Flora London Marathon
26th April 1998
(Click here for a diagram of the course)
When I was little I had three big dreams: walk the Pennine Way (270-300 miles, or 435-483 Km, of demanding walking from the middle of England to the south of Scotland), swim the English Channel (21 miles or 34 Km) and run the London marathon (26 miles, 42 Km).
Don't ask me why, that's just what I decided I wanted to do and I've never been one to listen to anyone who tells me I can't do something (which often drove my parents and my school teachers potty!) I did the Pennine Way in 1987 with a friend and also did a few other stupid things like canoe around most of England in one sitting, but the Channel always seemed a bit elusive as it's very expensive to do. However the London Marathon was more achievable and I managed to get a free pass by virtue of working for the London Ambulance Service, who are given a number of free tickets each year. So I applied and my name was drawn out of the hat.
I was full of good intentions when I applied; I fully intended to put in some hard training, carbohydrate loading and generally get marathon-fit. However things did not go to plan. I had a holiday booked; I had to pack and move house; I had to help organise a weekend away with my motorcycle club; and then I sustained a back injury at work.
It would be fair to say that I had not done enough training when I went to register four days before the big day in fact the furthest I had run was a 1500 metre race when I was at school - and I'd lost that. I hadn't even bought a decent pair of trainers, so I got up at 06:30, pulled on a pair of track suit bottoms (my shorts didn't fit me any more - in fact I think they were a bit tight in that 1500 metre race) and put on a pair of trainers I used to play squash in. "What the heck" I thought - this was something I'd always told myself I would do. I'd see how far I got - and I had eaten an awful lot of pasta recently
My wife and my parents had both been with me the previous night and all of them had said that I shouldn't do it - couldn't do it, but that was just like a red rag to a bull. My wife refused to help me in any way, shape, or form which resulted in my having to actually look for my track suit bottoms and my parents both swore blind that I'd have a heart attack at just getting up and running 26 miles, so I was pretty much on my own. However with this opposition, there was now no way that I wasn't coming home having completed this thing, or having broken myself trying. I'd crawl all the way if I had to.
So I rode my wife's motorbike up to near the finish point and took a train to the start. I was surprised to see the train station was so packed and everyone seemed to have proper shoes and running gear. I tried to hide my rather dirty squash shoes and prayed that no one asked me how long I'd been training for. As the train stopped to drop us all off near Greenwich Park it was a gorgeous day and there were people everywhere, helicopters flying overhead, stalls, crowds - it was quite a good atmosphere. I stretched out a bit and tried to look like I knew what I was doing and I just began to have a hint of butterflies in the stomach. I hoped I could do this.
The start was quite slow - 30 000 runners all running at once tend to start by walking and gradually pick up pace. I surprised myself at how well I ran the first four miles, doing a mile every 6-7 minutes and it was quite pretty to start with (until we hit Woolwich at least). At this rate, I thought, I'd be home in time for the start of the Imola F1 grand prix! However after about 5 miles I hit a barrier.
I assume that this is 'the wall' that everyone else talks about which comes in at about 18-20 miles (29-32 Km) - I'd just hit mine a bit earlier.
I could feel my legs getting heavier and my lungs breathing more rapidly, so I slowed right down to a jog - whereupon I began to feel my calf muscles complain. I passed the Cutty Sark, which I've always liked and didn't realise until later that I missed the opportunity to knock 10 miles (16 Km) off the course by ducking down the Greenwich foot tunnel. (Having said that, questions could well have been asked if I'd then beaten some of the elite runners!)
The streets were lined with people, many of whom had sweets, bananas and cakes that they held out for runners to take as they ran passed. I had had absolutely no inkling that nutrition would even be important for a 26 mile race, let alone bring anything or prepare, and I am eternally grateful to whoever-it-was that held out a banana that I grabbed. I remember saying "Thanks" as I grabbed it, but I had no idea that that banana would replenish so much of my sapped energy and mentally give me a huge boost. Little children held their hands out for you to 'slap' as you ran past and I began to get into the spirit of the marathon.
This wasn't a race, this was an event where millions are raised for good causes and many people join together in a kind of celebration. My pace, however, got slower and at the 13 mile (21 Km) mark I was praying to see the next marker, which indicated that it was further to go back than it was to continue to the finish. I'd just been through Rotherhithe, Surrey Quays industrial park and Bermondsey, none of which can be called terribly inspiring when in need of a lift.
I don't remember much about the next part of the 'race'. It was hard, hard going and I desperately wanted to stop. I knew that if I kept going forwards I would eventually get there, but I was experiencing some severe cramp in my thigh muscles, added to which a heavy burst of rain had caused my track suit bottoms to get wet and chafe on my inner thighs, which were becoming very sore. I separated the race up in my mind into water station areas, toilet areas and mile markers so that there was always something to look forward to.
Tower Bridge was pretty and I just continued until the Isle of Dogs appeared - another fairly uninspiring run, although there is a point where you can look to the other side of the road and see runners who are a few miles behind you. I was pleased that there were still people behind me as I felt I was running so slowly and so painfully - but actually I wasn't performing too badly
At about 20 mile (32 Km) I began to get very emotional. For some reason I became euphoric and then, a few minutes later, very tearful. Is this what marathon running does to you? I tried to take my mind off my overworked legs by making a mental note of who had overtaken me: two teletubbies, three clowns (one of which was 12 feet high), 2 Elvises, 3 Tarzans, an emu, Captain Hook, Jim Carey's 'Mask' character, a carton of orange juice and the Pope. On the plus side I was still ahead of all of the Wombles and four rhinos.
The next five miles dragged on and on, but I was surprised that I was still managing five miles an hour. I began to recognise the London I knew and saw Billingsgate market and the Tower of London. Ah yes, the Tower where all those wretched cobbles are. My legs were tired, my arms were heavy, my muscles ached, and some idiot had decided that routing the runners over cobbled streets was a good idea. I concentrated hard on not twisting my ankles and had a look at the Tower on the way past...it is a good sight. Then Monument appeared and then we went down Embankment (I don't remember it being so long when I drove down it last) with the tunnels and long views ahead. Cleopatra's needle was also quite pleasant in the sun and then I knew that Buckingham Palace and Big Ben were close.
As the 26 mile marker became an oasis ahead of me, I resolved to sprint as much of Birdcage Walk and The Mall as I could. I reached the '800 metres to go' line, the Palace was on my left and I reflected that I had just run 26 miles. The emotion became too much and I had tears in my eyes as I crossed the finishing line - but I did cross it and I had finished.
My time? Put it this way: the winner of the men's elite could have given me a 13 mile (21 Km) head start and still beaten me comfortably.
I had to double check with an official that it really was all over. My legs felt like lead and after five minutes rest I almost couldn't move, but I picked up my finisher's medal and staggered across Westminster Bridge to the motorbike and rode home, a boyhood ambition fulfilled. I had to have help to get off the bike the other end and it took me three days to be able to climb the stairs again, but I went home with a smile on my face. Inside, I had always known I would.
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