My London Marathon Experience

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A very weary marathon runner.

I grew up watching the London Marathon and up until a few years back I had watched the race every year.

I started entering the race when I was 18 and had my heart set on running the biggest race in the country. Every year the field of runners got bigger and bigger. I trained and ran local fun runs and 10k races, and handled my rejections as well as I could.

In 1990 I joined the RAF but I still entered the Marathon and this was the first ever year I was unable to watch the race as I was doing basic training at RAF Swinderby.

Having completed basic training, I moved on in May to trade training at RAF Hereford and entered the race yet again in hope of getting in. I used to train regularly with one of the PT Instructors who had also entered. After 20 weeks of training and two weeks of general duties I finally moved to my permanent unit, RAF High Wycombe, in November.

I went onto war duties within a few weeks and was helping out with the run-up to the 1st Gulf War. As I'd moved about a fair bit, my mail took a while to finally reach me; and during late December I got my rejection letter from London Marathon.

Not despairing, I entered again in 1991 and joined the station Athletics team and got to run at RAF Cosford before they finally closed the indoor track. I ran a local 10 mile race in Naphill (a local part of High Wycombe). I was still doing fun runs and 10k races in Coventry (my home town) and times were getting better and I was good and fit.

Of course, I entered in 1992 and was duly rejected again, and also entered in 1993, and yes, you guessed it, was rejected yet again. Every year I've entered I've always donated my entry fee to charity, because they have a little lottery for places in the race for people who donate their entry fee.

Finally my time came, in 1994. I got accepted into the 1994 Nutrasweet London Marathon. I got my best year's training as I was detached to The Royal Engineers (Airfields) and we did PT twice a week which included one road run a week.

I organized my travel and hotel through one of the recommended companies, so I was all sorted. A few months before the race I suffered with a case of gastric flu very badly for two weeks, and it almost wiped my training out. A less fit person might not have even bothered going to London.

I was lucky enough to make a decent recovery, but I knew I was not going to have the really good fast race I wanted to have. I was being sponsored (National Society For Epilepsy) and went round everywhere on the unit, and if you got away with not sponsoring me you were either light on your feet or a real tight-wad.

I can't remember exactly how much I raised but it was over £200!

Right, I had the whole weekend and the Monday after the race taken off as leave. On the Saturday morning I went off to the train station and got on the Marathon Special. The only people aboard who weren't staff were all running the marathon. This train stopped specially and took us directly to London Euston and stopped on platform 1 so we were able to get off the train, walk out the side entrance and get onto the coaches waiting to take us to the various hotels. The coaches were labelled as to which hotels they were going to, and I was staying in Knightsbridge.

Once in the hotel, we were given our room keys and told when we were being taken to register for the race. We were taken by coach about an hour later to The Barbican (from watching some program on tv recently about London Marathon runners, it looks like they don't use this any more, they now seem to use The London Arena) and joined a reasonably large queue that we waited in for about an hour to get in, get our runners pack (a bag that has your number, race details, various items of food and running related goodies) so they know how many people are going to run.

There was a hall with stalls selling running goods (I bought myself a new pair of trainers, a sweater which I still wear, and a marathon cap) and I met former 800 and 1500 runner Peter Elliot and got his autograph.

After my little bit of shopping I went back to my coach and tootled back to Knightsbridge. Dropped the runners pack off in my room and went for a stroll down the road. Went into a branch of Lillywhites and met some blokes who knew nothing about trainers, and told their manager they needed some serious training on their products.

Tootled further down the street and tried to go into Harrods and got told to "B*gger off, you're in a tracksuit", so I duly got stuffed and took myself back in the direction of the hotel and discovered a McDonald's (Yep, A Maccy D's, in Knightsbridge of all places) so I bought myself dinner.

A Big Mac, two large fries, an apple pie and a large strawberry shake. So, food in hand I bimbled (it's an RAF expression, it means to walk aimlessly with no sense of purpose) back to the hotel and scoffed down my scran (it's another RAF expression, means food) whilst watching the free videos on the hotel channel.

Didn't do much in the evening apart from chat to a few people, scoff some pasta and make sure I had an alarm call all set up. Final things I did before I went to bed were set my alarm for 6am, lay out all my kit in the order I was going to put in on (Yes, I know it sounds incredibly anal but it saved a load of time) and have all my wash stuff ready in the shower.

Struggled to sleep at first but finally slipped off and was woken up by the watch alarm. Went to the loo and then the phone went with the alarm call (fortunately I'd finished in the loo by then!). Had a nice boiling hot shower and shave, dried off and got dressed. Grabbed my kit bag and other bag and went down to breakfast.

Wasn't sure if I was going to eat, then decided on a bowl of cereal and two slices of toast and a glass of milk. Dropped my main bag off with the hotel (everyone staying there did that, they put our bags into one room and locked it) and went to the loo again. Started feeling a bit stressed, so I started doing some Tai Chi in the lobby to relax myself. I'm entirely self taught!

After about two minutes I get the feeling I'm being watched, so I turn around to find six people copying me. Made me giggle. They asked if I minded, I said of course not. So we had a little Tai Chi chill-out session in the lobby for 20 minutes while we were waiting for everyone to be ready to get on the coaches.

Finally we all dived on the coaches and started driving across a fairly dark, cold and damp London to get to the start in Blackheath. Had no idea how long it was going to take, so I just spent the time looking out of the window and trying to relax my brain as best as I could.

Pulled up to Blackheath about 30 minutes before the start, changed down to my running kit and stuck a black bin bag on to keep warm, stuck all my stuff in my bag and put it in the designated truck (they have trucks that hold 1,000 bags each, so if your number is 8164 your stuff goes in the 8000-9000 truck.), Each bag has the individual runner's number on it so you know you're getting the right bag back at the finish.

I was glad I'd gone to the loo before we set off because queues for the portaloos were huge, so I grooved off to the direction of the start. There are various starts to avoid too much runner congestion (at time of running there were three starts: the Red Start (Elite Men, Women and Fast runners), the Blue Start (Club Runners, Fun Runners) and the Green Start (Fun Runners and charity runners).

I was at the Red start (No, I don't know how I got there, either) and the way they lay the start out is Elite Athletes at the start line, then markers for where people expect to finish (like under 2hrs 30, under 3hrs, 3hrs, 4hrs, 5hrs). I started out standing in the 5hr start and moved up until I was actually in the 3hrs point.

Finally the race got under way and I started my watch, took me about two minutes to actually get over the start and rip off my bin bag as I was nice and warm now, but once I was away, I was motoring pretty well. There were little spaces, so I was able to maintain the pace I'd decided on. The first mile took 14 minutes, but I knew the first mile was the slowest.

The separate starts come back together at around 3 miles. I knew where to expect this as it was mentioned in the runners race pack, so I stuck on the furthest side of the road, and there was a decent amount of space there to keep running at a decent rate and not be slowed by the crowd.

By this time I'm feeling nice and relaxed and only really notice we're reaching Woolwich Arsenal (about 5 miles or so) and my left foot hurts a bit. Takes me all of seconds to work out I've got a blister which I choose to ignore. We round Cutty Sark (it's enormous, tv doesn't do it justice - go see it!) and I'm pretty happy because we've done 6 miles (or 10k, only 32k more to go!) and I feel excellent.

My foot doesn't hurt any more, so I assume the blister burst. Next landmark was the Thames Flood Barrier, at about 8 or 9 miles, then we're running up a steep incline and we're on Tower Bridge. It sways from side to side as you run across and you can really feel the swaying, and it vibrates from the footfalls.

We can see people going under the bridge by The Tower Of London but there's no point thinking about them as they are so far ahead of us. (Note: the race no longer goes under London Bridge and around The Tower Of London). We turn left towards Isle of Dogs and pass the halfway marker. I'm feeling really good, apart from mile 1 every other mile has been under 10 minutes and I feel like I can run this pace forever. I've just destroyed my PB for the half marathon and we're off towards into Isle of Dogs and Docklands.

I know from watching the race a lot that the trouble with going into Isle of Dogs is you can see the people coming out on the other side of the traffic island, they are over 5 miles ahead of you and it can be a bit of a blow to morale. I chose not to look over and just crack on with my own race.

Things get tough and I'm seeing people being treated by St. Johns for cramp, bad feet, and many people are stopping to have a wee at the road side. If you choose to run the marathon yourself don't be surprised to see both men and women stopping by walls and at the side of the road to urinate.

I'm not having that problem, having gone before I started, and only drinking enough to stay hydrated; any excess is being sweated out, so no way am I going to need to stop for a toilet break. I did take on water at every feed station though, it's a good idea.

We're running through Docklands and it's all offices and developments. Very high tech and new looking. As we approach the 15 mile marker I look at my watch and figure the winner will have just finished, so I call over to one of the route marker people. Yep, some Spanish dude won about 5 minutes ago, he said.

Ok, I press on, trying to keep pace, but I know inside I am definitely slowing down gradually. The public are keeping us going with their support (you people who come out to support the runners, I can't say how much it raises our spirits. Thank you all!).

Passing Canary Wharf (Oh my God, it is HUGE!) it's all open and exposed and extremely windy - I later found out this was the coldest London Marathon in race history; I'm really cold and pushing myself hard to get past into shelter as quick as I can. Shortly before coming out of Isle of Dogs at the 18 mile marker I spotted two ambulance men putting someone into the back of their ambulance. The chap next to me asked if I thought he was OK. I said no, that guy was very dead.

His skin was grey, only dead people go that colour. I read in the paper the next day he'd had a heart attack. It was the only death in the race. With this major blow to my morale, I pushed on out of Isle of Dogs and through The Tower Of London. (This is the route that the race no longer takes, it now comes out of Isle of Dogs, around a traffic island and past the back of The Tower Of London to avoid the cobbles.)

Let me tell you, those cobbles hurt. By the time I'd got there, they had taken up the carpet. I saw some Para officer guy looking out for people, told him I'd spotted his lot about 2 miles behind me (it was hard not to miss them, full greens, full packs and weapons), no more than 10 minutes away at the pace they were shifting. He said thank you and I pushed on out onto the main road again.

The route out of Tower Of London goes up a small incline onto the main road again (that hurts a lot by that amount of running). This and the cobbles is why London Marathons no longer pass the Tower along the river. Oh, and if you've run the marathon and it didn't go over the cobbles you haven't run a "Real" London Marathon.

Right, passing the Tower you know you have 6 more miles. That doesn't really raise your spirits much, but it does help a little. The road then goes straight along the Embankment. It isn't flat though, it's all up and down (what we runners call undulating). There's a nice down ramp taking you under a couple of roads then it's a very steep and long gradual incline up bringing you out near MOD Main Building.

That incline starts to hurt you if you aren't already hurting. I've now slowed right down to a fast amble. I found someone and we pushed each other verbally and physically up that incline but he stopped to walk when the road evened out. I carried on as fast as I was able.

By this time I know I've hit the wall. People are cheering dementedly, but all I want to do is stop. Actually that's not strictly true, I want to die quietly in a hole somewhere. I know if I stop I'm not starting again and I haven't come this far to give up. I reminded myself that a journey of 1000 miles starts with a single step and that every step I took got me closer to the finish.

By about 23 miles the Paras had passed me. I struggled to keep up with them but even their back marker guy pressed on leaving me to my own race. Seeing them pull away from me really kicked my morale in the teeth. I was low. Kept using lamp posts as markers. I'd run to this one, on to the next one. Just doing silly things like that to push me a bit further and keep my mind busy. I just kept saying "I'll run to this next lamp post then I'll stop and walk", knowing full well I was not going to stop and walk.

This got me past the 25 mile marker and around The Houses Of Parliament. Big Ben and Parliament never looked so good, and I picked up a bit as I turned onto Birdcage Walk, knowing the finish was close.

Now Birdcage Walk is a lot longer than it looks. I hadn't been there since I was about nine, and the road looked even longer now than it did then. I just kept pushing myself as hard as I could. We went past Horse Guards Parade and the 26 mile marker. Seeing that thing helps and doesn't. You're close, but you haven't finished. It's almost like Nelson Muntz in The Simpsons doing his "Ha, ha!" especially just for you.

You still have the hardest part of the race, the 385 yards to the finish post. Rounded the palace and saluted to her majesty, only to be told by a policeman "She ain't home mate and that's the wrong hand", I said "I know, because I'm off duty!".

Finally rounded the bend into the Mall. That's a nice sight. And a bloody awful one. The Finish looks so far away. I now think I'm not going to make it. Then I hear my name being called out. Ok, this is the moment I've heard about. You're about to die and you hear "them" calling you up. Then I have a look around and see a guy from the RAF block I live in is in the crowd with his girlfriend, waving and smiling at me!

That gives me the push I need. I don't know where it came from, I started sprinting! I've run 26 damn hard miles plus change and I'm sprinting? How? This gets me over the finish (4hrs 46mins 54 seconds, a new PB). I'm given my medal (very heavy), a space blanket to keep warm, and they take the bar code off my number (so they know what my number is and where I finished (20,624th in the whole field and 9,858th within my age and sex category) and direct me up the Mall to where the trucks with our kit are waiting. I'm lucky my number is quite low so I don't have to walk far to get my stuff.

I get myself into a warm jumper, jacket, cap and start to walk off out the Mall. Then I have to walk past all the other trucks and the rest of the Mall. Heavy Bummer!

I come under Admiralty Arch into Trafalgar Square and find a friendly lady WPC who directs me to the nearest Tube station. Crossing over isn't easy. My legs weigh several tons each and the curbs there are about 3 inches high. It took me 6 attempts to get onto the pavement. I feel wretched.

Then just outside the tube station I get accosted by a journalist wanting an interview. I agree as long as we keep moving, walking in a little circle. She was from the Daily Telegraph and the piece appeared in the Monday edition, I still have it. I got a ticket back to Knightsbridge and struggled my way down the steps to the platform, keeping myself moving.

I was even walking on the spot on both the platform and the tube as we went back. Some fellow runner next to me sat down. I told him that was a fatal mistake and he'd struggle to stand again. Which he did. Fought my way up what seemed like the endless steps to ground level from Knightsbridge tube station and force-marched myself back to the hotel on auto pilot.

Grabbed my bag from the locked room and waited by the coach (I had to use the elevator there and back, the stairs were too much). Walked my feet on the spot in the coach when we travelled back to Euston and made sure I sat in the aisle seat on the way back to Coventry. Walking my feet on the spot the whole way back. I didn't dare stop because I knew I'd seize up.

Getting back into Coventry, we arrived on platform 2 and hijacked a fellow runner in a wheelchair so we could use the elevator to get up and over to the outside. We were the walking wounded, the living dead. Dived into a taxi and went home, had a lovely big meal. Hung up my medal and slept the next 18 hours.

Boy did I hurt the next day.

London. Enjoy it if you run. I did.

Recently because of my accident and because of my glaucoma, my consultant officially retired me from running. I have had my one London Marathon. Strive to fulfil your dream, too.

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