At 23 degrees, this year’s London Marathon was the hottest on record. It was a sweat-fest from start to finish, and a case of managing the heat as much as possible. Personally, I found the race really hard and wanted to give up on my sub-4 goal at 29km. Thankfully a friend ran past and pulled me along, but it was a bittersweet ending. Yes, I’m still on track for my 4in4sub4 marathon goal, but mentally I fell apart, and that’s never a good feeling.
Knowing that the day would be hot and because I was still fighting the after-effects of a cold, my initial plan to race London was abandoned in favour of ‘party pace’ – AKA running with a group of friends. We had all been lucky enough to qualify with Good-For-Age entries, which meant starting in the smaller Green Start area. With not-an-insignificant-amount of drama (delayed trains, wrong directions, long toilet queues etc) we somehow managed to meet with 5 minutes until the start gun, and get into the pens.
There were six of us who started together just behind the Green 4:00 pacer. Melanie and Cajsa had run a trail marathon the day before (as ultra preparation) while Tika was fresh off the plane from having done freezing Boston Marathon six days earlier. They were concerned about keeping the pace slow, whereas I just wanted to get in front of the 4:00 pacer, so when my other two friends Coren and Leanne started to push on, I went with them.
A lot of people run London Marathon in costume, trying to set a Guinness World Record, so there was plenty to see – like a tree, a poop emoji, a mummy – all very admirable given the heat! Soon though I noticed another noteworthy person ahead: Kathrine Switzer! She was the first woman to run a marathon with an official bib number, and was running London in honour of the 100-year anniversary of women gaining the vote in England. Coren and I had a quick chat with her as we ran past, and snapped a cheeky selfie.
At around ~7km, I could feel Coren wanting to go faster and so told her to go on ahead. I was conscious that if I pushed too much in these early stages, the sub-4 goal wouldn’t be possible and that I needed to conserve energy. Leanne also dropped back, concerned about a hip injury she was still recovering from, and so now my group was down to two people.
Coming around Cutty Sark was amazing – the sheer number of people out cheering created such an energy that was infectious. We had the biggest grins on our faces as we ran past. The masses of supporters continued for the rest of the race too, to the point that it was almost overwhelming. Unlike most races where I will wave at people cheering my name, I found it hard to pinpoint where the cheers were coming from, and I felt that I didn’t have the energy to lift my arms. There was a stretch of ~300m in Rotherhithe where the crowd thinned, and it was a welcome relief from the wall of sound.
Leanne and I stuck together until ~11mi when she decided to drop back a bit. I pressed on at my ~5:20 pace, but fairly quickly realised what a difference she had made for my race. It all just started to become really difficult, and I had to focus a lot more on continuing to run and managing the heat.
There are water stations every mile or so in London, which I think is potentially dangerous as it suggests that runners should drink every mile, which can lead to hyponatremia (water intoxication, big cause of death in marathons). I was very conscious of not over-doing it on the water, and so only let myself drink water every two miles. However, to keep myself cool I carried a bottle of water with me all the time, and in the end it was helpful to be able to swap out bottles at every aid station. I was pouring water over my head, neck, arms and wrists, although it would quickly evaporate off. The best technique came thanks to a bandana which my friend Cajsa had given me: I had this wrapped around my wrist and periodically poured water on it. It stayed wet the whole race and I could use it to wipe down my face – best feeling ever.
London Marathon is the first time I’ve run a marathon twice, and so I knew what was coming up. Last year the vibe going over Tower Bridge was absolutely incredible, but by this point I was already struggling mentally so I didn’t get the same high. Even worse, I knew that I had found miles 17-21 really difficult in 2017, and so was fearing that section of the route. Of course I know that you should never fear anything in a marathon, because that’s what will be your undoing. And yet, I had let myself fall into the trap again, and inevitably that’s where my race fell apart.
After I left Leanne, my run had become a battle to get to the next checkpoint, whether that was a mile marker, an aid station or a point in the course. I kept telling myself that I just had to keep moving and get to 28km, where I knew there was a hill that I could justifiably walk up. By this point I was barely going more than a few minutes without pouring water on myself, and the gaps between drinking every two miles was feeling longer and longer. Eventually at a hill at 26km I let myself walk, and that probably cracked the floodgates of despair open. However, at the next hill at 29km is where everything came pouring out.
It’s not even a big hill – just big enough to be painful at 29km. Last year I had run half of it, but this year I didn’t even try. I got to the top, but then couldn’t bring myself to start running again. I was texting Sye, asking if I could just give up on the race and walk the rest of the way back. That would be OK, right? Both supporters and runners at this point were trying to encourage me, but I was in the depths of misery. His response came back: “Up to you… but I think you’ll be happier in the end if you run”. I was mentally swearing at him thinking ‘what do you know’ when Leanne ran past! Immediately a switch flicked and my feet just broke into a run again.
Leanne saved my race. We didn’t speak much for the next few kilometres, each in our own little pain caves, trying to get through every mile. The extent of speaking was counting down how much we had left to run, and her saying that she couldn’t stop and walk now otherwise she wouldn’t be able to stop. I’d already broken that seal though and just wanted to slow again…
At ~35km she got a bit ahead and I didn’t try to close the gap. By now though it was close enough to the end that I could push through – and give myself walk-breaks as needed/wanted. In these last few kilometres is also where the main London running crew cheering points are, and I got to wave at people I know in Run Dem, Adidas Runners London and the Fulham Running Club. However for my own running group, Advent Running, waving wasn’t going to be enough. I slowed to a walk, high-fived my friends and drank beer (heavenly!). Afterwards I was told by some that I looked strong coming through, but I see a different, pain-filled version of events.
Somehow I got myself to the end, spotting my friend Helli in the crowd with a kilometre to go, and then shortly afterwards walking for a while because damn, this was hard! By now I’d also figured out that despite all the walking I’d been doing, I was still going to get my sub-4 with time to spare, so a little bit extra of a break was hardly a big issue. In the last 50m I found a bit of energy in my legs for a final sprint, lifted 3 fingers (to symbolise 3 marathons in 3 weeks) and finished the race.
My time of 3:55:33 doesn’t feel like a success, even though it was under 4 hours. I came through halfway in 1:53:39, and then fell apart in the second half. After two weeks of very consistent running, I was all over the place in terms of pacing. I don’t feel proud of my result, nor the way I ran that race. I wasn’t mentally prepared, I didn’t have a plan, and so I couldn’t execute on it.
I probably still need some time and space to process, accept and come back, but my overwhelming feeling is that that race was not fun. In fact, I hated it much more than I liked any parts of it. It was too hot, and I was tired (even if I didn’t want to admit that to myself). For the first time I’m realising the effect that multiple marathons has on the body and the mind, and that this challenge I’m undertaking is actually hard. Also, I don’t think London is my marathon. I didn’t really love it last year either, and I don’t think I’ll be back to run it again. And that’s OK – I’ll still come along and cheer from the sidelines!
But it is what it is. Here’s hoping for a cooler, more successful end to my 4in4sub4!