Nothing can prepare you for it. There are no words to describe the crushing blows of sound coming from the crowds, the pressing mass of bodies moving around you, pushing you always forward, though the twenty six mile tunnel lined by impenetrable, unscalable walls. Even if you wanted to bail out you couldn’t. The only way out is at the end. So, get to the end.
I don’t have a great track record with crowds. I’m definitely better than I used to be, better than when I wrote about zombies, but given the choice between open trails and thronged city streets… well, the road shoes aren’t getting much wear. So why am I doing this? In the days after the race I’m amused by how many people – even those who know me and how many marathons or ultras I’ve done before – want to hear all about it, much more than my previous races, as if it’s a league apart from any other marathon in difficulty or involvement. It’s just another road marathon, in theory. Except it’s not; it’s a national event, a city-wide gala, the zenith of many running careers. Despite the ever-lengthening odds of your average Joe actually getting a place on the starting line London is often either their first or last marathon (or both). Especially to someone living in London, it’s a tangible, real thing, not just a thing that happens somewhere else and well done. On a year that will celebrate the millionth finisher, how many Londoners have either run it or know someone who has? Just for one day, they’re all a little bit of a celebrity.
And there I am, as far away from a natural celebrity as it’s possible to be.
About a week before clubmate Cat admitted she was planning to take it easy at London because she was targeting a podium finish at the Pembrokeshire CTS Marathon the following weekend (as you do), and luckily for me her easy pace is my balls out PB pace, so I had myself a companion. We ran to ExCel on the Friday to traipse around the expo and buy tat we didn’t need, and to talk tactics. Broadly speaking, ‘tactics’ involved me wavering between 3:45 for another good for age qualifier and trying to persuade myself maybe I could do 3:30 after all, followed by Cat firmly and sensibly insisting that a) she can’t afford to do that and b) I probably can’t either. So, I picked up a 3:40 pacing band, then a 3:35 one for good luck as well, then my body weight in Clif products. I’d been marauding around looking for a pair of pink running shorts (because it’s the only obscene colour I don’t own) and maintaining that I’d NEVER wear tights or capri pants for running; meanwhile, half an hour later, there I am carrying away one pair of grey patterned capri pants and zero shorts or pink things. Cat would have her work cut out for her.
Despite there being another huge Chaser turnout I travelled to Maze Hill alone on Sunday morning intending to meet Cat and the others there. It wasn’t so much me being unsociable, although I do like a bit of alone time before a race; I just like to get to the race start two hours in advance, partly to be prepared but mostly to avoid the busy trains. By 8am I was mooching around the Green Start, trying not to bump into Kelly Holmes while glued to my phone looking for a message from Cat; fast forward an hour and a half, and as the announcer made increasingly hysterical pleas for the runners to drop off their bags there was still no sign of her or any of the Chasers. I had to hand my bag in, phone and all, and hope we’d spot each other at the starting pens. Literally minutes before we were due to line up the familiar blue and green stripes flashed by and I found Cat, Korkoi, Kate and Shermayne haggling with the marshals at the pens, hoping to be allowed to start together. Panic over. For now.
Which pen should I be in anyway – what was I realistically aiming for? Only the night before the expo I discovered that my result in Manchester 2015, the result that gave me the Good For Age entry to London in the first place, was now null and void thanks to a man with a dodgy measuring wheel. It was irritating enough to have put so much work in, got my qualifying time for two Londons and then have it taken away; I can’t imagine how infuriating it must be to those who got a significant result, a podium or a PB to retire on. Up to that point I had been realistic about how well a winter of no speed training and a stone gained in weight could actually prepare me; now of course I would have to try and requalify if I ever wanted to run London again. I can’t raise £2000 for a charity place and the ballot entry odds aren’t even as good as the lottery any more. So, do I accept this is probably my first and last opportunity to run London and just enjoy it, knowing that I’ve much bigger fish to fry between now and September? Or do I go for suicide pace and bugger the consequences?
In retrospect, I massively underestimated just how busy it was going to be; not helped by the fact that we were in the relatively quiet Green Start, and not actually catching up with the crowds until a few miles in. We crossed the line – Cat in her usual gentle forefoot trot, me skipping along with Andrew W.K. party moves – only a minute or so after 10am and filtered through the peaceful streets of Greenwich, jostling and being jostled as you do at the beginning of a race. It made me uneasy as it usually does, but I kept telling myself it’d be fine when we crowds thinned out. To Cat’s credit, every time I said so out loud she corrected me – “Jaz, this is London, it’s not going to get any less busy” – and yet somehow I managed to gloss over this crucial piece of advice every time… until, that is, we merged with the other two start pens. As we came down the slope to river’s edge around Charlton a tidal wave of runners met us from one side and the volume of people more than doubled in an instant. It looked like the scene in the Lion King where Simba sees his father crushed by a stampede of wildebeests. I’m not going to get too crude about it, but I’m pretty sure this was around the time my nausea kicked in.
Like the country mice visiting the town mice Cat and I lifted our chins as gracefully as we could, thinking about the trails and pretending we weren’t inches away from other people’s sweat. We chatted about the weather, about other people, about the finer points of existence – we might as well have been two old ladies taking afternoon tea at the Penrith Tea Rooms. The crowd was carrying us along at slightly above our target pace but if we didn’t want to cause a pile-up there wasn’t much we could do about it; there was no moving out to one side or slowing down and allowing others to pass. Every time someone brushed my arm it made me bristle a shudder a little more though, and it was getting pretty difficult to hide. Every half a mile or so we’d both look at our watches, cheerfully announce we were going too fast and should probably slow down, then carry on regardless. Some serious classic British stiff upper lip denial going on.
I had started the race with half a bottle of Lucozade in my hand intending to throw it somewhere convenient within a mile – at Bermondsey I’m still clinging to it like a Linus blanket when I hear my name called off to the left. We’d just settled into a comfortable stride in a relatively quiet stretch, and perfect timing it was too; fellow QPR fan Cez was waving frantically while Loft For Words’ Neil, positioned a little further along with his ubiquitous camera, was snapping away. I’ve spent a lot of Saturdays in the pub with Neil and his camera and I’m always impressed by how he manages to catch a perfect moment. It wasn’t so much that I hadn’t been enjoying myself before, but I felt such a rush of relief to see them both it was impossible to hide and his lens picked up the very instant a grin blossomed across my already sweaty, salty face. There was the boost to get me to Tower Bridge.
Cat warned me that Tower Bridge can be a particularly emotional moment; I wasn’t that convinced to be honest, especially as I run across it quite a lot in my usual Friday lunchtime loop around work. As lovely a sight as it is it’s also normally a nasty congestion point, trying to weave through the narrow walkways past people with no haste and no idea where they are, and I can’t really settle down until I’m past it. Today it was a whole different place altogether. Today we were running along the road, the two narrow walkways crammed with spectators screaming and raising a right ruckus around us. The sound swelled and burst through those iconic tower supports, washing over us and pouring into the tide of the Thames below, and for the first (although not last) time I burst into tears. Ah. So this is what everyone was trying to tell me about.
OK, so yeah. That redefines special. I can’t say I enjoyed it, but I’ve certainly never felt anything like it. And it set a tone for much of the next four or five miles – the route flanked by two walls of noise, surging and rushing over us. Cat ran slightly ahead of me through the Isle of Dogs and Poplar, which suited me absolutely fine. I couldn’t concentrate on where I was putting my feet or the path ahead of me – I just had to follow her ankles and not look up at all the people. Every half a mile or so the overwhelming noise would hit me again and knock me literally breathless; I would clamp my hands over my ears and catch my breath in sobs until it passed. At least twice I actually blacked out briefly, and when the cloud cleared from my eyes I found myself back in a relatively quiet stretch with no recollection of how we got there. And absolutely no way out except forward.
I had arranged for Andy and his family to be stationed along this stretch just after Tower Bridge as it meant that I would see them twice when the route doubled back. It was a great idea in theory, even though I knew it would be a popular spot for exactly this reason, but as usual I had underestimated just how busy it was and therefore how hard it would be to spot them. I ran for a good three miles, scanning the crowd for a glimpse of him or the QPR flag he said he’d be waving, and being horribly antisocial to Cat all the while. Every step I took without seeing him thumped me in the chest. Maybe he’s a bit further down… maybe he couldn’t find a spot there.. maybe they misunderstood… maybe not. It’s silly really, since he’s never at my races, but this one was the one he’d always said he’d be there for, and the one time I knew I’d really need to see him. Eventually, I had to concede defeat and hope we’d catch each other on the return journey. Cat reassured me that he must have been there, he would have seen me – it’s just that I couldn’t see him in the crowd. I knew it was true, but it didn’t make me feel much better. If I had been monitoring my heartrate I’m sure it would have registered such dramatic peaks and troughs as to make an ECG look like a seismograph.
As industrial East London unfolded and everything started looking like the road to the ExCel centre, another familiar sight appeared. Katherine French, stalwart of the road marathon and secret trail fanatic was just a few yards ahead accompanied by her pacer Chris. Aiming for a safe Boston Qualifier time of around 3:30, Katherine and Chris had passed us a long way back as the three groups merged way back in Woolwich and Katherine had the look of a determined lady; by now though she was struggling, stopping to walk and looking downcast. It broke my heart to see her in trouble – I wanted to stop and run with her for a bit, but she had one of the best pacers money (or rather, love and wine) could buy with her already and the last thing she would have wanted was more fuss. Seeing someone else that I admire so much having a crap time just added to the feeling that this just wasn’t fun. I missed the mud and the jelly babies and even though they were right there with me, I missed my friends.
By this point we’re deep in DLR territory and approaching three quarters of the way through. I kept telling myself that next time we passed a fuel station I would pick up a gel or a Lucozade, but by mile 20 I hadn’t managed to do either, whether because I simply couldn’t get to the edge of the pack to reach or because I was afraid of getting tripped up. My stomach was starting to cramp, looking for calories to process which I hadn’t been able to take on, and although I wasn’t feeling tired or sluggish at all I could feel my body crying at me to slow down until the nausea passed. I persisted with the logic that the quicker I went the sooner I’d get to a quiet fuel station, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. We were a good couple of miles past the last gel station before I realised I had missed my last chance. Time had to go out of the window now.
As we approached Shadwell on the return journey I kept my eyes peeled for Andy – surely I couldn’t miss him twice? I was starting to panic now, although I don’t know why I’d suddenly decided that seeing Andy for a brief moment was more likely to get me to the end than having the patient, tireless and graceful Cat by my side the entire time had been. Cat who never once complained about my being distant and unsociable, about the burden of my reliance on her, about the fact that our pace had started to slow and our muscles in danger of cooling. She was a rock all the way through, but she had her own race to think about a week later. She let me drift off to the side of the pack while I scanned every face in the crowd looking for Andy, and when I finally found him there was a brief shriek, a little jump, and then we were past and they long behind us, on the way to the finish. That little boost I had been looking for came and went almost without a chance to register, and the nausea that had been held at bay by the distraction of searching for him came back with a vengeance. After another mile I told her to go on without me. There was no chance of me making my time now, and no point in her risking injury.
The pressure relieved somewhat I trotted along under the underpass, by Blackfriars bridge and along the Embankment where I had run hundreds of times before. Every time I do this route with work I imagine being on the road, running the last few miles to the finish at the Mall; now I was on the other side, wishing I was back on the pavement. I was doing the classic juggling act: walking as much as I could to avoid being sick until the encouragement from onlookers embarrassed me enough to try and trot again, then slowing back down to a walk when I was safely past. I didn’t care about time any more, and I knew I’d still be able to take away the fact that I’d finally finished my first London. I had the support of my club and my family and I had my health, and that was that. It’s not meant to be easy, but as everyone had tried to tell me it does remind you of the goodwill of strangers – never mind my fear of crowds it’s not as if they were malicious or threatening mobs, just a lot of people who had all given up their day to tell total strangers that they believed in them. That’s why it’s different from other marathons, I suppose. Maybe, twitchy little misanthrope that I am, it’s just not for me.
No longer worrying about time I tried to help a couple of other runners who had slowed down, but who looked like they still had a final push left within them – it didn’t seem fair to be overtaking anyone at this stage when I had given up so long ago. The final mile leading to the Mall was a reflective one, but an awesome spectacle nonetheless. This bit I wouldn’t give up for the world – with one last burst of energy I leapt hurdle style over the finish line, stumbled into the marshals holding out medals, and burst into tears. While I waited for my chest to loosen up and my breathing to settle I turned around to watch the finishers behind me coming through, hoping to see Katherine and Chris among them. Those waves of triumph and pain coming through the final arch are what defines any marathon, and it was worth scanning all those faces to pick Katherine out. Seeing her finish represented to me a symbol of strength, of someone who regularly sets themselves standards so high that most people would baulk at attempting let alone be disappointed not to reach them. They came through a few minutes later, both looking calm and composed in comparison to my snot and sobs, and we exchanged sweaty hugs. I was done. We were done.
My mum had been hoping to catch me at the end after her volunteering shift but couldn’t get through the crowds in time, so I met Andy and his family at the meeting point and we went straight back to Earlsfield. Running for nearly four hours on no calories had taken its toll on my complexion and apparently I was looking grey and slurring, a real poster girl for the virtues of exercise, so we hobbled off to a local pub for a full Sunday lunch which I barely touched, although a couple of virgin coladas went down a treat. If that had been the only evidence of the effect of a marathon on the human body I wouldn’t have blamed them for never wanting to try it for themselves but just a couple of weeks later Andy’s sister Emma was asking my advice on shoes and how to train for the Brighton half and parkrun and all sorts. That’s exactly what I’d hope someone would take away from my grey pallor and limp and hypoglycaemia and shivers. It’s fun, but it’s not what you think I mean by fun. And everybody should try it.
It’s not the sort of fun that’s fun while you’re having it, transient fun that exists while it’s happening and disappears into the ether as soon as it’s finished, an unsatisfying and impermanent sort of fun. Cat calls it fun type 2: the afterburn of fun; fun that is had not at the time necessarily but after the hard work and stress has been experienced, and which lasts for weeks afterwards, in the form of memories and a sense of achievement and a change in your outlook. I’ve still never quite managed to articulate the answer to the question “why do you do this” but that’s fairly close. And, you know, the goody bags and the bling make up for it all.
I can tell you probably don’t believe me. I wouldn’t either. All I can say is, try it for yourself and see.
Funky graphs and stats below (I couldn’t resist):
PS: If you like reading, or running, or reading about running, then you should follow Katherine’s blog girlrunningcrazy.com – winner of Best Running Blog at the Trespass Blog Awards 2015. Hell yes.