Running for my Life
Running, by faith and with endurance, from mental illness to marathon runner, charity campaigner, and brother in Christ

The London Marathon: a day like no other

Friday and Saturday were equally relaxed although Friday did have the slight anxiety of somehow straining my side getting out of bed. However, life is nothing without a good slapping of Voltarol gel and by the next day all felt fine. I had a great Friday afternoon with another of my running friends, Jen. Over a couple of coffees I managed to persuade her, if not myself, that I'd be happy with a 3:05 so soon after Brighton; and you know what, I probably would have been, but I still had other ideas!! We talked about living rooms full of running clothes, a carb-less pizza consisting only of cheese, and sweaty arrivals in the workplace ... yup, definitely the most relaxed I've been so close to a Major, great company helped!

My Saturday (pre-race day) routine is well practiced!! I typically walk (very leisurely) about 5/6 miles throughout the day; this keeps the legs loose and means I don't feel quite as bloated from the increased calorie intake. I had my usual support crew of mum and Steve, and was able to catch up with a couple of fellow Team Mind members also. I was relaxed, confident and very focused. I certainly wasn't quite as relaxed as I'd been in Brighton but that's because #LondonMatters!! By the way, Brighton mattered too but just not quite as much!!​

I really did sleep well, which is increasingly the case the night before a big race and without so much as the blink of an eyelid, a fortnight had passed since Brighton, 3 nights since the Expo, and race day was here. Again, my routine is rehearsed although I found myself heading out to Blackheath rather than Greenwich Park for my starting area. Upon arrival, I had time to stop at Giraffe for pre-race porridge and coffee ... it was a slightly euphemistic method of paying for a very clean men's cubicle for the last pre-race ritual!!

By 8.30am, I was through the entrance into the Blue Start Zone; it is an amazing feeling on race morning and you can sense the joy, excitement, nerves and apprehension of those around you, whether they are seasoned veterans or first-timers. As someone who was about to run his seventeenth marathon, I confess to having a calm sense of assurance but absolutely relishing the butterflies which I still get; they energise me and the day that running 26.2 miles becomes an entity so routine as to not evoke that sense, it will be time for me wave this adventure farewell. I suspect that is still a long way ahead!!

It was great to meet some familiar faces up there; I had been speaking with Sophie on social media for several months as she so eloquently has shared her journey to the London Marathon. I also bumped into Hayley from Gosport Road Runners whom I had met at one of Rik's great Phoenix Events. By 9am, I was just beginning to move from that mode of total relaxation into visualising my race although none of this could happen before a #TeamMind photo. Running for this charity has changed my life and the people I have met through this wonderful movement have become so important to me. This year's team really has been a privilege to share the journey with and knowing we were among 1,000 runners out there with a common goal was very powerful.

With a final queue for the urinals navigated, it was into the start pen; I like to be in there early while there is still room to warm up with some light jogging and dynamic stretches. Perhaps one of the highlights of the day was seeing my friend Lisa as I entered the pen; when you imagine the thousands of volunteers on London Marathon day and the stewards for my start pen happened to be fellow BOSHers, it perfectly encapsulated this whole London Marathon journey of 2017; absolutely focused but totally relaxed and beaming from ear to ear.

"To give anything less than your best, is to sacrifice the gift." Steve Prefontaine

  • I could have played it down.
  • I could have pretended it was just another race
  • I could have just settled for my PB and sub-3 in Brighton and not pushed myself

But this was London and, for me, the London Marathon is the greatest event on the running calendar. I said after Brighton that London was one of the showcases in a year of many; actually, London is THE showcase event of this year, of any year. As I "hash-tagged", #LondonMatters. And it really does, like no other.

There is no doubting that practice makes perfect; with this my third London Marathon, my seventeenth overall, the mindset was very different to my previous two occasions here. Perhaps it is the routine and comfort of having done it before, of knowing exactly how the days look and feel in the lead up to marathon Sunday; dare I say, and with no arrogance intended, arriving at an Expo for the first time as a sub-3 hour marathon runner builds a very inert sense of self-belief and assurance. While always respecting ANY distance, consistent performances breed quiet confidence,

Even at the Expo, I felt that sense of relaxation, knowing exactly where I was going and what I would need to do. That ease of mind was betrayed in some of the photos at the Excel but also underpinned with a steely drive within. Both of my previous London Marathons had been PBs (the first inevitably as it was my first marathon) and this was going to be no different. Having broken the 3 hour barrier in Brighton, I was in no doubt that nothing else would suffice.

It was great to catch up with friends old and new at the Expo. Two, in particular, had a really positive effect on my whole marathon experience; I met Lizzie Bell in 2014 during the minutes before we both embarked on our first marathon. In those moments are friendships born and she is one of the bravest, warmest souls you would wish to meet. She wasn't running this year but was there with a friend and seeing her was such a great way to kick of marathon weekend (even though it was Thursday night!). A few minutes earlier I had randomly met  another Lizzy for the first time in the Virgin Money Fundraising Lounge; everyone knows the reasons that running is so important to me, but she had her own #ReasonToRun which brought a genuine chuckle to my face and reminded me that we really shouldn't be doing this if we aren't enjoying it. On that note, I had said in a previous post that London would be a hoot, and in every picture over the weekend it looks as if I lived that mission!

The race itself was almost perfect; that's the only way to describe it. Despite being in one of the front pens, there was early congestion with the familiar gathering of runners around the pacers. The pacer at the front of my pen was the 3 hour pacer, reflective of the typical target time of runners in that pen. Rather than getting involved in that scrum, I was happy to let them go and just concentrate on my own race; having spoken to the Runners World Pacers, I knew that the 3 hour pacer would be running 2:59 pace and in truth I trust myself to run my race and run it well.

Let's face it, the London Marathon route is, for large parts, not picturesque. But it is colourful, every vibrant colour of the rainbow represented in the crowd and runners vests. It is the biggest carnival, a testament to human spirit where the crowd shouts itself hoarse for strangers it will never know and runners bare their bodies and souls in front of hundreds of thousands to better their own lives and significantly those of others being helped by the charities they represent. And from start to finish in London, the crowd support is like nothing else I have ever experienced.

I was tired, and that was always going to be the case after Rome and Brighton so soon beforehand. However, I felt comfortable at the early pace which was planned to take me through the half way point in about 1:29:30. As it was, the absolute majesty of Tower Bridge, which still evokes a deep breath to maintain composure, meant that I slipped in a very quick mile 12 and saw myself through in 1:28:50. The Highway is, for me, the most challenging part of the London Marathon in both directions. Heading East you are over the glorious Tower Bridge and surrounded by a cacophony of noise from charities on both sides of the road; mentally, you are at that point where the river is crossed and Greenwich / Blackheath is a distant memory and you are mentally trying to assess your race strategy for the remainder of the race.

The choice for me was black and white; I could ease off what was a quick pace, knowing that my legs were already carrying two recent marathons in them, and ensure that I had something to come back down the other side of the dual carriageway in about an hour's time. However, my choice was to put in a couple of lung bursting quick miles here which would give me something to hold on to in that last stretch ahead. Running past the cheering points for both The Connection and Mind gave me that impetus to push hard.

Pushing yourself through the pain barrier between miles 15 and 20 is probably what challenges marathon runners most; there is a fear that if you push too hard, the dreaded wall must be inevitable. However, I know right now that my mental strength is my biggest asset and that allows me to embrace any physical discomfort ... and let's be honest here, we shouldn't be running a marathon without being physically stretched!

Docklands is disliked by many runners but I simply think of it as a point during which I gather my thoughts for the last six miles once back on the Highway and heading back towards the City and Embankment for the final strides to destiny. It was a great lift to hear Jacqui and her family going through Canary Wharf as I began to feel the effects of two recent marathons and the push through miles 12 to 16.

Out of Docklands and back on to the Highway, I had given myself the cushion of being able to go seven minute miles through to another sub-3 hour marathon. However, I was exhausted physically. This was when the hours of training, mental toughness, bloody mindedness and amazing crowd all kick in. Somewhere between mile 19 and 20 was our City of Birmingham Striders club captain, Seth; followed by the great Run Dem Crew. It was warm and for a few miles I felt I was running through treacle yet put in a 6:54 and 6:44 before the final push ... 24, 25 and 26 would actually be the quickest of my race.

I saw one of my great pals Adam at Mile 22 and a bit coming back into the City and his vociferous encouragement gave me that final huge lift to push on. No longer was sub-3 good enough, I wanted a sub-2:59 PB. The support crew from BOSH were out in force at mile 23 ... no coincidence then that mile 24 was one of my quickest of the day; difficult to imagine that Blackfriars Tunnel was a place of real pain in my first London Marathon just 3 years ago. Now, it was a final opportunity for peaceful solitude and reflection before emerging onto Embankment, a place on Marathon Sunday where the people of London make invincibles of mere mortals.

Once onto Embankment, I am on my run commute home from work, doing what I do every day, knowing every contour, slope and sight. This is what I do and, in that split second, felt as if it was what I was born for. Those of us who do this for leisure, albeit to be the best we can be, will never be Kipsang, Bekele or Farah but we can take a peak into their world for a moment as we run down this iconic stretch of road to the adulation of the crowds on either side with destiny a mere few miles ahead.

Mile 25 was a beauty from Blackfriars just past the Hungerford Bridge. I got a big and unexpected shout from Nick, unexpected because I'd suspected he was at the RDC cheer point back at 21. I was able run alongside the machine that is my friend Michael for a few brief moments. My focus at this point was on looking for a sea of blue, yellow and purple ... the Team Mind Mile 25 cheering spot! I did see it coming and by now knew that I would not only be sub-3 but run a PB. I did, as they say, enjoy the moment, one which demonstrated the relaxation and happiness with which I had run the whole race and one which would be so evident a few moments later in a photo taken as I turned the corner off Embankment in towards Parliament Square.

Birdcage Walk is beautiful!! It is at the best of times and really is special on London Marathon day. You cannot see the finish but can smell it! The tree lined avenue again offers a metaphorical shade from the breathlessness of everything that has taken you on a journey way before the race started; for those few moments, you can breathe in and reflect on the long hard hours of training, the fundraising, tears, joy and laughter, and know that literally around the corner awaits one of the most special sights in world sport.

It was lost in that moment that I was oblivious to the shouts of encouragement from Zaira and her running club colleagues, my visual focus locked in on Buckingham Palace as I turned that corner, saw the Victoria Memorial in front of me before a final swing on to The Mall and the vision of those red clocks in the near distance.

London is the most iconic event on our sporting calendar and to have achieved a Personal Best there of 2:57:29 on a beautiful spring day will live with me until I take my final breath. However, it is nothing without the people who share that journey and wonderful day.

  • Team Mind - some incredible friendships made and great to see Karen and her unbelievable team after the event. Without you, we don't get this opportunity. Too many people to mention but am so proud of Helen on an amazing effort in her first marathon and our own amazing hockey goalie Will.
  • The Connection - privilege to represent a charity helping people off the streets of Westminster and with such a passion for what they do.
  • My old colleague Emma running for her dad in her first marathon ... just brilliant! The super Poppy whom I met out on a training run with Michael, again running her first marathon with such spirit and determination
  • My old Uni mate Libby, who used as much energy spectating as her wonderful sister Charlotte completing her first marathon - Lib also provided the comedy moment of the weekend asking to track my iPhone on race day ... the luggage trucks are quick!!
  • My club mate and friend James; an incredible time of 3:00:14 to follow up Brighton a fortnight earlier. An amazing athlete and person, sub-3 is inevitable to follow up incredible times over shorter distances.
  • Friends from Streatham Central Church who helped me celebrate in style
  • Mum and my old mate Steve, always supporting, always accepting when tension kicks in pre-race!

They always say your first one is the most special (don't be smutty!!) and mine will always be. However, it is difficult to remember a day when I felt so complete when body, mind and soul were in greater harmony, when personal achievement was special but, as always, secondary to celebrating humanity and being part of a day in which so many pushed way beyond perceived self-limitations with the goal of serving others.