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From Blackheath to Birdcage Walk - the scenic route
Jim Johnson

If you’ve ever considered doing a Marathon then remember it’s the training that’s the hard bit. There will be no crowds to cheer you on when you’re running in the pouring rain late at night, or on frosty mornings when you’d rather be in bed. If you miss a few sessions you’ll suffer from guilt, your brain never lets you forget. Sprains and blisters are almost a certainty. But the odd personal best, the odd run that makes you feel like the healthiest person on earth are the things that keep you going. But why would anyone want to run the London Marathon? That’s a good question and one I’ll come back to. This was what it was like for me.

A week before the marathon and I’m eating pasta twice a day in an attempt to ‘carbo-load’. Part of this involves the consumption of energy bars and isotonic drinks. These are horribly synthetic (that’s saying something from a man who regards Pot Noodles as a tasty snack). I don’t think they contain anything organic at all, just a concoction of beneficial chemicals crammed together like Astronaut food.

Booze, now that’s a bit of a tricky one. Serious runners would completely rule this out weeks before a marathon, but I can’t see the need for such abstention. I base this on the fact that my best ever race, a half marathon, was run the day after a stinking hangover. My theory is that excessive drinking provides lots of calories, i.e. energy. Hangovers are spent mainly on the sofa recovering and therefore expending very little of this energy whilst re-hydrating thoroughly. So the next day you get the benefit of all those calories to help run really fast. This isn’t a scientifically proven theory and I would strongly advise against trying it. A slight miscalculation and you’ll risk being very sick. I don’t expect that would leave you with many stored up calories.

The day before the race came. I ate pasta salad for breakfast and spaghetti carbonara for lunch. Shortly afterwards, myself and fellow runner Dave, topped up our energy levels with pork pies and chocolate éclairs. This was prior to spaghetti bolognese for tea. I’d really recommend doing a marathon if you’re the sort of person who would love an excuse to eat like a horse for a few days.

22nd April, race day. 8.30am. We arrived at Blackheath via the train. It was crowded but we managed to find seats – vital for energy conservation. At this beautiful park we watched hot air balloons and a parachute display by the London Fire Brigade. Actually, we never saw any parachutists but according to the commentator they were out there somewhere. I hoped that they hadn’t been blown off course to some less green and spacious part of the capital.

I dumped my tracksuit gear with the baggage transport service. Dave was kitted out in charity shop stuff so was able to keep warm right up until the last minute then could just discard these clothes in the park. Smart move.

I needed one final toilet stop. My urine colour was clear, indicating that I was well hydrated. Sorry, that’s more information than you wanted but it’s important for a marathon. I was a bit worried about getting ‘runners trots’. A few days ago some friends had told me about a previous winner who’d finished with shit dribbling down the back of her legs. I had just noticed that Imodium sponsored the kit bags.

We got into the massive queue for the start. Dave looked anything but ready to run a marathon as he was still wearing his charity shop corduroys. I advised him to get rid of them before starting, as it could prove tricky in the stampede. He proceeded to demonstrate how easy his trouser-discarding operation would be. It was in fact impossible without sitting down, so Dave removed his cords immediately.

9.30am. The gun fired and everybody cheered…but nobody moved. Within seconds we started to walk. After about two minutes the pace had quickened to a slow jog but we still couldn’t see the start. One guy was lying on the ground clutching his knee. Everybody stopped to help but couldn’t really do anything. We finally crossed the start line after four and a half minutes.

Around the course were brass bands, reggae sound-systems, local radio roadshows, pub cover bands, pearly kings and queens and karaoke acts. People offered the runners sweets and oranges. Pubs were heaving and every house with any kind of balcony or roof garden was full with onlookers. New Zealanders and Aussies were out in force with their barbecues and flags. Near the Cutty Sark a soldier broke ranks to stop and kiss his wife. The atmosphere was brilliant and at that stage I was really enjoying it.

At around 11.15am I saw Tower Bridge coming into view as a local radio DJ played Guns n’ Roses. Despite this, I still enjoyed the moment. I’d managed to quicken my pace to 7-7.30 minute miles now that the runners were thinning out. I was feeling so comfortable at this point that I started thinking that this was going to be easy and would have to try ultra-marathons (52.4 miles) for a real challenge.

I passed the halfway point at 1h50m and amazingly still felt good. Not until we approached the Isle of Dogs did I feel the first signs of fatigue. As we passed Billingsgate Market I got a really bad stitch; I could remember reading about this in Runner’s World. You either had to breathe in or out through clenched teeth, so I tried both and eventually the pain subsided. Checked my watch here and noticed that I’d run an 8.30 minute mile. The 3h45m pacer overtook me so I tried to keep up. But my legs were aching and it felt like one of my toenails was pointing up at 90 degrees. The pacer quickly disappeared ahead.

I passed my mum on the return to Tower Bridge and waved to her. Next was the carpeted bit that covers the cobbled roads around the Tower. This may look really daft when you see it on TV but when you’ve just run 22 miles you realise why they do this. Even with the carpet you feel every little pull and tug that the uneven ground exerts on your legs.

I saw some friends at 23M and waved for a photo. It helps when people are there to spur you on. My mile times were now ten minutes plus. I looked at my watch frequently, working out how much of each mile there was left to run, every one now seemed as long as three. Passing the 25M marker was a relief. Less than one mile to go, that would take five minutes if I could sprint. Someone shouted: ‘Come on Heart Runner!’ (That’s what it said on my T-shirt). Finally I turned into Birdcage Walk and looked for the finish. Saw the time was 3h50m, I wanted to make it before 3h51m so attempted a feeble sprint. Made it by three seconds.

I was given a medal and had to wait in the queue for an official photo. I received a ‘space blanket’, sandwich and water. I just wanted to sit with the foil blanket around me and eat my sandwich but couldn’t. I had to collect my kit bag then search for the meeting area to find my friends. This involved finding the tree with the your surname’s initial on, quite a mission when you’re knackered. When I found them they helped me find a space on the grass. I sat down, wrapped up warm and ate the best tasting cheese and tomato sandwich ever. I’d done it. And I felt very pleased.

That’s one reason for running the London Marathon. You get to achieve something. How often do you get the chance to do that? Personally there are loads of things in my life that I’d like to achieve, but doing so is usually a matter of overcoming things that are outside of my control. If you want to do a marathon then the only person stopping you is yourself. Another reason people want to run it is for the carnival atmosphere. The founders of the London Marathon had a list of very charitable aims but one in particular stands out: ‘to have fun and provide some happiness and sense of achievement in a troubled world’. They wanted to emulate the New York Marathon, which had been described as the greatest folk festival in the world. Of the friends I met up with afterwards at least six of them expressed an interest in taking part next time. Seeing as most, like me, weren’t dedicated runners then that’s a pretty good sign that the marathon is reaching the status of a great festival - that captures the imagination and also raises millions for charity. )

© Jim Johnson 2001

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