I had the absolute best day out a fortnight ago.
OK, there were moments I thought I was going to die. I was sweating my tits off after less than a mile, my feet started to blister after five and the legs began to go at 18. My calf almost went completely at 24.5. I thought about jumping in the River Thames on more than one occasion.
But: it was one of the most amazing, and to be honest quite emotional, experiences of my entire life.
I thought I was prepared for quite how big an occasion it would be. I’ve done three marathons now. I’ve run through some pretty large crowds before, notably at the Great North Run and parts of the Manchester Marathon. I’ve seen all those London landmarks before, multiple times. I even finished a race on The Mall less than a year ago.
But nothing quite prepared me for how all those constituent parts would come together to create the most brilliantly horrific three-and-nearly-half hours of my life; my favourite ever race since I became this massive running wanker. I’ve waited over half my life to be part of the London Marathon and it was absolutely one hundred percent worth the wait.
I look back on all those memories over the years that drove the ambition to one day be there, sweating all over that course. Sitting there as a four year old in a holiday bungalow in Hunstanton, fascinated by the hulking great Cutty Sark casually plonked in the middle of the race. Watching the pros sticking to that famous blue dashed line on the concrete marking the optimum 26.2 mile distance. Seeing someone on TV hit the wall for the first time without really understanding what was going onto them and why they didn’t just keep on running to the end. Wishing good luck to my uncle before he headed down and then seeing him pop on TV, jogging past the cameras as the BBC were interviewing someone else. Reading over my cousin’s word-processed account of his experience building up to his first attempt, which ultimately sowed the seeds of inspiration for this very blog. One of my old schoolmates taking part dressed as a giant cigarette running for an anti smoking charity. Watching on TV every single year as thousands and thousands and thousands of people streamed through those iconic gates at Greenwich Park and off out onto the famous course. Someday, I told myself, that’ll be me.
Except it didn’t seem like it ever would be. Application went into the April ballot, SORRY! magazine arrived six months later. And then the next year. And the next. And the next. The more knockbacks I got, the more determined I became. Why wouldn’t the wheel land on my number? I began to feel like someone didn’t want me there, a malevolent force perhaps, or someone I’d wronged in the past who somehow was now working for the organising team and inexplicably kept moving the goalposts to stop me nabbing a place. Changing the rule that guaranteed entry on the fifth application the year I received my fourth rejection. Reducing the “good for age” qualifying time from 3:10 to 3:05 the year before I ran a 3:07. Removing the 125,000-person ballot cap meaning around a quarter of a million people were now clamouring for those 17,000 cherished places. It became a crusade against the machine that kept spitting out my annual rejection, “you can’t keep me out forever”.
Finally, after eight months hard work and sacrifice building up to last year’s Manchester Marathon, the hardest I have ever and will ever train for anything ever again, I ran a PB which came in under that magic 3:05, and after a nervous wait until June to see if it would actually be enough, at long, long last I had my golden ticket. I was there. London, baby.
Of course, it didn’t stop me worrying that something would steam in and ruin it all for me. Maybe a new ruling where Tottenham fans with unruly brown hair called Joe weren’t allowed to run, or more likely an injury thanks to my slightly-less-than-professional approach to training this time around. I nearly got beaten up on the way home from work two days before raceday and I don’t think smashed kneecaps are particularly conducive to running 26.2 miles. Maybe the train would break down on the way to the startline, or I’d forget to pack my running shoes before driving down to the capital. Something, anything, that would prevent me from finally realising my ambition.
It was however an odd and disconcerting opening mile. Thanks to qualifying for the smaller green startline, full of club runners and world record attempts, I was being steadily overtaken by more people than in any race I’ve ever done in the past, including three lads strapped into a rubber dinghy inside the first 400 yards. The three hour pacing bus went through me early on, the 3:15 one not long after. I felt like I was going backwards; I was being overtaken by witches, chefs, Buzz Lightyears and Big Birds. A bloke dressed as Jesus carrying a full on crucifix on his back and running barefoot was up the road ahead of me. I had to keep telling myself, it doesn’t matter. Let them go. You’re not racing anyone. You’re just out for a little run, on one of the grandest, most hallowed stages of all. It’s the taking part that counts. And every time I did that, everything was alright with the world. I was just revelling in, finally, being a part of the London Marathon.
I was paying more attention to what was going on outside the race than inside it. Smiling and waving at spectators as they shouted my name, low-fiving all the kids (and often, grown adults) holding out their outstretched palms. Hands in the air going past the many bands on the route, or a quick blast of air guitar at the pub with Born To Run blaring out on the way back into Greenwich. Unexpectedly seeing a couple of my mates at mile nine. The incredible roar of the crowd across Tower Bridge, like being inside a gigantic football stadium, except with what seemed like every other person shouting my name as I scurried underneath those grand turrets looming up into the blue spring sky. It was one of the best moments of my entire life.
Back to reality: it was starting to hurt a bit. Along The Highway, time to stop to take my shoes off and adjust my socks. I’ve never had any sort of problem with my feet in all my running life. Why now? Today of all days? I still had around a dozen miles to run. Round the Isle of Dogs. Energy gel, toilet break. The legs were starting to go to pieces as they always do around the 18 mile mark, but another huge roar from the crowds at Canary Wharf gave me another massive lift. And then just as the hurt really began to kick in I saw my wife, my Dad and my two sisters stood on the side of the road just before mile 22 with a homemade sign going absolutely beserk. I could have cried.
All that was left was the little matter of a four mile jog along the banks of the River Thames and then that would be that. I was on the home straight. I’d paced my marathon well and although my legs and my poor blistered feet were begging for me to stop I was suddenly overtaking an absolute shitload of runners. According to the official results I passed nearly 600 people in the final 7k and I was actually recognising some of them from earlier in the race. Past the witch who overtook me inside the first couple of miles, past the chef carrying a massive creuset pot who’d left me for dead along Woolwich Road. Past Buzz Lightyear who had showboated his way past me round the Cutty Sark lapping up the adulation from all the crowds, but now shuffling forlornly along the A3211 a broken shell of a man enduring his own personal hell.
I turned right off The Embankment and across Westminster; it was time for the big finish. Past all those epic landmarks that make this race what it is. Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament. Down Birdcage Walk, round my favourite park in all of London town and then finally – finally! – finishing the London Marathon on The Mall in front of the Queen’s big gaff. The end of the road.
I crossed the line and paused for a second or two trying to savour the moment. A lady put a medal around my neck, one of my most treasured possessions, congratulated me and told me “don’t worry, your hair still looks fantastic”. I thanked her then stood and looked back at what I had done and nearly burst into tears again.
I had done it. I had achieved my ambition. I was – I am – now one in a million. I am a London Marathoner.
Several thousand people finished in front of me, including a few in some really quite elaborate fancy dress. I ran my slowest ever marathon, over 20 minutes off my PB. My fastest mile of the entire race was ten seconds slower than my absolute slowest from Manchester twelve months ago but who cares? For once, it wasn’t the result that counted, it was the taking part. I stopped, I waved, I hugged, sweatily (sorry about that). A nod or a wave every time I saw supporters in the MNDA colours, and there were bloody loads of them. I chatted and shouted out to people I knew and to absolute strangers, people I had never seen before and never will again. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever smiled so much on a race, even though for a good hour or so I felt like killing myself. The London Marathon was all I could have hoped for and more and now, sitting here with the legs back to normal, all the horrible pain and struggle is (almost) gone from my mind and all I’m left with is the more positive memories of the day; the sights, the sounds. Those crowds.
It’s honestly difficult to describe exactly it was like. The best thing I can say is that for a good 85% of it I forgot I was even running a marathon, despite the pain in my feet, my ankles, my knees and my hips. Every single muscle and joint from the waist down screaming for mercy was drowned out by nearly a million people strung out along almost the entire 26.2 miles, giving up their Sunday morning just to watch us all sweat, vomit and cry. All the little individual shout outs, or the giant collective roars at certain points that almost felt like they were drawing you towards the finish line. The atmosphere of running a world major marathon, the one I always wanted to do, the one I always thought would get away.
I already want to do it again. Can I do it again? I swore if I ever got into London it’d be my last marathon but now it’s done and dusted I can’t believe that that’s finally that. What on earth am I going to do with my life now? Take up bloody golf or something?
Oh hang on, my Good For Age time is valid for another year. Let’s do it all again sometime?