1: Endangered species
The vista is all but empty now, across the expanses of the open plain ahead. The sky is blue and cloudless, the temperature cool in the early morning as the huge animal lumbers slowly past me.
I keep walking evenly, as calmly as I can, trying not to distract the rhino’s attention at this moment of maximum peril, as it sets out upon its annual trek.
Behind me, I can hear the approaching patter of many more feet upon the ground, growing inexorably nearer with every second. The veneer of calm I’ve been carrying since before the break of dawn seems false and fragile now, as the adrenaline rises in my throat.
The months and weeks of single-minded preparation, the hours of planning and even this familiar landscape offer little comfort as I stand in trepidation at the beginning of the journey. Almost in a moment, the chasers are on my heels.
And yet, I keep on walking. It’s a vow I made long years ago, for here and now one rash move can destroy it all. No matter the temptation, I will not run a single step until I really have to.
A moment later, the wave of pursuers breaks over me. The rhino is trotting frantically not far ahead as a hundred fleet-footed gazelles and antelopes bound by. I furl my brow in resignation and don my cap. Then I check my laces, hitch my socks and straighten my green shirt before the pain begins.
A bright flash of sun glints closer as I take what must surely be my final walking strides. The sight that greets me next stretches all due reason. The beast is in full flight ahead, huge head lolling wildly as he sets his eyes on other prey. Two figures clad all in shining white are streaking past with that wicked horn bobbing menacingly just a single pace behind.
I allow myself a smile and take one last step across the fateful line of hope and fear. Right before my eyes, the rhino is chasing two Star Wars Imperial troopers in full battle dress, all along the road. I click my watch, and hit the tarmac running.
My 2012 London Marathon has started, and anything could happen now.
The empty road is filling up, and quickly. A stream of impatient, hyped-up runners is haring swiftly past me, burning excitement fast behind their heels.
I breathe gently, and ease into a cruising gear, as softly as I can. Twenty-six more miles lie up ahead, and the start line of a marathon is no time or place for hubris. You’d think it was all about endurance, but here in the Greenwich early morning, patience is really what this takes.
Driving to work this week I ticked off the different ways to reach the office, and found I’d run them all.
The milestone at Stoke Park where the Olympic torch will come this July defines the distance perfectly: Guildford is 26 miles from London. How could I run so far? And even as I pass the rhino, the answer’s not that clear. Just start running, and hope for the best? As plans go, it’s less fully formed than some.
At three miles I overtake two runners over ten feet tall. Charley and George Phillips have devoted their marathon to Macmillan Cancer Support – just like me – except that they’re on stilts and will break the world record today. I wish them well, and continue on my way.
The road winds north to Charlton, past hordes of high-fiving kids and raucous pubs blasting out live music. The field trots faster down the hill, and now I run with it, keen to use the slope.
By the time we cross into the Western Hemisphere around 6 miles, we’re at a steady pace. My watch is reading 10 minute miles – not slow enough, I think, but thankfully not too fast.
A family is waving from the deck of Cutty Sark – I’m not sure how they got there, since the restored tea clipper won’t reopen for another week. We loop around onto Greenwich High Street where the spectators are loudest yet and tightly packed, ten deep at the roadside.
The road is packed and there’s scarcely room to choose my pace. But our progress is consistent and a little faster than I’d hoped. That’s good.
Seven miles, eight and nine skip by in ten minutes each from Deptford into Rotherhithe. I pull a snack from my pocket and somehow force it down. By Bermondsey we’re twelve miles in and running almost effortlessly. Huge enthusiastic throngs line the streets here, but they’re really just the warm-up act for the roar which greets us round the corner.
Beneath the turrets and atop the deck of Tower Bridge, I look around and try to take it in. The wildly clapping crowds, the City skyline across the river, the Tower of London up ahead. I’d like to store this moment, but the exertion and sheer elation make a heady mix and it’s all a blur of stills.
As we turn east along The Highway, the best club athletes are rushing by the other way. Thin men in singlets with long limbs and lean, demented looks lent by two fast hours of running. They’ve only four miles left against fourteen more for me, yet I wouldn’t trade places for a moment.
At 13 miles, I wave to a friend in pack of charity supporters across the road. The halfway mark goes by at 2 hours 11 as we pass a Macmillan cheering point. I roar my green shirt past as someone with an SLR catches my huge thumbs up and smile.
Narrow Street in Limehouse is aptly named, and from there a tunnel takes us onto Westferry Road. The stream of runners slows down just a step as the spectators push close on either side. Perhaps it’s like riding the Tour de France must feel, with a different kind of devil on your tail.
Through 15, 16 miles more walkers appear, a few now staggering across the street. It’s tempting, always, to weave and dodge the slower traffic, but it takes a lot of effort. Instead I stay with the stream and take the gaps that open. Patience, I remind myself. There’s still two hours to run.
3: Thin blue line
At Island Gardens, I pass a bottle of Hook Norton ale, loping at a guzzling pace. The thought of beer right now is not as appealing as you’d think. But it’s a welcome distraction from darker thoughts. Last time out in 2006 I fell apart at Mudchute station, with 9 miles of misery to follow.
Two eleven minute miles bring us to South Quay. 18 in 3:05, plus 8 x 11 up ahead makes … I’ve simply no idea. I forget the maths, and as I watch the Docklands trains sail by overhead I realise my mind is drifting.
I need to refuel, and so I choke on a final slab of flapjack – the last chunk of food I’m carrying. My last few winegums need wait no longer, and at the next drinks station I grab an energy drink. Then I throw a splash of water across my face and half a litre on my head.
I’m feeling brighter, if more bedraggled now, as we run towards Canary Wharf. The crowds are massive and more vocal than anywhere so far. The noise has been loud all day, but here it’s a wall of yells and screams. My name is on my Macmillan shirt, and I’m encouraged all the way.
We’re on wider roads now, and for the first time I glimpse the three blue stripes painted on the blacktop, marking out the shortest path towards the finish. As I rush along the racing line into Canada Square, the pain ahead recedes. I’m passing slower runners and an unexpected notion appears inside my mind. I’m feeling pretty good.
Past Canary Wharf Tower we run. Rolling down the ramp on Trafalgar Way, I relax my legs for ten precious seconds. There are huge arches of balloons above the road at every mile and through the 19th, we turn left onto Poplar High Street. The geography is simplified from here. We’ve been looping round all day, but now ‘just’ seven straight westward miles will take us to The Mall.
The blue sky of this morning is partly cloudy now and the atmosphere feels thick enough to touch. The road narrows again, and I have to skip a kerb. I run the right side of the road beside a clapping, laughing crowd, soaking up their energy and waving when I hear my name. The introvert within me is quietly appalled when I take off my hat and whirl it round.
Meeting amongst 37,000 runners is a miracle of sorts. James says he’s struggling. I confess that my legs are stiff, but otherwise I’m fine. We match our pace for a kilometre or two. Should I bring him home, or run on alone again?
He’s puffing heavily – understandably, at this stage – but sticking to the task. I offer some encouragement as I reach over to shake hands and smile. Then I pull away and don’t look back. At twenty-one miles, patience has had its day now. I commit to this entirely, and push the pedal down. In fact I’m only holding pace, but here and now it feels like a huge acceleration.
5: Time’s arrow
Fifty minutes are longer than they sound. Several times, I think I’ve gone too soon, but the Tower of London rushes by and enthusiastic crowds on Thames Street do their best to drench my doubts. Perhaps I can really get this done.
The Blackfriars Underpass is a dark and lonely place for demoralised runners to recast their legs unseen. I push the pace, and gasp harder through the tunnel.
The road curves round as the London Eye swings alongside and suddenly I’m determined to close the deal with no more messing. I try to gather all that’s left and leave nothing on the road. My lungs are heaving now, but there’s still some strength within my legs.
Turning right at Big Ben, I read the giant clock. 4:24 to here. Six minutes more, with a kilometre and change to run. I hear an enormous shout behind me in Great George Square. It’s Emma and Olivia, although I don’t see their faces.
Birdcage Walk sweeps slowly past, and I need to sprint The Mall. But my concentration fails me as the finish clock ticks on.
At first I think I’ve missed it, then my watch finds a fraction left to spare. The last mile is my second fastest of the day, slower only than my first. I’ve run every single step today, in 4:29 all told.
I wait for James at the finish, and then we stagger off our different ways. I find Emma and Olivia for a hug and another picture with that medal.
We’re walking on Whitehall when someone pulls my bright green shirt into the Foreign and Commonwealth Institute and a Macmillan party now underway.
I almost cry at that, and then inside we find cheerleaders going crazy, sandwiches, hot tea and a massage for my legs.
As I limp into the hall, an organiser comes to greet me. ‘We’re so glad you ran for Macmillan Cancer Support,’ she smiles. ‘We really do appreciate it.’
I sit down on the hard stone steps as fatigue begins to hit me, and I realise that’s almost £350 a mile. London runs an amazing marathon, and it’s worth every single step.
116. London is Olympic – The London Marathon
36. The Embankment, inspiration and reality
51. London Calling
238. Guildford is Olympic – torch relay 2012
43. A sense of time – Earth history and the London Marathon
4. GO British ! Chicago Marathon 2002
You can help Macmillan via running, cycling, and fun events all year round. This 30 second clip gives a great feeling of exactly what that’s like: