Last week I lined up on the start line of the 38th London Marathon in Blackheath and felt very relaxed.
My journey to the start line actually started in 2016 when I won my second ballot place in only 4 years to run such a sought after event. My luck soon turned when I twisted my right ankle in the Merseyside cross country champs in January 2017. After having a stress fracture in my left foot back in September 2016 I felt the additional 6 weeks out, when I should have been putting in some serious mileage, was too much to make up to do myself justice. I deferred my London place and in late February 2017 I pledged to be more consistent in my approach to training and to plan far in advanced for what was my next marathon, London 2018.
Having qualified as a running coach in 2016 I was keen to try new things so, along with my running buddy Scott, someone I’ve coached since graduating, I set upon a weekly plan of a long slow run, steady run, intervals or Hill session and a tempo run. The tempo sessions were relatively new to be doing regularly, and as word grew amongst some of my running club, we soon established a Friday night tempo group which has grown to become #tempofriday. My times were coming down in the summer and I was feeling great.
After very little thought, I decided to persuade Scott to enter Birmingham Marathon in October 2018 by saying I’d enter too. This upped the ante on the training front and we both ran personal bests (Scott 3.11 and me 3.37) successfully swatting away any demons we harboured from an annoyingly ‘short marathon’ in Manchester in 2015. I’d had some ITB issues 4-5 weeks prior and felt I’d overtrained and peaked too early. I’d been hitting it hard since February!
After a brief rest I started to up the mileage in November 2017. My Garmin showed a steady increase, nothing too heavy, and I was staying injury free. I dropped a session running only 3 times a week up until February but felt they were all quality sessions and more importantly, consistent. I was running similar mileage to my Birmingham plan but running less often allowing more rest for my ageing body. Strength and conditioning featured heavily and I sought out a personal plan from a local and well renowned fitness guru, PB Personal Training.
January, February and March saw the same steady increases in mileage and surprisingly I was still injury free. This was certainly going to be the best marathon I’d ran. I’d ran London before in 2014 and had 4 under my belt in total. Only my first had felt alien to me as a runner and each successive marathons I’d felt much more comfortable. I was aiming for sub 3.30 and was able to sustain the pace for some of my long runs with no issues.
Taper went well and I wasn’t even a little bit nervous. The fact I was self coaching and coaching Scott at the same time made me feel I was in control.
Then the weather forecast hit the news. Never had I heard such sensationalist media coverage about a heatwave. Well, that was my way of dealing with the inner fear that I was going to blow up on the day due to something completely out of my control. I decided that because I’d lived and worked in some of the hottest climates in the world I’d be fine. Hmmm.
The trip to London, the fighting through the crowds at the expo and the uncomfortable night in a budget hotel all went as expected. Finally it was race day. And it was hot! Really hot! Still not too concerned I decided, whilst sat on the grass on Blackheath, that a PB attempt was on. I’d trained really hard and wasn’t going to waste the opportunity. Chatting to strangers, as I do, I noticed one guy had something written on his hand ‘don’t risk a time for life’. He said his wife had made him write it and he’d promised to be cautious in the heat. Leaving Scott, Sarah ( who ran an amazing 3.11PB) and Tim for my start pen I even decided to have a sit down and close my eyes and run through the course (or at least what I could remember from 2014) in my head. Couldn’t believe how relaxed I was. This was going to be MY day!
The first 4-5 miles of the London course are exciting. Easy to get carried away and there’s some downhill sections where if you’re not careful, your pace can literally run away from you. The single most common mistake in marathons is going off too fast. The best advice I’ve ever received is ‘go off slow…and then go slower’. Well, no one ever does that and I set of at 3.30 pace (4.59/km). There was a 4.44 in the first 5 km but I soon checked back and my pace settled down to go through half way bang on pace (1.45).
The halfway point at London is a bit special because the euphoria of Tower Bridge and, if you’re lucky enough, seeing the pointy end of the race is still fresh in your mind. Yes, I was lucky enough to see the front runners and I even gave Mo a shout and mobot! I was having fun.
14 mile, 15 mile, hang on what’s happening? Pace was dropping a couple of seconds/ km and I had this feeling I was going to be sick. I’d been taking on plenty of water, nothing excessive, and also I was downing electrolyte tabs which I’d used for years with no issues. The heat…I’d forgotten about that…I was enjoying myself too much. I suddenly felt hot and as if my legs wouldn’t work properly. I backed off the pace a little. After all this was my 5th marathon and I knew what I was doing didn’t I? Well you’d have thought so but the urge to stop running was now becoming a battle that I hadn’t experienced since being dragged round the track as a teenager by much better 800m runner’s than me. Surely I was mentally stronger than that 14 year old boy! All around me, runner’s were walking. Hang on, it’s only 15 miles or so in. This isn’t right. What’s going on here? So I joined them and did I feel instantly better for it? Yes. I realised in was in ‘Underpass Number 1′ in the Isle of Dogs so it was shady. It was a mass of walkers, not runners. Very strange.
The next 10 miles or so were basically a run/ walk effort. I started smiling so my brain might give my body a nudge that everything was ok. I had cramp in my right hamstrings and calf muscles but I still smiled. I was looking out for club members who’d come down to spectate and I even stopped and spoke to some of them. They’ve since told me they found this very strange. I said to one of them’ I’m just trying to stay alive’. The writing on the guy’s hand was playing on my mind by about 23 miles because I think I’d witnessed approximately 10-12 collapsed runners, makeshift stretchers, shouting for help and it was, quite frankly, upsetting.
At 25 mile I saw my cousin in the crowd, smiled and gave her a high five- that took some effort – and I knew my chosen charity was just beyond Big Ben. An even bigger effort was made to look good running past and shouting ‘hi’. The crowds were truly amazing. I’d hated them at this point in 2014 but I was now ‘ working them’ and doing lots of smiling. Birdcage walk was dreadful. Another 5-6 runners collapsing in heaps and medics rushing to their attention. It wasn’t pretty. The Mall was cool this time round although my hamstring was hindering my glory 385 yards. I held my form the best I could to cross the line in 3.46 and change. Much slower than I knew I was capable of but you know what, I was injury free and more importantly was not on a stretcher.
It’s only a run. I had a great experience. Yes, it was mentally and physically tough and the weather made it that much more so. I hydrated really well in a beer garden that afternoon and you know what, it felt great. ‘ Hottest in history’? Who cares. Life is about experiencing all kinds – the good and the bad- and sometimes things don’t go to plan. I know I’ll be a better runner and coach for it. Already planning my next one!!!
Huge thanks to my wife Niky and my two kids for the support they give me when training and allowing me the time to devote to doing something I love doing.