During the buildup to last year’s London Marathon I vowed many, many times that it would be my final ever race at the full distance. It was the culmination of an incredible journey, finally achieving my life’s ambition after over a decade of trying. Job done. It was over. I had closure.
The trouble is though, barely a week after staggering over that famous finish line on The Mall I found out that my Good For Age time was valid for another year, and I suddenly I had a big decision to make. Could I go and do it all over again? I kind of wanted to do it all over again. I didn’t especially fancy a third successive winter of marathon training but this would be almost definitely be the last opportunity I ever got to run the bloody thing. I started to think about how much I’d regret it for the rest of my life if I knew I’d had another chance to run the London Marathon and I’d turned it down, so eventually after much toing and froing last June I pulled my Good For Age application together as soon as the window opened and I was duly accepted four days later.
Half an hour into raceday and I was deeply regretting this decision.
The 2018 London Marathon was literally the hardest thing I have ever done, ever. Harder than my first marathon, harder than the mammoth effort in 2016 to get the good for age time to finally qualify for London. Harder than any of my days on the bike such as the 140-mile coast to coast ride or the 112-mile overnight slog to Dunwich on my 25 year old mountain bike. It was, almost from the get go, unrelentingly, leg-shatteringly, teeth-grindingly difficult. The warmest race I have ever run, literally the hottest London Marathon on record. A horrendous experience, almost from start to the eventual finish, so much so that within five minutes of crossing the line I posted on Facebook “no more marathons”. Never, ever, again.
So why have I entered the ballot for 2019?
Because, as with last year, it was one of the best experiences of my entire life. Perhaps even better than that incredible day twelve months ago. They say you never forget your first time, and certainly last year was pretty bloody special. But this year was all that and more: a shared experience. Me, my little sister and one of my best mates all battling the iconic 26.2 mile route together under burning skies and over baking concrete.
It’s absolutely typical that it would turn out this way as well after literally the coldest winter I’d ever run though. It was only two weeks before raceday that I stopped having to wear the baselayer and gloves on my training runs, and looking back on Marathon Training 2018 I can’t actually believe I survived it. Shin-deep snow around the edges of the fields near Manchester airport or chucking my bottle of water away as the insides turned to ice and began to freeze my hands through my thickest pair of gloves. A wind chill of -15 battering my massive face until I could no longer feel my nose and forehead. Heading out the door as a burst of mental snowfall appeared from nowhere, smacked me in the face for four miles as I ran into the headwind and then vanishing just as quickly as it appeared as soon as I turned back to head for home, the wind now behind me. It was, I suppose, character building. But it certainly wasn’t any sort of preparation for a race with the temperature in the mid-20s.
The fact that I wasn’t alone helped no end though. Being able to whinge along with Sophie and Adam as we all wondered what the fuck we were doing with our lives was somewhat cathartic, offering advice and support to each other as we grappled with eastern beast after beast after beast. I loved following their journeys as they both continued to surprise themselves with what they realised they were capable as the training ramped up and up and up, and eventually we all arrived on raceday alive and feeling as confident as you can in these situations.
Race morning was, predictably, warm. I had a small dose of Big Race Nerves back at my folks’ gaff before driving down and couldn’t really stomach my porridge, worrying about everything from missing the baggage buses (I made it by barely 30 seconds last year) to actually collapsing in a heap onto the baking concrete two miles in. I made it over to my green startline near Maize Hill in plenty of time in the end though, and despite the new wave system in place this year I crossed the line a little after 10am and I was on my sweaty way. My second London Marathon was up and running.
I’ve always said that the first half or so of a marathon is actually pretty easy, weird as it sounds, mostly thanks to all the training and that. I look back over the blogs from marathons past and the common theme is that I almost seem to enjoy the early bits, which sounds a bit mental but it’s true. All those long hours in the pitch dark and pissing rain lay the foundations for a good marathon and then especially in the case of London all the insane crowds shouting your name out take your mind off the sheer horror of what it is you’re attempting. It’s OK. Enjoy it, soak it all in. This one though was bloody hard work straight from the off. My legs felt strangely heavy in the opening mile and despite sipping plenty of water in the run up to KO I was already starting to get a bit of a thirst on; not a good sign. They say if you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated. I was expecting water every mile but it wasn’t until around mile three that the first water station popped up and it had been heavy going to get there. Only 23 miles to go.
Thankfully, the crowds and the atmosphere were helping drag us all along. Mine and Adam’s wives were stood just before mile three and it was amazing to see friendly faces so early in the race. The one good thing about the insanely warm weather was that it brought the crowds out even bigger than last year. It was almost wall to wall with people shouting, screaming. Yelling my name, or a reference to my MNDA jersey or even my stupid hair flapping in the warm breeze. It was a party atmosphere, the air thick with them smell of barbecues and everyone basically seemed to be getting absolutely shitfaced. Or maybe I was just noticing those lovely icy cold beers even more than normal in my horrible, dehydrated state. Hard to say really.
The big moments at the Cutty Sark and Tower Bridge came and went, and were no less special than twelve months ago. It’s hard to describe just how loud it is, a gigantic roar of appreciation, an absolute cacophony of solid noise as a thousand voices yell and scream in unison. I gazed up at those huge, grand turrets and remembered back to last year where it nearly brought a tear to my eye. Would this be the last time I ever got to experience all this beautiful madness?
In amongst all that absolute racket, suddenly a voice I recognised as I picked out my sister’s fella unexpectedly there on the side of the road as we came off Tower Bridge. Shortly after that, two of my mates from university going absolutely nuts. Then there were my mum and dad half a mile later, the crowd around them going berserk along with them as my Dad waved his hat around. It all gave me such a huge boost as I entered the second half of the race. This time last year I was in a world of pain as I got my first ever blister, here though I had no such trouble, except for the small fact that (did I mention this?) it was THE HOTTEST LONDON MARATHON ON RECORD.
I honestly don’t know if I’d have been able to finish if it wasn’t for those crowds and, most of all, my wonderful wife, friends and family dotted in amongst them. Every so often I saw someone I knew, and for a moment it didn’t completely feel like I was going to keel over, but it was still bloody hard work and it was getting harder, and harder, and harder just to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I kept catching my pace up over two minutes slower than I would normally expect to be running but the heat was just so incredibly oppressing and kept presenting new challenges unlike anything I’d ever raced (or even trained) in before. Grabbing a fresh bottle of water each and every mile, only for the contents to feel as warm as a 10-minute-old cup of tea within a few hundred yards. One of my energy gels literally felt like it had curdled full of lumps FFS and I was nearly sick like a dog as I tried to force it down me. It was a grim old struggle and no mistake.
Gradually though the miles were dropping off. Mile 21; the MNDA cheer point with everyone all going bananas as I ran past them, a frantic sea of orange and blue. Mile 22 and an emotional last glimpse of my wife. I ran over and leaned pathetically against the barrier, muttering something about being “fucking leathered”. It made no sense, but after a brief embrace I plodded off again, tears welling in my eyes. And then out of nowhere massive shout of “JOE JOE JOE!” from the other side of The Highway snapping me back to reality as Adam had somehow managed to pick me out on his way down to the Isle of Dogs. It was a lovely moment as we’d shared this incredible journey together to be there together and so to then actually see each other out on the course was fantastic. I knew my little sister must be around there somewhere too but even with her bright white sun cap I couldn’t pick her out, but then just like that I was running past Tower Bridge for the second time, veering away from the runners on the other side of the road and I knew I was the home leg. Three miles along the Embankment and all this hell would be over.
That was still close to half an hour’s running though. The pace had gone through the roof and I felt like I was almost walking at points, but every time I began to feel like pulling over and giving up another shout from a total stranger kept me going, then another, and another. I did my best to smile and wave back to each and every one, or more accurately grimace and give a pathetic thumbs up, but shouts seemed louder and more frequent the more I responded. It fed itself and it damn well got me home, and then to be honest I don’t really remember actually finishing at all. It’s all a weird, hazy blur as I seemed to suddenly be stumbling around with a medal and a goody bag, trying to manage a load of shooting pains in my legs and not burst into tears or collapse.
I grabbed my bag and headed up to see the MNDA post-race reception just over the road from the finish. I’d have loved to have stayed longer up there but due to a half hour delay getting my missing bag back from the baggage trucks and the fact that Sophie and Adam were due to finish an hour or so after I’d staggered over the line I had to rush through, but it was still lovely to catch up with Stephanie and the team who had helped us all over the training period with encouragement and various tips and bits of advice and whatnot. Apparently they had well over 100 runners out on the course running for them and were hoping to raise close to £300,000 which was bloody brilliant.
I bade my farewells and quickly scurried across St James’s Park with an MNDA sandwich in each hand, shovelling the delicious carbohydrates into my fat gob. I timed it almost perfectly and within five minutes of arriving against the barrier on Birdcage Walk I saw first Adam and then Sophie just a few minutes behind him. The older brother in me was so incredibly proud of seeing my little sister out there, looking dazed but not beaten, and I was absolutely made up for Adam bringing it home as well after he’d casually tossed in a ballot entry last year after being inspired to enter after reading my blogs for some odd reason, and then unexpectedly getting in first time of asking and ending up having to run a fucking marathon. Neither Sophie nor Adam had ever run further than 13.1 miles in one go before Christmas and now here they were, smashing up the London Marathon and raising a shitload of money for their respective charities in the process. It had been an unbelievably heroic and emotional day at the office for all parties concerned.
So as with last year, the benefit of writing this now – some time after the event – is that I’ve kinda forgotten just how horrible all the bad bits actually were. My legs are working again. So what if it was a tad warm? It was just a bit of sun innit. All that horrendous struggle is but a distant memory and now all I remember when I look back on it all are of the good bits. The crowds. My friends. My family. My amazing wife nearly making me cry out at mile 22 again. The 2018 London Marathon was bigger and better than the year’s previous in almost every way and I still can’t believe that we all went and bloody did it. But did it we did, somehow.
So, unbelievably, that’s probably that then. I’ve completed the blog, achievement unlocked. London is almost definitely now done and dusted. Maybe I’ll get a chance to do it again someday, maybe not. I’m cool with that. I achieved my ambition and then unexpectedly got a second bite at the cherry a year later, which doesn’t happen to many people. In a way I was actually lucky to get in at all when I saw that this year they dropped the Good For Age time for 2019 to sub-3:00 and capped the entries at 3,000, almost immediately after people would have run qualifying times at Manchester or Brighton that were suddenly no longer fast enough. If that had happened to me back in 2016 I might have actually cried.
For once though, London actually smiled on me and let me in to join the party, not once but twice, and I will cherish the memories of the past two races for the rest of my life. Especially this year. What we all achieved together on 22nd April 2018 was something truly special, all with our own aims and expectations for the day, and all achieved in style in some of the most trying circumstances in London Marathon history. We came, we saw, we conquered. And now it’s finished. There’s just the teeny-tiny matter of that pesky ballot entry for next year…