What is it about the London Marathon that inspires hundreds of thousands of people every year to apply for the opportunity to put themselves through the gruelling test of will that is 26.2 miles? Is it the route? The atmosphere? The huge tv hype? Whatever it is, within around 24 hours of the ballot opening, approximately 125,000 people apply for one of roughly 30,000 places. They stand more chance of being refused than of being accepted, yet many people repeat the process again and again and again…
This time last year I was lucky enough to gain a place in the 2011 race through my running club and it’s no exaggeration to say that it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. To this day hearing the London Marathon theme still gives me goosebumps and makes me want to cry, such was the emotion of the day. For me, it’s definitely an experience I want to have again, but like countless other applicants, I was unsuccessful in the ballot for next year’s race.
The 2011 London Marathon was the second hottest on record and, for someone who trained during the snow and bitter temperatures of last winter, it came as quite a shock to my body. After all, it’s pretty difficult to complete a “dress rehearsal” run with all the kit etc you will need on race day if your race kit is shorts and a vest but going for a training run dressed that way would undoubtedly result in hypothermia! But even with the soaring temperatures on race day, I loved every minute.
The London experience begins with a visit to the race expo at the Excel Centre where runners register and collect their race packs. Days could easily be spent happily wandering among the exhibits, chatting to fellow runners and gathering enough running-related freebies to start your own online business! But joking aside, the expo is when it really hits home that you are about to run the London Marathon. Everyone in the hall looks either nervous or excited and the anticipation in the air is palpable. There is a real feeling of people being united for a shared purpose – to run 26.2 miles and achieve their own personal goals ranging from simply finishing, to gaining a new personal best, often raising funds for a charity close to their hearts at the same time. Whatever the goal, once you’ve been to the expo only one hurdle remains: the race itself.
Race day organisation is faultless: free transport for runners to the various starting areas, a well marshalled route and regular water/fuel stations. With everything else taken care of, runners are free to concentrate on their race strategy and enjoy the experience. London was only my second experience of a marathon and I vividly remember crossing the start line and thinking, “This is it. I’m running the London Marathon!” All the Sunday morning training runs, all the stretching, all the sensible eating had been building up to this one moment. And I was loving it!
London is normally a very anonymous city: everyone is in a hurry and focused very much on themselves. On marathon day, that changes. The streets are filled with thousands of runners who support each other, provide company when the going is tough and share words of encouragement. The route is lined with spectators who cheer on friends and strangers alike and if, as I did, you have your name printed on the front of your running vest, call words of personal encouragement. The support at both Tower Bridge and Canary Wharf is amazing, but it’s the last couple of miles along the embankment towards Birdcage Walk and Buckingham Palace where runners are most grateful for the crowd. Many a runner owes these spectators their thanks for keeping them going when every fibre of their being was screaming for them to stop and all they wanted was to collapse in the middle of the road and cry! I know it helped me to the finish line when my legs felt like dead weights and my body was exhausted!
Always a welcome sight in any race, not least a marathon, the finish line in London is another memorable moment. Turning the corner by Buckingham Palace and seeing the finish just 200 yards away, runners dig deep and from somewhere inside them find that last burst of energy to speed up for a big finish, arms aloft and grins on faces. It’s an amazing feeling to cross that line: you have achieved something that only a small percentage of the population can match and it’s not uncommon to experience waves of conflicting emotions all in a short space of time. For me, that emotion came in the form of elation, relief and a lump in my throat that had me constantly on the verge of tears as I was efficiently processed through the system of having my race chip collected, being handed a goody bag and, most importantly, having that sought-after finishers’ medal hung around my neck before proudly posing for a photo. All memories of pain soon subside to be replaced by pride and the determination to do it all over again but better, stronger, faster!
In the last two years I have completed three city marathons – Paris, London and Edinburgh – and while Paris will always have a special place in my heart not just for being my first, but also for being the city I love the most, I will always remember London with great fondness and refelct on the time I ran THE marathon. It may not be next year, but I WILL run this race again. Just try to stop me…!