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The London Marathon Experience: 26.2 memories

Posted by jorbell on April 17, 2010

Over the years I have run many 10Ks, 10 milers and half-marathons and and also a duathlon of two 5Ks and a 10K bike ride but it is the marathon that is the ultimate memory for me. Many people are about to embark on their first London Marathon experience on 25th April and I wish them all the very best.

Tomorrow marks the 11th anniversary since the last of my four London Marathons and rather than do what would in effect be a review of each one, I am going to pick out 26.2 of the more memorable instances from those four runs which best represent what it can be like to compete in a big city event. The route has changed since I last competed but you’ll get the picture.So here it is: This is your chance to take part in a marathon without moving from your PC. Don’t forget keep hydrated so I suggest you get yourself a beer!

1. On the free train from London Bridge station to Blackheath you join the masses of runners heading for the start. They all look fitter than yourself but everyone feels a connection because we are about to embark in what is akin to a spiritual experience. We are testing our strength and personal resolve against the ultimate test of human endurance – the mythical distance of 26 miles and 385 yards. Some people are quiet with it being their first event, others are chatty and excited having been this way before and then there are those who are running for a loved one or a good cause. In this final category you get those who take it a stage further and run in fancy dress. It is not often you find yourself nose to nose with a person in a rhino costume but curiously no-one bats and eyelid. Any other day and these people would be sectioned!

2. Waiting at the start you feel nervous and apprehensive about what lay ahead. Doubts about your training regime set in but there’s no going back. Up ahead I can see the start and the rough outline who may or may not be a celebrity. I can also see a runner who is carrying a 10 foot Mr Punch costume – surely that’s one person I can beat today. Right, let’s get started…

3. The gun goes and I immediately start my run much to the annoyance of the runner two paces ahead of me. Why? Well, this gentleman knew that you cannot move 30,000 people instantly so you have to wait until there is an actual space to run into which is why 15 minutes later I still hadn’t crossed the start line.

4. In all the build up to a marathon you are told to keep well hydrated but this does present a problem if you overdo it. There were several queues of 10 or more people waiting to relieve themselves at the portable toilets over five minutes after the gun had sounded. Others who were in position early would within 10 minutes find that they could hold on no longer so lined up on the edge of a roundabout to lose the excess. A funny though slightly disturbing site.

5. The first mile is going to be a big indicator how you finish the race because if you allow yourself to have your pace dictated by those around you, you could be in trouble. It’s almost impossible not to go off too fast on your first marathon purely due to the euphoria of the day. You want to run fast – you’ve trained for so long for this moment, you want to do well. Let’s see how you’re feeling after 18 miles.

6. I’m now well into my running in the fairly non-descript surroundings of South-East London. You do not expect to see three runners Womble costumes in front of you especially as they are more likely to be found on Wimbledon Common on the west side of the city. If you don’t understand the reference I suggest you Google it.

7. After around four miles we’re in Woolwich and I have a man dressed as a Smurf to my right while a man with one leg on a roller skate with crutches flies by to my left! This left me shocked at first but then overwhelmed me with admiration that someone would not let the inconvenience of being deficient in the leg department to the tune of one stop him achieving his goal. What a guy!

8. Next we’re into New Charlton where I pass two runners who are dressed for a wedding and that’s just where they’ve been as they were married earlier. Nick Gambrill and Barbara Cole from Croydon had tied the knot at Charlton House just two miles from the race start. Unfortunately I wasn’t invited to the reception. Pah!

9. At six miles it’s the Cutty Sark, the only surviving tea clipper still in existence, now sadly the victim of a huge blaze which occurred at the end of last year. It is a psychological if not mathematically measured quarter-way mark. This vessel was an awesome sight to see as you rounded its bow and one which will be a curious absentee for those running in 2008.

10. Miles 7-11 through Deptford and Rotherhithe offer some fairly unremarkable scenery but the crowds are out in force to keep the spirits up as you first begin to notice that you may have set off too quickly. I can see Canary Wharf, Britain’s tallest building but it will be another nine miles before I enter its shadow.

11. I pass Rotherhithe Youth Hostel where I spent the previous night with the feeling that it would have been nice to have had a lie-in and then sneaked out the back door to join the race here but the though soon passes thankfully. If I’m going to do this I have to do the complete distance.

12. We’re into Bermondsey now and coming up to Tower Bridge and the 12 mile point. This is again a visual if not technical distance marker and represents the virtual half-way point. When you turn the corner to start the crossing of the Thames nothing quite prepares you for the sheer mass people that greet you. It is absolutely packed and an experience guaranteed to put an extra zip into your stride. Suddenly the finish line seems a lot closer.

13. Whitechapel is the official half-way point and soon after passing this point I find myself slapping the hands of numerous children by the side of the road and I gleefully accept the offer of an Opal Fruit, or Starburst as they are now called. Unfortunately, this results in one of my teeth sheering off prompting a visit to the dentist the next week.

14. The road is split in two here as runners at about the 20 mile point pass us running in the opposite direction. It is likely to be more than another hour before I’m this way again. Grrrr!

15. I am now approaching the Docklands area which is where my experiences will differ from those who run London this year. The direction of the loop has been switched from clockwise to anti-clockwise. As these are my memories I will have to stick to the original route so those who are running this coming April should either look away now or just use their imagination.

16. Poplar has the 15 mile marker which on this particular occasion I cross in exactly three hours. The winners had finished some 50 minutes earlier and I had another 11 miles to go – and it’s raining. Ho hum…

17. I’m now in the heart of Docklands which is quite eerie compared to other parts of the route as the crowds are virtually non-existent. This is not a problem as this is a part of the city you wouldn’t normally see unless you worked here. There’s no doubting it’s an impressive skyline but it’s pleasing to see pockets of the old city still survive thus preserving London’s heritage.

18. The Thames almost totally surrounds Docklands in a large ‘U’ shape of water. As I make the turn at the very bottom of the loop I almost literally bump into a friend who is acting as a marshal for the day. I quickly take out my camera, take a snap of him, and on my way again.

19. Feeling really tired now and it’s getting increasingly difficult not to stop running. I guess I’m hitting ‘the wall’ and as we’re in Millwall I guess I should’ve guessed this would be where I’d find it.

20. Eventually tiredness gets the better of me and I stop and walk. This is fatal as the muscles contract like coiled springs and getting back into a fluid running pattern is something I’m likely to see again today.

21. In one of the few remaining flurries of actual running I pick up an energy drink from one of the many drink stations on the course. Almost immediately I find myself wading through a sticky gunk of discarded isotonic fluid. It does rather make you wonder what is in those little containers as I have to peel my trainers off the tarmac for at least the next 100 yards or more.

22. I’m now passing the Shadwell area again as the Tower of London comes into view. I pass under Tower Bridge and join the dreaded cobbles. The carpet that had been thoughtfully provided for runners is now thoughtlessly being rolled up when those runners with knees most shot most need something soft to run on. I certainly didn’t envy the guy on the roller skate.

23. Not far to go now – just three miles. Unfortunately it’s the most demoralizing part of the route even if it’s the most picturesque. Before I take on the Embankment I have a long road tunnel to navigate and this is very strange indeed. I am in the center of one of the world’s largest cities and I can hear nothing but heavy breathing and the sound of trainers padding on the road. I was pleased to return to daylight at the other end.

24. I’ve now had Big Ben in view for the best part of half-an-hour and was beginning to wonder if we’d ever be allowed to meet. The crowds are building up again and offering support which brings both a smile to the face and a spring to the step as I turn into Parliament Square but it’s hard to keep going for long.

25. By the time I reach Birdcage Walk I’m completely done in. I felt as if I was running on empty when someone calls out: “Come on! You’re so close – let’s see a big finish!” Before I know it I’m off again and is by a miracle I’m energized and off like a rocket…a slow rocket admittedly but certainly far quicker than those around me.

26. To my left is Buckingham Palace and I’m absolutely flying! I may be imagining it but a roar goes up in the crowd as I am virtually sprinting now. This is what it’s all about – I’d done it! With tears in my eyes I ran through the finish line. What a moment!

26.2 I collected my medal and kissed it. I’d run (and walked) a marathon and this was something that no-one could ever take away from me. A lifelong ambition achieved.

So there you have it. A taster of what it’s like to compete in a marathon and I will take it as the ultimate honor if you feel inspired to experience it for yourself. Incidentally, I never did see Mr Punch again so he did beat me but it doesn’t really matter because everyone is a winner on this day: the runners, the organizers, the charities and the crowd.

Whatever your level of ability the marathon is in your capability – it’s up to you to make it happen. You’ll never regret it.

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