London Marathon 2019: The First Half

My lack of preparation – physical and psychological – for the London Marathon extended to the logistics of actually getting to Blackheath. The day before race day, I was supposed to be talking at a conference in London to celebrate Mary Wollstonecraft’s 260th birthday. But I got stuck on a broken-down train between Cambridge and Stansted Airport, and missed my event. To avoid a similar mishap on marathon day, P offered to drive me down to Redbridge tube station, where I could pick up the tube to London Bridge (via Stratford), and then the train to Blackheath. But I cut it pretty fine, forgetting that the marathon start was still a 15-minute walk from Blackheath station, and I spent the tube journey anxiously checking my watch and wondering whether, if I missed the baggage lorries, I could run with my finish bag’s contents (including two books for the train journey home) crammed into my running pack. In the end, I arrived at the starting area just in time to throw my kit bag onto the lorries, dash to the toilet, and head to my Blue starting pen. 

There was a shivery 30-minute wait, as we edged towards the start line in waves. And then, almost imperceptibly, we were over the start line, and running. Back in my twenties, when I ran a few road half-marathons, my experience was that the first mile was always too congested to get close to race pace. So I was hugely, pleasantly, surprised that the London Marathon’s division of runners into three starting groups, with differing initial routes, meant that, within seconds, I was running at a comfortable pace, with the luxury of space around me. 

I didn’t really have a race plan, but during my flatter, longer training runs I was usually capable of keeping my average pace below 5 mins 40 secs per km, so I thought I’d aim for that and see how long I could hold it. At the back of my mind was the calculation that keeping up that pace for the whole race would mean a sub-4hr time. But I also knew that I would need to stop to go to the loo and change my tena pad at least twice, and that 4hrs 15mins, or 4hrs 30mins, were much more realistic targets for my first road marathon. (My previous (trail) marathon PB was 5:51, so I also knew that, excepting a major mishap, I was likely to run a new PB whatever happened. Not that this all really matters, right?)            

The first half of the London marathon was one of the most blissful running experiences I’ve ever had. Everyone to whom I’d mentioned the race had responded with some variation of ‘omg, the crowds! the noise! the goodwill! The atmosphere!’ My friend Sally – an impressive runner who knocked out a 3:31 marathon time even with a fractured ankle – had spoken rhapsodically about the emotional effect of ‘the collective spirit of thousands of feet tapping out their stories on tarmac.’ But I hadn’t anticipated the reality of it. I couldn’t really imagine it. And then, within 100m of the start line, there they were, by the side of the road, in their hundreds of thousands, at times five people deep: children holding out hands for hurried high-fives, adults proferring boxes of jelly babies, charity banners and placards waving in the air, everyone smiling and yelling and calling out names of passing runners. 

Trail marathons elate me. Their spectacular views and the sensory pleasures of damp grass and cool forest paths anaesthetise the physical slog of running. I’d never felt ecstatic whilst road running, though. But in the face of all this support and goodwill, I couldn’t stop grinning. I was just so happy: totally high, almost literally overwhelmed, emotionally capsized by the waves of noise coming from the sides of the road. I could barely feel my legs or register the effort of running. My consciousness of what was going on in my own body was borne away by the crowds’ enthusiasm. I tacked from barrier to barrier, high-fiving every child, thanking everyone who shouted my name, and then, after about four miles, there was the surprise of seeing my old friend Steve with his family and an encouraging hug. A fellow runner turned to me. ‘Isn’t this bloody incredible?!’ she shouted. The collective ecstasy: it reminded me of clubbing when I was younger.  

This extraordinary, effortless state lasted for two hours. Looking at my splits for that first half, they’re remarkably consistent: all hovering around 5:31 per km. This was the best thing ever. Why hadn’t I ever run a road marathon before? I felt wonderful, invincible, capable of running at this pace forever: a sub-4-hour marathon, a sub-8-hour 50-miler, a sub-16-hour 100-miler. They all seemed easily within reach. 

But as I approached the half-way point, I realised that my watch was ahead of the official distance markers. Quite a way ahead, in fact. It beeped to register half-marathon distance a good 600m or 700m before the official 13.1-mile sign, which I reached – not at 1 hrs 56, as my watch promised – but at 1:59.21. And, just like that, my high came crashing down. I had under-estimated the extra distance that all that tacking from side to side was adding onto my run, and I’d set far too much store by the accuracy of my watch’s GPS, despite the fact I know all watches struggle in built-up areas. According to my chip times, my pace wasn’t 5:31 per km, giving me healthy leeway to slow down in the second half and still achieve a sub-4hour time. It was closer to 5:40, which gave me no leeway at all. And I suddenly became conscious of being tired. My left calf was starting to hurt. The back of my right knee was sore. There was no way I could keep this up. It was a disaster. I wasn’t a road-runner. I hadn’t done any preparation for this. I was an idiot. What on earth was I thinking, to have thought that I could do this?