Going right back to when – and why – I started running in the first place, control was a big issue. I had lost control of my life, with my health, wealth and happiness all seemingly being managed by a greater and more malevolent force than I could muster. So I ran.
I ran around the block one weekday evening. I felt terrible. But I had taken a step away from all the things I hated about myself and towards the person I wanted to become. Then I ran again. And again. And again.
I soon realised that I could control so much of my life through running. My health, my weight, my self-respect were all within my grasp – the more I ran, the better I became. Simple.
And as I improved the control aspect of running became more important. To become a better runner, I had to control other aspects of my life. Work had to bend to the will of my training plan. As did social life. And family commitments. These were the choices (I prefer the word ‘choices’ to ‘sacrifices’) that I made in order to see how close I could get to being the best runner I could be.
The ultimate expression of this control thing was racing. Sure, when it came to the rare occasion when I would race a 5km I would just ‘go for it’ but anything longer than that, and there would be a target time and target pace in mind.
When it came to the marathon, the need to control every aspect reached it’s zenith. Everything needed to be just so: taking time off work to relax for a couple of days before. Cooking exactly the right meals in the days before the race. Avoiding stress. Having the right kit, all well worn-in. Hydrating properly.
And on the day, I would try to control everything: my pace, who I was running with, how relaxed I felt, where friends and family would be on the course and so on.
This year the pressure that I put myself under for the London marathon was less. Training had been disrupted since Julie and I launched freestak (please don’t get me wrong: this has been an absolutely wonderful thing, but it has undoubtedly made consistent training tougher) and the winter weather meant that I thought my chances of running a new personal best time were slim.
Additionally I think that having launched the business gave me a sense of satisfaction that previously I had only managed to obtain from running.
I had also been wondering about a few changes to my racing – things that I wanted to try out, but that could only really be tested in race conditions.
Oh and I had a place in the Copenhagen marathon… just in case things didn’t go to plan.
On the day
I arrived at Blackheath, having met my two training partners, Carl and James, on the train from London Bridge, feeling pretty happy and relaxed.
I had a new fuelling strategy – 7 gels this time rather than 3 or 4 which I had been using.
I was wearing a slightly different model of shoes for the first time (the wider version of my usual adidas adiZero adios)
And I had a new racing strategy…
My plan was to switch my watch off and run on feel. My coach Nick had suggested a strategy based on effort: slightly easier first 10km, a solid middle 20km and then push hard in the last 10km to do as much as I could to maintain my pace. I had also had a conversation with Stuart Mills in the car on the way to a trail running weekend in Wales, where he pretty much proposed the same, albeit in starker terms:
run as fast as you can for as long as you can and accept that you will slow down towards the end.
The day was ideal, if a little too sunny, which made it feel warm. But there was little in the way of wind. The air temperature was low. It was dry. After an hour of stretching out on the grass and talking to people I know in the Championship start, I threw my bag on the baggage truck and jogged for a few minutes to warm up.
We were taken towards the start line where the elite athletes were waiting and then one of the most remarkable events of my running career happened. There was a well-publicised 30 seconds of silence for the victims of the bombing at the Boston marathon six days earlier. But I could not imagine that 35,000 people would manage to observe total silence like that. Everything stopped for that half a minute. The generators providing electricity and the gas burners on the row of hot air balloons on Blackheath fell silent. Everyone I could see around me bowed their heads. There was not a single cough or beep of a GPS watch – nothing, for 30 seconds. Then the whistle blew, everyone roared and applauded and a minute later we were on our way.
The early miles ticked past. I felt fantastic. I knew I was going faster than I would have run before, but I figured this was all part of the experiment and I had the extra gels so everything would be OK… probably!
At half way I looked at the clock and saw 76:45. I still felt great.
At this stage I had already consumed three TORQ gels (as many as I usually take in a whole marathon) and they were going down great – no intestinal distress at all. Because I was taking more gels than usual and because it was a hot day, I was also drinking more water – two mouthfuls at most water stations and the rest on my head or back of my legs. I felt hydrated and relaxed.
Once through Canary Wharf, I started to work harder. But I also had three secret weapons – Nick and his fiancée Phoebe at mile 20, the RunDemCrew at mile 21 and the Mornington Chasers after mile 22. I started to look forward to those interactions and driving myself towards them.
As promised Nick and Phoebe were at the 20 mile mark. Nick simply said “You know what to do” and gave me a big smile. I told myself to get my head down, think about form and start to work hard to arrest the slow-down that I could feel in my legs.
The RunDemCrew were next. Since last year they have set up camp at mile 21 and create a cheering station the likes of which I have never seen before. Last year was good. This year was insane.
As I reached the start of the tunnel they had formed I was running with two other guys. I had rehearsed what I would do (after the frankly bizarre display I put on at the same point in 2012!) and I raised both hands in what I hoped was an appropriate and well-executed ‘Gun Finger Salute’. The noise was deafening. Utterly amazing. Overwhelming.
One of the runners with me at the point almost recoiled at the volume. We hadn’t spoken to each other despite running together for more than half an hour.
“Wow! What the fu%k was that?” He asked
“That” I said “was the RunDemCrew. An amazing group of people”
“They seemed to like you” he said…
Then it was back on to the Highway heading west towards the finish. Buy before that came the Mornington Chasers. I was still checking and rechecking how I felt at this point. I was on schedule for a new PB and if I could hold my pace it would be a significant one. So when I reached the Chasers – with about four miles to go – I was really pumped up. I can’t remember if I waved, high-fived or simply ran past. But I really enjoyed the noise and I knew it was on at that point.
The last few miles were tough. It was warm by this stage and I was tired. I had to remind myself a couple of times to take a gel. My head was tilted backwards (I do that whenever I am really tired) and I developed an effective – if slightly odd – mantra:
“literally and metaphorically get your head down… literally and metaphorically get your head down… literally and metaphorically get your head down”
And before I knew it I was out of the Blackfriars underpass and I could see the Houses of Parliament. A quick check with three miles to go told me that even three six and a half minute miles would get me home in a new PB. I was in pain and struggling, but I was also sure I could hang on.
As I ran down Birdcage Walk I saw a friend – Catherine – on my right and gave her a wave. At that point it was a matter of grabbing every second I could to push my new PB as far as I could. My mantra had changed:
“Just run… just run… just run”
And on to the finish line. I only had the official clock on the gantry to go on as I had accidentally stopped my watch much earlier in the race. The clock said 2:37:20-something. I thought I had taken five seconds to cross the finish line, so it was going to be a PB by a minute at least. To say I was delighted is a massive understatement.
In the end, after I met up with my wife and my parents, I found out that my official chip time was 2:37:07 – a PB by a minute and a half and good enough for 105th place out of 35,000+ runners.
What did I learn?
Here are my conclusions from this run
- I obviously trained better than I thought I had
- More gels is a good thing – one every 20 minutes for me in future
- I race better when I am relaxed
- It is always hot on the day of the London marathon
- The crowds in London are the best of any race I have ever done (and that includes New York, Berlin, Paris, etc)
- Being slightly reckless with my pacing worked for me – I slowed down, but I was expecting it and could work harder to minimise the decline in speed
- I still have the hunger to push myself to become the best runner I can be and I am not there yet…
Disclaimer – I PB’d so everything in this article could be rose-tinted nonsense emanating from a deliriously happy brain…