Marauding Scots held up by the wall

Somewhere between leaving for London this year and my overdue arrival at the finish line, I was asked how many marathons I had completed and had taken this extended time to consider my answer. Prior to last year, the question had always been “Have you done THE marathon” and it had always been a thorn in my side that I had not. Obviously, the Thornborough in the side had been a reason or excuse for several years, but last year I laid that particular ghost to rest too. I had done many marathons and, at last, had done THE marathon too! This year, therefore, I had greater expectations. My running had been slightly better, although still lacking in consistency, but, more importantly, the Achilles heel which are my calf muscles had remained pretty much injury free.

A strong finish from Greg at Oakley did not dampen my enthusiasm for round 2 this year and, so confident was I, a hastily arranged footie match and brisk walk on the Beacons was an almost acceptable taper. Last year I had fussed and worried my way through the final days, this year I was relaxed and happy, despatching Dave off to collect my race number and chip and enjoying a pre race lazy day in London with mum and bbq with friends.

At 22:15 on Saturday evening I left West London and consciously started my pre race focus ready for THE marathon. I had just transferred my running kit from weekend bag to overnight bag and was mentally checking the contents. So much for my pre race focus, I had forgotten to pack my contact lenses and would be unable to literally focus on race day! Not a good start and I spent the journey wondering if I was about to pay a high price for my relaxing day.

I was! To dampen my spirits further, I arrived at close to midnight to find my hotel room ‘filled’ with a certain gentleman. The twin room turned out to be not only a double, but a double about the size of your average single. The bed was similarly scaled and, with no other room at the inn, the less than pleasant prospect of sharing became a reality. Well Mr Pepper, what’s the worst that can happen? To make sure it didn’t, I quickly laid down some ground rules. Dave however duly supplied both race number and contact lens case to allow mine to ‘rest’ for the night and therefore it seemed quite harsh to relegate him to the floor. My contact lenses were to get more sleep than I!

At best, I dozed through the night but, to be honest, I never sleep well pre race. I wasn’t about to let on though and highlighted Dave’s unfair use of 90% of the bed, his extraordinarily tuneless nightly breathing routine and, of course, his less than appealing boat race (well we were in East London) at 6am or any other time come to that. I believe that he replied similarly. We both also cursed the less than savoury odour which we had put down to each other before realising that the drains were not up to the task either. Morning greetings were made in an appropriately deep and manly voice just in case there had been any inappropriate contact in the night!

Breakfast preceded the final preparations and we both watched the elite race starts on the tv. We now had 45 minutes to reach our own start lines and bade each other farewell and good luck on the common. I finished my prep alongside the MK team and joined the queue to hand in my bag. Co worker Debs passed by and I was not long in my ‘pen’ when I heard Dee’s call. We shouted our best wishes over the hubbub and I settled down to the final 20 minutes of anxious wait.

It was already warmer than last year and so I continued to drink my electrolyte drink and ate my banana whilst trying to stay as shaded as possible. We cheered the wheelchairs away, took a final leak on the grass, threw away unwanted food and drink and allowed ourselves to be entertained by the commentator – anything to help pass the time. Time passed remarkably quickly and on the hooter I started my watch, bade my neighbours good luck and jogged over the timing mats.

The down side of the ‘good for age’ field is that we start immediately behind the ‘celebrities’ and this year they seemed more numerous than ever, one group spreading across the whole road. For the 2 hour 30 men this is really something they could do without and at least one runner was tripped whilst trying to negotiate the chaos. A few choice words were also exchanged. To redress the balance slightly I spoke to Sally Gunnell and wished her well.

I got into my stride quite quickly thereafter but tried to hold myself back. The opening miles are very fast if you allow them to be (just ask Greg) and any over use of energy systems will be paid for later on. I took pace for 3 miles with an MK runner but used a brief surge to draw alongside and have a chat with Elvis who, as per last year, was running just ahead. Now, I’ve done some research since last year’s humiliation and most reports suggest that Elvis takes drugs. A few also suggest that he is dead but I don’t believe them for this is the second year I have seen him at London! I also had to follow a huge Scot wearing the most uncomfortable looking national dress on what was already becoming an extremely hot day. I did try to chat but couldn’t understand a word he said! Our conversation was a succession of “Pardon?”, “Say again?” “Eh, what?” etc…until breathing required me to give up hope of successful communication.

The miles were slowly passing by and, encouragingly, I was on schedule but still hadn’t settled in. The prospect of seeing the girls at 9 miles stopped me from settling down and I therefore gave in on early focus, concentrating instead on using each and every water stop and consuming a gel every 4 – 5 miles. I try to discipline myself to running the blue line (shortest route) but, on approaching the pre arranged corner, I moved out from the inside and immediately spied the Olney Runners banner. The screams and high pitched squeals of delight confirmed successful observation – the girls were quite vocal too!

Encouraged by my progress (estimate 60 – 63 mins to OR corner, actual 61 mins) and delighted to see the support crew, I was now able to settle in a rhythm. Sadly, however, at exactly the same spot as last year, I felt the initial strains in my left calf muscle. Refusing to believe that it would happen twice in the same spot I concentrated on my running action and continued to do so until half way. Half way so soon? In reality the time was not passing as quickly as I would have liked but I did cross the line at 1 hour 30 mins…bang on for an even split 3 hours.

No girls at the pre arranged 14 left me a little depressed however I concentrated on upping the tempo slightly to try and get to 20 miles with a spare minute. The thought of having to do a final 10km in 40 mins was beginning to feel beyond me and as I ran into the docklands I was beginning to feel the heat. On some parts of the course the air was completely still, had already been consumed by the several hundred runners in front of me, and was still being consumed by the 100s of thousands of cheering supporters. Despite keeping my heart rate low I was struggling for breath.

Just short of 17 I saw Greg up ahead and realised just how fast he must have been out of the blocks for me to not see him until now. I quickly evaluated my options. I could sacrifice any hope of a sub 3 hour and sit comfortably behind him, confident of taking him on the sprint finish. I could keep my current pace, slowly draw passed him and he could tag on leaving me to do all the work, beating me on the sprint finish. I could cruise by and destroy any ambitions he may still have by putting in a quick 3 miles and leave him dispirited which would also leave me with just a quick 10km to get that elusive (for 18 years) sub 3. Before I could decide, a drunken bystander shouted “Come on Olney Runners” and then, as if seeing double, shouted “Come on the other Olney Runner!” Greg looked back.

Option 3 it was then, although I did ask after Greg’s welfare without hanging on for the answer! I upped my heart rate from 152 to 162 and put in not 3, but 5 miles, at least feeling as good as one can in such conditions and after such distance. As arranged, the girls were just before 22 and I took out my final gel, depositing my belt with them. Their cheers encouraged me further and, on an Olney Runners adrenaline surge, I upped my heart to 165.

This was it then and, at 22, I dug in alongside a girl with the cry “There’s a sub 3 hour to be had here!”. She answered in broad Scots and so I introduced her to tam o’shanter who was just hanging on. They conversed in a frightening concoction of gesticulations, spittle and battle cries and I viewed the muscle bound, hairy torso with some fear – she’d done well to get this far! Almost simultaneously the marauding Scots hit the wall and fell away leaving me to a final two miles of OR powered 165 before my energy levels began to falter also. Suddenly, every step became more difficult. My quads lost the power to lift my legs and I had to literally will each step out one at a time. The final two miles were going to hurt but I was determined not to put on a similar showing to last year’s dismal display. I also didn’t know where Greg was.

With 1.5 to go I tried to push again – it’s only a BFT for heaven’s sake! This was not total collapse, thankfully, but, at Big Ben, I knew I had missed the 3 hour slot. Trying to keep my eyes open in case the girls had made it to the finish, I hung on to my group and pushed for the line. 3 hours 1 minute 40 seconds. Disappointingly, 2 seconds slower than last year!

I stumbled to collect my medal and I dragged myself up the ramp for the chip removal where the girl left my lace undone. Causing a queue behind me, I stayed still until she realised that I was going nowhere until she had done it back up again. There was no chance of my reaching down for it! Last year, I collected my kit and got changed immediately but this time I realised that if I stopped I probably would not get going again – probably ever! The heat was now completely oppressive and so I staggered over to the O meeting point, hung my Olney Runners sweatshirt onto the tree and lay down with a shirt covering my baking head. I was cooked!

I was awoken after a while and bravely embraced by Sarah and Ruth. I wasn’t to find out just how filthy I was – covered in gel, drinks, dirt and a mixture of my own and the Scot’s snot – until later. Sorry guys, I hope your tetanus jabs are up to date! Other familiar people came and went but I remained partially removed from the scene, my frazzled brain left somewhere 2 or 3 miles back. An unsteady and crowded walk away led us to a welcoming pub where I found my second wind and enjoyed a few pints and great company from our fellow runners and fantastic supporters. The ritual airing of the feet took place but at least I didn’t leave half a toe in the ash tray this time!

Once again this was a fantastic experience made more enjoyable by Olney Runners’ desire to be both supportive and entertaining at the same time. Great company, captured on some great photos. The grimaces during are genuine. The smiles after are genuine too. The satisfaction complete.

Well, nearly complete. I may have one more go at the elusive sub 3 before retirement…..anyone want to join me next year for THE marathon?

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