It might seem obvious but 26.2 miles is a long way. It’s actually quite easy to forget that. Where I grew up in Kent, I used to think that when I’d drive the 26 miles from home to the end of the M26. A journey that even at 70mph in the car seemed quite a way.
But today, one week on from my second marathon in London, I’m struck by how quickly it went. I was having breakfast this morning and realised it was 09.45, exactly the same time as I set off last week from pen 3, blue start, Blackheath. I finished my breakfast, watched an entire film, did some chores and helped Jo make and bake some cookies. The week before I’d still have been running. It felt like a long time this week but back then it flew by.
That’s not to say it’s easy, just that your mind is actually very occupied throughout and, through some cognitive chunking, the race is separated into a series of moments. So much so that now, even after having watched the BBC footage, listened to the Marathon Talk podcast round up, viewed the photos and had debriefs with uninterested colleagues and fellow runners, I still can’t remember too much about it. Here’s what I do remember:
A good start
This year I travelled to the start with Naomi Dunne and Zeeta from Clapham Chasers. Naomi’s a great friend and colleague who was starting her third marathon and – in spite of injury – after a sub 4 hour time. We had plenty of time on the (more busy than 2011) trains and arrived in good spirits. Sun shining, start buzzing and we found a spot out of the wind an near the loo queues. After dumping bags and hugging for luck we hit our respective pens. I lucked-out this year and with a low number (6226) I was in pen 3. Blue start is the best start in my opinion. It’s the elite and championship start and it follows the ‘proper’ route rather than joining the route a few miles in like red and green do. We moved forward a couple of times and by the time the announcements of the men’s elite were being made I was about 60ft from the front line. I crossed the line under a minute from the starting gun so my splits would be close to the official gun time which was pretty handy.
Last year back amongst the Fun (capitals intentional) runners I had a mare. Stopping an shuffling for at least a mile. This year I was running from the start and much more relaxed too. I stuck to the Jeff Gaudette’s plan and settled in to 8.10-15/miles for the first 5 miles. I passed Iwan Thomas with a cheery hello about 2 miles in, enjoyed the ‘humps’ up Charlton Park Lane, the Olympic shooting test event and generally got in to the swing of things. Just after Charlton we hit the 5 mile mark and from that point I had to make sure I was closer to 8 min miles (4.57km). But for the first 2km I’d been comfortably under 5 min/km and my heart rate was an easy 155. I could see the 8 min mile (3.30hr) pacing team so I hopped on their ‘bus’ and thought that would take my mind off the next 15 miles and the fact that I was starting to need a wee quite a bit.
I’d hydrated on SiS before the race and had been really making sure I started the race properly hydrated. It’s a gamble as to how far you take that and despite using the facilities en-route to my start pen, you can’t legislate for how quickly it goes through you. I thought I could hold out and that sweat would deal with it but a few miles later I was in the same situation I’d been in a Fleet half marathon a month before and was looking around for the next portaloo.
Knowing I needed a time cushion to cope with the pit stop I picked up my pace (4.54, 4.52/km) after Cuty Sark (which looked amazing and brilliant to be back after missing it last year) and the winding detour of Greenwich I finally ‘scratched the itch’ just by Deptford Park at about 13km. I lost about 30 seconds in the stop but kept my watch running to have my total time, and picked up the pace (4.49, 4.55, 4.51) to try and get back in touch with the pace bus.
This was hard work (heart rate nudging 160) and despite some pretty attractive cheerleaders at Surrey Quays the miles rattled on toward Tower Bridge without any real incident or any real gain on the pacers. So I settled back into my own rhythm to tick off the miles in Rotherhithe and get to Tower Bridge in good shape. Well, that was the plan.
The trouble with Tower Bridge is that it’s great. And straight after it I knew my family would be near Tower Hill. So I sort of got excited again and put some faster km in again to take me over the bridge and on to The Highway. Knowing that it was about that point that I started to feel shocking last year I did at least reign it in and hit 8 min miles again. To some extent (as the elites passed us on the other side) heading down toward Narrow Street and Limehouse I knew I’d been a bit naughty with the pace.
I came up behind James Barnard around this point and since I’d been following his blog Sir Jogalot for a year after we both had similar experiences in VLM 2011 [him / me], I introduced myself. Both going for sub 3.30 we exchanged pleasantries and then had that awkward moment when you say goodbye/luck and then continue to run in silence alongside eachother for a bit. James looked in control at this point and I figured as an experienced pacer I’d keep in touch with him. However, I seemed to be naturally pulling away a little and as we headed down into docklands I lost touch with him. Reading his post later that weekend it’s clear he had some challenges of his own but I’m delighted to see how well the Newcastle United Foundation have done out of his run.
Watching the tide roll away…
Last year I was in tatters in docklands and the first of my walk breaks came in to play. This year I was determined that wouldn’t happen. I knew I had to hang on to the 18 mile mark which was going to be my first of three gels. I’d taken on Lucozade sport at 5, 10 and 15 miles (a quarter to a third of a bottle each time) and water intermittently. Psychologically I was feeling ok. I’d had some tired legs and some dark thoughts around 14-16 miles but by the time the crowds built through Canrary Wharf I felt happy about getting out of docklands and heading for home. The data tells a slightly different story. It’s tricky to be specific as the tall buildings and tunnels play around with the GPS but I was definitely slowing and my heart rate was getting into the high 160s. As someone in the crowd announced ‘single digits now’ I was getting excited about turning back west.
I’d expected that by this point we’d be getting pretty wet. The forecast had been for the wind to build to be a moderate westerly, a headwind all the way home along Embankment and for the rain to start around 1pm but neither really arrived. It’s always windy in the towers of the Wharf so I didn’t notice a significant headwind and the scraps of shade that arrived with a few clouds and tall buildings helped to reduce the inevitable overheating.
“The race starts at 20 miles”
Reaching the 20 mile marker with a 10km race ahead I felt tired but that I’d done enough sessions in training to know that I could put some speed into my legs in spite of it. I didn’t know how low I could drop the pace only that I needed to go ‘as fast as you can’. I hit 4.48 in that first km (7.43 miles) and kept my ear out for my km splits as I tapped in a 4.53, 4.48, 4.47 in the following kms. Weirdly this extra pace seemed to be good for me psychologically as I began passing runners – including Tony Audenshaw on his was to becoming Fastest Schoolboy – comfortably and the miles were passing faster. It wasn’t easy though, by this time I was in the 170s for heart rate. I expected to pass my family again at 22 miles but they’d moved and I thought I’d missed them. This caused a little slump in pace which picked up again when I saw them a little further down the road. As Canon Street passed and the underpasses dragged on I stopped looking at my watch and focussed on feel. Running down the miles and picking up my last drink at 23 and gel at 24. Embankment turns to face Westminster and I realised I was still ticking off good splits. Perhaps understimating the distance, I dropped a gear at 40km and put in a 4.44km (7.37mile) split to take me around the bend into bridge street and the wide Birdcage walk, head up and looking for the marker boards.
Birdcage Walk is a bizarre part of the race. It’s much wider than the previous few miles (or at least it seems like it) and it seems to drag on for ages. Knowing you’re 2km, then 1km from the finish you realise you eat those distances for breakfast normally but there’s nothing in the tank.I’d passed the 3.30 pacer I’d all but forgotten about since the pit stop somewhere on Embankment so I knew I must have had 3.30 in my sights but I didn’t want to look at my watch as I knew I was giving it all I had anyway, knowing the time wouldn’t have made any difference.
The BBC cameras caught me as I thumped ungainly up the Mall puffing like Ivor the Engine (replayed at the company meeting the next day) and I crossed the line having dropped a 4.12km (6.45 mile) for the last 1000m. My Garmin had it as 3.29.59. I couldn’t believe it. So much so that I fully expected it be revised up by a few seconds when the chip time came in.
The lonely 800m walk, photos and bag collection followed and I couldn’t believe my legs were as minced as they were. Where had those final 10k come from? I could barely shuffle to Horse Guards. Desperately looking out for water (I couldn’t face any more sweet sugary drinks) I didn’t realise there was one in my bag so I swiped up the Pink Lady apple they’d popped in there and by the time my family arrived at the meeting point I was halfway through that. Happily my brother revealed the chip time had me one second quicker. 3.29.58. A solid negative split (1.45.38 and 1.44.20) and inside my goal. Delighted and demons from 2011 expelled.
Straight afterwards I said “never again” just like most of the non-elite runners I suspect but here I am,a week later with new goals in my head. But they will wait for another post. On what was a terribly dark day for others, it seems churlish to celebrate too much but the honest reality is that I felt pretty damn smug the following day, even if my legs were incapable of providing me with any dignity.
Photos here > Marathonfoto.com
Data here >Garmin, Endomondo and Runkeeper (splits have all been corrected as distance set to 26.2)