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Virgin London Marathon: Race report

April 18, 2011

The runners gathering for the 2011 Virgin London Marathon at Blackheath17 April 2011

The Virgin London Marathon is one of – if not the – best marathon in the world. Massively over-subscribed, the single largest charity fundraising sporting event in the British calendar (in 2010 runners raised more than £50 million for good causes) and one of the few events where the world’s best athletes run alongside Joe Bloggs.

Sitting on a train to Blackheath, packed with runners carrying their Virgin London Marathon bags, my main concern (beyond getting to the start line on time – I’d set off early, but the train was making phenomenally slow progress) was whether I had sufficiently beaten off the cold that had been hanging over me for the past week. Ironically, the weekend before the race, I’d been congratulating myself on not having suffered any kind of a cold in the run-up to the marathon. Lo and behold, the next day I woke up with a sore throat and a tickly cough. I’d been making my way through Max Strength Lemsip and cough syrup like everything depended on it. In fact, my marathon breakfast was washed down with Lemsip and cough medicine for good measure.

By the time I got to the start line, my pressing concern was getting to the toilet before the race started. The queues were massive, and I’d challenge anyone who bemoans the state of Glastonbury cubicles to say a marathon-day Portaloo was any better. As it turns out, the seasoned runners in my pen who clearly knew what to expect all made a beeline for the wall beside the starting line. Whoever was commentating – they sounded very much like one of Ant or Dec, although in fairness they could have been anyone from Newcastle – was reduced to repeatedly urging runners to ‘Poot eet awey man’.

Shortly after, the race was away and I was running comfortably. It was a warm morning; I’d been prepared to don a fetching bin bag to keep warm in all the standing around, but it wasn’t necessary. It didn’t strike me at the time, but this probably wasn’t a good sign. My race plan was to try to keep to 6:40 pace, but ease back if it felt tough and try to pick up the pace once I got to Embankment.

After a couple of miles I felt a slightly rattle in my chest and had a bit of a cough. After a few more miles it was becoming apparent that my respiratory system wasn’t at full capacity. This isn’t to say that I was struggling for breath, or that I was racked by uncontrollable coughing splutters, it’s just that my breathing was a little more laboured than it should have been. I started to knock my speed down a notch, but didn’t really consider revising my goal.

Tower bridge

Image via Wikipedia

Several more miles continued in this form, often punctuated by high-fiving kids and being genuinely taken aback by the level (and volume) of support. Through the whole race there wasn’t a single stretch of more than 100 metres or so without spectators cheering everyone on. However, as I entered the Docklands the heat of the day was becoming more and more evident. I’d been tipping water over myself and dashing through the cooling showers spotted over the course, but once in the Docklands the temperature seemed to change. What I hadn’t appreciated beforehand is that London, despite snaking through built-up areas and past skyscrapers, offers very little refuge from the sun.

Coming towards the end of the Docklands stretch and heading back towards Tower Bridge the heat was starting to tell on other runners. Having seen my mile splits getting progressively slower as I finally discarded my A goal and shot for my B goal (get a good-for-age qualifying time) I had spent most of the previous half hour or so being over taken. Now I was starting to pass others as people started to walk. As Embankment came closer, there were quite a few being tended to by St John’s Ambulance to the side of the course in the recovery position.

The Clock Tower of the Palace of Westminster, ...

Image via Wikipedia

Finally making my way into Westminster (it was a beautifully clear day, so when Big Ben came into sight it was still about two miles away and seemed to linger on the horizon for a painfully long time) I passed runners dropping with jelly legs, even seeing one runner being helped along at the head of The Mall to make the final few metres over the finish line.

I made it over the finish line in 3:06:21. I wanted a big cold drink and to give my toes a rest – it felt (and subsequently looks) like my right foot had been bashing against the front of my shoe. But aside from that, I felt alright and was able to walk to Piccadilly fairly easily afterwards for my first pint in a month and a half.

The day after

So how do I feel the day after the race? Disappointed, in all honesty. Having put in all the training and hard work, it feels wasteful that it could get knocked out by an ill-timed lergy. While it would be easy to pin all the blame on a bit of illness and some unseasonably warm weather, I think there are other things that went wrong:

  1. Despite carrying six carb gels with me on race day, I finished the race with four intact. I’d been taking Lucozade as and when it was offered, which probably wasn’t a bad idea, but given that I wasn’t drinking whole bottles I probably wasn’t taking on as much energy as my body expected. Next time I’ll set myself distance markers where I will take a gel so they’re evenly spaced, regular, and the amount of energy I take on is fully controlled.
  2. Even though I had an ambitious target, I think I set off too fast. I covered the first 10km of the race in 40:15, and even though I dropped my speed back considerably I still managed the first 13.1 miles in 1:27:25. Had I covered this in an even pace, I might have been in a good position for the second half. As it was, I was consistently hemorrhaging pace in an effort to preserve my legs. Perhaps the area I need most work is in pace and patience – with hard work I might get to the point where I manage negative splits.

Perhaps it sounds like I’m being harsh on myself, and I need to make sure I recognise that there were some good points to my race. For starters, I should have earned myself a good-for-age position in the 2012 race. Secondly, my legs felt stronger than last year’s Paris marathon, where the final six miles were fiery agony. Thirdly, I’ll have raised around £1000 for a good cause. And still, there’s always next year…

Me and my mum after the race.

Me and mum, who had been following my progress via the tube with Lizzy and Pete in tow.

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