My Marathon Story – Virgin London Marathon 2011

With Virgin London Marathon 2013 only 48 hours away I thought I’d take the opportunity to share my own experience of running 26.2 miles in the nation’s capital. This was originally published in April 2011.

Here, broken down by distance, is the story of my London Marathon…

  • -130.7miles – The day started right, boarding the coach at 6am with a perfect plan in mind which would get me to the start with a little time to spare. Of course things never turn out that well, and an unexpected stop in Cirencester followed by a 20 minute break at Reading Services shattered all illusions of a comfortable start to the marathon. Seriously, who can’t hold it in for 2 hours on the motorway? Why would anyone feel moved to stop with the sole intention of paying £8 for a coffee unless it was the last coffee on Earth? And if it was the last coffee on Earth, what the hell would it be doing in Reading! Anyway, after finally arriving in London I bid the coach a cheery farewell in West Kensington with 55 minutes to cross London via 3 trains. At this point I had to re-evaluate my plans and figured that my time group wouldn’t cross the line until 9:55, I could still do this….!
  • -11.2miles – There are few times in my life I have felt more self conscious than being in a London Underground carriage in lycra, sporting a number for a race that starts in 45 minutes a long way away. I spoke to two or three lovely people who wished me luck, but every one of them took the opportunity to point out I was going to be late. The change from District to Jubilee lines did nothing to help as once again I was a lone figure amongst a throng of supporters who were all too aware of what was going on. Thankfully one lovely lady was very supportive and as I left the train I got a hi-5 from her two sons which reminded me of what I was about to be a part of and got me excited again, abating the nerves slightly. As I got off the train I was overjoyed to see other runners, running, to get to the DLR station and our last train to Greenwich. I caught up with one of these, Cali Gill running for Family Holiday Association, and we spurred each other on through Canary Wharf, past the ironic cheers of one of the WellChild cheer points I was going to see later, and eventually aboard a train bound for marathon greatness…
  • -.5miles – The start of the marathon is still some distance from Greenwich station, luckily past a much needed pub toilet, unluckily at the top of a hill. By the time we got there we were 25 minutes late for the start, we joined the very back of the marathon runners and the only person to start behind us was dressed as a snail and crawling 1 mile a day…I was terrified he’d overtake me at some point!
  • 0-6miles – Once we were off and running things started to come good. The first 6 miles flew by, but there was a lot of dodging and weaving all the slower runners we were caught up with. I continued to run with Cali and we were doing consistent sub 10 minute miles. During this stage we passed some of the runners I had read about previously. There were rhinos, Rubik’s Cube man, PC David Rathband (blinded by Raol Moat)…it was a timely reminder that I was actually in the London Marathon and this was the culmination of 6 months of effort. The crowds were quite thin through the first 3 miles but when the 3 routes combined they soon increased and I fell in to the trap of acknowledging every shout of “Jimbo” I heard (I had it printed on my vest). It seemed there were thousands of them, and in hindsight I really shouldn’t have waved at every single one, or taken diversions for a hi-5 all the time, but I just couldn’t ignore all the people cheering me on!
  • 6-10miles – By this point I’d lost Cali as she had been forced to take a “comfort break”, so I was running solo for the first time and that let my mind wander and start contemplating the next 20 miles. It was starting to heat up and I was drinking at every water station and pouring water over my head. I started worrying if I was doing the right thing and couldn’t remember everything I’d read. I became fixated with never being without a bottle of water in my hand, but having never run like that before it was a subtle but marked difference. I was still saluting the crowd as I went and I decided that at the first cheer point when I saw my family I would grab my ipod and gels as arranged and drown out the cheers for a few miles. Before long I was totally involved in choosing what to listen to during the second half and dreaming of the miracle energy boost that first carbohydrate gel was going to give me.
  • 10-12 miles – At some point in this stage Cali went flying past me again! Was great to see her momentarily, but as she powered in to the distance I knew I was going to have to keep my pace steady or risk burning up. The sun was really giving it some now, in complete contrast to all those January runs and night time training sessions. My usual kit of t-shirt, vest and cap was complete overkill and I knew at the cheer point I was going to have to shed some clothes or risk overheating  Getting to 12 miles was just incredible. The reception from the WellChild supporters was immense, a wall of noise, and seeing my mum and sister gave me a real boost. I grabbed the gels I wanted and lost my t-shirt and hat but alas, no ipod! There was some confusion about where it was and who had it and I couldn’t hang around waiting for it to be found. As I set off again I felt like my bubble had been burst and that was the first moment I thought there was a chance I may not go the distance. I tried singing to myself or humming tunes but found I couldn’t remember anything. Without the spur of music I focused instead on getting to the next supporters on the course and that kept me going through…
  • 13.1miles in – Halfway in 2:20 and still feeling good…but waning fast.
  • 14-19miles – At 14 I was greeted by the supporters from Winston’s Wish and got a huge hug from my good friend Sally, as well as a fist full of jelly babies. This was a much needed boost but it didn’t last long. Through 15 miles and everything was starting to slow down, my feet were heavy, legs screaming and I knew any hopes of running the entire 26.2 miles were long gone. Before long I adopted a walk/run strategy along with many others. I was allowing myself to walk 50 steps at each water station, gel point or mile/km marker but each time it was harder to get going again. I had to concentrate fully on the mechanics of running and actually tell my legs how to move…and they didn’t always listen. It was through this stage that I started to see casualties of the effort we’d all put in. One girl vomited right in front of me, I saw a man clutching his thigh and screaming and at 18 miles I saw my first oxygen mask…I was determined that wouldn’t be me and so I eased my way through this section in an attempt at self-preservation. At one point I stopped to stretch my thigh but in doing so caused my hamstring to cramp up, it was obvious I wasn’t going to be able to anything to ease the pain for the next 8 miles. But the next boost came at 19 miles in Canary Wharf again, where I’d been hours earlier desperate to make the start now I was desperate to make the finish! I got a huge megaphone enhanced cheer from the lovely Berni and Claire and stopped for a quick hug. It was a reminder not only of those that had made it to the course to support but all those that had contributed to my marathon fund and believed in me. That gave me enough steely determination to pick my feet up again and get going.
  • 20-25miles – By mile 22 I was back to the run/walk strategy, though in honesty the run wasn’t much faster than the walk! All the way I had been responding to the crowd, every cheer met with a wave, a wink, a smile or a hi-5. But now the cheers of the crowd felt ironic, I wished I could have blocked them out and just concentrated on getting one foot in front of the other. It was somewhere around 24 miles I realised I was actually going to complete the London Marathon. All hopes of any sort of time were long gone, but the knowledge that I was going to achieve something that 12 months ago I thought impossible made me incredibly emotional. Over the next 2 miles I welled up a couple of times and was close to losing it, each time I was forced to stop running and walk as I couldn’t see through watery eyes or breath through the lump in my throat!
  • 26miles – I was determined to run over the line. I managed to keep it going from the start of Birdcage Walk and slowly inched my way closer to the finish. Turning in to the Mall and seeing the finish was a very strange sensation, everything suddenly became very clear and I was smiling for the first time in 20 miles. I can picture it now and it still fills me with elation. I’d tried during training to picture the moment I crossed the line but had never really been able to visualise me finishing. Now, as I crossed the mats and went under the clock 5hrs 20 minutes after I started I clenched my fists, looked to the skies and roared! Someone patted me on the back as they came past, and a marshall gave me a massive smile and I suddenly realised the enormity of what I’d achieved. I moved over to the side of the course, leant over the railing and cried for a few minutes. It was in that moment I knew I’d be back, for the emotion, the challenge, the support, the experience, the stories, the pride…and for the chance to beat that time. London Marathon 2012 ballot…I’m coming for you!

Passing 26 miles!

I am a marathon runner!

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2 Responses to My Marathon Story – Virgin London Marathon 2011

  1. Once, when wearing that same t-shirt, a chap asked if 17.04.11 was my time. He hadn’t run a marathon.

    What’s next for you?

    • James Clay says:

      A few little bits and pieces, but next month starts training for Bournemouth Marathon (6th October) and this time I’m determined to get it right!

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