Whether you were lucky or not in securing a place in the London Marathon ballot earlier this week, you still, maybe even if just for a short while, felt the magic. The kind of magic that makes your heart skip a beat when you receive the email that tells you whether your entry was successful or not. There are plenty of marathons, including some very good marathons, that don’t have a ballot, but this one is unique. It’s got a special stardust, for runners and non-runners alike, and it doesn’t appear to be losing its shine anytime soon.
The organisers have increased the capacity of the London Marathon next year from 40,000 to 50,000. They are always secretive about the number of ballot places available but when you take away the places allocated to charities, sponsors, club runners and elite athletes, the estimate is around 17,000-20,000 places. London Marathon Events have publicity stated that they received 410,000 entries for the 2023 ballot. That leaves you with odds of less than 5%. Pretty low, but not terrible, and certainly much easier than winning the National Lottery jackpot.
So, did you get in? If you did then congratulations! Well, I think it’s congratulations. You’re probably feeling pretty chuffed right now and rightly so, given the less than 5% odds. In this game of chance, you beat the other 95%. But the real competition has yet to begin. The competition between your head, your heart, your legs, and every last bit of you, all pitted against 26.2 miles. Apologies if it feels like I’m raining on your parade. But they say hindsight is a wonderful thing, and I’m giving you the benefit of mine. It’s a special day and I want to help you make it as special as possible.
It's just a few weeks since I completed my fourth marathon and my second London Marathon. Once again, I felt like a celebrity, I smiled and waved for the cameras. Afterwards, I wore that medal with pride. I was joyfully exhausted. But for the first time in around 15 years, I didn’t sign up for the ballot for 2023. I don’t want to run the London Marathon again.
Easy to say when I’ve done it twice? Yes, it is. The first time was through my running club’s internal ballot and this most recent opportunity was a ballot place I ‘won’ in 2021, which I deferred to this year. It had become such a habit to enter the ballot that I didn’t even remember doing it. And like so many other runners I know, I just thought that I won’t get in, so I won’t have to worry about whether I’m capable of running it. That now feels like a foolish approach, but I hear so many people saying it. Be careful what you wish for! I was very surprised indeed when I got that YOU’RE IN email.
If you’ve read any of my other blogs you may remember that this was my first marathon in seven years. I had one particularly bad ankle injury, amongst a collection of other injuries, that kept me from running more than 5k for several years and I had only been back to running half marathons just before the pandemic. I wanted to get back to my best, where I was in the first half of 2016, when I was forced to pull out of Manchester Marathon with ankle pain, just three weeks before the race. Back then I was hoping for 3hrs 45 mins. That time would have got me back into London the following year with a Good For Age place.
But in 2022, I am nowhere near that time. Not even close. I started the year fighting yet another injury. This time in my hip. I was just about fixed as marathon training started in June. I didn’t have the training base I wanted and although I began to adjust my goal in my head, I still clung onto finishing in a time close to 4 hours. My previous London time was 4 hours 1 minute, so nipping under 4 hours would still be a great time, even if it wasn’t a PB.
Miraculously, for my injury prone body, I only picked up one major injury during marathon training. But it was the dreaded plantar fasciitis (PF) and although I remained perky, it was a set-back. However, I can’t put too much blame on the return of an old nemesis (although different foot – just to keep it interesting), I had forgotten one major crucial element. Marathons are really hard.
I just about bashed out most of my training plan, although a lot of my runs were not at the pace they should have been at due to the PF pain. I swapped out a few interval sessions for bike intervals and my taper period was extremely light on mileage. I thought the impact would be minimal and decided I would adjust my goal slightly to aim to just beat my slowest ever marathon: 4 hours 15 mins.
Marathon day itself started well. It felt good knowing how it all works. There is no way of avoiding an early start and a lot of sitting around for London. I was in the red start this time compared to the blue start last time, but a field with portaloos is always just a field with portaloos. (Top tip: always go to the furthest point from the entrance to find the shortest loo queue – why do people never do this?) Breakfast has to be when you’re sat in the field, and so hot porridge is impossible. Luckily, my gut never seems to mind what I eat so I made cheese and pickle sandwiches and a grabbed a banana. It wasn’t a warm day so just a few sensible sips of water, an amusing and nerve reducing warm up from nineties throw-back Mr Motivator, into the start-pen, and we were off!
As soon as I started running, I didn’t feel relaxed. You should start a marathon feeling that the pace is too easy, almost so easy that you feel compelled to speed up. Many do, and regret it. But not me. My watch was saying I was running the correct pace for a 4 hours 10 mins finish and I knew straight away that I couldn’t keep this pace up for just a few miles, never mind 26.2 miles. I also felt a bit sick. And my heart was racing. Maybe I just needed to settle into the race, maybe I was full of adrenaline, maybe I’d eaten too many bloody cheese and pickle sandwiches! (What was I thinking? ‘Don’t do anything different on race day’ is a basic rule).
I tried to calm myself down and enjoy the experience. I had friends waiting for me in Deptford, just after the Cutty Sark and so I told myself I would try and keep the pace until then and see how I felt. The first miles or so of the marathon from the red start are slightly downhill but whilst I tried to ignore it, I knew that was the only reason I was keeping pace. I stopped feeling sick but I was definitely putting in way more effort than I should have been so early on in the race.
I passed through Deptford and saw my friends. It was wonderful, all smiles and high fives. I even got a “looking good”. Great, I’d fooled them into thinking all was well. I decided I had to slow down a bit and stop looking at my watch. More friends at 9, 10 and 11 miles. I wanted to start walking but didn’t want anyone to see me walking so early on in the race. But I knew if I didn’t do something I would feel utterly terrible in the second half and I simply couldn’t turn this special day into a car crash.
So I decided to walk one minute at the start of every kilometre. I had also started feeling an increasingly sore ache in my right hamstring and it was going into my glute. The regular walking really helped ease that, which I was grateful for. I saw many more friends and club mates and almost no one saw me walking. But everyone saw me smiling. There are so many cameras out there on the course. I tried to smile for every one, to make sure the record of the race was only a positive one and give the impression that I wasn’t struggling when I was. But a couple did catch me in one of the many low moments.
I knew those following me on the tracker would see that I was slowing down. In previous years, others had spoken of the pressure of the live tracker. People virtually watching your race fall apart, trying to guess what’s going wrong. But nothing was wrong. Everything was right. I had just realised a bit too late that I was simply not as marathon fit as I thought I was.
I took a slightly longer walk break just before I reached the mile 23 mark, just after the Tower of London. I needed to conserve some energy for what was coming. At the London Marathon, this is a very special moment for every member of the Ealing Eagles Running Club. As the course bends round there is a slightly raised pavement section on the right. We Ealing Eagles, know to make the small, but definite step up onto the curb. As you run along the narrow stretch, it gradually raises up from the road, elevating you above the other runners on the course, like you’re on a pedestal. In the distance ahead you can see around 20-30, sometimes more, faces. They are all craning their necks round and as far over the barrier as they can, trying to see down the narrow line. The live tracker has told them one of their runners is coming. As you reach them the roar is huge and then there are so many out- stretched hands, reaching to touch yours and everyone is grinning from ear to ear. It’s the highlight of the day. In this moment, your clubmates know your pain and share your glory.
In the final miles, I was surprisingly buoyant. Even when the pacers for 4 hours 30 mins overtake me. Everyone around me was hurting. I was hurting too, of course, but my early decision to slow down and enjoy the race has paid off although I’m happy the end is soon. I crossed the line with just a cursory look at my watch. The time didn’t matter. For the record it was 4 hours 45 mins 21 seconds. Thirty minutes slower than my previously slowest marathon.
I was, and still am, happy that I did it. But I made a big mistake by forgetting how unbelievably hard a marathon is. I should know better, but like a naive first timer, I overestimated my ability. Thankfully, my experience kicked in and rescued my race when I made the decision to slow the pace right down. I knew a PB was out of the question, and as I have said to many since – when we are all wearing that medal in those smiling post-finish photos, it’s not the time that matters, it’s that you did it. One of Running Cards UK’s most popular cards is our ‘Less than 1% of the population have run a marathon, that makes you pretty special’. And it’s true, so you have every right to have to that post-race smug glow.
But I won’t be doing it again. I was able to take in the course a lot more the second time around and really appreciated all my wonderful friends and clubmates who made me feel like a superstar. Getting a London marathon ballot place is a golden ticket. But just like Charlie, be careful in the chocolate factory. It doesn’t take any prisoners. Be ready for anything. And yet it’s a ticket that comes with privilege and honour, so don’t waste it. Enjoy it, share the experience with those you love and you will cherish the memories forever. Just remember to smile for the cameras.