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Saturday, 15 December 2012

#45: It's a Marathon, Not a Snickers — Part Three

Race-day: Flora London Marathon, April 26th 1998.

We rose around 6am, inhaled a quick bowl of cereal and were out-the-door by 6:30. Steve had been to London a few times, so was pretty clued up as to how the Underground system worked. As such, I just tucked in behind and drafted. I trusted he’d get us to Blackheath Common/Greenwich Park (and the race start) within an hour.

The tube to King’s Cross was followed by a regular (overground) train to Blackheath. Of course, London was swarming with anxious marathoners heading to the start, so the trains were packed to the rafters; just like a regular rush-hour commute in England’s capital.

However, we knew it was only for about 20 minutes, and I was confident I could bear having my face lodged in another runner’s armpit for the short journey to east London. This was an endurance event, after all.

As would become a common occurrence – and spark a tradition – I was bursting for a pee by the time we alighted the train in Greenwich, and couldn’t wait to get to Blackheath Common. I mean literally, COULDN’T wait. Apologies to the owner of the garden or small copse area I dived into; but needs must. You know how it is. The glamorous side of the London Marathon the TV cameras, for some reason, choose not to focus on.

After expending several buckets of nervous ‘energy’, Steve and I headed towards the Red start, the principal start for the masses and charity runners (there are also Blue and Green starts at London for other categories).

A large portion of the charity clan – which, of course, included us – get properly costumed up to tackle the streets of London; as has been the case since the race started in 1981. So there was a fat wad of Elvises, Supermans, Spidermans, the odd Marilyn Monroe, Big Bird (from Sesame Street) and a couple of Michael Jacksons, to name just a few of the ‘celebrities’.

They’d also be joined by guys dressed as animals – every year there’s usually a giant millipede… containing 8-10 runners – people carrying boats, telephone boxes, giant toilet rolls and many more besides; including a trio representing Save the Rhinos, who we were destined to get better acquainted with during the race.

Steve and I had largely (when I wasn’t bonking badly) trained together,; planned the whole race weekend together and done everything as a twosome; so it made sense that we would also aim to run the race together.

As I subsequently found out – not least during many marathons since – this is pretty hard to do. You may be pretty much the same pace on paper, but with adrenaline, race-day conditions, and a whole host of other factors, the chances are that one will stretch on out ahead of the other at some point.

However, that was the plan Steve and I concocted on that fourth Sunday in the penultimate April of the 20th Century. Sticking together and running almost metronomically, stride-for-stride, for as long as humanly possible.

Hanging out in the red zone, which housed a large portion of the 40,000 runners, the iconic song “The Trap” by Ron Goodwin was now melodically booming out of the giant speakers, giving everyone a collect lump in their throat. It’s a tune now synonymous with the race, and with the BBC’s coverage of the race. And it’s brought a frog to my throat every year I’ve heard it since.

After the pre-race ceremony had wrapped, concluding with a couple of celebrity interviews and the British national anthem being played, we all braced ourselves for the sound of the official starting horn. A loud siren, the release of thousands of colourful balloons across Greenwich Park, and we were off.

Steve and I were tucked some way back in the pack and it took us eight minutes to cross the start-line. With so many people densely packed together, our initial pace was walking… and not much more than crawling. But the field gradually spread out and thinned, and we were able to start running a minute or two before crossing the official start-line, at which point the timing chip on our shoe was activated.

Our joint-goal was to break four hours, which meant running each mile in a whisker over nine minutes. This seemed a pretty attainable goal and we started off nicely on pace, the crowds – lining the Greenwich/Woolwich streets left and right – vociferous in support.

Of most note in the opening three miles was a guy shouting out: “The Rhinos are coming through! Gangway!” And within what seemed like seconds, three giant rhinos – representing the Save the Rhinos charity – came charging past us on a downhill section of the second mile.

I’m not sure what their strategy was – though they must have been sweating their asses off in those suits later on – but the elite runners, now forging well clear at the front of the field, needn’t have been too worried.

Mile 3 was slighty uphill and not surprisingly, within about a minute, cries of: “The Rhinos are coming back! Make room!” echoed all around us. I knew they’d gone too soon. Trying to hoof it along at such a clip in those costumes was suicidal. But hard for them to contain themselves as the adrenaline poured in – and when endowed with such a horn.

At the three-mile mark, the three different starts – Red, Blue and Green – all converge and the field becomes one giant sea of running love. Steve and I were content to keep clicking off nine-minute miles and we looked to be cruising towards our half-way target of just under two hours, as we cruised through miles four and five.

We passed the landmark Cutty Sark at around six miles and felt proud to almost be at quarter-distance. Clicking off nine-minute miles proved a breeze as we negotiated the second quarter. It felt far too easy. This marathon malarkey was a doddle! Yeeeeeeaaaaaaah.

Crossing Tower Bridge just before half-way (passing the 12-mile mark just before the start of the bridge) was pretty cool and we cruised through half-way in around 1:55 – right on pace.

The weather was cool but overcast, and the rain (almost inevitably) started to steadily monsoon down during the second half of the race.

We trotted on, seemingly in control – my oversized Guidedogs for the Blind vest doing me proud. Then, about 17 miles in, my legs began to protest and I dropped slightly off pace. I quickly informed Steve and told him to go on ahead.

By 18 miles I was really starting to struggle and dropping further off our planned (nine-minute mile) pace.

Through Docklands my tripping over a few bricks in the fabled marathon Wall was largely hidden from spectators, who aren’t able to line the streets of this part of the course so much. Just as well, really.

Every mile was beginning to feel like a painstaking effort. But I gradually ticked them off, one-by-one, and made it into the 20’s. And this was where the ‘real’ race started (so I’d heard)?

At 23 miles, I reached the famous cobblestoned section near the Tower of London, which is lined with a long strip of (Oscars-like) red carpet, to make the terrain slightly more palatable. The strip was probably only 400 metres in length, but felt more like 4000.

My vest was now drenched from the teeming rain and the globs of vasoline I’d dressed onto my nipples was rapidly disintegrating. The dreaded jogger’s nipple lurked just around the corner.

But I was now almost within sniffing distance of the finish and knew I just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Slug it out with my mind and the elements.


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