I thought I’d leave it a few days to sink in before writing the final blog as it was a bit of a blur on the day. Plus I’ve only just found the energy to get anything done! The photo above is me crossing the finish line, although unfortunately you can’t really see the finish line. That was 4 hours and 28 minutes after crossing the start line, and 11 weeks after getting my place in the marathon. While the weeks have gone by quickly, I have squeezed in a lot of training and was surprised how far I’d come. In fact after completing one marathon in training and finishing a half-marathon in 1:48 the week before, I thought I might have an outside chance of a sub-4 hour marathon. I realise just how difficult that is now, especially in London.
The days before the marathon were tough enough, sticking to the tapering and carb-loading, but not exactly feeling fresh and fit. I was looking forward to getting started, but just couldn’t sleep the two nights before the race. That’s pretty much been the way with every vaguely important event, be it exams, sport, holidays, interviews, so I usually go into these things half asleep. I didn’t feel worried the night before, I wasn’t even thinking about the marathon, but as each hour went by I realised it was one hour less sleep…until it was 6am and I gave up. I partly blame Saints for sending me to bed angry.
I don’t know if that had an impact or not, hopefully with a few more events and more experience I’ll be able to rest more effectively. I spent 20 minutes on the train to Greenwich with my eyes closed and marched like a zombie through the crowds towards the park. Uphill too, with a surprising number of people looking fairly worn out. As an late entrant due to someone else dropping out, I never got to give an estimated finish time, so I was starting in pen 9 of the red zone. That’s the back for anyone not familiar with the system! The 9th and final pen, appropriately named given that this is where most the people dressed as animals start. Also, while nice to see the 101 year-old runner in real life, it wasn’t a beacon of hope for my finishing time.
Prior to the race I’d worried about not being able to run through such big crowds and seeing just how many people were in front of me suggested I was right. It was slightly surreal, hearing the race start at 9.45am for our zone, then very slowly edging forward knowing we were still a long way from the start line. I nearly drifted off in this time, while hundreds seized the chance for another toilet break. Suddenly without much warning or announcement because we were just ‘the rest’, the start line was in sight and people began to jog. That was a full 20 minutes after the ‘start’.
Immediately I tried to overtake as many people as possible, running off course several times. It’s frustrating having a lot of energy and not being able to use it. In training you learn to understand your pacing, when you can push it and when to hold back, but you never experience having your pace controlled by others. The pen system is far from perfect, with many people starting a long way in front walking after a few minutes. In fact there seemed to be quite a queue for the toilets in the first mile too. I’m proud to say I made it through the whole marathon with no toilet breaks, although did have to endure the long queue for the temporary toilets at the start line.
Being so focused on the time that first hour or so is quite hazy. I didn’t notice where I was, each street looking the same packed with crowds. Mainly, my eyes were just so fixed on people in front, ensuring I didn’t run into anyone, looking where I could overtake and so on. I’ve never been very good in crowds; something that stupidly didn’t hit me until the day before the marathon. I’ve found all busy events mentally draining and felt quite twitchy the whole time. It can put you off events, and at times I start to think this isn’t for me, I shouldn’t put myself through it, but I don’t want to miss out and there’s still a chance it will improve with experience. I think it’s having to focus mixed with fast movement, crowds of people, lots of distractions; my brain doesn’t seem able to handle it! That’s why I’ve always struggled to play football in proper games and avoided it most the time. I’d be quite good when relaxed but poor in matches and unable to cope visually with the fast movements in so many directions. It’s not an easy one to explain so I’ll get back to the marathon now!
The extent of my weaving in and out became clear when my watch register 10 miles 5 minutes before I crossed the 10-mile line. At that point I was just eager to get halfway and see what sort of time I had managed. Getting to Tower Bridge just before that was a nice moment as I hadn’t been paying much attention to my surroundings. The crowds grew bigger and louder, and I didn’t even notice the uphill running. It is quite daunting to know you have 10 miles just to get all the way back to that position again, and it felt like a lifetime, although just having half the marathon behind you can be quite comforting. The Mind cheering points always helped, especially just after half way, but even more so on the way back. I’m not sure if the below picture is at 13 miles or 22 miles, and you’re probably not sure what the hell I’m doing with my hands. Try to hold a bottle of water, clap, wave and run all at the same time, you’ll see. It also appears like I can’t spell my own name, but I assure you the ‘I’ is just hiding.
Besides the weaving around people and spectators, the main hazard was the several hundred thousand bottles on the roads throughout the course. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and while you can be careful and avoid most, I imagine everyone nearly went flying at some stage. There’s probably no better system when hydration is so important, although far too many people take a sip then throw the bottle aside nearly full. I did that myself when needing water and receiving Lucozade late on. I’ve trained with the stuff for months, yet on the day it was tasting fairly terrible. The energy gels too didn’t have the desired effect either despite training with them for so long. Perhaps I didn’t use enough or used them at the wrong times, but I never received that helpful burst of energy from the caffeine! Perhaps the weather made it more difficult. While I’d been hoping the wind and rain would stop, I wasn’t expecting 5 hours of sun! It did brighten up the atmosphere and crowds, made for better photos and kept people smiling, but I could have done with some drizzle a couple of times!
I was going to suggest slipping on a bottle of water and crashing into a fence was the closest I came to injury during the race, but actually like many other people that was probably the moment I spent running directly in front of the guys in rhino costumes. One sudden stop from the person in front and I’d have been skewered by a precariously placed horn. The quickest I ran all day was probably when I saw a chance to get out the way.
Reaching the half way point in just over 2 hours felt frustrating at the time as I knew I could be a lot faster. I’d had the energy to do it but just struggled through the crowds, which showed little sign of spreading out. If I had any chance of 4 hours, I needed a confidence boost there of knowing I could slow a little late on. Although I maintained my pace for a couple of miles, I began to tire quite a lot. After some slow miles I declined to near walking pace and really struggled around Canary Wharf, where I seemed to be for hours and don’t especially want to see again until next year! In fact I think 18-20 miles was the most difficult section of the entire race. Just knowing how much I’d slowed made it feel worse, seeing that finish time grow more and more. My mindset changed soon after halfway though and I stopped worrying about speed, focusing on merely keeping going. I probably took a lot more in at this stage and enjoyed it more despite the pain.
I chatted to a few runners, listened to the crowds more and soaked up the atmosphere. I’d always thought 4 or 5 hours of music would be too much and I quickly tired of it. In fact, upbeat music just seems to be mocking you when you’re hobbling along at 3 miles per hour. Although a few crowd members shouting ‘you’re nearly there’ at 16 miles while sat holding a beer didn’t do much for motivation either. 10.2 miles to go is never ‘nearly there’. There was a surprisingly number of people cooking on the side of the streets too. Running through barbecue smoke wasn’t something I’d trained for, or burger vans. I noticed the Guardian picked an appropriately harsh photo to capture such moments (see below).
My slightly injured knee was never an issue during the marathon; nor was my broken toe. Those two problems had caused pain on the longest training runs and were the only suffering when I ran a full practice marathon. So I wasn’t ready for the immense pain in my feet, from the sole going right through the centre, hurting more with every stride. It might sound obvious, pounding the pavements for hours, yet I’ve never had any foot pain despite running further, faster and in the same shoes. After two hours it was agony and I just had to put it out my mind, but I’m still confused as to why it happened.
By 22 miles and seeing the Mind supporters again I felt like the end was in sight. At least it’s pretty much a straight line to the finish from that point. Blackfriars Underpass was particularly memorable, with almost everyone taking a break and walking while the crowds couldn’t see. It was dark, quiet and with hundreds of people struggling to walk, a bit like Shaun of the Dead.
Those last few miles I kept checking my watch, keen to beat 4 hours 30 and aware it was going to be close. That helped me to keep running and pick up the pace slightly, especially towards the very end. The main thought was just to keep moving and that every stride was one nearer the finish line. I recall being 5km from the finish and thinking how quickly I normally run that distance. Despite never slowing from this point, it was my slowest 5km of all time! Seeing Parliament and turning onto the final stretch was a huge relief. I couldn’t believe it when I saw the finish line; it comes up round the corner from Birdcage Walk quicker than I’d expected. As with most my running events, I sprinted towards the line proving I hadn’t used up all my energy and am clearly a lazy runner! I finished in 4:28:03, which despite my struggles I was delighted with for a first marathon with such a short training period. If anyone doesn’t believe me, here’s the certificate!
I struggled to take it all in at that stage, spending the next 15 minutes queuing for the tags to come off, medals and then getting out the finishers zone. Helpfully they make you walk up a ramp to cut the tag off your shoes, which took some effort. In my mind I’d spend the hour or so after the finish celebrating, taking photos, soaking up the atmosphere and talking to other runners. In reality I was shepherded away from the finish area, stood at the side of the road in a daze and failed to get a signal on my phone. I then stumbled like a drunk snail to Trafalgar Square, where I sat on the floor by a statue and had kids climbing over me for 20 minutes as they tried to reach the lion. It wasn’t the relaxing quiet time I needed, but my legs decided to stay put. I closed my eyes and heard a lady shout at her son ‘don’t kick the man’s head he’s just run a marathon’.
As with some other events my intention to never ever run again didn’t last long and I’m eager to take part in the marathon again. I can definitely improve on my time, which is one motivation, but having experience of the day and less stress would help me make the most of it. If I can’t take part I’ll certainly go along and watch, maybe at a charity cheering point, which you really appreciate when you’re running. It’s an event worth being part of in any way you can, so even better if you can support a charity.
I struggled to walk most of Monday and Tuesday, but almost feel ready to run again now. Despite my pain on the day, throughout the whole training regime and marathon I had no blisters, no broken toenails and no chaffing at all, so I’ve been quite lucky. Besides being pleased with the marathon itself, I’m delighted to have raised £1,930 for Mind. It’s still not too late to donate if you haven’t yet, or if you just want to reward my wonderful efforts even more! The Saints Foundation kindly donated a signed pennant to auction so I may yet get over £2000, but it would be great if you could help me get there too. I have until 22nd May to keep the total rising if you do want to help. The money will do a lot of good supporting people with mental health problems and hopefully raising awareness further. I’ve only brushed the surface of mental health throughout this blog, but I hope just regularly writing about it has raised awareness a little and made a few people think.
Appropriately, given my cause and post-marathon blues, this is National Depression Awareness Week. What better time to bring my blog to an end and again highlight the benefits of exercise in fighting depression. Well over 200 people ran for Mind in the marathon, raising vital funds and helping to fight mental health stigma. You won’t see a better example of the stigma and bewildering ignorance surrounding mental health than Channel 4 this week helpfully broadcasting the views of dark-age lunatic Malcolm Bowden. He tells us depression and all other mental illnesses is a ‘behavioural problem, rooted in pride, self-centeredness and self-pity’ and that ‘true Christians should not be depressed’. I’ve made it through 11 weeks of blog without swearing (a big achievement in itself) so I won’t start now. Thankfully most people aren’t as relentlessly moronic as Malcolm, but while idiots are given such a platform, more idiots will follow and stigma will remain. Depression isn’t about being selfish; it’s not even often about something specific related to your life. Life can be going well or terribly, you might be rich or poor, employed or not but depression can still strike you down. You’re more likely to just feel numb and unable to imagine being happy, rather than bemoaning what you don’t have. It may be tough, a dark lonely place, but it can be the price of consciousness, introspection and complexity. When it comes to the likes of Malcolm, ignorance is definitely bliss. Rethink did complain to Ofcom, but that probably just leads to further publicity for Channel 4, which is its primary focus. The main way to fight it is to increase awareness of the facts, to help mental health charities with funds, support and time and to discuss your own problems and experiences.
Let’s end on a more positive note at least. Training for the marathon and raising money for Mind has been a brilliant opportunity for me, boosting my physical and mental health, providing an important goal to aim for and something to be proud of. Many of you have offered advice, support and donated so thank you one last time. That’s one last time after the crudely drawn effort above as I thought everyone deserved another individual mention. Plus it’s a chance to see my lovely medal, which felt even heavier after 26.2 miles of running. Additional thanks to those working at Mind for their support and help in the build-up to the big day, in fundraising and at the various cheering points.
I’m not sure what my next running event will be but I have plenty of goals to aim for: 1:45 in a half marathon; 1:20 in the Great South Run; and of course, a sub-4 hour marathon. I’m not especially trying to impress anyone with my times, I love the sport because you can compete against yourself, making it an accessible challenge for people of all levels. I’m so far behind the top runners I can’t even be jealous so much as amazed…and slightly suspicious they may be a different species. I’d recommend running and the London marathon to anyone, and any other challenge for charity for that matter.
Registration for the 2013 London marathon opens on Monday 30th April if anyone wants to join in next year. I’ll happily read your blog all about it.