The Virgin Money London Marathon 2014: a personal view

I am increasingly of the opinion that to do something really well – I mean to the absolute best of your ability – you have to focus as much of your energy on it as possible. One hundred percent of your energy if you can. And I don’t just mean physical energy – although focussing that on your goal is essential – I also mean mental energy. Give everything to the challenge you set yourself and you have the best possible chance of achieving it. 

Mornington Chasers contingent in the VMLM Championship Start
Mornington Chasers contingent in the VMLM Championship Start

Which is why I went into the London marathon this year with very low expectations for the time I was going to run. Freestak has replaced running as the thing that I think about as I am going to sleep and the thing I am thinking about the moment I wake up, as well as all the minutes in between. BF (Before Freestak) I would spend most of my time thinking about running – my running and how I could improve and see how good I could possibly be. Indeed work was a rather inconvenient distraction from the important business of running.

But all that has changed recently (although not entirely. More on that in a minute) and I went to London to see what it was like to run this iconic, world famous race for fun. I had a partner in this endeavour – Mat Chataway, a 2:41 marathon runner now in training for the Comrades Ultra marathon – and I had no expectations. So we decided to set off at 3:20 pace and enjoy the day.

Changing my focus from racing to running

I enjoy racing and I remember feeling as relaxed last year, aiming for a PB, as this year with no pressure on my shoulders. After all, running is for fun and given my background, the fact that I am running at all is a wonderful thing, so I don’t worry all that much about my times. It is great to run times that you are proud of, but my feeling is that you can only control so much and if you have trained properly, all you need to do is execute your plan as well as possible on the day.

So I strolled across Blackheath with two friends who were also running the marathon, taking in the sights and thinking that the weather looked beautiful.

After an hour and a half in the Championship start pen (what a privilege that is!) chatting to friends, we shuffled to the start line, clapped and cheered for the elite field as they were announced and then we were off!

The first 10 miles just ticked by. Mat and I were striding along together chatting about ultras and plans for the summer. We caught up with a fellow Mornington Chaser, Ian Girling, who was aiming to run sub-3 for the first time, and we fell into rhythm with him, grabbing drinks for him and trying to be helpful. We were ahead of our scheduled pace within a mile of starting!

Approaching half way the route really starts to get interesting. Tower Bridge was amazing – a sea of charity flags and cheering supporters. I had briefly glimpsed my own band of supported – Julie, Mum and Dad – at the Cutty Sark, but the crowds were incredible and they were unable to get to the barrier. Still I knew they were there and that was lovely.

The run down towards the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf was still massively enjoyable and I was finding people I knew who were running – Hi, Chris Watt! – and saying hello and checking how they were. The only issues I had were a growing blister on the top of my big toe on my left foot and the fact that at 3 hour pace, we (that is Mat, Ian and I) were getting caught up in the peleton of runners following the official 2:59 pacer.

The best was yet to come

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Coming through the RDC CheerDem station at Mile 21. Photo © Candice

Coming past Mudchute, I thought that I might see Julie and my parents. I was actually well ahead of the schedule that I had told them I would run, so they weren’t quite expecting me when I did arrive. Suddenly I heard Julie’s voice and looked back over my left shoulder to see her sprinting along the pavement to catch me. I was in such high spirits that I impulsively u-turned in the road and ran back towards her for a kiss. She was clasping a bunch of spare TORQ gels that she had brought with her and was yelling at me to not run in the wrong direction and waste time, but I was so happy to see her and I wanted a kiss. After a few seconds with her, I was off, kicking along to catch up with Mat and Ian.

After mile 20 I started getting excited about the RunDemCrew cheering point at mile 21. There were posters on lamp posts in the mile or so before the ‘Crew and I was desperate to find some space so I could take it all in. Obviously the difference between this year and last year – at that 21 mile point – was that I was about 18 minutes slower and there were a lot more runners around me. But the ‘Crew look out for their own and despite me not wearing the right kit (I have to wear a club vest in the Championship race) I threw up my hands in a ‘gun finger’ salute and the CheerDemCrew went crazy! Charlie set off a confetti cannon and there was just the most immense noise. Absolutely brilliant!

After the RDC tunnel of noise, I passed the Mornington Chasers at mile 22. This was a much tamer affair – actually how could it not be?!?! – and trundled on towards the finish.

Blackfriars underpass was as usual: a deathly silent, surreal place. I saw one of my training partners and at least a dozen other runners, heads bowed, walking through the underpass. By this stage I was feeling a bit tight in my hamstrings and glutes, but generally I was OK. I just kept motoring along.

The magic last three miles of the London marathon

The last three miles of the London marathon are magical. The crowds are amazing. The sights are incredible – the Millenium Eye, South Bank, Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament. If you are still feeling OK at this point, it is the best end to the race in the world.

I was definitely feeling tired by this point. I had really not trained for this race and I was still knocking out 6’45” minutes per mile. But I was also grinning from ear to ear and happy to just run all the way. On Birdcage Walk I saw Catherine Wilding, a great friend and runners who has written a wonderful race report here, and gave her a wave.

And then the finish line.

It was a great experience. I love the London marathon – the crowds, the runners, the sights and the sounds. It was fun to run within myself and enjoy it rather than pushing as hard as possible for a PB. I must admit though, that my desire for a crack at my PB has not diminished. I’m not sure that I can balance two huge passions in my life – running and Freestak – in a way that will allow me to train hard enough to run as fast as I have in the past. But you never know…

­2014 London Marathon Race Report by Catherine Wilding

It promised to be one of the most exciting races ever.  The London Marathon was to bear witness to the double Olympic Champion – Mo Farah – making his debut over the 26.2 mile distance.  Ever since Mo turned up on the start line of the London Marathon in 2013 to “practice” going off with the leaders, before dropping out at the half way point, we have waited with eager anticipation to see what could happen in the second half.

Mo Farah after his baptism of fire. Photo © Telegraph
Mo Farah after his baptism of fire. Photo © Telegraph

After a year-long wait, here was the nations sporting hero and Olympic Champion “stepping up to the road”, carrying the hope of a winning debut on the Mall to add to his Olympic glory. For once, the Marathon made headline news.

It ended in disappointment, not just for Mo but for the rest of us – the media, the commentators and anyone who thought that Mo may be able to shake off the dominance of the Kenyan’s and Ethiopians.  2.08.21 was the finish time for Mo,  8th place and 4 minutes behind the winner, Wilson Kipsang.  Mo may just have settled for a new British record if not an outright win, but he even missed that by almost a minute.

So what happened?

The stakes were set high. There were some formidable names on the start line – Kipsang  (the current World Record Holder), Mutai, Kebede and Olympic champion Kiprotich.  All eclipsed however by the legendary Gabreselassie who was here to run as a pacemaker.  That’s right, the former world record holder was here to pace the leaders beyond the half way point with the aim of setting a new world record.

It seemed a risky strategy to assume that anyone making their debut over the distance would not only be able to win but also walk away with a new world record.  So, Farah and his coach, Alberto Salazar made the decision for Mo to run in a group, a few seconds back from the leaders. Mo was to hold back, 30 seconds off the pace with a half-way target time of 62.15. Presumably the rest of the plan – which was not discussed – was that Mo would catch the leaders in the second half and pick up the pace to run a blisteringly fast last 10K.  That was the plan.

It was much debated and the media couldn’t understand why Mo – a runner who runs every race with the self-belief to win it  – was not in the mix from the beginning with the leaders.  But any experienced coach and marathon runner knows that a few seconds too fast in the first half can cost dearly in the remaining miles.

The early miles

It was a day that runners refer to as “ideal marathon running conditions” – clear blue skies, a chill in the air and a temperature on the start line of 9 degrees. As the gun fired at 10am, the first group went off with the pacemakers and Mo followed just a few steps behind. So far, so good, but by the 5K mark the gap had opened up and Mo was already 27 seconds behind the leaders. Beyond the 10K mark it was starting to look like Mo was working a little harder than perhaps he should have been – still off the pace and more importantly off the plan.  Realising this he picked up the pace for the next 5K and ran a faster 5K split at this stage than the lead group.  In his efforts to make up ground and catch the lead pack, this burst of speed so early in the race could have been his downfall.  The pacemakers for the second group had a plan to stick to and that was to go through half way at 62.15.  As they kept to the pace, Mo had fallen further back from the pacemakers and was working hard to try to bring them back. At the half-way point with a time of 63.08, it was clear that his race was not going to plan.

By mile 17 it was even more evident that Mo was starting to tire and his pace slowed.  He was starting to look less like a marathon runner as he didn’t quite have the ease in his stride that the leaders had.  His dream of a home win was now – like the lead group – surely out of sight.

Meanwhile, at the front of the race, a pack of eight runners entirely dominated by Kenyans and Ethiopians had opened up a significant gap.  The pace was quick – too quick maybe – for Gabreselassie who had been scheduled to pace until the 16 mile mark, but had dropped out just after half way.

Killer finish

Just after the 30K mark, Kipsang who was looking comfortable and almost as if he was biding his time, suddenly surged away from the pack.  Only Stanley Biwott responded and went with him. The two then ran together along the Embankment until with just over 2km to go, Kipsang surged again and never looked back.  He opened up a gap of 26 seconds in the last 2km, sprinting down the Mall to set a new course record of 2.04.29 – 11 seconds faster than Emmanuel Mutai’s record set in 2011.  It was Mo Farah the crowds had hoped to see but next came Biwott in 2.04.55 to make it a double Kenyan victory with Kebede the Ethiopian finishing third in 2.06.30.

The British men didn’t make much of an impact on the Kenyans and Ethiopians, with Mo in 8th place and Chris Thompson not too far behind in 11th place at 2.11.19.  It was also another disappointing race for Scott Overall who having gone out at 2.10 pace and passed the half way mark in 1.05.05 finished in a disappointing 2.19.55.

Enthralling women’s race

Kiplagat victorious for the first time. Photo © Run247
Kiplagat victorious for the first time. Photo © Run247

It’s fair to say that the women’s race was overshadowed by the excitement of the men’s but in a separate story, the plot line here was remarkably similar.  Tirunesh Dibaba – double Olympic champion in the 5K and 10K was also making her debut over the marathon distance.  The race, however, for Dibaba was more closely fought than for Farah.  The Kenyan’s, Florence and Edna Kiplagat (not related) lead the race with Dibaba in the group going through half way in 1.09.17.  All three looked in contention until the 18 mile point when a debacle at the drinks station left Dibaba behind.  Dibaba reached for her bottle, dropping it and then stopping to pick it up.  The Kiplagat’s had seen the mistake and with a quick glance and exchange to each other they took advantage to surge ahead opening up a gap of 5 seconds. This seems to be where Dibaba lost her chance of a debut win.  From there she couldn’t close the gap.  It was Edna and Florence that were still leading side by side with 800m to go.  As they turned into the Mall, it was Edna that had the final kick. Having twice finished second in London perhaps she was more determined as she sprinted to the finish line in a time of 2.20.11 leaving Florence 3 seconds behind in 2.20.14. Another double win for the Kenyan’s.  The gap for Dibaba had now opened up to 11 seconds as she finished 3rd in 2.20.35.

Of the two track-stars, it is Dibaba that showed the most promise, keeping the leaders in her sights and securing a podium finish. A runner who is used to coming from behind and with a big kick in the closing stages of a race, who knows how the story could have unfolded for Dibaba had she not dropped her bottle.  We’re sure she’ll be back.

In the elite race, the lead British woman was Amy Whitehead in a time of 2.34.20 with the 44 year old Emma Stepto a couple of minutes behind in 2.36.04.

A little further back from the lead men was Simon Freeman. He breezed along looking a little too comfortable and with a smile and a wave he cruised to the finish line to break the 3 hour mark in style with a 2.58.55. He said “I was running comfortably and within myself and the difference in terms of pain and suffering is incredible.  It was an amazing experience.” You can read about his race here.

The marathon distance can never be underestimated. “I know what the marathon is about now and hopefully I will come back stronger” Mo added with the greatest respect for the greatest race.

 

The London marathon: finishers, fans and their stories

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Me trying to find out what I am capable of, 2013.

What is the London marathon, really? Is it a test of physical preparedness? Or a chance for people to show that they are mentally tough enough to deal with the training required to run 26.2 miles? Maybe it is a great way to honour a relative that has passed away and perhaps raise some money for charity at the same time. Or is it a last gasp attempt to show the world – to show each other – that there are still people who are not steering a course to becoming obese couch potatoes with an incurable addiction to TV and takeaways?

Actually I think that the London marathon – and indeed all races like it (and most of the ones unlike it) – is all of the things I have mentioned and more. It is, in fact, a collection of 38,000 motivations and reasons, flowing like a river of determination and good intentions and pride, through the capital. My reasons for running the London this year include wanting to run with a friend, give my training for a summer of ultras a kick up the backside and prove to myself that I have not yet passed the point of no return fitness-wise. Last year I was out to prove what an ex-fat smoker can do and to see – really see – what I can capable of.

But like the sweat on the runners’ brows and the puddles of energy drink on the roads, all of the reasons and motivations evaporate after the race has been done and leave no trace, other than in the hearts of the people who ran the miles and those they told about ‘why’ and ‘how’.

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Extra Mile – all about stories

Now, however, the Virgin Money London Marathon has created a space where runners can tell their stories and leave a slightly more permanent, albeit online, record. Extra Mile is the official runner’s website of the London and is encouraging runners to record their race through a couple of competitions. Ultimately extramile.co.uk is looking to create a record of the stories behind the £50m raised every year by the London marathon.

How can you get involved?

There are two opportunities for runners to get involved in Extra Mile:

Selfies:

On race day, extramile.co.uk is inviting marathon runners to take a photo of themselves at the end of the race with their medal. All photos shared on twitter or Instagram with the #finisher and #extramile hashtags will be entered into a competition to win a UK weekend break where sore legs will be rejuvinated… hopefully it won’t be a walking trip to the Lake District!

Super Fans:

The #superfan campaign is a chance for supporters to show how they go the #extramile. Come Sunday, anyone on the sidelines has the opportunity to share their race day photographs via Twitter or Instagram and potentially earn £1,000 for a chosen charity OR a place in the 2015 Virgin Money London Marathon – so they can experience the race for themselves. All you or your supporters have to do is upload pics to twitter or Instagram and tag them with #extramile and #superfan, so that they appear on the extramile twitter timeline. If you want to know if you have won, @VirginMoney will have the winners. You have until Monday 21st April at 23.59pm to get your photos into the draw.

As I am sure everyone who reads this realises, I love stories. After all that is why Julie and I launched Like the Wind magazine. This is another great outlet for people to tell their VMLM story and hopefully inspire others to get involved and create their own running tales.

Virgin London Marathon 2014 entry opens… and slams the door on some GFA runners

After the excitement and razzamatazz of the London marathon, there follows a somewhat unsightly scramble for places the following year. There is a ballot system in place which is capped at 125,000 entries. Once this is reached the ballot entry closes – and that usually takes a few hours to fill up – and then the lucky runners are informed later in the year, whether or not they have gained entry. There is about a 1 in 7 chance of getting a place, provided you get into the ballot.

Screen Shot 2013-04-29 at 09.13.29This is the nature of the beast. Mass participation running and endurance sports are getting more and more popular and the demand for places has outstripped supply for decades. This could be seen as a good thing. Or a bad thing – I guess that subject warrants a post all to itself.

But if you want to run the London marathon, having to rush to enter a ballot to then have a 1 in 7 chance of getting a place is a pretty frustrating situation.

There is another way to get into VLM

This is where the three guaranteed entry systems come in to play. Yes, there are three ways that you can get a guaranteed place in the London marathon. In order of difficulty they are:

  • Elite entry – for a man you need to have run faster than 2 hours 20 minutes to get into this hallowed group. Do that and you will have every advantage possible and stand right on the start line
  • Championship entry – a race within a race. This is the UK AAA Championship, held every year and open to club runner who have qualified by running 2hrs45min for a marathon or 75mins for a half marathon (for the men) or sub-3:15 for a marathon or sub-1:30 for a half (women’s entry standard). You will enjoy a separate start pen, warm-up area, dozens of portaloos, water and a tent to change in as well as a start right behind the elite men’s field.
  • Good For Age entry – this is a guaranteed entry for anyone who has run a particular time that is considered good for their age group. You can see the qualifying times here. The start is similar to the Championship (above) with a separate pen, loos, etc and a position right on the start line.

As you can imagine, these entry systems are something that many, many marathoners aspire to. No queuing for hours for the loo. No 15 minute shuffle to get to and over the start line. A much more relaxed bag-drop. A sense of having ‘made it’.

Not so fast…

So it is a bit of a blow for many runners that this year, without warning, the London marathon powers-that-be have elected to make the Good For Age qualifying times tougher, by 5 minutes across the board from what I can see.

I imagine that the reason for this is to restrict the number of people that can get one of these coveted places. A few years ago the Boston marathon, which has a qualifying standard for all entries, did the same and I was caught up in that trap myself (more on that in a moment) and I guess it is a pleasing outcome in some senses: it means that standards of running are improving. But what about the people who thought they’d got their GFA place and now discover that they don’t?

A few years ago I went to run the New York marathon. I can’t remember the time that I did, but I crossed the line thinking that I had got my BQT – Boston Qualifying Time. Only to be told by another runner that the Boston Athletic Club, who run the race, had lowered the qualifying time by 10 minutes and I was now too slow for Boston. I was gutted.

Runners affected

So I can understand the reaction to the change in Good For Age qualifications from some of the people I know. Here are two tweets I received this morning:

@fehrtrade: I ran 3:48 in Oct & thought I’ve had GFA for the past 6 months. Completely cruel to change it now.

@themrwyatt: Means what I had planned is now not an option. Shame when your working hard for something that the goal posts change

The problem here seems to be that the team at the London marathon have made the change without telling anyone. So now people who assumed that they could get into London for 2014 have found out they can’t and with the Good For Age application phase closing in the next couple of months, they don’t have time to do anything about it.

What do you think? Is it more than a little unfair to change the entry requirements without telling anyone (in my Boston example the change to the qualifying time was publicised a year in advance… I just hadn’t checked!) Or is it just a symptom of the fact that more people want to run so the standards are creeping up, something that should be applauded?

I guess which ever way you look at it, the standards are now set and if you have just missed out, I can really recommend Brighton or Paris… both really lovely races.