It’s 11PM. I’ve got to be up at 5.30. I was supposed to be in bed hours ago, but I’m trying to get music onto an Apple Watch.
I’m charging gadgets and checking my bag again. I’m sewing charity and running club badges onto my Spiderman running top, accidentally leaving it out my kitbag and realising as soon as I lay down to shut my eyes.
The first of the 3000 alarms I’d set went off after about three minutes’ sleep, my already-awake eyes catching the glimmers of light on the ceiling as my phone lit up. The first thought was: ‘I should download last year’s marathon data to my Garmin Watch.’ Because, obviously, I need that stress.
Cue grabbing a laptop, finding wires and syncing with seconds to go before my lift arrived. For once, tech worked and I did it all in under three minutes. I’m still proud of that now.
Having worried about eating too much porridge on the coach, and not having slept enough the week before (as well as temporarily losing all the songs on my Apple Watch), I settled into a cafe with a few running buddies, ordered a cup of peppermint tea (yeah, I’m a badass) and noted the toilet just to my right.
This felt like the perfect way to chill out – we had arrived with over two hours to go to the start, and having time to sit and chat out race strategies (which is code for ‘all sit and look at our phones while we sip tea’) while being so close to a toilet was a dream.
I pondered using a website someone had recommended on Facebook, one that took all your Strava data and gave you a predicted race time. Thankfully, it didn’t work. Looking back, that wouldn’t have helped at all… I had a plan and I needed to stick to it.
Got a plan, stick to it
As I was walking across the field to the start (the idea of having three colored race pens was novel enough) I considered my strategy for the 94th time that hour: start out at seven minutes per mile (m/m) to begin with, as that would put me squarely in the bracket for 3:05 and get me Good for Age status, allowing me back in automatically next year.
As I ambled my way to the start, I tried to warm up… but I’d managed to forget entirely how to do so. I swung my legs around a bit, ran about, but it was so crowded that I could only manage about five steps before crashing into someone else. And every kick I did nearly booted someone else, so I decided to give it up.
Inexplicably I was in the first pen (Red One, like at the start of Lady Gaga’s song Poker Face) so could see the Good for Age runners ambling to the start in front of me. I focused on getting my heart rate down, taking my first gel with around 15 minutes to go to the start as part of my pre-defined nutrition strategy.
Yick. It tasted like old sea water. I looked down and saw it had expired a while ago… uh oh. The last thing I needed to do was chuck something inside me to ruin my stomach. But I’d already swallowed half of it… not much I could do now.
I looked around. Everyone looked relaxed and, well, really good at running. They were wearing Boston t-shirts, discussing pacing strategies and looking all lithe and limber.
I was wearing an old Android top from Google I/O a few years ago and eating old gels. I didn’t feel like I belonged here.
It was at this point a man knelt down in front of me, cleared a space and covered his legs with a jacket. I wondered what he was doing – was he praying? Should I pray? Is that what happened at the London Marathon?
Then I realised what was going on. When he’d finished and stood up I made sure I avoided that area for the start.
I fiddled with my Garmin watch, the Forerunner 735XT, a bit. I’d downloaded my previous race in Chester as it was my personal best, and I wanted to beat it today.
The Garmin watches have a brilliant function where you can race yourself precisely – seeing how far ahead or behind your previous self you are throughout the run.
It’s better than an average pace as it takes into account when you sped up or slowed down. I knew I’d gone out fast in Chester, slowed for a few miles then attacked… I just needed to keep a steady pace and I could beat Past Gareth (PG).
(Spoiler: I would come to hate PG.)
Suddenly, it was time to go. In the Good for Age pen two men in full suits and a man in a complete Spiderman outfit marched away. I looked down at my own superhero top and suddenly felt rather inferior.
NO TIME FOR THAT, GARETH! My pen surged forward, and we crossed the line. We were off… and my gels attached to my waist by an elasticated belt were stabbing me hard in the back, a witch’s hand scraping away at me with sharpened talons from the word go.
Oh no. What do I do? Take them out? Give up on gels? Leave it, and risk cutting off one of my legs by mile 16?
I ran with the pain for a couple of miles, hoping it would settle. I moved the belt around a bit, adjusted the height and eventually it landed somewhere I could accept.
It was a welcome distraction from my pace, which was a touch better than needed. I figured if I was within 10 seconds per mile of my goal, I’d be alright.
I was cruising along, heading downhill more than up, and generally feeling good. I had a look at the heart rate… a little high. I should probably reign it in a little bit, I figured, so tried to drop the pace.
It was at this point I remembered about the racing line, the blue stripes painted on the floor to let you know the fastest way through the course. I tried to lock onto it, but WEIRDLY so was everyone else. It was a right tussle – and an old gent punched me in the back at one point when I moved in front of him too quickly.
Calm down, Pops. There’s still 22 miles to go (also, sorry for getting in your way. Wasn’t intentional).
I saw a fellow St Albans Strider from my running club at this point, and we ran along together for a couple of miles, trying to take the sting out of the race a little. I relaxed the pace a little too much during this breather, not looking at my watch and realising that I was about 20 seconds slower per mile than I needed.
This was the time I was supposed to be gaining on PG, and I really wasn’t.
A brilliant crowd
However, I was enjoying the pace, so as I passed the Cutty Sark and the small town area with the absolute cauldron of noise from the crowd, I was on a high.
My music was playing well through the Aftershokz Trekz Titanium bone conduction headphones, letting me hear the crowd but still pumping music into my cranium.
When the crowd roared, it was all I could hear. When they thinned, my music came pounding back – perfect.
I crossed the 10km mark, and went for my third gel – I’d had one at 5 miles, and the next one was now at 10 mil… oh, crap. I got mixed up. I was only at 6 miles… and now I’m holding a half-opened gel. Well, better not spill any for the next four miles.
Before I knew it, the time had come. Bonnie Tyler and Holdin’ Out for a Hero came over the headphones… I was at the seven mile marker and that was my cue to drop the hammer. I was coming for you, PG.
The thing was, I remembered in Chester feeling desperate to go faster at this same point. Right now I’d have happily stayed at the pace I was at.
However, the roaring pop anthem spurred me on, and my pace quickened by about 30 seconds per mile. I was away.
Well, except for the fact it felt like everyone in London was running at once – it was so packed it was almost impossible to get any rhythm going. I weaved in and out where I could… it wasn’t terrible, but certainly a distraction.
But I had a plan and, by gosh, I was going to go for it. The pace was great – tough, but not impossible. I felt good. I could manage this.
I didn’t want to look at my heart rate or pace – I just wanted to see the miles roll in and focus on beating PG, who I now had built a 30 second lead over, thanks to attacking a little bit earlier.
There’s not much more to tell about the next 12 miles, other than I felt the pace was getting tough. I wanted to try and do this by feel getting a sense of how much was left in me by the response from my legs, and around mile 11, it started to get challenging.
Crossing Tower Bridge gave me a huge lift, as well as spotting my charity team, and I tried to be a bit more sensible, pulling my pace back from 6.45m/m to around 7.
I managed to keep this up through Limehouse and into the dull Canary Wharf section, the only interesting things happening were having another gel and nearly tripping over a sea of Lucozade bottles.
I crossed halfway at about 1:32… it would mean I would need to run the second half in an almost identical time if I was to hit my Good for Age target. Not impossible – I had sped up and was intending to keep this pace.
Some people that I passed during this time: a man dressed in full Darth Vader costume struggling to drink through a helmet. A man running the marathon in wellies. A nun. A man in his underwear (who i unfortunately kept pace with for far too long. Awkward…)
Mile 18 rolled into view, and something weird happened. I stepped out the shower and saw myself in the distance. To explain: there were water misters, AKA showers, dotted along the course and as I exited, I saw myself.
OK, I should explain again: it was a man wearing the precise outfit I was. Same Spiderman outfit. Same shorts. Just a bit more musclier than me.
I drew alongside him, tapped him on the shoulder and we shook hands and laughed merrily. It must have looked weird.
Then, in front of us, we saw the guy dressed in the full Spiderman suit… we clearly both wanted to beat him. The pace increased slightly but we never got close to the better Spidey.
Mile 20 hit me. Not hard – more a light tap on the calves – but suddenly flares of cramp were spreading across the area below my kneecaps, and no matter how many cries of ‘Go on, Spiderman’ came my way, I couldn’t distract myself from the worry that I was about to have to stop and stretch out intense pain.
I also knew they were probably cheering for another Spiderman.
Luckily, despite a few flares, the cramp never set in. At this point I was praying to see the Costcutter that I’d noted in my earlier piece, knowing that when this came into view I’d be closer to the end.
But the world was drawing in around me, the cheers from the crowd turning into painful shrieks. All the worries I’d had about the marathon were getting into my head, and I felt like I was close to an all-out collapse.
Had I gone out too fast? Did I speed up too much? I was only running at the pace I’d decided upon, and 3:05 wasn’t an impossible target based on my training. Whatever the reason though, I was in trouble.
Nobody knew why I cheered that Costcutter supermarket so loudly, raising my hand to salute it proudly – but I was so pleased to tick it off. It meant I was in familiar territory.
I tried to send my mind back to a few days ago, my bed-fresh legs bounding along the course. It wasn’t working. I was getting heavier and heavier, and the panic was rising in my chest.
I tried to remember everything I said in my piece talking about the mental difficulties of running.
I tried to shoulder the demon, I tried to count steps, I assessed whether I could run to the next mile marker and then walk from there. I was just trying to convince myself it was OK.
At this point, I’d just like to say a huge thanks to all the messages of supports that poured in over email and social media after my post about running with anxiety. I couldn’t believe the positivity flowing my way, and I’d hoped to draw inspiration from it should the panic start to appear.
I tried, but it didn’t really work. I just felt like I was letting everyone down, that I was embodying all I’d come to worry about and it was all my fault.
‘No,’ I said quietly. ‘No, it’s not’. I knew I’d done nothing wrong. I was just being chewed hard by the marathon, and it was crunching me more than I’d like.
I tried to get to the next mile marker. I somehow made it to mile 22 – by this point my pace had dropped by 45 seconds per mile, but it was the moment I nearly broke.
I suddenly felt like the next four miles were impossible, and I had a panic attack. My entire body flushed with heat, my mind disappeared and I wanted to rip off my headphones and make all the noise go away. I had to walk. But I can’t walk… it’s too far from the end. The race will be ruined.
The only thing that kept me going at this point was PG. Despite the darkness swirling around, I was still only 20 seconds behind. While time had wiped away a lot of the pain of that day last year, I figured that I must have been struggling badly at the same time as the pace wasn’t too different.
I didn’t remember much pain other than a huge hill, though. So it stood to reason that I could continue at this pace. Somehow. Maybe I could still beat him. It wasn’t all over.
Just keep running
And ‘somehow’ is the only way to describe the final four miles. I just kept begging myself not to walk, to keep dropping down the gears and finding any speed at all to keep going at.
I was slugging on Lucozade, trying to keep the cramp away, feeling progressively more sick. I needed a gel, but my stomach couldn’t take it. I forced one down anyway, hoping that it would alleviate the pain.
Mile 23 dragged past. The crowd were roaring encouragement, but by this point it felt like jeering. ‘You can do it!’ turned into ‘You should be able to do this easily, what’s wrong with you?’ I was slowing. PG was getting away.
Mile 24 appeared and I hit Embankment. More support. More suffering. More begging. More confusion as a man ran past wearing an Angry Birds vest. Was he sponsored by them? Raising money for them? A fan?
I got to Big Ben and mile 25. Despite the end being almost in ear shot, I didn’t feel I could make it. I passed a man dressed as a lobster. Three men running together in a boat. Even as the boards proclaimed ‘800m to go!’ ‘600m to go!’ I still didn’t think I would be able to keep running.
But I did. I crossed the line in 3:10:31, just under 45 seconds slower than my PB and five minutes over target. I did it without walking.
Looking back a day later, with the pain faded and a more sensible head on, I can see where I went wrong. At mile seven I sped up too much, my heart rate probably around 5-10 beats per minute faster than it should have been.
Had I slowed a touch there, I might not have suffered the dramatic slide for the final few miles. Maybe I would. Who knows… all I can remember is that I promised myself that if I didn’t walk those final miles at all, I would force myself to be proud.
No disappointment for not doing as well as I’d hoped. I gave it my all – and I’m proud of that.
I might not have got a personal best, but without holding on, I wouldn’t have got anywhere near as close. I’ll get you next time, PG.
Again, I’d just like to say a huge thank you to everyone who got in contact with me during the build up to the race – the messages of support, especially for the article on mental health, were phenomenal.
If you struggle with the same thing, please take the step to talk to someone about it – whether that’s a friend, family member or one of the numbers listed here. You don’t need to suffer alone.