26.2 Miles – featuring some old jazzers; holy water and a lifeboat

Posted: April 25, 2012 in Running

The thing about the London Marathon is that it seems to go on forever; no, not the race, but the build up. There’s the application for places, the rejection, the finding of a charity place, the training – all 103 days of it – and then, finally, getting registered. One has to register in person for the marathon, and for a good few years one has had to go to Excel in Docklands; part of this is to ensure entrants are who they say they are, but it also provides the opportunity for sponsors to try and flog a few more bits and pieces to runners. Luckily, one sponsor was giving away something useful:

Jolly tasty it was too..

Staying in London is always a mixed pleasure, although finding a decent hotel was a bonus – in Tooting Broadway of all places. It did enable me to pay homage at the large statue of Citizen Smith recently erected in time for the Olympics and then have a jolly nice Italian meal afterwards – accompanied by, I will admit, two bottles of beer. Just time for a couple of hours of subtitled Danish TV drama, then bed. Speaking of things Scandinavian, it would appear that my satellite link to Edale Village Hall was deliberately sabotaged to prevent me voting in EdaleVision; I know where you live, so don’t expect your email account to work for much longer!

The day of the race started early; 0600, get out of bed, turn on TV for the weather forecast and see the first Elvis of the day:

The King on TV

….nothing better for the soul than a hearing a long-dead rock and roll giant announce that he expects to run “sub-three”. Open the curtains and check weather again – sunny, so better take all three possible shirts to wear under my vest. Wandering out to the hall I bump into another runner. We mumble greetings, eyes avoiding contact, but glances are made to check one another’s kit and status in the race – there is a fairly complex system of numbering and colours that indicate one’s place in the running hierarchy; needless to say, once he realised I was neither “Elite” nor “Good for Age”, my colleague politely ignored me.

Travel to Greenwich was both free and without hitches. The 0814 “Embrocation Express” from London Bridge was jam-packed with runners, all pretending they had absolutely nothing to worry about and all having particularly interesting discussions on what injuries had prevented them from doing what training. A pleasant walk up the hill into the park led to the Red Start assembly point:

Red Start

and the empty starting lane beyond:

The Starting Lane - 0826

This is my least favourite part of the race; there’s not much to do except avoid eye contact (again), check out other people’s gear, queue for the loo and wonder how many more “inspirational” tracks the DJ is going to play – I can assure my disc playing friend that he has a bright future on Radio Norwich should Alan Partridge choose to retire. The depression at seeing the elite women set off on the big screen is, however, offset by watching a rather portly, track-suited figure relive his school days by having a covert cigarette behind a tree; I make a mental note of his number and wonder if he might be my kind of pace setter.

The screen shows the wheelchairs setting off and we all move forward into the start lane. This is fantastically well organised, with runners being assigned a section according to their predicted finish times. Once, however, the marshals call us forward this all falls apart – mostly because all runners are competitive liars, but also because those who have dressed as giant rabbits or super-heroes realise that the one place that really will attract ridicule is the very back of the pack. Minutes before the start it looks like this:

The Starting Lane- 0943

Very shortly  the sun will really come out, the wind will drop, and the man dressed as a giant  banana will realise he may have chosen the wrong day to entirely clad himself in non-breathable PVC.

The countdown starts, the crowd chat, the hooter goes off. Then…..nothing; everyone stands still, shuffles a few paces, stands still again and then settles down to have another chat about soft-tissue injuries. Nine minutes after the blast from the starter, I cross the line.

It’s downhill all the way now, well, at least to Tower Bridge, but being that it is Sunday morning spiritual help is on hand to lift one to a higher plane. Firstly is the priest of Our Lady of Grace sprinkling holy water on his new, rather large flock; shortly afterwards, the pastor of the New Wine church Woolwich is exhorting people by the names on their vest to run faster; as we join the Blue Start runners at three miles, a Sikh drum band at a Gujarati temple beats out a usefully frenetic tempo. So frenetic in fact, I have to remove my t-shirt and spend the next 23 miles carrying it.

Music is an essential part of the marathon, and turning to head west towards Greenwich we start to find the pubs beginning to open and the sound systems starting. There are heavy rock bands, R&B bands, brass bands, the Salvation Army band and a countless number of trad jazz bands all of whom make the Elderly Brothers look like One Direction . ( I am assured by those who know, that One Direction are a beat combo popular amongst the young). Interestingly, it would appear that since Virgin took over the organization of the London Marathon the playing of “Keep On Running” by the Spencer Davies Band has been outlawed until after the five mile marker.

Just after six miles we arrive in Greenwich and suddenly the Cutty Sark appears. It’s been rebuilt and reinstalled since I last ran past it , and it looks fabulous – there are even men on the  topsail yard-arm finishing the rigging.

From Greenwich it’s westwards to Tower Bridge, when the first really big crowd of the day appear. They are ten deep on either side of the bridge, all shouting, clapping and taking pictures of their runner. I slow down to look for my pal Tim – sadly, Tim has decided that a better option to watching long-distance running done badly was to go to the pub. There are two depressing things that happen at Tower Bridge: firstly, the half-marathon sign appears, meaning there are still 13.1 miles to go; secondly, as we turn east we run parallel to the elite runners sprinting past the 22 mile marker – at this point Wilson Kipsang, the men’s winner, was running at over 12 mph…..I, dear reader, was not running at that speed.

We head east through Wapping, pausing only to boo the bus advertising the Sun newspaper, and down to the Isle of Dogs. This use to be the very dull part of the marathon, with just Millwall Park and some industrial estates to watch go by. Now, London’s expansion has filled the place with houses and flats and thus people on the street. These people are shouting and cheering again, but an Asian lady is offering her home baked cakes to runners as they go by – assessed as “jolly good” by a colleague on my right dressed as Batman…a very hot and sweaty Batman at this point. We turn north past the park and head for Canary Wharf and the 19 mile mark. Here in the underpasses the drum bands have set up and the noise is deafening as we run past. At some point we go past a sound system blasting out “Geno” and as if by magic the whole cohort of runners drops into a slow, loping bounce – well, slower, loping bounce.

We turn west from Canary Warf and have time to savour the splendours of the A13. My GPS always packs up in Docklands, this time announcing that I’d run a 6:14 mile. My left knee decided to start hurting, but copious sprays of water lessened the pain – or at least gave me another pain to worry about. From now on it’s mind games; convincing oneself that it doesn’t hurt; convincing oneself that it’s only a 10k left; wondering why, as one passes runners going east at the 13 mile mark,  anyone would want to run anywhere dressed as the Nat West tower.

Heading to Cannon Street there are plenty of things to see – I’m sure I must have run past the Tower of London and St. Paul’s, but I was having to concentrate. I hadn’t hit the wall, but I was being mentally challenged by a group of gospel singers banging out “Living On A Prayer” and the fact that a runner dressed as a lifeboat had decided to tag along to me as a pacemaker.

Through the underpass at Blackfriars; two miles to go, more cheering crowds and still a man dressed as a lifeboat is on my elbow. I need to formulate a strategy for the closing stages; whatever happens, I cannot be photographed crossing the finish line with a man dressed as an RNLI rigid-inflatable ahead of me. As if by magic, the group of runners I’m with realise we can go sub-four and the pace picks up. Along the Embankment, past the Houses of Parliament, onto Birdcage Walk – suddenly the signs are in yards not miles. Six-hundred yards to go and it’s now or never; I’d like to say I sprinted past Buckingham Palace, but a slightly faster shuffle might be more accurate – Lifeboat Man can’t respond. Just to make sure he won’t be in my photo I veer to the left at 385 yards and head for the far finishing gate. My GPS has magically started working again and I cross the line at 3:59:23. Not a lifeboat or sprinting vegetable in sight – and in any case, I have Photoshop at home.

Those nice ladies cut off my timing tag, I get my medal and collect my bag from the baggage truck – all very efficient. Text messages begin to flood in – I was touched, I can tell you. Tim phones up explaining that he’s still in the pub, that he loves me and that I’m his best mate. As he starts to sing “I Will Survive” I realise it’s time to head north; the Rambler calls and a pint of beer is beginning to hove into view.

  1. Wendy says:

    Really enjoyed reading this. Congratulations on your (nearly always) buoyant spirit, aided by the pastor and loss of the inflatable!

  2. Jooles says:

    Great blog Ken, you had me in stitches, worth a donation just for your literary skills

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