The London Marathon is the best event in the world. Surely this statement isn’t even up for debate. The Joe Spraggins of two years ago probably wouldn’t agree with you, but he certainly does now. I’m still trying to process last Sunday and I still don’t believe that it was my stubby little frame out there tearing down the Mall, having the time of his life. I’ll warn you now; this is going to be a long one. I’ve got a bit of a story to tell..
I’ve detailed the build up to the race in a separate post (which can be found here), so I’ll fast-forward straight to race weekend. I trekked over to the expo on Friday afternoon after work, picking up my race number and attempting to get my hands on as much free food as possible. All the Guinness World Record seekers had been relocated to the green starting zone, so I’d forfeited my spot in the ‘fast good-for-age’ area.
It was great to catch up with Michael Law, fresh off the plane from Boston where he’d run just 4 days earlier, completing his final world marathon major – a great achievement. I also briefly chatted to the Grange Farm crew from Bishop’s Stortford; luckily I’d see plenty more of them on race day – but more on that later.
The legend that is Xempo Dan was also present, launching his brilliant new product, the pace pockets – http://www.pacepockets.run/ These little gems eliminate the need for those crappy paper bands you tie around your wrist and can also carry essentials like keys and gels. We discussed hopes and targets for Sunday before I headed off for a relatively early night.
Saturday ended up being a fairly busy day, but I don’t consider this to be a bad thing; in the past sitting around doing nothing but eating has left me feeling lethargic and stiff. After a short 20 minute run first thing in the morning, I headed over to Hyde Park with Katie to support her running in a 10km race. It was great to get the chance to watch her run and I got slightly overexcited running from point to point to ensure I could see her multiple times.
After heading home and putting my feet up for a few hours there was the small matter of a wedding to go to! My good mate Adam Cook and his now wife Caroline had tied the knot earlier in the day and we’d been asked to attend the evening reception. How could I say no – I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. It was a lovely occasion, and after spending a few hours drinking numerous glasses of water whilst enviously watching everyone else drink champagne, we headed off so I could get some decent sleep.
I never sleep well the night before races, so waking up at 5am was awesome – only 45 minutes before my alarm. I dozed for a while, eventually getting out of bed at 6 to make myself a quick bowl of porridge. Katie very helpfully forced her eyes open for long enough to draw a massive JOE on my chest, I got a massive hug as we said goodbye and I jumped into a taxi over to Greenwich.
I had to arrive early to register with Guinness and have my costume verified, but 7.45 for a 10am start was ridiculous even by my standards – I had until 8.30 but was being far too eager! After quickly stripping off to allow them to see the entire outfit and take a quick snap, I bundled my clothes back on and took myself away from the masses to chill and listen to some music.
Before the start I caught up with Mike (the Star) again, as well as others I knew attempting records (Brian – postman, Alice – Bananaman) and there was a big group photo taken. From there I headed to the starting pens to get a spot towards the front, knowing I may be one of the quicker runners on the green start. This is where the record attempt nearly fell flat before it’d even started.
Ben Thornton had spotted me and called me over to the railings. I jogged over and we had a quick catch up, but when I turned around, much to my dismay, the bag with my snorkel, armbands and other swimming paraphernalia had been identified as a potential security risk and was about to be removed. After sprinting back over, waving my arms in air and explaining there was no need to worry, I managed to retrieve the bag, muttering an apology and that I should’ve known better than to leave stuff unattended. Moron.
I waited until the last few moments to strip down to my trunks – the sun was poking through but it was still pretty chilly. As I started taking my clothes off I got some funny looks, with more eyebrows starting to rise as I lathered myself in vaseline and popped my armbands on. Eventually I was ready to go, standing on the start line of the London Marathon in nothing but a skimpy pair of swimmers and a snorkel.
A couple of minutes before the start the celebrities and some other random groups were paraded out and placed on the start line in front of us. With all due respect to them, a few of us in green knew we may make a somewhat faster start so managed to duck the tape and mingle with the front group, around 3 rows back from the line. The last 45 minutes had flown by and couldn’t quite believe we were about to start.
What happened next is a moment that will definitely stay with me as long as I live. The hooter went, and I quickly tried to get into my stride. I weaved through a few runners and suddenly I had open road to hit target pace. We navigated the first right hand bend, and I was slowly pulling away.. from everyone! I was in the lead of the London Marathon! I think a fair number of people out watching were pretty perplexed – who is this idiot, surely he’s not actually in the race? Au contraire mon ami; I’m here for that highly coveted ‘fastest marathon dressed as a swimmer’ title, aka fastest idiot (although I know a few others running who may lay claim to that).
With the adrenaline well and truly pumping, it was impossible to not get a tiny bit over excited until we merged with the blue ‘elite’ start and my moment of glory came to an end. My watch beeped to tell me I’ve covered the first mile in 6 minutes – the first of many ‘whoops’ moments. Fortunately, as soon as I joined the field of club runners, I had a chance to run with mates Glen and Tom, which was a real privilege as they’re proper runners; they laughed at how ridiculous I looked before pressing on and leaving me to it.
I thought beforehand that my outfit might lead to some additional ‘attention’ from the crowd. But the support I received on Sunday, was just absolutely insane. It’s impossible to describe the noise or the inspiration it gave me – I must have had my name shouted on average once every 5 seconds, for 26.2 miles. As I approached the bigger pockets of supporters, it just seemed to get louder and louder – part of the reason why in pretty much every photo from Sunday I’m grinning from ear to ear. I’ll never compete at a professional level in sport, but I can imagine this is the kind of atmosphere top-level athletes are exposed to – it was simply out of this world.
5km – 18:39
This was the second ‘whoops’ moment of the day. I managed to cover the first 5km a whole minute faster than my planned pace. 2 years ago, this would have equalled my personal best for that distance, highlighting the miles I’ve travelled (quite literally) to get to this point. I knew the online tracker would be updating and I could picture Katie thinking ‘what’s this idiot doing, he’s going out way too fast’. This would of course be completely justified – but at the time the pace felt right and my HR was under my target level, so I decided to just take a chance.
Again, it was absolutely impossible not to get carried away. Every time I thought about settling in and relaxing, 57 other people would shout ‘looking good Joe’ or just ‘YES JOE’, My heart rate kept ramping up every time I went through a particularly loud spot, and the hairs on my arms were constantly standing on end. The miles kept ticking by below my target pace, and I couldn’t believe how good it felt.
10km – 37:53 (5km –> 10km 19:14)
The first big landmark on the route is Cutty Sark (nothing against Charlton Athletic’s stadium – I just don’t think the double-decker tourist buses make it that far..), and by this point the noise had ratcheted up to near-impossible levels – my ears were physically hurting. I knew the Gibbs/Dutton crew would be out watching here, and sure enough I spotted them right at the front and gave them a massive wave. At this point I also received a nice slap on the bottom from Rob Arkell – a very good age-group triathlete and someone I really look up to. He went on to run a quite brilliant 2.37; fantastic effort mate.
I also ran with Xempo Dan for a bit before he pushed off into the distance – commenting that he needed to get away from me due to the amount of attention I was receiving. This was noted by numerous runners on the way round, and I can only apologise to those who were stuck with me for large portions of the race!
At this point I was having far too much fun and had starting throwing in a few seconds of front crawl with my arms whenever the crowds got particularity loud, which seemed to always get a great reaction. I was constantly questioning myself internally – is this pace too fast? Surely I need to slow down? I decided as long as my heart rate wasn’t too high, I’d soldier on.
My Mum and Dave the Lion were in attendance as always, along with my best friendS Dave and Dom (sorry Dom) with his girlfriend Sophie (now quite the runner!) also making their presence noted and I dished out some high fives, letting them know I was having a great time.
15km – 57:26 (10km –> 15km 19:34)
I had a good pace locked in now and the miles were flying by. I was almost urging them to stop coming so quickly; I wanted to make the most of every second of this incredible experience. I got chatting to lots of runners on the way round with half thinking I was crazy and the other half letting me know it was hilarious. I caught up to James Ellis and ran with him for a bit; again he’s a runner I’ve always looked up to, so I really enjoyed sharing part of the day with him
20km – 1:17:00 (15km –> 20km 19:35)
Crossing Tower Bridge is always a special experience, and approaching the right turn onto Tower Bridge Road, I was absolutely buzzing. I remember saying to James, something along the lines of; ‘this is going to be incredible’. We headed up the steady incline, and the crowd was just going absolutely bananas. I don’t know if it was because I was the first runner in fancy dress (or so I thought..) to pass through, but they seemed to appreciate the fact I was quite clearly loving life. So I pretty much swam my way over Tower Bridge, incorporating some breast stroke having mastered the front crawl during the previous 12 miles.
On the way down past the Tower of London, Ali Brown cruised up behind me – once an acquaintance I knew through Bosher, now someone I consider to be a good mate. At risk of sounding like a broken record, it was awesome to run with people I know and have trained with along the way, and we went through the half-way point together, hoping it wasn’t all about to unravel.
Half-way – 1:21:13
A 1:21 half marathon wasn’t part of the pre-race plan; 5 weeks previously I had set a personal best of 1:19:40 and promptly collapsed to ground exhausted, so I wasn’t leaving much margin for error here. However, this wasn’t much I could do about this now, so I just kept grinning like a chimp and carried on my merry way.
There was a brief respite from the noise going through an underpass around mile 15. I remember having a chat with a fellow runner, mentioning that I thought I was having ‘the day’ where it all falls into place. A dangerous claim to make with so long to go, but an indication of how good I was feeling at this point.
I couldn’t wait to see Katie and the other legendary members of Clapham Chasers around Westferry, and I was determined to let her see that I was enjoying myself and still feeling good. Thankfully, I spotted her at the very last moment, sporting my now trademark lunatic grin and throwing in yet more front crawl. Seeing her gave me a real boost and also helped me to refocus on the task at hand.
25km – 1:36:18 (20km –> 25km 19:19)
We hit Canary Wharf – this used to be a sparsely populated part of the route, but these days it’s as busy as everywhere else, if not more so. This is where my first worries started to surface – I was getting more and more aware of the need to go to the toilet. I couldn’t believe it! The legs were fine and aerobically I felt completely in control, but my stomach had picked this moment to disagree with running.
I was surprised at how calm I stayed – I accepted that I was a minute or so ahead of my 2.45 pace, and if I could just get in and out of a loo as quickly as possible, it’d be right back in the mix again. The real issue was finding a toilet and holding on until that point..
30km – 1:55:45 (25km –> 30km 19:27)
Thankfully, just after 30km I spotted a glorious row of green boxes, and an advantage of being slightly further forward in the race is that not one was occupied, so I could dive in the first, untying my trunks on the fly as I approached at speed. The quickest toilet stop in the history of marathon running (I think it was around 17 seconds between door closing and opening again) had me back out on the road and feeling 100 times better. Little did I know at this point Bosher spotted me sprinting out of the toilet, so must’ve been right behind me here.
I kept telling myself not to speed up to make up the time I lost during my pit stop immediately, but despite this I still ran the following mile in 6.29. Comforted by the fact that I’d barely lost 10 seconds on my target pace and buoyed by the ease I’d got straight back into my stride, my spirits soared once again.
35km – 2:15:20 (30km –> 35km 19:35)
7.2km between me and the performance of a lifetime. The crowd was in party mode and I was keen to be a part of it. I’d now started pointing forwards towards the finish during sections were the volume was at it’s loudest. Again, I’m sure I looked like a moron but people seemed to love it and it seemed to convey the point that I was feeling great.
I caught up with Xempo Dan and then Ali, who were both really digging in at this point and encouraged them to come with me. It seemed crazy that I could be running with these guys so late on in a marathon, as both have impressive running CV’s. They couldn’t come with me this time, but I’m sure order will quickly be restored next time we toe the line at the same race.
Just after mile 23, I spotted my great friends Tom and Jillian at the very last moment and shouted a greeting. Jillian, by complete chance, managed to snap this photo which will always rank as one of my all-time favourites; me running with double-olympic champion James Cracknell – what a legend.
Just after this point, I saw something ahead which made me rub my eyes with disbelief. A carrot! A man dressed as a carrot. Up until this point, I thought I was leading the highly prestigious/utterly meaningless ‘first fancy dress’ competition. Disaster. I slowly reeled him in, pulled alongside and we both glanced sideways at each other, swapping smiles, but internally both ready for war. We matched each other stride for stride for a few minutes before I opened a small gap and never looked back. Who cares about Real Madrid v Barcelona when you’ve got swimmer v carrot.
I knew the last 3 miles were going to special, but I could’ve never have imagined in a million years the experience I had. It is actually impossible to summarise my emotions heading down the Embankment, nor describe the support I received. I’ve used plenty of adjectives so far in this report, but none I can think of here would do it justice. I can only imagine it’s a similar feeling to be winning the Olympic games marathon or playing a cup final at Wembley – it’s something in all my years I’ll never, ever forget.
Coming through the quiet of Blackfriars tunnel out into a 20 minute wall of sound, Henry, Molly and Simon were cheering away. I tried to convey the message that I couldn’t quite believe what was happening. I just kept waiting for the hurt to come, for reality to kick in, but it just never did, and I was speeding up as every mile passed.
My uncle, auntie and 3 little cousins had made the trip out to watch, managing to commandeer a megaphone being used by someone in the crowd; and although I couldn’t spot them I could just hear someone yelling ‘SPRAGGINS’, which was just awesome, and I gathered further inspiration knowing they’d seen me looking good.
Before I knew it I was at Big Ben, seeing Dave and Dom for the last time. The plan had been for me to grab a beer off them if things hadn’t gone quite to script and share a quick drink with them. Evidently, there would be no stopping for beer at this point with a PB on the line, so a high-five would have to do as I motored towards birdcage walk. I think I must’ve been one of the only people running who was absolutely gutted it was about to come to an end – I wanted to keep going!
40km – 2:34:16 (35km –> 40km 18:57)
By this point I had slipped in to a state of utter disbelief. I must’ve have either stolen someone else’s body or been on roller skates for most of the race. How was this happening? I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that, barring disaster, I was going to finish the marathon in a time I could’ve never even dreamed of. I kept doing my massive grin and opening my arms out wide when the crowd cheered – again looking like a right idiot. I think I was trying to say ‘can you believe this is actually happening’ without really being able to speak.
I was still accelerating, picking off runners one by one; the organisers provide some interesting little stats post-race – in the last 7.2km I overtook 132 runners whilst at the same time not being overtaken by a single one; an indication of how good I was feeling. There was a small amount of pain now, but the smile never left me as I knew home was just around the corner.
Turning right at Buckingham Palace into the Mall is a special experience for everyone who runs the London Marathon, something you always picture in your mind during those cold, dark training runs in mid-winter. The feeling has to be experienced to be truly appreciated, and I made sure I made the most of every second, breaststroking my way past a couple more runners and waving to the crowd in the grandstand.
With the tears welling up behind my sunglasses and thoughts of my late Nan always in the forefront of my mind on days like today, I crossed the line in 2:42:24. I’m actually going to write it twice to make it seem a bit more real. 2:42:24. Ridiculous.
I’d finished 407th overall in the London Marathon (out of around 40,000 official finishers), averaging 6:12 per mile (3:51 a km), which equates to 8 and a bit 19 minute 15 second 5km sections back to back. My last mile was one of my quickest, covered in 5:56.
I had also managed a ‘negative split’, running the second half of the race in 1:21:09, 9 seconds faster than the first half – taking into the account I stopped for the toilet, this was a real surprise.
I had so many runners come up to me post-race and shake my hand and ask me about the outfit. Some had ran with me most of the way, so I got a chance to apologise in person for the number of times they had to hear the name ‘Joe’, but everyone was so gracious and congratulatory. To be honest I think I was in a state of shock and this part of the day is a bit of a blur.
Ali and Bosher crossed the line shortly after me, both achieving new PB’s and club records to boot, and we shared sweaty hugs and tales of the day we had. I love going to races with these guys, and we should all be on the line at London together in 2018 – a really exciting prospect. All 3 of us now have a ‘Championship’ qualifying time, allowing us access to a special start area before the race and making us part of the British Championship field next year.
I was swept up by a Guinness official who confirmed I had broken the record, asking me for a photo with a mock certificate for the website. I was then, rather bizarrely and unexpectedly, whisked away to the elite athlete media area (haha), where I proceeded to do 5 or 6 TV and radio interviews, which was slightly comical. The highlight was standing next to Kenenisa Bekele, who was being quizzed on his brilliant second place finish, with me standing next to him practically naked being asked if I was using a special kind of armbands.. I managed to say hello and grab a quick snap; he was an absolute legend and stopped to chat for a couple of minutes.
As if that wasn’t exciting enough, as I headed out of the media area, who should be walking towards me (no, not the carrot); none other than Chrissie Wellington, probably the best triathlete this country has ever had and my number-one sporting idol. She was such a legend, stopping to listen to me babble away about how amazing she is and how my girlfriend is also her biggest fan, before letting me grab yet more pictures – who have I turned into?!
By this point I’d been finished for quite a while so I was keen to get to my friends and family. I rushed to Horseguards Parade, where Dave, Dom and Sophie were waiting. I also caught up with Glen, who’d run a quite brilliant 2.34, and I think I was happier for him than I was about my own race.
The unforgettable moments just kept on coming, as my mum spotted me and full on sprinted towards me for a good 50 metres before jumping into my arms for a hug – I’ve never seen her so excited! To know how much it means to her to see me do well really hit home and this was probably the most emotional I’d felt all day. Dave the Lion opted for his trademark firm handshake, but I think I might’ve finally managed to impress the once ‘semi-pro’ footballer.
My uncle and the rest of my family then also turned up and it was amazing to be able to share this moment with them – I’m not sure something like this will ever happen again so to have them there to witness it meant an awful lot to me.
Katie had rushed over from Westferry and was the last to arrive, and I was so excited to see her. We spotted each other from a distance and both just had massive grins on our faces before sharing a very emotional hug. Whenever things get hard in training or racing she’s always there for me and I has always been so supportive – I owe her so much and appreciate every little thing she does for me, including sitting in on a Friday night and helping to secure the snorkel safely to the side of my head..
There were so many amazing performances from friends as well as all the legends from Clapham Chasers – far too many to list here but you know exactly who you are and I’ve spoken to you all individually in the days after the event. That also goes for the people that took time to come and support on the day – I can’t say just how much I appreciate it.
I’ve had help from Chris Bowman at Full Fitness Physio, and I can’t recommend him highly enough for either a top-notch sports massage or advice on injury prevention/recovery. I also owe a lot to Dan Holmes of Profile PT who has been my triathlon coach since the start of the year; it’s been brilliant working with Dan and we’re obviously seeing some positive improvements already, so long may that continue. The swimwear brand Funky Trunks also provided me with the comfy trunks that powered me towards a chafe-free world record.
I realise this report has been slightly more emotional than usual, and to be honest I still don’t think I’m managed to convey the feelings and experience I went through on the day; it really will go down as one of the best days of my life.
So; what’s next? (said no-one, ever – just finish this bloody report mate and stop banging on). This result has done wonders for my self-confidence going into the triathlon season. If I can work hard and achieve a 2:42 marathon, what else am I capable of? With my bike improving all the time, maybe the dream of qualifying and racing in the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii isn’t as farfetched as I once thought.
I’ve got the Outlaw iron-distance triathlon in July to worry about first, before I see how close I can get at Ironman Wales in September. I was always quite sceptical about my limitations and how far I can progress in endurance sport. Sundays performance has opened my eyes and shown me that, with a bit of hard graft, maybe dreams can one day become reality.