Run Don’t Run Race Report #2 – Virgin Money London Marathon 2014

It’s grey and cold in London today and it’s making me look fondly back to last Sunday when it was warm and sunny and I was out and about enjoying myself. And running 27 and a bit miles from Blackheath to the Mall (yes, I know marathons are 26.2 miles, read on).

It felt like a much longer journey to get to the start line of the 2014 Virgin Money London Marathon. This included:

  • a decision never to do another marathon again after an unpleasant debut 26.2 (forgetting I’d already entered the London 2013 ballot)
  • “failing” to get a ballot place but then being swept up by peer group pressure and gaining a 2013 place through a running club ballot
  • overdoing it in the January 2013 snow, developing a stress fracture and pulling out of that year’s marathon
  • the dubious honour of being able to defer my place to 2014 as a “sick and injured” runner
  • the ups and downs of a 16 week training programme including a couple of pbs, a 10 week parkrun streak (including a shameful 5k after a very big Friday night out involving several cold drinks and throwing of shapes) and relentless niggles and injuries
  • the expense (but also indulgence) of 5 sessions of sports massage and osteopathy (to think, 5 years ago I refused to let anybody I didn’t know do anything resembling massage because I’m ticklish and thought I would collapse into hysterics)

There was a great sense of camaraderie when we lined up in the huge start pens up on Blackheath with hot-air balloons nodding at us in the breeze but once we set off it was the people of London who got us through the mile after mile after mile. There were crowds lining the whole route, initially stood outside their houses, some in pyjamas, but from Greenwich onwards we were treated to the same volume of crowds and tunnels of noise that Mo and co had run through earlier. There were bands and DJs too and I think it was Deptford where I heard Pharrell’s “Happy”. It sounded so authentic, I thought it was a DJ but I did literally “laugh out loud” when I discovered it was a live band with a singer, probably twice the age of Pharrell who looked like he’d spent the last 30 years in the pub.

My paranoia about my stroppy left hip ruining my big day proved unfounded although I could have done without the sudden jabbing pain in my right knee after a mere three miles (I ignored it and it went away). There were other niggles that built up and faded away over the course (note to self: if there is a next time, do those strengthening exercises and stretch more religiously, so boring but you know it makes sense). The heat was another potential spoiler but although I remember it being sunny, I don’t ever remember feeling too hot. However it might be a factor to bear in mind if I want to one day go faster (and I think one day I probably can).

I thought I could possibly do this race in under four hours but had six targets to spur me on:

1. To get to the start line (believe me, there were times as close as 3 weeks before that I thought I might not make it).
2. To finish.
3. To run the whole thing (I used to have a golden rule never to walk during a race, which I’m ashamed to admit I broke towards the end of my 2012 marathon).
4. To beat my debut marathon time (4:28.57).
5. To beat my wife’s marathon time (set in 2004).
6. To go below 4 hours.

It was good to tick one target off as early as 10 o’clock in the morning and I felt on course to achieve all six after three miles, slowing down or speeding up to make sure that I reached every mile marker in 9:09 minutes. However, at the Cutty Sark, the road narrowed, the volume of runners increased and my legs started to slack off. From then onwards I started to watch the likelihood of achieving targets 5. and 6. slip away, trying to balance up the need to go faster with the impact this might have on targets 2. to 4. Eventually I stopped paying too much attention to my Garmin and just soaked up the occasion.

Delirious at Mile 20

Delirious at Mile 20

One of the bonuses of London 2014 was that I think this time I avoided The Wall. Seeing those familiar faces at my running club’s water station at mile 20 at gave me a boost but this also marked the point at which walls typically start to appear. Although the option of lying down for a couple of hours would have been very welcome, the legs kept going, especially after the wild scenes at Run Dem Crew’s 21 mile spot which is just like midnight in a night club on New Year’s Eve which goes on for hours.

The Embankment is often described as the “home straits” for marathon runners but I know it doesn’t end until you get to Big Ben. Running along it last Sunday, Big Ben was temporarily Small Ben or the Embankment is way longer than I’d previously imagined. It went on forever, and I wanted to argue back “No I’m not!” to all the people screaming “Keep going! You’re almost there!”. In fact the Embankment was so long, my Garmin told me I’d actually done 26.2 miles when I finally reached Parliament Square and I still had two thirds of St James Park to run around.

And then, after what I hoped looked like a sprint finish, but was probably more like a drunk man stumbling after a night bus, it was all over. And I couldn’t stand up. I kept trying to but my head started swirling around and I had to grab on to the nearest fence. 10 minutes later I still couldn’t stand up without feeling like I was going to faint. Eventually I had to be escorted to the medical tent where I had my pulse and blood pressure checked along with lots of questions about how much water I’d drunk and my medical history (thank you so much St John’s Ambulance, you are now my heroes). Finally I got my act together and was discharged to find my family (including the reigning house marathon record holder) and go for a long anticipated pint of beer.

15 minutes after being unable to stand up....

15 minutes after being unable to stand up….

Although I couldn’t fault the London Marathon, for now, I could barely walk and had no desire to do another. Ever again. By the next day I was double checking on the deadlines for the 2015 ballot. The whole occasion had fully rewarded all the time, emotion and effort I’d invested. I had achieved the first four of my targets and think I know what to do if I want to reach the remaining two. I think one day I will be back!


The Great Wall of Epping Forest

One mile in - the wall is 7 miles from here

One mile in – the wall is 7 miles from here

I know, there aren’t really any walls in Epping Forest, just a lot of magpies, a few rabbits and the odd deer, but today I think I found one, a small one, a wall-ette.

The omens didn’t look good as I left the house. No food for the past 4 hours, some kind of niggly virus making my throat hurt, but I’m half-heartedly preparing for a 12 mile race at the end of the month so something approaching a Sunday afternoon long run was required.

The weather was finally making an attempt at passing off as “summer”, sunshine and everything, but Epping Forest was determinedly clinging on to it’s “muddy” status. In my head I was planning on 11-12 miles and all was going swimmingly, I did about 5 and turned around to head back home.

About 40 minutes in I’d opened up a Torq gel (Strawberry Yoghurt since you’re asking) the taste giving me flashbacks from last year’s marathon and half-marathons. Despite my efforts to keep things under control, half of the sugary contents oozed over my fingers producing a sticky distraction for the rest of the run. Also, am I the only person who hates running and holding stuff? I watched the Eddie Izzard documentary last week and much as I am impressed by his multiple-marathons, I’m more amazed by the fact he manages to do them holding a little flag. That little flag would drive me to the edge of insanity. There are no bins in Epping Forest and it’s one of the few parts of West Essex that have been overlooked by the fly tippers so dropping it onto the floor is completely out if the the question. So I held onto the tiny but deeply irritating gel wrapper for what felt like a couple of ultra-marathons (probably half a mile), quickly losing my mid-run karma before realising I could tuck it away behind the elastic of my SPI belt (see, those people who say you can come up with all sorts of good ideas while out running are right).

There was also a comedy moment where I squelched through some mud, emerging from the other side wearing only one shoe. Therefore I had to hop back into the bog to pull out the mislaid footwear which took some serious tugging until it released itself with a satisfying mud-fart. About 8 miles in I was feeling very pleased with myself as my mud splattered legs proved themselves strong enough to ease past a middle aged couple on mountain bikes but then the little wall started to rear up in the distance…

The hill I was making my way up seemed to be going on for ever until I realised I wasn’t going up a hill. Lifting up one leg at a time became more and more of a challenge and I started to have flashbacks to mile 20 in Halstead last May. This time was different however. There were no crowds cheering me on, no sponsors to disappoint, no photographers to record the humiliation. Feeling dizzy and somehow managing to stay on my feet, I decided I would stop in a few minutes time when I’d reached the respectable point of mile 10, and walk home. I checked the Garmin – only to see that I would need to keep going for another 15 minutes or so to get that far so I stopped at the less obvious landmark of 9.26 miles and “warmed down” for something like half an hour.

So what caused this mini-wall? Had I learnt anything?

  • I need to eat something at least a couple of hours before embarking on a long run
  • Feeling under the weather and a rarely experienced trail run is not the best of combinations
  • Do gels actually do anything for me? Torq gels come in some nice flavours, don’t mess up my stomach and aren’t full of chemical nasties. But I took a belt-full of them during my first marathon and the effects had seemed negligible as I’d faced an even bigger wall
  • Running in muddy forests is challenging and makes a change. However, it’s much easier to give up and walk home when you don’t have cars passing you by every few seconds. All those trees make for a skiver’s paradise