by Paul Thompson (photos by Shamala Thompson)
One Week On
Almost a week ago I crossed the finish line of the Virgin London Marathon. Usually I write race reports on the day of the race. This time I was simply too exhausted to write a good analysis of the event. I needed a few days to take it all in and make some sense if it. So here goes.
My main emotion on crossing the line was one of relief, relief that I’d survived. It took several hours before relief started to give way to a sense of achievement, joy even. Unlike some I did not fist pump the air as I crossed the line. I simply shook my head and cast my eyes to the floor. The marathon is like no other race. Period. Physically and psychologically it takes you places you never really want to have to go. And I think with age has come the knack of self inflicting pain. My coach Lee Troop calls it the hurt locker. You can spend a lot of time in there asking testing questions of yourself.
In my previous 4 attempts I’d always found myself switching from racing to surviving mode way before the finish was in sight. In my first three the ‘switch’ came around mile 20. In my 4th, last year’s Greater Manchester Marathon, it came at around mile 23. Last week it came soon after 40K. In so doing it proved my best ever marathon. Not my fastest but rather the one I have come closest to mastering. I also came close to enjoying it. Sure I always enjoy the experience, not least the crowds who come out to cheer. But it’s hard to enjoy the running in those closing miles.
The build up to this race was mixed. In early March, with my longstanding IT band issue under control, I started to suffer from hamstring tendinitis. It first fully manifested itself in the Washington Heights 5K. Like most injuries I’d never suffered from before I’d never heard of this one. In sum it was a “pain in the arse”, proverbially and physically. Early diagnosis enabled me to monitor and treat it. Lee insisted I revert to just running steady, canning speed workouts and long runs. A 10K race two weeks out in my best time for almost 6 years confirmed that I’d somehow managed to keep in great shape on a diet of 70 miles a week of steady stuff. But would I pay for missing 22-23 mile runs? Lee suggested I plan for a cautious start and moderate expectations, 2:33 rather than 2:30.
The 10K race was just the fillip I needed. It had been a calculated gamble that had paid off. I then did a short taper of two weeks dropping my weekly mileage to 60 in the penultimate week and 50 in the final week. I traveled from New York on a red eye on Tuesday night. I got in a few good nights sleep and accelerated my adjusting to the time difference – my body was on US time, 5 hours behind – by doing some early morning runs and early to bed. By race day I felt ready. Quietly confident.
Like Manchester in ’16 I ran this with brother Stephen. We were with our respective families staying with long-time friends, Gary and Alison, who live in Wimbledon. After an early dinner – chicken kebab and couscous (and a glass of wine) – I went to bed at 10:00 pm and got at least 7 hours in. Steve had a less restful night. I got up just after 6:30 am and downed a quick breakfast of porridge and banana washed down with coffee. That left me 3 hours before the 10:00 am start to digest it. During this time I drank a little water but often and then had a gel (Chocalate Outrage GU – I prefer these to the leading UK brands – smaller and easier to open packets, familiar flavors but you need water to wash ’em down. I planned to carry two salted caramel, one to take around mile 10, the other around mile 18).
We then tripped by tube and train to Blackheath where we went our separate ways – Steve to the Green Start being a ‘Good for Age’ runner and me to the Blue Start as a ‘UK National Marathon Championship‘ runner. I sensed Steve was a little more nervous than me.
As a Championship runner you and around 500 other fast male and female UK club runners get a dedicated enclosure with changing facilities, toilets, water and baggage truck. I had just over an hour to the start. I chilled out, did some easy running to warm-up and slowly stripped down to my racing wear. While in the enclosure I met Joel Jameson as well as rivals Rob Downs and Graham Green who I’d only known previously through Facebook. I had a number of aims in this race but the primary ones were to be first Brit M50 and to run as close to my 2006 2:29:56 marathon PR as possible (5:44 minutes per mile average gets you 2:30).
Joel I knew from Manchester where he’d glided past me with a mile or so to run and finished in under 2:31, a minute ahead of me. He had a knack of running even splits so I took him up on the offer to run with him as far as possible. And was glad I did. As we got led out to the start line I stayed close to Joel and saw Graham up ahead. And then we were off.
Early Miles – To Cutty Sark
In the opening mile there was a lot of runner traffic. I guessed I was in around 300th place (of 40,000 starters) and predicted if all went to plan some 200 of these in front would slow down and I’d overtake: I was not planning to speed up! Indeed the RunPix data confirms this. The key was to keep my head down and be patient. I’m not good at that. I’m usually tempted to start competing with others but it’s best to keep the gloves on as long as possible, until at least half way. Joel ensured I did this. Slowly we weaved our way through the ranks. I ran in close proximity to Graham. We sensed each others presence but cut the pleasantries. I wished him the very best but I was here to beat him.
In the opening few miles, especially the 3rd mile as we head towards the River Thames, the course descends significantly. As a result my mile splits for the first 4 miles read 5:43, 5:37, 5:32 and 5:38. My official 5K time was 17:29. This put me a fraction ahead of the 5:44 pace needed for sub-2:30. Over the next few miles I settled into a 5:44 rhythm.
What I started to notice were how the crowds were vast. I’d last run London in 2007. Back then there were some quiet stretches especially south of the river and far reaches of Docklands. This time the only quiet stretches were two underpasses. At Cutty Sark, the first significant landmark around the 10K mark (reached in 35:17) it felt like running through a noise tunnel. The crowd somehow instinctively understands what you are putting yourself through. They come out selflessly to cheer complete strangers, people who they’ll never actually meet. It’s hard not to feel uplifted and emotional. You feel like you’re gotta finish as a way of thanks.
Cutty Sark to Half Way
Periodically I kept checking in with Joel. At around mile 8 he said it would be a hard day at the office. I took that to mean he would likely struggle to hold 2:30 pace and I might have to leave him soon. He dropped away soon after 10 miles. I also noticed Graham was no longer around. I assumed he’d fallen off the pace. I did a quick ‘cross check’ of how I felt: the legs, heart, mind. All was good. And so were the conditions. The weather was perfect. 12-15 C (55-60 F), overcast and light winds. In the latter stages we’d see some sun and I’d catch some sun.
My support team planned to be at Canada Water where you can catch the race at mile 9 and 11. As I approached the area the crowds swelled. Clearly lots of people live in this neighborhood now, unlike 2007. In fact the crowds were comparable with Cutty Sark. I figured I needed to be prominent if they were to see me so I pushed to the front of the pack I was running with and run down the middle of the road rather than hug the curb. And sure enough I saw them and they saw me.
Through this section, the second quarter of the marathon I tucked into a group and clocked some consistent miles, my splits for miles 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12 were 5:44, 5:41, 5:46, 5:44, 5:41, and 5:43. Bang on 2:30 pace. Soon after Canada Water I took my first gel and picked up a Lucozade one as a just in case for the closing few miles.
At Tower Bridge, just before half way, the crowds were again very deep. Clambering onto the bridge is the first upwards incline of any significance. The road rises gently for around 400 meters. Soon after crossing the bridge and turning right to head towards Docklands I saw the elite women, who’d started 45 minutes ahead of us, on the other side of the road at 22-23 miles. Mary Keitany had a big lead. She’d go on to set a all-women’s world record, shattering the record of Paula Radcliffe.
Laura Thweatt, Lee’s top charge, came into view. I careered across the road to the far left so In could get close and shout encouragement. She did not flinch. She was in the zone. She’d go on to run a PR in 2:25:38 making her a strong candidate for a place in the US team for World Champs in London! Soon after the half way clock came into view. I passed half way in 1:14:53 after covering the 13th mile in 5:47. I suspected the 7 second credit would be insufficient to get me a 2:30 finish. Some slowing seemed inevitable.
Half Way to Docklands
For many miles now I’d been overtaking many runners. Not because I was speeding up rather because they, like me in my first attempts at London in 2006 and 2007 (2:29:56 and 2:31:47 after 1:12:06 and 1:12:20 at half way), were slowing down. At age 51 had I finally learned my lesson? I’d likely find out in the third quarter of the race. Unfortunately I was finding it hard to find a group, someone to run with for longer than a mile or so. I was still catching and passing rather than working with others. In the video below (@40 secs) at around 14 miles I look surprisingly relaxed. Appearances can be deceiving.
At around mile 15 the route enters an underpass. Suddenly it fell quiet, for the first time since the start. It was a welcome break from the roar of the crowd. I could hear my footsteps and breathing. I was running strong and purposefully – miles 14, 15, 16 and 17 were covered in 5:41, 5:47, 5:45 and 5:41. I’d started to compete with other runners. But mile 18 was telling. I slowed to 6:01. For the first time I was outside 2:30 pace. I downed my second gel and in the shadow of Canary Wharf passed my support crew. I rallied slightly covering miles 19 and 20 in 5:50 and 5:47.
Docklands to The Embankment
For many, me included, the marathon really starts at around mile 20. That’s when the body rapidly starts to run out of gas and deep fatigue sets in. At a slightly elevated section I caught a glimpse of The City and The Shard, 3 miles distant. I was on the home leg towards the finish. I now needed to batten down the hatches and conserve energy in anticipation of the body starting to tire. I actually found someone who I could key off for a few miles though their pace was erratic.
On my last outing in London in 2007 it was around mile 20 that my body started to shut down and switch from racing to surviving mode. But this time I found myself able to register 5:49, 5:50 and 5:50 for miles 21, 22 and 23. Not quite fast enough for sub 2:30 but enough to clock 2:30 and change. I now started to enter ‘the zone’. That’s when the sole focus is on getting to the finish. Such deep focus that all sense of what’s going on around you disappears to the point you fail to recognize friends shouting right at you.
The zone is a dark place. You start to look inwards, searching desperately for both the energy and will to finish. The mile splits evidenced the creeping fatigue. The 24th took 5:54. There was a small underpass and tunnel. It offered respite from the crowds. The small incline coming out felt like Everest. I was now on The Embankment. The sun was shining and the crowds roaring. I was gradually closing on the runners in front. Slowly. At this point of the marathon it’s ugly. Few are able to maintain good form.
At 24 miles I glanced to my right to see the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye. They looked distant. Each mile now felt long. Very long. It felt like an eternity had passed before you could see the balloon arch marking the next mile marker. At 40K the clock showed 2:23:18. At this point I finally realized and accepted beyond reasonable doubt that a sub-2:30 was out of reach. At 4 minute per kilometer pace I’d be home outside 2:31.
It took me 6:09 to suffer the 25th mile, my slowest mile of the race. As I turned right at the Houses of Parliament and headed towards Buckingham Palace (London outguns all the major marathons in terms of sight seeing eye candy) I feared a complete shutdown somewhere on Bird Cage Walk. I fixed my sights on the runner in front. I still had the Lucozade gel but figured it would take more than gel to rescue extremely tired legs. But then at this point we fail to see or understand a lot of stuff.
The last mile was like a death march. Whatever that is. At the end of Bird Cage Walk the course veers right across the large roundabout in front of the Queen’s pad. And finally a right turn onto The Mall and 200 meters to the line. I had nothing left to sprint with. Just a mild pick-up. I looked up at the clock showing 2:31:49 and then I was done. I was suddenly released from my sentence. My 26th mile had taken 6:05, the final 2K 8:28.
Post Race Analysis
My official time was 2:31:45 (bib 1676) and place was 82nd. As I staggered wearily towards the baggage truck I bumped into Hussein Ahmed (2:29:44), a London based Egyptian who I’d raced against when he lived in New York in 2006-2008, and Martin Fiz (2:29:32). It turned out Fiz had been beaten into second M50 by a French Algerian El Yamani (2:26:36) relegating me to 3rd M50. Imagine! What the f…k does one need to do to win M50 these days? It turns out Fiz battled with El Yamani but then slowed dramatically in the latter half.
I loitered in the baggage truck area for a while. Rob Downs (2:37:06) popped up and a few minutes later Graham Green (2:41:19). I gave Graham a big hug. For him it was like clutching a stick insect, for me embracing a bear. I have amazing respect for Graham, Rob and all the other masters runners who’d made such huge commitments preparing for this race. Graham and his legendary 100 mile plus weeks were my main motivator. I counted myself lucky. My network of masseur, chiropractor, acupuncturist, coach Troop and coach Jerry Macari, team, pacemaker, motivator and manager / wife had got me here. And on the day the stars aligned.
Eventually I exited the finishing area and rendezvous with my support crew in the meeting area (see picture below). Gary and Alison were the perfect hosts, feeding us pre- and post-race as well as traipsing across London to cheer us on. And to top it off Gary produced an album of pictures.
Brother Steve then showed up. He’d run a PR of 3:08:37 and placed 2,861st. He passed half way in 1:31 but had slowed in the latter stages. He was, however, able to throw in a sprint finish. According to the Northants Evening Telegraph (ET) we were the fastest siblings. They may have jumped to that headline in the interests of boosting circulation. In 2016 it had been Callum Hawkins and his brother. We’re asking the organizers to confirm before opening the bubbly. It seems likely the ET are correct.
Full Virgin London Marathon results are here. My official pictures are here. My Garmin data is here (note for the first time I get above 200 heart rate). The BBC’s full coverage is here and their finish line video stream is here (needs a UK VPN). The latter is revealing. Most good club runners clocking 2:30 or so look totally shot at the finish. Few if any can muster a sprint.
My time, worth an age grade of 91.2%, is good for top British M50 for 2017. But then there’s several more months to run. It also gets me 7th spot on the M50 all-time list, the fastest British M50 since 1999.
There’s room for improvement. Perhaps Graham and I should run Berlin in September with Joel Jameson as pacemaker. Now I should get in some R&R but then that would break the habit of a lifetime and Graham might scoff at my moment of weakness. So on Wednesday I was back out there doing an easy 5 miles. It felt amazing. But it was the hardest slowest run for a long, long time. Next up the Brooklyn Half in 3 weeks!