Huddled in a damp corner of an over-sized marquee and nursing my steaming cup of coffee, I took a moment to take in my surroundings. Four gentlemen shared my shelter, listening to the ominous rain tic-tacking on the fabric roof, and each shifted uncomfortably in order to avoid the elephant in the room. In this tent however, the elephant was a gorilla: the fastest gorilla in the world no less! Preparation for The Virgin Money London Marathon 2015 had begun months earlier for many and the final pieces of the puzzle were being carefully put into place in this small corner of Blackheath Common. I watched, intrigued, at the variety of pre-race rituals that unfolded before me: a man, dressed head to toe in clinging Lycra, spooned thick porridge from a thermos flask; another athlete grimaced as he threw a concentrated shot of beetroot juice to the back of his throat, a solitary purple drop trickling down his chin. The race was not due to start for another three hours but already a steady stream of people were arriving at the Red ‘Fast Good for Age’ Zone.
This was to be my first experience of the London Marathon in six years and my first in the blue vest of Bellahouston Harriers. My preparation had been as good as could be expected – I only missed one week of training during the build up when a half-marathon left me with a particularly sore shin – and I was anticipating a large PB. Shortly before the start I was joined by a few fellow Harriers and discussion of breakfast choices provided little cover for the nerves and excitement that made even a conversation about porridge bristle with tension.
Having dumped my bag on the lorry, I made my way to complete the most important, and always memorable, element of the pre-marathon ritual of thousands – a final trip to the notorious portaloos. Emerging, thankfully, in one piece I had a moment of panic as I realised that the rest of the runners were making their way to the start line! I jogged over but was frustrated to find myself stuck at the back of the pen – not ideal when targeting a fast time. I surveyed the crowds in front of me and realised that there was no chance of me squeezing nearer to the front of the field; I would just have to accept this starting position and make up for any lost time later in the race. It was as I came to this realisation that I noticed something else which caused me some concern: a puddle was appearing underneath the man standing directly to my left. A quick glance across and I realised that he had in fact pissed himself. Shorts soaking, and with a sheepish look on his face, he caught my eye and smiled. I was speechless. I don’t know whether I was more disgusted by the fact that the puddle was creeping ever closer or concerned about the severe chafing that this man would surely suffer when running 26.2 miles in a pair of sopping wet shorts! Distracted by the spread of the puddle, I was shaken back to the reality of my situation as the loudspeaker burst into life – we were off! There is something incredibly anti-climactic about the start of the London Marathon; the months of training, the hype of the Expo and the buzz of the morning’s preparations build to the bang of the starter’s pistol…and then nothing. For a good few seconds after the gun signals the start of the race there is silence and all is still. Movement slowly ripples through the runners as people gradually gain enough space to move forward. Any hope of settling into race pace in the first mile are soon shattered as I creep through the first half a mile at barely a jog and spot a familiar face thirty yards ahead of me – Mr Gorilla, inflatable banana and all.
After a foolish second mile spent trying to make up for lost time I soon settled into my rhythm. It was not long before I found myself running alongside ‘Tim’. I did not know Tim before the race however it soon became clear that we were aiming for similar targets and we spent the next ten miles matching each other’s stride. Tim had wisely printed his name on his vest and I was blown away by the support this earned him – for a while I was convinced that he must be a celebrity runner! I will definitely be following suit next time! Eventually I lost Tim however his place was filled by a familiar face. As I passed the fifteen mile mark I heard my name and glanced across to see James – a man I had worked with ten years previously serving drinks to members of Farleigh Court Golf Club. I had known that James was running, and that he would probably be aiming for a similar time to me, however we had not spoken prior to the race and in a sea of 38,000 runners it had not even crossed my mind that we might cross paths. We exchanged a few words and then the next few miles saw us exchange positions in the race at least half a dozen times.
It was at around the 20 mile mark that the shouts about Paula started. Several supporters yelled that Paula Radcliffe was not far ahead and that we could catch her. I had not spotted Paula at all during the race and part of me doubted that she was actually that close – what can seem a short distance to a spectator is invariably much longer when running it. I therefore stuck to my planned pace as things were getting tough. I felt a couple of twinges in my shin – and was a little worried that it was going to blow up – but fortunately these faded into the background as the finish line edged slowly closer.
As I approached the twenty three mile mark I spotted the large fluorescent signs that my fiancée and mum had spent the night before putting together. The timing was perfect as I was really beginning to suffer now and I could focus on the distant signs getting closer. I knew that once I passed my family, it would be 5k to the finish – nothing but a parkrun! The cheers of encouragement from my family spurred me on and I was able to maintain some sort of form in the final few miles although the pace did start to ebb. As I turned into the final mile I was searching for the finish line. I realised that I was going to narrowly miss out on my target time but that I was still on track to get a time which I could be pleased with. I crossed the line one minute behind Paula Radcliffe and slowed to a walk. It’s amazing how quickly your body can give up once it has achieved its goal – I don’t think I could have run another step at that moment. I hobbled down the mall with my medal and raided my goody bag for any chocolate I could find. Before I knew it I was settled under the ‘B’ tree (for Bellahouston!) with my team mates and I was joined by my family. A few photos later and it was time to head home for steak and wine before catching a late flight back to Glasgow in order to make it to work in the morning!
I sat at work on the Monday, medal firmly lodged in my pocket, and reflected on my phenomenal weekend. The experience of London was everything that I had hoped it would be and, even though my finishing time was not quite what I had hoped, it was still a time I was incredibly proud of. In the infamous words of Arnie: I’ll be back.