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It’s a marathon not a snickers


London marathon

It’s a lovely sunny April morning; clear blue sky but enough of a chill to remind you that summer’s not quite here yet. I’m sat on the grass and around me there are many hundreds of people either doing the same or mooching around. There’s music and the aroma of bacon, coffee and portable toilets occasionally wafting across on the breeze. If I close my eyes this could be the lazy Sunday morning of a Glastonbury festival. Instead, it’s Greenwich Park and along with 35,000 others I’m awaiting the start of the 2012 London Marathon.

I’ve run it twice before. The first time was in 2003, the year that Paula Radcliffe went round in 2 hours and 15 minutes smashing the women’s world record. A record that still stands today. Not only was she the winner of the women’s race but the first British runner of either gender across the line. An incredible achievement; the long distance equivalent of Usain Bolt’s assaults on the 100m world record. As a marathon novice, I started off towards the back of the field amongst assorted super heroes, taking a dozen minutes just to get across the start line. I ambled round in a semi-respectable four and a quarter hours, enjoying the atmosphere, and went home dead chuffed at finishing my first marathon.

Four years’ later I was back again, the running bug had well and truly bitten by now. No messing about at the back, this time it was serious. Unfortunately, I hadn’t anticipated the warmest London Marathon ever as temperatures rose to 22 degrees by the finish and many runners succumbed to dehydration. Having run the first half too fast, my energy levels dipped around the 18 mile mark and I ended up walking most of the last eight miles, eventually sauntering across the finish line six minutes slower than last time. I had discovered what it’s like to “hit the wall”. A lesson learnt.

Running, like football, should be a simple pleasure. After all, how difficult can it be to put one foot in front of the other? The only “equipment” required is a decent pair of trainers, a T-shirt, some shorts and away you go. But flick through any running magazine (the proper ones that is, not those that use articles about running as an excuse to get Jess Ennis on the cover) and it’s easy to become bamboozled by it all. “Burn 37% more calories today”, “Lose weight by eating cake”, “The five minute foot pain fix” are typical of the content as runners fret about their diet, injuries, shoes, motivation, energy drinks, GPS devices, lack of time etc. All in pursuit of that elusive beast the “PB”.

One thing the magazines are unanimous on is taking it easy the day prior to a big race. Put your feet up, drink plenty of water and load up on carbohydrates is the message. I eschewed that in favour of my regular journey north to watch the red shirted heroes of FC United of Manchester in their final game of the season in the Northern Premier League. This meant watching others consume pre-match, half-time and post-match beers whilst I sipped soft drinks and pondered the nutritional value of chips and mushy peas.

This morning, however, I’ve made up for any diet-related deficiencies with a bowl of porridge big enough to do the breaststroke in. I’m feeling alright. I’ve stuck fairly religiously to a training plan for the last four months. In fact, I’ve never trained better, aided by some gruelling intervals sessions (running flat out for short distances) with better runners. It’s done me good and I can feel the benefit as I’m glancing around at the other runners in the “fast for age” section. It’s mostly seasoned club runners, full of nervous energy, tapping away at their GPS watches, waiting for the countdown. I have a few swigs of blackcurrant squash and a banana, drop my bag off and then line up at the start. There’s a countdown and we’re off.

The first few minutes resemble a mad dash for the Boxing Day sales as scores of runners come charging past me. Everyone’s jostling for space and elbows are flying. It feels like I’m standing still but we’re through the first mile in seven minutes and I’m settling into the slipstream of some decent runners. I run the first few miles with a lad who’s expecting to finish in less than three hours. “They’ve gone off too fast” he observes as, even at the three mile mark, the stampede hasn’t ended. My pre-race plan of easing into things in the first half and then kicking on later has well and truly gone out of the window.

Once again, there’s a cracking atmosphere as we head towards Greenwich and the first landmark, the Cutty Sark. It feels like the crowds are bigger than ever. There’s a wonderful blend of different sounds; clapping, cheering, shouts of encouragement, sound systems, bands and occasionally cowbells or a klaxon. Many pubs provide a focal point as they open early and people stand by the roadside with pints at 10am. The music varies from West Indian steel bands, school choirs, and classical ensembles to Elvis cover versions, Kylie and the standard motivational running classics like Eye of the Tiger and Keep on Running. You can’t beat a bit of the Spencer Davis Group.

It’s odd the things you notice when you’re jogging along. Fairly early on I spot a lad in a brown St Pauli shirt about fifty yards in front. I try to catch up with him to do a “Hamburg ist braunweiss” duet but he’s too quick. And a bit further on there’s a big “Keep Our NHS Public” banner by the side of the road. Nice one. I’m meant to be on the lookout for five people at various points in the race but end up seeing none. My observational skills only go so far.

We cross Tower Bridge and I’m still feeling good as we head towards the Isle of Dogs. This is the heart of the London marathon. The half way mark is behind us and now it’s a case of digging in before heading west again towards the finish. This is where the support of the crowd really comes in handy and they don’t disappoint. There’s plenty of food and drink on offer; bacon sarnies, flapjacks, oranges and jelly babies are all available from the locals lining the sides of the roads. It’s a shame the Olympic marathons aren’t going to follow the same route. Instead, controversially, the organisers have opted for three circuits of a central London course that incorporates some of the main tourist sights. It appears they’d prefer to keep the athletes away from some of the grittier parts of east and south London. They don’t know what they’re missing.

Around the 16 mile mark I begin to struggle, the earlier energy has drained away and I’m almost down to walking pace. Just as I’ve made a pledge never to do another one of these bloody marathons, a feeding station appears and I reach for one of the energy gels on offer. I’ve never had one before. They look like those tomato ketchup sachets you get with pub grub but contain a sticky, sickly sweet rust coloured goo. I think you’re meant to consume them slowly but I down it in one go. A sugar rush kicks in and before long I’m picking up the pace again, and thinking that if I can hang in for the next few miles I should be on course for a decent time.

Soon we can see the river again and, in the distance, Big Ben. Nearly there. Keep going. The last few miles are fuelled by regular handfuls of jelly babies from spectators with Tupperware boxes loaded with them. At last, we turn into The Mall and I’m across the line in 3 hours 18 minutes. Knackered. Minutes later I’m sat at the side of the road, feeling queasy, sipping water and contemplating the restorative power of jelly babies.


From → London, Sport

One Comment
  1. Peter Chapman permalink

    Another enjoyable read; makes me want to go for a run!!

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