My recent love affair with the London Marathon continued at the weekend but not as a runner. As an unlucky ballot entrant I wasn’t running the 2016 Virgin Money London Marathon but was closer to the action than ever before.
My relatively short running career means I only completed my first marathon last year; having the opportunity to run for African Children’s Fund at last year’s London Marathon was an amazing experience and one that I want to repeat. As I well know (see my review of the odds of getting a place in the 2016 London Marathon ballot here), getting a chance to run this iconic marathon again would be thin and far between.
I was resigned to watching this year on the TV until a new opportunity arose to see another side of this awesome event.
My club, Witney Road Runners, has marshalled at the London Marathon for over 20 years and when a chance of two spaces became available, I literally jumped in to volunteer me and my wife (without even asking her!).
The spot on the course that WRR marshal is not insignificant: from roughly the 20km mark to just shy of the 13 mile mark which, those of you familiar with the course will already know, is from Tower Bridge to almost the halfway point. It also includes a second section of the course, between miles 22 and 23, as the runners head back towards the finish line.
Tamsyn and I used some loyalty points to secure a nearby hotel meaning we could have a relative lay-in compared to clubmates leaving Witney at 6am: we strolled out of the DoubleTree Tower of London at a leisurely 8am!
We met up with Lyn, Steve and the advance party of WRR marshals as the course was still being assembled around us. Soon the rest of the gang had made it across town and we spread out with our first task of the day: to keep the course clear of the unsuspecting public.
There were a fair few people to scoot off the course but fortunately they all (well, at least the ones I spoke to) were happy enough to pass through the barriers onto the pavements.
The nature of the course, winding its way through the London streets, brings with it challenges for the guys placing the miles of crowd barriers: curbs rise and fall and twist and turn.
Unfortunately for the runners, this had left a sticky-outy bit of barrier at ankle height just before the tight right hander onto East Smithfield.
Fortunately for me, protecting the runners from this hazard would provide me with a great spot to experience the race.
The crowds had started to appear to grab spots that would help them spot their “needle” loved ones in the “haystack” of the masses. I had a lovely chat with a friendly family from Kent who were cheering for daughter and sister, Cas, and a nice guy who was supporting his wife.
People were eagerly hugging the barriers but the action was still some time off and with everyone behaving themselves it was opportunity for a bit of entertainment and crowd warm-up!
Clubmate and marathon world record holder, Andy “Woody” Church (he was part of a team who took the record for fastest marathon in a 3 person costume in 2015 with a time of 4:56:24) took the opportunity to “flog” some Spectator Guides, repeatedly offering “the last one” before starting some banter between the crowd on his side and the crowd on my side of the road.
Naturally I was happy to join in and when the tunes started, from a bunch of spectators who had come incredibly prepared, my legs couldn’t help but put in some moves. After the cheers subsided 😉 I was reminded by our section manager that I had a long day ahead of me so don’t get carried away. He hasn’t seen me at a wedding!
The real fun started with the arrival of the elite wheelchair races, powering their way up the gentle incline from Tower Bridge. I was completely aware that all the elite athletes stay in a hotel just next to the Tower but I was taken completely by surprise when one of the male international wheelchair athletes pulled up next to me; he shook his head, turned his hands as if to show me they were broken and indicated he wanted to get off the course.
Oh! Hang on, ok. Move just round the corner and we can get you through a gap which’ll get you back to the hotel.
As I was considering how gutting it must be to have to pull out of such a top race at such a top level, a second athlete pulled up to withdraw.
It was at this point I felt my pocket buzz with the first of a few app notifications, all from different people, along the same lines:
Did we just see you on TV? Are you on the corner just after Tower Bridge?
Only at that point did I realise that, high up on a cherry picker, a few hundred yards away, was a TV cameraman! I’d better behave myself then – I didn’t want to become “that marshal” on YouTube.
The female wheelchair race was only a few minutes behind and the lead group flew past. I hadn’t realised at that point that Team GB Paralympic medalist and former London Marathon winner, Shelly Woods, was absent form the group. My heart sank as I recognised who was rolling slowly towards me.
I was so excited to “meet” her but at the same time it was heart-breaking to look her in the face knowing that her race was over, especially with the Olympics coming up. I did my best to get her off the course and hoped she would be able to continue with her road to Rio as soon as possible. I was relieved to hear after the race that it was just a puncture. I was equally relived to see that I hadn’t made a complete tit of myself on international TV too!
We soon had the IPC athletes, featuring amputees and blind runners to add further humbling inspiration and then another gap before the elite women stormed past.
I’ve seen the elite races before so I know how quick they are but what I only got an appreciation of this time was how relaxed and quiet they are as they hurtle by, at speeds that’d have me falling out of my backside!
There was a longer gap now as we waited for the elite men and masses to descend on us. It was an opportunity to clear up any debris that the crowd had dropped, grab a bite to eat, chat with the crowd and act as photographer to help some of them capture their day. I pointed out to my friendly folk that if at any point it looked like I was crying, it would be because of dirt from the road getting in my eyes of course!
The next set of vehicles signified the elite men were nearly upon us so I tucked myself back into position, guarding the runners from the barrier hazard whilst trying to keep myself out of the way as much as possible!
They were travelling so fast, they were gone before you’d realised they’d arrived. It was then a fascinating sight to see the drip that was the top elite, turn into a dribble of talented international and national athletes (including the likes of Johnny Hay, Steve Way and Paul Martelletti, who also picked up a World Record in the 2016 race as Spiderman), then become a gentle flow of top club runners before the torrent of the masses flooded around us.
Just as you thought the flood was drying up, a Runners World official pacer would appear, seemingly pushed on by a huge bulge of runners behind them. Only as the last pacer flag disappeared round the corner did the flow start to dry up, although the enthusiasm and determination of the runners, and now walkers, had not.
I tried to give as many names as I could a shout, knowing how powerful it can be although I must admit I soon started to select people who weren’t wearing headphones to make sure I could have the most affect. I also tried to steer clear of the cliched “keep going” and “nearly there”, instead applying a theory I’d read about how runners who are told they are doing well go on to do well. I attempted to stay genuine by complimenting them on their pace, how comfortable they looked, their rhythm rather than just saying well done but it’s hard to keep it varied – until realised that it didn’t need to be as they’d only hear me shout the once!
Now, I’m not usually renowned for my empathy but something that surprised me was the amount of communication I did with the runners without even opening my mouth. Perhaps it’s because I knew exactly what they were feeling and thinking.
The knowing exchange of nods, smiles and winks (it was the winks that really went deep) felt so powerful; my support acknowledged with an indescribable energy returned, powering me to encourage the next and the next and the next. Even the failed high fives and sweaty back slaps didn’t deter me from pushing every single person on around the course.
I was pleased to spot a couple of people I knew run past, including Hollie, who I’ve been coaching for the race. She looked in good shape so I breathed a sigh of relief!
As the tail vehicles crept off the bridge I naively thought this was the end of the race. But it wasn’t. People were determinedly running, walking, plodding, edging their way closer to the finish. All I could think of was:
Oh dear. They’re not even at halfway yet.
Eventually, we could leave mile 12.5 behind and turn our attention to mile 22.5, which had already seen the wheelchairs, IPC athletes, elites and top runners fly towards the finish. The floods of masses had returned and with an abundance of marshals and only one side of the route to look after (the north side of the course had been screened off this year to prevent crowd access problems) the pressure was off for the first time in hours.
Just as tick follows tock, the crowded course became barer and rather disturbingly, the course began to be dismantled around the remaining runners. It may be a Sunday but London needs its streets back by 7pm and there was all manner of tidying up that needed to be done.
Yet still they appeared, emerging around the sweeping corner off the Highway.
There was real anguish and pain on show now, with some runners being accompanied by their supporters; in some cases they were literally being supported. I’d ask people if they were ok to carry on or if they’d like St John’s Ambulance assistance and with differing levels of strength was resolutely told they were not going to stop, not let this beat them.
We were now seeing the roads begin to be opened up to allow the clean up vehicles, vans and lorries come along to take away the barriers, hoardings and remove the specially painted triple blue line that signifies the optimum, measured course.
It was now our job to shepherd the remaining entrants across the vast, now empty junction onto the opposite pavement to allow their safe passage down to the embankment; the tail coaches having long since rolled by.
Finally, at half past 5, the trickle of runners had seemingly dried up and with the course all but gone, it was time to call it a day.
And what a day it had been. Seeing the London Marathon from end to end, and everything in between was eye-opening. I have tried my best to capture the determination on show and the emotions I felt but I know I can’t do justice to it all.
What I do know is that I am determined as ever to have another crack at running the London Marathon again and if I’m not lucky enough to get a running entry I will definitely be sticking my hand up to volunteer to be on that roadside again, helping every single one of the 39-odd thousand take their chance to complete the greatest marathon in the world!