“That last mile is absolutely amazing” she said, “and when you turn to go down the Mall it’s the most incredible experience that you could imagine.” I did try to imagine it and reckoned it would be akin to some of the feelings that I have previously experienced when I have finished a particularly gruelling run. The actuality was was nothing like that. It was a massive emotional assault on a astounding scale.
I shuffled along the Embankment in a world of pain and then turned right at the Palace of Westminster. Then I ran along Birdcage Walk curving around toward the Mall and Buckingham Palace. All the while the noise grew louder and louder until it became completely unbearable. There was a kind of mass hysteria going on all around me. I’d got a shop to print Jim on the Save The Rhino tee shirt so people could shout out my name and, in a way, join in with my run. What felt like thousands of people were shouting my name. Faces were looming out of the crowd telling me that I was awesome or amazing or incredible. It was absolutely terrifying but quite exciting too. My mind couldn’t cope with this assault and tried to shut down to get me through. I went with it for a while but realised that this was a very special moment and I had to savour it. I forced myself to engage again. I could hear everyone shouting and screaming, all caught up in this amazing event. I zoned in and out as we progressed further down the Mall trying not to break down and cry with the massive waves of emotion rolling over and around me. At the final turn I saw the finish line and focussed in on that, lurching forward until I crossed the mat with arms held aloft.
I can feel so many of those precious memories beginning to fade already. I desperately need to write it all down so I can relive some of these moments. Unfortunately life is making its demands. I need to go back to work and live the rest of my life. I will write as much as I can before the memories become too diffuse for me to rely upon.
The day before the marathon Carrie and I went along to the Expo at The
Excel Centre to collect my race number. There was a huge hall full of queues and shops. We picked up my number at the start and then were funnelled, Ikea style around a route of gadgets, shirts, running accessories and invitations from around the world to join up to their dazzlingly exciting marathons. So many places now have come to realise just how much money a big city marathon brings in to their local economy. Hotels, restaurants, transport systems all scoop up huge dollops of cash from the rampaging runners sweeping through their city. The runners stay a couple of days and then vanish as quickly as they came, to leave the various establishments sitting back and fingering through their recently accumulated wads of money.
The Expo is an exhausting experience. Carrie and I are weaving through the crowds but every few minutes there seems to be some kind of mass migration begins somewhere in the Excel Centre and we are swept this way and that with little control over our own direction. I must admit that I am not entirely enjoying this experience.
As we near the exit the space opens up a little and we can almost begin to breath again. There is an area for games where you can play to win extra donations for your charity. This sounds a most excellent idea and Carrie and I both line up for the bowling alley. We fire the ball down the track and see the satisfying sight of a bunch of skittles all reclining happily after being well and truly bowled over. We claim our vouchers, take them over to the harassed looking laptop people and they enter the details into their computer. Some day soon, they say, there will be an extra couple of five pound notes donated to Save The Rhino. Most excellent!
We then head out to Docklands Light Railway which is groaning under the strain of so many marathon runners trying to find their way to and from the Excel Centre.It’s just about managing but there is a rising note of hysteria in the voice of every announcer.
We are Greenwich bound. Carrie booked us in at the Mercure hotel in Greenwich so that it would be nice and relaxed to get to the start.
Arriving at the hotel there is a titanic struggle through an irritating check in procedure that seems to have been confounded by Carrie changing bank accounts and now having a different card to that with which she had booked the room. It’s fair enough that they wish to check that you are the owner of the card but it would have been nice if they had mentioned this in their booking emails.
We decided to eat in the hotel so that it will be a nice relaxed and easy night. They are doing a runners special as the hotel is packed with London Marathon runners. We attended a seminar on nutrition at the Expo and they had advised that the evening meal should be before 8pm so that it wouldn’t be laying heavy upon us at 10 the following morning. They also advised that pasta would be good fuel so I, and many of the other runners there, had spaghetti bolognese. I probably ate quite bit later than 8 as the service was massively slow.
We retired early and I was in quite a state of anxiety. I was experiencing all sorts of leg pain mostly in my calves. I wondered if maybe I had been doing too much walking around that day and had strained something. This seemed unlikely as Carrie had no leg problems so why should I be suffering so. Of course, it must be psychosomatic but it did feel very real indeed.
I still managed to get to sleep without too many problems and awoke early for breakfast. The nutritionist had recommended having breakfast 3 to 4 hours before the start of the marathon so I was tucking into the recommended egg on toast that they suggested would be just the thing. The leg pain seemed to have eased so I was hopeful that my many and various pains were all in the mind.
We left the hotel at about 0830 and wandered over to the park. We were soon joined by thousands of people all heading in the same direction. As one of the slower runners I was allocated the pen, red 9 which is right at the back of everyone. The benefit of this was that I was with all the fancy dress runners so the sights were absolutely amazing. I was fortunate enough to get an opportunity to chat with some of the Save The Rhino runners running in full rhino gear. I had run 8 parkruns in the rhino costume over Christmas so we were able to share info about the difficulties of running in 10 kilogrammes of ridiculously hot rhino costume. It was fortunate that today, at 10 degrees Celsius with a brisk wind, that it would help to cool the rhino runners a little and so enable them to finish without heat exhaustion taking its toll. We also talked about the possibilities of the elites being able to achieve a really good time as the conditions were perfect for marathon running.
Baggage drop in the start section was wonderfully efficient, with a line of trucks arranged by running number order and huge numbers of people there ready to stow your bag, with its runner number displayed. I had put some warm clothing into the bag as I knew that I always had trouble getting my body back up to temperature after a long run. My body dumps heat with alacrity during a long run but once I have stopped I know that I soon become very cold indeed.
Ten o clock approaches and Tim Peake, orbiting the Earth in the space station counts us down to the start. Tim is also running the marathon but out there in the space station chained to a treadmill. I am partly envious of his being able to run without his weight dragging him down. I am quite heavy at 85 kilogrammes so would welcome not having to cope with the pull of gravity. I had been 90 kilogrammes so have thankfully shed a significant amount of weight but am still somewhat chunky. One advantage I do have over Tim is that I will be running through one of the most beautiful and historic cities in the world cheered on by thousands of people all willing me toward the finish line. That’s got to beat running on a treadmill even if it is somewhere as groovy as the International Space Station.
There is a radio commentary going on as we walk forwards toward the start line. The chap on the microphone is more or less saying anything that comes into his head. One of his comments is in adulation of all the beautiful women he can see on their way to the start. “Great to see so many beautiful women here today. There are also some ugly ones. Oh yes, you know who you are.” Quite horrible but I assume that he was trying to fill in time and keep talking and some of his talk was just drivel. We edge down to the gates.There is a beautiful gate house there and a family live in this house. A typical nuclear family of mummy daddy and two children are leaning out of the upstairs window waving at us. We all wave back merrily. At the next window just set back a little is an older woman. She waves too although with a little more reticence. She is there although slightly disengaged. I have to wonder whether the jolly little nuclear family in the next window even know that she is there.
After the house we turn the corner and can now see the start.There is another block of toilets there and many people run off in that direction for a last emergency visit before they cross the start timing mat. We pass under the inflatable arch 28 minutes after the 10 o clock start and the race has begun.
Already I encounter people that have started walking. “We are pacing ourselves” they shout to all of us, who have checked our stride and are running around them.
The weather still looks a little gloomy but the temperature is fine. We head out towards Woolwich where red, blue and green start routes all merge. Of course everyone else has already passed this point, so any merging that there was to be done is now ancient history. It is somewhere around here that I hear someone shouting “Jim!”. This is not so unusual as I have had my name put onto my Save The Rhino T shirt to encourage folks to cheer me along. This however sounds a bit more insistent as if the person is trying to get my attention. I look up and it’s a face a that I recognise from science fiction conventions. I wave back to Misha and feel warmed through and through. It felt good to see someone that I recognised on the streets of London.
I’m settling into my rhythm now. It can be quite difficult to keep up a steady pace in amongst so many people and so many distractions but I had been warned what it would be like and had adjusted my expectations. I came to the London Marathon knowing that there would be absolutely no chance of running my own race at my own pace. It came as a very nice surprise on those few occasions where I did have a clear run. We turned back toward Greenwich and passed by on the opposite side of the park to that which I started and then we turned right to the Cutty Sark.
There was a fine swing band playing at the side of the road. I was feeling absolutely wonderful. I was so buoyed up by the crowds, the music and the whole occasion that I felt almost superhuman. I was absolutely sure that I could run a thousand miles without breaking sweat. I felt the urge to break off and dance to the swing band but there was a little sensible voice, in the dark recesses of my mind, pulling me back. It warned me that I had a long way still to go and that all this excess energy I could feel would be better conserved for later. I gave a couple of little happy skips going past the jazz band but resisted the urge to dance. Seconds later I am staring up at the massively impressive sight of the sailing ship, The Cutty Sark. I felt as if my breath had been snatched away. I was gasping in awe at the sight of the ship towering over me amid a backdrop of hundreds and hundreds of people, all yelling and waving from behind the barriers. There was music playing and a commentator talking to people in the audience and introducing the records. I stumble through this section in a daze and don’t recover my composure until we cross Deptford Creek and are moving deeper into Deptford. There’s a long straight road now all the way to Surrey Quays. I mentally do a check of my body and it’s feeling fine. All those pains that I felt in my legs the previous evening seem to have completely disappeared. There is a right turn at Surrey Quays and I get that tingling feeling as if there is some kind of presence. I peer over my left shoulder and sure enough, there is Silas with that intense stare of his. I am convinced that Silas has special powers. Standing together with Silas is Alan and Debs. All 3 of them are from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Appreciation Society. I turn around and run back to them. I give Debs a hug and acknowledge Silas and Alan. It’s wonderful to see them all. I assure them that I am well and look forward to seeing them at the end on the Save The Rhino picnic blanket. I turn and
wave and continue on with my marathon.
There is a little wiggle in the course after Surrey Quays and then the first of the showers. This is a collection of pipes at the side of the road that looks a bit like a spindly scaffold. You run up close to them and they blast out freezing cold water all over you. Most exhilarating I thought and so took every opportunity for a soaking whenever I saw one.
We took a long looping run around Rotherhithe, then followed the river for a while before turning to cross it at Tower Bridge. This is one of the iconic scenes from the London Marathon. Running up to the massive tower structure was awe inspiring, exciting and exhilarating all at the same time. Runners all around me were stopping to take photos and maybe I should have too but I was in some strange kind of floating trance looking at the tower and soaking up the atmosphere all around me.
The noise level increased dramatically on the bridge. It was packed with madly exuberant charity team supporters. There were so many banners on that bridge that I would guess you can only get a place there if you’re connected with one of the major London Marathon charities. I looked for my own charity, Save The Rhino but there was no sign of them. Perhaps they are just too small to be able to get their own Tower Bridge cheering spot.
The bridge goes uphill to the centre and then slopes pleasantly downhill on the other side. We are just approaching halfway and I am feeling deliriously happy. I have what probably looks like a ridiculous grin plastered permanently across my face. My legs are hurting but it doesn’t feel like anything that will cause me a problem. My breathing is easy and I’m feeling relaxed and in excellent spirits. All is good.
We turn right after the bridge back toward the dock areas where we see runners on the other side of the road heading towards central London. They are moving fast and I envy the ease with which they cover the ground. I wonder for a moment whether anyone is ever tempted to jump over the central barrier to skip a few miles. I reckon it unlikely; partly because it would seem to negate the point of attempting to run the marathon but more prosaically there are so many witnesses with cameras that such a move would very quickly make you a hate figure on Youtube.
As we are running toward Canary Wharf I glance around at my fellow runners. There seems to be a lot of social media stuff happening. There’s a woman with a selfie stick posing dramatically for her camera phone. She is wearing make up and looks very composed and glamorous as she flicks her hair back, pouting for the camera. A man also has his phone on a selfie stick and is giving race commentary as he runs. I hear him say “many of you may not have run a marathon before” as I run by and wonder if he’s broadcasting live or recording for a podcast. I did consider creating a podcast myself but then figured that for my first marathon I needed to concentrate on just running, if I were going to finish it. I also don’t think I would want to spend the whole marathon carrying a phone on a selfie stick. I think I would be more likely to use a head mounted camera and maybe a separate audio device that had a fixed microphone, either as part of a headset or attached to my shirt.
Canary Wharf is ahead of us and then a run around the Isle of Dogs. Carrie should be waiting there and she said that she would try get ahold of a bag of peanuts for me. We have a theory that the salt may come in useful. I tend to lose quite a lot of salt when I run.
Carrie has been reading up on all the spectator info and taken on board all the dire warnings of how difficult it is going to be to get around London with so many roads closed and the vast crowds of people milling around. It probably all has something to do with this marathon thing taking place here.
Her campaign began by seeing me on to the start area at Greenwich and then she was going to go through the tunnel, under the river, to the Isle of Dogs. Apparently it was harder to cross the marathon route than she expected and she did, quite by chance, encounterme running in Greenwich before she went to the tunnel. I didn’t see her though but at the Isle of Dogs she yelled out at me and waved a Don’t Panic towel in my direction. That and the fact that she had warned me that she would be there meant there was no chance that I would miss her. We hugged and kissed and she bestowed some dry roasted peanuts upon me. Silas was there with her and gave me the good news that the other folks from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Appreciation Society were waiting just a few yards further on. Sure enough there they were with another Don’t Panic towel. I greeted them warmly and posed for photographs with the towel. I was still feeling quite good although the large muscle in the front of my legs was really hurting. It felt like someone had shoved an iron bar under my skin and it was busily bashing up against all sorts of other more fragile bones and muscles in its vicinity. However, I still felt strong and surged on.
I had been wondering about a possible toilet stop for some time. Aware of the London Marathon strongly worded advice that we shouldn’t pee in people’s gardens I was looking for something less anti social. I did eventually find something but it was still quite public. The lines at all of the portaloos were huge but I noticed, when we were under one of the bridges, that there was also a large round plastic thing with holes in it next to the portaloos. I nipped over and peed into one of the holes. Several of the blokes spotted me doing this and immediately left the portaloo queues. “I saw these” said one of them “but didn’t realise they were toilets.” I was only about 70 per cent sure myself but I peed in them anyway. The women jeered at us. I think the phrase “lucky bastards” was uttered by one of our well wishers. We emerged into the sunlight and I reckoned we were now pointing back in the direction of London. This should have been lifting my spirits but I was now starting to feel unhappy. My pace had dropped and the distance markers seem to have become spaced further apart. I passed the 20 mile marker and tried cheering myself up. Only a 10K (or so) to go. All your training runs are at least 10k. This should be easy. It’s not really helping. I look in vain for the 21 mile marker but it doesn’t seem to arrive. I am in a world of pain now and seem to have been running forever since that 20 mile sign. My mind could focus on nothing else now. Where was that sign? Why didn’t I seem to be making any progress? I couldn’t be lost. It is quite impossible to lose your way on the London Marathon so I must just have slowed down to a crawl. I slogged, on starting to feel really miserable and even the joyful cries of all the happy spectators had faded to become just a background noise.Then in the distance I see a sign. I picked up my pace a little and crane my neck eagerly to see it as I get closer. I got a wonderful surprise when I saw that it was the 22 mile marker. Somehow I had managed to miss the one telling me that I had reached 21 miles. My mood swung way back and the big silly grin returned to keep me company. I was still in vast amounts of pain but the change in mindset made it all so much more bearable. I pushed on past 23 and on up to 24 miles.The 22 mile happy boost moment is now a distant memory. Those quadricep muscles have stepped up the pain level several more notches. The soles of my feet feel as if they have been battered to a soft pulpy goo. I am just about to pass under the end of Blackfriars bridge when my phone begins to buzz. It’s Carrie and she tells me that she and the ZZ9ers are waiting for me on the embankment, somewhere around mile 25. I try to acknowledge what she was saying with some degree of coherence but I probably wasn’t too successful. Talking to Carrie later she tells me that this was quite a worrying phone call. I sounded absolutely terrible but she couldn’t imagine any way that she could help so didn’t comment upon it at the time. This was probably for the best as I’m not sure that it would have been useful for me if she had said how appalling I sounded.
Into the dark we went, under the end of the bridge and then up the hill into the sunlight once again. We were on the Embankment now and I was trying to talk myself around. I have read many books about ultra runners and they often talk about repeating some kind of mantra to help them to push on when the pain threatens to overwhelm them. Previously I couldn’t see myself doing this. How could repeating some string of words help to overcome physical distress? Now, as I ran along the embankment and waves of pain were washing over me I was trying to think myself through it all. I knew that I hurt and had to accept that. I also felt it unlikely that the pain would get any worse. If I were to get to the end all I had to do was keep putting one foot in front of the other. This thought sort of stuck in my mind and kept coming back in slightly different forms. One foot in front of the other, one foot at a time, keep moving one step at a time. All I had to do was to keep moving and eventually I would reach the end.
The Embankment seemed to go on forever but eventually I saw the 25 mile marker. A few yards further on Carrie, Silas and Alan were all waiting for me and cheering madly. Yet again they managed to lift my mood and I lifted my head to see the Houses of Parliament and the clock tower directly in front of me. I couldn’t coax any more speed out of my legs but the pain seemed to recede a little and I knew that there was no way that I wasn’t going to finish. I was near enough now that I could crawl to the end if I had to.
I turned right along Birdcage Walk and the sound volume suddenly doubled. Waves of noise and outpourings of emotion washed over all of we runners staggering along that last mile. Both sides of the road were lined with thousands of people urging us on. I was laughing and crying at the same time trying to cope with a crazy mixture of feelings.
I crossed the line and staggered onwards. Someone hung a medal over me and I felt I was sagging under the weight of it. Onwards we went and picked up plastic bags with tee shirts and various promotional items and then onto the lines of trucks with our drop bags. I quickly found mine and then walked very slowly over to the fence posts at the side of the road. I leaned on one intending to do a few stretches and then suddenly I began to see black spots before my eyes.I wobbled a little and my head felt incredibly hot. What to do next? I thought that I should sit down before I fell but then there was the worry that I might not be able to get back up again. Glancing around I saw a St John’s Ambulance tent only a few yards away. I lurched toward it trying to ask for assistance but not really managing any proper words. It will have looked almost exactly like the march of a particularly slow moving zombie. Fortunately the chap at the tent was made of stern stuff so not even my march of the undead could faze him. He grabbed ahold of my arm and guided me to a chair. He asked me what the problem was and I managed to convey that I felt as if I was going to faint. He handed me a funnel for puke and then some water. I attempted to take a drink. My head began to cool but then I started to worry that the problem may have shifted. I sat there thinking that I desperately needed to go to the toilet but just coudn’t move. I feared that consequences may be disastrous and extremely embarrassing but there’s nothing I could do. Then something happens that takes my mind off that as I got a really nasty calf cramp. Suddenly I am screaming and a chap with an armband saying doctor is knelt at my feet, grabbing my foot. “Is it calf cramp” he asks. I nod vigorously. He bends my foot up and asks me to point my toes toward my chin. This stretches out the muscles in the calf and the pain subsides. He asked me what I had been eating and drinking and I said mostly just water and a few shotblocks. “Here, drink this” he says. He offers me a Lucozade isotonic drink that has had a packet of gel dumped into it. “It’ll taste foul” he says “but it should help to stop any more cramps.” He’s right, it does taste foul but I don’t get any more cramps so maybe it was just what I needed.
Eventually the nausea and the desperate need to visit the toilet fades and I am just left feeling very cold indeed. Someone wraps me in a blanket and then some foil to try and keep me warm. I stay there for quite some time shivering away but eventually reckon I should move on and try to find Carrie. I express my gratitude and stagger out of the tent.
At the end of the finishers funnel are group of people with Save The Rhino banners. I tell them that I’m a Save The Rhino runner and someone leads me away to the their picnic blanket.
They photograph me and try to shovel food inside me. I’m busily shivering so not sure I can cope with something as complicated as eating and being cold at the same time. Silas, Alan and Carrie are all there and are soon admiring my huge chunk of medal. It is a very significant looking thing indeed and becomes the star of many photographs.
I am still struggling to get warm, so soon suggest that we move off somewhere to get a warm cup of coffee. London is at our feet so we reckon there should be a coffee shop or two about the place. We struggle slightly due to it being Sunday and there being rather a lot of people about but very soon I am sipping coffee and heat is beginning to return to my body. I start to feel almost human again and begin to tell stories from my run. Unfortunately I find that I am also beginning to droop a little and there is a distinct danger that I shall fall asleep.
We say goodbye to the ZZ9ers. Carrie and I head for the river bus and are soon making our way back to Greenwich and the hotel.
In the next few days there was a considerable amount of pain particularly in my quads. Going down stairs was almost impossible unless I turned around and went backwards. However, by the following Saturday I was able to run parkrun and then the Fen Drayton 10K only 7 days after the marathon. Although it didn’t seem possible at first my body does seem to be recovering.
I have also achieved my target of raising 2500 pounds for Save The Rhino International. A great big thankyou to all of you folks who helped me to help them and thank you to everyone who offered me encouragement on my journey to and through the London Marathon.
It was a most amazing, wonderful and astounding experience.