Thursday, May 17, 2012

After 31 Years - THE London Marathon

The first London Marathon was run on 29th March, 1981.

I was 12.

Inge Simonsen and Dick Beardsley battled to the finish, and crossed the line in a dead heat.  An exciting race.

Living in a village about 25 miles south west of London, I watched the race with my brother.

From that day on I knew I was going to run the marathon.  Over the years I watched nearly ever running of the event.  My knowledge of the Cutty Sark, and the Isle of Dogs was purely from race coverage.

The closest I ever got to actually participating was after university, living in Wimbledon, aged 23, I signed up for it with a charity.  I had no idea about training, and ran a few times after work.  Hurt my knees running fast down hill and decided not to run.

Fast forward 17 years.  Turning 40 - it was the promise to myself that I'd one day run a marathon that got me off my fat arse and back running.

I ran my first - Chicago in 2009.  Qualified for Boston.  Ran Boston a couple of times, Chicago again, CIM, St George, Tucson, and New York.  

All great races.  Some very prestigious.   

On this side of the pond, Boston is often viewed as THE marathon.  Others will argue that it's the whole New York experience with the amazing crowd support.

Not for me.

London has always been THE marathon.

The marathon distance of 26 miles and 385 yards was set for the London Olympics in 1908 so that it could finish in front of the Royal Box.

In 2012 the Olympics were going to be back in London.  That did it.  I needed to run the London Marathon in the Olympic Year.

A group of friends - using marathon tours - signed up to run the race.  31 years later - I was finally going go make good on that promise I'd made as a 12 year old.

I started a new job in October 2011.  It was hard to run the 70 - 85 mile weeks that I had managed through the previous cycles using Pete Pfitzinger's plan, so I switched to Brad Hudson.  Less mileage, but more intensity.  Through the winter I was averaging between 50 - 60 miles per week.

Because the plan was different - I didn't have any comparisons.  I had no idea what kind of shape I was in.  Until I ran the Moab Half Marathon again in March.  Once again the wind blew.  And this time I really sucked !  I'd gone into it thinking more of a marathon paced run, but even with that I fell apart.  1:34.  1:34 ??  The second slowest half of my life - and 9 minutes slower than the 1:23:45 I'd run just last summer...  

Not exactly confidence building.

I had a few better runs the last few weeks of training, but I was going in with very little confidence.  

I flew into London the Wednesday before the race.  Hit the expo the next day, and then generally got to hang out with friends and relive visiting places that I'd gone to while living and working in London.

I wasn't thinking about the race much at all, and probably as a result had the best nights of sleep leading up to a marathon that I'd ever had.  I wasn't putting pressure on myself for sub 3.  I wasn't sandbagging when I said I wasn't in shape - although I knew I was going to give myself a chance - just in case...

Race Day.

We met in the hotel lobby and caught the bus at 7:15am.  Not a Boston school bus for us - this was a fancy comfy coach.

We hung out in the village and waited for the 9:30am start.

I was struck by several things.  

Instead of just the porto potties - they also had areas for men and women's urinals.

thanks Robyn

The queues for the porto potties were well organized.  Hell - this is England.  We know how to organize a queue.  And the porto potties themselves had flushes.

Everything was a lot more relaxed than the big marathons I'd run in the states.  New York we'd been put in our corral 45 minutes before the start.  Boston and Chicago - a similar story.  Here in London - we just got gentle reminders over the loud speakers.

"Folks - just a reminder - the race starts in 10 minutes so you should be making your way to your designated pen".

"Remember - if you just need to pee - you can use the urinals".

Something else I couldn't imagine hearing over a loud speaker system back home.

I was in pen 1 at the Blue start.  Just back from where the Elite Men were.  There was a group of sub-elites in between - but just 40 yards up the road - I could see the backs of the running heads of state.  The closest I'd be to them all day.

I'm on the right hand side as you look - about 100 people back.  See me ?  

Anyone who's run a big marathon probably knows the feeling.  The gun goes up ahead, you start the slow shuffle forwards towards the line - everyone with their hand on their stop watch or garmin.  Nervous talk.  A good luck shout to runners around you.  The shuffle becomes a slow jog, and then a jog.  You hit the start line, you start your watch, and you're running.

I hit the start line and I was still slow jogging.  What ?  I'm in the front pen.  Pre-race I was worried I'd be holding people up around me.  No danger of that.  I'd wanted to back off the pace slightly the first mile but this was ridiculous.  Half a mile in - I was running 8:30 pace.  Hmmm.  I didn't think I was in sub-3 shape, but I had hoped to start with a 7 minute mile.  8:30 pace ??  I started trying to do something about it.  Zig zagging around slower runners.  Jumping up on the pavement and running down there.  Slowly, but surely, I was able to clear the bottle neck.  I felt bad for my friends who were starting further back.  I bet it was worse (I learned later it was).  That's probably the one thing London could improve on.  Find a way to eliminate the bottle neck at the start and to prevent runners who had no business being at the sharp end of a big race, from getting up there and then running slowly and holding back the pack.

By the time I hit the first mile, I was getting back on track.  7:18

We were now running through fairly narrow residential streets.  People with flags warned us of 'speed humps'.  Clearly I've been out of England too long.  That meant something else to me now.

The green start joined us, but fortunately they were going the same speed so crowding wasn't an issue.

Second mile:  6:51

Perfect.  Feeling pretty good too.  

So the crowding at the start wasn't impressive - but that was easily outweighed by the hydration approach that London takes.  None of those silly little paper or plastic cups that you spill all over yourself.  Every mile - they handed out plastic bottles of water, or the sports drink lucozade with flip top lids.  Why don't other races do this ?  Runners were pretty good about throwing the empties to the side of the road where they were quickly swept up, and I'm sure recycled.  Brilliant !

Third mile.  6:39

Doing the calculations in my head.  Maybe 10 seconds down on sub 3 pace.  Exactly where I'd want to be at this point in the race.

The red start joined us and we ran along side each other - with a road divider to keep us apart.  Some good natured banter erupted.  'Red Start Sucks !'

Another aid station.  Grabbed a water to run with for the next few miles.  Tap on the shoulder - can  you pass me your bottle ?  Umm - no.  Sorry mate.  I'm nursing this one for a few miles.  No idea who he was - but he was angry.  Said something that would require **** to repeat and then stormed off (which is impressive in a marathon).  A few hundred yards later I saw a half full bottle on the side of the road and grabbed it and ran over to him.  For some reason I felt guilty.  He told me all was forgiven - although I wasn't really sure I had anything to be forgiven for.  If you can't get your own water when they're handing them out each mile that's really your own problem.  Clearly the English have an issue with personal accountability too !

Still, a bit of drama to keep my mind off the running.

Mile four, 6:43

Clicking off.  Nice and easy.

A little hill another mile.  6:53

Mile 6:  6:59

And then I saw it.  The Cutty Sark.  Synonymous for me with the marathon.

A boat built in the mid 1800s, that at one point held the speed record for the crossing between England and Australia.  Now in dry dock and just about to re-open to the public after being badly damaged in a fire a few years before.  We ran round the boat.  I spent the whole time just staring at it.  That's the bloody Cutty Sark !

Mile 7.  6:49
Mile 8.  6:40
Mile 9.  6:45
Mile 10. 6:47

Nothing remarkable about this stretch.  You're following the looping of the Thames on the south east side of London.  Still - the crowd support was impressive.

The splits all from the GPS watch as usual were all a few seconds off (fast).  I was monitoring my actual time too as I passed under each of the very noticeable mile markers with a tunnel of balloons and a clock.  I was about 20 seconds off sub 3 pace.  Again - very much where I'd planned to be.  I figured in previous attempts I'd gone off too quickly.  Hitting the half in 1:28:xx, and then fading.  This time I hoped to negative split as I had in my 'training run' at New York - something between 1:30 and 1:31, and then if I had it - a 1:29 on the back half.  And if I didn't - I hopefully wouldn't blow to pieces on the road.  

Avoid one of the most miserable feelings there is.  Running the last 10 miles of a marathon when you've got nothing left and feel like an old lady in a walking frame could overtake at any minute.

I was amazed at the number of runners in costume - and the number of those that were running relatively quickly.  I was running along side a guy wearing a full gas mask, and next to another guy in a leopard skin costume holding a staff.  And further back in the pack - costumes were everywhere.

Mile 11.  6:51

Mile 12.  6:51

I'd studied the course the night before.  I knew that at around mile 12.5 - we'd be crossing Tower Bridge - one of the highlights of the race.  We turned the corner - and there it was.  And so were the crowds.  Amazing.  They talk about turning onto 1st Avenue in New York - and I'd done it just 5 months earlier - but I felt these crowds had those beat.  Amazing.  Loud loud loud.  I clapped them as I ran across the bridge and got loud cheers in return.

Probably a once in a lifetime opportunity.  Very cool.

Mile 13:  6.51.  Clockwork !

Hit the half in 1:30:48.

Over 3 minutes faster than a half I'd run in Moab the previous month.

I really was feeling good too, but I've done enough of these things now to know that it all comes down to the last hour.  Get yourself to that point - then try to hang in there.

The crowds were still strong, and we got to see some of the elite women running back, at about mile 22 of their race, having started 45 minutes before us.  I saw Liz Yelling, the wife of Marathon Talk podcaster Martin.  I yelled encouragement, although realized she was well off pace.  I heard an interview with her later - she'd lost the leaders and realized the dream of her 3rd Olympics was gone so she'd backed off - running something around a 2:40.  "Passing the baton to the younger generation"

Mile 14.  6:57

We were now coming towards the docklands.  I didn't know this area well at all.  Other than a concert out here one time, and the expo on Thursday - I don't think I'd ever been out this way.  I knew from the map we'd be doing a lot of turns and would have some tunnels to go through.

It was also where the Isle of Dogs was going to be.  I only knew this from marathon coverage too and remembered it looked pretty bleak and lonely with sparse support.  

Clearly things have changed over the years because there was never really an area without people to yell encouragement.

Mile 15. 6:47
Mile 16. 6:49

Still ticking along.

I noticed that I was running very much by feel.  I wasn't checking my watch at all.  With my Motoactv watch - it would just speak the mile splits to me once the mile was done, and from that I could gauge how I was doing.  I knew I needed to pick things up to get that negative split and sub 3, but my legs were starting to feel a little heavier and mentally I wasn't sure I was capable anyway.  

In hindsight I probably should have made more of an effort to stay on pace.  Not wait until the mile was done, but actively check and speed up.  With the poor race performance in March and lack of confidence - I didn't want to risk pushing too hard and blowing up.

Mile 17. 7:03

Mile 18. 7:05

That didn't even register.  12 seconds off pace.

These were the miles around the tall buildings of the docklands.

Mile 19.  7:03

Mile 20.  8:03 - not really.  With the tunnels and buildings - the GPS got jacked up.  Suddenly from having it call mile splits a hundred yards before I got to the mile markers - it was now doing them after.  Definitely a long mile that one.

Still - I knew sub 3 was gone - but things were still ticking over.  It was hurting - but it wasn't HURTING.  I also knew the best part of the course - and probably the best support - was still all to come.  Mile 23 you get to the Tower of London, then run along the Embankment passed the City, right next to an office I used to work, then up to Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, before turning towards Buckingham Palace and the finish.  

Not long for that.  5 miles to go.  Picture going out on my easy 5 mile loop around City Park in Denver.  I've got this.

I was trying a mantra for the first time that I'd put together having read the "10-minute toughness" book.

Lean, bounce, relax.

3 trigger words for me.  The first two to keep me running on my mid-foot, and the last to not tense up.

Mile 21.  7:18.

Lean, bounce, relax.

Also designed to keep your mind occupied and prevent the negative thoughts flooding in.

Mile 22.  7:15.  We were now running on the side of the road where I'd seen the elite women.  A mass of humanity was going the other way - them at the 14 mile mark.  I was very glad I was running where I was.  Open roads.  I again marveled at the people in costumes.  Later I saw that 2 people on stilts had 'run' the marathon.

Mile 23.  7:15

Past Tower Bridge.  I glanced over at a bar - the Minories - that I used to go to in my days working in London.  A spit and sawdust place.  Boys night out on a Friday evening.  Another lifetime.

Then past The Tower of London with all of it's history and the crown jewels.  It didn't appear I was losing my head today.

The crowds were large.

Then along the embankment.  Under the LIFFE floor building - where I'd worked for a few years before being transferred to Chicago.  Reliving some of the memories kept my mind off the heavy legs.  But I also wasn't concentrating on the watch.

Mile 24.  7:34

Ok - come on !!   Way too slow - only 2 miles to go.  I figured I still had a shot at my PR - just over 3:04.  This very much a concentration lapse - I could run faster - I just wasn't looking at my watch.  45 seconds lost in that one mile alone.

It felt hot.  The cloudy day with rain showers hadn't materialized.  Blue sky and sun the whole way.  Nothing like Boston 6 days before though.  Still - there were a fair number of runners in trouble.  Walking.  Sitting.  Even lying on the road.

Mile 25.  7:16.

Turn the corner, leave the Thames behind, run past Big Ben.  I was running in clear open roads.

Despite the slightly slower pace - I was the one over taking.  Very few were going past me, which was a pretty novel experience for me this late in a race.  I liked it, although again I wondered later if I should have pushed things more.  The official stats:

Last push.  I'd walked this part of the course on the Friday.  I knew Buckingham Palace was ahead.  A turn in front, and the finish would be there.

Mile 26.   7:27

Make the turn.  Take in the crowds.  Pick up the pace.  

Last little bit.  Look up to see if I could see the Queen waving (she wasn't).  Think about getting an open space around me for the photo of me with Buckingham Palace as a backdrop.

And over the line.  3:04 ?   3:06:15.   Really ?  Where did those 2 minutes go ?!  Oh well.

Not a sub 3.  Not a PR.  Not easy - but really not too bad.  I still had a lot of energy left, walking quickly to get my bag and then another half mile or so to catch the tube.  I didn't get the DOMS (delayed onset muscle  stiffness) either.

It felt more like I did after a hard Sunday training run, than after finishing my goal race.

Marathons are hard to train for.  You train for months ahead of the event to get one shot.  If you don't perform the way you'd hoped - you can't run another the next weekend.  So after each race I analyze what I did well and what I can improve on - and then write myself notes for the next race in the hope I learn.

Hindsight is always 20:20, but sitting here 3 weeks on - I think I could have pushed myself to have run a few minutes faster.  The lack of confidence from the pre-race half marathon weighed heavily, as did previous sub 3 attempts where I'd blown up late.

This run showed me that I can run a sub 3 pace throughout the race - and not disintegrate at the end.  That's a positive.  Now I need to pay more attention to how I'm running in the second half.  Not allow myself to drift off pace passively.  Push myself to maintain.  I'm continually reminded by something a friend (Eric) said in Boston last year.  Once you let yourself get used to running slower, you get into that rutt that's hard to get out of.  Next time I'm going to try to avoid that rutt.

Pre-race fueling finally appears to have worked.  Carb depletion and ultra fuel the day before, and then simple toast with honey with some liquids 3 hours before.  I was able to get 3 of my 4 gels down, which is an improvement.  Next time will be 4.  The salt caps I took during the race seem to have helped as well - I didn't feel nauseous, which I had previously - so I think the caps helped change the composition of the fluids in my stomach and got them absorbed more quickly.  Hydration is still an issue though - even with all the bottles of water - I still ended up dehydrated.  Clearly I need to drink more than I think I need, especially early on.

With all that said - 3:06 is still a 9 minute Boston Qualifier.  With the lack of confidence and perhaps lack of form going in - I'm fairly happy with the time.  If you'd offered it to me after Moab I'd have bitten your hand off.

More importantly to me.  I'd finally run the London Marathon.

Another life goal ticked off the bucket list.

Then the best post race meal ever - roast beef, yorkshire pudding and roast potatoes !!!

And a lot of drinking with friends.

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