Two words sum up the Virgin London Marathon 2011. Hot and heaving!
This year was the first that I’d set off from the blue pen. As I understand it, the ‘masses’ and charity runners start from the red pen. Good for age and some celebs start from the green pen, and the elite runners and ballot entrants start from the blue.
After a pre-race pep talk from the Runner’s World crew (no weaving, hit your mile times, no listening to music and enjoy it), myself and the other pacers set off for our pens. I was 11-minute/miling and starting from the very last group (pen 9). Everyone seemed to be very nervous. I imagine that because the blue start holds the ballot runners, most haven’t run London before. So I was bombarded with questions and even asked to fix a broken GPS watch. Like I was some sort of running guru! I was feeling quite cocky, until someone tried to throw their scrunched-up bin liner over the fence and hit me in the side of the head. A few chuckles. Nerves gone. You’re welcome.
Because of the fewer numbers, the blue runners get over the start line much quicker than the red. So we were over the line in about 5 minutes and on our way. To make it as easy as possible to spot the pacers, there were four of each category. Two in the blue and two in the red. My pacing partner (who I called Ben for the entire day, until I found out later that his name was Rich) was a metronome. We kept each other in check nicely and we were incredibly accurate over the first 3 to 4 miles. As I’ve mentioned before, running at the pace the watch says doesn’t always work. While the watches are accurate, you can’t always follow the blue line on the course and you end up running extra distance (apparently I ran 0.4 miles extra on the day). So you just have to judge it and try your best to hit the mile markers bang on your split times.
After a while, when the three starts merged, we began to get separated. London is always busy, but today it seemed overly so. And by the time we had hit mile 5 I’d been held up so much in the crowd that I was 40 seconds down! Now when this happens, you can’t simply speed up and make that 40 seconds back over the next mile. You have to gradually grind them back over the course of the next few miles. Otherwise you risk losing people who can’t maintain a quicker pace. So I ran the next mile in, what I thought was, a slightly quicker pace, only to find that I was another 10 seconds off pace! By now I’d caught back up with Ben (Rich), who was looking just as confused. Was one of the mile markers out by a bit? We couldn’t figure it out.
We decided to just maintain the same pace for another mile, doing our best to avoid being held up in the crowds and keeping the banter going with our followers (who were now starting to drop off). When we hit mile 7 we were back on track and stayed that way, running together, for some time. I found the 11-minute/mile pace to be extremely comfortable to keep.
At mile 9 I needed a wee. Badly. Now a true pacer, someone who was committed to the cause, someone like this, would have just wet themself and carried on. But I’d planned for this eventuality and had my pit stop in mind. I’d noticed a slim-looking chap who’d been running with me from the start. His name was Stuart and he looked in good shape. Stuart took on the pacing reins for a minute and grabbed my lollipop, while I sprinted ahead and relieved myself. This seemed to take an absolute age and by the time I was done, the pack was a couple of hundred metres ahead. Unfortunately, I’d managed to run around the barrier and was now at the volunteer end of a drink station, dodging people handing out water bottles. One of whom I ran straight into and almost knocked over.
Pit stop over and back to the business at hand. When we hit the halfway point I was sure to remind our group to enjoy the Tower Bridge section. The pack was much smaller now, down to around 10 or so, but those I noticed had eyes on stalks and were loving the commotion. The sun was out in force and the crowds were truly amazing (as they are every year).
That was about the last bit of conversation I had with my pace group. As the sun continued to shine, more and more runners started to suffer. Because we were towards the back of the field, we were constantly blocked by people walking. Walkers are supposed to move to the side of the road to allow those still running a way through. But at mile 16 it was so bad that I’d dropped nearly a full minute off pace. To make up the time I was forced to weave through the crowds. This made it difficult for some to follow me, but I’d hoped that doing this would at least mean that we didn’t lose anymore time and that when the road widened, we’d have room to eke those seconds back.
The sun was starting to affect me. At every drink station I had to take on water and was pouring the remnants of bottles over my head and legs. That 11-minute/mile pace now suddenly felt much quicker than it had and I was starting to get demoralised with the sudden changes in pace when dodging those walking. After Canary Wharf, all my chat had dissipated. I had to focus incredibly hard on not stopping, reminding myself that people were relying on me to get round. And when a chap started to chat to me at mile 21, I was really struggling to keep up a conversation. It was much harder than I’d anticipated.
But, as in my previous two races, the miles ticked by one by one and all of a sudden it was nearly the end. I’d managed to get back up to pace (the road is much wider during the later stages) and was looking like I’d come in on time. Then, as I sandwiched myself between two stragglers, my left wrist clipped the shoulder of a passing runner and hit the stop button on my watch! I still had two miles to go and couldn’t figure out how to get the damn thing started again. So the last two miles of pacing the London Marathon 2011 were completely guessed. I just tried to maintain the rhythm I’d had on the previous 24.
My target time for 11-minute/miles was 4 hours and 48 minutes.
I came in at 4:47:26. 34 seconds quick!
I’d finished the race with almost no-one I’d started with, although I had picked up a few along the way and brought them home. The heat had certainly played its part. I saw plenty of people being hauled away on stretchers and I later found out that 4 of the pacers were forced to pull out (one of which was taken out by the sudden change in direction of another runner!). But I think my first marathon as a pacer has gone well and I found it to be an incredibly rewarding experience. Some people were truly grateful and came and thanked me personally once we’d crossed the finish line. Some said I was incredibly selfless, running 26 miles for no personal goal, only to help others reach theirs. But I disagree. Just to be part of this amazing event is a privilege that I’ll never take for granted. True, during the race I certainly feel different (I want nothing more than to stop and during the last 6 miles I always seem to question my motives for running). But as soon as it’s over I almost (almost) want to run it again.
I have a guaranteed ballot place coming up, either in 2012 or 2013, in which I’m determined to run sub 4 hours. But for now I’m basking in the glory of a successful pacing achievement (and putting my souvenir of the day to good use!).