By Sumanth Nayak
I never really thought about doing the London Marathon, probably because it was entry by ballot and after being rejected for the Great North Run, I felt chances of getting in were slim. When two club places were on offer, I immediately put my name in for the draw and was ecstatic when I got it at the Christmas party.
In January, I managed to run a PB of 3:23 in Dubai on very tired legs but I thought I could do better with some sensible tapering so I set a target of 3:15 for London.
I booked a place on the tour bus organised by Blyth running club, something I highly recommend if you decide to do London, because it saves you all the hassle of making travel and hotel arrangements. They even take you to the expo to collect your race number and to the start line on race-day. Joining me on the tour were Brendan and Rob Wishart from Tyne Bridge Harriers. I know what you’re thinking, and no, I’m not crazy enough to take the overnight bus for a marathon! Perhaps if I wasn’t going for a PB…
We arrived there on Saturday afternoon, checked into our hotel conveniently located near Leicester Square, just a mile from the finish line, and went to the expo to get our numbers before wandering around the stalls advertising shoes, gels, overseas marathon tours and all the other running related rubbish.
On race-day, after a breakfast buffet at which it took enormous will power not to stuff myself with a Full English, we were taken to the start at Blackheath. The sun was out and it was twelve degrees with hardly any wind, perfect for racing. For an event this big, it was amazing how well organised everything was. There were three different start points so that it wouldn’t take long to cross the timing mat and runners would merge together after a mile or two into the course. I bumped into Jeremy, Yincent and George Routledge, wished them all them good luck and took my place in zone three which thankfully wasn’t too far from the front.
At 10am, after a minute’s silence for the victims of the attacks in Boston, we were off. Because of the separate starts, I didn’t have to weave through the mass of runners too much so I settled into my target pace of 7:27/mile early on. The crowds started almost immediately on both sides of the road and the roar was deafening! I knew they were going to be lining most of the route but I didn’t expect it to be a 26.2 mile long tunnel of noise. People said the Isle of Dogs would be the quiet part of the route but even there, the crowd was ten deep.
Once the three starts all merged after a couple of miles, there was a bit of a bottleneck and some more weaving in and out. Kevin Lister, making his marathon debut on his birthday, saw me, chatted for a bit and zoomed off (storming to a 3:09 finish). There were water stations at every mile and isotonics every few miles. Because the roads were so narrow, bottles were lying all over the place so I had to watch my step the entire way. It must have been like an obstacle course for runners at the back of the field.
The miles went by and I was pacing myself perfectly. Every time I fell behind by a few seconds, the crowd gave me a lift and I kept up. A pacer with a 3:15 flag passed by but I didn’t bother keeping up with him because he was going off the clock time. I had my Garmin set to a 3:15 pace and all I had to do was follow that. At some point before halfway, I passed a girl dressed as a bumble bee with a Guinness records sticker on her back. I had considered running as the cow to attempt the record for fastest marathon in an animal costume (3:18) but with the sun beating down, it would have been way too hot to run that kind of pace in a full body suit. Sadly, I couldn’t even manage it in a vest but I’ll come to that. The crowd kept roaring and I passed landmarks like the Cutty Sark and Tower Bridge.
Shortly after halfway, on the way to the Isle of Dogs, the elites flew past in the opposite direction, 22 miles into the race. In third place, right on the leader’s tail was Ayele Abshero, last year’s winner in Dubai. Obviously, I was rooting for him. At 15 miles, as I went through the first of two tunnels on the course my Garmin lost reception and when I came back out, it said I was doing something ridiculous like 3 minute miles and that I was ten minutes ahead of my target. This was going to completely throw off my race because I wouldn’t be able to pace myself properly.
I didn’t need to worry about that, I was already starting to tire. I told myself that 3:23 was still possible if I could keep doing 7:30s till at least 35k. From miles 17 to 21, I was slowing considerably, averaging 8:30s. If I had just kept plodding along like that, 3:30 was in the bag. But something in my mind snapped, and the thought of dragging my feet along for another five miles was just too much so I just stopped and walked.
If you have to walk in a marathon, London is the worst place to do it (and possibly the best). The crowd was relentless, screaming at me, almost shaming me into getting a move on and there was no respite. They were on both sides of the road and the only way to get away from it was to walk in the middle but that meant blocking runners flying past me in the hundreds. So from there on, it was a combination of walking for a minute, getting an earful from the crowd, and shuffling for a minute. The more I walked, the more my hamstrings started to tense up. I was on the verge of tears because this wasn’t how London was supposed to go. But I kept moving and if it wasn’t for the shouts of encouragement, I most likely would have gone to the nearest marshal and quit. I’ve been in worse pain in Kielder (twice) and still felt like going on even if it meant crawling, but for some reason it felt wrong to walk here. I should have kept running, even if it meant doing 10 minute miles.
So the next five miles to the finish on the Mall felt like ages. It was mostly a straight route along the Thames passing landmarks like the Millenium Dome, Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and Buckingham Palace, all unnoticed by me with the pain I was in. I had walked on the last lap of the Town Moor marathon last year and finished in 3:43 so I desperately wanted to beat that. With 200m to go, 3:44 ticked by. The guy on the PA said Sophie Raworth from the BBC had just finished. I couldn’t believe it. So, I gathered up that last bit of strength and ‘sprinted’ to the finish in just under 3:45. My Garmin said I had done 27 miles either because of the loss of reception or all the weaving about.
I collected my medal, finisher’s t-shirt and goody bag stocked full of flyers and the usual rubbish and made the short warm down walk back to the hotel.
When I first got the club number, the plan was to enjoy the atmosphere of London and get around comfortably. My time in Dubai changed that and I got too ambitious. Knocking eight minutes off a PB I had set just a few months ago was very unrealistic and I paid for that. Still, everything about the race was absolutely incredible and of the few marathons I’ve done, this one is hands down, the best. If I’m lucky enough to get a place next year, I’ll try to run more sensibly and enjoy the occasion while saving the PB attempts for something flat and boring like Dubai.