Wednesday, 9 May 2018

London Marathon 2018

While driving up the M3 the other week, I thought I would clock 26 miles on the hire car's odometer, just to see how far I would soon be running.  I thought it would flash past, but it didn't.  I kept saying to Kate "It's still going.  I can't believe it's still going"!  Well, if it seemed like a long way from the comfort of a climate-controlled car seat, having run the hottest ever London Marathon, I am now in a position to state, with a great deal of confidence, that 26.2 miles is indeed a long way.  In case you hadn't guessed, this was the first marathon that I had run, although I have done a few half marathons over the years.  I was running to raise money for the RNLI (lifeboats).

Kate & Beth practising their role ahead of the big day

I seem to have gotten ahead of myself and jumped to the end already.  There was a fair amount of running that came before that point, so I better back it up a bit.  Did I mention that 26 miles is a long way?

I got to the red start area with about 50 minutes to spare.  It's this time of a race that I don't really like, because I start agonising over every little detail that I wouldn't otherwise think twice about.  Let's take, for example, shoelaces.  I have been successfully tying my shoelaces for decades.  Before every training run, I simply slip my trainers on, lace them up, and off I go.  Never once has a lace come undone.  Never once has a trainer felt too tight.  Never once has a trainer felt too loose.

On race day, however...boy oh boy, on race day...I'll do my laces up, take one step and it feels as though Zeus himself has descended from Mount Olympus to tie my laces.  They're cripplingly tight.  I'm definitely going to damage my feet if I leave them done up this tight, so I stop again, untie my meticulous bow and let a fraction of a millimetre of lace out.  I don't want to overdo it, because I know what's going to happen next.  I stand up, take another step and damnit, just as I knew, I've overdone it and now my trainers feel like they're so loose that they'll be blown off my feet from the faintest puff of air caused by a pigeon flying overhead.  This just won't do, I'll have to tighten them again, so I get back down on my knees and pull a micrometre of lace through.  This time is the one.  They feel great.  This lace tightness is going to win the race for me, so it's time to double knot these bad boys.  The last thing I want is for a lace to come undone while I'm running, so I loop the laces back round and pull as hard as I can.  Then I give them another solid tug, just to make sure that the previous tightening was definitely the tightest I could manage.  Right, I'm all done with my laces.  Again.  Except, when I start walking, the left one feels slightly tighter than the right one, which is really annoying and is definitely going to make it hard to keep up with Mo, so I have to stop to make them even.  The problem now is that the flipping double knot that I've tied takes ages to undo because I've pulled it so tight that it resembles a small raisin.

You get the idea.  Then there's eating and drinking to think about, when to join my start pen, how much warming up and stretching I should do, and, of course, going to the toilet.

The smiles were all for show.  I didn't feel like that on the inside!

Thankfully, the organisers had put a couple of urinal zones into the start area so I could skip the huge queues for the portaloos.  I mean, wow, that was definitely not a good time to drop anchor.  The urinals weren't exactly plain sailing, though.  In order to get as many units in as possible, they had put them in back to back.  I'm all for having as many urinals as they could fit in, and it meant that there was no queuing whatsoever when visiting the urination station, but what it did mean was that you were almost nose to nose with the chap relieving himself opposite you.  With people crammed in on both sides as well, there was nowhere neutral to look, apart from straight up into space, but that would have looked weird.  In an attempt to appear nonchalant at the unusual circumstances, it was tempting to whistle a tune, but then I would have just been whistling at the guy opposite, which would have been even weirder, so instead I just marvelled at how much urine was simultaneously gushing into the tank in front of me (it could clearly be heard flooding in.  There was no flush - this torrent was 100% man-made).

With the pre-start over and done with, I joined my start pen.  Actually, I didn't.  I had been assigned to pen 1, which is to say, the pen where the fastest runners would go.  This is almost certainly because I put an optimistic finish time down when I filled in my entry form.  I can't remember exactly what I had been hoping for but, unfortunately, I was forced to miss a fair number of sessions throughout my training due to injury.

Anyway, given that I wasn't going to finish in anywhere near 3 hours or under, I didn't want to join pen 1 and get in the way of faster runners, so I dropped back to pen 3.  You're allowed to move back to a slower pen, but not to move up to a faster one than you have been allocated.  I chose pen 3 because, according to their website, the Runner's World Pace Team for a 3:30 finish was supposed to be joining that pen.  I nervously waited around, looking out for them.  In a pen or two further back, I could see the flags of the 3:45 pacers above the heads of the crowds lined up and ready to go, but there was still no sign of the 3:30 guys.  Then, with about 10 minutes to go before the start, the two 3:30 pacers turned up and joined pen 2!  They really screwed me over with that move because, by now, the pens were pretty full.  I had to fight my way back out of pen 3 and join the large queue of last-minute people joining pen 2 (probably the same people who had been waiting to drop the kids off at the pool while I had been contemplating the miracle of the torrent flowing into the urinals).

I was only about 10.5 miles behind Mo!

When all was said and done, I was, finally, in the right place and ready to go.  A video of Mo Farah training in Kenya was playing on the big screen and I was feeling excited.  Nervous and excited.  I decided to check my heart rate (on my GPS watch) because I had sat through a presentation where the marathon mentor recommended staying calm before the start, or else you'll just be burning up energy needlessly.  As I watched my heart rate, it was slowly climbing as the start of the race drew nearer.  It rose from a steady 60 bpm up to an absurd 90 bpm.  My heart was running at 150% of normal and all I was doing was standing still!

The Queen pressed her big red button and off we all went.  It was, obviously, very crowded.  I kind of expected the situation to calm down somewhat as people's different paces caused the throng to separate, but that never happened.  It was busy, with slower people to be avoided and skirted around, and faster people doing the same to me, for the next 26.2 miles.  What did ease off was the strong smell of Deep Heat that permeated the air for the first mile (other heat therapy pain relief brands are available).  I guess that, like me, a lot of other people were carrying niggles and injuries into the race.

I had been agonising the night before as to whether to follow the 3:30 or the 3:45 pacers.  I felt that I could possibly manage 3:30 even though it would be a real challenge.  I figured that, barring any catastrophes,  a 3:45 finish should be reasonably assured, but I didn't know how the heat was going to affect me.  We had received at least a couple of emails from the race organisers saying that we should revise our target finish times in the hot weather.  In the end, I had settled on going for 3:30 because I would rather challenge myself and take the harder option, even if that ultimately meant crashing and burning and ending up with a worse time, than taking the easier option, managing it OK and forevermore wishing that I had gone for 3:30.

The 3:30 pace felt fast but manageable at the beginning.  It was hot, though and I was immediately struck by how much more water I was drinking that I had ever done in training.  I was worried that my bottle wouldn't even last me until the first water station at 2.5 miles.

This is how to 'do' the London Marathon.  We were following my sister run the 2014 London Marathon from the
comfort of a cafe on Lanzarote

After around 5 miles, the pacer that I was following nipped off for a wee at the portaloos by the side of the course.  He couldn't actually fit inside the toilet, because the flag on his back was too high, so he had to go by the side!  I wasn't sure whether this wee stop was a tactical part of the 3:30 pace strategy and we were all expected to join him, but I thought better of it, which was just as well because he had to work hard to catch up, which he eventually did.

At around mile 7, I saw the first person go down.  She was not far in front of me and one second she was running, the next she was headed for the floor as though someone had turned her off.  I guess that spectators could tell what a state she was in from in front and could tell what was about to happen because I'm fairly sure she was caught before she actually hit the deck.  Luckily for her, she was running at the edge of the road.  She was one of a fair number of people who I saw scattered throughout the course, being treated or waiting for treatment.  In fact, it was quite shocking to see so many people in that state.  I didn't bother to stop for any of them because there were always others on hand and I figured that another non-medically trained person crowding round was not what was required.  In any case, the "motto" of this year's race, so to speak, was #SpiritOfLondon and if there's one thing I know about the spirit of London, having grown up here and spent many years commuting in the city, it's that you've gotta be pretty lucky to have someone stop to help you if you fall over.

After the shock of seeing that lady collapse, and considering that I was already struggling to keep up with the 3:30 pacers, I decided to ease off a bit.  I was worried that if I had have carried on at that speed, I would have been joining those poor people lying on the floor getting a visit from St John Ambulance.

My true race face! I think I looked like this for about 20 miles!
My plan was to slow down from 7.5mph to 7.0mph, which should have seen me finish somewhere between 3:30 and 3:45.  As the miles wore on though, I found that I couldn't even maintain that pace, so I slowed down further and I told myself that if I got overtaken by the 3:45 pacers, I would make sure that I kept up with them.

Along the way, I saw several people in fancy dress.  Of the ones that stood out, one guy was dressed as the Gingerbread Man.  On his back, it said "Run, run, run as fast as you can. You’ll never catch me, I’m the gingerbread man.". Thankfully, I did catch him. Relatively easily. I think his back should have read "Run, run, run as fast as you can. You'll catch me because it's 24.1°C and I decided to run the hottest London Marathon in a fluffy all-in-one suit". Maybe he couldn't quite fit that message in! As I passed the Gingerbread Man, another runner was pouring their water bottle over his head!

Then there was the tree. This joker was making an official attempt at the world record (presumably for the fastest tree to run a marathon). I reckoned that tree man would also be an easy target, but he was surprisingly nimble. He even stopped to interact with some of his supporters, before sprinting off again. I'm ashamed to say that I didn't beat the tree, but I did see him receiving a certificate after I had crossed the finish line, so I guess he got his record and at least I can say that I was beaten by the fastest tree on the planet.

Talking of supporters, I had a merry band of supporters of my own.  My mum, dad, sister, sister's girlfriend, Kate and Beth were all there and popped up at several pre-planned points along the route, and a couple of unexpected ones as well, which made for a great surprise.  The crowd, in general, was amazing, but there's something extra motivational about having loved ones to cheer you on.  We even managed a few high-fives as I passed.  On top of that, I was spotted by an old uni friend who happened to be spectating and I also saw friends who we met and very much enjoyed spending time with on Lanzarote.  I think they may also be The Great Adventure's biggest fans!  It seemed like most of London was out!  I also had the nice surprise of seeing my brother-in-law at the finish.  He had tried to cheer me over the line, but spectators aren't actually allowed anywhere near the finish line so he had to meet me as I left the controlled-access area.

It was finally over!
I enjoyed looking at some of the wacky signs and props that people had in the crowd.  I squeezed an old hooter ("Free honks", the sign said), hit a few signs that said "Hit for a power-up", and almost laughed out loud when I was feeling ridiculously tired and saw a sign that said "Remember: You paid to do this".  Amongst the unhelpful signs was: "Only 5.5 Park Runs to go".  Feeling as exhausted as I did at that point, the thought of running 5.5 back-to-back Park Runs (at 5km each) was exactly the opposite of what I needed!  Also, the buffoon standing at about mile 9 who had a sign saying "The last mile is all in your head" was not at all helpful.  It wasn't the last mile that I was worried about, it was the 16 that I had to do before then that were weighing heavy!

By the time I reached the finish, I was totally destroyed.  The last kilometre seemed to really drag.  There were countdown signs every 200m from that point and each one lingered in the distance, refusing to get nearer as I ran towards it.  I passed two more fallen comrades right on the final corner with the finish line clearly in sight.  I couldn't believe that they had gone down so close to the end, but I felt like I could easily be joining them, so just focused on keeping going.

I wasn't completely sure where the finish line was, but I was immensely relieved when I figured that I had finally crossed it!  The problem was that there was a big sign saying "CONGRATULATIONS", which I presumed would be it, but I couldn't see the word "finish" anywhere and there was another gantry after the first, so I kept running until someone tried to put a medal round my neck.

My merry band of supporters
After that point, I was completely euphoric.  The last time I have been that glad to finish doing something was after our 16-day epic sail from Lanzarote to Portugal.  The funny thing was that it kind of seemed like the zombie apocalypse had happened while I had been running the marathon because I suddenly found myself amongst a load of dazed-looking people all walking slowly around with weird limps.  It could easily have been a scene out of a zombie movie!

I slowly made my way to the designated "M" meeting point and sat on the floor while I waited for my supporters to turn up because I didn't have the energy for any more standing.  Once everyone had assembled, we (slowly) made our way to Five Guys for a celebratory meal.  I chose Five Guys because that's what Radio 1 DJ Adele Roberts said that she had done last year when I heard her talking about running her first marathon, and it had stuck in my mind as a good idea!

So, how did I do?  Well, the 3:45 pacers never did overtake me, so I thought that I had made a sub 3:45 time, but it turned out that both of the 3:45 pacers had dropped out behind me, as had the 3:30 pacers in front of me.  My only guess is that the heat hit them hard and they weren't able to maintain their designated pace.  My time was 3:48:41 in the end, which I was happy with, given the conditions.  I'm also happy that I punished myself to try and get 3:30 because I felt that I owed it to all my sponsors to give it my all.  If you did sponsor me, thank you so much.  I was really bowled over by how generous you all were (if you now feel inspired to do so, you can here:

I was a broken man at this point, but so, so glad to be done!

While I was sitting on the floor at the finish, my sister asked if I would do another marathon.  I told her that she must be joking, but since then, I have entered the ballot for next year!  Considering that I have been trying to get a ballot place for 9 years (as opposed to a charity place which seems easier to obtain, but for which you have to raise a lot of sponsorship money), I'm not holding my breath on getting a place.  I'll leave it in fate's hands, but I do feel that I have a score to settle with London.  I'm coming for that 3:30!


I beat the tree!  I drafted this post up a week or so ago and since then, I receive an email from the marathon organisers with a link to all the records that were set.  Tree Man (Tim Perkins) did it in 3:52:35.  In my exhausted state, I must not have noticed overtaking him.