A little over a year ago I changed my mind and decided I wanted to become a marathoner. Yesterday I ran my first marathon – the 2015 Virgin Money London Marathon. And it was epic!
After months of miles and social sacrifices the big day arrived. The day I would lose my marathon cherry. Something that, until 12 months ago, I’d said I would never do. But that’s the power of the London Marathon.
A few years ago I watched from the roadside for the first time and my marathon position changed from “never” to “maybe”. Cheering on from the barriers for a second time, last year, was all it took to change my mind from “maybe” to “definitely”!
Personal London Marathon ballot rejection knocked my ambitions back a little but was replaced with joy when a small charity I support, African Children’s Fund, won their first ever place in the London Marathon through the inaugural charity ballot – something that gave 500 charities that don’t already have places, a single place for a single year. The place was mine if I wanted it.
Even though I’m a keen runner, I was confident that tackling my first marathon would be justification to ask people for sponsorship so of course I wanted it!
Fast forward 5 months, it’s Marathon Eve and I’m in London heading to the Expo to collect my number and chip.
One Expo tip for anyone running London Marathon in future years: don’t leave it until Saturday.
I hear that, at the opening of the fourth and final day of this year’s Expo, more than half the runners were still to collect their number so it was unsurprising that it was so busy. Unfortunately, the number of people, and with one eye on trying not to be on my feet too long, meant I didn’t enjoy the Expo as much as I’d hoped.
Anyway, after a big bowl of past for a late lunch and picking up sandwiches and snacks for the evening I retired with my number 1 supporter to our hotel room.
It was time to empty out all my marathon kit and decide exactly what I would need at the different points of marathon day.
Waking up on race day was just like Christmas Day. An interrupted nights sleep, looking at the clock willing it to be time to get up and when it was time, a stack full of colourful packages:
Thanks to being awake and raring to go, I was well on schedule for travelling across town. As we hit Millbank, a caravan of running club coaches approached and turned on to Lambeth Bridge. Cue the emotions. I wasn’t sad, just hit with an overwhelming sense of pride for being involved in this fabulous event.
Composing myself, I travelled to London Bridge with my wife before heading our separate ways.
The tube was quieter than I’d expected but London Bridge was a bit busier, now with virtually everyone carrying their bright red kit bags. Now here’s another lesson for anyone travelling on the trains on marathon day: listen to the station staff when they say move right along the platform.
I struggled through the crowds at the beginning of the platform and sauntered all the way to the other end. The train pulled in and I got on the first carriage with about 3 other people:
I was calm as I followed the procession of runners from Greenwich station to the park. I followed advice I was given and went straight to the toilets. Not a queue at that point so that settled my stomach in more than one way. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist that little pun.)
Finding a quiet spot between the toilets, baggage lorries and big screen, I sat down to think about all the positive messages and get off a few tweets before the signal disappeared through volume of people.
After dropping my bag off at the truck (not a euphamism, although I did do that too!) I meandered to my start pen, number 5. I was surprised how empty it still was – and how close to the iconic park gates I was. Now it was time to wait and try to relax.
Before I knew it we were shuffling forward and were off!
Keeping advice in my mind to hold back and not to weave I just smiled at the spectacle as tears welled up behind my sunglasses.
This was to be the first race where I wasn’t going to use the GPS pace on my adidas SmartRun watch, instead opting to use heart rate, stopwatch and the course mile markers. The first mile marker seemed to take forever to appear and I was nervous I might be too relaxed until I realised that I had 25.2 miles to make up time.
I was happy with my watch splits and my heart rate, although the excitement of the atmosphere meant my heart rate was up to target quicker than normal.
When I looked at my watch as we passed mile marker 7 I was astounded that an hour had passed. The time had flown, I was pretty much on pace for a 3:45 and was feeling great.
Approaching the half way point my heart rate (and pace) spiked, partly due to the sight of the iconic Tower Bridge and partly for seeing some of my fellow club mates marshalling just off the bridge.
The first half of the race had been good and relaxed, just as it should be. Now the race would really start. I calmed myself back down after seeing a group of friends just after the halfway point and focussed on my next goal: spotting my wife who was eagerly awaiting me at around 14 miles, just before the turn into Narrow Street.
As I drifted left and scanned the faces of the crowd, there she was, leaning over the barrier and yelling support. I returned a wave and yelled something back – no idea what, probably “see you in a bit” or something equally benign.
Narrow Street lived up to its name and I was relived when we could finally turn right onto the Isle of Dogs, passing the 25km marker I was still close to my 3:45 target. And that’s when I felt the first twinge in my hip. I pulled off the side, stretched out and got back running, remarkably panic free. I was only 2 minutes off my 3:45 target and I knew it was going to be tough. It’s a marathon – it’s supposed to be tough.
I didn’t feel too bad and it wasn’t until mile 18 that I had to stop again. Another stretch and I was back on my way. At this point I knew my 3:45 target was slipping away but I still felt amazing (aside from the twinge) and a bit of crowd surfing (running right next to the barriers so they can cheer your name) did wonders to keep me going. As did remembering the smile on my colleagues face when we saw her pass around 19 miles last year, as I passed the exact spot.
Next up was trying to spot Tamsyn again, this time near the 20 mile mark. There she was again, leaning over the barrier, applauding and cheering my efforts. I’d decided, with the 3:45 target slipping away and the hips and knees only getting worse, that I needed to stop for a moment. Partly for a rest. Partly for a hug and kiss to boost me for the last 6 miles. Mostly so I could tell her that my legs are hurting but I’m feeling awesome and not to worry when she sees my splits take a tumble.
Our friends Sara and Chris were nearby on the same side for another boost as I turned back down the Highway towards home. It was now all about managing the niggle whilst pushing to get home as fast as I could. With the pace slowed my heart rate was dropping so when I the hip felt ok I eased up the pace for as long as I could before the niggle kicked back.
With the changes in the ballot process for next year’s London Marathon likely to make getting a place even more difficult I embraced the atmosphere and the advice I had been given to enjoy it. This might be my only London Marathon and I still had two things in mind – actually crossing the finish line and soaking up as much of the atmosphere as possible.
There were three points left on the course when I just had to be running – the Tower of London, where I knew I’d see my club mates marshalling again; somewhere near Cleopatra’s Needle on Embankment, where my god-daughter would be cheering me on (I’d had strict instruction to run on the river side of the road) and finally the last 385 yards.
I was having an absolutely awesome time. Strange to say, given the sporadic pain and slight frustration at having to slow down but I have never experienced anything like it. It’s a cliche but it really was the Best of British. So much positivity, so much adulation, so much pride.
I’m welling up again as I write this.
Seeing the guys at the Tower was a boost, despite nearly punching Bertie in the face with a failed high-five! I knew what to expect from the route home and it was all about counting off the miles.
My new strategy of running, walking and stopping to stretch was working to keep me going although the hardest part was being so close to the amazing crowds. They were willing me on but you can’t explain what you’re doing or why you’re doing it. Unfortunately, while walking I had to look straight ahead so as not to look the crowd in the eye.
I made the mistake of going through one of the water showers which, while it freshened me up, meant my sunglasses were now completely smeared meaning I had less opportunity to hide from the crowds.
The Lucozade tunnel provided me with an opportunity to completely relax and compose myself without the crowd. I let the loud music pour energy into me, I walked briskly and psyched myself up for the final couple of miles.
Continuing the walk/run combo and being unsure when my final group of supporters was a bit unnerving but I somehow managed to be running when I heard a roar of “DAN!”. I was running but slow enough to see my 8 year old god-daughter smiling and cheering amongst a crowd of my friends. I thanked her with my marathon version of a wave which basically consists of holding your arm out and opening and closing your fingers and thumbs. No idea where that came from but I suddenly realised I’d been doing it all race!
Just a little more walk/running to Westminster and along Birdcage Walk. By now I was sharing glances with spectators willing me on, as if to say “I’m ok but I need to save something for the finish”.
There was the 800 metres to go sign – what a lift! I don’t even recall thinking about my hip, I just got myself running again.
600 metres to go. I concentrated on keeping my form as tall as possible and began to ease the pace up.
The footbridge! 385 yards to go. Just about a lap of an athletics track to go. And there’s Buckingham Palace.
The corner turns and the Mall opens to welcome you to the finish. I allowed myself to drift to the left where there was more space. Feeling ten foot tall with pride I strode up the Mall as if it was my first mile of the day. Seeing the little travelling camera (like they have along the 100 metres at the Olympics) looking at me and seeming to be matching my pace I offered a cheeky wink and and double point before turning my head back to the finish line, oblivious of the clocks.
Martin Yelling’s advice pinged into my head: remember to celebrate. And celebrate I did!
Luckily thanks to a couple of eagle eye and very keen home supporters I have both still and moving pictures of me crossing the finish line.
It was amazing! As you can see from Jenny’s video, I punched the air as if I’d won the race. And in truth, I had.
I had trained long and hard. I had two target times in mind and missed them both but it didn’t matter. No really, I don’t believe it either but I was jubilant. I had just become a marathoner and that is one hell of an achievement in it’s own right.
When I did eventually look down at my watch which strangely, I had remembered, without thinking, to stop (I never do that at races!) I was astonished.
Thinking I’d be sub 4:15 after all the hobbling and stretching, I looked again to see I was sub 4:05!
It was at this point, as I was being given my medal that I was truly overcome. My boss, who’d completed his first marathon in New York last year, had warned me this might happen. Smiling though my sobs, I thanked the person for my medal who replied “Yes, you’ve done it. Well done!”. I can only imagine I’d been thinking out loud in a questioning tone, “I’ve done it?”
The time wasn’t important but the fact that I’d struggle so much in the last 6 miles and still been so close to sub 4 gave me hope that there was more than one marathon in me.
In fact, once I’d caught up with my wife and friends, Sara & Chris, (who incidentally took longer to get back from Limehouse than I did!) and was told how close my 5k splits were over the first 25k I was boosted again.
I hadn’t done anything stupid. I ran my plan and I ran it well. Up until a slight muscle weakness decided to have it’s say. I’d also enjoyed the magnificent occasion. I’m not saying it wasn’t hard; there was a certain amount of expletives being used at certain points in that last 6 miles but WOW! What a day! What a race!
And let’s not forget, the reason I was there in the first place: I’d raised above and beyond my self-set target of £2,000 for African Children’s Fund. As I finish writing this post I’m pleased to say my total is over £2,500 – that’s more than 1% of their annual turnover!
In real terms, that would provide nearly 36,000 portions of porridge to encourage children to attend school, receive and education and get a better start in life. That’s nearly the same amount of people who started the London Marathon this year.
It’s enough to keep more than 140 children in school for a year.
It’s enough to provide sanitary towels and underwear to more than 40 girls, allowing them to attend school all month, every month for a year, rather than having to miss one week in four and damage their education.
Amazing what such small amounts of money can do.
I’m equally amazed at what one person can do. When I was at school I was a swat, a nerd, a geek. I was booky, not sporty.
Now I’m a marathoner! And I feel awesome!
A massive thank you to all who have donated and supported me over the last 5 months. I know some will still not quite understand why I run but the whole marathon experience has only made my love for running stronger. I’ll try not to bore those non-runners amongst you too much!