It was at the 40km mark that the pain truly arrived. It had first announced itself after 17km – or 10.5 miles in old money – as I ran through Rotherhithe, my groin at the top of my right leg suddenly screaming at me. Its companion on the right would begin harmonising with it 10km further down the road but while the sensation might have been uncomfortable, my movement was thankfully unhindered. The sharp increase in lethargy that permeated my entire being as it trudged along the Victoria Embankment, however, suggested that I was now running on fumes.
As the kilometres had ticked by, the number of casualties had risen, spiking in the last throes of the race. My body might have been pleading with me to stop but for others theirs had simply downed tools, donned their gilets jaunes and sat down in protest. The underpass by one of the bridges across the Thames – my memory of exactly which one clouded by fatigue, tunnel vision and self-interest – resembled the runners’ equivalent of Dante’s Inferno. Amid the cacophony of footsteps ricocheting off the tunnel walls there were athletic specimens bent double over pools of vomit, another almost catatonic in the arms of two paramedics, still more participants desperately stretching exhausted limbs as they attempted to wring out just enough energy to cover the final strides. There was immense sympathy in my heart for those stricken but a necessary coldness in my brain. At least I was not one of them. And now I had to make sure that I didn’t belatedly join them
With the body starting to wilt, it was the mind that needed to come into its own. Individually tick off the remaining 2000 meters, count down each of the 11 minutes or so remaining in the race, register every landmark between here and the pink glaze of The Mall. Anything to distract from the deafening signals blaring throughout my lower half from my metatarsals to my derrière.
Past the scaffolding-clad Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, across Parliament Square and into Birdcage Walk along the south side of St James Park. The huge sign emblazoned with the words “800 Metres To Go” providing a timely boost.
As Buckingham Palace loomed above me and I turned towards Admiralty Arch, I allowed myself one final glance down at my watch. 3:49:22. Just completing my first ever marathon was the primary objective though doing it in less than four hours was the dream. I had speculatively trained for a time of 3:50:30 though I would have happily settled for 3:59:59. Yet my ultimate target was in sight, the revelation scraping up the last reserves of energy from every nook and cranny, propelling me down the final stretch. Crossing over the timing mat, I immediately shot a look at my watch.
Running had only become a factor in my life about three years earlier and might not have done so at all had it not been for that most motivating of factors – a bet. I had been an enthusiastic player of all sports as a kid but the lure of less wholesome pursuits had replaced that zest in adulthood. But closing in on 40 years of age, finding myself grossly over weight and becoming breathless just running 30 yards for a bus prompted me to re-evaluate my largely sedentary lifestyle. And yet the incentive to actually get off my arse and do some regular exercise never quite materialised until one of my best friends set me an ultimatum of sorts.
Having developed a heart condition a few years previously due to his own life of decadence, he had taken up running in a bid to lose weight and ease the strain on his most vital of organs. Having reaped the benefit and perhaps seeing something familiar in my status, he challenged me to run 10km a week and demanded a penalty payment of £20 if I failed, no matter what. It didn’t matter if I was on holiday, bed-ridden with man-flu or travelling to Mars, I had to run 10km or handover the cash. To my stubborn nature, this played perfectly. Suffice to say, I never did have to pay him £20.
As well as keeping my bank balance intact, the challenge re-ignited a joy of running. I had always found it rewarding though had never managed to instil the self-discipline necessary to glean any improvement. Now with regular outings on the roads, the task became both easier and quicker as well as actually being fun.
It was then that my same friend decided to up the ante and implored me to join him in his (and mine) debut half marathon, an invitation I accepted with excitement and trepidation. To my complete surprise, I lapped up the training. The lure of running further and faster becoming unexpectedly intoxicating, rewarding me with a time of 1:56:36 in the 2016 Royal Parks Half Marathon, successfully breaking the 2-hour target I had arbitrarily set myself.
The bug had bitten and over the next two years I did a few more half marathons, a couple of 10-mile races and a 15-mile romp through London from the Olympic Park to Putney Bridge, each time going quicker than before. The next step was obvious, a marathon. The London Marathon. The race I had watched as a kid with my grandfather and casually stated that I would run one day. But as enjoyable as my half marathons might have been, the thought of doing two of the things back-to-back seemed almost impossibly daunting.
I was driving home through Clapham on a sunny Friday afternoon in October when my (hands-free) phone rang. On the other end of the line was Rhiannon from The Make-A-Wish Foundation, the charity that I had applied to represent having predictably failed in the open ballot. Ten minutes later, following an engaging interview and discussion, she offered me a place on their team for the 2019 Virgin London Marathon. I accepted immediately, my suddenly excited and addled brain betraying me as I mistakenly turned into a cul-de-sac somewhere between Brixton and Herne Hill. Beaming from ear to ear, I reversed back out of the dead end and wound through the streets of south London thinking of nothing else but the 26.2 miles from Blackheath to The Mall. From that moment until the 28th April 2019, little else would occupy my mind. Well, except for the impending birth of my second daughter. But apart from that minor detail, nothing.
Its incredible how quickly excitement can turn to fear, And then turn back again. And then again. It’s also uncanny how umpteen aches, niggles and twinges materialise out of nowhere. Within days of securing my place my knee started hurting, followed by my lower back so it was off to see an osteopath to get to the bottom of things. He informed me that my right foot splayed outwards and that the relationship between the muscles in my legs, back and shoulders was so wonky that I resembled a human corkscrew. Not the most encouraging start to my quest.
Having been set a series of exercises and stretches to help iron out the considerable kinks in my physique, my thoughts then turned to what training programme to follow. Thankfully, one of my friends happens to be a marathon junkie, so much so that he recently completed the full set of racing on all seven continents having filled in the remaining blank on the map by conquering the iconic distance in the icy wilderness of Antarctica. A seemingly excellent resource to tap, he provided a rich seam of information and pointed me in the direction of the FIRST training plan.
The 3-Plus-2 regime conceived by the Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training has been designed for those with relatively limited time to devote to training and was particularly suitable for the older gentleman in the midst of a minor midlife crisis. Rather than running every day and clocking up the miles, FIRST advocate the quality of the runs over the quantity. It consists of a 16-week programme featuring three runs a week – interval training, a tempo run and a long run, with each specifically tailored for you to achieve your target – and two cross-training sessions to keep you fit while giving your running muscles and joints a welcome rest.
It was relentless and intense – and I oddly loved it. The tangible benefits were incremental but obvious with stamina, pace and strength all growing with each passing week. But just when it looked like this marathon business was going to be a breeze, I received a sharp reminder that things can unexpectedly unravel.
On a chilly Sunday evening five weeks before the big day, I set out on a 29km run – at that point the furthest that I had ever embarked on – full of confidence and enthused about the challenge ahead. After 10km, however, it became clear that something wasn’t right. My legs were tired and unresponsive, my insides felt heavy and obstructive. And I still had almost two-thirds of the distance remaining. 8km later as I ran through Bermondsey, it became clear that this was no longer about running to the pace prescribed by the training programme but a battle simply to keep moving and get home. By the time I got to the Old Kent Road, the tank was empty and, having stopped for traffic at a major crossroads, I simply couldn’t get myself moving again. It was the first time that I had ever aborted a run and to have it happen just over a month away from the biggest one of my life left me devastated.
As I walked the final 5km back home through Peckham and New Cross, determined to complete the distance one way or another, I struggled to keep my emotions in check. That struggle was lost once I got back home and I explained my failure to my wife; how I had bitten off more than I could chew; how this balding, tubby middle-aged man had been deluding himself and everyone within earshot. Her hugs and words of encouragement were utterly wonderful but only made me blub even more. A grown man reduced to a tearful mess and it didn’t even have anything to do with football.
But within 48 hours, my sobs had turned to smiles. After a Monday spent horizontal on the sofa, Tuesday saw my guts turn to liquid and suddenly the reason behind my long run disaster was apparent. It wasn’t me, it was my gastric system. Which technically was still me but not the part of me that was being trained specifically to run 26.2 miles. I was ecstatic, quite possibly the first ever person to be positively gleeful every time they dashed to the loo with a runny tummy. My flawless 32km run a fortnight later confirmed the diagnosis and then it was time to taper off my training ahead of the race itself.
Waking up on the morning of the London Marathon felt very much the same as it did on my wedding day, albeit without the hangover. It might have been 6am but as soon as my alarm went off, I was wide-eyed and ready to go, a mixture of intense nervousness fused with barely containable excitement. As I stared at the ceiling through the half-light, I was also immediately presented with a good omen: I could actually breathe. Four days earlier, I had been generously gifted a cold by my two-year-old daughter that had left me with a sore throat and continually blocked nose. Now, on the morning of my greatest physical challenge, the blockage had cleared and I was race-ready, no excuses.
Then the focus was on eating the right stuff at the right time (porridge, 3.5 hours before my start time) followed by making sure I wasn’t carrying any unnecessary weight over duration of the race. My apologies if you’re eating while reading this but one of my rather obsessive pursuits in the minutes and hours before a sizeable run is evacuating my bowels. Apart from an actual injury, there is nothing worse than being, say, 90 minutes from home striding along the Thames Path and feeling that familiar knot start to tighten in the pit of your torso. Unpleasant and disconcerting, it goes without saying that it drastically undermines your performance and enjoyment. Every jarring step risking the type of accident that should only happen to potty-training toddlers. And after the first time you run through such discomfort, you proceed to ensure that it never happens again.
Breakfast. Loo. Shower. Loo. Kit on. Loo. Hydrate. Loo. Check gels. Loo. Grab earphones. Loo. Pace nervously around the front room. Loo. Hydrate. Loo. Kiss wife and daughter goodbye. Loo. Walk to race start area in Greenwich Park. Start queuing for the loo.
Now you would have thought that I had made more than enough trips to the lavatory to leave me free to concentrate solely on putting one foot in front of the other. And you would be wrong. After the seemingly interminable butterflies-inducing wait in my start zone, it dawned on me that I needed to wee. As the lycra-clad throng inched towards the gates of the park and the start line itself, I tried to ignore it and attempted to persuade my body to hold it in for the next 42km. It managed barely 150m. Thankfully, it was a conscious decision not an involuntary one, the sight of a group of male competitors lined up in familiar repose opposite a row of unfortunate bushes convincing me in a split second that I should add to their number. 30 seconds later and fully flushed, my odyssey properly started.
Much is made of the crowds along the route by broadcasters and the event organisers but even though I have previously been one of those cheering from the pavement, the sheer scale of it only dawned on me when I became one of the participants. There was not one inch of the route that was not lined by people. Sure, there were some parts that were more densely populated than others but even in the depths of Rotherhithe and the office block dominated weekend ghost towns in the Isle of Dogs, there were those bellowing encouragement. In some places it was positively deafening, the ten-deep crowds on Narrow Street in Limehouse resembling the feverish Circus Maximus in Rome at the height of empire.
The unguarded enthusiasm and support directed at us from total strangers was genuinely humbling. These folk had got up on a Sunday morning, possibly with blinding hangovers, to help spur on thousands of people they will never meet. All colours, creeds and cultures from this wonderful melting pot of a city were there to drive on a similarly eclectic bunch towards the finish line. It rekindled the spirit that pervaded the nation in the summer of 2012, a time when the whole country united around the London Olympics (and Chelsea won the Champions League) and the future looked extremely bright. In a 2019 characterised by Brexit-driven division and the subsequent polarisation of society, it was immensely heartening and enlightening to discover that those 2012 values still existed even if some of our politicians’ rhetoric strives to shroud them in contempt.
For all that the support of strangers is a fillip, there is nothing quite like seeing familiar faces along the route. The surge of energy that it gives you cannot be understated, the ensuing endorphins and adrenalin propelling you forward. I was lucky enough to see either family or friends on no fewer than six occasions along the route, not counting the times that they had hollered at me from the roadside without me noticing them through my sweat-soaked haze. So positively distracting and utterly exhilarating is it, that at one point, after seeing two different sets of familiars while running through Mudchute, I inadvertently ended up running the next two kilometres a minute quicker than my prescribed race pace. It might not sound like much but that minute was the crucial difference between me achieving my ultimate goal and just missing out. So the next time you hear somebody say how they couldn’t have done it without the support of their loved ones, know that they really mean it.
The race went as perfectly as I could ever have hoped for though dreams and real life rarely mirror each other immaculately. In the weeks and months preceding race day, I had fantasised countless times about crossing that finishing line. In my minds-eye I would be calm and serene, my tired sinews gliding gracefully over the threshold. Instead, reality saw my emotions kick in alongside the pain as soon as I passed under the digital clock on The Mall, mental and physical exhaustion betraying my composure in my moment of personal triumph.
The incessant training and intimate chafing, the spurned chocolate and Bombay mix, the freezing winter runs and rain-drenched sessions on the track – all had proven their worth. And as if that realisation wasn’t enough to tip me over the edge, my phone rang within seconds of drawing to a halt, my wife excitedly yelling “YOU DID IT!” through my earphones. I could barely reply, each utterance thwarted by the growing lump in my throat. My biggest supporter, my constant source of encouragement, my confidant, my shoulder to lean on, my sounding board as I blathered on and on and on and on about the marathon for what must have seemed like an eternity. She had given up so much to help me just get to the start line, putting up with all manner of temperamental nonsense on my behalf in the meantime. Now, just two weeks ahead of the birth of our second daughter and having spent the day selflessly traipsing around London to cheer me on while 9 months pregnant, here she was, just as elated as I. In that moment, as I tried to pick a blurry path through the scattered bodies in front of Admiralty Arch, it was hard to process just quite how lucky I was, and continue to be.
And though it might sound like I’m constantly in floods, I’ve only ever cried three times in front of my wife. One was on my wedding day and the other two were due to the London Marathon. And I would do them both again in a heartbeat.