Race Report: Virgin Money London Marathon 2017

It’s been 3 months since I ran the Virgin Money London Marathon. I didn’t want to blog it straight away, as I wanted some time to reflect on it and write objectively about my experience as a whole and only now do I feel recovered and refreshed enough to do it. I did want to do it sooner than this though, I blame my expert procrastination skills!

It’s been a dream of mine to run London ever since I started running. My “Mission GFA” was designed to enable me to run a qualifying time, after many unsuccessful ballot entries. When I was drawn at our club ballot to be awarded our “club place” it was a dream come true! And I spent the next 6 months furiously planning my visit and of course training to ensure I had the best possible experience.

I documented my training extensively right up until race weekend. So lets pick up where I left off.

Saturday

The most important part of the London Marathon experience is attending the expo. Primarily because this is where you register and pick up your number and timing chip – so without attending you can’t run! But for the first timer the expo is a chance to experience an overwhelming buzz of nervous anticipation mixed with commercial advertising.

The Expo was held at London’s Excel arena as it is every year – a popular exhibition centre just off the DLR. Our hotel literally looked over the Excel which was very handy, though as we were travelling from Mile End parkrun we needed to take the DLR to get there anyway.

I’d been to the expo before when Jodie ran London in 2015, but returning to collect my own registration was an exciting and slightly emotional experience. For so long I’d worked towards running London, and when I finally picked up that race packet I could finally relax – I knew I was going to make it to the start line.

After getting my number I went through to get my timing chip – which you get to keep, unusually. But it’s a nice memento of your run as its London Marathon 2017 branded.

After collecting my number, I was into the expo proper – the arena was filled with rows and rows of stands of mainly retailers, but also other races trying to recruit you to attend their events. There were plenty of opportunities to grab freebies, leaflets and “tat”, as well as photo/video opportunities. I made the most and got fully into the swing of things. After all, we had all day!

Some of the highlights for me were the New Balance video, the official London Marathon photo spots and also meeting the guys at Fitness Rewards including Jenna, who sold us our life insurance policy. I had a go on their agility game – I was pretty woeful though!

We left the expo at about lunchtime and headed back to our hotel where our room wasn’t quite ready. So we had lunch in the lobby, chilling out until check in time. It seems the hotel were understaffed, as no-ones rooms were ready for when it was advertised. We eventually got in at about 4 and spent the time chatting to a nice lady from Edinburgh who was also doing her first London Marathon.

When we eventually got to our room I made my final kit check and obligatory kit photo before chilling out in our room.

In the evening we procured some hearty Italian fare (I ate a lot more than I needed) which arrived stupidly early – we were expecting it at 7 as we requested on Just Eat, and it arrived at 6! Then we met Marcus and Pippa for a drink in the evening – once we worked out they WEREN’T in the same hotel as us like we thought!

We headed to bed to watch some rubbish on TV and I set my alarm, drifting off to sleep at about 10. Not too bad considering how nervously excited I was.

Pre Race

I woke up, naturally very excited about the day that lay ahead. My prior preparation meant that I had plenty of time to get ready, as my kit was all laid out nicely. I put the hot water in my porridge pots (I had 3 of them…) and got in the shower to freshen up. I was awake, raring to go.

We loaded up our bags and checked I could get it in my official kit bag – success! But then a rather lovely spanner was thrown in the works – we won the hotel’s marathon prize draw! We were awarded a hamper of goodies, which contained energy bars, Lucozade, a fit ball, a pedometer, sweets and all sorts of other bits and bobs. It was brilliant – if only we didn’t have to try and fit it in with all of our existing stuff and have Jodie carry it around London! We had to remove all the packaging from everything, but we eventually managed to make it fit.

We went to meet Marcus and Pip and headed to the DLR station. Marcus said his goodbyes as he was meeting the club later to go to the cheering spots they’d organised, so Pip was in our capable hands.

We were nervously chatting on the DLR journey to Cutty Sark station, on a carriage with a few other runners and supporters. What surprised me was how quiet it was – I was expenting a lot more activity, but then again I guess it was quite early still. As we left the station we walked past the Cutty Sark ship – they were getting it ready for the swarms of people that would be cheering here – it’s one of the most popular points on the course. It was a bit quieter when we got this snap than it would be later! I was already picturing how it would feel running past this after 10k. My nervous anticipation was already building.

We walked towards Greenwich Park. I made a slight cock up with the directions, but we got there in the end, heading up the hill toward the start zones. There isn’t a race like it with start zones like London. So many people all gathering to fulfil their ambitions after months of long hard training – there was such an amazing buzz.

We had arranged a meeting point to get a club photo at the start and almost everyone made it! It was fantastic to share the experience with my club mates, all of whom had gone through their own journeys to get here. We were all raring to go!

Then, I had another great surprise. Race day was also the day of our nephews birthday party.  So there weren’t any plans for the in-laws to come and watch. But just as we were about to head to the start area, my father in law Robin came strolling across the field! He’d gotten the early train and come all across London, just to see me and wish me luck. It was a really touching thing for him to do and I can’t express how much that meant to me. It really gave me an amazing boost and I am so thankful that he came.

Then after a few “good luck” and “all the best” to everyone, we went our separate ways! At London, there are 3 start zones. Green, Red which is mainly charity runners (and that’s where most of the club had to start) and Blue was for Ballot and Club Places ran from, so I headed to Blue with Steve Vellacott. It was Steve’s first ever marathon, but you wouldn’t have thought it – he was as cool and calm as you like. I remember on my first in Paris – I was a nervous wreck in the start pen! We had a wander around, and I grabbed a coffee to get a caffeine boost (It was free which I didn’t realize!)

The start areas were so well organised and with so much space it was a really nice place to make final preparations. The weather was lovely and bright with little breeze, and listening to the theme tune and other announcements over the tannoy, I really felt part of it now – I was finally experiencing the London Marathon! Before long we were making last toilet visits and depositing our bags.

Speaking of bags, mine almost didn’t get checked in…. Bulging with swag from the raffle, I tried squeezing it in the provided polythene bag and ended up splitting it slightly! Luckily I was able to tie it up and get it on the truck.

I then cracked open my banana, said goodbye to Steve, and we headed to the start pens. It was starting to get very real.

I was fortunate enough to be in zone 3, so very close to the front. I was quite surprised how small the pens were. They did a great job of getting the right paced runners into small enough groups. I had a short warm up and then stood near the front of the pen. People were talking about their sub-3 ambitions and I felt a bit out of place but I thought, sod it. I’ve worked hard and I’m going to stand where I bloody well like!

Before long we were ushered forwards, slowly came around a roundabout, and there I was – I could see the start gantry about 40 meters in front of me. I was literally ON the start line – I felt so fortunate. The emotion really started to set in now, and I gulped. Despite not being religious I looked to the sky.

How was the heat going to affect me?

Have I trained enough?

Is my race plan was suicidal?

But it was a bit late now. They called the elites names. Then the gun went. We were off!

The Race

In the short walk to cross the start line, I gulped down a gel and reviewed my plan. 7 minute miling. Simple. Don’t get carried away through the first downhill 5k, get to Tower Bridge and review.

I quashed my nerves, and by the time I crossed the line I had my game face on – a smile! Finally a lifelong ambition was being realized. Time to enjoy it!

The first 3 miles were an absolute whirlwind. Despite being in a “faster” group near the front, the amount of congestion was still crazy. I found myself having to tread very carefully, especially in the first mile. Looking back I can see that my biggest mistake came after the 1st mile. I ran it in 7.08, which was a little slower than target (Only 4 seconds… but in my head I thought that was too much) and I ended up trying to claw it back over the next 2 miles – especially as the course was due to get MORE congested once the red start joined our course. This resulted in a 6.55, which was EXACTLY what I wanted, but then came the damage… Mile 3 in 6.34. It was downhill granted, but just the same that was too quick.

I hadn’t really taken much in at this point, but somewhere along here I could see the back of Rob Deering – host of the “Running Commentary” podcast which I listen to religiously. I’d heard what his race plans were on the show, and given that I’d just banged in a 6.34 mile I knew that was not in his plan! So I said “Bit quick? Love the show!”. He said thanks and I continued on my merry way. At this stage I felt comfortable and strong – but of course, you are supposed to – there was still 23.2 miles to go!

At mile 4 or so we ran through Charlton and saw the R4T cheer squad. I gave them a big wave – it was great to see them there, so many had come to experience marathon day as a spectator – and even spectating is a special experience. Thank you to all you guys who came to cheer us on.

Around here my gel strategy commenced. I planned to take a Gu every 4 miles (It’s my tried and tested fuelling method) so took one on just in time to see Jodie, my mum, stepdad and brother! That was another nice lift.

It was around here that I really noticed it was getting warmer. The sun was forecast to be sunny spells but mostly cloudy. I’d not seen any clouds yet, it was very sunny and I could feel myself sweating more than I’d have liked.

Before long we were rounding the 10k point and the cheers became deafening – Cutty Sark really is everything they say it is! A real spectator hotspot and an amazing experience.

After Cutty Sark I did a quick time check. I was definitely up on pace by about a minute thanks to a 6.43, a 6.48, a 6.57. Definitely too fast. I knew I was ahead and I just wanted to sustain my pace now. I thought if I could get to half way with a minute in the bank I would be OK, so I tried to be a bit more conservative, and spent the next 6 miles hovering around 7s. 6.51, 6.51, 7.00, 7.01, 6.52, 6.56. I seem to recall seeing Lucy and Stephen around this section, but I can;t be sure now looking back.

I wasn’t familiar with Rotherhithe at all, and knew there wasn’t to much to see. I’d pretty much zoned out focussing on trying to stay relaxed, thinking about my cadence and form.

I also remember Jimbob catching me up. Jim is a multiple sub-3 marathoner, so when he passed me I had an inkling I was going too fast. We had a brief chat, and he said just to run it out til you get to 20 and see what I had left. I then let him go ahead of me. Its amazing to think when you have 40,000 runners in the same race  of runners with different abilities from 3 different starts that you end up running with someone you know!

After 12 miles you start thinking about Tower Bridge. It’s an iconic part of the marathon and running over it was really special. I heard my name halfway across and saw James Parrot cheering me on. How I heard him I don’t know, there was so much noise! I didn’t realize until I was headed toward the bridge, that the drag towards it is ever so slightly uphill. That was a bit of a warning sign that my legs were tiring, as I felt the slope a lot more than I should have done. I thought I was prepared for it though, and I went through halfway in 1.31.05. That was a minute and a half too fast. Again, I convinced myself that this was “time in the bank” whilst still acutely aware that my legs were starting to diminish.

Running towards the Isle of Dogs I tried to get things back under control by staying closer to my target pace of 7.04. Miles 13-16 were 6.54, 6.53, 6.54, 6.55 – the model of consistency – but too bloody quick! Looking back now I wonder what the hell was going on in my head… Why didn’t I slow down?!

It was around here I saw Jodie and my family again. Great timing! I still felt OK but knew it was on a knifed edge now. Big smiles again for them as I trotted around the Isle.   By the time I saw them again at around mile 19-20, my smile had dropped and it was my real game face.

Liam still found time to expertly time a boomerang though!

I was just about hanging on to my target pace. Before long I came across 20 mile marker. That’s supposed to be a big boost as there is only 10k to go – but it didn’t feel that way to me.

At this stage I was telling myself “One mile at a time”, and that worked until I passed the corner around the 21 mile mark. The R4T cheer squad was around about here and I was grimacing – Dave shouted “It’s all mental from here” and I felt like shouting “That’s not what my fu*king legs are thinking!!” but I just mumbled “I can’t do it!”.

By the time 22 came along, I couldn’t hold on any more, and I had to walk. Just as I started walking, I saw Fred Fox. He tried his best to get me going, but I was suffering. I managed to start running again, butthe next couple of miles I was run walking. Everything below the waist hurt and I was just so hot.

At around 24 miles or so, I came to an absolutely standstill and had to lean against the railings. I felt broken. The supporters were amazing and offered me jelly babies and water which I gladly took. The encouraged me to keep going, and I did.

The embankment is supposed to be one of the biggest highlights of the marathon, and I was looking forward to running along it feeling comfortable and soaking up the atmposhere pushing on for glory  but it wasn’t like that for me. For me it was a painful, humbling experience and I was crying for small parts of it. Partly due to the pain, but mostly because the “good for age” time I had trained so hard for was disappearing before my very eyes, and I just didn’t have it in me to claw it back.

I had to have a good word with myself and tell myself to “man up”. I had less than 2 miles to go and I just needed to put one foot in front of the other and enjoy the rest of it. And that’s what I did.

Running towards Big Ben I stopped worrying about my pace and just waved to the crowds and took in the atmosphere. It was magnificent. I heard an almighty “Come on Matt” from the Grandstand and there was James Gibbons – wow what a pair of lungs he has!! It was EXACTLY what I needed.

Video of that can be found here. Thanks for getting it on film, Holly, and thanks for lifting my spirits James.

Birdcage Walk was a tough slog but I knew the end was in sight. Those infernal “800m to go!” signs weren’t coming quick enough, but I dug deep and rounded the corner under the “385m to go!” gantry. It was the Mall. I could see the finish, so I gave it all I had left, looking around, clapping to the supporters and put in the best “sprint” I could muster and just before the finish line a shot of cramp ran up my leg! I stumbled but crossed the line in an official time of 3.08.43.

There is a video of me finishing here.

As I turned around and looked back down the mall and saw everyone behind me crossing the line. I had done it, I had completed the London Marathon!

It was a strange mix of emotions. I fulfilled a lifetime ambition, setting a 5 minute PB, running a time I should have been really proud of. Most of the people in the race would have been pleased with a 3.08. But my target had been 3.05 so I could run this wonderful event again.

It took many weeks for me to reconcile those two things in my head, but I reached that sense of pride eventually. I collected my medal, a wry smile on my face and got my bag before calling Jodie.

We met, and with my mum, step dad and brother had a celebratory drink in Green Park. They were so proud of me and did a brilliant job of lifting my spirits.

It was the best race of my life… But I have unfinished business and I’m not giving up on Good for Age just yet.

Analysis

It’s only now I can look back objectively and try and understand what went “wrong”. As you can tell, going out too fast and sustaining a face faster than target was a big factor. It was only a few seconds per mile, but I guess when you are running on the very edge of your capabilities, this can have a massive effect.

It was pleasing that despite a detonation in the last 10k the slowest mile I ran was only 8.17.

The heat though transpired to be the biggest factor. I underestimated how much of an effect it would have.  I found out after the race was that Neil and Jason – both sub-3 marathoners – also struggled on the day.  So when I put my run into context, it wasn’t so bad after all.

Looking at my heart rate, it was very much under control – all in the right heart rate zone.

Its when I consider all of this, I really don’t think i could have prepared any better. This was the best I could do on that course, on that day, in those conditions. If the conditions were slightly more favourable…. who knows.

According to the results, I finished in the top 7% of the field and in the top 11% of men. In spite of my detonation, over the last 7.2k I still overtook more people than I was passed by.

Looking back, I am now very proud of my performance.

Strava Activity.

Summary

The London Marathon really is the greatest race in the world and I am so proud to have completed it. I need to thank the following people.

  • Mum and John, who came to support on the day. They looked after Ivy when we were in Yeovil and both Jodie and I needed to train. It really was invaluable.
  • Liam, for coming to support and enjoying some support beers
  • Trish, for looking after Ivy when we needed to train and taking care of here on race day
  • Mac, for coming to see me at the start of the race despite how busy your day would be. You supported me throughout my training too.
  • Dave Purchase, for motivation and being a sound pair of ears for me
  • Running for Time, for being the best club, and to everyone from the club who came to support and run.
  • Jodie – for literally EVERYTHING.
  • And of course little Ivy.

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