It’s been two and a half years since the last London Marathon (no one counts any of that virtual rubbish), and the world has been through an awful lot of pain and misery since then. If there’s a event that, without fail, brings happiness and joy to people’s lives, it’s got to the be the one that winds it’s way around London one Sunday in
2021 really hasn’t run to script for me – after injuring my left hamstring/glute/hip flexor/who even knows back in January, the running I have been able to do has been often short and painful. I was grateful to be able to toe the line at Ironman Estonia back in July, having a good bike before a suitably average (for me) run.
Things finally seemed to be turning a corner, and I was about two weeks into finally being able to lay down some run sessions without hobbling around in pain for hours afterwards, when I was run off the road by some moronic car driver whilst cycling to work. As he immediately drove off, leaving my lying in a heap and bleeding from numerous places, I could see my dreams of London going up in smoke.
At this point there was 6 weeks until the marathon, and I spent the first two in a lot of pain, being unable to sleep at times, with Katie having to help me move about – I couldn’t even get in the car. I was thoroughly miserable, horrible to be around, and facing the prospect of not making the start line. I’d been told nothing was broken, but I had some pretty deep tissue muscle damage to deal with.
In the back of my head, I was telling myself that it would come good before the race, but as the weeks passed I was more and more convinced I wouldn’t be taking part. Then, with 10 days to go, I was able to run 4 miles without sharp, stabbing pains going through my groin. There was a chance. In the days before the race, I was able to run 5 miles, and then a long run of 6 (!) on the Thursday convinced me to at least give it a go.
It was your unconventional marathon build up weekend. My amazing Nan was turning 80, and we had a big family gathering scheduled on the Suffolk coast (for the geographically challenged – not that near London). Obviously we weren’t going to miss that, so we spent Friday and most of the day and night on Saturday in Aldeburgh, a large amount of the conversation spent quizzing my cousin Millie on what it’s like to win Love Island. I’m not sure I’ll make the cut next year.
After a cracking meal and some lovely speeches, Katie and I jumped in the car, still in our ‘smart clothes’ I do sometimes wear something other than shorts and running shoes), destination East Croydon and a charming budget hotel room. We arrived around 11pm, promptly asking for a new room before we’d even visited our first one – a wedding that was still going strong was causing the building to physically shake, and there was no chance that we were taking the room just one floor above the carnage.
Race morning dawned, with the tried and tested trick of leaving our overnight oats to chill on the windowsill delivering a fresh, early breakfast. Croydon was positively fizzing with an eclectic mix of people, some on their way home from a big night on the town, others rushing to start the early shift at work, with the runners nervously shuffling around the station platform, trying to conserve as much energy as possible.
Arriving at the start in Greenwich, I initially thought I’d stumbled upon the worlds largest homeless convention, with everyone seemingly dressed in the worst possible clothes they could find. With London Marathon deciding that people don’t need the option to drop a bag before the race, everyone was attired in their oldest, shabbiest garb, which they were then required to throw away just before they started running; either that or risk hypothermia. Seems sensible to me.
After soaking up the atmosphere and having a good chinwag with lots of different faces from the ‘running scene’, a quick warm up was in order, consisting of 50 metre loops of the grass pen – enough to make anyone dizzy. As always, time flies by before the race, and Katie, Steph and I found ourselves in a nervous toilet queue, not knowing if we’d get to the front before the start. In the end I bottled it with 3 minutes to go, but you’ll be glad to know the girls just about made it. Phew.
We were only released towards the start line with about 30 seconds to go, so I found myself running along and trying to take my old clothes off and lob them off to the side all at the same time – not recommended. I lost everyone in the melee towards the line, denied the chance of an emotional goodbye with Katie (usually a pat on the bottom, followed by ‘Good luck boss’), and suddenly we were over the line and the 2021 London Marathon was underway.
The first few miles of London are a heady mix of big crowds, friendly faces and a slightly downhill route which usually leads to Senor Spraggins going out like a steam train. With no qualifying time for the following years race, and this being my last chance to get one (by running under 3 hours – more likely 2:55 required), caution was being thrown to the wind. This one could hurt.
Early on, I bumped into one of my favorite running buddies, Claire Grima (featured in London Marathon 2019), and we fell into step together, having a bit of a chat and trying to stop each other getting too carried away. Claire had also been out of running for a prolonged period, so it was great to share the road with her for a number of miles, even though anyone running with me must very quickly get annoyed with the constant shouts of ‘great shorts mate’ or ‘Go Flat Cap’. What a tool.
We covered the first 5km in under 20 minutes (19:44), riding on the buzz of the crowds as we merged with the red start (there are 3 different start lines in London) shortly after, swelling the number of runners on the road. Jamie Bannister (no relation to Roger) is positioned here, and he immediately wins the award for loudest voice of the day (my mum wasn’t up spectating, unfortunately..) There’s fellow Clapham Chasers everywhere, and seeing a clubmate always gives you a bit of a boost, even if you’ve never met them before.
Claire is very much setting the pace at this point, and I’m just trying to hang on without taking myself too much into the red. Cutty Sark is absolutely mega as always (I’m really not sure why a giant boat gets people going so much), and it’s also the sight of 10km (39:30), so we haven’t slowed down at all, which probably isn’t the greatest news.
Onwards to Surrey Quays and Rotherhithe, and it’s here that I begin to get the first signals that it’s going to be a really, really tough day. Claire is pulling away from me, and I’m not stupid enough to try and continue to go with her, because the pace is a bit much for me. Instead, I try and lock into something sustainable and tell myself there is *only* 16 miles to go. Christ.
At this point I’m passed by Pete Butler, wearing wellies. Yep that’s right – wellington boots. You’re having a giraffe mate. He tells me it’s payback for the swimmer year, where I apparently passed him at some point on the course. These boots must have carbon plates in them, as he’s off and up the road, leaving me to try and count down the miles to Tower Bridge and half way.
I spot Chrissie Wellington (not wearing the boots) in Bermondsey and give her a shout, and I always enjoy the stretch along Jamaica Road with so many people already outside the pubs, drinks in hand, cheering on the runners. I turned onto Tower Bridge, and as usual it’s showboating.com from Flat Cap – if you don’t get slightly carried away on that section, you’ve got a heart of stone. It’s just incredible. Somehow in the wall of noise I spotted Katie’s friend Sarah, who if not as loud as Jamie, surely wins the runners up prize.
However, like all good drugs, there’s always a bit of a comedown off the bridge, as you slowly realise you’re actually not even halfway yet, with a kilometre or so to go until that point. You hear it before you see it, with a huge lorry parked up in the middle of the road and a DJ dropping some killer jams. I hit 13.1 miles in 1:24:06, stupidly fast, and I was sure I’d be paying for it big time in the second half.
Rose Harvey comes flying the other way as part of the elite female race, and I use most of my remaining energy to give her the loudest cheer possible. I’m now quickly approaching one of my favourite points of the race, Limehouse, where the majority of the Chasers support crew is based, and I always get a lump in my throat here as I see so many friendly faces. I also got a very sore bottom, when ‘Triathlon’ Ross Harper gave me an almighty slap.
The excitement died down after that, and I started to realise I was in a bit of a pickle. Still 10 miles to go, and I’m really, really hurting. 6 weeks of no running is catching up with me fast, and I’ve entered the never ending vortex that is the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf. No matter how long you’ve been running round there for, you turn another corner and realise you’re still nowhere near the actual skyscrapers and so far away from home.
I’m throwing water over me like I’m out hiking in the desert, and calculating in my head how long it will take me to get to the finish if I walk the rest of the way from here (the answer, nearly 4 hours, which didn’t sound that fun). The only small crumb of comfort I get is re-passing Pete in his wellies, but by this point both of us are fighting our own personal battles and we can barely offer up a grunt of recognition.
I’m begging my legs to give me just one more mile in under 7 minutes, and then we can walk. This was probably the least fun game I’ve ever played, in my entire life. My quads feel like they’ve been smashed in with a sledgehammer. After what feels like several lifetimes, we’re finally leaving Canary Wharf and turning west for the long slog home. I know the Chaser support crowd isn’t far away – that’s my next target.
Reaching them, I feel like I’ve aged 40 years since I last saw them, a shell of the man I was. I was barely able to offer James Kessell a brief mooney, but I just about got it out – energy well spent. You rejoin the highway back towards the Tower of London, and it’s impossible not to be boosted by the runners on the other side of the road, who still have 13 miles to go versus your 6 – it makes things feel that little bit more manageable.
Remarkably, I’m not actually slowing down as much as it feels like I am, with 25 to 30km covered in 20:57 and the following 5 in 21:10. I’ve frantically been trying to work out in my head how much I can slow down by per mile and still go under 3 hours, but the sums are eluding my foggy head. I’m just desperate to stop running and it’s taking every ounce of mental strength to keep going.
By this point I’m counting down individual kilometres, but each one seems to be lasting an eternity. Some friendly faces on the home stretch keep me chugging along – Tom Blake pops up with his infectious energy and I see the Fulham RC crowd down on the Embankment in their normal spot. My legs have never felt so utterly smashed, every step is horribly painful and sore. Pure stubbornness is getting me to the line now.
The turn at Big Ben triggered a rush of relief that it was nearly over, before I quickly realised from there it’s still around 1km to the finish line. I’ve clocked 22 minutes from 35-40km; no disaster, but the lights are starting to dim. I’m already dreaming of that post race pint, and have to jolt myself back into concentrating on making sure my legs don’t collapse from under me.
Dr Dave Mantle was the boost I need in the closing minutes, as I spot him and Rachel yelling away along Birdcage Walk – it was impossible not to pick up the pace just for a few moments. Emotion is starting to bubble to the surface now – I realise I’m actually going to make it and suddenly feel so grateful that I was able to get around in one piece.
Past the Palace and onto The Mall, grinning like a Cheshire Cat as I contemplate the joy of finally being able to stop running. No sprint finish necessary, just a gradual deceleration towards the line as I eventually stumble across, stopping the clock at 2:53:49.
I think my legs are in shock and can barely function. A complete lack of conditioning with nearly no running for weeks means they are now absolutely destroyed. I try and hobble my way away from the line, moving slower than a tortoise. Thankfully, there are friendly faces to chat to – Smithy (not James Corden) finishes just behind me, along with Leo Gebbie, who are both reasonably surprised that I’ve actually been able to make it around in one piece (along with everyone else).
I know Katie won’t be far behind, so I just linger around the finishing area to wait for her to appear. I don’t have to wait long, as I spot her hobbling towards me, having posted a 3:07. Neither of us can really move by this point, so we decide to sit down on the floor, which turns out to be a terrible decision as now neither of us can physically stand up.
We eventually dragged ourselves away from the finish and to the pub, where many beers were enjoyed and stories swapped in the company of a few old friends. London Marathon #5 in the books. Same time again next year?