I have an easy way of remembering the last time I competed in the London Marathon.
It was in 1999. My nephew Samuel was just over six months old and I recall getting a little emotional running along the Embankment when I heard my sister shout out “Do it for Sam”.
Sam is starting University in September, so it has been 18 years since my last jog around the streets of London.
I have a bittersweet relationship with our Nation’s capital. I lived there for a year in the early 1990s, it was sort of fun for a single guy in his mid-twenties. I drank a lot of beer and made a few mates, yet I felt strangely anonymous and ‘otherly’ during most of my time there. It felt like I was observing everybody else living their lives whilst waiting to live mine. I don’t miss it.
However, it’s a magnificent place to visit for a day or two. You can devour its delights without allowing the negative aspects to grind you down.
My London training has not gone to plan. I wanted to average a minimum of 50 miles per week during January, rising to 60 miles per week in February and March. I calculate that would have totaled 880 miles from January 1st until the taper.
I have actually run 680 miles – just 77% of the target and I missed my final two 20 mile+ runs because of injury niggles.
The one thing I have learned about the sport of running is that you cannot fake it. If you don’t do the training, you won’t get the results.
Knowing that I was a bit under-cooked, I wasn’t expecting a personal best time on Sunday. I still hoped for a time comfortably below three hours and if forced to give an honest prediction of my finishing time, I would have said 2:57. That would equate to an average pace of 6:45 per mile.
My plan was to try to run 6 minutes 40 seconds per mile for as long as possible. Hopefully, that would feel quite easy for the first half and when the inevitable heavy legs arrived in the second part of the race, the decay in my running pace wouldn’t be too catastrophic.
Back in the autumn at the Yorkshire marathon, I went out at an aggressive 6:30 pace, I held it for around 22 miles, but when the slow down came it was calamitous, with the last mile taking me 7 minutes 40 seconds. I thought I was in better shape back then.
There were over twenty of my Valley Strider teammates running in London and I met some of them along with a few other local runners at Andy Wicks’s excellent pre-marathon Pasta ‘n’ Puds party in Leeds on the preceding Thursday evening.
I broke the rule about not running hard during the final taper week. I went for two fairly brisk training runs of around 10 miles each at something approaching marathon pace.
It was a risk that seemed to pay off. For the first time in several weeks, running felt good – I had that gratifying feeling of ‘clipping along’ that tells me I’m in decent nick…
We were staying in Whitechapel, a reasonable multi-cultural part of East London, next to the Royal London Hospital. We had a pre-marathon dinner at a trendy Italian Café-bar amongst the hipsters of Shoreditch/Bethnal Green/Hackney. Amongst a mass of beards and fawning PR types, I never quite worked out exactly where we were.
I was cruelly reminded that I was in trendy London when relieved of nearly twelve quid in a pub in exchange for two pints of some kind of shandy variant. For a few seconds, I felt slightly nauseous.
I was running from the ‘Fast Good for Age’ Start. This meant I could enjoy a dedicated smaller start area with only 10 minute toilet queues. The start corral was at the very front of the Red Start. It appeared to be a completely woman-free zone.
The hour waiting for the start passed pleasantly – I made a new friend in the toilet queue and then bumped into Andrew from Valley Striders.
Whilst meditating in the portaloo I had a little giggle to myself. Some wag had scrawled “The Evil that Men poo…” in marker pen on the inside of the door. They have a superior class of graffiti vandalism in London.
The race started at 10.00 a.m. Well it did for the Blue and Green Starts, but for some unexplained reason, we were held for around eighty seconds at the Red Start. The gun was eventually fired and I was across the start line in about 15-20 seconds. I was able to settle into something like my proper race pace within a half a mile or so.
The third and fourth miles are significantly downhill, consequently I ran them in under 6 minute 20 seconds each. Indeed, although I felt like I was barely going faster than jogging, by Cutty Sark at 6.5 miles, I was about a minute ahead of my 6:40 target pace.
The noise was cacophonous around the old Clipper and I appeared to be stuck in a bit of a traffic jam. I looked ahead and saw balloons belonging to the Blue three hour pacer. Blimey, he’s a bit quick, I thought to myself – a few of his flock are going to blow to pieces later in the race.
Once I managed to manoeuvre myself around the pacing group, there was more space to run freely. I really enjoyed the next section approaching Tower Bridge. The sun was out, running felt comfortable and I was looking forward to seeing some friends and supporters stationed between miles 13 and 15.
I passed halfway in 1:26:41 (2:53:20 pace). Despite frequently reminding myself to run conservatively in the first half, I was still about one minute too fast.
I saw Liz in the crowds at Westferry at exactly where she said she would be. She thrust three little packets of salt into my hand as I passed – I’d been panicking that morning when I couldn’t find my salt tablets and I was paranoid about suffering cramps. Liz’s purloined little Pret salt sachets may have been a life-saver.
Back in 1999, the section after halfway through the Isle of Dogs was still a bit of a pre-gentrification wasteland, a dead spot virtually devoid of spectators. Not anymore, there were people at the roadside virtually the whole way.
This photo was taken by John Rainsforth at around the 16 mile mark:
Just before reaching the Canary Wharf area, I was caught by mate Tim from Valley Striders. He had run from a different start to me. Tim has been running very strongly this year, usually beating me by a few seconds at most races. However, he said that he wasn’t feeling great. We ran together for a couple of miles. (Photo Kathy Robbins)
Mentally I had told myself to really hold back until 20.5 miles, where I hoped to see Liz for the second time. I wanted to run strongly over the last six miles and hopefully pick up a lot of places.
With Tim alongside me, I made a mistake and pressed the pedal too early. We had slowed a bit around Canary Wharf. The course is very twisty around there with a few subtle inclines, so I should not have fretted about a 6:50 mile.
I covered the next mile, the twentieth, in 6:22. I saw Liz as planned for the second time at Westferry; she gave me my second gel. I was still going well and passing lots of runners as we ran past the Tower Hill area.
My hubris bit back at me very quickly. On the incline out of the tunnel on Lower Thames Street my legs started to feel very heavy and all of a sudden running felt laboured. I did the old ‘its only a parkrun to go’ thing in my head.
To be honest, that’s not much use because one doesn’t normally start a parkrun feeling absolutely shattered with 23 marathon-paced miles in the legs.
I was securely on board the pain train and I tried playing other mental games, imploring myself to do it for loved ones and summoning up the mantra of Zatopek…when it hurts, go faster…
This time, Zatopek didn’t help at all. I was getting slower – not by much – but my mental affirmations could not arrest the deceleration. Mile 25 took me 6:56. I admonished myself : I refuse to have a 7 minute mile ruin my Strava record.
I turned towards the Corridors of Power – past Whitehall, the Houses of Parliament, and along Birdcage Walk towards Buckingham Palace. The last mile seemed to take an eternity.
Up to 23 miles, I thought that I was definitely on for a PB, however, with my pace slowing and the fact that I was going to run well over distance I realised that the PB was now touch and go.
I summoned up everything I had on the final long sweeping turn past Buckingham Palace into The Mall and tried to raise a heavy-legged sprint over the last 200 metres. Just as my eyes focused on the finish line clock, I saw it tick past my PB time of 2:55.08…oh bugger, I muttered to myself.
My finishing time was 2:55:21, so I missed the PB by 13 seconds. I had run 26.4 miles according to my Garmin, and my average pace of 6:37 mile represents my best marathon performance by quite a margin.
Although I slowed a little in the last 5K and ran a 90 sec positive split, I stilled passed many more runners than passed me near the end:
I finished in 1279th place out of 38,070 finishers (excluding the Gorilla man who is still crawling the course as I write this), and 57th out of 2285 in my age category.
Given my fractured and inconsistent training, I was delighted with the time and I really enjoyed the race.
It was great fun meeting up with my Valley Strider mates after the race:
Afterwards, we staggered up to a pub near Leicester Square and sunk a few hard earned over-priced ales.
The London Marathon did not disappoint. If you haven’t done it, then you should, its ace. Just don’t go to the Expo on the Saturday afternoon like I did, unless you like very crowded spaces and queuing a lot that is.
I still haven’t run my ultimate marathon performance…I really hope that will be in Chester on October 8th wearing a red and white England vest.