Digested read: did it.
Brace yourself. It’s a long one. Then again, if running a marathon is considered a test of endurance, I see no reason why reading about it shouldn’t also be a test of resolve. You can always scroll down to be fair, whereas it’s a lot harder to fast forward on the roads of London, so be gracious before your judge me too harshly! All the same maybe fuel yourself before settling down to read this, and make sure you stay hydrated, or you’ll be wobbly and light headed before you even reach the half way marker. You have been warned. If you choose to read on and then get bored or annoyed, then you are at the very least guilty of contributory negligence. Much as if you go for a recovery run when your toenails are black, blistered and bruised and then find they all fall off. You will get no sympathy or truck from me. So we are clear about all that then? Good. I thank you.
So here I am, out the other side. Stormed it! Sort of, I maybe wasn’t quite the storm the warrior claimed, but was tenacious enough to make it round. Somewhat shell-shocked. It’s so hard to process all that has happened over the last 48 hours, or whatever it is. It feels unreal. I think that must be why they give you a medal at the end, so you can remind yourself it all really happened. Unfortunately in my official photo you can’t see my medal as I was too disoriented to hold it up, don’t panic though, there are plenty of other photos so you can relive the experience with me whether you want to or not!
There are already a plethora of London Marathon accounts out there, it’s a cliché but it’s true nevertheless that each of the 40,000 or so of us at the start would have had our own unique experiences. Don’t worry, if you meet any of the other runners they’ll tell you about their marathon run in their own words too. Aren’t you lucky? This is the thing about running marathons. Apparently 1% of the population have run a marathon now, no idea where that figure comes from, but I daresay it’s no more made up than the Lehman Brothers accounts and considerably less likely to lead to catastrophic collapse in the global economy, so let’s just go with that. 1% of the population is actually quite a lot of people, and all but one of them will tell you about it at length whether or not you have the slightest interest in their, sorry ‘our‘ endeavour. There is only one person in history who has run a marathon without telling anyone and even then her friends felt compelled to remark on this so you’d still have got to hear about it. Arguably, in the future, one of the most compelling reasons to run a marathon – apart from to prove your womb won’t fall out on the way round – is to enable yourself to get a word in edge ways when you encounter other people who have. I think the belief your womb will fall out if you run too far mainly applies to men, but whatever. It’s a thought, can’t beat ’em, join em. That’s the way it goes.
If for whatever reason you don’t want to run a marathon, but would like to get those who have to shut up about it, here follows in microscopic detail my memory of my marathon adventure such as it was. Truthfully it’s all a bit of a blur, some of the details are foggy, the chronology will be all over the place, but that will only add authenticity if you choose to tell my story as your own.
First things first. I’d set my alarm for 5.00 a.m.. In fact I got a text from Virgin London Marathon at 5.02 anyway, so clearly early starts are the order of the day. I was sweating already in the humid hotel room. It reminded me of when I was working in Cambodia, you know it’s going to be hot, hot, hot. No question. The text said:
Today’s forecast is for hot weather with possible wet conditions early on. Temperatures may rise to 23C. Adapt your goal, slow down& listen to your body. Drink when thirsty. Take only one bottle at water stations & remember to Drink, Douse, Drain, Drop. Good luck & enjoy the #SpiritOfLondon
Two things. The temperature actually got to 24.1C (75.3F) – recorded in St James’s Park, the Met Office said. Also, why oh why did they tell runners to drain their bottles? That’s rhetorical by the way, I know it was to assist with recycling, but when I was scrabbling around in the gutter trying to find any water left anywhere I was inwardly cursing that directive. More of that later.
I was up, had a shower. Not going to lie, pretty gutted at the temperatures in prospect, but also feeling fatalistic in a positive way (is that a contradiction in terms). I suppose I mean it was like waking up on exam day. You are at the point it’s now or never, you can either rail against the world screaming futilely into the wind at the injustice of the extreme heat of the event after training in the extreme cold, snow and ice, or accept it is what it is, and you have to get on with it. In a way, it was a relief. I wasn’t really believing it, but I told myself this heat would remove all expectations on me running wise, at least if it was a ‘record-breaking marathon’ because of this I’d get to be a record breaking marathoner by association, and anyway que sera sera.
I had a shower, and my first big triumph of the morning was – and I make no apologies for too much information because any fellow runner will know how much this can soothe both body and soul – a successful and significant poo! Don’t be shy people, there are whole articles dedicated to perfecting this art of ;how to poop before a race’. Please note, I do however apologise for the use of the word ‘poop’ in the headline for the article, but that’s American journalism for you. Hurrah, that was my first pre race angst vanquished. They say don’t make any sudden changes to your diet in the run up to event days, but a big pasta meal recommended for carb loading the night before was to me exactly that. I knew I’d need the energy stores, but I’d been worried it would just sit there, like I’d swallowed a rock, weighing me down. Instead, result! This was a good omen.
I put on my running kit straight away. I went for vest only – on the top I mean, obvs I wore leggings and trainers and socks and runderwear knickers and an industrial sports bra as well – but before donning any garment, I squelched almost a whole tube of factor 50, once only application, water-resistant sunscreen everywhere that might be exposed. Arms, neck, arm pits, face, nose, ears, everywhere. My skin hasn’t seen the sun all year, and is so white it might even reflect sunlight back to the sky and reverse global warming, but I wasn’t taking the risk. I also put body glide on my inner arms, and legs – though I’ve never previously rubbed there but I thought I may as well. I’ve also got another anti-chafing product, lanacane which I think is amazing, but it is expensive and I seem to get through loads of it, but I used that under my boobs because I know from bitter experience that needs special attention. I filled my two water bottles on my ultimate direction running belt with water and dissolved electrolytes in them. THANK GOODNESS! Other runners were going to rely just on the water on course, but I’d decided I’d drink the water en route, and then in the later stages drink my electrolyte laden water to stop me cramping or getting dehydration related salt imbalance. I put in far more naked bars than I could possibly consume, and added in as an after thought some straight glucose tablets – again these turned out to be a life safer.
Down to breakfast. The hotel was serving from 5.30, I’d imagined it would be a reduced offering for runners, but in fact a full buffet was out. That was hard. Normally the opportunist in me would have made merry and cavorted with abandon amongst the hash browns, scrambled eggs and croissants. However, I was disciplined, I stuck to my game plan of just a cup of horrible coffee – it wasn’t my plan that the coffee would be horrible, it just was – and some porridge. The porridge was not good. It was nothing like the porridge I make myself. It was mostly milk, with the odd porridge oat floating in it as a possible choking hazard. I would have had it much thicker and packed with seeds and things. I was worried I wouldn’t have had quite enough fuel, so I broke with my plan and had a banana as well. I figured it would be a good 5 hours before I even crossed the start line, so probably not too high risk, though I have suffered before eating bananas too close to or mid event at the Round Sheffield Run. On a more positive note, I was quickly joined by other runners. One was from Denmark I think, and a veteran marathoner. Another first time marathoner who has been a poster girl for the British Heart Foundation as she has a pace maker and spent many, many months in hospital having multiple surgeries, so the BBC are following her round. Then there was another runner, more of my ilk. Got a ballot place and knew she had to do it, so here she was. We were a mixed bunch, but excitedly chatting together about the day ahead. Another runner joined us…. with two tags on her shoes! Immediate panic, why had she got two tags? Were we supposed to have two tags too? Turns out she was an elite runner taking part in some championship or other, she even had a striped back to her number. I was too relieved that I was properly equipped to notice her name or number, but her physique suggested a professional, or near enough, athlete was walking amongst us.
We scampered to our respective hotel rooms for final teeth cleaning and trainer donning, and more poo stops, poo two from me, could things get any better in terms of pre race protocols? I drank loads of water and put a litre or so in one to take with me to the start. I do drink loads anyway, especially when I was sweating this much at 7.00 a.m..
A coach was going from the hotel to the start. Some preferred to go planned routes via tube, but I wanted to make as few decisions as possible and stay off my feet so opted for that. I waited outside with my other new best friends in our marathon gear, feeling somewhat self-conscious about both my upper arms and Geronimo, but also sort of enjoying the unlikely continuum of runners we collectively represented. The sun was bright, and there was a breeze, it felt almost tropical. It was a gorgeous morning, just not one you’d want before say having to run a marathon. We got someone to take a photo. The first photo was into direct sunlight, so we got another facing the other way, just because. Aren’t we lovely?
The coach pulled up just after 7.00 a.m. and set off promptly at 7.15. Our elite runner was asking earlier whether we trusted the coach to come. Apparently a friend of hers at the Boston marathon got a package coach and it got lost en route to the start, for hours. Not sure if the runner even made the off. I had complete confidence in the organisation of the London marathon though, because this was before Watergate, and anyway, there was so long before start I figured even if it broke down there’s still be time to clamber on a tube and get to Blackheath.
The coach trip was quite exciting. Coach trips, whilst they always make me feel a bit queasy also have that sense of anticipation as you are being transported to a new destination. Even more so when you are surrounded by other awesome runners. I was feeling a bit nervy, but mainly just wanted to get there. It was amazing being driven through the streets of London, extraordinary landmarks all around. At one point someone pointed out the start and parts of the route – oh my, it looked a long, long way. The charity runners were comparing details of post race arrangements. Both of the two I was near said their hospitality finished at 5.00 p.m, when realistically, particularly considering they might not even cross the start until 11.00 they would probably still be out on course. One had queried the wisdom of this, being a new runner and recognising her goal was to get round before cut off and was told that the hospitality was for friends and family too. ‘But I expect my friends and family to be out on course supporting me not quaffing free coffee at the charity’s expense‘ was her point. I thought it was interesting that they did finish so early, particularly with charity places where you might expect people who were/are not natural runners, but passionately wish to support a cause for personal reasons to be well represented amongst their marathoners. Some runners had also had to raise huge sums, those in ear shot had achieved this, but I’d have found that hugely pressurised. I only found out recently that apparently charities pay a significant premium for their race places, and risk losing a lot of money if they misjudge who their share their places with – it is hard not to see an element of cynicism in how that plays out… that discussion though is for another time.
We were deposited at Blackheath about an hour or so later. Just as we got to the common I espied a whole load of the rhino fancy dress costumes all laid out on the side of the road. They are HUGE. We disgorged from the coach, and immediately were amongst throngs of runners, streaming across wet grass towards the respective starts. If you are thinking of doing London and worried about the logistics of finding your way around don’t be. There were huge signs up everywhere indicating the respective start areas for red, blue and elite.
The grass was soaking wet with dew, and I remembered belatedly vaguely that Martin Yelling had advised having plastic bags to put over your trainers at the start so you don’t get wet feet from the off. To be honest, the sun was so strong it was pretty clear we’d dry up soon anyway. There was also quite a breeze. Perfect for eating ice creams in the shade sort of weather! I joined the migration pack of runners to the blue start, my eyes popping out on stalks at the spectacle all around.
Finally, I made it under the blue inflatable arch into the collecting ring. It reminded me very much of a festival, albeit a rather healthy lifestyle one. There was lots of space, and music playing. A huge screen relayed messages of support to runners, and some coverage of the marathon from different areas of the course. There were loads of toilet cubicles, the famous female urinals, that didn’t have queues but I didn’t fancy using for the first time pre event. There were instructions in our goody bags from the expo but frankly they’d left me none the wiser, and I didn’t fancy embarking on my marathon adventure with both me and Geronimo doused in my own pee. Also, I wasn’t entirely trusting my digestive tract at this point in time either, and let’s not entertain the idea of that calamity before set off.
It was HOT. There was no shade. I have never been more grateful for an impulse buy of my cap, and the addition of my tomtom sunglasses. I got them as a freebie at a Vitality 10k at Chatsworth earlier in the year. They might not be flattering, but they are effective, they sit proud of your face so you don’t get rubbing and sweat on your cheeks and air can circulate. Plus they are slightly turned down at the ends so wont fall off. I’d never run in either before, but both were completely brilliant on the day – apart from not being especially photogenic, but then neither was I, so who cares. I scanned my kit bag and decided I didn’t really need any of it other than sunblock and water so deposited it at the baggage drop so as not to have to worry about that again. The baggage drop people were great, asking me to check I’d not left critical things and posing indulgently for photos. The guy on the lorry was attached by a hook and wire to the vehicle, it wasn’t clear if this was to stop him escaping for the purpose of my health and safety and for the protection of the general public, or to stop him falling for the purpose of his own health and safety. He didn’t look like a wild axe murder, but I understand most wild axe murderers never do. Good bye kit bag.
I went for a wander around. It was so tempting to just go exploring, and I did for a bit, then thought that was probably unwise as it was so hot and it was all time on my legs and it would be 2 hours before I crossed the start. Even so, it was extraordinary soaking it all up. A few people asked for selfies with Geronimo which was cool. There were hardly any people in fancy dress that I saw at that stage, though chilled groups hung out on reflective sheets. Any scrap of shade be it by a toilet or bin was crowded with runners desperately trying to avoid the sun.
I was a bit worried that I’d not quite reached all my bits that were susceptible to sunburn. I didn’t really want to ask another runner, I don’t know quite why, people were friendly, but it was all overwhelming. Instead I drank my water and headed to the first aid station. They were functional rather than welcoming, but the woman I asked did help. To be fair she was distracted by her walkie-talkie. Gist of the conversation as that a runner had fallen somewhere outside the elite start pen and was asking for first aid assistance. However the person concerned was saying they still intended to run. The senior first aider was insisting that if they wanted to run, then they needed to present in person at the first aid tent which was only 200 or so metres away if that. I could sort of see her point. If the person concerned couldn’t manage that, they clearly weren’t going to manage 26.2 miles were they?
I found a patch of shade and got chatting to loads of people really. Experienced marathoners shared top tips, with others we just traded nervous energy. I was hoping I’d see a familiar face, or at least a running club top that I recognised from Sheffield. In fact, the only close encounter I had, was whilst I was in the loo queue. A welcome shout and embrace from a friendly Dark Peak Runner – I can’t tell you how heartening that was. Plus he is a seriously awesome runner, the London marathon is amazing like that, that people like me who try hard but are never going to set the world alight with our athletic prowess can participate alongside hardcore runners like he. So thank you my friend, best hug of the day. Actually, maybe second best, the hug at the end just after the finish line from a kindred from way back was better, but that’s a high standard to have to meet!
In the waiting area there were heaps of official photographers taking snaps. They were less in evidence on the course, but I had a fair few shots taken at this point, in all of which I look flabby and rather posed, which is probably an accurate representation of my outward manifestation unfortunately.
Then the big screen started showing the various starts. In the pre event information we’d been warned that it could take up to 45 minutes to cross the start, but even so the loo queues were now absolutely monumental. I decided to join one. 10 o’clock came and went, but I was in pen 8, the final one. The good news was that this gave me the confidence to hang on in the queue whilst others abandoned it wrestling with twin worries of full bladders and blind panic. The less good news was by the time I’d relieved myself I was literally at the very back of the starters. This did cause me some problems as although I’d be the first to acknowledge I’m slow, I was behind people who weren’t planning on running at all, and that did hamper me increasingly round the route, although I suppose you get the morale boost of over-taking many, it is hard work to do so. I did an extra half mile at least just weaving around en route.
It was clear nothing was moving anywhere, so I sat about a bit, then went to see what the fuss was and discovered the lung costumes. These were extraordinary creations, light weight they ought to have been perfect for running in, except that unfortunately there was quite a strong breeze which would be a nightmare. There was one man and the other turned out to be being worn by Katie Price, so there was a little media flurry around her. I looked on with another runner who was hilarious and who I subsequently ran with for part of the course, if by ‘running with’ you mean ‘we took it in turns to over take each other’. She gave a running commentary on the shenanigans, as Katie Price was crawling about on the ground apparently trying to put on her timing tag which was a not insignificant challenge wearing a fancy dress lung. Earlier in the day, one of the people on the coach said that when they went to pick up their number Katie Price was next to them at the same cubicle. She was at the wrong stand but couldn’t seem to grasp this and in the end the steward gave up trying to redirect her to the correct desk and instead went off to retrieve her pack for her. I’m torn, because I do rather enjoy that anecdote as reinforcing a certain stereotype and I do believe it to be true – it’s not something you’d make up. On the other hand I can identify with the runners fog that descends at the expo and sometimes the dismissal of Katie Price’s achievements has a smack of misogyny. Fair play to her, trying to run a marathon in a lung, I’m not a fan of hers especially, but that’s stepping up to a challenge, and she has completed marathons before, so it wouldn’t be fair to assume it is just a vanity project for her – though is suspect some of her endeavours may be.
Finally, about 10.45, it looked like our pen was about to be moved forwards. I was so far at the back of the line up I wasn’t even in the pen. The plus side of this was that I avoided the claustrophobia of being rammed up against other runners for a motionless 45 minutes, and instead had been able to amble about gawping at lung costumes and fraternising with other runners. The down side was that this was a great many runners I’d need to pass later on. Oh well, que sera.
The start line is weird. We were sort of marched through the seven, now empty, pens ahead of us. It was then I began to feel quite emotional, this was suddenly actually about to happen. The various red-jacketed marshals who’d been staffing baggage lorries and directing runners were now free of their duties so lined the railings clapping us towards the start. So much good will, it’s bizarre objectively, I mean on one level it is just a run which is ultimately futile, after all, we now know for sure that whilst a 5km run might add 30 minutes to your life it remains a net loss given that it can take 40 minutes to achieve by the time you’ve faffed about. However, on another level it is this incredible coming together for a shared purpose, and people willing each other to achieve. You know what, the London Marathon is basically one enormous parkrun on acid. Maybe a parkrun celebrating its birthday, but essentially that. We passed pens where you could discard clothing – thin pickings this year, nobody was wearing extra layers to keep warm at the start this year. Worth knowing if you are running another year though. The clothing gets picked through by charities who wash and reuse where possible.
The anticipation was really building. I struck up conversations with other runners, including a marathon veteran fancy dresser. His advice, pick a side and stay close to the crowd, smile and engage with them and you’ll get their support. If you see someone in more spectacular fancy dress or with a more emotive back story, put space between you. Again, and again the advice was ‘just enjoy it, soak it all up’.
Finally the start was in sight you could hear the commentary. Oh. My. Gawd!
Oh, and those balloons I saw earlier – they were marking the start! Who knew?
You my dear reader will know I make it a rule never to commence running until I have a foot on the starting mat, but the excitement was tangible. When the arch of the start came into view many around me broke into a full on sprint. You can really see why the repeated advice is ‘don’t go off too fast!’ it’s oh so tempting. Finally my foot was on the timing mat. It was unreal. ‘I’ve done it, I’ve done it, I’ve crossed the start of the London marathon!’ up until the heat wave, I was always quietly confident that if I made it to this point of the marathon, I’d make it to the end. I was so excited, but also a bit apprehensive ‘please don’t let me blow it, please don’t let me blow it‘, I was thinking to myself. On the right was the grandstand, probably packed with the great and the good but I didn’t really care about that, on my left was the band of the horse guards! Stupidly, even though I’d seen them on the large screen TV I had absolutely no idea they were playing at the start. Astonishingly, as I’m not particularly into pomp and ceremony, I found that really moving. There is a sense of being part of a significant national occasion, yeah, yeah as a bit part, but even so, it was a remarkable wave of emotion. Then there was a bank of photographers, snapping us marathon runners (get me, marathon runner now) as we passed. I wanted to freeze frame the moment on the back of my eye, I’ve never experienced anything quite like it, and after all that waiting around, despite the heat, it was fantastic to actually be running the streets of London. I can’t find a single shot with the horse guards playing, all the photos are facing towards the grandstand, still, here are the wheelchairs screaming out the starting hatch. Impressive.
Edit – found one picture in an article ‘running on empty’ which includes lots of dispiriting shots of collapsed runners, but also one of the bank behind the mass start lead runners. It gives you the gist…
There was support right from the start, so many images, so much enthusiasm. It’s hard as I sort of wanted to take each and every moment in, but also wanted to keep moving, get properly underway and put some miles behind me. I was very aware it was already nearly 11.00 o’clock, the heat was going to get increasingly oppressive and I didn’t know how I was going to cope with that. I was however thinking of friends of mine who didn’t make the start, or had missed out on the ballot, and sort of locked down a promise to myself that I would do my darndest to get around this, and be sensible about listening to my body to give myself the best chance of doing so.
The first mile went past quickly, I decided I’d try to take a photo at each mile marker, to help me recall the event. It honestly is such a blur. This is an official photo of the mass starters at the one mile mark – it was a little less crowded when I went through! Even now, looking back at these photos, I find it really hard to believe I was actually there. It’s so bizarre. At the risk of increasing the levels of irritation at my account you are probably already suffering, I can honestly confirm taking part in London seems to me to be a unique experience. It makes it hard to process and recall, the memories are there, but elusive, trying to shape them is like trying to pick up mercury with a fork, although possibly less hazardous. Mercury is dangerous stuff. Stay safe people, stay safe.
Even though I’d consciously been slow, my first mile was a lot faster than I intended. I felt tickety boo, yep, swept up in the occasion no doubt, but strong, hydrated, my sun hat was doing its job, my sunglasses remaining in situ, I just decided to slow a bit and try to find the trot, trot, plod, plod rhythm that I finally discovered on my last few long runs and stick to it as long as I could. What I laughingly refer to as my training plan was, well, let’s say ‘idiosyncratic’, but oh my, I’m glad that I prioritized my long runs over everything else, if I hadn’t I would never have worked out spontaneously what that steady pace was and been able to recognise it. The heat was building, but I knew my legs and lungs could do the distance, everything else was going to be race day management. Not easy in unknown conditions, but not impossible either. I tried to remember all the advice I’ve been given about coping with the first few miles of the marathon. Pacing, all about pacing.
Trot, trot, feeling fine. This was through the residential outskirts of London. There was little shade, and it was quite quiet compared with the crowds later on, but there was still support and encouragement from marshals. One called out when there was a little trio of portaloos for any desperate for a pit stop. I was still a bit shell-shocked, I was aware of other runners, but it wasn’t especially chatty at this point, people were sort of trying to slot into their pace I suppose.
One particular highlight though were the humping volunteers. I think they were a scout troop, equipped with warning signs they worked in pairs standing either side of the road at every speed hump just shouting out ‘hump’ constantly, to warn oncoming runners of the hazard. This struck me at the time as quite comical, honestly, road runners are delicate flowers! Many miles later on though I stomped down too hard after an unseen bump and really felt it, I wished the designated humping marshals were present then!
Mile three stood out because another runner took my camera off me to take some action shots of me running. He
threatened offered to do a video but I talked him down from that rash move. Not only because I suspect had I actually watched any footage subsequently, that would definitely have brought me face to face with an unedited version of my aesthetic awfulness whilst in running motion that would mean I’d never run again, but also because it would have drained my camera battery. I’d need some power for the finishing flourish! The photos aren’t great, but they are authentic. At the end of mile three was the first water station. This delivered early promise, lots of water, and volunteers holding it out. I had drunk a good litre just in the waiting area at the start (bottles were available there and I’d taken extra with me) so I felt OK, but drank anyway. The bottles being given out were quite dinky 250 ml ones I think.
I was excited going into the fourth mile. It was at this stage in the course the blue start and red start merged, so you get a sense again of how enormous the event is. Also, I knew at the end of this mile, all being well, I had a reasonable chance of seeing my first familiar faces en route. And, I hadn’t yet keeled over and died, and that was one parkrun down already! Things were looking good. The supporting crowds were more in evidence and I was enjoying the different signs spectators were displaying. I hijacked one ‘go Lucy’ as my own, I think that was fair game, and loved the creativity on show.
Not the most salubrious of surroundings, and quite exposed to the ever hotter sun, but still a good atmosphere. My watch was bleeping slightly ahead of each mile marker, which was great, because it meant I knew to look out for my personal cheer squad. My Erstwhile Flatmate and her dearly beloved daughter and sign maker extraordinaire, who had so handily relocated to London just last week, to find their new house right on the London route. I looked about and THEY WERE THERE! What’s more, they had a personal sign just for me! It even had a likeness of Geronimo on it. This was completely brilliant. If ever you support a runner at a marathon, or indeed any race, I can promise you, you will bestow a joy you can’t imagine on your runner of choice. It was fantastic to see familiar cheering faces. It also made the experience seem real for the first time. Like and external validation that I was really doing this. Plus, once hugs were exchanged and photos taken, it meant the tracking app was doing its stuff and so there was a reasonable chance I might even see others amongst the crowd as I went round – though I did set my expectations pretty low about that, I thought better to be pleasantly surprised if I did see people rather than carry the burden of crushing disappointment if I didn’t. It’s harder than you might think to sport people when running and no doubt for spectators to espy their runners too.
Buoyed up by the sight of my personal cheer team, I rushed on through the mile four arch with a new spring in my step, feeling hot, but positive.
Into mile 5.
This is the point where things settled down. I was amongst similarly paced runners. There was a bit of gentle leap-frogging of other participants as we passed and repassed each other. I had a bit of a chat with a guy in an old British military uniform who was running the whole thing with a back pack containing loud speakers blasting out various uplifting military tunes like the dam busters theme. He was friendly. Asked if I’d practised in my fancy dress – I had – he hadn’t. His view was it was going to chafe on the day whatever, so why put yourself through that discomfort twice. One guy was holding a structure with an old-fashioned honky horn attached, offering ‘free honks’ which I took advantage of. We had another water station – the amount of discarded bottles was a bit terrifying. I wasn’t desperate, but was a bit perplexed that there didn’t seem to be any water available. Some volunteers seemed to be picking through the debris looking for bottles with some water left in. I had a momentary wave of anxiety. It seemed a bit off that a water station would have been drunk dry already, but I pushed that to the back of my mind. This is the London marathon, they’ll be on it. I’m not even thirsty yet and anyway there’s water every mile they said, so just rock on. It was somewhere around the mile 5 arch I took advantage of some portaloos with no queue for a quick pee, that was my only pit stop and a good call.
For me, this was one of the best miles of the day. It wasn’t yet too hot, support was building and I felt strong and was actively enjoying myself. I started to soak it all up a bit more, there was Dave the Samaritan’s phone box, one of my new buddies from the hotel breezed by looking strong. Point of information, she’d nipped into Toni & Guy the day before somewhere in London to get her hair plaited up so it was out of the way for the marathon. They’d done it for free as she was a charity runner AND she got an upgrade on the train from Manchester. She must have a particularly winning way about her, I got no such privileges, but I did still soak up a lot of spirit of London good will.
Best bit of this section FREE ICE LOLLIES. Obviously when you are drilled with the warning ‘don’t do anything new on race day’ that can’t possibly apply to taking sweets from strangers or mean you would run on by a line of women waving cooling ice lollies in your eye line. I took full advantage of that and walked for a bit. Some people high up in flats alongside the route started screaming at ‘giraffe woman’ and I waved back, we went under some sort of flyover and there was a full steel band playing in the shade, it noisy beats echoing round the concrete cavern. I found a woman with a giraffe and requested a selfie – she looked bemused. Maybe she doesn’t quite buy into the giraffe kindred thing? I was feeling the heat now, well it was moving into hottest part of the day, noon ish or so if I’d hit the 10k mark, it takes me a bit over an hour to run 10k and I’d crossed the start about 10.50 a.m. I thought. There was a rhino-suited runner keeping on putting one foot in front of another though, no idea how he was coping. Everywhere there were high-fiving crowds, people shouting your name and punching the air screaming how amazing and awesome we all were. Imagine the most enthusiastic junior parkrun marshals ever, cloned, multiplied and ten deep on either side of the road the whole way round. Well the enthusiasm levels and joyfulness were akin to that. Others in the crowds picnicked by the road side, toasting your efforts as you passed or just simply soaking up the sun and the spectacle from outside their houses.
mile 6 done.
Into mile 7.
This was a corker! Lots of highlights. Unexpectedly I saw – or more accurately was seen by – a full on Smiley Support team. Complete with massively enthusiastic(ish) off spring and bespoke Smiley Paces support signage. Again, completely brilliant, more so for being unexpected. I’d known they were down supporting another speedier runner from Steel City Striders, but because I was going to be so far behind them I honestly had zero expectation they’d still be hanging around to cheer me on afterwards. It was just great, a real lift. Then I unexpectedly arrived at the Cutty Sark. I was trying to remember what this meant in terms of breaking down the distance. Martin Yelling in one of his pep talks, described using the London landmarks to break down the run. It is a truly amazing sight, the glorious sunshine that was making running hard, did create a spectacular backdrop to the shape of the ship. This wasn’t a massively congested area for spectators either, I think it would be a good place to spot runners from the comfort of a balcony bar.
A little later on another fabulous treat in the form of one of my London Marathon Superstars support-group. Armed with an encouraging smile and lots of haribos she gave me a hug and a shove, and soon I was off again. ‘This is brilliant!’
At this point, things started to unravel a bit, I reached another water station that had no water. I’ve really tried to ‘park’ my fury at this, because my experience of London was at least half the water stations had nothing left by the time I reached them. I can cope with the idea that this was because of unprecedented heat, and that the logistics meant it wasn’t possible to restock quickly enough to cater for all runners. What does enrage me though it the official statement that declared they were aware of water running out at stations 8 – 10 as if they were the only one’s affected. NOT SO! I struggled to get water almost the whole way round. I found only one snuck in reference on the telegraph news page that stated ‘They later said: “We have supplied additional water from our contingency stocks to water stations 16, 17, 18, 19, 20 and 23.” My recollection is water was missing before mile 8 as well. Not good. Some comments on twitter in response to the London Marathon tweet on the day support my contention I was not alone in finding the route a desert at times. Soooooo disappointing. No idea how karaoke man – at the risk of stating the obvious, a guy who sang enthusiastic karaoke all the way round – survived with his vocal chords in tact!
I sort of did a mental calculation, I wasn’t dehydrated yet, I was carrying some water albeit with electrolytes in it that I’d intended to have later on in the course, but it meant it wasn’t game over. I asked at the water stations if there was water ahead, but the response was vague. To be fair, these stations were staffed by volunteers who didn’t have any overview of what was happening. I actually felt a bit sorry for them, there must have been thousands of thirsty runners behind me, and it was getting even hotter, particularly with glare back up from the road.
There were more sights and sounds to distract me from the water issue. The Wolverhampton bobsleigh team, two minnie mouse women from Sheffield who later got 15 minutes of fame helping a fellow runner across the finish who’d fractured her leg.
Then there was the first of the walk through showers. These are actually quite discretely located by the side of the road, so you can choose whether or not to avail yourself of them. I did.
A bit further on, the fire station had set up much more impressive cooling showers. If you are really shallow, you might have imagined these cooling heroes would look like this:
The reality is way hotter people. It was fantastic to see them out in force, soaking it all up, and giving runners and spectators alike a welcome soaking. Rainbows and everything, Fantastic. It was joyful too, like when you see kids running through fountains in public spaces. We don’t always get a chance to do that once over the age of 10! I might have swallowed a bit of London Thames water though, I wasn’t quite so enamoured of that!
So, some definite highs. However, then I got to a third water station with no water. I could feel myself panicking.
I was starting to think that might be it now for the rest of the course. Also, the more consecutive water stations there were without water, the more the following one was likely to be fallen on. These blooming water stations were less oases in a desert and more mirages. A guy in a van had 6 water bottles wrapped up, I joined the queue in time to get one – only for another runner to snatch it away! I was quite shocked. What followed though was a moment of clarity. I was determined to this thing. I did have some agency here, I still had the water I was carrying, and I didn’t want to be one of those people who blamed others or circumstance for not getting round. This was not game over, but I did need to think. I also needed to eat, but I couldn’t because I was getting too thirsty and dry mouthed to cope with any naked bars. I sort of mentally went through my options and decided to work my way out of this. I’d done the Sheffield half marathon dehydrated, that was horrible too, but I did it. I’d also done that awful 17 miler feeling sick and hungry early on in training. This was where the mental challenge came in. My legs and lungs could do this, I just had to work out how. I stopped, decided to walk and drink my electrolyte laden water. I couldn’t manage my naked bars, but I had some of my glucose tablets instead, and that revived me. I made a very conscious decision that I was going to finish this, or at the very least, wasn’t going to give up with anticipatory defeat before I really could no longer put one foot in front of another.
It was galling to see so many emptied bottles. There was not a drop left in any of them. Some children had cottoned on to what was happening and were scrabbling about trying to find traces and pour them all together to create sips of water to hand out. however, I think the advice early on to drink, douse, drain and drop meant very few bottles had any liquid left in them. I saw the official record attempt for armour power walking. I told myself I was OK, it wasn’t game over yet, I’d just need to be resourceful. Spirit of London and all that. See what happens.
Mile 10 and 11
Still no water. Four consecutive stations. I began to despair if there was ever going to be water again. I begged a sip from a first aid station, but they literally just gave me enough to wet my mouth. Outside a pub a guy was standing with a circular tray of cups of water so I had that, and then a little later on a woman beside the road had brought a jug out. Her children I think, had scavenged some discarded cups from somewhere and was filling them up as best she could, I tried not to think about how dirty they were I was just grateful for the liquid. Then another runner ahead of me was holding a bottle out. ‘Are you seriously offering that?’ I asked. He was, he’d been into a shop to buy some, this was sparkling water but I didn’t care, I drank about half and then passed it on to another desperate runner. It’s a tough one, I am sorry I wasted time and energy on this marathon of all marathons searching for water. However, the fact it wasn’t there did bring out the best in people, it gave me more interactions with spectators and runners, and added perhaps to making this a very memorable event. I think had I ended up as a DNF because of it I’d be taking a different line, and I was actually quite scared at points. Maybe it’s good to be reminded that we should value clean water as a scarce and precious resource, it’s so easy to take it for granted, even though I have witnessed first hand how hard it is for communities who don’t have this ‘luxury’ in Cambodia and elsewhere. At the end of the day this run is/was an indulgence, and lack of water is exceptional not a daily struggle in the UK.