Five lessons from London Marathon 2019 (including how not to run it)

It’s now been a week or so since I staggered over the finish line on The Mall, and I’ve been enjoying not breaking out of walking pace since then (I couldn’t have if I’d tried for the first three days). But while I’m just starting to think about lacing up the trainers again and getting going on the next challenge (nailing my 5K PB this summer), I think it’s a good opportunity to reflect on the big day and what I learned from it.

  1. Setting off too fast

Training had gone well, tapering had been sensible, and the weather was looking fairly kind – cool, dry, just a bit breezy. There was no doubt in my mind that I was hunting for a PB, especially on the back of one in the Bath half marathon (79 mins) a month earlier. However, what with it being my first full marathon for a couple of years, I didn’t want to get too cocky at the start and end up clinging on grimly again (as was the case in Bath), or blowing up altogether and DNF-ing.

Sadly, I ignored all of this and set off like I was at my local Park Run. Yes, I had recently learned that mile three was largely downhill, but I think I overplayed this fact in my head, and all of a sudden I was through 5K in 18.44, equivalent to 2h38 pace. Obviously I felt incredible at this stage, and with all the adrenaline flowing through me I did feel like I was running in a controlled manner. But I didn’t grasp that this really isn’t the point – you need to be thinking about how you’ll feel not now, but in two hours’ time. You don’t suddenly become a sub 2h40 runner because you’re having a good day, and I really paid for my over eager start later on.

I came through halfway in 1h21 and still felt reasonably good (as you really should do), but shortly afterwards I started to flag, and it became a huge physical and psychological battle from then on. Looking back at my splits, I pretty much slowed down with every passing 5k from that first one, and this fact doesn’t surprise me at all. I’m really proud to have held on to record a four minute PB despite my terrible race tactics (2h47), but if I’d been more sensible, I would have enjoyed the day more and perhaps gone a touch faster. Regardless, this is one lesson that I do not need to be taught again!

  1. Mind games

Like all sport, running is part physical and part psychological. In fact, I’d always enjoyed this side of the challenge – sticking to a gruelling winter training schedule and dealing with the highs and lows on race day is a huge but satisfying test of mental strength.

However, London 2019 definitely took things to a new level for me on this front…as a result of my stupid start, the thought of stopping altogether crossed my mind every five minutes or so from about the 15 mile mark onwards; something I had never had to deal with in a race before for more than a fleeting moment. I just about managed to keep these thoughts at bay, and kept myself occupied with constant recalculations about how much I could afford to slow down to still get a PB. I had my wife, family and friends dotted along the last few miles, which was also a useful distraction but inevitably also ramped up the intensity of my emotions and left me feeling pretty fragile!

Into the final two miles, I realised I’d been desperately gripping an energy gel in my right hand for some time. I had no intention of taking the gel (far too late for that), but suddenly I felt that if I chucked it aside, it genuinely might disrupt the very delicate rhythm with which I was running, and I may not be able to keep putting one foot in front of the other. So, it was passed from hand to hand as my stress ball until the finish line, and until I burst into tears in sheer relief shortly after – another thing that has never happened to me before! Perhaps I’m getting more emotional with age, but I prefer to see it as dealing with and overcoming the toughest mind games of my life. It’s incredible to think that 40,000-odd others were overcoming their own mental battles at the same time.

  1. No headphones required

I had spent weeks thinking about my marathon playlist, but I shouldn’t have bothered. In my four previous marathons I’d always listened to music, but in this one I just ended up with the headphones round my neck and the mp3 player untouched in my shorts for 26.2 miles. The London crowd was nothing short of sensational; definitely the loudest I’ve ever heard at a race, and there was barely a lull on the whole route. It’s definitely gone up a notch in the two years since I last ran London, and I now totally understand why hardly anyone other than me had headphones in the ‘good for age’ starting pen.

There is still an argument to say that music can be a welcome distraction to help you zone out and let a few miles pass without much thought, but in the case of my race, the crowd were nothing but a boost, and I would have stopped running long before the end if they hadn’t been there. Much as I love preparing a motivational playlist, I won’t be bothering next time.

  1. There’s always someone faster and a target to chase

No matter how well you’ve done and how much you’ve smashed your PB by, there is always someone who puts your achievements in the shade. Whether it’s 84 year old Eileen Noble, or the guy in the wedding dress who swapped places with me every couple of miles, there are so many inspirational performances to choose from. For me though, Hayley Carruthers was the one. I read that she only started running three years ago, but crawled over the line (literally), in 2h 34m, before going back to work the following day to her full time job in the NHS as a radiographer. Just awesome, and made me feel very self indulgent with my day off on the Monday!

My point is, it’s all relative and you inevitably compare yourself to those ahead of you. Even multi gold medal athlete Mo Farah has to deal with the undisputable greatest marathoner of all time, Eliud Kipchoge, looking a class above at the very front.

And for me, I think it’s all part of the fun. I like to measure myself against others (running club has been great for this) and set myself targets. Now that I’m reasonably close, my next marathon goal has to be to go sub 2h45 one day and be able to start alongside the elites and championship runners. I never previously thought I’d get close to that mark, but it would be rude not to give it a good go…

  1. Never underestimate it

As with all things in life, you can take a reductionist approach if you wish, and think of a marathon as just a bit of running. The reality, however, is so much more than this. The emotion and excitement of the London marathon in particular just elevates it to always being one of the very best days of the year, and its significance in the sporting calendar should not be underestimated. It means so much to so many people and makes me very proud to be a runner and a Londoner.

Also not to be underestimated is the enormous impact this event has for charities around the world. This year’s race saw the £1 billion mark exceeded in fundraising over the event’s history – a figure that no other mass participation event comes close to. Staggering.

And finally, the physical challenge of the race itself should not be underestimated. As I’ve documented above, I found this year’s race immensely tough, and saw several people pulling up, vomiting or crying their eyes out on the way round. Then, at the extreme end of the scale are those that end up in intensive care. We always have at least a couple on our units, and this year was no exception. It just makes you realise that it’s a fairly ridiculous distance to try to cover, especially at pace, and should always be treated with respect.

Roll on 2020? Maybe…


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