Running the Virgin London Marathon 2013

Finally, after months of training the Marathon was getting close. For the last two weeks the mileage is reduced dramatically as you taper. The reduction in mileage was accompanied by every part of my legs and lower back feeling tweaked, tight or sore - bizarre. I was a bit reassured at finding that other people had suffered from the same effect. It must be nerves I told myself - and confirmed the diagnosis by also sleeping badly for a couple of days in the run up.

So, it was with a bit of a relief to get up the morning of the marathon and get an early taxi to Waterloo to travel to Greenwich. Finally, we were going to do it!.

At the start of the Virgin Money London Marathon
Waiting to start - picture by Chris Isherwood


The logistics of the morning are pretty complicated as you want to get up as late as you can, yet you need to eat fully and travel to a Greenwich which can be complicated. The normal paranoia rules as you double check every item. We went to Waterloo and got a train to Greenwich which was busy but easy enough. As the runners streamed off the trains and we all walked up towards the start you really got a sense of the size of the event - it's massive.

It was pretty brisk but the sun was starting to come out and spirits were up until I discovered I'd forgotten all my gels and food - left behind on the kitchen table. All the calculations on nutrition and careful practise thrown out the window! Aside from stopping crowds with a world class temper tantrum there was nothing to be done - N and I "shared" some of hers and I started paying attention to where there gel stations and powerdrinks stations were on the map. There would be repercussions later on - but for now the general milling of so many runners walking up to the enclosure kept the excitement building.

Having got into our starting paddock we quickly handed in our bags which were whisked away into trucks. Like the rest of the logistics it was effortless and all the racing officials were really helpful. As I'd been warned getting to the toilets was a necessary and a long drawn-out affair as hundreds of hydrated and nervous people got ready. Then we crowded in our start time pens marvelling at people running as Rhinos, superman or the hundreds of other choices. I was amazed by the variety of locations that runners had come from, along with how many charities were represented.

The first few miles

Finally the start horn went off. Then - we're moving - well shuffling and cheering, and stopping, and then walking - eventually we cross the line and sort of shuffle-run. It soon picks up and you run the first couple of miles down lanes with supporters families and friends cheering everyone on. N and I were supposed to run different times, but the general carnival experience was so interesting we decide to stay together and enjoy the experience a bit.

Crossing Tower Bridge
Cutty Sark - picture by Chris Isherwood

At three miles all the start groups join together as you make your way through a loop towards Cutty Sark. Overall, I really enjoyed the first third as the benefit of all the mileage came through and both N and I relaxed into the race. We ran much slower than our training pace so were able to really enjoy the crowds. Of course running around the Cutty Sark is fantastic and there were amazing crowds there. But, what is really impressive is all the spectators cheering you on even in some of the dreary 'industrial' bits south of the river.

It really felt like you were taking part in a giant party. The best thing I saw was a small child being held by her father with her Pepper Pig toy, then suddenly she saw Pepper Pig running down the road towards her - she screamed in excitement and started jumping up and down in her Dads arms - so running Pepper Pig saw her and ran up to give both Dad and child a quick hug before running on - it was so funny!

But, even in the first third I was noticing that the tarmac was much harder on my feet than my training had shown. Most of my distance had been on semi-hardened paths around Richmond Park so the tarmac was definitely noticeable. I would definitely make sure I got more distance on tarmac if I trained again. But, the bigger problem was that without gels I had to drink the sports drink provided and as the weather was a lot hotter I was generally having to hydrate more. At one level given how messed up the plan was it all came out fine since neither of us was dehydrated at the end. But, the mix of sports drink and (race provided) gels really messed with my stomach - I had three toilet stops - one of which was practically Paul Radcliffe desperate!

If I'd had any time goals then they were long gone after having to wait 10-20 minutes at each toilet location - luckily I was just focused on finishing! It definitely confirmed that you need to practise your food strategy early (we did but I messed up) and as importantly practise your hydration. For hydration I knew how much water I needed but with the switch to having to take in sports drink I couldn't keep in my head the right proportions and levels.

On the upside it meant that after the toilet breaks N and I were running at a slightly faster pace than those around us. And, lets be honest it's always better to be going past people than being passed.

Crossing Tower Bridge
Crossing Tower Bridge, what a crowd - by Chris Isherwood

Middle section

By the time we got to Bermondsey (18 km) my feet were noticably starting to feel it. Crossing over London Bridge (mile 12, 19 km) was fantastic as it's both a great land mark and it gives you a great lift. It felt like we were making headway and the noise from the crowd was a giant push onward. It's interesting how someone shouting your name can give you a noticable lift, whether a spectator or a volunteer. The volunteers handing out water at the stops, marshalling and generally encouraging were really helpful the whole way round. I really valued all the help they provided and hope they realise how appreciated they were.

As we ran north of the river towards docklands there was less energy available to chat as more of our focus moved into running. It doesn't happen immediately but slowly there's less pointing at funny people in costumes or crowds and more focus on each KM marker. N and I both had music which helped us disassociate. It's true that at some points you can't really hear the crowds which takes away some of the atmosphere, so sometimes I ran with just one headphone in. But, as the marathon continued there was a real benefit in being able to focus on the music.

Although, there was some niggling I was running well. At around 22 km N and I decided to split apart so we could focus on our own race - to run together you have to find space constantly and this was becoming hard as the roads were thinner. With more people walking at the side it was harder to find space.

Marathon Medal
Forrest Gump Run!

I upped my pace to my normal 'long run' pace which was great for a while. For whatever reason this didn't last for that long as within a few miles the outside of my left knee started hurting and then my thigh into my hip socket. I pushed for a while hoping that it would shut down but it didn't - I tried altering my running style at one point and even poked my butt and thighs to try activating the muscles (it must have looked hilarious). But, when I started grinding my teeth in docklands I decided it wasn't a good idea. So I reduced my pace as I felt my leg was going to seize up - eventually I slowed back down and landed pacing back at N's pace - so really could have staid with her. It's hard to say why this happened as I was still no-where near a long distance for me: I feel like I might have stressed my hip flexors by jogging too slow early on and not activating my butt and thighs fully. It implies lots more squats and lunges for me!

So slightly, annoyed and beginning to notice the hurt I was into the heart of docklands. The streets are quite constrained and there were massive crowds which was great - but I was feeling a bit down in the mouth. I ran up to someone who was also running for Leonard Cheshire. Partially as an excuse to slow down I asked him how he was going and we chatted for a KM or so. It turned out that he'd severely hurt his achilles just three weeks before the race and had feared he wouldn't be able to run - so complete with injections he was having a go. It put my own 'trifling' pain into context and when he stopped for a walk I continued focusing on the fact that pain is really just in the mind.

Is it still the middle?

The route spends a long time in Docklands - much more than you think. If I did it again I'd probably run around this area just to get used to it. The crowds were massive often two or three people deep and the cheering really helped - particularly the sections with drums where they were so loud you couldn't hear your inner voice complaining and they just drove you on. It's probably testiment to the focus I had that I didn't really notice some sections.

Running through the city in London in London Marathon
Running through the city, picture by timnw

As I came back out of docklands the route doubled back on itself. So earlier I had run past people who looked faster and were definitely further along - how depressing! Now however, I felt that I'd made progress as I ran out of docklands and along.

Everyone is worried about hitting the wall at 20-22 miles. There are terrible stories about it and the worst thing is that if you hit the wall it's already too late to fix it, you've run out of carbohydrate by that point. I'd done long training runs which gave me some confidence, but the mess-up with the gels was weighing on my mind. Had I got enough carb into my system and had I managed my energy enough? I ran through 20 miles without a hitch, waiting for something but there was no noticable change. I'd probably over-done it as I was still pretty hydrated at the end, and it cost me lots of time. But not suffering any form of "bonk" was worth it!

At mile 22 you only have 8 km to run so rather than counting up I started counting down - it really helped. I've run 8 km countless times, I knew I could run 8km, in fact I knew I could crawl that distance - so at this point I focused on convincing myself that I'd broken the back of it - it was just a question of keeping going.

You're now running along north of the river on pretty wide roads with lots and lots of spectators around you. There are no crowd controls at some points so people step right up and cheer you on: putting your name on your shirt helps as then someone is shouting personal encouragement at you. At mile 24 you run through a tunnel which was pretty odd as they'd set up lights and an odd sound track - slightly surreal and I wondered if I was hallucinating.

Along the Serpentine
Running up to Parliament - by overexposure

Are we there yet?

Over this period the pain slowly started to increase, it was definitely hurting now. But, I knew I'd done it, I just had to keep going - anyone can run 5 km!

A guy runs past faster than everyone else, he's overtaking lots of people but running at my normal 'long run' pace. It's annoying being overtaken. I decide to increase my pace and keep up with him. While a bit painful my ITB isn't excruciating, and anyway it's only a few KM now. I 'race' him - clearly he doesn't know he's in a race and nor do I tell him - but he is. The last 5k is a race for me, a jog for him - ah our egos!

Finish Line at the London Marathon
The final finish line, picture by coolasicemandave

Finally, we see Parliament and loop around onto birdcage walk. I'd read that it seems very long, but it's not too bad and there are signs counting down the distance. We go around the corner and come right by the Palace - I'd like to savour it but I've got my race to "win". I power - well possibly power hobble, along the last 200m - anyone can run 200m.

Then suddenly I'm over the line ... I've definitely won my race! And completed the marathon.

I'm brought to a halt - somewhat as you'd wave down a horse - someone snips off my timing chip, I'm handed a medal and spat out the back. I can barely walk as my legs keep trying to run. It's practically too fast to take in.

Coming out the finish was suitably efficient, and then I walked along to find my bag. I introduced myself to the guy who paced me and thanked him - he'd run lots of Marathons so really was just jogging - I didn't tell him that he'd lost! 1


I walked it off for a while and then found N. We caught up with a runner friend who had come to support us (thanks!) - and made sure we did our recovery properly by drinking lots of read wine and eating steak - I can recommend that bit. The next day we were both sore but it was bearable - I had the day off which probably was the right choice.

Marathon Medal
This medal has pride of place

I wrote that night that overall I was happy - and looking back I remain so. The main objective was for N and I to achieve the Marathon. At the start of the training it looked pretty hard for us to do it as there wasn't much time and in particular she hadn't done any running before. We had lots of problems with her taking on the distance. I think the long Sunday runs really helped us get through the whole thing: I knew I was sacrificing some pace by running it at her speed rather than the ones I was supposed to operate, but it was much better to do it together. In fact, where I trained on my own I didn't get enough milate (mid-week training) and generally had a poor March (both of which haunted me towards the end).


The whole day was an amazing experience, and coming through all the bits of London with the spectacle of the people running it and the spectators cheering us on was brilliant. While I was pretty tunnel vision for many bits of it, being pushed along by the crowd as you wind through London is a wonderful experience. The general organisation of the day is amazing and I'd like to thank all the volunteers and stewards for their help and good humour.

So if you have the time, I can definitely recommend the London Marathon as a challenge worth doing!

  1. Some might claim you cannot compete against someone who doesn't know they're in a race. You can easily disprove this by showing the mass door positioning competition that takes place on public transport in every major city.  

Posted in Pelican Sunday 30 June 2013
Tagged with running adventure