In 2018 I ran the London Marathon. You’ve probably guessed that much.
I ran for the British Lung Foundation, in memory of my dad. It was kind of sister project to the book I wrote — a one-last-thing thing.
To train for it, I spent 16 weeks slugging around the streets of London in various states of grimace, covering over 280 miles — none of which went far in preparing me for the hottest London Marathon on record.
Luckily for you, I kept a six-stage diary of the whole thing:
- Diary One: Miles From Nowhere: The Conext
- Diary Two: The Wind: The Start of Training
- Diary Three: The Road to Find Out: The Body of Training
- Diary Four: Into White: The Longest Run
- Diary Five: Sitting: One Week To Go
- Diary Six: Silent Sunlight: Race Day
MILES FROM NOWHERE
11 November 2017
Like many people, I’m not someone who dreams of running a really long way — it’s up there with getting a splinter. I usually run only to both enable and disguise a long-term love of almond croissants. And yet, here I am having a crack at 26.2 televised miles.
There’s a whiff of very-bad-idea about the whole thing.
This is the first in a series of monthly-ish London marathon diaries, covering my training, chafing, and general adventures in attempting not to embarrass myself while running a really long way.
For now, let’s start at the beginning, because like any good what there’s a 600-word why, and this why is going to finish something once and for all.
Buckle up for a ride on the spinning teacups of context. It’s going to get dizzy.
I’ll try to keep this light, but I’m afraid that like a lot of stories, we’re going to open with an italicised stat about death:
Every five minutes, somebody in the UK dies from lung disease*
In 2001 my dad, Keith, died. He was 47. It was a lung thing, pulmonary fibrosis, which, across his 40s, turned him from a friendly goofball — a man who enjoyed life and endeared himself to his heroes — into someone in desperate need of a lung transplant. It’s a long story from there, but you already know what happens.
Here he is having a lolly:
I was 12 when he died, and just as he seemed too young to go, I was too young to really know him. As I grew up, I often daydreamed about the stories we might tell each other through laughter in an oaky pub, over the last beers of a long evening.
Then, in 2014, I got tired of wondering. I called up a bunch of his friends, booked some tickets, and set about piecing together a few of his big stories. I ended up flying to Russia for one night to find the hospital he helped renovate for a BBC TV show, I travelled across North Carolina to meet the last friend he made, and at one point I even caught a bus on the A428.
That adventure turned into a short book called Me & You Again, and in 2016 — 15 years after he died — I felt that I knew him properly for the first time.
Only, something wasn’t quite finished.
When I first published Me & You Again, I made a little pledge inside the cover to donate 20% of the proceeds to charity.
Me & You Again did OK — it was very briefly a UK Kindle bestseller — but as a homebrewed digital thing, many downloads were free. With a chunky bit of rounding up, the pledge made it to £50.
The book meant a lot to me. In getting to know my dad’s friends, I got to know parts of my dad that he would’ve shown me. It was like seeing shreds of light through the trees.
But the charity part was just as important. I didn’t want the book to just be about me cruising around like a wally, it needed to be something my dad could be proud of — the story as he might’ve told it, in the way he would’ve wanted it to be told.
Here we are embracing hair in the early ’90s:
The thing is, if he’d had the chance, I think part of how he’d tell his story would’ve involved doing something to help. So when I look at that picture, I get all lofty and wonder if that £50 might not be the output of an ending, but the beginning of something larger. Maybe, this whole thing isn’t done just yet.
Perhaps the book is only finished when someone else has a better chance than he did of breathing a little bit longer.
And so, a Sunday in April 2018.
The Next Bit
26.2 miles, two feet, one dubious idea.
To make the blisters worthwhile, and properly finish this thing, I’m aiming to raise £1,800 for the British Lung Foundation — the UK’s only lung charity.
Donating couldn’t be easier, just head over to the official donation page. The British Lung Foundation will do something good with the money, and between us we might just give lung disease a wallop right in the goolies.
Because here’s the serious kicker: In the time it’s taken you to read this, somebody has died from lung disease.
Maybe though, with your help, someone will get a better chance.
I know my dad would be proud of that — and that’ll be the end.
25 January 2018
If someone told me that the beach in Essaouira never ends, I’d probably believe it.
The shore draws a line around Morocco that bends way out of view, leading off from the medina of the old city to a disorientating muddle of dunes and forests, where dromedaries loaf around and goats climb the argan trees.
I mean, look.
After a festive period of competition-standard overconsumption, I went to Essaouira in early January to jump-start the marathon training at the 16-weeks-to-go point. That’s the first major checkpoint when everything starts to get a bit real.
Essaouira appeared to be the perfect antidote — its sprawling streets are lined with friendly street cats, and anyone who has been tends to go funny in the face when remembering the straight-from-the-sea fish markets.
Plus, you can buy sugar cane juice at the roadside whenever you fancy some irresistible constipation:
But, most importantly, Morocco isn’t London — it doesn’t crust over in January like the ice cave in Superman 2, and instead holds onto something approaching warmth. Essaouira can lean into the low 20s in winter, and that was the real pull because there’s nothing worse than running in the cold.
Actually, there’s only one thing worse than running in the cold, and that’s running in the wind.
Essaouira was recently named in Lonely Planet’s Best In Travel 2018 list, and this is what it says about it in the opening paragraph of a page that I probably should’ve read before booking flights:
“It is the coastal wind — the beautifully named alizee — that has allowed Essaouira to retain its traditional culture and character. For most of the year, the wind blows so hard here that relaxing on the beach is impossible …”
As far as I can tell, the worst bit about the marathon is the running. The rest of it — the cheery crowds, the jelly babies, the proximity to Steve Cram — all sounds pretty great. But running that far? Why would anyone?
Before we go any further with this, I should probably clear something up: I’m no runner.
Technically, sure — I’ve got a teeny bit of past form for running. But in the sense of being someone who can run for five hours on prompt, I’m no runner.
In fact, the only time I’ve ever been thought of someone who might run a marathon was when somebody started talking to me at a graduation ceremony because they wrongly thought I was round-the-world cyclist Alastair Humphreys. (And then persisted with asking me if I’d ever had my bike stolen long after I explained their mistake.)
Apparently, to think of me as a possible endurance athlete you first need quite a bit of free wine in a municipal function room. Although I’m happy enough to concentrate on the “handsome fellow” thing.
It goes without saying that I don’t have much fundamentally in common with an award-winning adventurer. For example, Alastair Humphreys has written that he fuelled his 46,000-mile cycling expedition on a diet of “bread and bananas”, whereas I’ve fuelled the expedition of my 20s mostly on a diet of pastry and soft cheese. My aptitude for marathon running sits only with the idea that I’ve been carb-loading for somewhere between nine and 25 years.
But while I might not be a natural runner, I do have some history of running. Given that I’m politely hawking for money here, it’s only right that there’s a bit of disclosure around that.
Then you’ll see.
Half A Job
Like a disgraced ex-Olympian, somewhere in a drawer I’ve got a handful of medals that I earned but barely deserve. The major ones are the medals that I bagged from a couple of punts at the Bristol Half Marathon in 2008 and 2012.
The first half, 10 long years ago, I treated with moderate respect. I trained a bit, planned a race strategy, and bought a few running tops made from material that clings to you like a lonely wedding guest.
I was both 20 and light(er) in 2008, and made it around the course without too much discomfort in 2h5m — a time that I was a little disappointed with, but not so disappointed as to ever want to run the thing again.
Then, in 2012, when the blowback of the London Olympics gave many people an overwhelming — and in some cases unwarranted — sense of can-do attitude, my friend Andy said that we should run it again in the pub one night and I said OK.
Like any arrogant 24-year-old who has done something once in the past, I decided that there would be no need to do any training. That was a position I took despite being my lifetime heaviest and carrying the rust of several years of half-remembered bad choices at midnight. Meaning business, I turned up to the start line wearing a once-white t-shirt covered in the logo of Australian dance band Cut Copy.
Unsurprisingly, I struggled throughout and crossed the line in 2h15m, finishing with an unwelcome 800m rush to avoid being overtaken by someone dressed as a dolphin, which was what the Olympic spirit was really all about. Andy went on to do a triathlon and I chose not to think about running until I could trust myself to take it seriously.
Two halves is apparently not quite a whole, and both times I crossed the line in Bristol I could barely believe that you can run for two hours and only have done half of something.
Based on those memories alone, there really is a long way to go.
And so here we are. The start.
Despite the evidence of the past, there’s always going to be a bit of me with an inflated sense of self-belief. Without that, these things would never happen. The difference now is that I’m old and creaky enough to know that there are no shortcuts.
With that in mind, since the turn of 2018 I’ve been dutifully following the ‘official’ 16-week training plan. I’m all in.
(In later diaries, I’ll post the numbers behind every training mile, covering the highs and lows in more detail than even I can put up with. Further down the line, I’ll also share some of the best tips and advice I’ve received about training. Check back for that.)
It’s still early days — as I write this, there are 13 weeks of training left, ramping from a 10k this week to a half-marathon in four weeks, and beyond — but so far, so OK. I’ve started wearing more lycra than I’m usually comfortable with, and the regular runs are starting to creep over the hour mark. The misery comes and goes, but blister count so far is 0, so we’ll call it a score draw.
The good thing is that right now I’m finding that there’s nothing quite like the motivation that comes from this meaning something, and being for something.
Because, this thing is only finished when someone has a better chance than my dad did of getting home and staying home. Anything else just isn’t quite the end.
That thought sharpened in mind as I started turning my legs over along the sheet glass Essaouira shoreline just after sunrise, with the lazy morning waves dampening my socks and the impossible wind pelting sand into my face like I needed gritting. It was hard going, just as this should be.
Maybe that’s what marathon training really is — running into the wind on a beach that never ends.
THE ROAD TO FIND OUT
24 February 2018
Unbelievably, this is the midpoint of training. Pointlessly ducking my head at the finish line on 22 April is now as close as tying my laces on the first training run on 2 January is far away.
It doesn’t feel like long ago that it was autumn 2017, when this seemed like a good idea. And now here we are, on the back straight of the training track.
There’s no quitting now.
Long Runs, Long Johns
So far I’ve covered over 135 training miles, mostly across the streets of south-east London. I’ve slipped into fences on icy cycle paths in South Norwood, swallowed roughly a kilo of sleet in Crystal Palace park, and the other week I even went running around Beckenham in a pair of long johns. (In case you’re wondering, itchy.)
The happy side effects that you associate with blind commitment to exercise are beginning to appear. I’m feeling a bit less jiggly, and at 41 days (and counting) since my last beer, I’ve broken a 10-year-old record. I’ve started to receive those what-are-you-trying-to-say compliments, like “slimmer in the face”.
As the load gets hefty the troubles are settling in. My right achilles now lives beneath a permanent layer of Voltarol, and my feet have reached the stage where any new blisters will require planning permission. And despite the miles, I’m still shambling along without feeling much like a runner. My running technique makes me look less like an efficient long-distance athlete and more like one of those inflatable stick things you see blowing around outside car dealerships.
My longest training run to date was a 12.1-mile plod from Clapham to Crystal Palace, and the unnerving thing is that will seem short over the next five weeks. Across March, I’ll pretty much be breaking previous personal distance records every weekend. Sometimes I wonder if committing to a training plan for four months, and not getting distracted, might be as tough as the race itself.
That thought really got into my head, and I started to wonder if commitment alone is enough. The training is going OK on balance — I’m still following the official training plan, albeit with tweaks here and there — but as fatigue looms, it’s hard not to believe that things might be going silently wrong somewhere. Training for a marathon is a long battle against feeling that you’re never doing quite enough.
This has a word: maranoia.
Around 40,000 people run the London marathon each year, so there’s plenty of advice out there on all elements of distance running events — from training to nutrition, to how not to be a smug bore socially. As a man not sick of experts, I decided to get a few pointers on how to stick out the training from someone who really knows their onions.
Siobhan Rootes is a coach with Running With Us and a head coach for Race for Life. I was curious to know how on track I am, so I emailed Siobhan to ask what mistakes she most often sees in first-timers.
“Running long runs too fast,” Siobhan said. “It’s far better to run these at an easy 60-65% effort level. Keep it conversation pace.”
I don’t know about you, but my conversation pace is sitting down.
The key, Siobhan said, is to run long and slow, often, until your legs understand how to cope with the monotony of the load demand. It’s not so much about running to speed, even if when you do you get Heavy Lifting by Ambulance Ltd in your head and feel like you’re legging it around New York. Instead, the advice is to slow down and run like you’re preparing to soon run for over four hours in one session.
Another concern I had was that the training plan might not be enough. If you speak to other marathon runners about training, you’ll no doubt hear stories of someone else putting in double the miles and hours that you are. No matter how rational and confident you feel about your own preparation, it’s still difficult not to be tempted to bench the weight of those around you. Especially when a bloke called Gerry is giving it all this about his 20-miler.
With that in mind, I asked Siobhan what marathon training should feel like. How should I be feeling when I look at the plan for the week ahead each Sunday?
“Planning, patience, progression! Have a plan, be patient with it while all the training beds in, and make sure your plan has progression in it along the way.”
Where there are three ps to embrace, there are three ts to avoid — too much, too fast, too soon. Essentially, it’s all about listening to the limitations of your body as the training toughens, and easing off and stepping on as you can. Sounds simple, and in a way it is.
Getting ahead of myself, I asked Siobhan what I should be thinking on race day, when the starting gun bangs, my legs start jittering, the blood beats loudly in my ears, and I contemplate steaming it past Gerry in the first mile. Because the key thing with maranoia is the worry that you won’t make it to the end. This isn’t unfounded — of the c.39,500 runners that lined up at the start in 2017, around 500 didn’t make it to the finish.
“Trust your training and stick to your plan. Run your own race and conserve energy at the beginning. Start sensibly!”
Perhaps the most memorable advice I’ve heard so far is to treat the marathon like a 10k race you have to transport yourself 20-miles to. Every time I think of that on a training run, I remember Siobhan’s advice and slow down. That’s probably my only defence against crapping out on the day.
Long, slow, progressive runs — almost like you’re prepping for a marathon.
Trust your training.
Breathing Cold Air
Recently, I went to a function room in a church in Catford. That’s not the sort thing I usually do, but I was there to visit one of the British Lung Foundation’s ‘Breathe Easy’ support groups, where the charity’s head of research, Ian Jarrold, was giving a speech about how donations are spent.
A few people who’ve shown an interest in donating have asked where the money will go, and Ian’s explanation was as good as any.
“If you have a broken watch, the best way to fix it is if you know how that watch works and you can understand what’s gone wrong with it. It’s exactly the same with our lungs, the more we know about how they work, the more we can do to fix them … ultimately, our research is trying to deliver a future without lung disease.”
To recap, my dad had an aggressive lung disease called idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF). If you don’t know it by the catchy name, the basic premise is that it scars the lungs. The scarred lungs harden, and as they lose their elasticity they become less able to draw oxygen from the air. The more they scar, the worse it gets. Little is known about the causes of the disease, even now, and there’s no cure. Only 20% of people survive with it beyond five years. My dad was a funny man who lived his life with a sharp eye for anecdote, and he was in the 80%.
Lung disease is a bit vicious like that. It was responsible for 114,225* deaths in the UK in 2012 — the capacity of the MCG, the biggest stadium I’ve ever been to, is 100,024.
There were 11 people at the Lewisham Breathe Easy group that day, most of whom had been diagnosed with a lung disease of some kind, predominantly COPD. There were five varieties of biscuit. The group was supportive — attendees swapped advice on self-management and how to navigate the local care systems. It seemed like a useful resource, vital even. I went along partly to see first-hand what the British Lung Foundation does, and partly because I figured that a connection to the output might help with motivation — anything to make the 6:15am application of cold vaseline to the no-fly zones a bit easier.
Of course, the remit of the BLF isn’t just supporting Breathe Easy groups. The major commitment is research, which the charity has piled £30m into since it was formed in 1984. There have been successes in rolling out new treatments and medical best practices along the way — I mean, you can buy a heck of a lot of watch mechanisms for £30m — but the job is never done.
“There’s more research that we could support that we can’t because we run out of money,” Ian put plainly.
My dad was anything but a runner, but when his disease was at its worst, and his lungs were as useful as Weetabix, he’d sometimes talk about how a transplant would mean he’d be able to beat me in a race up the hill on which we lived. It was a confident, hopeful thing to say, which is probably why I remember it. I believed him.
Belief, I suppose, is what this is about. That’s what research can buy.
The Road to Race Day
There’s little to look forward to in the second half of training. The next eight weeks are the creaky ones, full of long sessions, midnight anxiety dreams, and turned down pub invites. Around 150 training miles are still to be covered.
But race day is starting to seem very real, and since the body can’t go where the mind hasn’t been, I’ve started imagining the finish line moment, when all of this becomes worthwhile. I play it over and over, the moment when this is all for something.
I asked Siobhan what her standout memory is of her first marathon.
“Definitely spotting Buckingham Palace and realising that I was about to turn right down to Pall Mall, and realising that I was nearly at the end. Incredible moment!”
Sure enough, I’ve never wanted to turn right so much.
31 March 2018
Speak to any past marathon runner about how to approach the training as a first-timer and they’ll usually say something like this:
“Enjoy the weekend long runs…”
At first, you might confuse that for supportive — they said enjoy. But there’s this knowing tone that sits behind the statement, suggesting something other than nice.
The truth is, conditioning your body and mind to be able to run for 26.2 miles on one April Sunday means entering into a commitment to give away spring multiple weekends to the kind of running you’re meant to fear. The end-of-level boss that separates a normal jog from marathon training — the long run.
Enjoy isn’t really the word.
At 10am on the last Wednesday in March, I started running along a single-track road in rural Scotland, somewhere near Tarbert. It was set to be not only the longest run of my long runs, but of my entire life. It was raining.
For my modest purposes, a long run is any which requires pre-application of plasters and a cursory gag on some liquid food during. There’d been a few runs verging on that throughout February, but my gateway to the humdinger long runs came when I reached the half-marathon point in early March. Determined as I am to pass through life collecting as many goody bags as possible, I decided that my first half-marathon in well over five years would be the Big Half.
Following the route of the first half of the marathon but in reverse, the Big Half was a useful yardstick — half the distance, half the blisters, halfway into the training. It was handy practice for all the variables of organised self-punishment, like finding a workable toilet strategy for the nervous, caffeinated wait in the holding pen. It took 27 minutes for me to cross the start line, by which point the leading pack — headed up by Sir Mo Farah — had already reached mile six. I ran steady, getting carried away in bursts, and after a late three-way sprint with a gorilla and crash test dummy, I finished comfortably enough in 2:06. It was a satisfying checkpoint.
In the three weeks between the Big Half and Scotland, the long runs had taken up residence in my weekends like one of those friends who’s only supposed to stay for a couple of days but starts buying in their own cereal a week later, and in the space of a fortnight I’d broken my longest-run-of-my-life record twice. There was a 15-mile shuffle around the bushy edges of my hometown, Weston-super-Mare, on a day so grey you could barely see the hem of road and sky. Then there was a 16-mile trudge along the Thames Path from Teddington to Battersea, during which I was continuously pelted by tiny beads of snow. In the face.
Rightly or not, long runs become such an obsession during marathon training that it sometimes feels that on every other run you’re just circling in a holding pattern, waiting to kick on. In that way, every hard mile since January felt that it was only there to take me to the B8024 — the closest thing to the marathon. The real training.
It was going to be a long morning.
They say the sweet spot of marathon training is when you teach your body to run in a state of controlled discomfort — the point when you start to chug, your legs tell you to pull the emergency override levers, and yet somehow you keep it together. In those moments you rewrite your understanding of how far and how hard you can go.
Controlled discomfort is a bit like when you wake up thirsty in the early hours — the kind of thirsty that feels like it could be a medical emergency — and rather than reach for a glass of water, which is just over there, you instead choose to spend hours not being able to sleep, thinking about how things don’t need to be this way, but they are.
At least, that’s what it seemed like as I stopped halfway up a hill, somewhere near Dunmore on that single-track road in the Inner Hebrides, letting a haulage lorry pass me as the rain shifted from light back to moderate. I was 17 miles into the long run, in unknown territory in every sense, knowing that the relief of stopping at the passing point would be offset by the effort required to get going again. And I was thirsty.
For the most part, running along that road — the scenic alternative to the main road between Lochgilphead and Tarbert — felt almost easy in its repetition. Maybe not enjoyable, but fine. The fickle road bends from beach to moorland, with the narrow flow of passing traffic controlled by little more than overgrown gorse. It’s exposed in such a way that weather can change between every second glance, as does the smell — from the heavy scent of livestock and soggy undergrowth to the salty tang blowing in from the loch. Now and then you get side-eyed by tough looking street sheep with that low intensity that makes it seem like they know all your secrets. There’s enough scenery to distract you from the effort, leaving you on the ridge between alertness and unconscious motion. You’re just running.
But then, like on all long runs, you reach a hill, or a long tedious straight, or the point at which your fuel reserves flick into the red, and you’re there, in it, stuck. Your legs are wood carvings you carry around alongside the weight of the reasons you’re out there. It’s painful, draining, long. And yet there’s a certain equanimity to it — you accept that there’s no alternative to running the miles you need. It’s the whole point of what you’re doing. You control the discomfort because you have to.
The lorry passed, I reached a crest where the worn yellows of fields uncurled, interrupted by standing stones and leaning hedgerows. The track slid off towards the sea, with the mountains Jura and Islay faintly blurred by mist. “The edge of the universe,” as one local put it.
The junction to Ardpatrick appeared ahead, where I’d set out over three hours earlier. Graceful early running had been replaced by a style which had the heft of a tent peg being forcibly stamped into the ground at the start of a regrettable weekend. Scotland felt a long way from Morocco, but I was still going. The junction got closer.
Then, at 20.1m, I stopped.
The Longest Run
With three weeks until race day, the taper starts now. Fewer miles, more rest, and by 22 April everything should be fresh, or so. Here we go then.
At its best, the long run gives you the smug glow of feeling that you’ve discovered an unknown durability, even if you need to be winched out of bed the next morning. At its worst, it’s a barely tolerable provider of cramp. But it’s necessary. Even when the discomfort can’t be controlled, and when enjoy just isn’t the word, you just keep going.
Everything fades into white and you get through without understanding how.
Those are the miles you’ll remember.
14 April 2018
After 15-weeks, the London Marathon’s first-timer training plan is now over. Done. With one week to go, whatever happens on the day will happen on the day.
From a dubious idea to an unwelcome change of lifestyle — here’s every mucky detail of what basic marathon training looks like.
Across three sessions each week, since the new year I’ve covered over 280 miles. Which means I’ve more or less run from London to Dublin.
– Total training mileage: 282.2 miles
– Average weekly mileage: 18.8 miles
– Heaviest weekly mileage: 31.7 miles
– Longest run: 20.1 miles
– Big Half time: 02:06:22
– Battersea Park 10k time: 00:55:44
Plotted out, the mileage looks like the shameful secret on a failed polygraph.
A standard week featured a comfortable jog, some moderate interval running, and a long run to cap it all off — the thermometer of marathon training confidence. Then, more sitting than you’d believe.
While I’ve not had a beer in over 90 days — and only had a handful of glasses of wine at moments of worthy celebration — instead I’ve consumed well over a litre of those slippery energy gel sachets, the ones that look and taste like something out of Ghostbusters. I’m not sure I’m OK with that.
Beyond the long evenings under streetlamps, I managed to slot in three medal runs — the Crystal Palace 10k (hilly), the Big Half (cold), and the Battersea Park 10k (sweaty).
If you’d told me in January that I’d get to April and be able to crank out a 55-minute 10k with ease, I’d have taken you as seriously as one of those flowers that squirts water in your face.
But after everything, I feel like I can run a bit now.
I’ve written about what this means a few times, but recently I scribbled a summary of the main context for the British Lung Foundation.
According to Slate’s marathon predictor, my expected finish time is 04:43:04. Being predicted to finish at all feels like something. I’ll give it all I’ve got.
Ready, I guess.
25 April 2018
One of the things you hear about the London Marathon is that the crowd will get you through. No matter how hard you’re struggling, or how far there is left to run, the crowd will get you through. It’s what makes chumps like me think running 26.2 miles might be possible.
At 24C, this year’s London Marathon was the hottest, and least ginger-appropriate, on record. In the days leading up to the race I was fairly dismissive of the predicted heat — I had a fuel strategy and trusted that my training had readied me to face anything. But standing in the starting pen at 9:30, the heat was already beyond anything that winter training can replicate. For a moment, I wondered if the crowd would be enough.
Starting the race at 10:40, I tried to forget about the heat. The job was still the same — keep running. But within two miles I’d reached a 5am-post-pub level of thirst and was desperately jumping into the fire of a water pistol drive-by. With each mile my target pace was getting harder to find in the morning glare. It was going to be a long day.
Cutty Sark is the London Marathon’s first iconic moment, and the jolt you get as you pass 10k is as powerful as you’re told to expect. As the road narrows and bends, the searing noise of the crowds on both sides creates a vortex that sweeps you along like one of those boost pads on Mario Kart. Briefly, you forget where you are. When I slowed back into pace a quarter of a mile later, I realised I’d passed one of the busiest spectator points whilst tipping water down the back of my shorts, behaviour that would be odd at best on any other Sunday in Greenwich.
Early on I struggled to settle, but passing Cutty Sark brought with it a rhythm I’d not found before, and the 15 miles that passed from Bermondsey onwards slipped by blissfully without incident. I found that place where you’re not quite concentrating but concentrating just enough for time to disappear. Ups, downs, laughter, focus, blurring footsteps — all the while knowing that the effort before mile 20 counted for little towards the outcome.
When mile 20 arrived, I was starting to puff. Motivation was being outfoxed by the exhaustion. I’d done my reading about the wall — the mysterious quicksand that swallows up any runner that gets too close — and was hopeful, if not confident, that my fuel intake and love of a clear wee would keep any major wibblies away. But instead of the wall, miles 21-24 were a series of garden fences, where you just about clamber over the cat spikes but then fall into a pot of creosote on the other side.
Again and again, the struggles came and went — I’d get out of a snooker than be immediately put back in one. It was the kind of suffering I thought I’d trained for, but made that much heavier by the airless heat. And yet, every time my breathing became laboured or my posture started to slump, somebody would notice.
When people told me that the crowds would get me through, I naturally thought of the collective hysteria at key points like Tower Bridge and Embankment. Sure, those moments are special, and overwhelming in a way that seems unending when you’re in it, but it was the smaller bits of encouragement that really made the difference. Because there’s nowhere to hide during the London Marathon — whenever you want to slow to a walk, a voice at the roadside breaks through with whatever message you need to hear to carry on.
It’s the person calling out that you can do this when they see your head drop, the high-five from a kid who says you’ve got it in the bag, the motivational shout from a friend to remind you that you’re being beaten by a womble, the constant cheers of your name. It’s the freely available oranges, sweets, and bum pinches from people who want you to keep going when you don’t know that you can. It’s the guy that dangles a bicycle horn into the road with a sign attached saying ‘free honks for runners’, giving you the most enjoyable honk of your whole damn life.
When I got to mile 24, I was so drained of energy that couldn’t think. I’d had about 300ml of energy gels, probably four litres of fluid, but felt completely emptied by the distance and the heat. I’d imagined that the last six miles would be a celebration as much as a punishment, with the hype bubbling over until I became an emotional mess in the closing stages. What I’d not expected was that reaching that level of empty meant being empty of everything. I ghosted around, running without being able to think of anything other than the turf war between screaming leg pain and unbending will. It was both numbing and unbearable.
Then, at mile 25, I saw a banner at the side of the road with my name on and some familiar outstretched arms. I jogged over, kissed my girlfriend, and hugged my mum. They had heard every training tizzy, spent months talking through my race day anxieties, and there they were, smiling. It was the first time I had a brief flinch of certainty that I would finish, and I might never forget how that relief felt. I informed them with absolute accuracy that the marathon is a very long way then I ran off like a man in complete control, quickly returning to my signature crumpled shuffle as soon as they were out of view.
Buckingham Palace appeared and I made the sweetest right turn of my life, which was just as incredible as Siobhan Rootes told me it would be. I closed my eyes, took a breath, opened them and somehow everything looked further away. But seconds passed, the crowd picked up like the wind, the grimace faded, and the finish was there — one step away. Head in hands.
My finish time was 4:51:49. My pacing was steady, and I ran the second half only 10-minutes slower than the first half, which sounds more controlled than it felt. From my starting position, I passed 9,802 runners and was only passed by 322. My target pace was 10:18, and I averaged a heat-affected 11:08. It’s hard to be sure how much time the heat cost, but all I know is that without the noise, mile 25, and the free honks for runners, I’d never have made it. The crowd does get you through.
Back when I signed up to run, it was all about unfinished business. I wanted to do something to give my dad a legacy — properly finish whatever I started when I began poking around in his life back in 2014. While the book helped me get to know him, it always seemed to be one part of a pair. The missing piece was doing something that would help someone else, on his behalf.
As I write this, over £2,300 has been raised for the British Lung Foundation, to fund research into the disease that cut his life short, and took a chunk of laughter from my childhood. Someone might just stand a better chance. Thank you, in italics, to everyone who has supported me.
My dad would be chuffed, I reckon. He’d think all this is nuts, but he’d chuffed. He used that word a lot. Chuffed.
And so that will do. Finished.