Running the London Marathon


By Angus Watson

Written on April 18th, the day after the 2011 London Marathon

(click on pics for high res)

Three months ago, running a four hour London Marathon seemed within my grasp. To travel 26.2 miles in under four hours you need an average pace of nine minutes and six seconds a mile. I’d done 13.1 miles at 8.50 a mile. How hard could twice that distance be?

DSC_5100My confidence was obliterated about a month ago, when I failed to finish my longest training run. I set out to do 22 miles. After four miles, I was slower than the 9.06 pace. By 15, I was in bits. At 19 miles, I stumbled into Craven Cottage football ground’s merchandise shop, sat on the floor next to a rack of Fulham shirts and asked two bemused shop staff for water.

Things got worse. My last two long training runs, 15 and 12 miles, were both well off the requisite 9.06 pace, and I felt sick and exhausted for the last few miles of each. I’d hardly had a blister in previous training, but now developed one the size of a decent oyster on the sole of my left foot. My neck and right upper arm became mildly but constantly painful.

Perhaps I’d put on too much weight. I’d taken to ‘carb loading’ – i.e. eating lots of chocolate, Haribo and pasta – with gusto, and put on half a stone. Perhaps I was ill. My guts were a complete mess for some reason – carbs, nerves, or energy gels – maybe all three. On both those last long training runs, I had to rush into the bushes and squat (once on Putney Heath, once on the Chiswick riverbank). DSC_5112Not the most noble of moments. Although actually quite liberating, and satisfying that nobody spotted me. And, brilliantly on the first one, someone had left a clean, dry newspaper in the bush. The second one, I’d brought loo roll with me.

So I was dreading the race (not enjoying registration sign in, above right), in the way that a man might dread playing a four hour flute concerto in front of a massive audience when he’s not very good at the flute, hasn’t practiced enough, and the penalty for mucking up is drawn-out torture and public humiliation.

The big day

DSC_5116My girlfriend Nicola and I woke at six. She was excited and helpful. I’d gone into a protective shell of sulky, dreamlike denial. I can hardly remember donning the ridiculous running kit (I’m not a natural singlet wearer, above left), nor the long journey from Fulham to Greenwich.

Greenwich Park on a lovely Spring morning teemed with 36,000 people striding about fitly and stretching. Groups wearing identically sloganed vests – ‘Darlington Running Club in memory of Marge Phillips!’ – were talking loudly about ‘Paris oh eight!’ and suchlike. A large gang were clambering into excellent Rhino suits, apparently made by a movie special effects company. Another man was donning an even better animatronic donkey. There was a man dressed as a lion, another was a banana. All men, these fancy dress funsters. Women just don’t have the same burning need to show off.

DSC_5132All combined, the earnest charity, the pert bodies so zingingly displayed in lycra and the zany outfits were overbearingly wholesome and worthy. I pledged to return for 2012 and run for Forest, the pro-smoking campaigners, dressed as a giant cigarette, and smoke a fag every five miles (having tried the race since, I no longer plan to do this).

One pleasing thing was the increasingly massive queue for a small rank of portaloos. We’d arrived there early and had to queue for only ten minutes. Forewarned by my two emergency stops on training runs, I’d voided myself then gorged on anti-diarrhoea tablets, so it was a joy to see the loo queue grow to biblical proportions.

DSC_5146The downside of early arrival was that there wasn’t much to do, apart from dread. “Why don’t we stand by the burger van for a bit?” I asked. Nicola nodded as if that was a reasonable thing to do, and we did it.

Finally, I had to say goodbye and head into the vast ‘runners only’ enclosure. With all the milling brightly clad people, music, corporate banners and queues snaking hither and thither, combined with my on-going daze and deep-set misery, I felt like I was 15 hours and too many drugs into a music festival for healthy, purposeful people. There were still 40 minutes to the start, and I didn’t know what to do. I quite needed a pee now, but the loo queues in here were even longer – Dunkirk-style – and there is a point where queues become too long, no matter what they’re for. I wondered about vaguely looking for something to nip behind, but all the trees had hamstring-stretchers lunging against them, and there were no bushes.

‘Oh well’ I thought. ‘I’ll be fine’, knowing that I was lying to myself.

[Since Nicola went off with the camera, the next load of photos are going to be the shots she took before seeing me again, e.g. below left, then the shots taken by photographers that I bought afterwards]

DSC_5153I asked a women in a marshal’s jacket where the start was. Shortly afterwards I was on a long, straight, wide avenue surrounded by other people in shorts. Single runners looked at each other then quickly away, as if half wanting conversation then deciding ‘actually no, I’ll just stand here looking nervous’. Groups of friends were making loud, un-amusing jokes and laughing sportily.

I was in pre-run pen six out of I guess about 15 pens. Jumping up, I could see thousands upon thousands of runners ahead and behind.

The start time – 9.45 – came. There was a whoop from everyone apart from me and a few other not-joining-in types. We all walked forward haltingly, like an even longer, wider and slightly faster version of the queue to the loos. The start itself was out of sight around a corner. Tannoys were blaring out some unimaginative DJ asking runner after runner which charity they’d be running for, and talking about himself a bit in between each. We shuffled on.

Five minutes more shuffling forwards and a hundred yards further on I said: “I thought it would be tougher than this!” hilariously to the guy next to me. It was his first time too. We resolved to look out for each other at the St John’s Ambulance tent at mile five. Another man told us that one runner had passed out at Greenwich station, before even walking to the start. “Lucky him!” I said.

DSC_5160Our giant conga rounded the corner, and the huge red, balloon covered starting arch loomed into view. It looked to me like inappropriately gaudy gates to a concentration camp. My heart sank. Then leapt, because all along the roadside to the left, before the start, were men peeing against a virgin banner. Brilliant. I joined them.

I don’t really remember crossing the line, starting my watch and beginning to run, because I was still congratulating myself for not queuing for the loo.

It was nice though, to be running finally. I was aiming to start at 8.50 (minutes a mile), to allow for slowing at the end. I had a Garmin satellite-linked watch to tell me my average pace and distance travelled.

DSC_5163I’d heard much about the amazing atmosphere and adrenaline-inspiring crowds, but the lot lining the first mile had seen 10,000 people run past already and were all cheered out. They just looked at us glumly, hoping, I suppose, to spot attractive people, celebs or chaps in madcap costumes. I ran on under the blue sky, surrounded by hundreds of other runners, passing the blank faces of hundreds of quiet spectators. I turned my iPod up, and enjoyed the music video feel of the unaccustomed situation. I even became briefly happy, running to the beat, dancing though the strange world of East London on marathon day.

Hundreds of slower people were a challenge, but not too much of one. The road was wide, the pavement often unclogged by spectators, so it was easy to overtake. I spotted a short bald chap who was trail blazing excellently, so followed him for a while. After three miles I was rousting along, my watch told me, at 8.33 minutes a mile. That was too fast, and everyone says the worst mistake is to start too fast. I wasn’t too fussed since, after starting on Greenwich Hill, we’d been largely downhill. You’re an idiot if you don’t peg it downhill, I reckon.

DSC_5177I was enjoying it. Running felt fresh and easy. I could run in the middle, happy in the throng, or over on the side, where I could high five kids and hear the odd “come on Angus!” (my name was on my singlet). Despite being packed in, runners to the left, right, and ahead, I didn’t bump anyone and nobody bumped me. We moved as one, and I knew what it was to be a fish in a school of fish.

Six and half miles in, one quarter done, I was fine, but the road narrowed and slower runners were becoming tiresome. With only room for perhaps seven of eight runners abreast, I kept getting trapped in knots of plodders – two in front, one on either side.

The walkers were worse. A, it was annoying that they were walking with 20 miles to go – why hadn’t they started slower if that was going to happen? B, many didn’t seem to have read the instructions. If you walk, you walk at the side. Not in the middle with your hands on your hips, hindering those of us keen to get to the end.

Initially I remained polite. My minutes per mile average at 6.5 miles was about 8.40, so I had time to spare. But by seven miles, hampered by slow bogans, my mile time had slipped to 8.45. That slide couldn’t continue, but the road was still narrow and clogged. I started to get rude. People walking in the middle got a firm push on the arm with a barked “walk at the side!”. The knots of slow joggers were easier. I found that if I coughed disgustingly, people tended to give me space.

DSC_5180Stomping on through Deptford and Rotherhithe, I took off my headphones for a while. The “Keep going Angus!” shouts, from burly men, tubby teenage girls in microskirts, mums and kids, were a joy. “Thanks! Thank you! Thanks!” I said whenever I made eye contact with the shouter. Their warm smiles seemed genuine. Good. This was becoming far from easy, so it was nice to get some recognition. I was inspired anew.

By 11 miles or so, things were beginning to get sluggish, and average pace was dropping steadily. I could have really done with a sign that it was going to be over at some point. I knew that Nicola, and perhaps my family, would be cheering at Canary Wharf near the 15 mile mark, but that was still four miles away, and, gallingly, still 11 miles from end (my family had been at a wedding in Cambridge the day before, and would make Canary Wharf if they could, Westminster if not).

DSC_5183Worse, I was a long way from 13.1 miles – halfway. I knew the halfway mark was just after Tower Bridge. Every time we rounded a corner, I expected to see its towers. Again and again there was just a swarm of runners stretching ahead though more of east London. It was also getting hot, but the frequent water bottles, handed out by keen volunteers, were sweet relief (Thanks, Nestlé Pure Life!). My other sustenance, since I’m on the subject, I was carrying in a sort of Batman utility belt: a jelly baby for every mile and an energy gel for every hour.

Finally, round another corner, and there was Tower Bridge! Out of respect for the ancient monument, and keen to show off to the largest thronging of spectators so far, I turned up the iPod, ran with gleeful abandon, and overtook about 50 people.

That burst of joy, and knowing that it was only two miles to Nicola, kept me going as we turned east toward the docklands. I’d been ready to be really annoyed about turning east at this point, since we’d all be back in the same spot 10 miles later, heading west, but I ran cheerily along the wide road, almost waving to the crowds in happiness. On the other side of the road, 10 miles ahead of us and heading west to the finish, were the elite runners. I didn’t hate them at all, and even nodded congratulations at a few of them.

DSC_5188I spotted Nicola’s Scooby Doo helium balloon (for easy ID) before she saw me, shouted ‘Hello!’ at her happy face (left), and she was gone.

Then the road narrowed, and we got to the most aggravating section of the whole thing. For a huge stretch around the Isle of Dogs, about miles 15 to 17, for some unfathomable reason, only one half of the road was being used. We were funnelled into about six abreast. Getting past the slower runners became really difficult, and the walkers – of whom there were an increasing number – were a total nightmare. The three guys walking next to each other, chatting, taking up literally half the track, would have sent me into a frenzied rage if I’d had more energy. By the time I saw Nicola again at mile 18, my pace had slowed from 8.50 to nine.

Eight miles to go.

DSC_5197My only specific pain was chafing under my left upper arm, so I grabbed one of the globs of the Vaseline that the St John’s people were handing out rather disgustingly with surgical-glove clad hands. I really really wanted to stop running. The crowds, though the New York-iest section of Canary Wharf, were immense, clogging both sides and the bridges. I’m sure they were cheering, but my music was so loud that I couldn’t hear them. I decided that they were gawping, enjoying the runners’ pain, hoping to see collapses and even heart attacks, in the same way people go to air shows in the hope that there’ll be a crash.

aaofficial3Heading back west, five miles to go according to my watch, I was ok. Relatively. I’d run 21.2 miles so I’d felt fresher, but I knew I could keep going. Time was 9.02 minutes a mile, which was fine, and I realised I was going to do what I had really given up all hope of – a marathon in under four hours.

A few minutes later, however, disaster.

I passed the ‘Five miles to go’ sign.My watch was out by a third of a mile. All that running around those slow idiots had added a third of a mile. So what did that mean? I had no idea. Surely that I wouldn’t make the finish in under four hours.

‘Never mind’ I thought, and plodded on. I wanted to stop so much. Maybe a quarter of people were walking now on my side of the road. On the other side of the road, heading east toward Docklands, were the really slow people, 10 miles behind. “Look at all the walkers!” my brain suggested, “they’re walking- why don’t you? There’s no shame!”
Four miles to go. A four mile run at this pace is easy. I could do it. I was going to finish without walking, near four hours, if not under it.

aaofficial6bI passed a white-faced, exhausted man collapsed on the roadside. He looked like he’s been splatted there by a giant spatula. The group of young female spectators he’d fallen by were alternatively cheering us runners and glancing at him worriedly. “Help him you fools!” I nearly said as I ran by.

A man collapsed ahead of me. It looked like he’d been zapped with a limbs-become-jelly gun, and down he went. Other runners tried to help him up, but he collapsed again like a baby giraffe. I ran past.

Every minute or so there was another runner collapsed on the curb. Many were being tended by the brave men and women of St John’s Ambulance. I remembered a doctor I’d talked to who’d been on duty at big races. He said his main job was to save people from the well-meaning ministrations of St John’s volunteers, who doctors called the ‘cunts in blue jumpers’.

DSC_5195[UPDATE – I’m putting this on my new website in 2015. Since then I’ve married Nicola and repeated that doctor’s view to her. She used to be St John’s volunteer and she pointed out that he’s wrong – the jumpers are black].

The palace of Westminster, less than a mile from the end, rose into view, still hazy in the distance. Such a long way away. I pounded on. Perhaps inspired by the scenery, or the determination on the runners’ faces, the crowds here were more frenzied. But I could hardly see them.

One and a half miles to go said a sign. Pace was still at 9.02, but what did that mean? 9.06 means 26.2 miles in four aaofficial4hours, but I was going to have run about 26.5. Surely the extra third of a mile would put me over four hours? Brain fried by running, I couldn’t even begin to do the math. I tried to speed up, but that wasn’t happening. On I went, looking at the tarmac, running to the beat. It was crap, but not dreadful. Keeping on was deeply unpleasant, but it was the only thing to do, and it was going to be over. At some point.

“Angus! Angus!” Someone was screaming. My family were there, a mile from the end. That was nice. I waved and kept going, plod plod plod plod.

A mile left. Round the corner at Parliament, a couple of friends spotted me and cheered. ‘Hello!’ I thought. I wanted to walk so much. There were plenty of people walking, this close to the end. I could too I thought, I really could. I’d still finish in under four and half hours if I walked to the end, and that’s perfectly ok, isn’t it? I kept going.

aaofficial2Nearly there I thought, but I looked up, and Birdcage Walk stretched out into infinity. I could see brightly clad runners sooo far ahead. I hated them – why couldn’t I be up there near the end? Head down, I kept going.

‘600 yards to go!’ said a big sign. Eons later was another one – ‘365 yards left!’ I rounded the final corner of a million corners, not even slightly noticing Buckingham Palace on the left. There was the finish, maybe 200 yards away. The gate out of the concentration camp. There was a timer on it. “04.08.20”, it said. I’d started about 10 minutes after the official start, hadn’t I? I was pretty certain the clock had said 10 minutes something when I crossed the start line… Perhaps I could still make the four hour window. I ran, faster than everyone around me. Maybe I’d do it!
04.09.30 said the clock as I crossed the line.

I stopped running. Just brilliant. “Well done!” I said to the chap walking next to me, and we shook hands. I walked past the marshals and rostrums and cameras without seeing them.

DSC_5203I collected my medal, my goodie bag, met Nicola and my family and went for lunch. I was knackered and smug.DSC_5215

After lunch I went to the pub with Nicola for my first pint of Guinness and cigarette in two weeks. As I sat happily on the curb a text came from my brother. He’d looked up my time on the marathon’s website.

Three hours, 59 minutes and 31 seconds. Result.DSC_5224