Hooray! London Marathon has come round again. It’s only been six months since I was hobbling round the course, waving at everyone in October. It’s been four Covid-tense years, but the biggest day in the UK running calendar is back in its traditional April slot. And it’s bigger than ever!
I’m always slightly disappointed if I’m not running ‘London’, it’s such a superstar-for-a-day experience and non-runners seem to get excited about it. Even for seasoned marathoners London is rather special and is guaranteed to provide an unforgettable experience. But as I learnt six months ago, running a marathon when you’re injured isn’t quite so much fun. So, I’m quite relieved to be cheering from the side-lines this April.
As we’re just a few sleeps away from race day I thought I’d share my London top tips to help anyone who is running to get the most from the occasion. My fellow running buddies did the same for me before my first London Marathon, and I’ve picked up plenty of my own tips during my two runs and five volunteer stints on race day – it’s only fair to pass them on. This is the stuff that the official guide doesn’t tell you.
Whether a complete marathon newbie or just new to this marathon, I’m sure you’ll find something useful here. And if you’ve run London before, what have I missed?
The Night Before
Pack a big black bin liner – I know many people like to take an old (or even quite new) jumper to keep them warm after they’ve handed in their kit bag immediately before the start. As a volunteer at the start, I have seen piles of jumpers that have been discarded just before people cross the start line. It’s quite a sight, but entirely unnecessary. I can highly recommend the classic household black bin liner. Not only does it keep you warmer than you’d think, it also keeps you drier too. Just rip a hole in the top for your head. You don’t need arm holes, they only create a draft, just shimmy it on and hold it down and tight with your hands from the bottom. Make sure it’s the classic black bin liner, the smaller, white, thin bags do not cut it! If you do bring a throwaway jumper though, don’t worry it will be recycled or reused.
Bring something to sit on – compared to other races, you are likely to be waiting around for quite a while in the start area and you should rest your legs. Even if it hasn’t been raining, the ground will be damp, cold and hard. A running buddy once told me she took a small fold-up stool to sit on in the start area. The London Marathon kit bag is surprisingly big and last year I did initially include a fold-up stool in my kit bag but I decided to forgo it in order to squeeze in some post-race clean clothes (that I never used). When volunteering in the start area lots of runners always ask us for spare scraps of cardboard or plastic to sit on, so I came prepared. The night before I made a little seat-come-cushion from a broken-down cardboard box which I carried in a separate plastic bag. It was soft and kept my bum dry, and I safely disposed of both bag and seat in the recycling after I handed in my kit bag. You could also just bring another black bin liner but do bring something, you will regret it if you don’t!
Don’t pack your kit bag the night before – this may sound like the opposite of some good advice you’ve heard before, but I guarantee you will only empty out the bag again in the morning to check if you haven’t forgotten anything. Lay everything out the night before (and take your ‘flat-lay’ pic for Insta, if that’s your thing). It will take no time at all to pack your bag in the morning.
Before the race
Use the portaloos farthest away – this should be obvious but each year I see people waiting in extremely long queues in the start area at the first available bank of portaloos they come across. There are hundreds of loos lined up and there is often little or no queue in the ones at the end. And we all prefer a portoloo that has been under-used rather than over-used, don’t we? Also, don’t be put off by the very long queues for the male and female urinals, they move extremely quickly. And yes, they have female urinals, memorable but easy to use!
Eat a bigger breakfast than normal – with the mass event not starting until 10am and the last wave leaving at 11:30 you need to start the race with more than just a bowl of porridge. You may have had a long journey to the start, and as I’ve mentioned above, there is lots more hanging around at very big races like London. Even if you do eat at home or in your hotel before you leave for the race village, you will need to eat more in the start area. Bananas, jam sandwiches, breakfast bars, whatever works for you. Bring more than you think you’ll need; you can always give it to the volunteers (thank you!) and chances are there will be room in that massive kit bag, so you can eat them after you’ve finished.
Be on time – since introducing wave starts in 2022, the London Marathon organisers give you start area arrival times, wave open times and wave start times. Stick to them, they are accurate. There is no need to be early, it just means more waiting, but don’t be late. If you are late, however, it’s not a disaster. There is always one baggage truck that hangs around when all the others have left, and your bag will be transferred to the correct truck so you can be reunited with it easily at the finish. Even if you miss your wave start, you will be allowed to run in a later wave.
During the race
Don’t go off too fast – this isn’t specifically just for the London Marathon but even experienced runners can get carried away with the big day event euphoria and go off like a rocket. The first half of the race should feel fairly easy and the first few miles should feel ridiculously easy. If it doesn’t, you are going too fast. I don’t know who originally said this (maybe someone can enlighten me?) but one of the best pieces of marathon advice I’ve ever heard was ‘don’t be an idiot in the first half and don’t be a wimp in the second half’. The first half requires rationality and sense, the second half is all about determination and hard work. For anyone in the Blue Start, it’s worth knowing that the first three miles, before you merge with the Red Start runners, are slightly downhill. This may make it feel even easier.
Smile for the cameras – there are lots of photographers around the course, all well-positioned to get those classic London shots you can share on social media or show your grandchildren in years to come. But getting a frameable memento is harder than you’d think. If you see a photographer run at them with arms outstretched and a big wide grin. Aside from the finish line, key places you can be snapped are around the Cutty Sark, just before you finish crossing Tower Bridge and as you leave Parliament Square with Big Ben in the background. If you can get a great picture at that last spot, I’d love to see it. In October, I was convinced I was looking bouncy and strong but at 25.5 miles the photo tells the real story!
Get your support crew organised – tell them what you will be wearing and ensure they’ve downloaded and set up the official London Marathon tracker app. As far as race trackers go it’s quite reliable and is more accurate if you carry your phone with you when you’re running. However, it’s far easier for you to see your supporters as they will be standing still – unlike you, who is a moving target and much harder to spot. There are thousands of runners and thousands of spectators. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. The Tube and DLR get very busy, with stations periodically closing due to overcrowding and so your supporters must allow plenty of time to get around. Encourage them to plan ahead and find out where they will be standing in advance, including which side of the wide course so you have time to make your way to correct side to see them.
Ideally, they should be wearing something recognisable like a colourful hat. A sign is great, but no surprises, if you’re not looking for it, it’s easy to miss it. Something that is easy to hold up high for a long period of time, for example, a balloon or a flag is ideal. I was sent a photograph of my partner Andy holding a sign before I started the race, so I knew exactly where he would be and what sign to look for. I had no chance of missing him. I saw that sign from afar four more times. It really lifted me during the race, and I each moment gave me a big boost.
After the race
Agree your post-race meeting point – if you’re meeting your supporters after the race, do use the designated meeting points in Horse Guards Parade and St James’s Park. Warn your supporters it can take a while for you to hobble your way through the finish funnel, get your medal and kit bag and then slowly work your way through the crowds. Mobile phone networks are usually overloaded so don’t rely on being able to contact someone after the race. Ensure you’ve agreed which letter of the alphabet you are meeting by – is it the letter of your first name or surname?
Celebrate! – you don’t need me to tell you how to do this bit, you can probably figure it out very well for yourself. Lots of places offer freebies to finishers on the day, usually in the form of a burger or beer or both. Here’s a list of some on offer this year. And it’s not an exhaustive list, my local pub gave me a free glass of wine when they saw my medal. And worth knowing that whatever happens on the day, you will almost certainly be wearing that medal. Over 99% of people who cross the start line, also cross the finish line.
Best of luck everyone. We’ll be cheering at various places along the course.
If you’re in the Blue Start area, I’ll be there in my volunteer jacket, probably be handing out water and scraps of carboard rations for those who haven’t read this blog.
Have a great run!