Two weeks on, the blisters have finally faded and I’ve been back out again for a few runs… amazing how 26.2 miles can really do some damage! Like many runners, the London Marathon was always there on my bucket list but as I’d been unsuccessful in the ballot for the last five years in a row, it wasn’t really on my radar for 2021 until the fateful email slipped into my inbox in February to say that against the odds I’d got a place. As you’ll know from some of my other blog posts, road running isn’t really my thing and my only previous road Marathon was the Edinburgh Marathon Festival in 2019 which I ran with Julie, pacing her to a 4:53:41 finish in her first attempt at the distance. My fastest previous Marathon was around 3:45, set over the first 26.2 miles of the Warrington Way 40 miler – so I’d hope I’d have a faster time than that in me.
At the start of the year I’d set a personal goal of 3 hours which was always going to be a stretch. After LLCR130 at the end of August, I had hoped to have a week’s recovery, a couple of weeks building up speed endurance, and a couple of weeks of tapering to hit the start line in London in the best possible shape. In reality, whether I’d picked up a niggle during LLCR, overdid it a bit with the tempo runs in early September, or a combination of the two I ended up having to take two full weeks rest and recovery, hoping that a troublesome hip would sort itself out. A trial 5k with five days to go felt OK-ish, but to be honest I wasn’t sure how I’d fare on the day. I decided to aim for a 3:15 finish, but with a secondary goal of 3:30 – which would still be a great result. Read on to find out how I finished!
Originally we’d hoped to have the whole family travel down to support me, but with the organisers discouraging supporters from attending, plus the additional costs and logistics we decided about a month before that this would be a solo trip. At least there was full live tracking via the London Marathon app for family and friends to follow along remotely while keeping an eye on the TV.
I opted to travel down and back to London on the Caledonian Sleeper train, the first time I’d travelled on it since a change of operator and also the first time making use of the reclining seats (the cheaper option). I can’t say I slept very well, but leaving Perth at 11.30pm and arriving in London by 8am was very convenient. Unsurprisingly, I spotted another runner with their LM drop-bag making the same trip!
Grabbing a quick breakfast at the station, I hopped onto the tube and DLR for the short journey over to the ExCEL centre where the London Marathon Running Show was held. Apparently the queues are legendary, especially on the Saturday, but arriving around 9am I was able to get straight to bag drop and number collection without any waiting. Others who arrived even a few hours later faced quite a long wait, so I think I timed it right! I spent an hour or so wandering around the show – to be honest it was a bit underwhelming. About half of the booths were taken by the many charities that are associated with the event. Unless you were shopping for gear or mementos, there was precious little to be had from the vendor stalls in the way of freebies. I did catch a bit of the presentations from the main event stage – mainly just running through what to expect on the day of the race – while keeping hydrated and munching cashew nuts. It did get me into the London Marathon vibe though, so I guess it did the job! After a while I decided it was time to head over to Greenwich, where I would be staying close to the start line.
Another short trip on the DLR, across the Thames and I was in Greenwich. I’d never visited before and it certainly feels quite different to central London with a traditional High Street and no tall buildings! I was going to be staying at the St. Christopher’s Inn, a budget hostel next door to the train station, but check-in wasn’t until mid afternoon so I wandered down to the river and checked out the famous Cutty Sark (which I’d see again about 10k in to the race) and had a carb-loading Pizza lunch at the nearby Zizzi’s. In the afternoon I took a walk up through Greenwich Park past the observatory and the Greenwich Meridian and had a quick recconaisance of the start line (no use in getting lost in the morning!) before spending a couple of hours hiding from the rain in the National Maritime Museum.
Late afternoon I checked in at the hostel. The staff were keen to impress on me that it was a “party hostel” i.e. don’t expect a quiet night, although in the end I was sharing a dorm with two other runners and didn’t hear too much music coming from the venue downstairs 🤷♂️ It was good to finally take my bag off and put my feet up, as well as get a shower after sleeping in my clothes on the train the night before! I had a light dinner in the communal kitchen / ‘chill-out room’ and then got my head down for an early night at about 7.30pm.
I woke shortly after 6am, having slept like a baby! With the race starting at 9.30am and only a short walk to the start I was able to have quite a leisurely morning. After a shower I headed down to the kitchen for breakfast, to find a few bleary-eyed party-goers still drinking from the night before. Not sure what they made of the half-dozen or so runners who had turned up for various sorts of healthy breakfasts! One of several COVID-related changes to the race this year was that runners were discouraged from using the water stations (although they were still provided and plenty people were using them). I’d opted to run with a small pack – as well as being able to carry 1L of my usual SIS electrolyte and half-a-dozen gels, it also meant I could easily carry my phone and cards. After packing up the rest of my stuff in my rucsack and leaving it at the hostel I had a quick cup of tea and was ready to head off to the start.
I picked up another cup of tea (caffiene + hydration 👍) and a cereal bar on the way and arrived at the start zone with about 45 mins to go till the start. I was in the green zone, which is the smallest of the 3 start areas. As far as I could gather, the red zone (largest) had the majority of the charity and ballot entries, the blue zone had most of the club runners and qualifiers. The green zone had all of the Guinness World Record attempt runners. I had picked a sheltered spot to wait next to the costume scrutineering tent and saw everything from photo booths, earth globes and rhinos to a 6 man team in a Colin the Caterpiller outfit! A quick stop in at the portaloos and then into the start pens as the start time approached. I was in the second wave/pen and after seeing the elite start at 9.30 and the first wave head off before I knew it I was crossing the line to start the London Marathon!
The first thing that surprised me at the start was how quiet and spread out it was. I had heard horror stories and had expected complete carnage in the first few miles. Maybe this was the case at the red/blue starts, but the first mile from the green start was nice and spread out through the quiet suburban streets of Blackheath. Not knowing quite what time I was capable of running I’d settled on the plan of running mainly by feel, somewhere in the 7:15-7:30/mile range which would put me at around a 3 hour 15 minute finishing time. I had plenty of room to find my pace and settled into the race with a 7:19 first mile, with everything feeling OK! By the time the blue start runners merged in from the right, we were out on major roads, headed towards Woolwich and there was still lots of space to run in – I was even able to follow the optimal blue line on the road most of the time.
There were plenty of spectators out on this early section, as well as lots of marshals shouting “Hump!” every hundred yards. Took me a while to figure out that they were trying to warn the runners of the speed bumps in the road 🤦♂️ Must have been a long day for them!
By mile 3, the route turns downhill towards the Thames for the first time and I picked up a bit of speed as I let gravity help out, dipping under 7mins miles for a couple of miles. The red start runners joined from the left and finally it started to feel a bit busy – the London Marathon experience I was expecting!
The run back towards Greenwich is a bit nondescript – it’s a wide road, slightly undulating and I slowed back to 7:13/mile. There was a decent crowd all the way along, but it really built up as we turned right off Romney road and approached the Cutty Sark – the first major landmark at about 6.5 miles in. My right hip was behaving itself and I was still feeling good as we rounded the Cutty Sark hairpin bend and then turned right through the centre of Greenwich, headed off through Deptford.
The next few miles are a mixture of residential and industrial surroundings, and I kept up a good pace along the A200 and before long turned right at Surrey Quays into Rotherhithe. There were many bands and DJs along the route, but somewhere in this section I got a good boost from a Scottish pipe band! After a few twists and turns, the route makes a slow turn back on itself and by mile 12 we were passing Bermondsey and getting close to central London. By this point my legs were starting to feel a bit tired and I let my pace drop off to 7:20/mile. I was well hydrated and had a good flow of calories from a couple of gels and still slightly ahead of my 3:15 target pace.
All of a sudden, the route turns right and I found myself running up the ramp to Tower Bridge – a real London landmark! The crowds really pick up around here, and turning right again towards the Docklands you run parallel to the returning route (miles 22-23), where I saw a few of the women’s elite runners passing by. As I hit the half-way mark, I was pleased to have knocked over a minute off my previous half marathon PB with a time of 1:34:44 – I was running well, definitely starting to feel the distance in my legs, but otherwise all good!
After the ‘hump’ of Tower Bridge, I was able to pick my pace back up through miles 14 and 15 as the route turned off down the appropriately named Narrow Street – full of old docklands buildings and then turned right past Canary Wharf.
Around this point my legs began to gradually seize up. With a good first half in the bank, I did a rough mental calculation and even if I ran 8 minute miles for the remainder I was still on track for a 3:15 finish. I let my pace slacken off a bit to the 7:40s for the next few miles and kept the calories flowing with the fourth gel of the day. After circling the Isle of Dogs, miles 18-20 wind their way through the maze of streets beneath the towers of Canary Wharf. My watch GPS seemed to pretty much give up during this section, and showed paces of anything between 4 and 15 minutes per mile! Rounding the tight corners of the route, I also became acutely aware of some blistering on the ball of my left foot, which alternated between a consistent throb on the straights and a sharp stab whenever I took a turn. By the time I popped out of Blackwall and headed left and back towards central London at mile 20 my pace had dropped right off to 8:25. I’m not really sure if this was my encounter with the dreaded Marathon “Wall”. Certainly, I was well fuelled and didn’t bonk through lack of energy or hydration, I think my legs just weren’t quite trained up to the sustained pace I was demanding of them. Gritting my teeth and trying to keep my head up, it was time to grind out the last 10k.
I don’t have much of a memory of miles 20-25 as the route heads back West past the City and eventually reaches the Thames and passes along the Embankment. There was definitely a big crowd of supporters all the way. I’d hoped they would buoy my spirits a bit, but to be honest I was just in my own little world of misery plodding along the dashed blue line. I had managed to stop the slide and hold a pace of around 9:15-9:20 but even the emergency mint caffiene gel I’d being carrying for exactly this situation failed to reboot my legs back into life. Mile by mile time bled away and soon a 3:15 finish was out of sight.
As I passed Waterloo Bridge and the London Eye came into sight I was finally able to think about the finish and squeeze the last ounces of effort out of my legs. Even so, I just managed to scrape a 9 minute 26th mile as I made the penultimate turn into Westminster past the houses of parliament. The 600 metres to go banner came as I entered the leafy Birdcage Walk, along the south side of St. James’s Park. Rounding the final bend in front of Buckingham Palace, the finish line was in sight! I’d imagined myself making a sprint finish the last few hundred metres down the Mall. As it was I managed to get back down into the 7:40s again in some semblance of a sprint, raised my arms in celebration and relief and crossed the line with an official time of 3:26:17!
It’s amazing how quickly after crossing the finish line your legs pretty much cease functioning. I was absolutely buzzing as I shuffled along to pick up my drop bag, put on my medal and race shirt and some warm layers. Had a quick chat with my home supporters who had been following my progress all morning and managed to see me finish on the live stream. Changing my socks I got a look at the damage to my left foot and found a nasty-looking deep blister (underneath all the callouses left over from LLCR) – no wonder it had been sore, it took nearly two weeks to properly heal up!
Barring a short downpour mid-afternoon, it had turned into a bright and warm day – perfect for spectating. I made the trip back over to Greenwich to collect my bag and then headed straight back into London again. The locals really get into the spirit of the event, and lots of people spotted my medal that I was proudly wearing and congratulated me as I hobbled around the tube and DLR. Changing lines in Canary Wharf I spent a few minutes cheering on some of the slower runners who were about 19 miles in after about 4-5 hours. I picked up some late lunch and took the tube back in to Westminster to watch more runners come in. By an amazing coincidence, I bumped into Fiona Mearns, also from Bridge of Earn, who had just finished her first ever marathon!
I picked a spot on Great George Street less than a mile from the finish and must have spent about an hour or more there. By now the runners were pretty strung out and there were very few spectators left so it was great to be able to call runners by name, share a quick joke or just make eye contact and encourage them as they went by. There was a real mixture of people who were proudly finishing strong, others who had all but given up and some who were heads down, pushing on. Several of them spotted my medal and finisher’s shirt and I hope they all enjoyed collecting their own shortly afterwards. It was actually one of the highlights of my day that I was able to play a small part in encouraging others towards reaching their own finish!
Unfortunately I couldn’t stay quite to the end, and in the early evening I headed back on the tube up to Euston ready to catch the sleeper train home. Even though it was well past the official 5pm cut-off, TfL staff were still happy to let me travel for free on the tube which was a nice touch. Time for a well-earned pint and a burger at a nearby pub and before long it was time to settle in for a (much better this time) sleep on the train on the way home. Arriving in Perth at 5.30am, I was able to get a cup of tea and some biscuits at the sleeper lounge before jumping on the bus home, arriving back just after 6am ready for a shower and back to work as usual (albiet a bit more sleepy) for a Monday morning!
Looking back on my race, although the last 10 miles were hard, I loved every minute of it. The support of the big crowds and the city atmosphere is something special. Obviously very different to the experience of running an ultra where you have time to talk to checkpoint crew and fellow runners, but I’d encourage everyone to give it a shot one day whether you are fast enough to qualify, get lucky in the ballot, or raise money for a charity place.
I’m really happy with my finish time. With the lack of speed endurance training that I’d had, 3:15 was just too much to hope for. Maybe if I’d gone out a bit easier I might not have slowed quite so much, but equally I might just have been slower overall so I’ve no regrets at hanging it out in the hope of hitting my goal. Equally, I think with a bit better preparation getting below 3:15 is certainly possible for me. I’ve got my entry in the ballot for 2022, but whether I get in to London or not, I’m sure one day I’ll make another Marathon attempt and see if I can get close to the magical 3 hour barrier!