Looking at my splits now, it seems that I managed to hold onto what my watch calculated as a 5:31 average after the London Marathon’s half-way point for another 9km, up to around 30km into the marathon. But I remember very little about those 6 miles between the 13 and 20-mile markers. Looking at the route map now, I was running through Wapping, Limehouse and Milwall, but I couldn’t tell you the first thing about it, other than I became conscious of feeling disembodied, in a faintly unwell rather than ecstatic way. I think I started counting my steps – at first up to 100, but then in less complicated chunks of 10 – to try to ground myself back in my body. And then, at Canary Wharf, around the 30km marker, I stopped.
I’d had enough.
I wasn’t even up to 20 miles yet.
There was no way I could keep going for another 7 miles.
I’d have to DNF, or, at the least, walk the remaining distance.
But as I started walking, I realised: I had been here before. I knew exactly what was going on. And I knew it because I go through this – all of it, not just the crash, but the preceding elation too – in every single long-distance race. Just because this was a road marathon, didn’t mean there weren’t similarities to the trail races I’d done. And in every long-distance event I’ve ever participated in, I’ve gone through an earlyish period, in which I’ve got a decent distance under my belt and still feel amazing – buoyed up by the scenery and the sensation of physical wellness – and I start fantasising about feeling this way forever, smashing all known records. And, inevitably, shortly afterwards, comes the psychological depletion: the consciousness of tiredness and niggling pain, irritation with people around me, and retreat from awareness of my surroundings into an internal narrative of disaster and failure. And I know that so much of this defeatism is just an emotional response to some sort-of physical fatigue or imbalance, and – crucially – that it can be turned around. When your immediate inner voice is screaming histrionic, fatalistic self-criticisms, it’s so hard to preserve awareness of that other little voice, the quiet, sensible one, offering calm advice. But everything depends on that voice making itself heard.
In the Marathon’s first half, I’d eaten a couple of gels, and some handfuls of jelly babies. But now I clearly needed much more. So I chewed on a couple of citrus salt tablets, ate a ginger biscuit, and then tore open a strip of caffeinated, jelly-like Clif Blok cubes. This was risky: I’d only bought them two days previously at the Marathon Expo, and had never used them in a run before. I never train with caffeine and rarely drink it in my non-running life. But the sleepy, slow, second half of the Hardmoors 55, back in March, had made me realise I’d need to start incorporating caffeine into my ultras at some point soon. So I reminded myself that London was part of my training for the Pennine Barrier 50-mile ultra in June, and that this was an opportunity crying out for an experiment in caffeinating myself.
I then took myself to (a surprisingly clean) portaloo, changed my tena pad, had a little sit down, and gave myself a talking to. Running is supposed to be fun, I reminded myself. So I needed to find a way of locating the pleasure in the remaining 7 miles. Both calves were very sore, unused to the relentless pounding of tarmac in trainers far less cushioned than my trail shoes, and my right knee was starting to hurt. I would slow down a bit, trying to keep my average pace below a steady 6mins per km rather than 5mins 40, and I’d try to utilise my glutes more. I would stop every mile or so to take on more calories and stretch my calves, and I would take more time to look around me, revelling in my surroundings. And the most important thing: I wasn’t going to DNF, which meant I had to make it to the finish. So I might as well just get on with it, instead of letting it drag on all day.
Off I went. And within about five minutes, I felt normal again, even able to high-five a few children. The kilometre markers started ticking down: 10 to go, just the distance of a standard easy training run. My watch started telling me I was running at 4 mins 50 pace, which was ludicrous. Later, I checked my GPS trace, and my Garmin had completely lost the plot amid the Docklands’ high-rise buildings, charting movements that zig-zagged between parallel roads, adding a lot of non-existent distance to the watch’s measurement of my route. My left calf was burning, and there was an intermittent startling electric twang behind my right knee. But concentrating on my form, straightening my back, lifting my knees and focusing on my glutes, all helped to alleviate the pain. I ate another energy gel and it started to drizzle and I ran under a bracing jet of water from a hose, and I felt tired but well and content and back in the world.
And then, at about the 34km marker, as we were emerging out of an underpass into the city of London, I became aware of this strange gutteral sound that began quietly and rapidly grew and grew in volume. I looked up, wondering if a freight train was passing on a bridge overhead or a helicopter was landing nearby. And then I realised: it was coming from the crowds lining the street. Previously they’d been one or two people deep, and occasionally scattered. But now they were unwaveringly dense, five or seven deep, blowing on vuvuzelas, waving clackers, screaming names and words that were mostly indistinguishable but combined together into this phenomenal wall of sound that momentarily knocked me breathless. The crowds at the beginning had made me smile. Now they made me cry. And again, they took me out of myself, buoying me along on a wave of energy and noise.
Along I careered, bordering the Thames out through the City past Blackfriars and Temple, under Waterloo Bridge, and onto Embankment. I started to feel a little sad that, amidst this cacophony, there was no-one here just for me. Occasionally someone would lean up against the barriers, read my running top and yell my name, but I didn’t know them and wasn’t accountable to them. And then, a bellow to my right – ‘RAAACCCHHHEELLLLL!’ – and an arm, outstretched through the massed crowds. It belonged to my dear dear friend Andrew! I raced over and gave him a hug and a kiss. ‘I love you!’, we both shouted simultaneously. ‘You’re doing brilliantly!’ he yelled. ‘You’ve so nearly finished!’
And I had – I really had.
A grin plastered across my face, I sped up, back to my starting pace; cornering past Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, along Birdcage Walk, and round into The Mall, past enormous red banners proclaiming ‘800m’, ‘600m’, ‘400m’, ‘200m’. It went eerily quiet, the crowds replaced by near-empty, near-silent VIP pens. I looked up at the TV screens positioned across the finish line, but couldn’t see myself, and then, suddenly, I was there, over the mats, and turning off my watch (which insisted I’d run 43.58km (27.1 miles)) to a time of 4 hours 12 mins 1 second. Performance times don’t matter, right? But I am damn happy with that.
- I was right: I was an idiot for not having done road-specific training. Nothing – not even a 55-mile trail event with 2700m ascent – can prepare your body for the specific rigours of 26.2 miles on flat tarmac. My left calf still really hurts!
- But there are more transferrable skills between long-distance trail running and road-marathon-running than I’d anticipated: particularly when it comes to (a) the psychological ups and downs, and getting over a dip, and (b) nutrition and hydration. So, mentally and logistically, I was actually much better prepared than I’d given myself credit for. Despite slowing down a bit in the second half, my average pace actually stayed *fairly* consistent throughout.
- Road running can take you high too! Who knew?
- The London Marathon route is actually pretty ugly until the last 7km or so. It would be possible to plan a much more gorgeous 26.2 mile route through the capital (Hampstead Heath! Canals! Marshes!) but it’d have to take in some hills, and I guess that would mean that it’d lose its PB potential, which I suppose would put people off.
- The crowds! OMFG! And having unexpected friends in the crowd, particularly when you’d f***ing exhausted, is The Best Thing.
- Maybe I care more about pace and performance times than I let on. Having relinquished the delusional hope of maintaining 5mins 40 per km – entertained during the illusory euphoria of the marathon’s first half – I am very very happy with my finishing time. Deep down, despite my fantasy of sub-4, I’d expected to do the thing in 4 hrs 30.
- I’m not doing that again. No, really. So much of my pleasure in the London Marathon came from the surprise of how elating I found the crowds. I can’t imagine doing a road marathon without that surprise. If a race isn’t going to offer hills and views and curlews and heather, it needs to be pretty bloody special.