116. London is Olympic – The London Marathon

1. London is Olympic – 21.04.2006

The London 2012 film and music were playing at the Expo last night, reminding me that Sunday will see the first marathon in this newly Olympic city of ours.

And inspiration for the marathon start line just doesn’t get any better than this.

london-olympics-2012-heather-small-proud.jpgI look into the window of my mind
Reflections of the fears I know I’ve left behind

I step out of the ordinary
I can feel my soul ascending

I’m on my way
Can’t stop me now
And you can do the same

Heather Small – May 2000

 2. Leap for London – 22.04.2006

It’s a beautiful April evening as I walk past the delis, bookshops and trendy restaurants of Regent’s Park Road. A few minutes later, I stand on Primrose Hill and the views of all of London spread out before me in the sunshine.

The crowds are out upon the hill – the young urban set with their Gucci shades and designer child transport, and the early tourists, enjoying this first and unexpected evening of summer.leap-for-london-view-from-primrose-hill-baker-street-bus.jpg I walk slowly upwards, willing my legs not to use any of their energy for tomorrow. They feel heavy, abused, chiding me for their lack of use these past few days.

The skyline extends behind London Zoo and the park. There stands St Paul’s, dwarfed by the modern City with its Gherkin and the BT Tower.

Far to the left, Canary Wharf tower is catching the evening sun. These are the landmarks which will frame my race tomorrow.

The upper half of the London Eye’s arc is showing away to the right, looking for all the world like the high jump bar in that London 2012 Olympics poster.

I stop to think, trying to visualise running between these architectural delights. The buildings I can conjure in my mind – it’s just the distance between them laid out in front of me which I can’t easily fathom.

I walk down the hill and catch a lift to Baker Street. Just like in the video from that song, I jump onto a double decker towards the West End. There’s a saxophone solo waiting to play in my mind somewhere, yet I suppress it.

As journeys into London in preparation for the marathon go, it’s been almost effortless today. And yet I can feel that tension rising in my throat, and a heaviness in my stomach.

There’s nothing left to do but eat that pasta. I stop reflecting, and head for the Spaghetti House. Now this is where I know I can excel.

 3. Relight my fire – 23.04.2006

flora-london-marathon-mudchute-tower-bridge-and-traffic-light-tree.jpgSunday all the lights of London
Shining – sky is fading red to blue

I’m kicking through the rainy streets
And wondering where it is
I might be going to

Turning back for home
You know I’m feeling so alone
I can’t believe

Climbing on the stair
I turn around to see you smiling there
In front of me

If you want it
Come and get it
For crying out loud

The love that I was
Giving you was
Never in doubt

David Gray – 1998

Seventeen miles, and I’m running on the rims. I’ve fought it for three long miles, all the way down Westferry Road in Docklands, struggling to reach Island Gardens. If I can just reach that point, the road heads north again, and I know I’ll be turning back for home.

The road curves on and on, much longer than I thought, but finally I’m there. At last I face the inevitable, and walk a minute. There’s no shame in that, and to be frank, I’ve been passing walkers intermittently for five miles or so already, ever since Tower Bridge. I look up, and Canary Wharf Tower is looming up ever higher in front of me, three miles away, as I knew it would be.

I’ve only got to get that far. Then run six miles more.

And it’s unimaginable. It’s just unimaginable now.

The sheer enormity of the task remaining beats me down. I can run nine miles, any day. But not from here. I can’t do it. There’s just no way. Because fourteen good miles and three bad ones more are in my legs now, and there’s nothing left. Here I am, amongst thirty thousand joyful runners, feeling all alone. Defeated.

At that exact moment, the band beside me strikes up. And as soon as the music starts playing, I know this is it. The one moment to define my whole race – an entire marathon encapsulated. A single instant which will stay with me, for ever.

Relight my fire
Your love’s my only desire
Relight my fire
‘Cos I need your love

It’s just one moment of commitment and conscious will. The realisation that although I’ve nothing more to give, the support of the crowd can get me home from here. They’ve been beside me every step so far, all through my South London smiles, roaring at me across Tower Bridge and coaxing me through limping Limehouse and this long-impending Docklands doom.

The pain and grind of an endless nine mile struggle lies all ahead, but no matter what physical weakness and mental frailty afflicts me now – the crowd just have no doubt. I’m going to finish, if they have to scream at me until I do.

They’ll carry me home, if they have to – because their love, right now, is simply unconditional. There’s a hundred runners loping in better shape beside me, and that’s exactly why they single me out, determinedly, relentlessly.

“You’re going to make it,” they shout, and I know it then – I bloody am.

And that will to fight is what I need, so badly now, that I’m overcome with emotion. My eyes fill with tears in that moment, as I feel the beginnings of a sob heaving through my chest. And with it comes a great drowning, blinding burst of adrenaline, and I hit the road again.

Looking back, a ream of writing had been arranged around my wall, lurking for the longest while – shining bright as neon, and yet still unrecognised, or at least ignored. The pace band, sitting on my wrist, strangely unconsulted. That slight and indefinable sense of unease I’d experienced, ever since the start line. The faint feeling of detachment I’d felt, looking at my watch, whatever the numbers were saying. That oddly missing sense of achievement, and increasing sense of foreboding, growing as the miles fell behind me.

It had all started so smoothly. My first time ever at the Blackheath start. A fantastic opening to my race, crossing the line in just a minute from the gun. No congestion in the opening mile, and just the briefest of stops to re-tie my left shoelace in the second, to relieve that tightness that I know will nag me if I don’t.

I make a perfect reunion with my friends at the bottom of their road in Greenwich, and their banner, raised thumbs and wildly smiling eyes lift me far beyond the Cutty Sark. The dreaded miles seven and eight fall behind, where I had stomach trouble last time, and then at eleven miles I hear a familiar voice call, “Good work – keep it steady”. I look up and see it’s Simon Hughes, the Bermondsey MP, urging me on, just as he did in 2004.

The halfway marker comes by in 2:01, and with it that oh-so-welcome knowledge of miles now counting down and no longer counting up. So much is going well, and I don’t know why, yet deep inside I still can’t shake that lurking, inescapable sense of dread which every runner fears. The warning signs of heavy thighs, and rapid breathing just before Tower Bridge, which tell me it’s not all going my way. The doomed sensation of quickly fading legs that strikes me, as soon as I limp my sorry way into Limehouse.

It’s way too far to bring it home from here, I think. There’s twelve miles still to go, for crying out loud. And that’s when the desperate bargains begin.

The furthest end of the Isle of Dogs – now that’s appropriate. And what better place for a headlong slide than Mudchute station ? A desperate struggle to make it here – for what ? A view of Canary Wharf – and then oblivion.

Relight my fire.

It doesn’t last long, that burst of resolve, but it’s enough. Just half a mile or so, before the next crisis strikes, and I fade once more. The towering Docklands skyline is right in front of me now, and the crowds are huge. They’re at their peak here, where I am weakest and need them most.

And they are fantastic. Simply fantastic. Thronging masses – twelve deep, twenty deep, or fifty ? I’ve no idea. But it feels like every single one of them is screaming encouragement at the runners, feeding raw motivation for every stride. Under a bridge in Cabot Place, a huge, unseen and booming drum bursts out the primaeval rhythm of instinctive enervation. A prehistoric heartbeat, calling out of fear and flight through ages past. A sound to kick all living, limping things into life again.

I run, for one mile more, until that noise fades away. And then I try to drink. It doesn’t help. My stomach is heavy. I’m thirsty, and yet somehow I simply don’t want to drink, not now. Hungry, but I can’t face food. ‘Pain is merely information,’ I try to remember – but it isn’t true. Pain is deep, and physical, and it’s washing over me.

There’s nothing more to feel than sheer existence, and the road ahead, beckoning, taunting me. Desperate determination is losing that internal battle with draining, darkest doubt.

Outside the torment of my mind, the rain is falling now, but I’m not cold, or even hot. Just numb.

The massive, damp monolith of One Canada Square drifts behind me. My one minute drink has somehow become two or three, and yet still I’m irresolute, overpoweringly hesitant to run. It’s far too comfortable to walk now. And why even walk fast ? What’s the point ?

The road starts its gentle slope down Trafalgar Way. I let the shallow incline spare my empty legs, and spin my feet once more. And even here it’s awful, and terrible – but not because it hurts. It’s because the road ahead is endless.

Another half a mile goes by – grey, concrete, roundabout, tarmac, puddles, anguish, pain.

On Poplar High Street, at twenty miles, I try to think, and fumble some calculations through my head. Six miles more of walking will see me home – in what ? Five hours, or five fifteen ? Five thirty ? But I know I can’t bear that, I simply can’t – at least not today. Four and a half is the most I’ll take, and it’s almost gone. But it’s only me who can change that number now.

‘If you want it, come and get it’.

There’s never a truer word in life than that, I know – not even here. I’d pay a fortune to stop right now, but I grimace through another hundred yards or so of rain instead. I try to imagine how many dozen hundred yards are left, inside six miles. It’s too depressing. The only thing that matters now is to run one more. That’s what I do.

And what’s that thought ? That twenty miles – it’s just half way ? It’d better bloody not be. I just blank my mind. I run some, walk a bit, and run some more. And the same again. It’s not pretty, but I’m shameless now. I’ve lost so much will along the way that I just can’t know if it’ll bring me home in time. But there’s nothing more to do than hope it will. And then run some more.

 4. Bobby Moore and the super-powerful magnet – 23.04.2006

I’ve been looking out for each mile marker. I’m certain they space them out much further beyond mile 20, but at least in London the green and yellow signs and huge hoops of ballooons are hard to miss. I smile as the twenty-first arrives – but no – it’s just a pub decked out in Flora livery. A moment later I wonder at how quiet The Highway seems, then as we round a corner I realise I’m not that far at all.

I’ve been running for three and a half hours and more, so perhaps it’s not surprising that confusion reigns. Amidst that eternal struggle to shift my feet, I flounder to confront my time today. I’d thought five hours – disappointing, maybe, but at least I’d finish. But the last clock said 4:25 already. That can’t be right – or can it ? I wonder if that’s the timing for the wheelchair race, the elite women, or the main event, and it’s only later I realise that nearly all the clocks along the course are wrong.

For now my GPS watch says three hours forty, but I can’t be sure. I think I’m past 21 miles, just as it chirrups 20. All morning long, the miles chimed up slightly early, so have I miscounted ? Or was the satellite signal punch-drunk like me, way back at Canary Wharf ? I fumble my wits together. Where am I now – and do I care ? And I’m walking again – when did that happen ? The road is rising, and I’m finally on The Highway now, or at least I think so.

Twenty two miles and the JDRF support stand should be be just ahead. Ash and Andy mustn’t see me walking, so I knuckle down, and run again. It hurts like hell – a dull but non-specific pain I can’t describe, and it’s mostly in my head. The 22 mile marker appears (thank God for that – I’m not quite mad).

I limp towards some blue balloons in the distance – but those belong to the Anthony Nolan Trust instead. I grind on desperately, but the road drags by for half a mile and more, and I know I’ve missed them. I stop to walk, and so of course it’s exactly then they spot me, and roar my name. I stagger over, tongue lolling across an inane wide grin – because familiar faces are simply such a comfort now. We shake hands, and I trot along again, smiling like some naughty schoolboy.

I miss mile 23, but the Tower of London is on my left as the road slips down Tower Hill and into Thames Street. St Paul’s Cathedral stands close nearby, but I never see it. The pavements are raised to form a sheer chute of noise, with shouting, screaming, wildly baying mobs all around me. Thank God I’m running here.

I’m searching the crowd now, and two hundred yards or more ahead I catch the sight I’ve long been seeking. It’s just a tiny green square at first, but it grows and grows. The green Macmillan board I gave my parents last week. I’d told them not to come if it rained, and I didn’t see them at 13 miles, so I’d presumed they were warm and dry at home today. But they’re here. Hooray !

I take my hat off as I run, and whirl it round and round my head like a madder Marlon Harewood with his shirt. I shake my dad’s hand, and kiss my mum. A hundred miles they’ve travelled for just this fleeting moment – and I’m so glad they did.

The road burrows under London Bridge, and I risk a breather where the crowd can’t see me. There’s a brief glimpse of the river and then down again into Blackfriars Underpass at mile sign 24. Four hours ten have gone by now, but perhaps I can scrape inside four thirty after all.

There’s just one small problem – I’ll have to run it. And I know I can’t.

london-marathon-embankment-and-west-ham.jpgThe Embankment at last. My running home. A small boy is holding a sign saying ‘Keep going, Daddy! We love you,’ and my heart leaps – because the whole family should be just ahead. In fact I run right past them, although we never see each other amongst the throng.

Big Ben is far away to the left. That puzzles me. Surely it should be straight ahead ? But the river curves, I now remember. That’s not Hungerford Bridge, but Waterloo, and there’s so much more to run. My head goes down, and I walk again. I want to say that I beat four thirty – but do I really care enough ?

The crowd are unforgiving now as I lope along and stagger on as best I can. It’s alright for you, I think, to shout, ‘It’s not that far’. If you’d run 25 miles already, you’d change your mind pretty swiftly. Everyone around me is struggling, too, and the calls are nagging. ‘Pick it up now, old son. Get it moving, Mr Incredible, you can do it. And come on Scooby – all the way home.’

For nine miles it’s just the crowd that’s kept me going, and although I love them for just that reason, the insistent shouts begin to irritate me here. I can’t bear it any more, so I start running, just to get them off my back. They cheer, and then a minute later, we do it all again.

Beside me, the London Eye looks quite fantastic. It always does, and never more than now. But what’s this – the mile 25 marker ? Oh hell, just that far ? I hardly see Big Ben as I grind up the tiny slope to Westminster Bridge. Just a metre’s rise, but now it kills me. I’d grit my teeth, if I could only spare the effort.

Great George Street is a blissful minute of downhill running (you just check) and then it’s Birdcage Walk. The Longest Road in the Entire Universe Which Really Isn’t All That Long but Stretches On For Ever and Ever and Ever. And Ever.

I can almost taste Buckingham Palace and The Mall now, but they’re not here quite yet. Eight minutes to go, I reckon, but it might as well be eight days more. I’m beyond all caring, and I haven’t looked at my watch for hours and hours it seems. I simply daren’t.

A number 6 shirt runs by – not the red cancer campaign edition, but a proper West Ham strip. Bobby Moore’s shirt and number, on FA Cup Semi-Final day. I have to walk again, if briefly – it’s just pathetic – and that shirt slips ahead. It’s only twenty metres, but I’ll never catch him.

And then a miracle happens. The police are working a sort of scissor system here, closing half the roadspace to let the people cross. Bobby goes left, and then a second later, they open up the right ahead of me. It’s just a few strides shorter, but my road is empty whilst his is blocked, and a moment later I’ve sailed right past, madly grinning.

I’m at the corner now, and there’s the Palace. I take my hat off again, and windmill it wildly, winding up the crowds. I’ve just run twenty six miles, you know, and I’m going to celebrate, however crass that seems.

So here’s The Mall, and I can see the line. I’ve heard some people say it always looks far away from here. But it really doesn’t. 200 metres is almost nothing, when you’ve come this far, and that finish gantry draws me like some super-powerful magnet. Those final steps go on for – how long ? A minute, maybe ? But it seems they flash by in just a second.

And then I’m there. It’s over, and at last I’ve done it.

4:26. Not all that difficult, really ? So let me tell you now – oh yes, it bloody was.

 5. The greatest race in all the world – 28.04.2006

Dear Suzie

Well done on running a fantastic race, and for coming so far to run it, all the way from Calgary. Sorry to miss you whilst you were here – in the meantime here are some final thoughts to share.

What I know now is that there is no better way to sample the cityscape of London than to run the marathon. You see it all, from the Victorian terraces of Lewisham, the neo-gothic tension and false drama of Tower Bridge, the Blade Runner landscape of Canary Wharf and the Georgian splendour of the West End.

There is so much that is annoying and imperfect about London that gets to me, sometimes. And yet, even after a tour of some of the supposedly less salubrious districts in the early miles, I find that just the most inspiring thing about the race.

The whole themes of diversity and inclusion are, I’m sure exactly what won London the Olympics. Here is a link to one of the 2012 organisation’s films which hammers home just that point in the most effective way. Those themes rang home to me through all my miles on Sunday, from the Caribbean communities of Deptford to the gorblimey Cockneys of Poplar High Street.

London is a world city now, and the opportunity for so many young kids high fiving beside the route to see world-class athletes of so many nationalities run down their street is such a gift. The majority of the runners may still be white, male and middle class, but it’s not a stuffy or exclusive race in any sense.

More than anything, I was overwhelmed this year by the certainty that London embraces its marathon like no other city. There is a spirit about the race which is quite unique. I struggled home for much of the last few miles near to Mr Incredible and Scooby Doo, and there’s nowhere else in the world that could ever happen. The London Marathon is such a spectacle, at every level, and I know that’s just what makes it the greatest race you can run in all the world.

The crowds have grown enormously in the past few years. Paula Radcliffe’s success may have helped to grow interest in the race, but she wasn’t running on Sunday, and there wasn’t even a serious British male challenger for the title. It didn’t matter, for I believe that it’s not the winners that all those hundreds of thousands of Londoners both new and old really want to watch. The elite race is not the main event as far as these folk are concerned, but rather it is every single one of the ordinary runners they come to cheer, however much those strugglers may hang their head in pain.

london-marathon-lower-thames-street-24-miles.jpgI learned on Sunday that it is one of the very hardest things to do, to have to grind home pitifully through such an urgent crowd. If my legs run out, as they sometimes do on a long run, then I know well enough just what to do. It’s happened so many times over the years – that sorry state that demands a managed and faltering decline home through the closing miles.

And yet – on Sunday, the London crowd just would not let me do it. I found that not just uplifting, but quite emotional too.

I’m sure those last nine miles were some of the very hardest that I have ever raced. And still, even now when I am sore, jaded and reflecting on a journey which was pretty slow and very painful, part of me knows already – that’s exactly why those final miles were amongst the most rewarding which I will ever run.

I hope we see you soon, next time you are racing over here.

Related articles:
51. London Calling
36. The Embankment, inspiration and reality
2. My first marathon: London 2001
94. London Olympics 2012
43. A sense of time – Earth history and the London Marathon
85. A homage to London’s Gherkin
142. South Bank spring – Tate Modern, London
101. The sun’s gonna shine – Abingdon Marathon
4. GO British ! Chicago Marathon 2002


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