51. London Calling

london-skyline-gherkin-and-tower-42.jpgLondon calling to the faraway towns
Now that war is declared
And battle come down

Engines stop running
But I have no fear
London is drowning
And I live by the river
The Clash – January 1980

Around the corner, the view suddenly opens up. I see the City skyline first, then the turrets, and finally the bridge itself. Tower Bridge. The London Marathon, 12 miles. It’s the greatest sight in world running – and I’ve no doubt about that.

The crowds here are massive, the roar of noise incredible. Twelve-deep and wildy enthusiastic on the bridge, the line of spectators is even thicker, more frenzied on the other side. If the cold rain has been falling all morning, now it’s cascading. Running beside me is a chef, tossing pancakes all the way. I’m cold and drenched from head to foot, and the crowds must be soaked through, too. My race has just fallen apart, but it doesn’t matter, since this is the London Marathon.

My day had started well enough. Fretting over strategy the night before, I sought out guidance from my book by sports psychologist Bob Rotella. Two messages stuck in my mind – “Have a dream“, and “Train it, then trust it“. Reach for what you can, and prepare hard. Then on the big day, have faith in your preparations and your ability – just do it. I fall asleep knowing it’s going to be fine. And it is.

I’m awakened at a 5 am dawn by the throb of helicopters, practising their sight lines for the race today. And sure enough, when I get to Greenwich, astride the famous meridian, they’re hovering high overhead in the drizzle. I know just where to stand, and make the perfect start – crossing the line just three minutes after the gun. The first half mile into the Eastern Hemisphere is patchy, but then it opens up. Even though I’m slightly up on my schedule, the field is drifting gradually past me. It’s a very good sign, since I’m not going too fast.

The opening stretch is downhill to the river, where the three starts merge. My progress is good to five miles, where I surprise a friend at the end of his street. Then a shout from behind me and my running partner, Paul, is there. From the blue start, against my red, somehow he finds me amongst the 30 000 runners. It’s wonderful news for our assault on the magic four, and together we click off the miles perfectly.

We meet his family just inside the Western Hemisphere near the Cutty Sark, but at eight miles my stomach starts to complain. I try to ignore it, but reluctantly send Paul ahead at nine. He makes 4:03 alone, whilst my PB quest ends right here. And if there’s been a Gents every 200 m on the course so far, suddenly there are none in view. By ten miles I’m forced to size up bushes, and it’s an uncomfortable, undignified three minutes I lose now. The stream of the race is slower when I rejoin it, and that’s no bad thing, for I need to tread gingerly a while, to see what happens whilst I reassess my goals.

Nine minute miles for the next three, so I’m not losing time, or gaining it either, as I reach Bermondsey. But I can’t drink much now, and I can’t eat a thing. ‘Come on, the second half is just round the corner’, shouts a spectator right next to me. I look up and it’s Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament. A fine speaker, and a principled and kindly man indeed. Thank you, Simon.

Soon after the bridge, I’m delighted to spot my parents amongst the throng. Their smiles are a big lift, and at least my legs are working fine. But at 2:03 to the half, it’s going to be a big stretch from here. The rain is torrential, and the puddles are bigger now, as I reel off more nines through Poplar to Canary Wharf at 16. I’m not exactly lapping up the scenery, but it’s going by all the same.

Suddenly at 17 I’m in trouble again. Between the executive housing of Docklands and the smiling folk squeezing the roadspace, there are trim little box hedges but not a decent bush in sight. Finally I spy a leafy spot for a grim few minutes alone.

There are nineteen miles gone as I rejoin the flow. Way out of time, out of spirit, and with no stomach left. Or so it seems. Survival is all I can hope for now, but I’m feeling just lousy, and consider abandoning the race. It’s the easy way out. But I make a pact with myself. I’ll not walk a step, until after twenty miles, and I’ll just see what happens from there.

The crowds are unbelievable. It’s still raining, and has been for three hours or more now, but their shouts are unquenchable as they rally behind me. Toiling through Limehouse at 21 miles, the cries of encouragement come from every side, from ahead and behind. It makes such a difference.

The Tower of London takes for ever to appear, but if I’ve slowed down now, I’ve not given up yet, and the East Enders don’t give up on me, either. I wiggle through St Katharine’s Dock, nearly falling, like the leader did, at the Tower Hotel, then under Tower Bridge and onto the famous cobbles.

My good friend Andy is marshalling at the carpet here today, and he greets me with a roar and a grin. I’m amazed and in fear, as he runs alongside me for a hundred metres of stiff motivational talk. ‘Look,’ he says. ‘There’s three and a half miles to go. It probably seems a long way when you’ve run twenty-three, but you’re going to make it. You’re looking pretty good, actually,’ he cheerfully lies.

I’ve no choice but to run further, and down Thames Street, too. The kerbs are raised high here. It’s a pure tunnel of noise, a chasm of support. This is a crowd less forgiving of my struggle, my crisis-management mode. But I reason that a ragged mile’s lope and short power walks is the only pattern to get me home now. The Blackfriars Underpass hides us from view, as most of the field time a walk right there. From 24 miles, there’s a mountain to climb onto The Embankment, but somehow the ramp is miraculously flat, and then we’re all running again.

If Tower Bridge is the world’s best marathon stage, then The Embankment is my spiritual running home. I force myself to enjoy the view across the river, the London Eye circling high overhead on the opposite bank. It’s taken four months and four hours to get here, and it’s worth every step. Big Ben is just a glimpse, but it’s all I need. That and the crowd, always the crowd.

A smile and a wave for my family at 40 km, with 2.2 left. I’m going to make it now – did I ever doubt ? Taking hold of myself, I gather my all. A long stare at the gold of Big Ben, and I turn away from the river one last time.

Just then, I’m startled as two chickens rush past me, showboating to the spectators as only marathon-running chickens can. But I’m building up speed now, as the next marker appears. Not 26 yet, but ‘800 m to go’. I look at my watch. Although survival’s assured, my time goals are nearly all gone. Just one remains, and I’ll need something special to salvage it now. I try to fast-tempo the next 400, timing my final commitment to that one last assault. But I can’t wait any more, and, with 500 m left, I let it all go, and those chickens are roast.

If nothing could rescue my race, then at least the long months of speedwork can finally have their day. I’m flat out now, past Buckingham Palace, and into The Mall. The blue line parts towards three finish gantries and I choose the right one, face-up to the crowd, using their energy to pump me all the way to the line.

As I complete my 26.2 miles, it’s just 5 seconds inside my 2001 race time. Not much, but a lot. For if 4:18 is 13 minutes outside my best, it’s still a course record for me. My PB can live on in Chicago, but my heart rests in London.

It was a cold, rainy day back then, too, in 1981 as I watched Dick Beardsley and Inge Simonsen in the first London race. As they crossed the line together, hand-in-hand, I knew that I’d one day run here too – a dream which took me twenty years to realise. In all those years, the race has grown and yes – it’s changed, but its character remains the same, because Londoners love their marathon.

It’s a world-class event. Men’s and women’s world records were set here in 2002 and 2003. But to many that’s a mere prelude to the main attraction, the human race which follows on behind. Some club runners may scoff at running alongside a chef or a chicken, but fancy dress is a huge part of this race, and its atmosphere. Just yesterday, I’m sure that Fred Flintstone, Scooby-Doo, Batman, Fatman, Supergirl, that fast lobster, the chef, a telephone box and a hundred fairies would agree, as would the million-strong crowd. Some club runners complain that it’s hard to get in, even if you’re fast, and that charity places are the only currency for many. But if I raised £1000 and together we raised £ 30 million, is that such a bad thing ?

london-marathon-medal-2004.jpgSome people talk now of raising this race to a new level, by making it like Boston. The most prestigious marathon in the world. Where you have to qualify to run. But London is so much more. If London’s ballot is frustrating, then the course is magnificent and its charity ethics are noble.

The race is incomparable, because the crowds make it so. They all know, as do I, that it’s the best race in the world. Do run it once if you can.

Related articles:
116. London is Olympic – The London Marathon
85. A homage to London’s Gherkin
2. My first marathon: London 2001
36. The Embankment, inspiration and reality
1. Chicago 1, London 3
4. GO British ! Chicago Marathon 2002

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