, and some women, who go for a quick wee in the bushes. My apologies to onlookers.

That done, I get back onto the road and settle into my stride.

After months hoping I could run the course in 4 hours 30 an ITB issue causing pain in my knee forced me to be more realistic.

In the week before the race I had decided that anywhere between 4 hours 30 and 5 hours would be my main aim, along with enjoying as much of it as I could, while finishing in any time was my secondary aim.

And so I planned to run between 10.15 and 10.30 per mile — a comfortable pace that hopefully wouldn't aggravate the knee and would leave me with enough energy to get round.

After endless trawling of forums and blogs, taking plenty of advice from marathon veterans, I’d also planned out the run in my head, actually committing it to paper to aid my preparation.

My plan was to break the 26.2 miles into 3 or 4 mile chunks, with something or someone to look forward to at the end of each one.

I also planned to eat a gel or 3 shotbloks every 3 miles, after discovering that my Long Slow Run training strategy of 1 shot blok every 3 miles was insufficient to refuel over bigger distances.

I make it a rule to never countdown total miles as I pass each marker. I only ever count down to the next landmark or when I would see my family or friends, or when I would next eat.

In essence, I turn the London Marathon into a series of 3 mile runs.

The first five miles pass in a blur of coloured vests, cheers from the crowds and smiles, mine and others, as the realisation we are actually all now running the London Marathon begins to land.

Plodding along, I’m happy to let runners overtake me, confident that I have the right pace and strategy to get me to, well, hopefully at least mile 17.

At around mile four friends and family runners who happened to start in different areas — Red and Blue — stand around waiting to be reunited

At mile 5 I feel the first twinge in my left knee that signals my ITB is going to be a nuisance — but I push negative thoughts to the back of my mind, which is made easier as I pass the beautiful buildings of Greenwich.

My excitement is building as I know soon we’d be approaching the Cutty Sark. Running around the grand vessel, waving at the TV camera on a boom, is one of those out of body experiences that mark my whole day.

After years of seeing runners on TV stream around the Cutty Sark, I now am among their number. And it feels glorious.

Mile 6 done my focus now turns to seeing my wife and children, and friends, at mile 9.

One of the most wonderful aspects of the marathon is that there are so many things to distract you from the aching limbs as you run. Great bands, drummers, jazz, bagpipes, as well as families who put some speakers in the window, or street DJs rapping runners as they pass.

And so much support from the crowds. Many of them are simply scanning for their own friends and loved ones, but there are plenty also offering up jelly babies and orange slices, or children seeking high-fives.

After a few miles of not getting any name checks, I realise that I have to shift from the centre of the road, where I do most of my running, to nearer the pavement. At that point I am confident of getting some supportive “Go on Dazzer” shouts.

Running through Deptford around mile 7, there are scores of people spilling out of pubs, music blaring, drinks in hand, shouting encouragement.

There are real characters along the route — gap-toothed, suited men shouting at full pitch, one woman in gold, African dress, screaming support.

Prior to the race I had been encouraged to chat to fellow runners, to help with distraction, but largely I run my own race. Yet on seeing this golden vision I share a smile and a chuckle with one runner.

The crowds are what make the London Marathon so special, and you can’t over-estimate how much it helps the runners to get that support.

At the miles began to tick over I pass those Rhino runners, and all manner of heavy-looking, energy-sapping costumes, including one man carrying a cross, another a ladder, some Army types with heavy backpacks, one chap in full fire crew breathing apparatus.

And every time I pass someone in sweaty fancy dress I give a “well done mate” or “well done runner” to acknowledge their effort.

At mile 9, I see my family. It’s a few snatched moments of real joy. A few quick kisses and I am on my way, feeling full of running and realising that the pain in my knee has all but gone.

Miles 9 to 12 are all about getting to Tower Bridge. The crowds thin along here, as far as I can remember, but there is still enough support to keep you distracted.

Approaching Tower Bridge and the crowds start to thicken up, the pavements get more choked. For the first time I spot official charity cheering squads, and every time I see a Wales flag I give a shout out “Come on Cymru, come on Wales!”, getting a hearty roar in return.

Tower Bridge is magnificent — the roars of the crowd seem to grow louder, longer and more feverish the further along I run, almost sucking me forward. It is almost absurd with noise and colour, and one of my regrets is not capturing a selfie.

My official marathon photos later show me beaming as I run across the Bridge and my splits show my pace picks up here.

Tower Bridge gone and it is time for the Highway, one of the hardest stretches of the race as the enormity of another 13 miles often hits many runners.

But my race plan of thinking of everything in terms of smaller chunks is paying off. I don’t even think about being half way at mile 13; I am too busy looking forward to seeing the official Action on Hearing Loss cheering squad after mile 14.

I feel nothing but pride to pass them in my Action on Hearing Loss vest and a photo snapped by one of the supporters shows me pumping my arm in the air.

I’d hoped to see a group of Runners World supporters at Mile 16 but miss them, and on mile 18 to 19 my pace slows as we start to pass through Canary Wharf as I expect to see my wife and children.

I’d known it could be a struggle for them to get there because of the sheer volume of people, bur rather than feeling disappointed when I don’t see them I am instead just reflecting on how fresh and strong I still feel.

I’m just disappointed I wasn’t able to tell them that.

I had expected the Isle of Dogs section, particularly from mile 16 onwards to be a slog, potentially the first point I would have to walk, but instead I feel terrific. There is also much more support than I had anticipated in this section — particularly around Mile 18 to 19 which is swarming with well wishers.

I am taking on glugs of water, and the occasional swig of Lucozade every other water station, mindful of over-drinking. I’m sure that hydration plus gels/shotbloks every 3 miles is keeping my energy levels up.

For some reason I start to feel overly hot approaching mile 20 and strip off my long-sleeve top, which involves rather clumsily undressing while on the run.

Going into Mile 20 is a big moment —and perhaps for the first time I start to know I will definitely finish.

But the knee is hurting again, and my pace drops from Mile 22. There are a lot of people walking the course now, and I’m determined not to be among them.

Suddenly, I spot my wife in her bright blue wig, with my children. It is totally unexpected as I’d assumed I wouldn’t see them until closer to Mile 25 and the finish. It is overwhelming.

“What are you doing here?” I blurt amidst kisses. I feel amazing. Renewed.

Half a mile later I go past the Action on Hearing Loss crew again — my fist pumping and smiling as I know for sure I am definitely going to finish, and won’t be lettting down any of the scores of people who had contributed donations, reaching £2,400 in total.

Running back along the Highway I catch my first glimpse of the Shard and for the first time I feel a real sense of great distance left to run. But with that also comes that rising tide of emotion I want to feel at the finish. I push both feelings aside because I know that the race isn’t yet over.

“Let make this last 5k my best yet?” I say to myself at mile 23. Not my fastest, but my most enjoyable.

Mile 23 to 25 are my favourite parts of the race. The crowds at Tower Hill are just so raucous, so exuberant and as I pass under a series of bridges and underpasses, the noise amplified by echoes is just stupefying.

I even have enough energy to give a few whoops and waves to the onlookers — rewarded with a call of my name.

The Lucozade tunnel at around Mile 24 is important psychologically as I’d seen so many YouTube videos of people walking at this point at previous marathons. But I feel strong as I weave and sidestep around those unfortunate enough to be walking at this point.

Emerging onto Embankment and I can’t believe there are only two miles or so to go. The crowds here, filled with charity supporters are amazing, but I am starting to feel exceptionally weary, managing half smiles to those who call my name.

I can remember giving a fist pump and waving arms to my friends at mile 25, and big smiles to the Action on Hearing Loss team further along, but the rest of the race is just about focusing and keeping the legs turning over.

I completely miss two friends near Waterloo Bridge and my sister and husband at Westminster, as the tiredness takes hold. Turning onto Birdcage Walk and I can see a sign saying 600 metres to go, but damn that sign looks a long way off.

I can hear people calling my name as I deliberately move to the right hand side of the road just to solicit some cheers.

The bend around Birdcage Walk to the Mall is longer than I could have imagined possible, and when I see the finish line just 300 yards ahead I begin to have something akin to tunnel vision as it seems to stretch away from me.

But keeping the legs turning over I cross the finish line after 4 hours and 46 minutes, overcome with emotion at the end and so thankful I have finished one of life’s great challenges.

I collect my medal, my bag, take obligatory selfie and within a few hundred yards of the Finish line I am certain of one thing — I want to do that again.