The 2009 London Marathon

It’s been almost a fortnight since I ran in the 2009 London Marathon, and it’s long overdue my writing up a few thoughts and notes. I had a great experience, and hit my main target of a sub-4 hour time. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to get close to my secondary target of a 3:45 time, for various reasons.

I was able to get a decent nights sleep. An early night compensated for waking up at various points in the night, paranoid that I’d overslept and missed the last train to Blackheath. Nerves weren’t too prevalent, but it was a bit harder to eat my porridge than usual. A short walk to Charing Cross railway station, and managed to get a seat on a train out to Blackheath.

Certainly a top-tip for future years. The train was busy at Charing Cross, and I felt for people trying to get on trains at Waterloo East and London Bridge. Not a stress I would have wanted, but it seems most people got on eventually.

After a chat with a few fellow passengers, we made our way to the Blue start area. I wasn’t able to hook up with my running club – it’s hard to find people when there are 15,000 other people milling about in similar attire. Main task was to put on some suncream, as it was a lot brighter than the weather forecast had suggested. Sunburn was going to be a serious risk!

It was then time to join the toilet queue. And a heck of a queue it was too. Unfortunately, as I subsequently made my way to the start area to find my ‘pen’, I noticed there were two other men’s urinal areas (which hadn’t been on the maps to my recollection) with tiny queues. Quite why the organisers didn’t see fit to mention this, I don’t know. The start pens are supposed to mean faster runners don’t have to overtake slower runners, and my number was inspected closely. However I’ve heard subsequently that a lot of other pens weren’t being checked very thoroughly, so we had pen 9 runners up in higher pens. Further, we were constantly being moved further forward all the time, ie. in to other pens. Really quite bizarre.

After the start, it took me 5 minutes to cross the start line, and the first mile or so was slow going. 09:57 by my Garmin for mile 1, then 9:00 for mile 2. Much MUCH slower than my target pace of around 8:30 miles. All very stop-start, and overtaking charity chain gangs, walkers and similar drained some of my good will. It’s still very hard to be too annoyed at people doing great things for charity: It’s an immense achievement to even get to the start line. But really, I just wish they’d gone in the right start pen (and been kept there), or given more realistic time estimates for their marathon time.

After that things got back on course, and one of the highlights just after the 3 mile marker was where the ‘blue’ and ‘red’ starts merged. Lots of jovial booing at each other was great fun. Through Woolwich, then into Greenwich along non-descript roads, but plenty of great support. The Cutty Sark was a bit of a non-event given it’s currently deeply under wraps, but it’s still a significant part of the course. Then the few miles up through Southwark and towards Tower Bridge. Support was at times massive, and at other points absolutely deserted. Very strange, and a lot more twisty than I’d expected. Managed to see a colleague from one of my clients enjoying the sun. Not sure sitting on grass near to a hedge was quite the best plan!

Crossing Tower Bridge was quite special. It’s such an iconic part of the course, and so very close to the half-way mark it’s hard not to feel the significance of the moment. I was feeling quite good at this point, and my splits were still roughly on course, but still more variable than I’d hoped. Certainly it was starting to be apparent I wasn’t going to make up any of the time I’d lost at the start, and knew only too well that things get properly tough after the 20 mile mark. I still managed a few 8:37 paces, and even – at mile 19 an 8:35 – much of that as I’d locked on to points where I knew supporters would be. The fetchpoint was a great spot, with wonderful red and yellow balloons and loads of supporters. Great to see them on the way out to Canary Wharf, and on the way back. Just the boost I needed.

The miles through Canary Wharf weren’t too bad. Bar the bits around mile 20, near Billingsgate market, much more support than I think I’d expected. But the course was a lot narrower than I’d expected it to be. Spectators encroaching on to the road was one thing, but even marshalled areas seemed to mean the course was a bit narrower than I’d hoped. Overtaking (which I was doing a fair bit of) just got fiddly and, sadly, time-consuming. I was caught up by fellow club runner Michael around here, but soon lost him behind me as I had a couple of good miles at mile 19 and 20 at 8:35 and 8:21 respectively.

Hitting 20 miles was psychologically significant. Only 6.2 miles left, and almost all of it in a straight line right through London. Easy to focus on, and tick off the miles. I only once had a difficult moment around mile 23. I was starting to feel tired. Not the “wall” by any stretch – I’d been taking gels and energy drinks. I just needed to gather up my thoughts, so I resolved to use the very brief break to gather myself up set off to the end. 20 seconds or so later (and a very stiff few strides), and I was on my way again. Still much slower at this point, closer to 9 minute miling, but doing a fair bit of overtaking (At this point so many other runners seemed to be walking), and the runners were starting to thin out a bit more, so felt a lot easier to make progress.

My determination carried me along the Embankment, and started to really feel the building sense of accomplishment. Large numbers of supporters shouting just moves you in quite a way! I knew there were some club supporters around here, and I’d not hear the end of it if I took another walking break! I stuck to my resolve and on I went. Somehow I picked out my club’s Ladies captain Carla in the crowd screaming something encouraging at me. Marvellous, and a further boost. My average pace indicator on my watch suggested a sub-4 hour was very much achievable, and that kept me going.

Hitting Birdcage walk – the last mile – was something else. The end is almost in sight, and whilst I’d perhaps distanced myself more than I’d expected from the crowds and the support along the way, I was lapping it up now. The last few hundred metres were much easier than I’d thought – the finish line is a motivator like no other – but the crowd and distinct sense of achievement as you round the corner in front of Buckingham palace to see the finish line in front of you just pulls you along like nothing else.

Crossing the line and the emotion really washes over. I’d made sub-4 hours (3:56:35), but the time didn’t really matter. I’d seen it so many times on the television, to cross the famous finish having completed the worlds biggest marathon was really quite a moment. The finish area just passed in a blur. Up on the ramp to get the chip cut off. Collect medal. Pose for photograph. Collect goody bag. Collect bags (how’d they know it was me!?). Then I just found the “L” section in the reunion area and waited for Frances. No way I was leaving my iPhone in my bag, so no mobile telephony assistance in reunions!

I’d missed out on my other goal of getting a 3:45 time, and I’ll put that down to a poor start position, the weather, but also perhaps being a bit optimistic. A marathon really is a distance that tests you like no other running event. All said I enjoyed the experience, and the distance, and I will almost certainly do another marathon. But I know I won’t be rushing back to enter London – I think I’d prefer to try a smaller event (with less congestion), and see how I do there. I’ll also be a lot more aware of the amount of time required to train. The race itself is almost the easy bit. The hard bit is finding time to train for three hours on a weekend, when there are so many other demands on my time. Having a life. Glasgow parkrun. My business. My friends. Just having time off.

In short, I thoroughly enjoyed London from start to finish. Sure, I’ve a few gripes, but they’re relatively minor in the grand scheme. I know I could run faster, and I intend to prove that someday. London’s not an easy place to get a PB, and it’s so much more than a 26.2 mile run. I know a lot of people had problems on the day, so I feel very pleased that things came together for me on the day and I achieved my primary goal, and had a big smile on my face when I crossed the line less than 4 hours after starting, and to think three years I’d have laughed at the prospect of such an achievement.

Definitely recommended. Just looking at the medal (it’s just by my desk) brings back so many memories.

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