The London Marathon has been on my bucket list ever since I laced up my first pair of running trainers. Maybe even before. Like many runners though, I’ve clocked up a fair number of ballot rejections over the years before I finally managed to run a good for age qualifying time in Edinburgh last year, securing my place on the 2019 start line.
Despite starting my 16 week build up with a whopping total of 1.25 miles after just coming out of a boot due to a metatarsal fracture, the rest of my build up had gone really well. Almost too well! I’d set a new half marathon PB, clocked some of my fastest intervals and also my biggest ever weeks of mileage. It really was my race to lose, so to speak. Then, on Thursday afternoon I picked up what I can only assume was some sort of stomach bug. You can read my taper week here, so I won’t elaborate, but by Saturday night, I knew I had to be honest with myself about what my goals were going to be.
We spent Saturday night at the Hilton Canary Wharf. I’d done my research and knew that I didn’t want to be in the mosh pit at London Bridge on race day, trying to get out of central London. It turned out to be a great move. They had even arranged a’grab and go’ breakfast with everything from pots of porridge and bananas to nutri-grain bars and fresh fruit.
Other than actually running a marathon, I had two main fears about race day. The first was getting to the start line. It turns out I needn’t have worried. I just followed the masses of people wearing lycra and looking nervous! I knew that travel of the underground was free for runners, but despite FBI level research, I couldn’t find much information about the DLR and overground services I would be using. It turned out that they were also both free of charge. And although the trains were crowded, I luckily had no problem getting on.
I arrived in Blackheath feeling surprisingly calm and followed the snake of people to the blue start. Although I didn’t take a bag, the system was really efficient if you were going to use it. My second big worry, was the toilet situation. I’d even been warned to invest in a she-wee. Joy! The reality though, is that over the last 39 years, London has thankfully nailed the start process! The queue for the toilet was never longer than 10-15 minutes. So, together with Alison (scottishmarathongirl), who despite chatting on instagram, I’d never actually met in ‘real life’ before, we joined the end of the queue 3 times in total! It was also so lovely to have a friendly face to keep me calm.
I was in zone 2 of 9 and so at around 9.45, I headed to my pen. The elite men also set off from Blackheath at 10am, and it was around 17 minutes after Andy Murray had hit the plunger to start the race, that I hit the front and got to cross the line. We were off!
- Take the DLR travel advice on race day with a pinch of salt. They were continually advising everyone to get off the train at Greenwich for the marathon start. Luckily, I knew I needed to stay on to Lewisham, because the entire carriage with the exception of only 5 runners got off and it would have been very easy to blindly follow.
- If you’re using bag drop, make sure you use the clear bag provided. You won’t be allowed inside the start area otherwise.
- Greenwich park is really exposed. Raid your local charity shops for old clothing that you can just discard on the start line. Charity’s come and clear this away afterwards and recycle the items where possible.
The first 6 miles to the Cutty Sark
As I ran across the timing mat and heard my Garmin beep, I only had one thought. ‘I’m running the London Marathon!’ Although the first few miles went by really quickly, I never felt comfortable. My lungs felt great, but I was constantly aware of something that felt like a brick sitting really high up in my stomach. At this point it was discomfort rather than pain, but it felt like I was working far harder than I should have been for the pace I was hitting. I knew at mile 2 that I was never going to hit 3.30. But this was always BQ or bust, and I decided it would be worse not to try. So try, I did.
Everyone who’s run London talks about the Cutty Sark, and it was amazing. The crowds were roaring, there were TV cameras, and it’s the first time you get a glimpse of quite how special London is.
- Beware of mile 3. It’s very downhill!
- There’s a blue dotted line painted on the road which shows the shortest route. Sticking to it without zigzagging around other runners will stop you clocking up unnecessary miles. I finished with 26.35, but it’s not uncommon for people to hit 27, or even 27.5 miles otherwise.
My next 6 miles to Tower Bridge were reasonably consistent. I couldn’t have run any faster and my legs were already cramping and feeling like lead. This was another early warning sign. I can run 10K in 45 minutes, so this should have been beyond easy. I was determined to try and hold on to what would still be PB pace though. Plan B was now in full swing. Tower bridge actually snuck up on me. It’s another landmark that EVERYONE who has ever run London talks about because of how phenomenal the crowds are. It has a real finish line feeling, even though it’s not even quite halfway. It’s also one of the biggest ‘hills’ on the course as you rise up to get onto the bridge before coming down again on the other side.
As I turned right coming off Tower bridge, Wilson Kipsang was running towards me on his way to the finish. I’d tried to work out the timings beforehand and I knew I’d be on the way out to Canary Wharf at almost the exact time the elite men were coming back. Had I have been about 45-60 seconds quicker, I’d have got the thrill of seeing Kipchoge and Mo. Gutted!
As a pace check, I went through halfway in 1:45:48, which on another day, would have been fairly spot on for a 3.30 negative split. Sadly though, there was no hope of me speeding up. In fact, I was in a whole world of trouble that was only just beginning.
- As a runner, people always ask what you’re wearing so they can spot you. It’s worth asking your spectators what they are wearing too. And also exactly where they will be. My parents were at mile 11, but although they saw me, I completely missed them because I didn’t know what I was looking for. Searching the crowds when you’re running is also a little bit like staring out the side window of a car, it makes you feel quite travel sick!
- Be prepared for how sticky the floor is after the Lucozade energy stations. It’s actually harder to lift your feet up!
- Don’t look left after Tower bridge. There’s nothing worse than seeing runners who are 9 miles ahead of you. Unless you’re fast enough to get there to see the elite men. In which case definitely look left. They’re awesome!
Winding around Canary Wharf
In the same way that Tower Bridge is known for the incredible support, Canary Wharf is known to be much quieter. This didn’t actually bother me. To be honest, most of these 7 miles were spent negotiating with myself about when I was allowed to start walking. I knew that once I’d started, that would be it, and with 11 miles still to go, it was going to be a long slog if I didn’t keep moving. In the end the decision was made for me when I started to throw up. Lush! At least my legs were actually feeling a bit better.
One of the toughest parts of this section was passing the DLR station that I’d walked too from the hotel only 4 hours earlier, full of optimism and hope. Marathon running can be a soul destroying business.
On the plus side, because the course is a bit quieter, I amused myself by actually managing to read some of the banners that people have put so much work into creating. Some of my favourites were:
‘If Trump can run the USA, you’ve got this!’
‘Smile if you’re not wearing any underwear’
‘Your feet hurt because you’re kicking butt’
‘An UBER to the finish line is only £9.89 from here’
- You may want to think about your playlist for this section. The crowd support for London is supreme, but this section is definitely quieter.
The Embankment return
I had now adopted a fairly gruesome run, walk, vomit approach, that I absolutely wouldn’t recommend to anyone. And certainly wasn’t part of my race plan.
If you’re struggling, mile 22 is a godsend. It’s the point at which you become one of those runners that you previously hated because they were 9 miles ahead of you on their way to the finish. Feel free to look left as much as you like at this point, you’ve earned it! I think I was too busy clutching a bottle of water for dear life to pay too much attention though.
One of the highlights of this part of the course was Blackfriars tunnel. Picture this. I’m running along, and everything goes dark, because obviously, I’m in a tunnel. Then from nowhere, somebody behind me shouts ‘Oggy oggy oggy’ to which the entire tunnel replies with ‘Oi oi oi!’ I think if you tried that anywhere outside the UK, people would just look at you very strangely and you’d be met with confused silence, but it all adds to why London is the greatest marathon show on earth. It also made me wonder if the elites do the same thing in the secrecy of the tunnel! I’m pretty sure Mo would be the ringleader if so.
At mile 24, I saw Dan, my husband, as well as some friends. I didn’t know they were going to be at that point, and I just burst into tears! Luckily they were so high up, that I couldn’t have a sweaty hug, because I think that would have made continuing even harder. They had made a sign that said: ‘go Hannah, run for the cake!’ which I love! I then saw my parents half a mile later…. hence the 10.03! I was definitely ready to just be done at this point.
Finishing on the Mall
The final two miles are exactly as everyone describes. The roar from the crowd literally drags you along Embankment towards the finish. Obviously, I now knew that a PB was also off the cards and I was desperately trying to calculate the pace I needed to keep in order to dip under 3.45. I knew it was going to be really close, but I desperately wanted to rescue something. Adding up at mile 24/25 of a marathon though, is almost impossible and in the end, I abandoned trying and decided to just run the last 1.5 miles as hard as I could, knowing that if I threw up again at the end, so be it.
After you’ve seen Big Ben and think you’re almost there, the final mile goes on forever. You keep turning corners thinking you’ll see the finish line, but you don’t. Until after one final right turn in front of Buckingham palace, there it was, like a mirage on the horizon. I somehow pulled out a ‘sprint’ (7.37mm pace!) for the last 365 yards to cross the finish line in 1.44.22 retaining a good for age time in the hope that I can do it all over again next year! Marathon running really is perverse!
- If you’re in a dark tunnel and no-one shouts ‘Oggy’ the magic will be lost. It’s going to need to be you!
- The crowds along Embankment can be really overwhelming if you’re struggling. Sticking to the middle of the road is a lot quieter.
- The 26 mile mark is the only mile NOT highlighted by an archway of balloons, so don’t expect to see one. By this point, you probably won’t care though.
Official time: 3:44:22
Pace: 8.31 min/ mile
Elevation: 365 feet
Overall position: 10,076th / 42,428
Women’s position: 2371st / 17,729 and senior female: 1329th / 8180
First man: Eliud Kipchoge 2:02:38
First lady: Brigid Kosgei 2:18:20
Listening too: David Baldacci’s Redemption curtesy of Audible. Although, the crowds were so phenomenal that I have no idea what happened in the last 90 minutes or so!
A Final Word
After putting everything I had into this build up, I thought I’d be devastated with this outcome. And it’s surprised me (and also my husband!!) with how reasonable I’ve been. Of course I’m disappointed, but today simply wasn’t my day. In hindsight, I think I’d accepted on Saturday that it wasn’t going to be. I didn’t feel 100% and if you have ANY weakness, the marathon will expose it. Perhaps if I’d conceded and gone out at 8.30mm pace, I’d have clocked a similar time in a far less painful way. But marathon running is about heart, not hindsight. This cycle was BQ or bust, and I just fell on the wrong side of that.
There are still positives to take away. I ran a sub 3.45 marathon having blown up half way round. If you’d have told me that a year ago, I’d never have believed you. I’m so proud of the fact that I fort hard to rescue a time that I’m happy with, rather than just giving up when the going got tough and plan A was out the window. I also fell in love with training during this cycle and I’m actually excited about the opportunity to make a few changes and do it all again for Chicago in October.
With highly anticipated experiences, there’s always a risk that they fail to meet your expectations. For me though, London was every bit as good as the hype. The crowds are out of this world and on a different day, it would certainly have been a PB course. If you ever lose faith in humanity, I’d suggest that you go and support a marathon. Or better still, run one. The running community is epic. And London, is the pinnacle.
Final thought: If you’re reading this before Friday 3rd May, the 2020 ballot’s open. Go on….. I dare you, and I promise you won’t be sorry! I know I’ll be back.