On the Positive Side

At least this time the trains were running on time.

After six years, I had finally got a place in the London Marathon AND managed not to have to defer or cancel through illness or injury. Just.

I am convinced 90% of the battle with racing is actually getting to the start line, and this I achieved, albeit with a reduced level of confidence in my ability due to a foot problem I had picked up 3 weeks previously (see ‘The final days’). So although not in perfect form and having had three weeks without any form of training to speak of, I was at least on my way to line up at the start.

John on Blackheath

I met up with John at Guildford station and we had little trouble with the trains, unlike Reading, and after a rather cramped journey from Waterloo East to Blackheath, we walked up to the top of the hill and were presented with the Virgin marketing machine – chalk one up for Richard Branson (who was running on the day) from the array of tethered balloons to the largest banner I’ve ever seen being towed behind, or rather dangled beneath, a helicopter, roaming sedately amongst the many airborne television crews over Blackheath. ATC nightmare, I thought.

John was to start at the ‘Red’ start and I at the ‘Blue’ start so we parted with wishes of good luck and went our separate ways.  It was about this point, at about 9:00am just after the women’s race had started and with the men’s and mass race due to commence at 9:45am, that it began to rain.  Genuinely, I considered that this would be useful to stifle the predicted heat although later in the race would be better, but as the downpour got harder as I made my way through to the competitor start area, I began to regret not bringing a waterproof, or even a bin liner.  Make a mental note for next time….

I soon met up with Will, another of the MdS Rosbifs, and we discussed tactics while trying to ignore the deluge. Will was going for sub-3hrs, the holy grail of amateur runners, and I was 90% certain I would start out at the same pace and see how things went – with hindsight, perhaps not the best strategy. As the rain abated, I sensed Will wanted to run his own race, so we also wished each other luck and then he was gone into the crowd, while I fought to fit a damp number with cold fingers.

As I made my way to the start after the obligatory final stop at the rudimentary conveniences, I passed more balloons, but then was shocked at the proximity of my ‘pen’ to the front line – I could practically hear the names of the elite runners being introduced without the aid of the P.A. system.  Talk about intimidating.

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Before I knew it, a horn at the front had sounded and was followed by a slow surge forwards as my fellow competitors and I walked beneath the start gantry and over the red timing mat. Different system this year – no high pitched whining, buzzing, whistling sounds, just an unexpected silence. It had only taken me 30 seconds from the gun to get to the start line. The cheering of the crowds was instantly matched by the enthusiastic waves of the competitors at the overhead cameras we were passing.

The first couple of kilometres are always slow, but this time I was relying on this as a sensible warm up period, although I was surprised and concerned when the masses had not reached 1 km by 5:00 minutes, and the 2 km mark in another 4:30 minutes – at the 4:15 pace at which I was aiming, it would take a long time to claw back a whole minute.

In the end it was academic, but as you are running along you have plenty of time to contemplate everything from the sublime to the ridiculous.

As the Blue and Green starts merged, the pace again slowed marginally to accommodate the increased volume of runners, even so I passed 3km in a further 4:10 – 5 seconds credit to the pot, with another 15 gained after the 4km mark passed 4:00 minutes later.  I was actually not really concentrating on my pace at this point as I was merely trying to negotiate my way through the crowds, perhaps my first mistake.

As the final race ‘merge’ came into view, where the ‘Red’ start competitors merge with the ‘Blue’ and ‘Green’ starts, imagine my surprise when, on the left hand side of the dual-carriageway, no more than 20ft ahead of me I spotted John. I increased my pace slightly and shouted across at him. He seemed almost as surprised as he looked back across his right shoulder. Imagine my despair as I noticed the roundabout at the bottom of Woolwich High street which I had to negotiate round the outside! As I emerged from the other side, John seemed a mile ahead already, nevertheless I picked up the pace a bit and managed to catch him. I would pay for this later – my last two kilometres had been 3:51 and 3:50 respectively.

National Maritime Museum at Greenwich

As we ran along comfortably, we chatted away with John reeling off the pace times we were aiming for and for the next few kilometres we enjoyed the ‘sights’ of Greenwich, including the Maritime Museum and rounded the boarded-off remains of the Cutty Sark, and then passed through Deptford and Southwark.

At 15km it all started to go horribly wrong for me.

First, my legs became heavy and I noticed John pulling ahead slightly. I pushed harder and managed to keep up for a bit, but each time we were separated rounding kerbs, diving either side of the central reservation and generally being spliced by other runners, it became more of an effort to catch up. As I felt my levels of perceived effort rising, I let John go.

The next few kilometres became the shape of things to come as the crowd around me that I had reeled in and passed, first became static alongside me and then steadily began to pass me. The realisation was depressing. I hoped beyond hope this was just a bad patch which would abate, but with each beep of my watch the reality struck home – kilometres 17 to 21 including Tower Bridge just before halfway were covered in 4:29, 4:29, 4:32, 4:40, 4:36.   Had I hit ‘the wall’ already? After 15km? This was not a good sign. With each successive marker, I calculated my potential end time, perhaps foolishly, if I maintained or improved my current pace. I made the halfway point in 1:31.

Spot me.... (Not!)

The elite women, with 45 minutes head start, were already on their way back towards the Embankment and the finish and it was impressive to see their pace, even after 21 miles.  I did not see any of the male elite runners returning from their Canary Wharf excursion.

As I meandered along ‘The Highway’ towards Wapping and Limehouse, with the long loop around Canary Wharf beckoning, I contemplated the fact I was now on home ground – these were the streets I had run so often in my training, but they looked foreign and unfamiliar now – several thousand people typically has that effect, the noise and the crowds like a veneer shrouding what I had come to know. Had the training I had carried out to experience every nuance of these routes over so many months been all in vain? Even the aptly named Narrow Street seemed somehow to have been widened especially for the day, transformed into something more practical for London Marathon purposes.

With the turn into the Isle of Dogs at 24km (15 miles) we went through our first major ‘tunnel’, an underpass, and for the first time in the run, I noticed (appropriately) the tunnel vision that I sometimes get – white polo mints in front of my eyes, emphasised by the dark of the tunnel – I made a mental note to keep drinking.  I had specifically ensured that I was properly hydrated the day before and at the start of the race, so had little concern it was a major problem – but it was another thing for my mind to stack against me in the ‘its time to walk now’ argument which it was formulating.

Canary Wharf

The route around the Isle of Dogs is strange; part commercial, part residential, part financial district. Whatever it is, it is a detour away from the finish, a 8-10k (5-6mile) loop before hitting the home straight and the other side of the dual carriageway along which we had just come.

The numbers of runners walking were increasing. I made a mental note to ignore them.  If nothing else, I was determined to finish this without stopping.

The route meandered it’s way south along the west side of the ‘island’ and then back east, before finally turning north at 27km back to Canary Wharf and the tortuous twisting path back and forth laid out in the City’s other financial district. The sometimes stunning edifices provided some distraction as I plodded along to the 20 mile mark, still running but reduced to 5:00 minutes/km. The support in the area is still fantastic, mostly residents presumably due to the cul-de-sac nature of the development and this to my mind is where you need the support – from half-way to 22 miles, when you are starting to hurt, but the end cannot be contemplated, where the ‘wall’ is likely to hit, where your mind will get the better of you. Every little helps when you reach the low point.

The final westward turn along Poplar High street is therefore a point of palpable relief – The home straight, 6miles to go, only 10 more kilometres, short enough to hang on for, the last quarter.  I had passed the 20 mile mark at 2:27 and I still imagined I could put in a 45-50 minute 10k to get  a 3:15 time.

Now I am in no way a hypercondriac, but from the start I had been conscious of my right foot, perhaps to a level bordering on paranoia – when you are running long distances the last thing you should do is give your mind excuses to consider stopping. There were, however, times from 18 miles on, when I felt a great deal of ‘heat’ within my suspect foot which was of slightly more concern, but ironically when I started to feel the same podiatory sauna in my other foot as well, I relaxed under the assumption it was merely a distance related phenomenon which I could safely ignore!

So there I was, Poplar behind me and slowing appreciably, but now I could count down the kilometres and I was into single figures and the next thing I saw were the masses. As we rejoined ‘The Highway’ the runners between 13 and 14 miles run parallel to those at around the 22 to 23 mile mark and although I suddenly felt for these masses of runners as they would still have at least an hour to get to where I was with the end in sight, there were a lot walking and many in fancy dress, but the majority were smiling and enjoying themselves, these were the fun runners, the five hours plus competitors.  I thought I was having trouble running around people, but that was nothing compared to the frustration the people on the opposite side of the road must have had with the impossible task of negotiating the crowds.

Coming out of Blackfriars underpass

We left these runners at around 37km as we passed Tower Bridge for the final time in the day and carried on steadily to the Embankment.  Only 3 miles left and I had still not stopped, but on the basis of my pace, I might just as well have been walking! I was not impressed.

The Blackfriars tunnel the route descended into provided a moment of relief and a counterpoint to the noise of the crowds, but also a moment of panic as my GPS beeped at me to indicate it had lost satellite reception – Really?  It confirmed as such by faining error and the end of the race – I should be so lucky!  Still, at least the translucent polo mints I had experienced in front of my eyes in the tunnel earlier in the race although still present, did not seem to be causing a life-threatening problem, but my watch being sticky from sweat and lucozade sport and not wanting to start up again, could well have thrown me off-track.

Eventually, out the other side of the tunnel, after much beeping and pressing of the bezel on my watch, I got it back into stopwatch mode.  I dearly love my Garmin for all the stuff it can do 99.9% of the time when it works, but when it doesn’t work during a run, it is such a pain.

The London Marathon is a fantastic experience, the whole event quite incredible from the organisation of the competitors and volunteers, the provision of ‘supplies’ and as always the support along the route was fantastic. At times though I actually found the cacophony of bands, shouting and announcers a bit oppressive and distracting to my journey and I often longed for the quiet and solitude of the mountains – now I know another reason why I run ultra-marathons in the countryside away from the crowds.

By the time I had got to the 22 mile mark, although happy that the end was in sight and that I was still running, I was starting to get more concerned at the volume of competitors passing me. I looked at the positive and recognised the fact that there were also a large number of walkers and indeed individuals stopping and stretching at the side of the road. Although people were passing me, I was running still and passing others.  That is marathons for you, of the 37,000 competitors, only two would not have someone slower or faster than them

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I have run along the Embankment so many times I am familiar with the skyline of buildings visible from the side of the river Thames, both on the north and south banks.  With that in mind I now kept the London Eye in my peripheral vision and was buoyed on by the speed with which it turned into view until finally I was opposite it, and nearly at the 26 mile mark.

As  I turned the corner off the Embankment and into Birdcage Walk towards Buckingham Palace, I started to look for my family, hoping I would not miss them in the ‘crowd locks’ the organisers had set up to allow spectators to cross the running route.  I was slightly disappointed when I had not spotted them by the time I got to the ’26 mile’ mark, but realised I would see them soon anyway and as I rounded the corner and saw the finish gantries with the timing clocks ticking away I tried to put in a final spurt.

Across the line at 3:27:50 – an improvement on my PB of about 15 minutes, but after 6 years of trying I had expected better.

I collected my medal, had my chip removed and my photo taken, and I phoned Liz who had made it to the green in front of Westminster Abbey a few hundred metres away (a distance which would nevertheless take me about 30 minutes to negotiate). I could hear the disappointment and surprise in her voice too, as the last thing she knew was that I had gone through halfway in 1:31!

In the end I have no reason to complain.

  • A few weeks ago I had reason to suspect I might not make it at all, so the fact I was lining up at the start was positive.
  • I made it to the end – The worst case scenario was a lot more grim – I could have suffered a relapse of my abandoned run three weeks previously and had to either get the tube back or walk, neither of which happened.
  • I did the full distance without stopping – no walking.
  • I obtained a personal best time, beating my previous by 15 minutes.
  • Everything with my foot seems to be fine and I am expecting to pick up my training where I left off shortly.

So why, even some days after, do I have this feeling of disappointment?

Everyone I have spoken to about this has commended me on my time, and I appreciate their thoughts and congratulations so much, but my peers and running partners, John (3:11), Will (3:09), Tim not running this time but would easily beat this, Greg, etc., have all performed better on numerous occasions.

What is it I need to do to improve?

The post-race analysis has only just begun 🙂

8 thoughts on “On the Positive Side”

  1. Hi Richard, that was brilliant to read … I felt like I was there – but without the pain !!! I think you’re very hard on yourself …. you deserve a huge WELL DONE !!!! I was impressed ! Cheers, Suzy. :o)

  2. Gripping ! … Emotional ! … I would like to commend you on an absolutely enchanting discription of your experience. I still think you should put your written talents in hardback :o)

  3. Just read your article, dissapointing yes, for you, the rest of us however think you are a legend for just compeing in the first place ! Liz must be super proud of you ! Have a divine weekend …..Liz K

  4. There’s is nothing wrong with being disappointed by your own standards – personal goals are the best ones. The first 12 hour solo I completed I was disappointed with my finishing position, even though I should have been really happy about even finishing. Just weigh it against all the times you must have been really pleased with a performance. Very few people are great all the time!

  5. What a saga, and beautifully written. We think that you did very well. Not surprising that we failed to pick you up in the crowd. You are your own worst task master (or should that be best!). We are extraordinarily proud of your achievements. Hope the feet and eyes are OK now.
    Love to all.
    Mum & Dad

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