Someone once said that no battle plan ever survives the first encounter with the enemy. In fact it was a 19th century Prussian general, but we won’t let that delay us here. My enemy and that of the 41,000 others who ran, walked, staggered and crawled their way around the 26.2 mile course that makes up the London Marathon was the weather, and that alone. That Sunday in London it hit 24.1deg C, having never previously exceeded 22.7deg C in the 37 year history of the event. Except that was ambient air temperature: the competitors had to run not just with heat from the sun, but that leaching off the tarmac and all those stressed and sweating bodies around us. For us it was hotter even than that, and it came at us without respite, and from all directions for the duration.
It had never meant to be that way. Some 16 years after my only previous marathon, I first contacted AbleChildAfrica in June last year, at a time in the process where you can approach any charity you like because spaces don’t even begin to get filled until after the ballot process is complete in October. I didn’t even bother with the ballot – I’d been lucky enough to get in that way in 2001 and though I still raised money for a cancer charity in the motor industry where I work, I thought and still think I’d had my turn. The ballot is always massively oversubscribed and I didn’t want to take a place from someone who’d not done it before.
I chose AbleChildAfrica in an instant, and not just because alphabetically it was pretty much the first name on the list. My wife grew up in sub-Saharan Africa and we’ve had wonderful adventures in Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Zambia and South Africa.
My love for that part of the world and its people stems from their relentlessly positive outlook on life despite having so very little, at least by standards enjoyed by those in the west. Theirs is an indomitable spirit which I find charming and humbling in approximately equal measure. The fact we have managed to produce two healthy children has made me keenly aware of those who have been less fortunate. So running for a charity at whose heart lies the best interests of disabled African kids was an almost automatic choice. By contrast I expect I was far from an automatic choice for the charity, but chosen I was. At which point it all started to seem rather real.
Why did I, a large and somewhat overweight fifty-something bloke want to put myself through that all over again? It is almost impossible to say but I expect being delusional over one’s real physical fitness, forgetfulness over what it was like 17 years ago, with a healthy dose of mid-life crisis chucked it probably covered most of it.
Even so, training went well, at least at first. By August I was quick enough to run the Severn Bridge Half Marathon in under two hours, so with seven months still to go, my dream of getting around the capital in less than four hours seemed entirely reasonable. I was quite proud of myself. You might even say smug.
Well if pride comes before a fall, smugness comes before a faceplant onto the pavement. Suffice to say my training didn’t so much veer of course as adopt exactly the same one, but travelling in precisely the opposite direction. I lost a a month to a calf strain that cleared up just in time for the Christmas break, which I largely spent inhaling mince pies before getting clobbered by flu for only the second time in my life. And while I was only bed-ridden for a week, it was another month before I could run again, just in time for the worst weather in several decades to hit my part of the Welsh borders.
But then I got lucky, and the final couple of months were incident free. By the time I lined up in Greenwich Park, I had several half-marathon distances under my belt, and done a few reasonably rapid 15 miles runs and one 20 miler, all without problem. I took care with my diet and made stretching and core work part of daily life. I’d done all the maths and reckoned that if I had the best possible day, I could indeed run a marathon in under four hours. More realistically I was probably looking at 4hrs 10min, which would still have been almost an hour quicker than my 35 year former self had managed in 2001. To say I was looking forward to it was an understatement.
I wasn’t even worried about the weather. It had been at least that hot when I ran the Severn Bridge half back in August and I coped just fine. And while it was going to be a warm day, 24deg C is not exactly tropical heat, is it?
In Greenwich Park me and a couple of local friends who were also running could not have been in higher spirits. None of us was injured or ill, we’d carb loaded, hydrated properly and felt blessed it was such a lovely day. How horrible, we agreed, it would have been to run on a cold and damp day. How little we knew.
If you’d told me the start was going to be the best bit of my day, I’d have probably walked off the course then. But it is an incredible experience, almost worth the training by itself. To be among so many people, raising so many millions for so many great causes, united in common cause, cheerful despite the gritted teeth, excited, nervous and apprehensive all at once is a unique experience I’d recommend to anyone.
And then it started. Within 100 yards I had a pain in my left foot exactly where a stress fracture had meant I had to drop out of the 2004 event three days before it started. Then my stomach started doing backflips. But one of the very few benefits of age is you get to know how your body reacts to stress, and mine just happens to take a peculiar delight in winding me up. I convinced myself my symptoms were phantoms and, for once, I was right. I settled down, trying to find a rhythm among all those flailing feet around me, trying not to trip, trying to enjoy it.
I managed it for a while. My pace was a little slower than required to break four hours but that was part of the plan – I knew this would be the most crowded part of the course and I’d decided long ago that it would be easier to leave something in the tank and speed up when needed than run out of energy altogether and be forced to slow down.
I guess I knew I was in trouble by about mile six. It wasn’t that I was injured, but what should have been the easiest hour of the race had been just plain hard. My heart rate, which trotted along at around 120-140bpm during all my training, was now banging away at 150-170bpm, which is absolutely as high as you want it to be even briefly at my age, let alone for hour after hour. Then at mile eight, I think because my technique had already collapsed, my right hip started to hurt, and this time there was nothing illusory about it. And with 18 miles still to run and for the first time in almost a year of proper running, I did the worst possible thing you can do for your mental state: I walked. Just a few steps, but it was enough. Walk once and you will walk again. In that moment all goals went out of the window save one: to get round in one piece.
Actually it helped. Walking allowed my heart rate to slow and gave me the mental breathing space to analyse the problem. I wasn’t sick, I’d drunk plenty of water, I had salt tablets on me, high energy gels, pain-killers, the lot. I had done my prep properly. All that was left to blame was the one factor over which I had no control: the weather. And I now know the reason I’d coped so well with that half marathon back at the end of August was that I’d spent the entire summer training in hot weather. I was acclimatised. This time I’d trained through one of the coldest winters on record.
There’s not much point dwelling on the rest of the race, it’s all a bit of a blur. There were many amazing sights and sounds, mainly the incredible cheering crowds who were still ten deep in places where there’d been no-one 17 years ago, but the truth is I was too pre-occupied to appreciate it. By half distance I had retreated into myself, head down, dividing the race into one mile chunks, promising myself only to make it to the next marker.
The biggest boost I got had nothing to do with food, water or medication, but seeing my wife Louise and our teenage girls Josephine and Sophia at the 14 mile mark. It was then, in a rare moment of clarity, that I knew I had at least to finish. They wouldn’t mind if I didn’t, AbleChildAfrica wouldn’t either but after the support I’d received from both, quitting no longer seemed an option.
The worst came at about three quarters distance. I can remember scanning the horizon for the 19 mile marker for what seemed like hours, so much so that I convinced myself I’d missed it so that the next I saw would be 20 miles. When 19 miles did finally hove into view and I realised I had over seven, not six, miles still to run, I almost broke. My dream of a sub four hour run lay in ruins, and now it looked like I’d be lucky to go sub five. Plenty of people will tell the time doesn’t matter, but none who’s actually run a marathon.
It was wonderful to see the AbleChildAfrica mob cheering their boots off for me at Parliament Square but now I was little more than a staggering tower of pain and I didn’t even stop to acknowledge all they had done for me.
With one mile to go my addled brain somehow twigged that if I could cover the ground in 11 minutes I’d come home in under five hours. In training I’d regularly run miles in a lot less than eight minutes. But you might as well have asked me to jump over the moon. With 800 metres remaining my legs went and now I couldn’t even walk in a straight line. It’s an odd feeling because I wasn’t in the least delirious as it sometimes looks when you see people wobbling around beyond their powers of endurance on television, I just felt like a rather rubbish puppeteer trying to lift and move my legs in some kind of coordinated fashion and failing dismally. Then I turned into the Mall, saw the sign saying 385 yards to go and somehow ran to the finish, but only because I knew that was where all the photographs would be taken.
At the end there was no sense of elation, nor even any of relief. Nor was there any sadness at the way it had turned out. It was over and that was all. I was numb.
But here’s the really peculiar thing. I had as bad a marathon experience as you can have this side of ending up in an ambulance. There were times when I thought I would. And yet if I’d known all that was going to happen at the start, I would still have raced. Right now and despite it all, I’m genuinely glad I did, not just for the money raised for such a wonderful cause but, selfishly, for myself. Pushing yourself harder than you have ever pushed before is a curious pastime at any age, let alone in your 50s, and I learned stuff about myself I will benefit from for the rest of my life. And it was all a tiny price to pay for all the support I’ve had from friends, family and the charity both before and after the race. I really don’t regret a minute of it and if I can say that after a really bad marathon, how would I feel after a really good one? Less than 48 hours after crossing the finishing line, I fear already that that is a question I may be unable to leave unanswered…