It’s not long until the London Marathon and, as I watch friends prepare to toe the start line on 28 April this year, many memories are flooding back to me. The 2018 London Marathon was my first and, so far, only marathon. I thought I’d write a short post about my experience and what I learnt from it. Hopefully, other first time Marathoners will find some of it useful.
*If you want to skip the life story, head to the bottom of the page for a synopsis of mistakes I made and tips for anyone running the London Marathon this year!*
This time last year, I was manically searching the internet for advice on how to deal with the fear of doing your first marathon. Whatever I did, wherever I looked, my fear grew. Anyone I knew who’d done the marathon told me about the highs as well as the horrific lows of the distance and it was making me feel physically sick. As I had no housemates, I was in my own echo chamber. I talked to myself a LOT during marathon training. Out loud. The conversation would flip flop from negative to positive and back to negative again. “Why do I do this to myself? Why do I always sign up to ridiculous things that hurt and that I sometimes can’t even finish? Well, at least I challenge myself! I may not be fast, but I’m faster than everyone on the sofa right now! URGH. I’m an actual freight train. This isn’t even funny anymore. You’re a GAZELLE! A gazelle running on behalf of people who cannot! Isn’t that wonderful?! I wish I could back out now, but I’ve been posting about it all over social media and raised money for a great charity. PICK UP THE PACE, PAL. YOU’RE EMBARRASSING”. On and on and on it would go.
The fact was, I had trained hard, I’d been really disciplined and not drunk alcohol, I’d been sensible with my diet, I’d done all the things. 3 weeks before the big day, I completed my longest run, which was 36kms. 8 more kms and I’d have done a marathon. I finished that run and felt shockingly OK; I still had a few more kms in the bank. It was an insanely great feeling. Who had I become?! That was the confidence boost I needed and right when I needed it. I was 99% certain I could finish this thing.
I wasn’t fast, I’d come to accept that, but I’d done it! What an absolute BEAST! “WTF?! I can run the majority of an actual real-life marathon and feel fine?! CHOOO CHOOO! ALICE THE FREIGHT TRAIN IS IN TOWN!” I thought to myself as crawled up my steep staircase to my flat where I had a trough of food waiting for me.
As I tapered in the run up to the big day, the feeling of strength and confidence waned and the fear seeped back in. I had to travel with work quite a bit and I ate at the wrong times, slept badly in hotel beds, and had a lot of work on. I was feeling quite knackered on the Friday before the Marathon, but everyone has jobs, I was not special in my tiredness. I tried to get an early night on both the Friday and the Saturday, as I would have to wake up at about 5 on Sunday and eat properly and travel to the opposite end of london to then run around London thereafter. But, of course, I couldn’t sleep. Classic. I also had a very jippy tummy from the nerves (lol soz, but I DID).
I calmed my nerves the only way I knew how, I went to Artisan (the best coffee shop in London) on the Saturday and I had my usual – a Large Long Black and a Bagel with Pic’s Peanut Butter.
As I chilled and chatted with the staff/my friends, I caught wind of a “heat wave” that was due to hit London during the Marathon. Oh God. No, please no. I checked the forecast. Highs of 28 degrees and clear skies were anticipated. Bearing in mind that during my longest run there was still frost on the ground and I was in leggings and a long sleeve the entire time, this heat wave that everyone was cooing about was terrifying news.
Every article I’d read, everyone I’d spoken to, they’d all said “whatever you do, make sure you practise in the kit you’ll be wearing on the day. Don’t change anything!”. Well, GUESS WHAT, EVERYONE?! I’m going to have to do the exact opposite.
So, there I was, the night before, fashioning a “skort” out of a skirt and bright pink shorts and preparing to have my guns out. Let the chafing commence!
After a meagre sleep on Saturday night, I awoke. Dread and excitement immediately came over me and I was suddenly very very awake. I had bought another Bagel with Pic’s Peanut Butter from Artisan the day before so that I could eat my familiar, bougie breakfast on the morning of the big day, but I was too sick with nerves to eat. I would try and get it down me en route to the start line. After a quick shower and a huge drink of water, I slammed on my sexy skort, picked up my bag that I’d meticulously packed the night before (probably around 17 times) and headed off to Greenwich on a series of trains and special busses that were being arranged for Marathoners (due to road closures).
My family friend, Chops, was in the same starting area as me. It was so great to see a familiar face. We had a huge hug and discussed goals/nerves/excitement and went to our separate starting pens. If, like me, you’re one of the charity runners, you will be starting quite near the back of the group. The wait is long and feels even longer because you just want to get going and you can hear the unique London Marathon atmosphere erupting up ahead. The FOMO is short-lived though; before you know it, you’re shuffling forward and then, all of a sudden, you’re running a marathon.
I am not being hyperbolic when I say that the support you receive during the London Marathon is totally and utterly amazing. You literally have people cheering you on every 20 seconds or so. You feel like a weird, sweaty celebrity for hours on end. It’s bizarre and it’s magic.
However, last year, that heat wave was no joke. I was running with a guy most of the way who, after the half marathon mark, began to vomit violently and collapse every few kms. Paramedics were begging him to leave the race, but he was hellbent on continuing “I’ve raised money for a charity, I can’t stop. Please!”. He kept going for a while, but I lost him at some point and I’m not sure if he made it to the finish line. Poor bloke. He wasn’t the only one having a bad day either. As we were near the back with the charity lot, many of the water stations had run out of water by the time we got to them, so my hydration plan went out the window. Growing desperate after 3 water stations in a row being dry, I had turned into a scavenger, picking up half-drunk water bottles that had been disregarded by runners and finishing off the precious nectar myself. I was also pouring them down my front and my back in an attempt to stay cool. It was a very glamorous exercise. Literally. PRO TIP: Don’t look people in the eye when you pour water over your chest OR when you’re eating a banana.
My wonderful friends and brother came out to watch me at various points in the race. As I approached my brother on the Isle of Dogs, I believe his kind words were “Come on! You’re so slow!” as he papped me in high definition. “Bugger off, bruv! It’s super hot!” I think I replied. One of my fave humans, Nitch, was waiting for me on the other side of the Isle of Dogs and he was far more encouraging, “Yasss Gaga! Werrrrrq!” he hollered. What a babe.
At about mile 20, I thought I’d seen the last of my friends. The chub rub was very real by this stage and I finally gave in to the Vaseline team, who were wearing latex gloves with swathes of the stuff in their hands. I high-fived them to get my share of the lubey goodness and, as I was ready-basting my inner thighs, I heard “GO ON ALICE!!! SISSY THAT RUN!!!”. My friends had surprised me one last time. Amazing. Embarrassing, but amazing.
At that moment, I saw Chops passing me on the other side of the road with those heading towards mile 24. He was crushing it! “YES, CHOPS!”. I’d planned on seeing him and his family at the finish line, but I was about an hour too slow for him. Plus ca change!
Due to the heat, I felt really sick whenever I ate my glucose-heavy food and I started to crash big time in the last few miles. I just didn’t want to stop and needed to get over the line. I tried my hardest to speed up and keep these heavy legs churning. As it turns out, I was actually negatively splitting (AKA getting faster) with each mile. The perceived effort was definitely increasing though, so I felt like I was getting slower and slower.
Seeing the Solomides parents at Big Ben was awesome, but I had to keep going, or I’d cramp up. I plodded on and, as I turned the last corner onto the Mall, there was just white noise. It was totally surreal; I’d visualised this moment for months, maybe years. “I could never do a marathon” I used to say. Yet, here I was, finishing a marathon. I feel a bit misty-eyed about it even now. Choking on my tears, I crossed that mammoth finish line and just melted. All of a sudden, I was like Super Hans in Peep Show when he runs to Windsor “by mistake”. My legs turned to al dente spaghetti.
My mum, who’d been tracking my every move, called me as soon as she saw my tracker had reached 26.2 miles and we just basically cried at the phone/each other for a couple of mins. If there had been subtitles, they would have read [NON-DESCRIPT MIDDLE-CLASS BLUBBERY]. I told her that, in addition to running for my charity, I was dedicating my efforts that day to my Mum’s sister, Liz, who’d deteriorated and died quite suddenly the month before the race. It was emotional to say the very least.
My best mate Eloise, Liam, Aaron and Vinny found me near the finish line hobbling about all dazed and confused. They photographed me with my medal and the amazing Ru Paul’s Drag Race-themed sign Eloise had made me and then guided me to a local restaurant for an immediate feed. PRO TIP: For so many reasons I will not go into, do not eat spicy food after a marathon.
I then got the tube home, in all my sweaty glory. Each train I got on (I think I had to take 3 trains), someone gave me their seat. I’m unsure if it was my stench or my medal that made them do that, but I really appreciated having a little sit after all that time on my feet.
I had a cold bath followed by one of the best showers of my life when I got home. It was like I’d been to the beach, I was that salty. I then gingerly put on some compression leggings, had a stretch, drank a load of water and went to bed with the biggest grin on my face. The next day, my legs and feet were in absolute bits, but I’d booked the day off work to recover and boy did I need it.
I was not fast, I made mistakes, but I ran a blummin’ marathon. It’ll forever be one of the best days of my life for so many reasons. I strongly recommend signing up. If you don’t get a place in the ballot, be a weirdo like me and secure yourself a charity place. It adds purpose to your training and to the day itself; it’s a win-win situation all round. DO IT!
Tips and Tricks to having an enjoyable (London) Marathon
- Dealing with the heat – Most marathons take place in the spring/summer, so you’ll be doing the majority of your training during the cooler months. It’s hard to get acclimatised to the heat that you might endure on the big day. If you’ve got the budget or are going on holiday to somewhere hot, take your trainers with you! I found my training was a lovely way to see more of cities when I was travelling with work, which was a bonus!
- Hydration – both in training and on the day itself, make sure you’re getting your salts with your water. I ate salt tabs every half an hour or so to stop my levels getting dangerously out of whack. Over-hydration or hyponatremia is not good. The tricky thing is, the symptoms of hyponatremia are very similar to those for dehydration, so people panic and continue to drink water, diluting their sodium levels further. Keep your sodium levels topped up, especially when it’s hot and/or you’re sweating a lot.
- Don’t eat spicy food – I don’t think I need to explain this one in detail…
- Listen to your body – There’s pushing yourself and then there’s doing unnecessary damage. I was aiming for a time of about 4.5 hours, which quickly changed when the heat hit me. I ended up taking more than an hour longer than I’d planned, but I made it to the finish line. If in doubt, be kind to yourself, and make sure you finish safely. You are the only person who cares about your finish time.
- What are you wearing? – Try to decide on your outfit in advance and practise in it. Don’t do what I did! The smallest things can be annoying on race day – small seams can feel huge, baggy/tight clothing can stress you out, chub rub in those pink shorts might try and bring you down etc.
- Don’t buy new trainers more than a month out – Honestly, if you do this, you won’t have time to break them in and you will be in a world of pain on race day. I broke this rule because I was worried that my trainers were too old. I should have stuck with what I knew because I had ALL THE BLISTERS afterwards.
- Don’t bother with a playlist – When I first started training and the fitness was not quite there, I relied on music a fair bit. Especially if I’d had a hard day at work, was tired, and still had to run 14kms home. However, I decided to make the shift from music to podcasts. Why? Music is almost too distracting and it can make you run at an unnatural pace. Sometimes music would bring me down or make me run too fast. Either way, it dominated my training and not in a helpful way. I started listening to podcasts that were informative or a series. It helped my cadence become more consistent and allowed me to run at a pace that was conducive with running long distance. It’s worth noting that many race events don’t allow you to listen to music for reasons of safety. Especially 10km and half marathon races. So, you might as well get used to it. Also, on the big day, the crowds are so loud and amazing 1) you won’t be able to hear your music and 2) you will miss out on the famous London Marathon atmosphere! It’s up to you, but I firmly believe that trying to run mindfully can be very enjoyable. One of my favourite training runs was without music, early morning, along the thames tow path and all I could hear were birds, rowers paddling in the distance, and wind in the trees. Give it a go.
- Practise eating on long runs – This is easier said than done. I got stitches galore when I initially introduced food to my runs, but you do start to benefit from it. I practised with foods that were glucose-heavy and went down fine in the winter months, but made me feel really queezy in hot weather. It all depends on your constitution, but practice really does make perfect. Don’t eat totally different foods on race day because, full disclosure, you’ll probably have a VERY upset tummy…
- Print your name on your shirt! – The London Marathon is one of the biggest events in the city’s calendar and millions of people come out to watch and cheer. Make sure your name is clearly printed on your top because people will personally cheer you on the whole way round and it provides such a massive boost. This is particularly important when you’re having a low moment or are starting to hit the dreaded wall.
- Book Monday off! – You won’t regret it and you earnt it! Spend the monday chilling, stretching, eating. It’s great.
- Suck up the pain – Try and avoid painkillers or anti-inflammatories. I know it’s tempting, but actually, you can risk injuring yourself more if you take them. Feel the pain, let natural adrenaline do it’s thang and, afterwards, wear some good quality compression leggings. The inflammation your body will go through, especially your legs, is important for recovery.
- Chill! – Don’t rush back into hard exercise but enjoy the base fitness you’ve built up over the last year. I took a haitus from running for a long time after the marathon. I mainly did restorative and vinyasa yoga in the months after. However, I found that my base fitness lasted for some time and certainly helped me when I decided to cycle through Scotland with my brother later in the year.
- If you love it, keep it up! – I’m a big, heavy person and I found that the training hurt my joints, but I still found that the longer the run, the more I enjoyed the training (which I never thought I’d say!). I now know that I’m definitely more of a long distance/endurance person than vice versa. I’ve signed up to the Auckland Marathon and Ironman 70.3 (Taupo) later this year and I’m looking forward to making fewer mistakes and maybe getting a slightly better time! Chops, on the other hand, immediately gave up running forever more (he might have changed his mind since)!
I hope this is helpful, perhaps even reassuring, for those lining up for the London Marathon this year. I’m weirdly envious of you all. Enjoy the atmosphere. Really live in that moment and try and just absorb all the sounds, smells, feels, pains, everything. It’s a once in a lifetime experience. Good luck!