Today is London marathon day and whether I like it or not, this is the day that reminds me that I’m not really a runner any more – not in the way that I once was and not in a way that I can feel proud of. I go out a couple or a few times per week, but I don’t really train – I don’t have anything to train for. No races in the diary this year. None.
One there was a time when I built my entire year around the races I had in the diary. Everything made way for them – holidays, social life, work. Everything.
But today, as I sit in the kitchen, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes, waiting for the tea to brew, there are thousands of people on Blackheath or making their way there, ready to run 26.2 miles in pursuit of their dreams. Obviously there are races all over the world, every day. But the London has a special meaning for me. Not only is it my home town race and one that I consider to be amongst the best I have ever tackled. But it is also where I ran my PB three years ago. So when the London comes around, I get a greater twang of… I guess it is regret or sadness or loss, than on the day of any other marathon.
So, I know what I need to do. When I stopped smoking, drinking too much and eating badly and I started running, people wondered how I had made the transformation I did. The answer, in my mind, was the transfer of addictions.
From fags to miles. Now I need to do the same thing – find my new addiction and embrace it 100%. The only candidate – the only thing that gets me fired up and means that I am happy to put myself in difficult and uncomfortable places, is Freestak and building a business. The problem is that building a business doesn’t have the additional benefits to health and well-being that running does. But there are other benefits – building Freestak means building something that has a positive impact on the world and that will provide an income that means that I’m able to do the things that I want to do in the future. Me running marathons was never going to give me those things.
So today, I am going to look at the teeming thousands running the London and wish them all well. It is an incredibly hard thing to do, certainly if you do it properly. It is fantastically rewarding. You will be part of an amazing community of people. And you will always be able to look back and know that you did something special.
And me? I’m going to the office and once again I’m going to get my head and my heart into my new challenge. It is a longer race, but there are goals, there is pain and there will be challenges and successes. Sounds just perfect to me!
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.
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
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…
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.
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.
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
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.