...one to go!

Well, after the hiatus of COVID affecting the original plans back in 2020, it was finally time to head to London. I travelled up to Crystal Palace on Friday 30th September to park the van on a campsite, and then on to Excel to collect my runner number from the 'Marathon Expo'. That was when the scale of the event first really struck me: despite being open for four full days, the running show seemed packed with participants all completing their pre-race registration and browsing the various stalls selling all the merchandise and services a runner could ever dream of (- and certainly more than any would reasonably 'need').

After a short and steady run around Crystal Palace Park in the morning, Saturday was essentially a rest day with my diet focused on consuming lots of carbohydrates and drinking plenty. I was also liaising with family about where they intended to position themselves to spot/support me on the course. I'd put together a little spreadsheet to help calculate pace/distance against some key landmarks, factoring in a flexible start time. We were reckoning on the tracking function in the dedicated London Marathon app providing the necessary info for them to judge which public transport options would be feasible for reaching different locations in sufficient time, whilst avoiding some of the busiest spots with the biggest crowds. Admittedly spreadsheets are not everyone's cup of tea, but it was actually quite fun fiddling with that!

The weather forecast on Saturday was looking pretty grim: the BBC app was quite confident that we were due fairly heavy rain. Wet kit increases the chances of chafing and is generally less fun for participants and spectators alike. I was having flashbacks to the virtual event I ran around Worthing in October 2020 which was truly foul! I therefore needed to think about precisely what I intended to wear and what I thought would be least uncomfortable. I decided that given the anticipated rain, my waistcoat-like pack (known as a running vest) was my preferred option - as I had used on all my long training runs. It has plenty of pocket space for carrying the necessary food - which for the marathon would include a bagel, flapjack, and lots of Jelly Babies - plus phone and a soft flask of apple juice. Vaseline and tape/plasters are par for the course and I had those, so felt I was prepared as best I could be. I duly packed my race bag ready to be dropped at the start in Greenwich Park on Sunday morning, which would then be transported to the finish line on The Mall ready for collection when I got there sometime later in the day.

I went for the typical pre-marathon dinner of pasta. I'd already had pasta for lunch, and other food during the day had included cereal, bagel, flapjack, hot cross bun, pretzels, rice pudding, and juice - not my usual fare! It is surprisingly difficult to consume as many carbs as recommended for an event like this, and it does feel very unnatural or even unhealthy if you're not used to it. The idea is to build the body's reserves of glycogen in readiness but, even so, the top-ups en route are necessary too; I knew that the marathon would probably consume somewhere around 3,500 calories.

After a restless night, I woke at about 4.30 and finally got up at 6.00 on Sunday morning. One of the first things I did was check the forecast: I was bemused when I found the BBC now showing sunshine and a generally warm, pleasant day in London! Was I looking at the wrong date, or perhaps the wrong location? No - but it was certainly looking set to be a very different day from the one I had anticipated when I went to bed the night before. Did I still want to use my running vest? Unsure, I stuffed my running belt into the bag as an alternative option, then made my porridge for breakfast.

I caught a bus at 8.00 that took me to Blackheath, from where I walked to Greenwich Park. If the Expo had felt busy on Friday, then the crowds walking towards the park certainly made things feel very real! There was no mistaking the fact that this was an enormous event, as the seemingly relentless sea of people just swept along. I felt a mix of nervousness and excitement, not really knowing quite what to expect: my virtual runs in 2020 were solo (April) and with my brother (October) - I'd certainly never taken part in anything as big as the London Marathon before; I knew I had prepared as best I could, but was conscious that I'd had a knee problem quite recently. All I could do at this point was give it my best shot.

At Greenwich Park, I decided to switch to the belt. I therefore transferred my food and packed away the redundant running vest, then dropped my bag at the lorry. After a final snack and drink, I joined the queue for the toilets - and oh my, what a queue! It's surprising just how quickly the time passes when sorting those last few details, and then - before you know it - your wave is being called and it's time to head to the pen for the starting area. I was in 'Red 7' and we were being marshalled ready for our scheduled start time of 10.25 - about 45 minutes behind the elite runners in the first wave.

Once in the holding pen, there was some brief chatter with fellow runners - comparing hopes and fears, and generally encouraging one another. There was a shared sense that, having got to this point, we all wanted to get on with it. Soon enough, we were off. This was it: I was actually taking part in the London Marathon!

Within my first few steps, I realised that my well-stocked belt was bouncing wildly and would soon become very uncomfortable. Had my late decision to change kit been a rookie mistake that I'd come to regret? There was no way I could change it now, and I simply couldn't get round the course without my food, so I was stuck with it. Thankfully, simply tightening the velcro strap was enough to keep it more securely in place and I was hopeful that it would be bearable.

One of the most important things to remember in the early stages is to avoid running too fast. It is very easy to get caught up in the occasion and let the adrenaline get the better of you, but any energy expended at this point beyond what you've trained for can lead to problems later on. I tried to keep an eye on my watch to make sure I held things steady, but did have a few wayward moments before reining things in a bit.

The early stages of the course are not necessarily particularly attractive, but wherever there are are spectators the atmosphere is great and we soon got a taste of that. We passed places I'd never been before and am probably unlikely to visit again. I chatted with a couple of other runners during the first few miles as we all settled into our own respective rhythms as best we could. We all knew that the coming hours / miles would be very special.

The landmarks we passed on the course were a bit of a boost, and the first of those was Cutty Sark which comes just after 10km (6.5 miles). The size of the crowds of spectators varied considerably along the route, but as a general rule they were bigger - and noisier - near the well known locations. There were a few different bands, DJs and music groups including brass bands, drummers and bagpipes, all of which sounded great and helped lift the spirits. There was a tremendous sense of occasion.

It was just before Tower Bridge (at about 20km / 12.5 miles) that I spotted my family: first, it was my wife and sons, and then a little way further on I saw my brother and his family too. I confess I felt quite emotional when I saw them. It doesn't matter how many supporters were lining the course overall, there was nothing like seeing those familiar faces cheering me on.

Having started reasonably well and feeling generally OK, it was during the later stages that my knee issue came back to bite me: I was first aware of it at about 25km (15 miles) and by 35km (21.5 miles) it was hurting. When trying to decide what I should do, I was conscious that I still had the Cape Town Marathon just two weeks later and did not want to jeopardise that - nor the health of my knee more generally. Unfortunately, by 38km (23.5 miles) it was too much to be running non-stop and so I resorted to a run/walk pattern to ease things a bit for the final stages. I wanted to make sure I saved enough to be able to run down The Mall to the finish line.

I made it! I had been hoping to finish somewhere inside 4hrs 30mins but in the end my time was 4:40:26. All things considered, I was quite pleased with that. Collecting my medal, I was relieved... but mindful that I'll soon be going through it all again!

The focus now for the two week interval between events is essentially to rest and refuel. The diet switches to focus more on protein, and it's important to keep moving enough to stretch out the aching muscles without doing anything too strenuous. I'll need to see how things go with my knee, but realistically I think it's very likely I'll need to adopt a different approach for Cape Town: a slower pace and quite possibly a run/walk pattern for most if not all of the distance. We'll see.

Thank you so much to everyone who has supported me on this journey so far - I am so very grateful to you all. Your prayers, thoughtful words and generous donations have really helped spur me on. I can honestly tell you that alongside seeing my family on the pavement and having complete strangers call my name to cheer me along, I did reflect on some of the messages I had been sent in advance of the big day too. I wanted not only to 'do myself proud' but also honour people's generosity and kindness. I can assure I'll set out to do the same in Cape Town on Sunday 16th October too, God willing.

Thank you.

P.S. Feeling tempted to have a go yourself? The general public ballot is only open until Friday 6th October so be quick! 

To sponsor Bob's double Marathon efforts, please click here

To read more blog posts about his preparations, please click here

Banner image: Assembling at the starting area in Greenwich Park