I crossed the finish line mumbling “never again, never again” with the last ounce of energy I could muster. I had just run the hardest 26.2 miles of my life.
I had trained hard for the 2014 Virgin Money London Marathon and hadn’t missed a single training session. A few weeks previously I had run my longest training run, 20.4 miles at 8:21/mi pace. I wanted to run the London Marathon at a rather optimistic 8:00/mi pace and figured with the crowds, adrenalin and flat-ish course that I might be able to improve on 8:21/mi over the distance; how wrong I was.
Weather on the big day was much warmer than expected. I could tell standing on the zone 6 (of 9) start line that those runners with woolly hats, leggings and gloves would have to rethink their clothing strategy…or get hot. During the run I stepped over quite a few pairs of gloves, just discarded on the course — not really a surprise.
The first couple of miles were busy. Lots of runners jostling for limited road space. Organisation on the day was exceptional but nonetheless there were a lot of runners to squeeze out of Greenwich Park. Pace-wise I was doing really well with pace over the first five mile of 8:04, 7:45, 7:47, 7:46 and 7:57. Unfortunately, that was the best part. Miles 6 and 7 past The Cutty Sark were slower at 8:21 and 8:19 in part I think due to the caterpillar effect of all those runners slowing to go around the narrower course at that point but something else just didn’t feel right — I didn’t feel “on form” and sensed this run, although started well wasn’t going to finish the way I’d expected.
A slight speed-up at mile 8 to 8:15 once the throng had cleared a little was really the tipping point from which everything went downhill, race-wise.
I think the warm weather had me from mile 9 onwards when my pace just faded away; 8:21, 8:23, 8:29, 8:37 and by the time I turned to run over Tower Bridge, 9:01. Like water running through your fingers, my pace just slipped away and there was nothing I could do. At this point, crossing Tower Bridge I’d originally visualised myself running strongly across the bridge — it’s only half-way of course! The reality was different with the gradient up and over adding to the misery. The crowd there was amazing, shouting and cheering; a wall of noise that was amazing but really didn’t make me feel any better or conjure up any hidden energy reserves. At this point in the race I realised my ambitious target race time of 03:30:00 just wasn’t going to happen. Trying to keep running strong I passed the JDRF supporters between mile 13 and 14 and got treated to some enthusiastic waving and cheering which was great. At this point in the race I was struggling but worse was to come.
Miles 14 and 15 passed with continuing fading pace 9:31 and 9:44 and then somewhere between mile 15 and 16 I started to get cramp in both calves. I felt it building to the point where continuing to run felt like the muscle was just going to let go so I’d stop, stretch for 15–30 seconds, walk and then begin to run again resulting in a pace at mile 16 of 10:37.
I’d hit the wall…and it was a thick wall!
The cramp continued through miles 17–22 with pace of 10:14, 10:59, 9:54, 11:14 and finally 13:13, my slowest mile of the entire race. I also developed some cramp in my left quad. I think somewhere in this period I’d hit the wall…and it was a thick wall! This part of the race was the darkest of times. I was completely oblivious to where I was, passing mile markers, the JDRF supporters at mile 17 Mudchute Park and Farm (although they snapped me shuffling past) — it was grim. Somewhere in Docklands I stopped looking at my watch to see what distance I’d covered; they were just passing too slowly! However, I needed to make sure I kept taking an energy gel every 30 minutes* so I was trying to time these without really “looking” at the time but it wasn’t really possible so I knew I still had an hour or more of running left to do. I’d lost my bearings really and, depressingly remember seeing the O2 large and seemingly right in front of me after I had thought it was well behind me. This was probably about mile 20 just before we turned to start leaving Docklands, although I didn’t know where we were other than pretty close to the O2 — that’s miles from the finish, right?
At one point during the “Docklands depression” when I had stretched away another bout of muscle cramp, started to walk and, well, carried on walking I got a pat on the back from a fresh-looking fellow JDRF runner with the name “Sharpey” on her back as she ran past me and smiled. I don’t know who this was but if it was you I’m very grateful as it was enough to kick-start my tired old legs and get me running again.
* As a type 1 diabetic I can’t just shovel in energy gels and drinks willy-nilly during the race. During training I had tested my blood glucose before, during and after training runs to ensure it never went too high or too low. Through trial and error I discovered that if I could start a long run with a blood glucose of around 7mmol and take an energy gel every 30 minutes I could finish pretty much with the same blood glucose as I started. On race day itself my blood glucose an hour before the race was 6.7mmol but I’d eaten high-carb porridge and toast at 6am which I figured would be pushing this figure up in the hour before the race, especially as my breakfast bolus Humalog insulin would be waning at this point so I gave myself a final 1½ units of Humalog insulin before handing over my kit bag to the baggage lorries on Greenwich Park. I finished the race with a blood glucose of 10mmol which, after a marathon is pretty good albeit slightly elevated because of the extra energy drinks I had taken to combat dehydration and (perhaps just psychologically) ease the muscle cramps in my legs.
Mile 22 saw slightly improved pace of 10:00 in part because I only had just over four miles to go; that’s the same distance as one of my many “comfortable” training runs. I passed the JDRF support station again but this time nobody saw me and I passed by unnoticed.
Mile 23 saw similar 10:13 pace. I had long ago discarded any thought of getting a good time from this marathon instead trying hard to ensure I crossed the finish line running.
Mile 24’s pace was 10:07, spurred on no doubt by the amazing crowds and the smell of the finish line!
I had a blip at mile 25. I’m sure this is where I first caught sight of Big Ben in the distance…and it did seem to be some distance! The crowds were amazing along the Embankment. Just a mile to go after this one but it seemed to go on and on and on. I stopped to take on board some more water, energy drinks and compose myself for the run to the finish.
I turned the corner at Big Ben, I knew this was near the finish but foolishly I had no idea quite how near (or not) it was! Was it a few hundred metres? A mile? More? I wasn’t really thinking straight but there was a corridor of spectator noise pushing me down Birdcage Walk and the sign that said “385 yards to go” — I had done it. Barely able to put one foot in front of the other I crossed the finish line. Other runners stopped abruptly in front of me, stopping their watches, some doubling over exhausted and I had to jam on the anchors abruptly too. Had I actually crossed the line? We were stood on the red RFID mats that log your time via the timing chip attached to the running shoe; I walked around the stopped runners just to make sure I was “across” before I truly realised I had just completed the hardest run, nay, hardest anything I’d done in my life.
Finishers were funnelled into lanes where I queued behind five or six other finishers to have my timing chip removed. The lady in front of me stepped back, onto my toes — argh! “That’s all you need” she said and she was spot on. Little did I know but my toes were already a mess, worse than they usually get after long runs. I think I’d had an incident at one of the water stations where my foot had slipped and twisted in my shoe; I felt my toenails do something “unnatural” at that point but, luckily I guess, never felt them again until after the race. Suffice it to say I will lose four, maybe five of the toenails on my right foot. My left foot, maybe only two nails.
After the timing chip was removed a race marshal place a medal around my neck and congratulated me. Wow, I hadn’t really run “for a medal” but this moment was immense.
A short walk on and I was thinking “where’s the water? I need some water” and then I found myself at the end of a short queue for the “goody bags” which contained a much-needed bottle of Buxton spring water as well as an apple, cereal bar, energy drink, massage oil and finishers t-shirt. That t-shirt has become my favourite tee now — it’s always washed and dried quickly so I can wear it again!
Again, a little further on and the lorries containing the bags we’d all deposited at Greenwich were waiting for us with their contents laid out in numerical order. I moved to my lorry and before I’d even reached it the marshal had called my number “5931” and another marshal had passed her my bag which was handed over with another “well done.” Wow, what a slick and efficient organisation! The organisers, marshals and spectators are a huge part of making the London Marathon the race it is and really don’t get enough praise.
Then I was out into the meet and greet area in Horse Guards Road and St. James’s Park to meet my wife at the QR zone; there are alphabet zones arranged so people could more easily find each other. After a quick catch up and “can you walk?” status check we walked through St. James’s Park where my wife grabbed us a 99 and I took a photo of me with my medal. Out of St. James’s Park onto Buckingham Gate, down Palace St. and along Victoria St., the odd passer-by saying “well done” or “congratulations” when seeing the medal, which I was still wearing. We reached Victoria Train Station around 3pm, I got a £20.30 ticket back to Maidstone, we got a McDonald’s and waited for the 3:45pm train. I was back home by 5pm.
At the time of writing this post we had raised £1,388.75 (including gift aid) for the JDRF.
It was one of the hardest days of my life and one of the best. What a day!
Oh, and the 2015 ballot opens on 22nd April and I’ll be entering again — I feel I have unfinished business with this London Marathon. Only 125,000 people can enter the ballot before it closes and only 15,000 places are available so even if you can get in the ballot before the website closes you still only have a 1 in 8 chance of getting a place in the 2015 Virgin Money London Marathon. It took me six years of trying to get my ballot place for 2014; that’s why I feel so privileged to have run in it this year.
The numbers: I finished in 4:10:06. 14,079th out of 35,819 overall. 10,760th out of 22,570 male runners. 1,517th out of 2,930 in my division (MEN 45 – 49). Over the final 7.2k I passed 441 runners and 466 runners passed me! My average pace over the race distance was 9:32/mi and my average speed was 6.3mph.