It’s April 2018, I’ve been watching some of the London Marathon on TV. I’ve been running since the start of 2017. About a month before I’d managed to do my first Parkrun without having to stop and walk part of it, and I was still a couple of weeks away from completing my first 10K. So naturally, I decided to enter for next year’s Marathon, because I probably wouldn’t get in, but even if I did, how hard could it be?
It’s August 2018 and Brain Research UK are offering me a place to run for them, and before that it’s 2006 and I’m walking from John O’Groats to Land’s End to raise money for them. Before that, it’s October 2005 and my brother Simon’s died from a brain tumour, and I want to do something to mark his memory. Before that, it’s the 1990s, he’s not yet been diagnosed and he’s running marathons.
It’s October 2018 and I come to find a Congratulations magazine in the post, telling me I’ve won a ballot place for the Marathon. Some people I know have applied in the ballot for years and never got a place, I got one first time. This is somewhere between the vagaries of blind luck and something in the universe deciding I definitely need to do this now.
It’s December 2018, and after years of suffering from dementia and slipping away piece by piece, my Mum is dying. I’ve told her about my running and that I’m following in Simon’s footsteps, and I hope she understood that somewhere.
And then it’s April 28th, 2019 and I’m heading to Greenwich in my running gear.
Have you ever had a dream where you turn up somewhere — a theatre, a concert hall, a festival, a lecture — and discover that you’re actually the one they’ve all come to see and it’s time for you to get up and perform? That’s what the start of the marathon feels like.
You get to Greenwich and there’s thousands of people there all milling through the park, then you have to leave the people you’re with to go into the start area, where you find yourself as part of a long, long, queue of people. Except this queue isn’t to get into somewhere, or to see something, it’s the start of your performance, all of you shuffling over the grass until you’re suddenly on the road, and everything’s thinning out. You pick up your feet, move from a shuffle to a walk to a slow run, then you’re under the arch and out on the course where people are already calling your name and telling you it’s not far to go now.
The first mile goes by in a blur. Not of speed, when your starting zone is number 8 of 8, and you get to watch Kipchoge, Sir Mo and all the others starting on the big screen before they even let you get into the queue for the start line, you’re not in the marathon because of any great pace. No, this is a blue of adrenalin, that realisation you’re actually in this thing with 40,000 people, that the person they’re cheering on is you and yes, you’re actually doing this.
The second mile is when it hits you that you’ve got 25 more of these to do and the people all around you start becoming actual people rather than distractions. It’s when you realise you can drift to the side of the road to give high-fives to waiting kids and families, some of them counting off the number they’ve received in the last hour. It’s when everyone starts sorting their pace out and you start moving as a group with others around you.
It’s also when you realise there are some volunteers in Charlton whose marathon experience is standing at the side of the road shouting “humps!” for a couple of hours.
The first water station appears, and from now on the course will be littered with plastic bottles, mostly cast to the side of the road and out of the way of your feet, but not always. It’s where the race gets bigger, with the two main starts running side by side for a while, then finally merging together after they’ve taken different routes around a roundabout to match up their distances.
At this point it all starts feeling quite easy, cruising along at a steady pace down the long downhill through Woolwich as you head towards the river. It was all pretty comfortable for me at this point, bottle of water in hand, heading towards 5K.
My plan was quite simple. I was going to tackle the race as a series of 5K chunks, taking a walking break at each one to ease off and check everything was fine before kicking on again. Well, at least I had a plan, and south of the river it still held up.
At 5K, you run over your first timing mat, and my main concern there was that it was working and the timing chip on my right shoe was properly attached to make sure it got recorded. I walked for long enough to sip down my water, check everything felt fine, and then picked my feet up and got back to running.
This was the God section, in my hastily ordered memory of the race. At one point there were large churches, big billboards outside advertising their events, music playing and people cheering us all on. Then a few hundred metres down the road, a man standing alone at the side of the road, bible in hand, preaching about something neither the few young spectators or passing runners paid any attention to.
You can say the London Marathon is like a massive street party, and for a lot of the length it is, but there are times when it becomes a bit more bleak. Say hello to Charlton, where you run along the A206 past weekend-closed builders’ merchants and retail parks normally fed by the closed roads you’re running on. Running past an empty car park isn’t the most energising of activities.
At least I was running the right direction now, heading west towards the centre of the city, glances to the right revealing the occasional peek at the river and then Canary Wharf, sitting in the distance as a reminder there’s a long way to go just to get there, let alone to the finish.
At this point, the roads are long and straight and flat, so I was happy to just be heading down them, knocking off the miles, still feeling pretty good and in my comfort zone. The crowds were picking up again, and more landmarks were starting to appear as we headed into Greenwich, completing the loop from the train station a few hours ago.
Time stops having much meaning as you head around the course. Sure, there was a watch on my wrist and digital clocks on every mile post, but those were showing two forms of race time, 52 minutes apart. The official clocks start when the elite runners start, with the rest of us left to use our devices to work out how long its taken us and remember that it hasn’t really taken two hours to cover those first six miles. Neither of those clocks were showing the actual time, though, and as the day went on, I’d occasionally glimpse something with that on and be really confused about what it meant.
A series of boosts at this point. First, crossing 10k and taking another short walking break, realising all was fine, knocking back some more water and then carrying on with the running.
By this point, I’d got used to hearing my name shouted from the crowd, so it took me a moment to realise that the person shouting it a few times wasn’t a particularly devoted spectator, or that I’d started running alongside people with the same name, but that my partner was standing outside Greenwich Museum trying to get my attention as I ran past. A quick dash over the road, then it was back on the way and around Cutty Sark which is a key point on the route. It gives the TV coverage some great shots, but for runners it’s the first big landmark and a sign that you’ve made it a quarter of the way around the course.
It was also where — as I discovered after the event in multiple messages from then — when I featured on TV. One advantage of being tall and wide is that when they show a generic shot of the crowd running you tend to stand out more than most, especially when you accidentally end up in the centre of the shot. And if you want evidence of TV distorting everything, it definitely didn’t feel anything like as crowded round there as the picture makes it look.
Something else you don’t see often on the TV coverage of the marathon is the pace runners making their way around the course. I mean, of course you see the elite pacers, leading the way at the front of the race to help the professionals get their best times, but back in the main body of runners there’s a large team of runners running a variety of speeds to help you get around in a specific time. I’d decided not to follow anyone in particular but had started off the run just ahead of the 5:45 pacers and kept them behind me while running comfortably for that first chunk of the race.
Coming up to the mile 8 marker, I stopped for a quick loo break and by the time I came out, they were past me. They wouldn’t be the last pacers to do that.
My main pacing technique wasn’t following time, anyway, but watching my heart rate. My plan was to keep it in the 130s as much as possible, preferably the lower end, as I knew that meant I was going comfortably and not straining too much. So, I let the pacers keep their pace, and I kept mine, and for a while I could keep them in view so things were still all right.
Rotherhithe’s an odd place. It’s one of the places where the route starts taking a few twists and turns so you’re not quite sure which direction you’re going in, and then you find yourself running past rows of blocks of flats (sorry, they’re probably “luxury riverside apartments”, aren’t they?) that apparently don’t have many people living in them so everything went very quiet for a while.
And then there were people around the side of the road, but this time the roads had quite wide grass verges, so rather than spectators pressing at crash barriers, there were people on deckchairs, tables set up with food and barbecues going, beers being casually drunk as I jogged through this suburban Sunday street party. All of that loop felt very different from the rest of London around it, but tempting as it was, I avoided the temptation of joining someone’s picnic buffet and kept plodding my way around.
No battle plan survives contact with the enemy, and no race plan survives the appeal of a nice round number. I’d kept to the plan at 5K and 10K, but at 15K I chose to carry on a little longer. Ten miles was a nice little landmark distance to take a break at, wasn’t it? And only another kilometre down the road. Looking back at my times, things didn’t get noticeably tougher after this, so maybe it wasn’t mistake, but it feels like I should have kept to the plan longer.
But when I got to 10, I was still feeling fine, if a little tighter in places than I had been at the start line. Everything was working, and nothing was hurting in a “we need to have a serious word about this running thing” way. I was taking on water, fuelling myself well and doing OK. I was also spending a lot of time running by Dave The Running Telephone, a Samaritans fundraiser in a big green telephone outfit.
Let’s talk about sweets, shall we? Because there’s a dirty secret runners, especially the slower ones, like to hide. We can all pretend we have clever fuelling strategies, and go round the Marathon Expo and compare the different types of energy gels, drinks, blocks and whatever, but on the day the key fuel of the Marathon is jelly babies and Haribo. Every year, companies must spend thousands on targeting Marathon runners, building ever more complex stands for the Expo, and whatever else they can think of to grow their market share, and every year Maynard Bassetts and Haribo laugh at them.
All round the course, there are people offering all sorts of things to get you going, and it’s an amazing bit of generosity when you think about how many thousands of runners had already gone by by the time I was making it around, but they were still there, dishing out the sweets, the biscuits, the orange segments and all sorts of things just to help us all get the fuel on board to go round. Sure, there were also plenty of stations offering free Lucozade Sport too, but sweets taste nicer.
So, at this point in the narrative, I have a confession to make. I started the marathon with the grand plan of writing a great post about it all at the end, and one way of doing that was going to be remembering something interesting or important from each mile of it.
It’s around this point when I ended up forgetting about that idea. This isn’t anything to do with Southwark and Bermondsey, where the streets were getting filled with people again, all cheering us on and helping us through, but more a recognition that it was around this point that my attention started turning more inward, having to be more conscious of myself than my surroundings. It’s the point where the challenge became more obvious than the atmosphere, I guess.
This is the thing about any endurance challenge. There comes a point for all of us where it doesn’t matter how well trained you are because you’re pushing past where it wants to be. For me, it’s not about telling yourself to keep pushing, it’s finding a way to distract myself from obsessing over how every part of me feels. When I’m on a long walk, it’s easy to do that with idle thoughts and daydreams, but running is harder as keeping going takes more and more of my attention than walking ever does.
But I had a bunch of boosts to come, so I pushed on.
Tower Bridge is a special point on the marathon route. It’s the 20K point, it marks the route finally going north of the river and it’s where you enter a wall of noise that doesn’t really let up for a few miles. I hadn’t quite been paying attention to where I was, so even though I’d been in that area a couple of weeks ago and seen the view already, it was still a bit of a shock to turn the corner and see the bridge ahead, looming over everything. It’s also a bit of a distraction to see the number of runners who stop on the way up to it to take a selfie, especially if they’re right in front of you.
The bridge feels a lot longer that it, partly because after having had a long flat bit, it’s a slope up and down, but also because it’s crammed with people and cheer zones for charities, a mass of faces and flags all urging you on as you head up and then down, off the bridge, taking time for a quick glance at the Tower to the left before the road agonisingly turns right and even though you’re on the right side of the river, you’re heading away from the finish line again but there’s an important milestone on the way.
There’s a mile marker to show you’ve gone through thirteen miles, but I wasn’t focused on it. I was looking at the one a little way past it, announcing the halfway point, knowing that even though I was heading away from the finish at that point, it meant that figuratively I was turning around and heading for home, and every step from now was just matching one from earlier. I’d made it that far in under three hours and I was still feeling pretty good, even if more of me was feeling tight now.
What I also knew halfway meant was that I’d soon be reaching the Running Colchester cheer zone. Running Colchester started as a local Facebook group, then just grew into a lot more, becoming the Purple Army you see at all the local events (and on the buff I was wearing through the marathon). There were several runners from RC taking part on Sunday — and I haven’t asked, but I might have been the last of them — and a group had come down to cheer us all on and show we had their support as we pushed for the finish. It’s amazing how much little things like that can give you a little boost, something to help as the race gets tougher and tougher.
Looking back at my times for the race, I think this is the point things started to go wrong. I’d been hoping to get round in under six hours and was just about on course for that. Then I stopped for a loo break.
Here’s another little marathon challenge no one tells you about: toilet queues. There are hundreds of portaloos all around the course and you can guarantee that the amount you need to use them is going to be proportional to the length of time you’ll need to wait to get to use one. I’d been holding on for a while, hoping for a time I wouldn’t have to stand around and wait too long, but by the time I got to Limehouse I had to stop and wait to get in one.
Maybe I should have been stretching better in the queue, maybe I should have held on for a shorter wait, maybe I should have done something before I started again, or maybe it was just coincidence but it was after that stop that the tightness I’d been feeling up to then got noticeably worse. My lower back got sore and my right calf started tightening and cramping significantly once I ran more than a few minutes. As there were still a couple of hours of running needed to finish, this was going to be a problem.
It turns out that the oddness of Rotherhithe was just preparation for the full-on weirdness of Docklands. The crowds that had been lining the route along The Highway all seemed to disappear as the course suddenly veered off the main road and down through what felt like the entrance to a car park. Suddenly we were moving through narrower and emptier streets, some people out to watch the marathon, others just getting on with their day. The route twists and turns through the streets, dropping down into a pretty bleak tunnel at the fifteen-mile point, the mile marker stuck down in the depths of it looking pretty forlorn and abandoned.
I had one tool left to help me through this bit. Until a couple of days before I’d been sure that you couldn’t wear headphones on the marathon as they’d been banned on every other race I’d entered. Then I discovered that they weren’t banned, so I’d stuck mine in my pocket, ready to use if I felt I needed a distraction at some point. I didn’t put them on for long, but they definitely helped for that half hour or so, giving me something to aim towards when doing my running sections — just keep going to the end of this song.
25K soon came and went, but the old plan had completely left the building by this point. Now I was nursing my cramps and pains to the finish.
Passing sixteen miles was an important psychological point as getting a bit past that meant there were just ten miles to go and things always feel much closer and easier when they’re in single figures.
They’re not closer and easier when you’re plodding round Docklands with no great sense of where you are and what direction you’re going in. It’s an odd mix of small scale housing developments and massive skyscrapers like two confused sets of planners were at work, one making a place where people would live, the other a place where robots would go to work.
I’m looking at the map and trying to piece together the order of my memories for all this section. I know I ran through it all, and the names all sound like places I passed through, but none of it seems to hang together coherently. I do recall getting very confused at turning a corner and seeing the O2 looking very clear and much closer than I thought it should be, then remembering we were in that bit where north and south of the river pressed into each other like two swerving Us. Was that in this mile? I have no idea.
It gets a bit clearer here as mile 18 had a special milepost, remembering Stephen Lawrence, which marked one of the few points where I stopped en route to take a picture. It’s something that seems like a nice touch, but the main feature of all the mileposts are that they’re things you go past and don’t linger at — especially at that point in the run — so all the things on it and the messages it was playing were going out to nobody as there wasn’t much of a crowd at that point. The big buildings around it were a sign we were entering Canary Wharf itself.
Suddenly, we were in a whole new world, running through a cavern formed by the giant towers either side of us, great expanses of water all around and trains moving without drivers on tracks that were hanging up in the air. For a short time, we were back in the city again, back surrounded by people and even another surprise appearance by my partner outside the tube station, just getting my attention in time for a wave before I headed up the road and through the 30K marker. I would have stopped, but I’d decided that keeping in motion was the most important thing for me now, and the way I would knock out the miles. Even if I was going to be walking more than actually running, I could at least move onwards.
Docklands faded into Poplar, and the route takes an out and back loop to go around the main roads, going again into one of those empty spaces with few spectators around. By this point, everybody was moving in fits and starts, with few people running consistently and most doing it in short bursts, leading to a lot of yo-yoing back and forth as we passed and re-passed each other. I spent a good period of time around here doing that with one of the runners in a Save The Rhino costume. Rhino Dingle, according to the sign on his side, but we both too knackered to hold any sort of conversation so I can find out how he’d got that name. In my mind it’ll always be because a confused West Brom fan thought all rhinos come from Wolverhampton for some reason, but that’s probably not the case.
Now the route turned back to the west, but just as importantly, you could sense that everyone had realised that getting past twenty miles was a major achievement because now there was just 10K to go and distances were starting to come down to things you could conceive of.
Which was the sort of thing I was telling myself as we all shuffled — it’s not really right to call it running — and walked our way through Poplar and Limehouse. Heading west meant the big towers of the City were visible now, and I tried to remember their names. The Gherkin! The Walkie-Talkie! The Anonymous Rectangular Block! The Still Under Construction But Definitely Not Going To Look As Glamorous As The Artwork! I may have made some of those up, but they helped to pass the time.
I’m almost frustrated that I didn’t hit the wall. Or The Wall, as it sounds when marathon runners talk about it. It’s what happens when your body depletes all its energy stores and you find yourself completely out of gas with a few miles to go. I’d love to be able to say I was going well but I hit the wall, but a lack of energy wasn’t my problem. The problem wasn’t lifting my legs, or having enough breath to keep powering myself on, but the pain I was getting as I moved. When I walked, the pain in my calf faded away and my back felt like it was actually capable of some movement, but when I started running, it became a test of which would tighten up first and worst. Sometimes it was the calf, tightening up like it was about to cramp, sending signals that it was best to stop running before something went badly wrong. The other times it was my back, tensing and radiating pain throughout the rest of my body. A few times, my left ankle chipped in with a few sparks of pain, like it wanted to join the party, but the others shut that down, not wanting their party stopped.
We were back on The Highway, the long stretch where the Marathon goes alongside itself in two different directions. On the way out, it’s the mile or so from halfway into Docklands, on the way back it’s that time as the distance to go drops down into more and more manageable concepts. It had gone from being just 10K in my head, to just being the same distance as it is from my house to Wivenhoe, with the prospect that it wouldn’t be long before there was just a Parkrun to go. I could feel it getting closer, but was trying not to let myself relax too much and think it was all done, that I was definitely going to finish now. All around me I could see people starting to slow down quite dramatically, or others sitting at the side of the road, trying to will themselves to get up and keep going. Support marshals were walking with some runners, talking through injuries and pain, limps were getting more pronounced, eyes getting hollower as everyone sank deeper into themselves for that final push.
When I’d been on the other side of the road, this side had been full of runners, a great mass of them moving determinedly and aiming for a time around four hours. Now we were just as determined, but pushing on a lot slower than they’d been and the other side of the road didn’t have any runners on it, just cleaning trucks slowly trundling around the course, washing away the remnants of the race, sweeping up the mountains of plastic bottles.
Then I heard my name being shouted again. I’d almost tuned out the crowd by this point, just letting them be a generic noise instead of responding to everyone cheering me on, but this managed to cut through as it was just my name with no “come on” or “you’ve got this”. I looked to where it was coming from and saw my Running Colchester friends Jenny and Matt were still there cheering people on, waving me over to join them. Want to know how tired I was at that point? Jenny, who’s a lot shorter and smaller than me, gave me a hug which almost pulled me over the barrier before I managed to steady myself and move on again. But, just like the earlier RC cheer zone, it was one of those great little boosts of energy and motivation to make it to the end.
I was back at the Tower, heading down towards the Embankment and the long home stretch was coming close. I’d also developed a brand new source of pain, the back of my neck becoming really tight, and tensing up my shoulder blades, my body having decided that the calf and lower back combination needed an upper body accompaniment.
“You eat it like a cherry tomato.” She says, dropping a couple of squidgy orange balls into my hand. I start thinking of creamy slices of mozzarella and basil, wondering how I slice this thing in half.
It’s a little shot of Lucozade Sport, wrapped in a plastic film made of seaweed to be totally biodegradable and reduce waste. At the point I get it, it’s a tantalising shot of liquid in a weird rubbery ball that I’m not quite sure how to access. Despite taking water from almost every drink station, I’m getting really thirsty as we get towards the end, feeling the dryness on my lips. I try and take the ball as a whole like a big and very squishily ripe tomato but my lips balk at the sensation, and instead I manage to somehow bite a hole in the corner of it and suck out the liquid, letting the package drop. The second one goes down the same way and I’m aware of the sticky floor beneath my feet, the spilt drink mixing with the degrading packets into something probably best not looked at too closely. I can’t decide if this is going to turn out to be a weird little trial that we all vaguely remember, or a “hey, remember when we thought trying to eat a plasticky ball of fluid during a run was weird?” thing.
Though maybe the real test will come when they offer them earlier in a run, at a point when people aren’t desperate for anything that offers a vague prospect of hydration or something to distract them from the pain as they look for the final signs.
There’s a Stephen King book called The Long Walk, about a brutal contest in an alternate America where a hundred teenagers have to walk continually, keeping above a minimum speed with the stragglers being shot until only one survives to claim the prize. It’s been a while since I read it, but the closing scenes of that came to mind as we shuffled our way down the Embankment, all of us scattered across the road, forcing ourselves onwards and finding a camaraderie in making sure everyone kept going. There were still crowds and cheer stations set up along the roadside, but the most motivating part of that section was hearing the muttered well dones and keep goings from the other runners as we passed and repassed each other. There was little pretence about trying to continually run at this point, most of us happy to walk with occasional little bursts of running, saving everything up for the end and one last moment of glory.
We went past the 40K marker, then the 25 mile one, the mass of scaffolding that hides Big Ben suddenly clear and visible.
I could see the Brain Research UK cheer point and the people there, but somehow I’d managed to get myself onto the other side of the road from it, and the thought of veering over to join them, adding distance on when I didn’t need to, possibly stopping or slowing down, was too much. So I waved hello, shouted thanks, tried to communicate something of all that to them and then pressed on. I knew the distance now was just a walk in the park, literally as far as it is from the bottom of East Hill in Colchester to home. I’d walked or run that hundreds of time, especially during my marathon training when I was regularly lumbering back along there at the end of a long run.
The route takes you along by St James’ Park as you enter the last kilometre and they’ve set up marker posts along there to count down every two hundred metres. It’s amazing how far two hundred metres feels at that point. Past the 800m to go mark I could see something in the distance and assumed that it was the 400m marker, but it turned out to be the 600m to go one. I was still moving, still focusing on the finish but was now focusing everything on making it over the line as best I could.
I’d told myself I was going to run over the finish line. This meant walking a lot of the final mile or so, preparing myself for the final push, knowing it was going to hurt, but knowing that I had it in me for one last push towards the line. To my left, there was Buckingham Palace, and to my right the course turning into the Mall, under the final archway proclaiming just 385 yards to go. For a moment, I cursed the royals of 1908, who’d got the marathon set at that distance to fit from Windsor to the Olympic Stadium in White City. Without them, I could have been finished already, or maybe someone somewhere would have given the marathon a nice round distance like 25 miles or 40K.
But they didn’t, and so I had this short stretch to do. I could see the finish line, and the now rather empty stands of spectators either side of it and I knew that I could make it from there. I ran, not fast or sprinting, just slow and steady but more than a walk. I was passing people who were walking in, but also being passed by people who’d somehow found the energy and the motivation to push themselves into a sprint for the line as I pounded off those last few metres.
And then, it was over. I could stop. I could amble instead of walk, I could try and force my aching shoulders forward to lean down and get a finisher’s medal, knowing I’d earned it. I could even make an easy choice between Extra Small and Extra Large for my finisher’s t-shirt and read the numbers on the side of the van to get my bag back. I could even remember, when I found a concrete block to perch on and discover just how much fun it was to sit down, to take a quick selfie of me in my sweat-soaked kit and medal, just to fix that moment.
I’d completed a marathon, and it occurred to me that if my brother Simon had been there, he’d have been winding me up already about how I was a couple of hours slower than his best time.
Thanks for reading — and if you want to make a donation to help me make all the pain worth it, visit my fundraising page here.