The London Marathon
An experience to treasure
As with many sporting events, this year’s London Marathon looked and felt very different. Not only had it been moved from April to October, the marathon was an elite-only race around multiple laps of a 1.5 mile central London course. This has come as such a blow, not only to the thousands of club and fun runners who take part every year, but also to the many charities who rely on funds raised by runners in the race. In 2019, the event raised a record-breaking £66.4 million for charities across the UK.
The coverage over the weekend brought back memories of when I ran the London Marathon in 2018. The main joy of the event was raising some £9,000 for charity. And, even though I vowed that I would never ever do anything like that ever again because of the sheer exhaustion it created, I am now back training again but mainly for pleasure and not necessarily to run a marathon.
A reason to get moving
My motivation to participate in the London Marathon was the tragic death of my friend Martin Baker – a friend to many of us at the Old Haberdashers Association – and someone with whom I had shared many happy school years, rugby games and cricket games was a body blow I frankly did not expect. The whole OHA as well as the Rugby and Cricket Clubs still lament his passing.
My instant reaction to the situation was that I wanted to regain my fitness and get back to a more active lifestyle. Like many others, I felt that if I continued on the path that I was treading, my weight would get even more out of control and my type 2 diabetes would see me out. So I thought of the most ridiculous challenge that I could undertake that no one would possibly believe that I would do it; in the summer of 2017, I decided I would enter the London Marathon.
I actually got my place by volunteering to run for the cricket charity Chance to Shine, but also supported several other charities including Prostate Cancer.
The training begins but not without setbacks
I trained for 7 months and this entailed three visits to the gym each week, two sessions with a coach and a free session in which I worked on the bike and on my endurance. As I learned, the trick to long distance running is not necessarily about pounding the road all the time but to build up the core body strength to be able to undertake such a physical endeavour. The Old Haberdasher’s Rugby Football Club (“OHRFC”) soon got sick of my social media posts on the bike and in my athletics vest returning home extremely tired after my workouts.
However, the hard work was paying off. By Christmas 2017, I was very surprised to find myself being able to run 3 – 6 miles with no difficulties. As I learned on the briefing day for the London Marathon everyone gets injured training for the event and, sadly in early January, I too suffered an injury. One particularly winter evening, I went for my Sunday run, and completed a 12 mile run in full snow conditions. And then off I trotted to the gym to warm down and was greeted with rapturous applause by my coach. But unfortunately, I had injured my leg.
I began to get very nervous that I wouldn’t be able to train fully for the marathon just four months away. My coach reassured me that I needed to get my leg better with the right physiotherapy and that the running would easily return. My physiotherapist visits were vital and necessary as the running that I was doing once a week was having its toll on my leg. I suffered from shin splints in the early 1980s when I took up cross country running, 7 miles a day in the hills of New England near Springfield MA. I was privileged to be an English Speaking Union Scholar, at Wilbraham and Monson Academy in Massachusetts, USA for 6 months from January to June 1980. I ran with a 6ft 4 man who of course took one stride and when I took two! Nevertheless this helped greatly with my fitness and enabled me to participate very actively in university level rugby in Cambridge. Luckily after about four weeks of intense physiotherapy, I was able to resume the gym, and then slowly back to my weekly run around the park.
Focus on the job in hand – with the support of David Bowie
What I found quite surprising was the mental discipline required to undertake this exercise was far greater than I imagined. Thankfully, the single minded focus I had developed during my school days at Haberdashers followed by Christ’s College, Cambridge and KPMG assisted greatly. I was able to focus on my running and shut out all the other brain activity which was trying to tell me to stop.
With just 6 weeks to go to the marathon, I was back to running 6 miles on my weekly run. I decided that I needed to increase the distance I covered when running. I live close to Regent’s Park and ran round the outer circle as part of my training (according to my FitBit, it is just over 3 miles in circumference). So I started increasing my laps. Ten days before the marathon I completed six circuits of Regent’s Park, equivalent to 19 miles, one of the longest runs I had ever achieved. However, I followed the advice of Patty Hewes and my coach and didn’t do a full 26 mile run before race day.
During my training, I had just downloaded David Bowie’s album Black Star and it would be on repeat at least twice on every circuit of the park. I know all the words by heart.
Race day means an early start
Race day arrived and it was a beautiful sunny April day in 2018. London was absolutely packed at 7:30 am with runners headed towards Charing Cross station and London Bridge stations, en route to Greenwich.
As I arrived in Greenwich, it was already hot and the walk up to the start line was filled with a mixture of anxiety and excitement. I was going to do something momentous in my own life as a mark of respect for Martin Baker and other people that I knew closely who had passed on in the recent past. I was allocated the last group , that is, one of the slowest runners in the race. We were delayed behind the main runners by about an hour. When we eventually crossed the start line we were in very dense running traffic and it was difficult to establish a pace. I remember very clearly carrying my mobile phone and heavy battery with me which was extra baggage. However, it allowed me to keep in contact with my coach, my girlfriend Rachel, who was cheering me on at various points along the route, and also with the Old Haberdashers Rugby Football club supporters unit who were a huge support as I became to tire.
The first 3 miles of the course were pretty uneventful. And I was able to enjoy the experience although I probably wasn’t running at anywhere like the pace I had trained at because it was the hottest day that a marathon has ever been run on. Foolishly, I did not put on any sun cream and despite having skin that tans easily, I got burnt and even two years later the sun burn/tan lines that I got that day has only just disappeared from my chest.
Generosity knows no bounds
The course from Greenwich winds its way through some of the most deprived areas of London. The abundance of refreshments and food that the spectators put on at their own expense for the participants proved the spirit of generosity with which London is well known. As I approached the formal watering stations, my fellow runners and I were treated to the sight of empty bottles strewn along the road where they been disposed of by the runners who’d gone before us and, of course, we had to make do with limited supplies as we were at the back of the pack.
I settled into a rhythm at about mile 7 and began to accept the fact that I was probably going to make it. One of the key things that we were told at the briefing is 99.9% of all people who start the marathon actually complete it. I kept in contact with my trainer, girlfriend and the OHRFC supporters group and sent pictures of the various milestones including some of the blow-up bouncy castles that I passed. To combat the heat, there were watering stations with shower sprays along the course. However, mindful I didn’t want any blisters, I did not go through the showers and I was jolly pleased I didn’t.
Half way reached
As I approached Tower Bridge, which equates roughly to just about halfway point, we were faced with the prospect of turning right into Canary Wharf and Docklands. As I did so, I faced all of the faster runners coming back the other way who were literally 12 miles ahead of us. This was very demotivating and I hadn’t appreciated the negative impact that would have on me
It was getting even hotter and the leg into the Docklands was really very tough. I began to experience what I can only describe as the wall. My motivation to complete the journey I had begun began to wane as my body told me that I wanted to stop. However, my head kept telling me that I had to complete this mammoth task. As I came back up to pass Tower Bridge, I noticed this wonderful lady standing in the road offering sausage rolls form a large yellow Tupperware container. I grabbed two of them, one with each hand, and munched them very hungrily. Of course, the one thing I forgot to take with me was food. The course can take a long time to complete and of course I hadn’t remembered that I may need to eat during the race. I should have taken either a sandwich or some other food on a camel backpack, which of course I didn’t bother to purchase.
As I ran along Upper Thames Street, there was a slightly surreal feeling. As in the Docklands, I was a backmarker with the van clearing up the course and picking up the cones following close behind me. The time allowed on the course is some 8 hours and therefore because we were so far behind the leaders, the roads were beginning to reopen. The marshals were telling me to run on the pavement rather than on the road but you will of course have no doubt that I decided to continue to run on the road. Because of the situation, I did have a fear of not finishing and running into various problems about finding the course. However, the blue line on the road marking the official course was always very clearly visible right from the get-go, and I tried to follow this as much as I could. Underneath Blackfriars Bridge, I ran past the old Peat Marwick building at 1 Puddle Dock and it brought back some happy memories of 1983 when I joined the firm.
Support and encouragement for the final few steps
It was quite spectacular to be shouted and encouraged the whole way through the course. At the briefings, we had been advised to have our names printed on the front and back of our vests that we were wearing so that the crowd could shout your name. This worked an absolute treat and kept me motivated particularly as I came along Victoria Embankment, up into Parliament Square and down into Birdcage Walk. The encouragement from the crowd was particularly motivating as the last part of the course is especially difficult as you’ve already run some 24 miles. However, using the step pedometer that I had and passing the mile markers just kept me going. I was running a very steady pace, albeit not fast, but at least delivering a consistent performance. Running past Buckingham Palace and then up the Mail, I wanted to deliver a toothy grin as I crossed the line where I was greeted by my girlfriend Rachel. I completed the course in 7 hours and 28 minutes.
The sheer exhilaration of finishing carried me over the line. However, within about 15 to 20 minutes and despite the space blanket, I very quickly struggling to remain upright. It was difficult to move, but Rachel and I eventually managed to find a taxi and got home. Once I was home, I discovered various chafing of parts of my body I won’t go into, but suffice to say I went to sleep very quickly. When I woke the next morning, I was amazed not to have any injuries. In fact, my pre-booked sports masseuse told me that I was in really good shape considering I had run a marathon the day before.
Give it a go!
In conclusion, all I can say is that I think anyone can run a marathon at any age, if you train properly and you have the right mental discipline. And I want to thank Martin Baker for his camaraderie and friendship over the years, and for inspiring me on to do this almost impossible physical challenge.