London Marathon 2018 – A race like no other!

What a crazy week it has been! As I stood nervously on the start line of the London Marathon, eyes gazing beyond the bouncing shoulders of the elites ahead of me and down the welcoming slope of Shooters Hill, I had a plan in my head of how I would like the race to pan out: I knew what pace I would be aiming to settle into once the Queen had signalled the start of the race; I knew that every fifth mile I would be squeezing a slightly warmed, but very welcome, carb gel down my throat and I knew that various groups of family and friends would be poised at a number of well thought out stations along the route, ready to yell messages of support (or friendly abuse) as required. I hadn’t, however, put much thought into what might happen after the race. I am sure that if I had, I would not have imagined that I’d be standing 24 hours later with a BBC Camera perched at the back of my classroom and with an e-mail flashing at me from my computer asking me to phone the local newspaper back ASAP. This was not necessarily going to be the race that I had planned, but it was certainly one which I will never forget.

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Training had been fantastic. Since crossing the finish line in Berlin seven months earlier, London had been the focus. I had put in the hours in training through a tough cross-country season, gruelling solo runs along the Clyde Walkway and even ploughing through snow courtesy of the ‘Beast from the East’. Smashing several of my PBs along the way, this was one of the most consistent training blocks that I have ever managed. The goal had always been to break 2:30:0 and I was feeling confident that this was definitely on the cards…

Then I thought about the weather. As my taper drew to a close and the carb-loading commenced, I began to think about possible race-day conditions. Most forecasts were indicating that this was going to be a warm one and to be honest my initial thoughts were relief that it wouldn’t be as cold as the training that I had suffered through in our typical Scottish Winter. It was when I started hearing whisperings of ‘the hottest London Marathon ever’ that I was forced to take things a little more seriously. At Berlin, on a cool, wet September morning, I had not consumed any water for the duration of the marathon. I knew however that in a hot London race, this would not be a sensible tactic.

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I lined up on the start line with a bottle filled with ice having taken on the advice I heard on Marathon Talk about ‘pre-cooling’. I had spent the previous hour sitting in the shade with the iced placed periodically across my shoulders and the back of my neck in order to lower my core temperature. I ditched the ice and found myself squashed in amongst the other excited athletes in the Championship Start. Having had difficulties with congestion in the past, I managed to make my way to the front and found myself tucked in just a few rows behind the pros. Seeing the likes of Kipchoge just ahead of me was phenomenal and it is moments like that which make running in a big city marathon that little bit special. Before I had a chance to get too star struck, the Queen appeared on the screen to press her button and start the race.

We were off!

People talk about the fast start at London but nothing quite prepares you for it. The long slope of Shooters Hill falls away before you and it can be very difficult to stick to a planned pace. I went through the first 5km in 17:16 – a little quicker than intended. I managed to hold myself back a little over the next 5km and settled into a pace that I felt I could sustain. Just before the half way mark I passed over Tower Bridge and felt a huge rush as the crowds roar filled the road – there is nothing quite like this moment and it never fails to take my breath away. I had found that my comfort levels were fluctuating through the first half – I had moments where I felt fantastic and others where I felt lethargic. This seemed to be a turning point however and the next 5 miles were great. I started to really enjoy the run and found I could work the crowd a little for an extra boost.

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Then I reached mile 18. This is where I first experienced the sensation that everyone who has run a marathon will know well. This was the moment that I realised I was slowing down. It is a strange feeling. I didn’t feel particularly ‘tired’, I simply realised that I was putting in the same amount of effort and yet not travelling at quite the same pace. This is where marathons are made or broken. It is a fine line that needs to be walked (or jogged!) when you still have 8 miles to complete of the race. A voice in your head is telling you to slow down to ensure that you reach the finish (this was accompanied by images of the incredible Callum Hawkins collapsing in the final stages of his marathon only weeks earlier) and yet a voice in your heart is whispering that you just need to grit your teeth and see how deep the well goes.

I saw the pace drop a little but reasoned I was still on target for my goal and that I could afford to be a little careful for a few miles. As I reached mile 22 however I realised that things were slowing more than I could afford and that the initial target was falling out of reach. I battled on in the heat and felt positive as I continued to pass other runners who were also struggling in the midday sun. I was forced to accept that the 2:30 target was not going to happen today but realised that a PB was still on the cards. I knuckled down, focused on the positive and fought my way onto the Mall.

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Crossing the line in 2:31:04, I felt a strange cocktail of emotions. As relief at finishing and the pride of having a medal draped over my shoulders mixed in with the tinge of disappointment at not hitting my target I felt strangely conflicted. This was a PB (my previous being 2:31:31) but it wasn’t the PB I wanted – I was still a 2:31 marathoner, no one really cares about the seconds! It was moments later however that I felt my first taste of overwhelming satisfaction (and slight incredulity!) as I glanced at my phone to see a message from a friend declaring me the 33rd finisher. Thirty-third?!? I thought this must be a mistake but soon had it confirmed and I was ecstatic – I had not even considered my position in the race as I had been too busy thinking about my time.

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I enjoyed a very quick celebration with my fellow runners, my brother, friends who had travelled down to watch and, of course, my wife Vicki before we needed to rush away for our flight back to Glasgow! A quick shower, a few slices of pizza in a plastic bag for the journey (thanks to my awesome sister-in-law Laura!) and a short train journey took Vicki and I to Stanstead for the final leg of our journey. A short delay to our flight meant that we were back in our flat just after 11pm and finally my head hit the pillow for a few hours kip before work on Monday morning and I enjoyed dreams of a nice, quiet day in the classroom…

“Jack, you’re needed in the headmaster’s office now – apparently it is urgent!”

My colleague had just burst in during my second period of the day with no idea what I was wanted for – but it sounded important! I was a little scared (and more than a little confused) as I entered his office but was greeted with a handshake and invited to take a seat.

“The BBC are on the phone. They want to come in for an interview – and they want to film you teaching your S3 class”

Despite my fear that I would make a fool of myself on camera, and after a stern/desperate chat with my pupils, things actually worked out OK and the footage on Reporting Scotland didn’t make me look like a complete idiot! I was overwhelmed with the messages of congratulations that I received after this and I even got a free Greggs in the morning from the staff who had seen my interview! What a bonus!

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The week since has been fantastic. I may not have achieved the initial target but I am incredibly proud of the result. I am now left planning for the future – I know that I have more to offer in the marathon, but for now it is time to reflect and recover. In the meantime I need to thank a few people who helped in the long road to London:

  • Bellahouston Harriers – for providing a huge level of support to all of us who were running.
  • Matt – who put up with almost daily questions and who provided an unparalleled level of advice and guidance throughout the training block.
  • The Locker Room – for that extra touch of motivation when needed.

And most importantly to Vicki who put up with months of my obsession, anxiety, bragging and distraction, all the while struggling with her own injury. I couldn’t have done it without her support.

Bring on the next one…

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Confessions of a serial spectator – top tips for supporting!

“This isn’t my first rodeo” – a phrase uttered by me on a few occasions last weekend as I was complimented on my ability to whizz and direct my way around Manchester to find good cheering spots during the marathon. As a former running widow, before I took up running myself, I have been to many a race to cheer on Jack and have become great at finding good places to spot runners. Finding my way around an unknown city with ease has become second nature and last weekend earned me the nickname ‘Satnav’!

So without further ado, here are my top 5 tips for race spectating –

1.       Before you do anything, download Google Maps and any transport apps that will help you get around on the day. During bigger races, Google Maps also shows the race map on the screen, so you can see how close you are to the race – handy when running off a tram and finding your way to a good spot! For major cities I swear by the Citymapper app which has helped me navigate my way around Manchester, Berlin, Amsterdam, New York and London. This app is incredible, simply put in where you are going and it tells you how long it will take through different modes of transport – walking, cycling, public transport and even Uber. It gives clear guidance step-by-step on how to make your way to your destination and has offline public transport maps available.

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2.       Work out with your runner how long they are going to take and where they would like to see you. By working out how long they will take for each mile, you will be able to check if you have enough time to get to your agreed spectating points, whether by public transport or walking. There’s nothing worse than agreeing to be at miles 5 and 9 then on the day realising that this is a logistical nightmare! Downloading a pace guide can help as this will tell you when to expect your runner at each mile. My friend’s husband had worked this out perfectly during Manchester which really helped. Also consider how busy the race/city will be. In Manchester, we were lucky to squeeze on one tram as it was completely crammed. Had we missed that tram we may have missed our runners, so do take this into consideration if you are trying to see them more than 2 or 3 times. As London is so busy during the marathon (and Jack is super-fast), for my own sanity and ease of spotting him, I will probably only see him at one or two spots on route before I must race my way to the end.

*side tip – also agree where to meet at the end of the race. This was something we didn’t do at Amsterdam and it was only by pure chance that I found Jack at the end. Don’t agree to meet at the finish, it will most likely be crazy. Most races put on lettered meeting points which are a good place to find people.

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3.       If there is one, download the official tracking app for the race. These can be unreliable as so many people are trying to get on it at once, especially at London, however they can give a good guide of how your runner is doing and when they will get to your spot. At Manchester, my friend’s husband was able to see that she started 8 minutes after the official start time and we could then use that to calculate when we would see her. The app was also able to tell us if anyone had slowed down or sped up. These are also great for tracking at home I you can’t make it to the race.

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4.       Have a spectating plan. Trying to spot your runner in a sea of people is hard, your eyes are darting around the place and unless they are wearing something distinctive, you may miss them. The same goes for them, if they have their head down concentrating or just soaking up the atmosphere, they may not notice you. Agree with your runner what side of the road you will be on, that way they can try and stick to that side and see you. Another good tip I’ve had in this area is, if you know the route well, agree on a landmark to stand beside, eg I’ll be outside the bike shop, or beside the red post-box. Mile markers can get busy too so tell your runner you will be 200 yards away from it. If there are a couple of you spectating, agree in advance that one of you will take photos and the other look out for the runner otherwise you both might miss them. At Inverness I was on my own and while trying to fiddle about with my phone camera I almost missed my friends. Sometimes it’s better to just soak up the atmosphere and give huge cheers rather than trying to get a photo at every spot.

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5.       Finally, take a bag. This is my way of getting a few tips in one to keep it to a top 5! My race day essentials for spectators starts with a battery pack. Watching races can be a long day and if using your phone to take photos, track and navigate, it will drain your battery. I got mine from Amazon for about £10 and it has about 2/3 full charges in it when it’s full. Secondly, get a travel card for the city you are in, this saves time and money on the day. Next, maybe take some extra gels, energy drinks or snacks for your runner if they would like you to. Things happen in a race and they may lose some so it might be handy to have spares. Finally, fill with your runner’s essential post-race items. They will have their own bag drop but, just in case, have some extra layers in there for them (and for you – it can get cold watching!), salty food to replenish those lost salts, sugary food for a pick me up, and plenty of water. Prosecco, beer or champagne never go amiss either!

There you have it, my top tips for spectating. Other than these, just shout really loud, make sure you’re seen and give them all the support you can! Remember that lots of runners may not have the support that your runner does so give them a shout too, especially if they look like they are struggling and need some encouragement. Races are a truly inspirational and humbling experience for runners and spectators, so just soak it in and enjoy.

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