London Marathon 2012
“If you want to win something, run 100 metres. If you want to experience something, run a marathon.” - Emil Zatopek
So this is it. Here I stand, shielded from the chilly wind by a (soon to be discarded) pair of paint-spattered tracksuit bottoms and a bin sack (this isn’t the first time I’ve been dressed in such attire at 09:40 on a Sunday morning, but that’s a story for a very different website).
I’m standing in a pen of runners near to the start line of the 2012 Virgin London Marathon. As I look around I’m reminded of the opening scenes of ‘Saving Private Ryan’ where the camera focuses on the haunted faces of American GIs in landing craft on their way to Omaha beach. All around are twitchy feet. Some dampen their nerves with chat; others are quiet, alone with their thoughts. One man is actually sitting rocking, as if to soothe himself. Understandably the air smells, well…sulphurous.
I strip off my ‘keep warm’ clothing and lay it gently at the side of the pen. And then suddenly we’re off. I’m over the start line much quicker than expected and almost immediately the oppressive heaviness of the waiting pen gives way to a riot of sound and colour and madness. Smiles, claps, hands stretched out for high-fives, jelly babies, bits of banana, Vaseline, drum beats, sound systems, shouts, cheers…it’s overwhelming.
People had told me that the first couple of miles of the race would pass in the blink of an eye and, boy, were they right. Before I knew it we were passing the two mile marker.
I’d also been warned that it would be impossible to maintain a steady ‘cruising’ pace in the well-populated field of runners – another piece of information which proved to be resoundingly correct. I was faced with a decision: did I abandon all hope of hitting my target finishing time and just enjoy the race, the event and the spectacle of it all – or did I grit my teeth, get my head down and work at running the best possible race I could?
Someone once said that “All you have to know is where you're going. The answers will come to you of their own accord” and sure enough, at that very moment I heard a spectator say: “Oh bless – here are the slower runners coming through”. And that was that. Pride kicked in.
Forgetting all of the good advice I’d received before the race, I began weaving in and out of slower runners, trying to unpick a route through the dense crowds. My mindset changed. I no longer had a benevolent attitude towards the people around me. They became the enemy – in the way. I started feeling frustrated at runners blocking my path. In the back of my head a little voice kept telling me that I wasn’t exactly running in the spirit of the race. But I carried on.
I’m ashamed to say that the remainder of my first marathon passed in a bit of a blur. Looking back it feels like some kind of surreal dream. I thought that I would be choked with emotion at the wonder of it all – but actually my experience was more prosaic. My tunnel vision stopped me from seeing the beauty on the periphery.
I had one epiphany – when I rounded a corner about halfway through the race and my field of vision was suddenly filled with the incredible, majestic spectacle of Tower Bridge. For me, that moment was pure wish fulfillment. I’ve watched the London Marathon on TV pretty much every year since I was a kid. And every year I would tell anyone listening that, one day, I would run it. During all those years sitting on the sofa and dreaming, Tower Bridge became iconic to me – almost symbolic of the race. So to be there – finally running over it – was pretty emotional.
But otherwise I tried to rattle through the miles – each one a target to be ticked off rather than an experience to be savoured. We reached Canary Wharf and the crowds were almost gladiatorial – truly like nothing I’ve ever experienced before – but all I could think was that I was glad the field had started to thin out so that I had more room to run.
The one thing that everyone always tells you about a marathon is that the hard work starts at 20 miles. Sure enough, at 20 miles real weariness, inevitably, overtook me. It got harder and harder to maintain the same pace. The slight inclines around Tower Hill might as well have been as steep as the Switchbacks. I became more and more focused and inward-looking.
Then came the long, straight slog of Embankment. I think it was Yvonne who told me beforehand that Big Ben is a useful focal point at this stage of the race – but that it never seems to get any closer. How right she was! For me this was the most psychologically tough part of the marathon. The end felt so close I could almost touch it – and yet I was well aware that there was still work to do.
I barely remember rounding the last corner of the race to run down the Mall and those final, wonderful, few hundred metres. I have a vague recollection of ‘YMCA’ being played as I approached the finish line – and that the two runners in front of me started spontaneously making the iconic arm gestures associated with the song. I joined in – and I smiled.
So did I make the right decision - to try and run the best race I could rather than enjoying the awesomeness and wonder of a truly unique occasion (one which I may well never experience again)? One part of me regrets that I didn’t “stop and smell the roses” a bit more. And yet another part of me knows that if I hadn’t done my very best I would also be disappointed (let’s face it – us runners are very hard on ourselves – in fact I’m still rueing the fact that I didn’t run faster). When I come up with the answer I’ll let you know.
Massive congratulations to all of my fellow London Marathon Harriers – all of whom, for different reasons, should be very proud of themselves. And huge, HUGE thanks to all of the Harriers who provided support, advice, company and shoulders to cry on during my training. I really couldn’t have done it without you.