The London Marathon: The greatest race of earth

I’ve always run ever since I was a kid chalking start and finish lines on the pavement outside my parents’ home and having sprint races with my friends and brothers, sports day sprints at primary school, County Track Championship in the middle of blistering summers, wading through a foot of mud at Parliament Hill in the Southern Counties Cross County Championships and England Schools Championships, runs all around the world, in deep freezing snow, 38 degree deserts, up mountains, during torrential downpours. But nothing I have ever competed in is like the one and only time I completed London Marathon.  By comparison every other race is pedestrian.

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The London Marathon is unique for lots different reasons.  Firstly, the course is incredible situated as it is in the greatest city on earth and, as Samuel Johnson said “…when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” During those 26 miles and 385 yards you run past architecture from the most beautiful historical buildings which are landmarks to Britain’s history to the latest incredible gravity defying plate glass and chromium sky piercing structures.  You also run past a landscape that has been and continues to be at the centre of world for over thousand years.  But it’s more than that.

Watching the first London Marathon in 1981 and knew then at some point I would run the race.   I had applied for entry three times before finally getting in.  This time also coincided with the passing of one of my brothers from leukaemia, so there was an extra motivation to train, fund raise and complete.

For me the race came at the end of nine months of training.  Cold winter evenings trying to fit in fast runs after the children were in bed, 5 am starts to get my mileage in around work and life, 2-3 hour runs on a Sunday where afterwards I was so tired and hungry I would sit in a bath and eat!  Sarah my wife would find me an hour later asleep in the tepid water.  During that time my body metamorphosed.  I lost two stone and had to buy a whole new wardrobe, and I felt and looked great even if I was constantly tired and could stand up or sit down without making “old man noises.”

The week leading up to the race, as Trevor Barter recommends in this blog series I tapered training carbohydrate loaded.  For the first time in months I stopped running and didn’t feel constantly hungry.  The tapering and carb loading pre-race phase surprisingly made me feel terrible. My body was used to being rested and having so much glycogen in my muscles.  I suddenly had loads of time on my hands as I wasn’t running for hours but felt fatigued, a little miserable and restless.  It’s quite a strange feeling and my colleague and Sport Psychologist Dr Jamie Barker could probably explain how this not very helpful leading up to the biggest physical challenge of your life.  However, on the day once you start running you feel incredible because you are so ready.

I followed a friend’s advice and had my name printed on the front of my vest.  This probably one of the most import things I did as every step of the way someone is calling your name.  It’s like having your own personal motivator with your for every stride.  I admit I wasn’t so prepared for the sights and sounds, noises and smells and atmosphere of the race.  I have never been in a race where you are constantly running accompanied by constant noise, crowds, musicians, singers, people calling your name, cheering you on, the smell of bbq’s and street parties, people still drinking getting home form the Saturday night before.   I remember in particular the wall of noise that hits you when you cross Tower Bridge. This was like nothing I have experienced before.

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This combination of glycogen and crowd noise make you want to go faster and you have to make sure you don’t go off too fast.  I got to half way and felt incredible, indestructible.  I checked my watch and my heart rate monitor and calculated that if I upped my pace in the second half I could come close to a three hour finish time.  I remember at fourteen miles seeing my wife and children in the crowd and high fiving them as I ran past.  My plan was going well.  And then it all started to become harder…..

At seventeen miles my hamstrings became tighter, my gait shorter and I started to slow, each step became harder and each mile took longer.  I tried to concentrate, talk to myself and move my arms to move my legs.  Everyone started to overtake me.  At twenty one miles I passed my wife again but didn’t see her, the crowd sound had become white noise, my vision tunnelled.  I remember stopping at 22 miles and laying in the middle in the road to stretch my aching hamstrings.

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I just focused on the person in front of my and tried to stay with them.  I counted off the miles and tried to work out my pace and speed, but even simple calculations took me half a mile to complete.  I don’t really remember the last four miles until we got to the finishing straight where the noise got louder again and I tried to sprint!

I crossed the line with a mix of relief, accomplishment, pain, exhaustion; I thought of my brother and shed a tear.  I stood hands on hips and looked at the sight around me and was struck by the number of happy smiling people who were also crying.     Everyone should do it at least once in their life and every April as I sit on the sofa and watch it, I want to be part of it again and feel jealous of those who are running what is undoubtedly the greatest race on earth.

Maybe next year…

 

Dr Peter Jones

Head of School of Psychology, Sport and Exercise

Read more about the School of Psychology, Sport and Exercise here.