Race 38: London Marathon, London, England, 24th April 2016

London Marathon MapSo what counts as close in a race? A few percent? A couple of minutes? 0.009%? a.k.a one second over the course of a marathon?

One second short of my PB after almost 3 hours. One. Bloody. Second. Ugh. In truth, I’m trying to sound pissed off but it’s so ridiculous that I’m seeing the funny side of it all. One second out of 10,732… buggery bugger.

Being silly at the race expo
Being silly at the race expo

Rewinding to a few hours earlier…the London Marathon is possibly the most hyped up mass marathon race in the world, maybe with only New York on a par. The chances of getting in via the ballot are slim but, thanks to a couple of decent races last year, I qualified for the Good for Age category. This not only meant I didn’t have to stress out over the ballot but also that I got to warm up in a fenced off area and go straight to the front of the pack of 39,000 runners. It didn’t mean I got to avoid the endless queues for the toilets or the good 20 minutes spent as a sardine before the gun went off but those things are annoyingly unavoidable in any reasonably sized race.

So, on this really quite cold April Sunday morning, my aunt Katy and I headed off at the crack of dawn towards our respective start lines in Greenwich – because of the sheer volume of people, they have three which then join together after 5k. Rather embarrassingly, I managed to jump on an over-packed train just as the doors closed before Katy had a chance to follow. Cue some heavy pouting and waving as my train took off. Thankfully, she knew where she was going so we met up at the exit and laughed it off. Oops.

The course is pretty forgiving (I don’t want to use the word “easy”!) – it starts ‘high up’, is fairly steadily downhill for the first 5km (although I seemed to have a few climbs in it which I hadn’t been warned about!) and then basically flat for the rest. The next steepest incline is probably crossing Tower Bridge – hardly one for fell runners. There are a lot of twists and turns which isn’t great but, other than Dutch races, this is probably one of the faster ones.

London Marathon Canary Wharf

I was going to say that I set off too fast but, actually, I didn’t – I paced myself reasonably well and accordingly to plan, even though it was faster than I’d sustain for the whole race. My race plan was to stay under 3m50/km for the first 5km, to average 3m55/km for the first half, to try to keep around 3m55-4m/km up until 30km, around 4.10m/km up to 35km and then to grind it out to the end. With luck, I could get under 2h50m. The first half went well. It even went ok until 30km. After that, it went downhill a little sooner than planned. And, for the sake of working out what goes on when I get tired (does my stride length drop or do I take fewer steps/minute), the chart below shows a pretty clear correlation between my stride length plummeting and my speed!

London Marathon Stride vs Pace

The course is probably more interesting to a tourist than to someone who lives in London but, if you’ve got time to look around, it takes you around some landmarks. I was so focused that I managed to miss my coach Geoff shouting my name on 3 separate occasions (!), didn’t really pay much attention to the crowd or look up at many points. However, if you were to … you’d be taken past the Cutty Sark (one of the noisiest and most exciting bits to me as it was one of the few landmarks I hadn’t been to), Tower Bridge, Canary Wharf, London Eye, Big Ben and the queen’s townhouse, Buckingham Palace. Part of the reason I was blasé is that I’d literally (not figuratively!) run up and down Embankment hundreds of times on lunchtime runs that I knew those stretches off by heart.

London Marathon Mid Way

As for the bits I didn’t know, such as residential and sleepy Rotherithe or Isle of Dogs, well, the less said the better!

Big Ben in the background
Big Ben in the background

So, the race. Well, I hit 5k in 19 minutes, 10k in 39minutes and the half in 1h23 – so far, so good! I could tell my legs were getting tired and the second half might be a bit harder (hardly a real surprise…). Canary Wharf was … exhilaratingly exciting (ahem) to run through. In fairness, it’s quite a bizarre scene running through the high towers and someone who’d never been there before would be impressed.

As I hit the 30km mark, my legs just switched into a lower gear for some reason. I couldn’t really do much about it – try as I might, I just lost 20 seconds/km and couldn’t do much about it. Physiologically, I think my glutes/hip flexors tightened which is quite standard at this point. It’s just frustrating!

London Marathon Finish MedalThe rest was pretty painful and I had to mentally deconstruct the race kilometre by kilometre to get through it all, just focusing on making it one more kilometre at a time.

After 40km, I had around 9 minutes left to get a PB – an easy pace at the start of a race, slightly less at the end. I chundered along and realised with about 800m to go that I’d have to dig slightly deeper than I thought to get a PB.

Unlike the winner Kipchoge who didn’t realise he was only 8 second away from beating the world record until it was too late, I knew this would be tight. With about 400m to go, I sprinted as much as I could (which wasn’t that much at that point). With every passing meter, my thought process went something like this “come on, should be able to get 5 seconds under”, “ok, just a few seconds under but it’s a PB”, “one second – that’s all you need”, “bugger”. Ah well. It’s frustrating to think about all the little things which might have made the difference: not getting caught up behind a guy slowing down in the last corner (2 seconds), not crossing the road to get a water bottle numerous times (1 second each), not almost getting tripped over half way round (1 second), training more thoroughly (10 minutes)…

London Marathon Finish Simon KatyThe last point is actually why I’m not too upset – when I narrowly missed out in Berlin, I’d given it my all for 9 months and was really gutted. This time round, I undeniably trained quite hard, potentially obsessively according to non-runners, but nowhere near what, in hindsight, would have been required to improve my time significantly: my weekend long runs were too inconsistent and I hardly managed a single midweek long run. That and a new job and other life stresses and badly timed half marathons a month before are all fairly reasonable reasons for not improving much.

In the meantime, the women’s winner Sumgong managed to trip and heavily smack her head yet still win, Katy came a mightily impressive fifth in the Women’s Over 60 category in 3h31 and my friend Sean beat the World Record for running a marathon dressed as a TV character in 2h39!

So, next time, I just need to live like a monk for 6 months, quit my job, avoid all friends, have a very understanding wife, run 100 miles/week, sell all my assets and, voila, I’ll be 8 seconds faster! I bet Kipchoge’s thinking something along the same lines:

Final Time: 2h53.50s (1,132nd/39,109)

Speed sonic4

Weather sun3

Scenery palmtree3

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