It’s not a parkrun apparently. Lessons from the Virgin London Marathon expo 2017

Digested read.  I went to the London Marathon expo. There were lots of talks and stands.  It was great.  I learned a lot.  Specifically, the London marathon is not quite like a parkrun.  Being in London for the build up to the big day is a) exciting and b) recommended.

How exciting!  Off to London today, not to see the Queen, which is an opportunity I could take or leave to be honest, but way more exciting than that.  Off to London to get to the London Marathon expo.  Yay.  What insights and adventures awaited me I had little idea, but I can report it did not disappoint.

Some of the excitement began on the coach trip from Sheffield.  In fact it was retrospectively uneventful.  However, I’d got on ‘the fright seat’ at the front.  I like this seat as you get a great view, but the downside is that great view an expose you to scary driving that is bad for the nerves.  One driver on this trip, the guy who took over at Chesterfield, had a habit of giving a running commentary of everything that was going on in his head.  I genuinely have no idea if he realised he was saying everything out loud, but it was a bit disconcerting.  Like when Gollum starts rambling in the Lord of the Rings, it’s unsettling because you don’t really know what’s going on.  Anyway, this driver, was perfectly friendly, professional and competent, but even so, his repeated commands to himself to ‘just concentrate’ and ‘need to concentrate’ and ‘stay awake now’ didn’t build confidence.  Likewise his low whistles of horror at the exploits of other road users focused the mind.  It wasn’t the most restful of voyages!

The drive was OK though.  Once we got to London itself I started to feel a growing sense of anticipation. It’s ages sine I’ve got a coach to the city, you go right past famous landmarks, Swiss Cottage Pub, Hyde Park (I think) wonderful buildings, impressive statues.  I eyed up my other travelers hoping to spot ‘fellow marathoners’ but it wasn’t that easy to tell.   Alighting at Victoria (is there any other context that we use the word ‘alight’ I wonder?).  It’s a short hike from the coach station to the tube, it’s only about 7 minutes but not well signed.  Then short ride to Gloucester Street and I found my hotel.  It is waaaaaaaaaaaay posher than any I’ve ever stayed in before, and even though I wasn’t quite posh enough for it, and did feel a bit intimidated, I got over that and made it in.  I was greeted warmly as someone who had booked in on the ‘marathon package’ I had, so I didn’t go into a lengthy explanation about having to defer.   However, I did wonder if the receptionist – who has presumably be trained to betray no judgement or emotion on her face at all in such situations – was doubting my performance potential as an athlete capable of completing the challenge in two days time.  To be fair, she had a point.  No words were exchanged.  I made my way to my third floor room at the back of the hotel. I’d requested a quiet one overlooking the garden at the rear, and that’s what I got.  Fancy complimentary toiletries too.  Yay.  Classy.

I dumped my stuff, opened and closed every draw and cupboard in the room and ate the complimentary biscuits before heading straight out again to get to the expo.  For this journey the tube was heaving, noisy and overwhelming. It was sensory overload, and I felt really dehydrated. Wouldn’t fancy having to do this the day before a marathon, it’s quite exhausting, well I found it to be anyway.  It was mid afternoon on Friday, and as I boarded the tube to get to the Excel arena, there was an ever-growing mass of runners making the same trek.  By the time I got off the tube at the arena, the platform was heaving.  Those of us just getting off were disoriented and blinking uncertainly in the daylight unsure where to go.  On the other side, runners who’d already finished at the expo were being herded down the platform to get them out. They were clutching their standard issue see-through London marathon kit-bags and wearing slightly anxious smiles.   A few were laden with last-minute emergency purchases or possibly impulse buys.  Some had little entourages of friends and family with them.  Definitely this marathon malarkey was becoming real!  Eek.  And I wasn’t even running it!

Those of us disembarking were urged to keep on moving through without even scanning our Oyster cards, I did wonder if that might be a mistake, but they didn’t want anyone pausing on the way through.  Maybe as you have to go back the same way as you arrive it sorts itself out.  I have no idea.  Anyway, for anyone worried about navigating, it was very easy to find. You just head over the bridge to the main arena, there  are loads of signs and anyway, you simply follow the migrating herd.  However, even though I wasn’t worried about getting lost, I was astounded at just how huge this cavernous arena is.  It’s enormous!  Should have worn my TomTom, you walk miles and miles to get to the main Marathon expo.  En route, I realised to my consternation and regret that I had apparently missed out on the  StoneShow. That’s the thing about London, so many opportunities.  You appreciate the scale of this space though when you consider the Marathon Expo, which had to cope with over 40,000 runners and their associates, was just one small part of this massive events venue.  Overwhelming. Truthfully, yes. On the plus side though, there are lots of loos, and signs and refreshments available – though, perhaps inevitably, the options were expensive.  I wish I’d brought loads more water with me.  I balk at £2 for a small bottle of water, but was increasingly desperate, and succumbed eventually.  I’d rather pay £2 than damage my kidneys at the end of the day.

Eventually, I made it to the Expo Hall.  The organisation was incredibly slick.  Yes the crowds are huge, but as it’s one way through the expo and the signage is pretty good you can’t miss the key things you need to do.  So first off you are met with a huge wall of signed booths from where you can get your number.  There was a help desk too, and a separate area signed for overseas runners to register.  It was dark, and vast.  The best analogy I can think of is to imagine yourself in one of the massive space ships that you see in sci-fi films, that carry whole colonies of people to populate new planets post Armageddon on earth.  There is the same sense of no natural light, and a mass of people in a very hard-edged synthetic space.  Not threatening, but definitely strange and alien.

So once you’ve got your number, you move through into the exhibition hall.  To do so you have to go through one of a number of narrow entrances (like at a tube station), at each of which was sat someone issuing timing tags.  This way, a runner would have to work quite hard to miss getting their tag, though I daresay some must.    You are then spat into the exhibition itself.  I don’t know what I was expecting exactly.  I suppose I was hoping for freebies and bargains. Honestly, I didn’t see much of that.  What you do see though, are trade stands from just about every organisation linked to running you can possibly imagine.  You could definitely pick up any forgotten items hear from specialist gels to compression shots.  Shoe companies were showing off newly launched products.   Whether or not they had event offers I’m not sure. Personally I wouldn’t buy running shoes at this kind of event.  I prefer to support, and get objective advice from, my local independent running shops. Frontrunner and Accelerate in Sheffield have both given me excellent help and support in the past, and have a wider range of products to draw on than these single brand outlets.  I’d burn with shame if seen by them to be wearing trainers or other gear sourced elsewhere.  It’s the independent shops and local running clubs that have helped get me going running wise, I don’t want to have my head turned by the glitz of an expo that will disappear like a vanishing magic kingdom in a puff of smoke come the end of the weekend.  Where would I go for advice if I don’t support the grass roots people who know the ropes and routes of running in South Yorkshire?  Even so, no harm in looking eh?  I wandered through the strange parallel universe eyes a-pop.  I didn’t buy any London Marathon souvenir clothing, it would have felt wrong as I’m not running but it was fun checking out all the sights on offer.

As well as all the sports gear stands, there were some running related organisations with pitches.  I found the Trail Running Association, who I’ve not heard of before, and said a bit too loudly to them (given the context) ‘I hate running on roads‘.  Fortunately others at the expo were too preoccupied with their own marathon challenges to take time out to lynch me for such speaking such sacrilege, so that was good.  Other stands were promoting international marathons and some at home too.  It is tempting, you get swept up in it all even though I  can barely manage 10k at the moment myself, and even that isn’t pretty.  It’s the atmosphere and buzz of it all, and affirmation of seeing runners everywhere.  Ten a penny in this venue marathoners.

I continued my ambling about.   A couple of displays had enormous course maps up with suggested viewing points which was handy.  Also though they brought home that, you know what, 26.2 miles is a very long way to run.   One of the maps was on the floor, so I was able to locate my personal cheer point. I’m volunteering with Shelter around the 25 mile mark.  I stood on it for a little while by way of practise.  I didn’t practice the clapping and cheering though, saving my voice and hands for the big day.  All of the charities with runners had their own stands too, so I went to say hi to the Shelter gang. They were friendly and welcoming so that was good.  They were also supportive of my intention to do a bit of moonlighting by shouting for other runners I know, as well as of course the Shelter team on Sunday.  That’s good.  Wouldn’t want to be drummed out of my lovely Smiley Paces club for dereliction of support duties.  It is a FACT that all Smiley Paces members put on a power surge if they hear a shout of ‘Go Smiley‘ when out running.  They don’t even have to be at an event, just espied whilst tackling the trails of Sheffield. It’s like an involuntary Pavlovian reflex, you hear the shout aside or behind and you start to sprint.  If someone standing at the finish is brandishing a raspberry pavlova that makes us run faster too, but it isn’t so practical an option whilst I’m standing somewhere on the Embankment.  Anyway, it means that clearly I am duty bound to do as much of that shouting as I can. Be it for Smileys, or be it for Shelter cometh the marathon hour cometh my supportive shrieking.  I’m so pleased to be volunteering.  I think I’d be have by now been consumed by my own seething petty jealousy at not being able to run otherwise. This way, I can still feel part of the occasion, and it’s the ultimate recce for London Marathon 2018 too!  That’s the theory anyway. You’ll have to wait  year to find out if it actually helps.

Circling the displays I found a random logo where you could write supportive messages to runners.  Despite the only limited crayon choices I had a go at scribing something for Sheffielders.  Not the most creative of graffiti art, but they do say it’s the thought that counts.  I was really hoping someone might discover it spontaneously, but in fact when I did rendezvous with my running Smiley buddy, I dragged her across to admire it.  She was suitably appreciative though, so that was heartening.  Next year I’m bringing my own pens and glitter and I’ll create something properly eye-catching.  Stickers even.  Now that would be an innovation.

Eventually, I’d had enough of traipsing round, so I decided to secure a spot in the central area where there were various videos been streamed and a series of talks taking place.  By happy coincidence, I was in time for the 4.30 sequence, too good an opportunity to miss.  I positioned myself towards near to the front next to an unassuming guy who was nonchalantly sitting with his marathon kit bag resting on the floor.   I suspected an experienced runner, the first time runners hung onto their issue numbers with white knuckled, unreleasable grips.  Quite right too.  Don’t want to lose that before Sunday!

Expo talks

I happened on the central area just as last year’s runner was being interviewed.  I only caught the end of it but Kenenisa Bekele just came across as incredibly nice and unbelievably unassuming.  What great people runners are on the whole.  As he stepped off the stage a huge crowd gathered in a queue to pose for selfies with him.  He good-naturedly obliged.  Running royalty indeed.

So then it was the talks.   You know what, they were brilliant, just brilliant.  Ironically, I suspect the runners actually participating on Sunday might not have had time to sit through this as they’d have been preoccupied with logistics of numbers and getting proper food etc, but for me, the advice was really good.  Also it was actually reassuring, I gained the impression that they have indeed put on this event for quite a while now, so it does (mostly) run like the proverbial well-oiled machine. What’s more it was encouraging and supportive in tone.  With useful top tips thrown in.

The first speaker was Geoff Wightman who was talking about the logistics of the day.  He was a good speaker and I learned loads.  I squirmed a bit through the warm up intros, when he was asking people who’d got lucky in the ballot to identify themselves.  ‘You people are so lucky, one in 10, just one in 10 got places that way.‘  Then those who were marathon first timers were asked to raise their hands also.  I sat there too scared to breathe, feeling just awful I’d had a ballot place I wasn’t using (though I will next year).  Then I worried about whether it was at best misleading and at worst outright deceit not to hold my hand up to ‘first time at a marathon’.  What if other people thought I must be an old hand, here to romp round my twentieth or something?  Maybe I should leap up and confess all before I was discovered?   I could explain about deferring and everything at the same time?   Don’t worry, I didn’t. Besides, most people were way too preoccupied with their own marathon fears, excitement and demons to notice.   Even if they weren’t maybe they’d look at me and feel inspired.  ‘Blimey, she’s done it and look at the state of her!  It must be possible!‘  That kind of thing.  That would be OK, I’m always happy to help.

Key points included that the marathon is not like a parkrun apparently! You can’t just rock up 3 minutes before and whizz off.  He explained the importance of getting to the correct starts, that kit bags have to be the marathon issue ones or they won’t be accepted, and that the lorries go at a particular time blah de blah.  Water is for drinking not pouring over your head – but there are showers on the way round!  Really? I had no idea, not sure you’d have time to wash your hair, but certainly you can run through for a cool down.

Participants were forwarned about female urinals (they are not for all) and reminded there are loos en route – the first set just one mile in, which is worth remembering.  Bring an old jumper or bin bag for the start that you can discard when you get moving.  Know that when the klaxon goes for the start… NOTHING will happen.  It takes a while for so many people to get moving.   Key landmarks were pointed out which are great markers of distance traveled en route for Sunday, but also, more importantly, helpful preparation for me too, as I was planning to attend the marathon-themed parkrun at Southwark the following day.  🙂  Runners were advised (scarily) that the most important piece of kit is their tag and their number.  Both are in the kit bags.  The kit bag is the most common item of lost property at the Expo!  That is both understandable given how frenetic the build up is, but also alarming.  If you are going yourself next year, hang onto that bag.  Trust no-one, relinquish it to no-one.  If you are a supporter, carry it at your peril.  That’s way more responsibility than I’d like.  I think the runner has to take ownership of that for themself.

On the day, don’t panic. There are St John’s ambulance crews a-plenty and they have seen it all before.  Not only can they deal with cramp and blisters and patch you up to carry on. They can also give out supportive hugs as part of their job description.  Now that is good to know.  Most of us surely appreciate a hug on a long run.  I hugged every marshal en route of the Round Sheffield Run last year.  How excellent this is an accepted part of the medics remit for the London marathon.  They clearly know their runners on this route march.

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So yes, there were loads of helpful practical tips, and reassuring stuff about the logistics (you won’t get lost, you will get your kit bag back at the end), however, the key take away point was preparing for the finish.  You get a sign at 385 yards to go (that’s the 0.2 miles, I don’t know why it’s measured in yards) this is your opportunity to prepare for your finish photo.  Don’t get upstaged by an elaborate fancy dress participant, and make sure you wipe snot from your nose. Good top tips.  Remember people, no official photograph then the race didn’t happen. Try to prepare to get one shot at least that you’d be proud to have on public display!

Expo talk finish walk through

One let down, was the reality check that when you finish, you will gather up your goodie bag, and then head to the bag drop. As you approach, a volunteer will already be holding out your bag for you. This may be lovely, but don’t be too impressed. They have not in fact remembered you in your unique loveliness from the start, they have simply seen you approaching at a snail’s pace from afar, and had plenty of time to rummage around and get your pack.  Oh well, as long as you and your stuff are reunited that’s the important thing.

Then to horse guards, and there is a gathering area.  If arranging to meet others, the advice is to factor in say 20 minutes to cross the start line and maybe 15 minutes or so to get to the rendezvous. There are loads of flags with letters.  You can be unoriginal and choose the first letter of your first name say, but if you want to avoid a crowd then maybe X marks the spot.  Not likely to have too many Xmen and women running.   There may be a Zorro, but it’d be cool to hang out with men That’s the theory.  Also on a practical note, there is often no mobile phone coverage at this point, the sheer volume of people means you can’t rely on a signal. It’s back to the olden days when you just hang around hopefully, and trust that eventually you will indeed meet up. Well worth knowing that, forewarned could save a considerable amount of marathon meet-up related angst.

As well as the top tips, there was a bit of history too.  We were shown a picture of the mile 9 mark back in 2006 I think with no spectators at all, and then the same shot last year.  Fair to say interest has grown!  It is an extraordinary phenomenon indeed!

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There followed a nutrition talk, which was probably a bit too late in the day for most.  Key points though were just don’t do anything new, don’t be seduced by fancy gels on the course if you haven’t tried them before and remember you only need to carb load two days before. What’s more (and I didn’t like this message very much) you don’t even need to take in any extra calories apparently, simply change the proportion of carbs in your meal, so you are having more carb less fibrous veg say.  Disappointing.  No midnight pizza and pasta fests after all.  I’m sure she talked a lot of sense, I did get the message I need to pay more attention to how I fuel my own marathon.  I’ve only done half before, and got away with a lot.  However in a marathon you probably are going to drain reserves, replenishing that requires planning and forethought.  Curses, not my forte.  Don’t you think Anita Bean is a great name for a nutritionist by the way, even if she doesn’t recommend intravenous carrot cake the night before a bit race.

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So next, it was Runners’ World rep, talking about the pacing teams. There are a fair few pacers out there, and they have different coloured flags according to start, which is worth remembering if you see them en route, as before you hook up with them, you have to factor in that you don’t know what time they went over the chip mats.  What was interesting, or was to me anyway, is that these pacers just literally aim to do the same speed for every mile. Quite different from pacers in Sheffield events who have to factor in the killer hills.   Despite the big team of pacers they might still be hard to spot in such a massive field, so good to know they are out there, but if you want to find one, head to the back of your particular pen.

Note to self for next year, I probably do need to consciously start to think about pacing.  I don’t at all at the minute, just run how I feel.   At the Expo one stand had wrist bands with cumulative times for each mile according to target times.   Handy, and not difficult to do.  I was tempted to nonchalantly pick up a 2 hours 20 minutes one just because, but they’d all gone.  Anything over 5 hours 15 is regarded as walk/run apparently.  Beyond that I think you must be on your own.

The final speaker for the 4.30 talks was Martin Yelling himself.  I’ve watched a few of his live Facebook sessions, but haven’t otherwise heard him speak before.  Well, dear reader, I can report I thought he was a brilliant motivational speaker.  I’ve not particularly been aware from him before but he came across really well, realistic, helpful, encouraging, smart and funny.    I was really impressed.  I daresay none of his points are actually all that original but his presentation was great.

He used photos to illustrate key points.  For example the importance of paying attention to kit, showing a nicely relaxing well kitted out runner pre race and a collapsing mankini wearing runner who may have been having some fancy dress regrets post race.  Nicely memorable:

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As the mankini shot went up, the guy next to me suddenly came to life.  ‘That’s me!’ he exclaimed.  I didn’t know whether he was joking or not, and neither was I sure of what might be an appropriate response!  Martin (we are on first names now I feel) spotted him and gave him a wink and a thumbs up ‘sorry, couldn’t resist‘ he said to my neighbour. It was indeed his bare buttocks magnified on screen above!  It is a cause of immense personal regret that I didn’t insist on a selfie moment there and then. In fact I just took a surreptitious one of him as he walked away.  Is that inappropriate?  Probably, but, tenuous as it is, it might be my only claim to fame for the weekend, so in this post it goes!  I’m not sure if the buttock contours are identifiable through clothing, but you can draw your own conclusions.  Sorry I blew it people, I just bottled it. An opportunity that passed me by…

Expo celebrity spotting

I can’t cover everything in this talk, because a lot of it was how he presented rather than the intrinsic content.  I will report that at one point his children stormed the stage which was endearing rather than annoying.  It was not quite on a par with that serious TV news interview photo bombed by toddlers the other month, but it was fun to behold all the same.  He did emphasise that 99% of people who start will complete this marathon so ‘why not you?’  The main thing is not to start too fast.  Don’t get swept along. All the speakers emphasised this point.  Runners were also urged that if they fall victim to their own negative internal voice the secret is to look outwards.  Notice the crowds, even get inspiration from looking at the wrecks of other runners around you who are also struggling.  Remind yourself if they can still put one foot in front of another then so too can you…. and know that in all likelihood they are looking at you with exactly the same thought in mind.  Harsh, but true!

If that doesn’t work, regard your race number as your self-belief right there. You entered, you can do it.  And all that cheering by crowds lining the way?  That’s all for you right.  Just make sure you have your name on your shirt to guarantee some personalised support when the going gets tough… and it will.

So, upshot is, the talks were great, I learnt loads, and I do think it will help me to look back on all these pearls of wisdom next year.  I can’t believe it will be me one day.  It blooming better be.

Talks over, I went back to ambling about.  Taking in the stands.  I found freebie cherry juice shots, and guessed how many cherries were squeezed to fill a jar of juice in the hope of winning a month’s supply of whatever this juice stuff was.  I mean it was OK, but I don’t know what special benefits it is supposed to offer up.  I also had a beetroot shot.  Not sure about that, I like beetroot a lot, but as a food rather than juice.  It was a bit much super-concentrated, plus I had to make a mental note to myself to remember I’d had it.  Don’t want to wake up tomorrow morning and think after my first bathroom visit of the day I’ve got bowel cancer or something.  I always forget beetroot does that to me.  Others too probably to be fair, but I’m not in the habit of peering into the toilet bowls of others to check.

I was flagging by now, so took advantage of a stand that had some massage machines and just stayed there for ages, having a mechanical back rub.  It was pretty good actually, but not good enough that I wanted to fork out £150 to take one home with me.

I made my way to the exit area.  Here you pass by a goody bag pick up point for runners, and seemingly acres of space devoted to photo ops, selfies and booths where you could don a ‘heads together’ head band and record your ‘reason to run’ for posterity. There were even some slightly incongruous charity fundraising games. Table football, bowling, and a dance floor.  I didn’t engage.  I was in need of a sit down.  A lie down would have been better, but it wasn’t an option.

Just as I was thinking I’d had enough, I got a message to say my Smiley buddy and her squeeze were on their way.  Yay.  I caught up with them by circling back to the central talks area.  By now it was pretty late.  The exhibition was beginning to close down, but as people dispersed it all became a lot more manageable.   No more pushing past people, we could find the few places we particularly wanted.  Smiley Marathoner was in search of some very specific gels and cliff bloc shots (I think) and was able to get both.

We were only just in time for a goody bag (phew) and found the selfie, ostentatious posing area pretty much deserted.  We used our initiative to access the medal shots, which greatly perturbed a roaming security guy because ‘there’s tensile there‘  Not tinsel, that would have been way better.  I both do and don’t see his point.  We may have been in technical breach of barriers but we were hardly about to steal the crown jewels.  Got a photo, so that’s the main thing eh?  Even if it wasn’t the best.  Sorry fell flying Smiley, I’m still learning to use the camera.  It’s supposed to be just point and push, but it doesn’t like being inside in the dark much I think.

We were all about done and done in anyway.  As we had hotels near to one another we caught the train back and shared a supper at pizza express.  Being in central London, and having seen all we’d seen, I felt like we were in some parallel univesre.  Even the coach trip up seemed a lifetime ago.

So, dear reader, I can report that the London Marathon Expo is a grand thing indeed.  The whole marathon enterprise is an extraordinary adventure, and pretty intense even just as a supporter.  I’m torn between thinking gawd I can’t wait to do this myself, and wondering what am I thinking? I just hope this time next year I am  indeed at the start line, having done the training and taken the advice and being ready to give it my best shot!

By the end of the day my head was spinning and I was dehydrated and exhausted.  I’m so pleased I’ve got tomorrow to chill before the big day. Note to self.  I don’t care if it’s cripplingly expensive, pay for the extra night in the hotel next year too!

So that’s it.   Expo done.  Wasn’t that fun!

Now bring it on.

Categories: marathon, race, road, running | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “It’s not a parkrun apparently. Lessons from the Virgin London Marathon expo 2017

  1. Pingback: Tackling the taper… Not quite textbook tactics, but you know what? I’ll be reet! :) | Running Scared

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