Race Report – 2015 Virgin London Marathon

Part 1 – Pre Race

Back in January when I was in full training and looking like I could make a serious stab at Sub-245 at London, I’d booked some train tickets to London on Saturday with the intention of sourcing accommodation overnight. With the fractured build up and last minute decision to actually take part, I found myself with nowhere to stay and devoid of actual train tickets, thanks to a succession of issues too mundane to report here.

Salvation came in the form of fellow Grantham Running Club member Rob and his partner Catherine, who were planning to travel down from Grantham on the morning via car and train. They kindly offered me a space in their car – they even pre-bought the train tickets from Stevenage to avoid any potential queues in the morning.

I was very pleased with this arrangement. When I lived in Coventry I always drove down on the morning of the race. The lure of a familiar bed and a familiar pre-race meal and routine outweighing the drag of an early wake up call on race day. Even that is arguably favourable – rising at 5am gives the body plenty of time to fully wake up before the race start at 10:10am.

We left Grantham at 6am and made good progress down a quiet A1 to arrive in Stevenage seventy five minutes later. The station was reasonably full with like-minded runners and spectators. The race fever began to kick in! We were on the 7:35 train into Kings Cross, which pulled into its destination just before 8 am. I wished good luck to Catherine as we split on to different underground trains thanks to starting in different Good For Age locations.

The rest of the journey to Blackheath could not have gone much smoother – the Northern Line to Euston, a switch of lines to head to Charing Cross, then making it just in time to catch the 8:30 to Blackheath. Walking along the platform I happened to spot old running friend Rob Thompson standing in one of the carriages. I think we last ran together at the 2006 London Marathon. He’s making a comeback of sorts to running after a spell away, and today he was tackling the course dressed as Freddy Mercury. “How did you recognise me?” he joked. He was fairly hard not to notice, even the BBC managed to later on in the day.

Rob Thompson – the fastest Freddy Mercury at 2015 VLM!

The train journey can best be described as intimate, as it fast became an exercise of just how many people you can fit on a train. It was a blessed relief when we arrived at Blackheath and could make the short walk across the common to the start area. I was there at 9am – plenty of time to prepare for the race. As I approached the Good for Age start and realised that we had been upgraded to now be known as Fast Good For Age, I couldn’t resist but attempt a selfie in front of the rather flattering banner. I’m not one for taking selfies, and my efforts showed as I struggled to even get myself in the picture let alone anything resembling the desired background. Fortunately salvation once again came in the form of a fellow runner wanting the same ego stroking photo opportunity but struggling with the practice of performing a self portrait. We used the tried and tested practice of exchanging cameras phones, and posing for a rather satisfying, if for 2015, technically incorrect in terms of being fast or good for age, photo. Thanks fellow runner!

Stretching the concept of ‘Fast’

Once inside the hallowed enclosure of the Fast Good For Age pen the preparations were rather condensed, having spent far too long on the photo above, but were smooth and stress free. I changed into my kit and promptly put my bag on the truck, much to the delight of the girl with the loudhailer, who amused and irritated in equal measures with her near hysterical demands to get your bag on the truck by 9:30. I joined a queue for the toilet, which although not exactly short, were not panic inducing like Nottingham last year nor when I’ve been on other starts at London. I chatted with a couple of runners, who it transpired lived with a couple of miles of each other – who knows if a future running partnership will ensue? The actual port of call at the Portaloo was uneventful save for the redistributing of the Powergels I’d fastened to the inside of my shorts which now had to be carefully moved again to avoid unwanted tickling of areas best tickled in situations which don’t involve running, let alone running a marathon. That mini-drama over, I joined the compact but clearly excited Fast Good For Age start pen exactly twenty minutes ahead of the start.

Part 2 – The ‘Race’

The weather was near perfect, early rain had passed and it was cloudy, fairly cool at 8°C, with a slightly chilly breeze. This made it rather unpleasant as we lined up – I was grateful for the bin bag I had packed and was now wearing, and grateful too for being again as condensed as sardines in a tin just behind the start line. There were random bursts of applause for no apparent reason, but generally the atmosphere at out start was fairly muted. Certainly nothing compared to the rousing rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone experienced at the Rotterdam Marathon last year.

With no countdown nor fanfare, at 10:10 the race began. We were into our running within seconds of starting, which is all you can ask for in a race and quite a feat of organisation with so many entrants of varying abilities. There was certainly no repeat of the fiasco a few years back when they stuck the celebrity runners in front of Good for Agers, which almost literally saw punches thrown, as a C-list wall of joggers blocked the path of runners pretty desperate to get into their (far, far quicker) running.

Right until the start I wasn’t totally sure how I was going to attack the race. I had originally intended to jog slowly, enjoy the atmosphere and be prepared to walk most of the way if necessary. Then, as I guess Paula must have felt, when you actually prepare to set your toe on the start line the racing instinct kicks in. The night before I harboured dreams of feeling so fresh I would be able to give it a full beans to marathon heart rate style attack. Once into my running I felt fine in the sense that everything appeared to work as it should be and I was comfortable running a 7:04 first mile, but aware that it didn’t feel like I could push on and sustain mile after mile at a pace the best part of a minute per mile quicker.

So it came to be that I settled on the plan I expected I would given the circumstances – treat it like a regular long run, so keeping broadly within the zone of my long runs (145-155 bpm) and see how long I could go before the wheels fell off. It wasn’t totally possible to stay within the zones, the opening three miles on the red start (which I don’t recall running before) had a couple of noticeable drags although overall downhill, but by and large I was running smoothly and to plan, clocking a pair of 6:45 miles through to the third mile where we joined the main start and the swarms of runners and masses of spectators. It was here I felt a little ache in the left hip and glute, but it soon passed and I don’t recall feeling it again, which was a blessed relief as the area had stopped me running altogether after just a few minutes nine days earlier.

I took my first of six gels at three miles, the rest consumed every four miles thereafter. I assume the joining of the two races and the significant drop in elevation spurred me on a touch as I ran what turned out to be my fastest mile (6:37) through mile four. The fifth mile passed with little incident at 6:50 and I began to envisage wild thoughts of sustaining this all the way to a sub-3 clocking. The sixth mile heading towards Greenwich and Cutty Sark has long been my favourite in the marathon. The drummers under the A102 bridge on the Woolwich road have never failed to send goose bumps down the arms – their intensity as impressive as the sheer volume of spectators lining the course a little further down the road.

It was at Cutty Sark where I felt the first twinge in my upper right thigh, close to the IT band. I could sense it was the very early onset of cramp. I knew that whilst the cardiovascular effort of running would not be too bad thanks to the hours spent on the elliptical trainer and bike, the sheer physical demands of running 26.2 miles with little in the way of running in the build up would more than likely take its toll. The intention now was just to keep calm, keep running smoothly and try and avoid the onset of cramp for as long as possible.

The sixth mile was 6:48, the seventh a little slower at 6:58, but there was a slight slowing through congestion at Cutty Sark. The slight drag leaving Cutty Sark has not been my favourite part of the course, so was pleased to clock a pair of 6:47 miles taking me to nine miles. It was at around eight miles that fellow Grantham Running Club of sorts (She was wearing a Nene Valley Harriers vest, and I was wearing the green of Kenilworth Runners) Abi Schofield came alongside. She commented she was a bit surprised to be running up where I was. After I explained my less than ideal build up to the race, she tried to look on the bright side and said perhaps the break from running would do me good. I knew that was wishful thinking. Had I have had another 3-4 weeks of running then perhaps I could have been in full shape. As it was I was hanging on and hoping for the best. I let her drift slowly into the distance en route to an excellent 3:07 PB.

It was around this stage I fancied a stop for a wee, the preferred option of a Portaloo was fruitless on a couple of occasions as they were fully occupied, so I took the less glamorous but equally popular option of using a building site entrance just shy of the 15km marker. This cost me forty odd seconds for mile 10, but according to my Garmin I was just about on sub-3 pace (Although the creep in disparity between the Garmin mile markers and the official ones was starting to grow).

The run towards London Bridge and halfway saw the slow onset of cramp begin to hit the legs. I was determined to save myself at least the ignominy of making it to halfway before having to stop so I tried my best to relax and put the pain messages coming from the legs to the back of my mind. It seemed to work, clocking 6:50, 6:48 and 6:50 miles through to halfway. The atmosphere before, during and just after London Bridge was simply stunning, another goose bump moment. I went through halfway in 1:31:04 (On my watch – the clock at halfway had malfunctioned) which confirmed that my Garmin was a little out by now (It had me going through a minute faster). On a good day I’d be confident that I would be able to negative split enough to come home sub-3. Today I knew that these comfortable miles were soon to be consigned to the past.

It was here where I was cheered on by the majority of the Kenilworth Runners support crew for the first time. I was smiling much of the way round, when I heard them call my name I was beaming. No matter what was going to happen this was definitely a most enjoyable marathon. Mile 14 despite feeling somewhat tired I managed a 6:52; the fifteenth I was hanging onto my legs for grim death, but churned out a 6:46.

I stopped for the first time just after 15 miles. It wasn’t a full blown bout of cramp in the right quad, but enough to make me want to stop and stretch it a couple of times. Despite the legs feeling fairly poor and a couple of stops, I managed a 7:36. I think I would have slowed even more but at 17 miles I was caught by a pair of Kenilworth Runners who were looking to run around 3:05. I originally told them I was going to drop back straight away, but from somewhere the legs appeared to improve for a couple of miles, so I tackled the twists and turns around Canary Wharf and other very tall buildings in 7:04 for miles 17 and 18 and pulled a now alarm bell ringing 6:51 for mile 19 (I do wonder if GPS accuracy is to account for this – it didn’t feel that quick at the time).

The wheels finally fell off at 20 miles, just as we tackled a rather curious loop back on the wide A1261 which I don’t recall having ever tackled before. Both pairs of quads cramped up, not in a searing outpouring of pain, but enough to leave no option but to stop and walk a while. In previous marathons this would have onset a spell of dejection as all hopes of setting a target time would be thrown out of the window. Today, I barely cared. I looked forward to being able to stop and chat to Tom and Pauline at 22 miles, which I did, taking 30-40 seconds to see how they were and how other Kenilworth Runners ahead of me had got on (And instinctively, I asked how Paula was doing). I would rather have not faced the final six miles with legs that hurt and resolutely did not want to cooperate, but at the same time they served to authenticate the genuine marathon experience of hitting the wall, yet battling on determined to the end.

Gingerly running along as the cramp sets in at c. 22 miles.

So mile 20 was 8:07. The next four miles I adopted an impromptu jog / walk strategy, stopping and walking when I felt a wave of cramp sear through my quads. This meant miles 21, 22  and 23 (which included a stop for a chat) took 8:32, 8:05, and 8:57 respectively. Every time I stopped and walked the crowd begged me to start running and cheered loudly when I did, fellow runners offered encouragement to keep it going to the finish.

The 24th mile was the hardest. I must have felt fairly bad as I decided to take one of the Luco*ade drinks just before the loneliness that is the long underpass approaching the Embankment. Despite having thrown up the contents during a race of this drink on previous occasions, I reckoned it wouldn’t be bad this time as I was running so slowly. It took the length of the tunnel for this theory to be proved wrong as the sickly orange liquid began to repeat on me. Thankfully I managed to keep the contents down.

It is at this point I was looking constantly at my Garmin to see how much longer I had to go. It was disappointing from a desperately wanting to finish point of view, that Garmin had me running around 0.6 mile further than I actually had. If anyone has any doubts over the validity of the distance of the course, then check out the route I supposedly took below. I know I was a bit wobbly on the legs at places, but I definitely did’t wander this much over the road (Nor turn back on myself) and I did manage to stick to the course rather than recklessly head through buildings. The moral is GPS watches are great as a guide to speed and distance, but they are no where near the last word in accuracy.

Wandering all over the place – according to my Garmin.

After my low point, just before the Luco*ade where I did actually stop briefly at the side of the road and was asked by a marshal if I was okay, coming out of the tunnel a determination came over me to run, or at least jog all the way to the finish. There was no shortage of encouragement from the crowds, and even if the waves of runners pouring past me, thanks to the large sub 3:15 groups on course to hit their target, was a touch disconcerting, I managed to find a shuffle that enabled me to keep on running. So after the low point of mile 24 (Which I have at 9:39, but may be a bit quicker than that (Strava has it at 8:54), the 25th mile was tackled in a better 8:34.

It was at the 26th mile I had my moment of TV time I’ve secretly been wanting since I first ran the London Marathon back in 2015. Unbeknownst to me, once I’d turned the right hand corner at Big Ben and headed on, what was today, the interminably long drag down Birdcage walk, the BBC cameraman began a long sweeping pan focusing on one runner among the hundreds on the road, which happened to be me! I imagine the cameraman chose me because I was clearly the slowest of the bunch. He / she probably reckoned on me pulling up in cramp filled agony at any point in his pan – the veritable money shot for any film crew working in the last couple of miles of a marathon. Fortunately I managed to keep it all together and plodded successfully slowly out of camera shot. I just wish that I could have been captured in another year (Ideally 2008) when I was storming along at this exact spot at something close to sub six minute miles, but, alas, that’s how things often turn out to be.

My Moment of Fame!

The last mile was painful but I was determined to run to the finish. Mile 26 (on my Garmin) saw a slight increase in pace (8:18). The final 0.7 mile – or so it was on the Garmin, saw me slow to 8:47 as I battled the worst cramps of the run. There was no sprint to the finish as it came into view. Just an absolute will to make it to the finish without stopping and to make it inside 3:20 – a goal I set myself in the final three miles as form of incentive to keep going. This I managed, coming home on the official timing in 3:17:44.

Part 3 – Post Race

The medal was as gratefully received as any I’ve had. The long, slow, painful walk to repatriate myself with my kit bag was almost as bad as running the last six miles of the race. I was happy to stop for at least five official post race photos. My bag was in the very last truck on The Mall, it had been tied up so efficiently by one of the baggage handlers on Blackheath, I had to ask one at the Mall if she could undo it. It took her a good couple of minutes. After letting nearest and dearest know I was okay, I began the painful and difficult task of changing into warm clothing – once sat on the floor it was very difficult to get up!

I’d arranged to meet up with some members of Grantham Running Club at a pub in Covent Garden. Apparently it would have been quicker for me to walk there, as it was I took a slow, lengthy walk to Westminster tube station (Diversions in place), then at least two trains and a walk to the pub. We enjoyed an hour or so of marathon recollections, before beginning our journey back home, which was as smooth and uneventful as the journey down. Back home before seven to a reception of sorts from the wife and kids, who were both thrilled to have seen me on TV and desperate to try on the medal.

The hour or so in the car had taken its toll and the legs were super stiff. The next day was hard going, especially getting out of bed, but I managed to just about walk the 3.5 mile school run in the afternoon. Proof it was just the effects of cramp hurting the legs was demonstrated on Tuesday evening when I took part in the Witham Wheelers Ten Mile TT . Despite cold windy conditions, I managed to beat my previous best by 22 seconds! A four mile run on the treadmill on Wednesday saw no ill effects other than a bit of tiredness.

It may have not have been my quickest marathon, but the 2015 London Marathon will live long in the memory as one of the most enjoyable, not just because I got to enjoy the legendary atmosphere, but because I defied the odds and made it round reasonably quickly despite a build up that really shouldn’t have seen me run at all. And, more importantly and as long as something untoward occurs in the next week or two, I escaped without damage to the body.