The day dawned cloudy but dry for our fifth go at the distance and our second London Marathon. The new starting processes meant that we were able to get up and have breakfast at a much more user-friendly time than in 2016. This also had the added benefit of being able to get to Greenwich a lot later and with more runners going from different starts, the queues for the loos were drastically reduced in the Red wave. Although I gather the other colour waves weren’t quite so blessed in this respect.
Before long we were settled into the holding area for our pen and time to give ourselves a quick motivational talking too. With the experience of other Marathons behind us, I felt quite confident that I would be able to get around. However, I was much less sure how Sue would cope with her injury. It seemed inevitable that her knee would ‘go’ at some point – it was all about how she would manage the pain and keeping moving. I don’t mind telling you, I was worried, but Sue was adamant she was running.
In what seemed no time at all, compared to 2016, our wave – 16 – was called forward onto the course and we were being led to the start line for the off. It seemed to us to be a much better system than the usual hanging around and I really hope the London Marathon will keep it.
We set off together, but on different time strategies soon moved apart. I spotted a couple of people running for my charity – Alzheimer’s Research UK – just ahead and went off to chat to them. I already knew them from Facebook, so I wasn’t being a total weirdo.
I’d written the names of people close to me who had suffered or were currently living with dementia on the inside of my left arm, to provide inspiration during darker periods of the race. Despite using indelible ink, these began to smudge right from the off and I hadn’t even worked up a sweat yet!
An early boost came in the first mile where our good pal and local resident of the area, Colin, had come out to cheer us on. A little further down the road was his lovely partner Hannah bellowing encouragement with her usual gusto and volume.
Following my training revelation, I wanted to stick to a slower pace early on than in previous races, but even then, there is something about running in a crowd that seems to sweep you along faster than you had perhaps planned early doors. I’m a firm believer that you unconsciously program your brain to allocate resources for the distance facing you on any given day whether it’s a parkrun or Marathon. The thing I seem to struggle with is keeping to a sensible pace.
So after 5 miles I was a couple of minutes ahead of my target of 5mph. At that point, I was running with a lovely fella called Bryan (or Brypants as it said on his vest) who was also running for #ARUK. He told me that he’d read this blog when he’d been first accepted to run the Marathon to give himself some idea of what he’d let himself in for, although he didn’t say whether it had helped!
By this stage, the clouds had parted and the sun was beaming in a cloudless sky. I was worried about sunburn as I hadn’t applied any suncream as I normally do before a big run., however although it was bright, the sun really wasn’t that warm. The Marathon had laid on several street showers and sprays around the course – not something I remembered from 2016. And at least this time the water didn’t stink to high heaven as it had done in the Big Half we ran back in August.
Around mile six, I saw Colin – now joined by our mate Wags – cheering me on with beers in their hand. What no cheeky half for me, lads? I demanded a gulp from each of theirs and COVID be damned! I’d pounced before they had time to object and further demanded they deliver three points from the Palace game that afternoon or there would be consequences!
They were waiting to see Sue before hi-tailing it to Selhurst (of course, Palace were playing on London Marathon day, it’s practically the law – still sodding annoying though). I hoped that they wouldn’t have to wait too long. I found out later that she had only been a couple of minutes behind me at this point, so not only were they were able to get to the ground in time, they even had time for a couple more pre-match liveners.
Rounding the Cutty Sark, I managed to get myself on the box again. That’s two out of two for London Marathons!
Once out of Greenwich, at the next water station, it was time for my first planned recovery walk and to take on liquids and a gel. A little check-in with myself, yup, everything feeling good. Onwards to Surrey Quays, where Sue’s Mum and Dad had popped up to cheer us on. Whilst it’s not my favourite part of the course, I was still feeling fresh and, despite the walking, still bang-on target pace at the 10 mile mark (well, 43 seconds over, but who’s counting). A few choruses of “Beckenham, Beckenham” as I passed by Fisher FCs ground had the marshalls there looking puzzled and made me giggle to myself.
Next big landmark was Tower Bridge, almost at the halfway stage. I spotted Bryan just a little bit ahead and felt I should run across with a fellow ARUK runner for the photo, if nothing else. The Bridge itself was the usual minefield of people stopping abruptly to take selfies of themselves on the bridge, but we both got across OK. The halfway marker appeared soon after we turned right and saw the faster runners coming the other way, well into their last six miles. It’s a weirdly encouraging and inspiring sight – you try to imagine yourself being there soon… ish.
On halfway, another personal inventory, a few aches and stiffness but in fairly good fettle. I checked my watch as I passed the marker, 2hr 40m – slower than both my previous London race (2hr 36 and much slower that my York time 2:28). Decision time: there was no way that a Marathon PB was on the cards and that was never on my radar anyway, however, a London PB – despite being slower at this point was a definite possibility. When I’d run London before, the second half of my race was slow and horrible after shin cramps set in at 20 miles. It took me 3hr 8mins.
I figured that I should target 3 hours for the second half of the race and that would bring me home at 5hr 40min, which would be comfortably inside my previous London time. I knew from my training experiments, that this would also allow for some sensible run/walk intervals, in fact, I calculated that I could actually start now, so I ‘rewarded’ myself with a quarter of a mile brisk walk at the end of mile 13.
And so my trudge around Docklands and Canary Wharf was carefully governed by my watch. Well, I say carefully, just as I started a walking interval, I spotted Hannah again with a friend, I quickly started running again hoping they hadn’t noticed. My legs certainly appreciated the walking intervals and I fell into step with a fellow Palace fan, running for the Palace for Life Foundation in a red and blue shirt based on this year’s home shirt– the same charity that we’d supported last October on our Marathon March.
We recognised each other, as you do as fans who go regularly, but I couldn’t quite put a name to him and he didn’t have it on his vest. Nevertheless, he was using a similar walk/run strategy, so we had a good Palace chat which broke up the monotony of the docklands area. Sadly, so many of the pubs that had given such tremendous support and character to the area in 2016 have gone, replaced by yuppie flats.
We were running close to a couple of lads dressed as Minions. Their costumes looked bulky and ungainly. My Palace pal told me he’d asked one of them earlier: ‘How can you run 26 miles dressed in that?’ to which the reply came: ‘Well, how can you run 26 miles dressed like that? I’m a Brighton fan!’
The wind had been getting steadily more stronger through Docklands, more than once, my running cap was almost whipped off my head. The wind-tunnel effect created by the skyscrapers at Canary Wharf exacerbated this problem and it seemed to be getting rather darker.
One of the ARUK cheerpoints was in this area and I took a little bit of time out to thank them for the amazing noise and support they, and all the other ARUK cheerpoints had shown us. And they had sweeties!
Once out in the open, we finally got a decent view of the skyscrapers, however, what lay behind them was what caught the eye. The sky was pitch black and you could see rain lashing down from the cloud front. It looked like something out of Ghostbusters and uh-oh… it’s heading this way. With no-one to call, it was case of gritting your teeth and getting on with it as the heavens split open, the wind became frenzied and a biblical deluge ensued.
Although it passed quickly, all the runners, myself included, were soaked to the skin. I had to laugh when just as the downpour ended a sign saying ‘Showers Ahead’ appeared. “A bit bloody late for that” I thought. The rain did also make me reconsider my thoughts around 18 miles that maybe I could get used to the Marathon lark, By Mile 21: soaking wet, feeling cold and decidedly stiff and ache-y in places, I remembered that I’m really not a Marathon natural.
Time to break out my usual weapon to get me home: the Playlist! Just as was fiddling with my damp phone, intending to check on Sue’s progress via the app and also look at the latest Palace score, I heard a shout from the sidelines. It was Hannah again – this time she really had caught me walking and very slowly. All embarrassed, I stuffed the phone in my pocket, waved sheepishly and started to run on without having checked on Sue or Palace.
Even though, my music was in play, I still managed to have nice chats with Bryan and Helen, another ARUK Runner I’d previously met at the meet-up. I also ran for a while with my Palace pal and as a result someone told us that Palace had drawn 2-2. I resolved to have a words with Wags and Colin later.
I was quite tired in those final miles, but still by stuck to my equal walk/run plan to get me home with a London PB. Just after mile 25, John and Sheila popped up as I was running with Helen and I knew I was going to get that London PB.
The noise of the crowd in those last two miles was utterly insane. I couldn’t hear my music over the deafening encouragement. This was several levels above 2016, although seemingly coming from less people. I began to stride out for the line with a mile to go, but a couple of twinges from my calf along Birdcage Walk, reminded me not to blow it now. About 100 yards later I spotted an official LM cameraman and I was off again. My Marathon Photos from the later stages of 2016 show me walking along with a thoroughly miserable expression on my face. I was determined to get some better ones this time.
Rounding the corner in front of Buckingham Palace onto the Mall, the DJ at the line was conducting the grandstand crowd in a lusty rendition of Sweet Caroline when abruptly in mid-chorus the song suddenly stopped. “Oh well, that’s gone wrong” said the DJ “We’ll have to try this one…” as the unmistakeable opening brassy riff of Y.M.C.A. blasted out.
I nearly came to a dead stop just metres from the finish line. They were playing Mum’s favourite song. The one I was singing to her just before she passed away last year and we played at her funeral… I completely lost it. I crossed the line bawling my eyes out. So much for my finish line photos this year. The co-incidence was just too much to bear (blimey, I’m crying again now just writing about it). I’m really not one for spiritualism or contact from ‘the other side’, but that was just too uncanny: “Young Man, there’s no need to feel down…”
As soon as I got through the Finish Line funnels and my phone found some reception, I was checking on Sue. I was feeling more than a bit guilty about not checking before now. The tears prickled again, this time with pride, when I saw that she was on the final mile herself. Her knee had held up, after all and despite her injury, she was only two minutes shy of her last London time at 6hrs 3 mins. Amazing. She truly is a force of nature.
I’d forgotten to stop my own watch on the line, for understandable reasons, so had to look on the app for my official time. I couldn’t help but laugh when I saw my time was 5hr 40min and 56 secs. Not just because I’d achieved my goal of a London PB, but because my official halfway time was listed next to it: 2hr 40min 57 secs. I was a single second quicker than the 3 hour target I’d set for myself. Maybe I can program myself for pace as well as distance.
As we were running for separate charities and thus, had different after parties to go to, I didn’t get to see Sue for around an hour and half. ARUK put on a fabulous event, I had a much-needed massage and plate of food, whilst chatting to a host of other members of the ARUK facebook group including the lovely Sandra and the legend that is Stuart. We reflected on the length of the COVID-interrupted journey to get to the finish and how it had ultimately been so worth it.
It was a real privilege and honour to run for my amazing charity: Kelly Holliday and Aimee Jepson, my main contacts, were fantastic in every way, as was everybody else I met along the way. I would not hesitate to recommend them to anyone who has ambitions to run the London Marathon, whether you get lucky in the ballot, or not. Sue and I finally met up in the bar at her hotel next to Charing Cross station and along with John and Sheila, always our most staunch supporters in all of our running endeavours, we enjoyed a glass or two to celebrate our achievements.