I did it. I ran the London Marathon, and I enjoyed every one of the five hours and twenty five minutes it took me.
In all, it was a wonderful, life-affirming experience I will never forget, and I’d recommend to anyone.
Everyone warned me that the night before runners are so anxious they don’t sleep well. Not me. I’m still not totally over the jetlag/sleep deprivation of my Asia trip, so I was in bed at 9pm and asleep within minutes. When my alarm went at 6am, I felt incredibly well rested.
I made myself a bagel with peanut butter, but struggled to eat it, perhaps because I’d taken to carb loading with rather too much gusto over the past few days and didn’t feel hungry at all. I never want to eat pasta again.
I put on my kit, drank as much water as I could stomach, and headed out. Within seconds I bumped into a neighbour who was not only running the marathon too, but wearing exactly the same top as me. We wished each other luck and I headed for the station. Almost everyone there was dressed in sportswear and clutching a red marathon kit bag.
They all seemed much less nervous and better prepared than I did. On the train to Waterloo a group beside me – running club regulars – compared notes from previous London Marathons. Not for the first time, I felt like a fraud.
Waterloo East was a shambles. Now every London commuter thinks their rail line is bad, but Southeastern really are in a league of their own. With 36,000 runners relying on their services to get them to the start line, they acquitted themselves in their usual style, with trains being delayed all over the place, and staff seemingly not having a clue which trains went to Greenwich.
I got chatting to another first-time marathoner, Hannah, who was running for the Stroke Association. We squeezed on to a train together, chatting about lost toenails and the indignities of training for a marathon. Together we followed the trail of runners to Greenwich Park. The atmosphere there was amazing; everyone smiling and raring to go.
I headed for zone 9 – i.e. right at the back with the other slowcoaches, lining up between a rhino and man dressed as a sunflower. After the starting gun went, it took another 17 minutes to get across the start line.
On the move
Right from the start, the atmosphere was just incredible. I had a full ten hour playlist of music lined up. I listened to half a song, then took my headphones out and let the cheers and tunes from the roadside get me through instead.
I’d barely started when I passed a flat booming music from the balcony, with a banner reading ‘SE7 WELCOMES MARATHON RUNNERS’. From there on there was a near-constant wall of music and cheering.
Everyone had told me to start slow and steady, and I did the first six miles at around 10mins per mile. I stopped for the loo at mile 6, losing about six or seven minutes in the queue, then sped off again. Cutty Sark came around really quickly, and suddenly it hit me that I was actually doing this. I was one of those runners like you see on telly.
A mile or so later, by Canada Water, I spotted my family, who gave me a massive cheer. I posed for a quick picture, then sped off again.
It was getting really hot by this point, and I was starting to feel my skin burn. I was sweating buckets.
Not much further down the road, I spotted some friends in the crowd, who’d made me this lovely sign.
I spotted my family again at Mile 11 – they’d taken the quick route through the back. This gave me a massive boost. The crowds were getting bigger and noisier with every passing mile.
From there, Tower Bridge seemed to come around really quickly. I stopped here and got someone in the crowd to take another cheesy picture. The noise here was breathtaking. No one here knew me, but for the brief second they were calling out my name, they did genuinely want to see me do my very best.
The halfway mark came around, and I gave myself a mental high-five (trying not to think about having to do the same all over again). Truth be told, I absolutely loved the first half, and felt amazing. Except when I got overtaken by a rhino.
Shortly after the 13 mile mark – when I was feeling a little down at seeing a man dressed as a toilet heading the other way, seven miles ahead of me – a saw the lovely ladies from my online fitness forum, who’d come down to cheer me on with a banner that read ‘THERE’S CAKE AT THE FINISH!’. They gave me the biggest, noisiest and most delightful cheers I got all day. In return I gave them all sweaty, salty hugs. Sorry girls.
As I headed into the Isle of Dogs, I knocked back another gel. I’d expected this to be the most challenging part of the course, and indeed it was; the roads were narrower and there were a few points where it was a little crowded, and as everyone started to lose their energy a bit there was a lot of trying to dodge around people walking.
The crowds got bigger again as I headed into Canary Wharf, around mile 19. I was looking out for friends here, but although they saw me, I didn’t see them. The downside of having my name on my shirt was that it was hard to distinguish between people who actually knew me, and people who were just reading my name out.
At mile 20, I stopped to take and tweet this selfie. As I put my phone away, a woman in a wheelchair shouted “go on, Sharon! You can do it!”. I realised how lucky I am to be able to run the London marathon at all. I charged on toward mile 21.
Running in big races is an emotional business. It’s really true that it’s a mental battle as much as a physical one; as I ran I could see everyone’s personal stories on their outfits – people running for children who are sick, or to raise money for cancer research in memory of a lost parent. People running not just to raise money, but taking on a huge physical challenge as a way of dealing with the crap hand that life has dealt them. It really is remarkable, and humbling.
The final few miles
After mile 22, I started to really slow down, and ended up walk/running for the next two miles. I still felt like a had a good bit left in the tank, but I’d only done 21 miles in training, so this was going into the unknown and I was worried about not making it to the finish at all. On reflection, I could have pushed harder here.
Somewhere on the Embankment I hit my lowest point, thinking that Mile 23 would never end. I should have been paying closer attention, as Mile 23 had in fact already ended without me noticing. As the 25 Mile marker came into view I felt absolutely ecstatic. I knew I was absolutely going to finish this. I sent one final tweet and ploughed on through, past Big Ben, Parliament Square and on to Birdcage Walk. One final right turn and there it was: the Mall. I was actually there.
With the finish in sight, I had the most incredible mix of emotions: relief, excitement, achievement, pride.
I took a big, deep breath and sprinted as best I could to the finish, throwing my arms up in relief as I crossed the line. It may have taken me nearly five and a half hours, but I bloody did it. That feeling that I can do it if I put my mind to it is one I hope I’ll carry with me forever.
I’d like to say a huge thank you to everyone who has supported me over the past five months. In particular:
- My family and friends
- My colleagues
- Those who’ve given me support and advice online, especially the regulars on the running thread on JustTheTalk, and the lovely ladies of Get The Healthy Look
- My amazing and brilliant husband
Your advice and kind words have really helped me to keep on pounding the pavements these past five months.
Today I feel unbelievably proud, if a little bit broken. I have a massive blister on my left foot, some ridiculous sunburn, but I also have a medal.
It was an absolutely amazing life experience, and one which I would recommend to anyone. And if I can do it, anyone can! Yes, it was hard, but the crowd was incredible, and made me feel invincible. It’s a memory I will treasure forever.
I’m already tempted to enter the ballot for 2015.