WHETHER you are running or supporting, there is something very special about the London Marathon.
Yesterday morning, I was up at quarter to six so that I could get my long run out-of-the-way before the start of the TV coverage at 8.30am. Run over, I plonked myself on the sofa and there I stayed for the rest of the morning and well into the afternoon. Chris and I do this every year. We watch the coverage and track our friends, drink several cups of tea, eat a couple of toasted teacakes, and enjoy ourselves watching a sport we love.
Even before I started running, I was fascinated with the race. I remember watching Liz McColgan winning and thinking how amazing she was. I wasn’t a runner, but I was happy to sit in front of the TV for a few hours and do nothing but watch people run. It never even entered my head that I might be able to get off the sofa and run.
During my student days in London, we had a coordinated pub crawl along the marathon route. It was in one of these pubs that the idea of running the race first cropped up. My friend Ross was convinced he’d be able to run a marathon in four and a half hours. As a non-runner, that meant nothing to me.
‘I could do that too,’ I said. ‘If I wanted to.’
‘Well, why don’t you?’
I took a sip of my drink. ‘My problem,’ I told him. ‘Is that if I took part, I’d want to win, and that would be impossible, so I’m not really that bothered.’ I ordered a Bacardi Breezer and watched the runners pass by.
It wasn’t until after university, when Jon, my flatmate, convinced me to go out on my first run that I began to realise just how incredibly difficult running a marathon would be. I couldn’t run to the end of the road, let alone 26.2 miles. Running was hard work, especially for someone like me who had never excelled at school sport and was much better suited to hobbies such as reading and horse riding.
I remember the pain of those first few weeks and months of running, but for some reason I carried on. Each time, I tried to walk less and run more, challenging myself to get to the bottom of the road without stopping, then to the roundabout. Over the course of a summer, I trained with Jon and improved so much that I could run three miles without stopping and I was so proud of myself! As winter approached, Jon said he didn’t want to continue training. I decided that I’d carry on without him. I trained around London’s Victoria Dock, which is now home to the London Marathon expo at Excel. I trained in the dark and cold, but I loved every step.
In March 2003, I ran my first race, the Silverstone Half Marathon, in a time of two hours and four minutes. My friends and family came to watch, and it was one of the proudest and happiest moments of my life. What a feeling to run 13.1 miles without stopping. I also remember the sticky toffee pudding and custard afterwards, which is without doubt the best pudding I have ever eaten.
In April, still living in London with my friend Jon, we watched Paula Radcliffe set a world record of two hours, fifteen minutes and twenty-five seconds. Jon was inspired. ‘Shall we go for a run?’ he asked.
‘Let’s race,’ I said.
We matched each other stride for stride, but coming down the side of the Excel, I pushed on, and then pushed again, so that by the time we reached the bridge, Jon was gasping and had to stop. I carried on running, motoring to the imaginary finish line, inspired by Paula. I was the fastest runner in Flat 24 Victoria Dock. She was the fastest runner in the world.
That was the beginning of my love of running. And, a few years later, I completed the London Marathon. The time was not good. I didn’t have much idea about preparing for a marathon, or any idea of the challenge I was taking on. The only real training I did was to increase my calorie intake, and ended up putting on a stone. My mum recently found this photo of me. ‘Look how fat you are,’ she said. ‘Look at the size of your arms and legs.’
Despite my fatness and lack of marathon preparation, I got round. In doing so, I realised that it’s not about the winning, it’s about competing against yourself, doing the best that you can do at a particular time, and being proud of what you have achieved.
Every year, when I sit on the sofa with Chris, I remember my London Marathon experience. I tell him the same story… about how Jon dropped me as close as he could to Greenwich, then I was on my own, walking across the park feeling alone and afraid. How I remember the noise from the crowd as I turned onto Tower Bridge. How a chap encouraged me to keep going when I walked. The wilderness miles through the docklands. Yesterday, I even pointed out which Portaloo I used under the Embankment tunnel.
After eleven years, Chris must be getting tired of hearing the same story over and over and over again. I never tire of telling it, but possibly Chris and I are both ready for a new London Marathon experience. Maybe it’s time to get off the sofa and run!
Congratulations to all my friends taking part in yesterday’s race. You were all amazing!