Written by Katie Ruocco
We knew that the Sunday of the London Marathon was going to be hot. The forecast had started gathering pace in the preceding days, and by Thursday, the organisers released a statement with medical advice, as the race was likely to be the hottest on record, at 23 degrees. This wasn’t ideal, after a long, hard winter spent training in ice and snow, BUT I like the sun. I even like running in the sun- but for an hour or so. Five hours plus was an unknown quantity on its own, before throwing warm weather into the mix- but it would be what it would be. I concerned myself with preparing as much as I could around the predicted heat, and looking forward to what was undoubtedly going to be an amazing day. The on-route support is often cited as one of the reasons why the London Marathon is so lauded, and on a sunny day, there was no question that the crowds would be out in force.
I’d stayed with friends in South London the night before the race, and so had none of the usual morning chaos that having three small children entails- it was a luxury to just have myself to worry about getting ready, especially when I’d laid everything out the night before. It was pretty much a case of brushing my teeth, and hopping on the bus to get to the Blue start.
Being at the start on my own was quite nice. I drank more water, I ate a Clif bar, and a banana… and I sat in the sun, gazing at the blue sky- unbroken, as far as the eye could see. Not a hint of any cloud cover whatsoever. It was warm enough at 9am to just be in a vest and shorts, and it was becoming increasingly obvious that it was probably going to be the warmest day of the year so far. Still, blue skies and sunshine make for a lovely background to pictures!
My own plan was to stick with the five hour pacers. When it comes to running, I am definitely a follower, not a leader. It’s very liberating to not look at your watch, and simply put your faith in a more experienced runner’s pace. As the back of Blue pen, those of us with the five hour pacer didn’t actually cross the line till 40 minutes after the starting gun, so we had plenty of time to get to know each other, and chat about our various reasons for being there that day. I also had 40 minutes for the pints of water I’d been sipping all morning to work their way through my system. As we reached the line, I couldn’t ignore the fact that I was dying for a wee.
In big events, there’s usually a toilet stop very soon after the start – I remember seeing runners veering off to it at the Great North Run, and thinking “for goodness sake, why didn’t they go beforehand?!” On marathon day, I was that person. I left the five hour group, and joined the queue of about 15 other women like me, who hadn’t wanted to warm up and get into a rhythm of running, before then having to stop. From the queue, I watched the 5:15 run/walk pacer go by, and realised I’d kissed goodbye my five hour goal before I’d even started. However, that goal had always really been secondary to finishing strong and smiling- and I didn’t feel too devastated. As I re-joined the course, the streets were beautifully empty (because I was quite literally the back of the pack), the sky was blue, the crowd support was already brilliant – I was loving it.
The first three miles of the race from the Blue pen heads out east, on residential roads, before converging with Red runners at about 5k. I barely noticed these miles, as I was occupied in an internal dialogue about my waist belt. I still hadn’t really decided what I was doing in terms of in race fuelling, (not recommended), and so had worn a small waist pouch, which I’ve worn countless times before. However, I’ve never stuffed it full of as much “just in case” stuff as I had that day – eight gels, gummy sweets, dried apricots, and my phone. As I ran, the pouch was flapping around to an alarming degree, and walloping me in the lower back. I moved it around to the front and put my vest over, rather than under, but that was even worse, plus I looked pregnant, and no one needs that when there’s a photographer round every corner. In the end I moved the pouch to the back, put my vest over the top to sort of secure it in place, and tried to think that, on the bright side, the rhythmic bumping of the pouch was acting as a sort of massage on my troublesome lower back.
Coming together with the other starters was amazing, as suddenly, I wasn’t on my own any more, and that was when it really started to feel like London, with more runners overall, as well as more in costume (in the heat!). I even saw friends from BVR running, though lost them again as the streets got busier. The crowd support just grew from there on in – through Woolwich and Charlton, people were already in their gardens, cheering us on, stereos blasting, and beers on the go. It is the quintessentially British equation; a glorious day + one of the country’s biggest mass participation sports taking place in your city = an excuse for starting drinking before lunchtime. All the pubs were open, beer gardens packed with supporters and their enthusiasm and energy (alcohol fuelled or otherwise) was completely joyous. There were also church congregations taking to the streets with megaphones and music, piling us with blessings, as well as community bands performing. I saw a couple who were running in kilts openly crying (and smiling) as a Scottish pipe band performed a rendition of Speed Bonny Boat. Reaching the Cutty Sark at 10k, the fantastic weather had brought with it a carnival spirit and a wonderful sense of community. It felt like a real celebration of people coming together.
I love a cheesy X Factor style “journey”, so cue some slo-mo footage of marathon day, and Westlife’s Flying Without Wings or something playing in the background, BUT I think that’s the point when I began to realise that the London Marathon isn’t just about the runners. It is about everyone watching, and for those of us who were running, it’s about every person who helped us through our training. For me, it’s about everyone associated with the charity that I was running for, the Huntington’s Disease Association, and about the friends and family who I knew were tracking me on the app all over the country, and willing me on. It’s about those spectators with signs like “question if it’s a fart after 17 miles”, and “run like your ex is chasing you”, those who gave out jelly babies, and Haribo, and amazing orange wedges (that’s you, Ave Turner), and it’s about the volunteers on the baggage lorries, the St John’s Ambulance, those on the water and Lucozade stations, and all the amazing marshals who were the biggest cheerleaders to each and every one of the 40 thousand runners who set out to conquer London that day. I’ve run lots of races, but nothing compares to London- it really is quite extraordinary.
At Deptford Creek, around seven miles, I saw my husband, Andrew, for the first time, and my friend Helen, which was a huge pick-me-up. Seeing people on the course who are as excited to see you as you are to see them is unbelievably reassuring, and it certainly gave me the drive to keep on running. I also flung my belt at them. With plenty of water and fuel on route, the weight of the belt was an annoyance I could do without, and I felt a lot lighter after that.
Before I knew it, we were on Tower Bridge, and almost at the halfway point. Here, crowd support is at its strongest, and the noise crossing the bridge was almost overwhelming. It’s life affirming stuff, and my face hurt from grinning as I came off the bridge.
An old knee injury had been bothering me for a couple of miles- it had given way a few times, and around 14 miles, I pulled over to one side and asked a marshal if there was anywhere nearby where I could get it strapped up. The answer was no, not really, so I thought, sod it, I’ll keep going. As we processed down onto Narrow Street, it went again, and I moved to one side to walk it out for a bit. By then, the sun was high, and it was hot. Narrow Street does what it says on the tin, and the skinny, cobbled road felt like it was packed with runners, and I felt quite overwhelmed. This was probably the lowest point of my run; so far still to go, my knee not playing ball, and feeling tired and hot, with the realisation that I was unlikely to get anywhere close to five hours. So I then decided to recalibrate. This was the London Marathon- my favourite city in the world, in the sunshine, with so many friends and family having donated to the HDA in sponsorship, and thousands of people calling my name and willing me on. There was no way I was going to look back on this day with negativity- I just needed to reset. So instead of feeling down when it hurt, I took walk breaks. I high fived the kids, I ate the sweets offered, I went under the showers (THE BEST THING EVER), I stopped to say hello to friends when I saw them, I chatted to fellow runners- and I saw those walk breaks as a positive thing, as I knew it was them that would get me to the finish. My knee didn’t give way again after that, and I had a fantastic second half of the race.
The Docklands peninsula, from 15 to 20 miles, was mental- packed with people, and also, by this point, lots of people like me were having walk breaks, some which seemed to last longer than others. I’ve never seen so many people walking from such an early point in a race, and I think people were sensibly taking on board the medical advice that had been given to us that week, with regards to the heat. I saw Andrew and Helen again at Canary Wharf, again, a godsend, especially as they were so supportive and positive when I reluctantly told them I’d been walking a bit. Andrew told me that I still had the same people around me that I’d had from early on, which was actually really reassuring, and made me feel that my fellow runners and I were in the same boat. They also told me I looked strong- a wonderful thing to hear when you’re flagging- and when Andrew told me I only had six miles- 10k! two Parkruns! that’s all!- to go, suddenly everything really felt ok again.
Beyond 20 was unknown territory, as I hadn’t gone further than that in training- and my 20 mile race in training, at Milton Keynes, had been horrible. So when I went over the 35k tracker mat, just after Limehouse, and realised I had already run further that I had in literally years, and that I felt good, and strong, and happy, it was just another reason to make sure I lapped up those last miles, and enjoyed it. The cheer squads throughout the whole race had been phenomenal, and the biggest of these was the Run Dem Crew, at 21 miles. The energy and enthusiasm of those guys is nothing short of epic, and, for a fleeting moment, I felt reluctant to carry on to the finish, and I wanted to stay and party with them!
I edge into hyperbole when it comes to the final stretch of the race. The infamous Blackfriars underpass gave a bit of welcome respite from the heat, but running out of the tunnel, into the sun, into the last two miles, to the roar of the crowds, felt like something out of Gladiator, (without the death and that)- completely epic. I’ll never forget it.
The Embankment is a stretch of road I know well, and have run on many times, so everything started to feel familiar, and comfortable- there was Somerset House, and Tate Modern across the river- there Waterloo Bridge, and there Hungerford, and then Embankment station was upon me, and there Westminster, in the distance. The end was very much in sight. I saw Andrew and Helen for the last time on the Embankment, and I was still smiling.
The finish is just as spectacular as it looks on television. Give me Westminster’s Gothic grandeur over any other race- just to be on Parliament Square and able to run past the Abbey without dodging tourists and taxis was a unique joy in itself. The HDA‘s cheer squad were on Birdcage Walk, giving me the final push I needed- then it was up to Buckingham Palace, and the final straight along the Mall- the flags flying, the grandstands full of people, the finishing gantries… it is quite something.
And that was it! Finishing London is a bizarre experience, as family and friends can’t get close to the finish line, and so there is no one to greet you as you cross the line- except those amazing marshals and your fellow runners. In fact, I had started on my own that day, and finished on my own- like a weird clichéd analogy for life itself, innit. There was a quiet to the finish, as I tried to make sense in my head of what I had done, not just that day, but in all the months of training; the tears, and the grit, and the promises made to myself, and to others. It was ok. I had done it.
It was only later that evening, after meeting Andrew and Helen at Admiralty Arch, and after not being able to get into St. James’s Park because the sheer volume of people, and after drinks and chips with friends at Southwark, and after the train journey home, and after reading all of the amazing messages sent by kind friends, and after getting home, and seeing my children (who couldn’t have cared less that I’d run 26.2 miles, as I was when my mum and dad used to run London- ever was it thus :-)), and after having a shower, and cleaning the kitchen, and making Ned’s packed lunch for the next day, and finally sitting down… that I caught up on the details of the race. This year’s London was the biggest, and the hottest in history. Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya came first, in a breathtaking 2:04:17, with Sir Mo Farah taking third place for Britain, two minutes later. Vivian Cheruiyot gave Kenya a double win, as first female, finishing in 2:15:25, with Aldershot Farnham & District‘s Lily Partridge taking first British female in a stupendous 2:29:24. The Grenfell Tower firefighters from North Kensington and Paddington captured the race’s #spiritoflondon hashtag best, as they carried the hopes of their stricken community through London’s streets to raise much-needed funds for local campaigns. The temperature peaked at 24 degrees, and runners turned out in all manner of fancy dress costumes, not least BVR‘s very own Sergeant Steppers, who dressed in various shades of shiny satin, a la Sergeant Pepper era Beatles, and ran the whole course while playing the guitar and singing, raising money and awareness for homeless charities Crisis and Step by Step. Women’s running pioneer Kathrine Switzer completed her first London Marathon in 4:44:49 at the age of 71, while the oldest runner of all, Samuel Starbrook, finished in 8:21:44.
One person who tragically didn’t finish London last was Matt Campbell. The chef, who had completed Manchester marathon two weeks before London, died after collapsing 3.7 miles from the end of the race. In the weeks after London, runners around the country ran 3.7 miles, and pledged £5 to the charity that he was running London for, the Brathay Trust, using the hashtags #milesformatt and #finishformatt. To date, Matt’s Justgiving page has seen donations of over £367k. You can find out more about Matt, and the Brathay Trust, here:
So that is the end of this year’s London journey, and whilst I won’t be rushing to do another marathon in a hurry, this is nothing to do with the race itself, which I loved, for so many reasons. Andrew texted me on marathon morning, when I was nervous, saying “You’ve done the hard work- this is your victory lap”, and after I reset at 14 miles, that’s exactly what it felt like. I am looking forward to a summer of running for the sheer love of it again; of 10k’s, of running with club mates, of getting out on the trails, and of maybe getting a bit quicker (though I will swear under oath that I don’t care about speed..!). But I feel very lucky, and very grateful, to have had the chance to take part in one of the world’s greatest races- the memories from this year’s London will stay with me forever.