As I write this, a little over two weeks have passed since the 2018 London Marathon. Most people seemed to get their race reports out within days of the event, but I needed some time to process everything before I could write anything coherent. Hey, last year it took me six months to write it up!
The last few weeks of training went really well, and just before the festivities of the Easter weekend kicked in, we managed to get to 22 miles on our longest run. After all that excitement, tapering felt a bit strange. I found it really hard to believe that my fitness wasn’t draining away like water out of a bathtub, and having our weekend runs over in an hour or so was novel after weeks of time-consuming miles!
In the week before race day we started to notice that the weather forecast was warming up, and not just by a little bit. As the weekend approached the sun came out and the temperatures headed into the mid twenties. Ordinarily this would have had me gleefully digging out my shorts and joining in with the nation’s sudden obsession with barbecues, but this time there was the small matter of 26.2 miles to worry about… When all of your training runs have been done in single digit temperatures, 24 degrees and sunny is a scary, scary prospect.
As if that wasn’t enough to worry about, poor Matt went down with tonsillitis and had to make a last minute plea to his GP for some penicillin. Although the doctor clearly thought that he was crazy to be entertaining the thought of running a marathon in that state, she didn’t mention any medical reason that he shouldn’t, so we made the decision to give it a try.
On the Friday morning we caught the train from Didcot into London, made the trek across to Greenwich to our hotel (this time getting the navigation right, thankfully) and then headed to the Expo. In another of the many coincidences that led us here (the first being both getting ballot places in the first place!) our race numbers were only 15 apart, so we joined the same queue to collect our bibs. Within minutes we were done and made our way into the colourful, noisy, adrenaline-filled atmosphere of the main exhibition.
Matt made a beeline for the marathon branded clothes, grabbed a long-sleeved training top with a huge grin and announced “ok, I’ve got my top now, I’m happy”. It turned out he’d been worrying that he’d miss out on the kind of top he wanted, which explained why he’d practically been dragging me into the hall! After he’d landed that coveted top we explored in a slightly more leisurely fashion, I did my usual trick of piling my arms high with things I wanted and then putting most of them back, and still ended up spending way too much money! Still, it’s pretty much the definition of a one off event (or two off, for me, but let’s not worry about that…)
We wandered in a slightly dazed fashion around the rest of the hall, at one point stopping to try out a pair of recovery compression boots, which felt absolutely amazing (side note: whyyyy are they so expensive?!) and taking advantage of the £15 massage offer (we had not planned ahead for this and I had to do an awkward shuffle out of my jeans whilst wrapped in a towel, while Matt just whipped off his shorts and hopped right up on the table in his boxers. It’s possible that this tells you something about the fundamental differences in our personalities!)
Leaving the Expo, hungry again, we grabbed an ice cream by the river, before heading back to the hotel for a rest. Dinner was a rather indulgent (but very delicious) Pizza Hut.
We had planned to keep Saturday as relaxed as possible, but that’s pretty difficult on a hot day in the city! We headed first to Oxford Street to visit the Tag Heuer store and enter their competition to win a smart watch. While there we got talking to one of the salesmen and ended up having to turn down his offer of free champagne – running what have you done to me?!
After a hot and sweaty walk we ended up eating an M&S picnic (it’s not just a picnic…) in Hyde Park and enjoying watching the world go by. Deciding against any more walking we headed back to the hotel to get our stuff ready (neither of us are capable of packing light, so there was a LOT to sort out!) before meeting up with my parents for the obligatory pasta dinner.
Race day morning, and the nerves were there, though less so than last year. I knew that I was physically fit, that my legs could cover the distance, and that I had the best partner -ever to run with! The breakfast room was packed with slightly nervous-looking people in lycra, and we didn’t linger over our porridge. Back in the room it was sun cream on, contact lenses in, race number pinned and trainers laced. And then we headed out into the sunshine for the short walk to the start. Just outside the hotel we bumped into a nervous looking runner who asked sheepishly if we were going to the Blue start and if she could tag along. As we walked she told us that it was her first marathon and I was able to answer some of her questions (and boy did it feel weird to be “in the know” like that – I still don’t really believe that I am a two-time marathoner!)
Once we got to Blackheath we got swept up in the crowd and after a quick wave and a shout of “good luck” to our new friend, we headed towards the baggage lorries. So focused were we on finding our numbers we walked right past the correct lorry and a volunteer had to whistle to get our attention! There was no question of needing to hang on to our extra layers as it was already getting hot, so we ditched our stuff and joined the queue for the portaloos. While we waited we chatted nervously to the people around us, took pictures and tried not to think about how hot we were! After the necessary was done we headed down to our starting pen and parked ourselves on the grass to wait for the off.
Now let me say that I was NOT a fan of the new “wave” starts. Last year as soon as 10am arrived we started moving, and just naturally crossed the start line about 20 minutes later with very little fuss. This year we didn’t move at all until about 10:20 and I think it was close to half past by the time we actually started running. It was impossible to hear what was going on up front and it was very frustrating. I hope that they reconsider for the future – especially since it didn’t even help with crowding in the first few miles, which was the whole point of doing it.
Crossing the start line of a race is always a strange feeling for me. There is a bit of excitement, a bit of fear, and a sense of “I will never be further from the finish than I am right now”. But at last, after months of preparation, we were off.
As we settled in to running, it was already uncomfortably hot, but we were feeling pretty good and kept things moving nicely. Matt was enjoying himself running over to the spectators giving high-fives and grabbing sweets, and I was enjoying myself watching him. The first water station couldn’t come soon enough, and as I poured some over my head I swear I heard a sizzle! I think it was in this stretch that we ran along a street with a series of speed humps, and each one had a pair of marshals standing bellowing “HUUUMP!” at the top of their lungs to warn us. I couldn’t stop giggling at the thought of being a Hump Marshal and we immediately decided that if we ever volunteered that would be our choice of role!
A few miles in and it was obvious that the crowd of runners was moving a lot more slowly than last year. Then, I was travelling at ~11 min/mile and the field had already thinned out by the Red start/Blue start merging point. This time we were sitting around 10:30 pace and clearly right in midfield. The heat was definitely taking its toll!
At 6 miles I was struggling and shouted to Matt that I really wanted to walk. “Okay”, he shouted back, “but let’s try and get to 10 first!” and I tried to focus on that plan. We kept up the drink-douse-drain plan whenever there was water, and had our first shot bloks. Someone handed me a piece of orange which tasted incredible, and the first set of showers was so crowded we almost ground to a halt trying to get under the (slightly pathetic) spray of water.
Somehow, without walking, 10 miles came and went, and we refocused on halfway, where we knew my parents would be. The spectators were absolutely incredible, there were at least 2 or 3 times as many as last year, and the atmosphere was intense. In a few places the crowds were so big that they had mostly blocked the road trying to get a good view, and all the runners were squashed into a couple of metres of clear path. That was actually quite scary, and more marshals would have been much appreciated.
Crossing Tower Bridge was exhilarating, and gave us enough of a kick to keep going to mile 13.1, where we stopped to talk to my parents. This gave us a chance to get more water and rest just for a minute, which was not really part of our race plan but ended up being absolutely necessary. We’d arrived at just under 2 and a half hours, so we knew that a sub-5 finish was highly unlikely, but were encouraged that we were looking and feeling stronger than a lot of the people around us.
My memory of the next few miles is a complete blur. We ate our shot bloks, drank as much water and Lucozade as we could, and marvelled at the number of spectators (“Where’s the quiet bit?” Matt kept asking, but it never materialised. The route was packed with support for literally the entire way.) By this point we were having to walk for a few minutes every couple of miles. But we were in good company, and at least we were still moving forward. I don’t know about Matt, but it was at this point when I knew that we’d get to the finish one way or another.
We saw my parents again at mile 22, by which time we were not in a good way. One of the consequences of running in the main field was that we had had to do a lot of weaving from side-to-side (WHY can’t people learn to look around them before stopping dead in the middle of the road?!) and my hips were absolutely killing me. The last couple of miles I’d had a kind of tunnel vision where my head was down and my focus was only on the road in front of me. By this point, we couldn’t face any more sweets or gels, but desperately needed some kind of fuel. Ever resourceful, Mum and Dad produced a packet of dry roasted peanuts and some beef flavour Hula Hoops, and my god they were the best thing I have ever eaten.
As my parents waved us off we had a renewed spring in our step, and I was able to lift my head a little higher and enjoy the noise and the crowds again. We were running in patches and walking when it got too much, and as we said to a fellow runner who we’d seen a few times on the course when she asked how we were doing, we were VERY ready to be done!
As we headed towards Big Ben I was mildly panicked when I couldn’t see it, but then remembered that it was covered in scaffolding for its renovation! I don’t know about anyone else but in the late stages of a race my brain usually doesn’t operate at its best and I tend to get fixated on and inordinately worried about the strangest things. I remember being irritated that my shoes were squelching from all the water we’d been trying to cool off with, and that the noise of the crowd was louder than anything I’ve ever heard before. Matt was really struggling at this point, and each time we walked I held his hand tightly and talked him through the next little bit of the race. As we came up Birdcage Walk, so agonisingly close to the finish, he said he didn’t think he had another half a mile in him, to which I replied “well that’s fine, you only need to go another half a kilometre”. He didn’t give my smart-assed self a smack, probably because he was too tired, but I would have deserved it! And then…
“In a minute we’re going to walk under a big banner that says “Only 385 Yards to Go!” and then we’re going to run it home, ok?”
(I think there was a grunt of acknowledgement)
“Where’s the finish line? I can’t see it!”
“It’s just round the next corner, come on my baby!”
I reached for his hand, held it tight.
It was so quiet on that finish straight. I couldn’t hear the crowds or the music.
As we crossed the line I think I screamed. There was so much raw emotion packed into those precious few seconds it felt a bit like that head rush you get if you stand up too quickly. I could hear nothing but the blood being pumped around my body, feel nothing but Matt’s hand in mine.
And then it was over.
Well, not quite. Tears, kisses, medals, t-shirts, kit-bags. Some blessed, blessed shade. A phone call to a very proud father. A glance up at the sky – this was for you, mum and uncle Paul. Reunion with our dedicated supporters. More kisses and hugs. The much anticipated Removal of Shoes. Pride. Gratitude. Overwhelming love.