I said Never Again, but here we are.
(With acknowledgements to Rachel Stevens. Go on Google it, it’s a great earworm)
Back in 2010, when God was a lad and Jim Laidlaw was still at school, I ran my second London Marathon and squeaked home in 3:58, delighted to be under 4 hours. Despite what I thought was a good training regime, I’d blown up badly at about 20 miles and just about kept going to finish. I decided that I was not built for marathons and would stick to Halves or less, as with a respectable sub-4 hours PB, I really had nothing to prove.
In 2014 I had a great day out marshalling with SJ’s at the finish. 5 hours of clipping chips off people’s shoes was genuinely inspiring, but not in the same league as being a finish line ‘hustler’ AKA casualty clearing station worker in 2016. Marathon envy was growing and both times I half-heartedly threw my name into the marshalls’ ballot. In 2016 I got ‘lucky’ and with a combination of excitement and dread realised that perhaps I should have one last thrash at it before the body really starts to slow down.
Training went well and I managed to combine the majority of my long runs with races, including Farnborough, Wokingham and Fleet Halves, as well as Bramley 20, the Canal Run and two Friday afternoon long runs with Ian Watson and John Tovell amongst others, both of which were minor epics in their own right. The runs, obviously, not John and Ian who are clearly epic anyway. And then finally the epically muddy Grizzly as my short and vertically challenged, longest run. From pacing others to trying to run a controlled speed, to progressive and finally all-out on tired legs, each of the long runs had a different focus and this played a great part in staving off long run boredom.
The only minor mishap on the way was rolling an ankle on one of Dick’s famous Look Out magical mystery tours. The crack as I went over on it was clearly audible and I had a moment of blind panic, Tentatively trying it out, it was with a sense of relief that I discovered I could still run on it. Luckily it didn’t stop me training and with help from the Physio I reached race day fully recovered.
Target times are a tricky subject for all runners. No one wants to set expectations too high, nor be seen as a praise-seeking sandbagger. Most of us want to keep them to ourselves, but everyone asks. With an old PB of 3:58, I was pretty sure, given recent results, that a new PB would happen unless something went dramatically wrong. At the other end of the scale, my over-analysis of pacing and distance possibilities definitely showed that sub 3:30 was out of reach. In addition, I wanted to be in the frame of mind where I was doing better than hoped during the run, rather than struggling to hit an unrealistic goal and getting down-heartened as a result. So the public ‘bronze’ target was sub-3:45, silver sub-3:40 and gold sub-3:35.
And so to the race itself. Sunday morning arrived very early at 5.15am and after a quick, first breakfast, we set off to pick up Kate Parker and Ian Watson on our way to the coach, passing the only other person daft enough to be out at that hour of the morning, who we suddenly realised was a rather surprised Kathryn Shaw. A full coach of nervous and excited runners were successfully deposited on Blackheath at 8.00am and muttering well wishes, we dispersed to our respective start areas. I love this bit of VLM as a member of the club, as we were able to relax and get ready in a group and chill out together. With the Marshall’s ballot places, about 8 of us had similar numbers so we stayed together as a group. Usual conversations went on about what to wear, the weather, long sleeves vs short sleeves vs vest. As the sun came out it warmed quickly and this was to be a key theme later on.
Hugs, pictures and then off to the start pens. Somehow I had blagged my way into being allocated to Pen 3, so positioned myself at the back of the pen not wanting to go off too quick and saw the 3:30 pacers at the front of the same pen.
Soon enough the countdown and we were finally away . Unlike previous years, there was no stopping and starting once across the starting line and we quickly settled into a steady pace, which felt really easy and I was surprised to see we were bowling along at 8mm. The red start is definitely more undulating than the blue and while we were generally going downhill, there was a proper hill at 2 ½ miles which was a bit of a shock. We merged with the other starts and everyone settled in. Steady pacing and I found myself easily tracking the 3:30 pacer. Take it gently, listen to your own advice and don’t blow it early on. The crowd as usual was fantastic, the musicians were out and so was the sun. Managed to get rid of my t shirt at about 8 miles and revert to just a vest. A move which I would definitely appreciate later on, although the temperature dripped quickly in the shade as the clouds passed over. The first half passed quickly and we arrived at Tower Bridge in good time and great shape. Halfway in 1:44:48. Very happy with that. Ahead of target, but not too much. Down towards docklands and the sight of the pace car and the mens’ elite runners heading in the other direction already as an inspiration.
Legs ok, pace steady, under the underpass and down into Docklands. In the old days, this used to be quiet with few spectators, but these days it is as busy as everywhere else. 16, 17 miles a little more effort and then into the nightmare that is Canary Wharf. By far my least favourite part of the course. Noisy, crowded, twisting back and forth; at the moment when the body is beginning to empty of energy, the course taunts you by turning away from the direction of home yet again and finally hits you with another hill.
At last on to Commercial Road and 20 miles is up. The 3:30 pacer is gone, but the first ‘half’ of the marathon is over. Now we’re into that second race. Just 6 miles and the months of training will deliver payback. That’s the theory. In reality the body is beginning to tire, muscles getting heavier, feet numb, everything is suddenly an effort. But no wall; Focus, breathe, keep your form, strength returning and on we go. The cheers from the crowd now switch from something to enjoy and acknowledge to ‘just leave me in peace’. At 22miles a major problem. I’ve somehow developed a stitch right in the centre of my diaphragm. Can’t breathe properly, tiring quickly. I’ve got to run through this and I know it won’t last, but can I get enough air in to keep going. For the first time I seriously consider stopping. Finally ½ mile up the road I just have to stop. I pump myself up and down at the waist to get some oxygen in. It’s enough to get me going again and after another couple of minutes I’m finally through it. Now it is gritted teeth time. I can do this. It hurts but I can keep going and I’m passing people all the way. A woman flies past shouting ‘only a parkrun to go’ and I grunt an acknowledgement in return. Colin Jackson is at the side of the road with a TV crew and gives me a smile and a thumbs up as I go past and that lifts my spirits ridiculously. 25 miles comes up and we’re into Parliament Square and that’s it. I’m really going to finish and it’s going to be a good time and somehow that second wind comes and Birdcage Walk is going by, but that 26 Mile marker is a long way off. And finally, round the corner and into the finishing straight, arms pumping, legs trailing, but it’s not far and then it will be all over. And it is. And I collapse over the line onto the shoulder of the woman with the biggest smile in the world and I’m too exhausted to even cry.
I am privileged to be met and hugged and walked through the finish by the SJ marshalls team, which simply makes it even more special and my finisher’s medal is hung on me by the woman with the next biggest smile in the world and I stagger off to the end of the world to find my bag and to try to take in what I’ve done.