It’s taken me a couple of days to gather my thoughts about the London Marathon. It was such a surreal experience with such a range of emotions involved. It was only really on Tuesday morning as I was walking to work eager to show my colleagues my medal that it really hit me; I ran the London Marathon at the weekend.
The actual London Marathon. The one that you watch on telly when you’re a kid with no real idea what it’s about or how far it is. The one that you think of whenever you think of running ever since.
How on earth had it happened that I had been allowed to do that?
A few people have said in the last week or so that the training is the hard part of running a marathon. I’m not sure I agree actually. I suppose it might depend how far you run in your training, but any time I have trained for a marathon I’ve only gone as far as 20 miles before the big day. I find that my body can cope quite well with distances up to 20 miles, it’s the thought and then the reality of what happens in those final 10 kilometres that’s the tough part.
Having slightly yanked a hip flexor at the Maidenhead 10 I took it really easy in the final week of taper with just one short run on the Tuesday before race day. I hadn’t really been letting myself think about the reality of the task ahead, not even when Laura and I went to the Expo to pick up our race numbers and pose for some silly pictures. I was still pretty calm during my final coaching meeting on the Thursday morning, having taken a few days off to spend with my parents before the marathon. I told Coach Mark that I had decided to head out at 4hrs 40 pace and then see what happened at 20 miles, when I could speed up or slow down depending on how I felt. In terms of goals my main focus was to enjoy the day and finish smiling, under 5 hours if I could, better than my Rome time ideally, and somewhere in the 4:40’s if at all possible. I mentioned a champagne-and-fireworks super goal of the minutes section beginning with a 3, but even as I said this to Mark I knew I didn’t really mean it. Not this time.
So far so good by the end of the day on Friday; carb loading was going well, I was hydrated, not too stressed.
On Saturday, however, things took a turn for the anxious. I was trying to help my Mum order something online and the stupid website wouldn’t work how it was supposed to. Such a silly thing. My subconscious must have been more stressed out than I realised, because I had a full on meltdown about running the next day. I spoke to Mark on the phone, or rather raved at him like some demented banshee. Why did I think I could do this? Why did I even want to do this? Running a marathon is such a stupid thing to do to yourself. If I wasn’t feeling excited by the day before what was even the point?
Fortunately one of the things Mark is really good at is making you feel a lot better in pretty much any given situation, and after a few minutes’ pep talk I had calmed down enough to start thinking just far enough ahead to get some of the immediate practicalities ticked off:
- Go and eat some lunch and drink some more water.
- Pack your kit bag.
- Put your kit on and make sure your number and gel belt are fitting together ok.
If you’re ever in a similar situation when you feel about as athletic as Jabba the Hut’s grub-like tail, put your race kit on. Even if it’s just in your bedroom for 5 minutes. It’s amazing how much better it makes you feel.
After a carb-heavy dinner and an early night, race day was finally upon us. Mark was picking me up at 6, so the alarm was set for the earth shatteringly early 4:45am. I had deliberately not looked at the time all night even if I was lying awake so that I couldn’t tell myself either way if I had slept a lot or a little. I felt alright – quite wired, but finally excited!
The Eagles had arranged a coach to the start and we got there without incident and in really good time. We arrived at Blackheath and as soon as we got off the coach and saw all the directions to the start and the police outriders milling about, it suddenly got properly exciting. Having had my meltdown the day before I wasn’t actually nervous at all now, just raring to go.
Time went really quickly. By the time we’d been to the first set of portaloos and said goodbye to the people going to the green and blue starts before heading into our own red start area there was only 20 minutes before the baggage lorries were due to go. Bags in, another quick loo stop and it was time to get into the pens!
I’d been with Suzy up to this point as we were both in pen 8, but she wanted to get right down the front of the pen so I was left to my own devices for a while. I got chatting to some other nervous people and had a very strange coughing fit just as the gun was due to go off (I think it was something to do with the plane trees in the park, they are plant asbestos – evil things). This was the only point I felt a bit uneasy – if I couldn’t stop coughing I’d be snookered – there was no water for the first three miles!
Anyway, I did manage to stop choking on my mouthful of pollen just in time for the official start. How exciting! We were running the London Marathon! Except we weren’t of course, because it takes a while to cross the start line. At big races I always find this to be amusingly anti-climactic, but I suppose it lets people calm down a bit before they actually have to start running. The wait wasn’t too bad – about 23 minutes – and once we started running it was all very smooth. I’d heard horror stories about it being very congested in the first three miles but actually by the time we hit the first 5k chip mats I was a little under my target time.
Things continued in this vein until halfway – I was hitting on or under 10:40 for each mile, feeling good, rolling along. I saw Big Eagle Simon standing on top of someone’s garage at about 5 miles and managed to yell at him to say hello, cruised around the Cutty Sark and then past another Eagles cheer squad which included Coach Mark and a cucumber on a stick (you had to be there) and trotted merrily off towards the halfway point. I have to say, having never been anywhere near Woolwich or Rotherhide in my life I had no idea what to expect, but the level and nature of support was truly moving. Everyone was so kind and encouraging, from the smallest of little kids to the most venerable of elderly gentlemen. We were shouted at, sung at, high fived and cheered relentlessly.
In what seemed like no time at all we took a sharp right and there it was – Tower Bridge! A local pub had been kind enough to play Born to Run just before we got there, which delivered me to this iconic cheering spot with a broad grin on my face. I’d heard people say that Tower Bridge was a bit overwhelming in terms of the noise and the number of people but I didn’t find it bad at all – the scale of the bridge was somehow more obvious than normal and it was amazing to see London laid out on either side. My only gripe with Tower Bridge was the number of runners who decided this would be the ideal time to get their phones out and take selfies or facetime their nearest and dearest without looking to see if anyone was behind them (little tip, it’s the LONDON MARATHON – there is always someone behind you!).
The next couple of miles was one of my favourite parts of the whole route. You turn onto the Highway up to and beyond halfway, and you get to see all the faster runners coming back the other way having already made it to 21 or 22 miles. I veered to the left and managed to spot four Eagles, plus a cheering Eagle on the other side of the road. I cheered them all from the pack, and one of them heard me and waved. This took my mind off my own running to the point that once or twice I realised I was nearing a 10 minute mile on a slight uphill in the sun, and had to pull myself back a bit.
The less said about the Docklands section the better, I feel. The route goes down Narrow Street, which if you haven’t guessed is rather narrow. Really very rather narrow. During training recce runs I had assumed we were going down Narrow Street because the actual race route was not available other than on the day, but no – 40,000 or so runners were actually expected to run down this tiny little back alley and past Gordon Ramsey’s pub.
They didn’t really fit.
Lots of people were walking by this point, and although the official advice is to move to the side if you are walking, realistically there was nowhere they could go. I got a bit frustrated at being boxed in, but it wasn’t anyone’s fault; it was just far too narrow. This continued until nearly 16 miles and I lost my momentum a bit. I spotted Catherine, my training buddy, just ahead and put my foot down a bit to catch her up. We had a quick chat but we were each committed to our own race plans, and kept going at our own respective paces.
I used to live really close to the 16 mile marker so I know this area of Docklands well, and I had thought it would make this section relatively easy. It didn’t. The sun was fully up by now and the clouds had largely gone. Docklands suddenly felt hillier than I remembered, and I was losing energy. I decided to take a gel early and sip more water, willing myself to hold pace at least until 20 miles.
I very nearly did it – I got to 18 in a fairly consistent pace but the wall of faces and noise through South Colonnade finished me off – I had to slow down for miles 19 and 20, feeling got at and disorientated. Everything in me was telling me to stop and walk. I wanted to stop so badly. I was afraid I was about to hit the wall, pass out, or both.
Fortunately for me a shining angel appeared in front of me in the form of the lovely Eagle Pammy, resplendent in her black Eagles vest with glittery name transfers. If I could just hold on and reach her, it would be ok – I could see if she was doing ok, have a chat, and keep going. I caught her after a minute or so, my plaintive cries of ‘Pammy! Pammy!’ earning me a few funny looks from other runners who must have wondered if I was just reading people’s names off their vests for fun.
Pam was also finding this bit of the route tough, and we kept each other’s feet moving for a bit before she told me to keep going. I’m going to take this opportunity to say a huge thank you to Pam for just being at that point at that time; I honestly think I would have stopped and walked if I hadn’t seen you – you saved my ass. Thank you.
Once past 20 miles and heading back to the Highway I started to think I should just hold on til I made it to the Eagles cheer point at Mile 23 (actually nearer 23.5 by my watch at this point, I calculated, which felt spectacularly unfair!).
Partway down the Highway I realised that I was now one of the runners on the other side of the road heading back to the Tower, and I glanced over to the 13 – 14 mile side. There were very few people on the outward stretch at this point, and I think I saw the sweeper truck coming up behind them. I checked my watch and saw that I had been going for 3hrs 54 minutes, and these people were only just at halfway. The idea of taking more than 8 hours to complete a marathon is quite staggering to me – to keep going for that long when you are outside of the main pack, the spectators might be drifting off, and you know how far you still have to go was genuinely humbling. They must have been very dedicated to the causes they were taking part for and I tipped my metaphorical hat to them all.
Closing in on Mile 23 now. Nearly there, nearly there. There was the Tower. What was that bloody big hill in front of the Tower? I was sure that had never been there before! How was I expected to run up a hill at this point?! Damn you, hill!
It’s not a hill of course, it’s a vaguely positive incline, but covered in runners whose heads seemed to be several feet higher than mine from my position at the bottom it certainly looked like a hill to me!
Up the ‘hill’ I went and it then seemed to take an excessively long time to get around the Tower. There’s a brilliant official picture of me (which I haven’t bought yet, sorry) staring right at the photographer with a ‘seriously? You take my picture and I’ll tell you where to shove that lens’ look on my face at this point. I was just hanging on for Mile 23, desperate to see my friends and family, starting to think of this as the real finish line – I just had to get there.
And then I got there. To my wonderful family and my beautiful running club. I saw them long before they saw me, at the bottom of the slope down from the tower, black and white balloons, banners and Mr. Eagle himself (actually I think it was herself on this occasion) hoving into view in the distance. I started waving like mad hoping they would see me coming but the look of shock on my friend Becky’s face when I suddenly appeared in front of her was a picture!
This was the part of the marathon I’d been looking forward to, even more than the finish on the Mall. Having been part of the cheer squad last year I knew how special this moment would be if I took the time to let it. I ran the high five gauntlet, managing hugs and kisses for Mr. Duff, my parents and my friend Jenny and an extra hug for Mr. Eagle. In place of trying to describe how I was feeling here I’ll let a few pictures tell the story, or I might cry on my keyboard and that won’t do anyone any good. It was so special.
I’d been telling myself for three miles that I could run/walk as soon as Mile 23 was out of sight but before I knew it I’d emerged from the underpass onto the Embankment, and all I could think was how much I would regret it if I made it all this way without walking and stopped running within sight of Big Ben. I also thought my body might decide I’d finished if I slowed down, and it might take me forever to get to the finish line. I couldn’t face that.
I might not be making 4:40, but I was still on for a PB. A big PB. Just a few more miles.
It felt like a real plod, but looking at my splits later I sped up again between miles 23 and the end, the Eagles’ cheer squad completely re-energised me. I was further buoyed up by seeing the Coram cheer point, and Coach Mark and his lovely lady Anthea just next to them. Another quick hug from Mark and I was into the final mile. I knew there was no sprint finish in there but as I turned the corner into the Mall I was back at my starting pace of 10:40.
I’d been given two Grandstand passes by Coram for raising a fair bit of money and I’d gifted them to my friend Caren who is a non-running friend but very supportive. She had sponsored me more than she should have, had kept up with my training and I knew she would scream her lungs out if she managed to see me. Scanning the crowd I was worried I’d missed her, but there she was! A vision in a red hoody, jumping up and down like a maniac in time to shouts of ‘Go, go, go! Run, run, run! Ange, Ange, Ange!’ I raised my arms to wave at her and blow her a kiss (there was a wild exchange of ‘love you!’, ‘love you more!’ which nearly made me cry) and there it was, the finish arch!
I was crossing the finish line of the London Marathon. The actual London Marathon. The one that you watch on telly when you’re a kid with no real idea what it’s about or how far it is. The one that you think of whenever you think of running ever since.
On the BBC footage you can see me raise my arms for the finish, check my watch, punch the air and then dissolve into tears.
I could tell you that I ran the 2017 London Marathon in 4:46:31. I could tell you this was a 9 minute PB for the distance. I could tell you that I had staggeringly consistent splits considering how much I was struggling between 17 and 23 miles. I could tell you that there was a difference of only 4 minutes between the first and second halves of my race, and that both were faster than my fastest half marathon time before I joined a running club. I could tell you I didn’t walk a single step of all 26.48 miles (by my watch).
And I can’t say that I don’t care about those things – of course I do – but my overriding sense of joy and pride had more to do with the fact that even 4 months ago I didn’t know if I would make it to the start line, let alone the finish line.
I’m not the fastest runner, but if you’ve ever completed a marathon you’ll know that achieving a certain time isn’t the first thing to worry about. It starts with getting round it at all. It’s possible, but it’s not easy. If you’ve ever completed a marathon in any time, don’t let anyone tell you it’s an easy thing to do.
If it was that easy everyone would do it, and they don’t do they?
No they don’t. But we did.
And we’ve got the big shiny medal to prove it.