So…what’s it like to decide to run a marathon after never having run for anything except a train?
As some of you know, I was rushed to hospital one night 4 years ago with a suspected heart attack. After a very uncomfortable night being pumped full of drugs and under the concerned attention of a cardiologist, it was concluded that actually it wasn’t a heart attack but just some unusual reaction within my body that caused similar symptoms. I was given a clean bill of health — but I still took it as a bit of a wakeup call and determined to get fit. My target: having never done any ‘proper’ exercise since I skateboarded and cycled as a teenager (I was the geeky kid that got picked last for any team sports at school), to run a marathon before I was 50 — a goal that seemed impossible.
First steps: Buy some running shoes. Join a gym. Sign up for the Sport Relief 6 miles / 10 km charity run. And start running. My first outdoor attempt at running the hilly 3 mile circuit near my home was embarrassing enough — my neighbour spotted me struggling half way and thought I might actually need rescuing. And for extra embarrassment, after I started regularly using a gym for treadmill training, I performed the classic trick of being flung off the back and ending up in a heap on the floor while the running belt continued on its merry way. Someone recently commented that a running machine would be much easier if you ran the other way …
Anyway, I distinctly remember the sense of achievement on Boxing Day morning, completing my first 6 mile run. I was ready — and sure enough, the Sport Relief run was a breeze.
But then I found it difficult to motivate myself to continue — so I had to find the next target to commit to. My wife Justine and I had become involved in some international house-building projects for a wonderful charity called Habitat For Humanity, including travelling to South Africa to participate in volunteer projects there, and the charity was offering spaces in the Royal Parks Half Marathon in London. Again, this seemed an almost impossible target, but I signed up and started to raise some sponsorship — as well as stepping up my training to 2–3 gym sessions a week and a longer run at the weekend.
The other thing that really helped: STATISTICS. The RunKeeper app on my phone was brilliant — showing me where I ran fast, where I was ridiculously slow, and allowing me to track my progress as I built up the miles. Travelling for business also gave me the opportunity to train in cool places — Central Park in New York (which is FULL of runners!), along the bayside in San Francisco — seeing the Golden Gate Bridge lit by a glowing sunrise is good for the soul!
The Half Marathon was a great experience — 15,000 runners running past the most famous London landmarks — Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, along the Thames then back through the parks, to run the final 6 miles criss-crossing Hyde Park. It wasn’t easy, but the atmosphere was great and the crowds were very supportive. And I was raising some money for the charity. I was very glad to get to the end though!
The “never again” moment didn’t last long, and I found myself signing up for the same half marathon the following year. Through a little complacency, I didn’t train as hard, and also twisted my ankle a month before the race, so, when it came to the day, I found this 2nd half marathon much harder. It was also much hotter — it’s surprising what a difference that makes.
But, I signed up again for the following year, and this time our daughter Kerry also ran with me. I said I would run with her as this was her first attempt — but, admittedly with youth on her side, at the half way mark I became unable to keep up with her, and saw her disappear into the distance, not to be seen again until past the finish line.
So now it was time for the big one. After failing to get a place through the ballot, I wrote to a few charities to see if they would take me on as one of their fund-raising runners. The Prince’s Trust were the first to respond positively, so I signed up, committing to raise £2,800 for them. I was thrilled to have a place in the London Marathon in the year I would later turn 50.
I dutifully downloaded the intermediate marathon training plan, and felt daunted as it suggested training almost every other day for the 3 months leading up to the event. With a full-on job, it was going to be impractical to fit in all the weekday training, but I resolved to do at least one gym session or short outdoor run, and start to build up the weekend long runs.
Previously, running one half-marathon a year felt like a big deal — but now, I was having to run a minimum half-marathon distance every weekend! Training where we live added an extra challenge — the hills! I signed up for the new North London Vitality Half Marathon as an expected bit of light-relief, running from the Saracens Rugby Stadium to Wembley, across the pitch at Wembley Stadium then back again, expecting a nice flat exercise — but that proved even hillier than running at home, and it was miserable weather! Still, it was great to see Mo Farah waving us past the start line, and to run on that famous pitch. But it hurt!
Back home, I was stepping up the distance. The training plan advised building up to 20 miles. This was a challenge, partly finding safe places to run these distances around the twisty country roads, and partly the amount of time it took (not being blessed with the longest or fastest running legs). I managed one 15-mile and one 18-mile run — but that longer one was the only time I had to give up and call home for someone to come and pick me up as I just couldn’t fact the prospect of the last two hilly miles to get me home.
Then came the taper — 2–3 weeks of gently reducing training to get ready for the big day. A friend suggested running the final 6 miles of the actual marathon course, so that on the day, if (when!) I made it to mile 20, I would have a good idea what was left. I went out after work one sunny evening, on an empty stomach for extra realism, and ran down towards the Houses of Parliament. As I approached Parliament Square, a beautiful lady held up her mobile phone and pointed the camera at me. She looked me straight in the eye and gave me a huge smile — so I smiled back. Then I realised Big Ben was right behind her and in fact she was taking a “selfie”.
That was my final training run — I was as ready as I was ever going to be. I gave a last couple of plugs for my fund-raising web-site and was totally astonished at the generosity of friends and colleagues — I could not believe how much money the Prince’s Trust would receive from my efforts. Only one person warned they wanted the money back if I didn’t make it (he was joking). That friends would get behind me so supportively was quite overwhelming.
And then, it was the weekend of the marathon. Justine and I found a place to stay in the Docklands area overnight, coincidentally right next to Cannon Workshops where I had got my first full-time job 27 years ago, working for a tiny startup called Caplin Cybernetics, designing everything from fruit-picking robots to systems for processing images from telescopes in Hawaii. This was a significant role for me because it led to work with Bloomberg — and my eventual accepting a job with Bloomberg 18 years ago. We’d been kicked out of those offices for the redevelopment project that became Canary Wharf — and now we were back in the same area, totally transformed. I spent much of the evening eating — “carb-loading” as they call it, and settled in for an early night.
Marathon day started with a sense of great excitement and nervousness — and disappointment — the weather was miserable. One of those damp, cool mornings where everything turns grey and murky. Still, there was a mission to accomplish. We made our way to Greenwich Park, and Justine left me to feed into the assembly area surrounded by thousands of other nervous runners, many dressed in disposable bin-liners to keep warm. Lots of small things occupied my mind — making sure I was in the right queue for those essential pre-race “rituals”, not using up too much battery on my phone so that my running app would be able to keep track of me and update me (and others), keeping an eye on the passing time as 10:10am approached.
I got to my start point — probably half a mile behind the actual start, but with my age and anticipated finish time I was inevitably quite near the back. Because of the sheer number of participants (38,000), there were three different starts, that would join together at miles 2 and 3. I disposed of my cheap waterproof layer (to be collected and distributed to the homeless later) and started the slow procession to the start line.
Twenty-three minutes after the official start, I turned the corner near the park exit and crossed the start line. I was actually running the London Marathon. I’d heard the first couple of miles were a challenge of jostling to find space and rhythm, but actually it wasn’t too bad, and I soon settled in to my expected start pace of approx 9 minute 30 second miles — resisting the temptation to go any faster as I knew I would need to conserve energy for later. As we ran through the residential streets of Charlton and Woolwich the atmosphere was electric — the 3 and 4-storey houses had people hanging out all the windows, some announcing our arrival with trumpet fanfares. Anyone who had a loud stereo had the speakers mounted outside the windows and was blaring out tunes — and on the ground there were live bands playing everything from gospel to deep reggae and dub-step. Each side of the road had endless rows of kids holding out their hands to be high-fived, and everyone was smiling and shouting their support. Nothing beats the British Public, even on a grey day.
Many runners were passing me, but I found I could easily overtake some of the contraptions some people were running as. A group of three pedal cars suspended around 3 guys’ waists. The Wolverhampton 4-man bob-sleigh team, in a bobsleigh-like apparatus (who incidentally went on to break the record for fastest 4-man running ‘entity’).
At mile 3 our “red” start merged with the green and blue starts, and this is where I got my first glimpse of the crazy people dressed as dinosaurs. One outfit must have been 15 feet tall, with proper backwards-knee dinosaur legs moving just like a real T-Rex. Awesome. And I kept seeing a running rhinoceros — not realising there was a whole team of them.
Our first landmark was the Cutty Sark at the 6-mile point. All was going well — this was half a half-marathon so far and I could do those! I distinctly remember seeing footage from here on the TV from previous marathons — I really felt I was part of something incredible now.
The next 6 miles felt a little harder — maybe I’d started a little too quick — but things were ok. All of a sudden I made a right turn and there was the first arch of Tower Bridge. I think everyone let out a cheer on seeing that world-famous landmark — we all knew this was the 12 mile point, and that everything to come was north of the river. The bridge was rammed with well-wishers, charities and their flags, making the incline up to the apex of the bridge much easier.
Then, a sharp right turn and we were off to the Isle of Dogs — back where I had woken up that morning! First of all, some sticky, squelchy roads to negotiate at the “energy points” where you could grab a Lucozade Sport drink or an energy gel sachet — most of which end up part-consumed and discarded. I felt for the Jesus running with a cross on his back and barefoot! As we entered the Docklands area, we went into the first tunnel on the route. I’d been warned about the tunnels — that this was where people who didn’t want to queue for the “facilities” en-route “took advantage”, but actually the tunnel contained a disco and was actually quite a jolly place with big screens and flashing lights.
I had it in my head that the Prince’s Trust had a cheering point somewhere between mile 14 and 15, so I started looking out for their red flags. I thought I’d seen them, so went bounding up to a group of supporters, who looked at me blankly as I realised their flag was actually for the Scouts. So I kept looking, all the time my legs getting heavier and my run rapidly turning into a sad shuffle. Still no familiar faces at mile 15. Or Mile 16. Where WERE they? Finally, at mile 17, I turned a corner and saw them — giving me a boost as I carried on back towards Canary Wharf.
The next obstacle — a HILL. No-one warned me about that. Despite the efforts of a group of burly chaps singing “beat the hill” or some such line as we approached, this was tough. In fact, the next section through the rest of the Docklands area up to Poplar was definitely where I got into my darkest frame of mind — 18 miles behind me, still 8 miles to go — and I was now in unchartered territory as my maximum training run had been 18 miles.
Still, I was now back on more familiar roads, having run this final section in training. The road back through Limehouse and Rotherhithe to the Tower was tough (and slightly uphill), but I could start to see landmarks announcing my proximity to familiar London — the descriptively-named Shard, the Gherkin, the Walkie-Talkie and the Cheesegrater. I was a little concerned how many people seemed to be overtaking me, but I resolved to keep running (i.e. shuffling). Blackfriars tunnel passed at mile 23 (with another underground disco), and I knew the Prince’s Trust supporters would again be waiting by the Embankment at mile 25. Seeing a colleague from work (thanks Becky) waving at me spurred me on, and as I ran beside the Thames I could see Justine and my son Ryan beaming at me. I found a little energy so I was able to trot past them at a slightly less embarrassing pace, and now I knew, really for the first time, that finishing this was a real possibility.
Before the day, experienced runners had suggested getting my name printed on my shirt — and, sure enough, all the way round, people had been calling out my name. I always tried to acknowledge them, catch their eye and wave or smile — but now, as onlookers could see me struggling these last miles, everyone seemed to be calling my name. As lovely as that was, I just wanted it to stop, as I didn’t have any energy even to turn my head.
Big Ben and Parliament Square. The last major landmarks to run past before Buckingham Palace. Birdcage Walk. Head down, intense, shouting “come on” at myself. Not going to stop. Not going to walk. My knees hurt. My chest was really tight, my back was tense. My feet were killing me. One more mile.
The Palace loomed into view. This was it. The final corner into the Mall, and there a few hundred yards ahead was the finish line. I dug deep, found a tiny energy reserve and broke into a proper run — charging towards the finish, arms raised. I even overtook a few people on that last straight. Then the line. And the attempt to stop without crumpling on the floor. I had actually run a marathon. After setting myself that virtually impossible target 4 years previously, I had done it. I was disappointed with my time — 5 hours 42 minutes (I’d been hoping to break 5 hours), but the elation and emotion of finishing the ACTUAL LONDON MARATHON overrode any frustration. I was in pain, particularly my back and my feet, but accepting that glorious, satisfyingly-heavy medal from a volunteer felt so so good.
The last four years came flooding back to me. Being rushed to hospital for that scary night. The relief of being told I was all clear, having only just been told everything would change once they’d assessed the expected heart muscle damage. Thinking how crazy that idea had been that I, Mr Unfit, could actually run a marathon in a few years. And the sense of overwhelming generosity from my supporters — I knew that with the fund-match scheme from Bloomberg, my employer, I would be raising over £9,500 for the Prince’s Trust.
I had to walk another mile or so (very slowly) to find my family, but the sense of achievement felt wonderful. Really wonderful.
To anyone else thinking “yeah running a couple of miles is ok, but 26 … you must be joking”, I would say: anyone can run a half marathon if they put their mind to it — and you get a great sense of achievement from doing that. I would also say: if you have some will-power, and you are prepared to put in the hours training, you can run a marathon. It might be slow (and many people walk part of it), but you could do it. The secret is to set yourself a series of targets — like me, you can start small, and surprise yourself at what is possible. And the feeling of being part of something as big and uplifting as the London Marathon is just wonderful. Running has made me feel better (guess what: oxygen is good for you — who knew?), think faster, be more alert, and weigh less. It has given me space to think during those long training runs, and shown be that I can challenge myself far beyond my comfort zone.
So I want to thank all those that braved a miserable grey London morning to shout and scream at (mostly) strangers for many hours. All those that supported my personal challenge INCREDIBLY generously. Bloomberg for matching a substantial part of the funds raised. The Prince’s Trust for giving me the opportunity to take a valuable place in their marathon team and run for them. My friends at work who are way more experienced at running for giving me great advice. To RunKeeper for giving me all the stats and helping me plan my strategy. And to Justine for tolerating an often absent husband who took great chunks out of each weekend to prepare. I feel extremely privileged to have had this opportunity.