The London Marathon 2018 - quite simply the hardest race of my life so far. The heat nearly broke me, but I fought hard to earn my medal. The day started with tears and ended with tears – but a whole lot happened in between of course!
I will start at the beginning; arriving in London on Friday with my friend it was boiling, no other way to describe it. It felt like we were going on holiday not to run a supposed Spring marathon. We enjoyed a fairly relaxed visit to the expo to collect our race numbers; my friend is not a massive expo fan, but I love it, mainly for the photo opportunities which I like to treasure for my memories! Like an overexcited child I dragged her into photo booths and got her to grin at the camera (she loves it really!) Getting our race numbers early allowed us to enjoy a stress-free Saturday, and the continued warm weather meant it still felt like we were simply on a trip away. I do not think either of us was fully considering the 26.2 miles we had to run the next day yet.
Saturday would not be the same without parkrun, so we rose early and ventured to find the nearby Southwark parkrun. It was set on a gorgeous park, with spring like flowers gracing the flowerbeds and a beautiful bandstand which was reminiscent of our own home Lincoln parkrun. Funnily enough as we stood and listened to the new runners brief I spotted Betty, a regular at our Lincoln event - a small parkrun world. My friend and I ran around together, three and half steady laps of the park, definitely not asking too many demands from our bodies. It was lovely to soak up the parkrun atmosphere without forcing my legs to go quick, and our beaming smiles, which were captured on camera by the photographer as we finished, summed up our happiness.
The rest of Saturday was spent relaxing, it was very warm again, and as the evening arrived it became apparent that the prediction of this year’s London Marathon being the hottest on record would be true. I had to sit and seriously consider the race now, it was happening tomorrow and there was nothing I could do to change the weather. I had to make a difficult decision in my mind, I knew I had to forget going out for my sub 3:45 time. I felt almost like a failure for accepting this – I had trained so hard for this time and here I was giving up on it before even trying. My friend reassured me I had not failed; I knew she was right, we both just needed to finish, safely and happily. We had actually ended up being placed in the same starting pen, and we agreed to have no plan to run together and just to do our own race. The race would be so unpredictable we didn’t want either of us to feel like we had to react to the other. Again, this was quite a hard decision for me to make, the friend in me wanted just to be at my friend’s side the whole way to look out for her, but the runner in me knew it would just not be wise to commit to anything.
Sunday 22nd April arrived – race day. I woke very early and I was very nervous. I met my friend to get the train to the Blackheath start and just her being there calmed me down instantly. I think I may have worked myself into a real state without her company. We sat on the train and chatted, sharing good luck messages which friends and family had sent to us both, some joint and some individual. Some of my friends who are normally a little oblivious to my running told me they were proud of me, which was really touching, but the message which started London Marathon day with tears was sent from my mum. I read it out to my friend on the train and tears rolled down my face – my mum just got it, everything this race meant to me, everything I worked so hard for, but at the same time she wanted me to be ok, be sensible in the heat and just to enjoy my day. It maybe doesn’t sound a lot, but it meant so much, and I definitely needed a comforting squeeze from my friend to stop me becoming a sobbing mess.
Arriving at Blackheath the atmosphere was calm, which helped keep me in the same state. My friend and I rolled out our silver foil ‘picnic blanket’ and sat on the grass waiting to enter our start pen. As we rubbed sun cream into our exposed skin we could have easily been sat on a beach – a beach full of lycra clad runners and snaking queues for portaloos! The conditions were surreal, and I knew the more intense heat of the day was still to hit as soon as we started to run. Once we were able to enter the start pen my usual levels of pre London Marathon excitement suddenly hit me, and as the big screens showed the Queen pressing her big ‘go’ button, I knew my third London Marathon was about to begin.
As I find is usually the case in a marathon, the first few miles flew by. I was running with my friend, as we had both set out at the same pace, but I was trying to keep my pace in check. Despite my efforts I was already feeling the effect of the heat. It was intense, beating onto my body. I kept fluids high, taking water from every aid station and pouring any I did not want to drink all over my head and body. I was keeping with my friend as pace wise she was running what I wanted to be running – around 8.30 min/mile. I was not feeling great though, although I was trying not to think about it. I did not feel unwell, I just seemed to be working so hard to keep going. At around 8 miles my friend asked how I was feeling. At that point I was feeling scared. I was not sure how my body was reacting to the heat, it was so early in the race still and I was honestly frightened about finishing the race. I didn’t want to say this to her though, I would admit it later, but in this moment, I did not want to put any pressure or doubt onto her. I think I replied the obvious – that I was very hot. The feeling of fear was not nice though and maybe I should have reined my pace in then, but part of me also wanted to keep near my friend in case anything did happen and I could reach out to her for help.
I kept going; I told myself I wanted to run across Tower Bridge with my friend and then I would asses how I felt. The closer I got to the bridge, the more I knew I was going to have to slow down, I was now working much too hard, feeling very warm and getting very anxious about the fact I had not even hit half way. The turn to Tower Bridge always takes my breathe away, its blue arches dominating the skyline and the noise of the crowds hitting you. I tapped my friend on the arm at this point, she thought I was letting her know I was still there, but in reality I just wanted to acknowledge this moment. It was special to be there with her, it meant something to me, and I think I knew I was going to have to let her go after this. As I climbed up the bridge I hugged the left side. My parents had hoped to spectate there and I wanted desperately for them to see me. I spotted my dad first, and as I neared them I was overcome with the urge to go to them. I had not planned this, but I wrapped my soaking, sweaty body across the rails and gave them a massive hug. ‘Keep going’ my mum shouted ‘don’t stop!’ I held them tightly but briefly, I just needed that reassurance from them that I was going to be ok.
After Tower Bridge I started to revaluate the race, I let my friend drift slightly ahead of me and allowed her to go without trying to keep pace. She was in my sights still, until suddenly I was overcome by the urge to use the toilet. It frustrated me as it seems even though I train with gels, on race days they just do not settle. I knew I had to go. Darting into a portaloo I lost my friend completely and also lost 2 minutes to the clock. However, as I emerged back into the race I suddenly felt much calmer and in control. I started to try zone out from the heat and instead focus on the crowds. I allowed myself to have some fun, blowing a kiss to a spectator who was holding a sign saying ‘Kiss me I’m a parkrunner’ and frantically waving at the BBC TV cameras which zoomed onto the mass of runners.
In brief areas of shade around the Isle of Dogs I actually felt better, it really was apparent to me that the direct sun and heat was what was troubling me. Away from these moments of sanctuary, the majority of the course was growing to be frankly brutal. The weather was unforgiving, on areas of black tarmac the heat felt like it was reflecting off the road as well as radiating from above. Miles 15-20 really were a blur to me, I just kept going. People around were struggling already, a lot were requiring medical attention. My pace was slower than I would like to have been running, but I was steady and maintaining it; it was all I could ask.
20 miles passed in just over 2hrs 50mins. This was a boost; I knew I could get under 4 hours still. To be honest time had not been on my mind at all, but this marker just gave me extra hope. Although I was not running at a pace which I might have anticipated, I never contemplated giving up on the race. I actually told myself as I was running that I was proud of myself for enduring this pain. It was a different pain though, my legs actually felt the best they had even felt during a marathon, it was the rest of my body which was suffering in the intense heat. From 20 miles on the crowd were immense, shouting my name, spurring me on, and I tried to acknowledge as many as possible. A fellow Lincoln parkrunner spotted me and shouted my name; I pulled a face which said, I am hurting but I am moving! I was moving; I was steadily taking over lots of runners too, which was not my aim, but it just told me I was going ok. I was also absolutely drenched by now, the amount of water I was pouring over myself was ridiculous, but it really seemed like the only way to survive.
Reaching the Embankment felt like I had made it, I knew I had not really, but I admit despite my resilience, there were times earlier on in the race when I doubted if I would ever get this far. It was so hot along the Embankment, no shade and a seemingly endless stretch ahead. A lot of runners were in trouble here and it was not pleasant to witness. With one mile to go my body was beginning to fade; I say my body, my legs were ok (ish!), it was the rest of me that seemed to be defeated by the sun. My upper body was slumped, I could feel it, and my head was down. I knew I just had to hang on. My mum and dad had managed to get a spot at the start of Birdcage Walk and they shouted at me, lifting me from my trance like quest for the finish. This boosted me – sounds dramatic, but all I could think was thank god I was fully functioning still, I would have hated for my parents to see me in a real state of distress.
Birdcage Walk goes on forever and the red markers counting down the final few hundred metres feel like they never get closer. But I ticked them off and turning onto The Mall I really couldn’t believe I had made it. That stretch of course feels an honour to run down, and I found something in my body to push for the line. As I crossed the finish I pumped the air triumphantly – my time: 3:54:06. I celebrated as I was feeling proud, not dejected or disappointed, which even though it was not the time I felt I had trained for, says it all.
I was a bit delirious after crossing the line; St Johns were quick to pounce on me. I was alright; just a little shell shocked by it all I think. I composed myself, collected my hard-earned medal and then instantly pulled out my phone - which had somehow survived the litres of water I had poured all over my body. I got out the London Marathon app and checked to see if my friend had finished. It felt like the longest few seconds of my life as the app loaded, my heart racing as I longed for it to show a finish time. Not knowing about her had been on my mind throughout the race, and the fear of spotting her being treated by medics never really went away, as I am sure it didn’t for anyone who had someone they cared about running. The app told me she had finished, in a frankly amazing time, and I can’t express how much it meant to see that displayed on the tracker; it was so brutal out there anything could have happened.
I then dragged my wiped-out body through the finish area to find my friend and my parents. I met my mum and dad first and hugged them again, but the most emotional embrace was to come. Seeing my friend I grabbed her in the tightest squeeze I could manage, just to physically feel we were both ok and had done it meant the world to me in that moment. My friend started crying on my shoulder and I squeezed her tighter. I whispered in her ear I was proud of her; I was, proud of us both, we both knew how hard that had been, how much we had fought to get to the finish, and just what we had achieved. We have shared many a post marathon hug now, but that felt the most emotional, the most needed and probably the soggiest!
As we walked to find a place to have a post run drink with my friend’s husband and my parents, both our legs surprisingly felt not too bad, we were weary, but moving. To be honest I think that instantly showed that we both have more to give across 26.2 miles, but today was just not the day for that. I know I have a quicker time in me, but I did the best I could. I know I did. As I sat and drank a cool fruit cider I was simply happy to have shared a special day with some of the most special people in my life, to have completed my third London Marathon, my sixth marathon in total and ran another sub 4 hour time - what else could I really ask? If you take out my 2 minute bathroom break I actually ran very close to my 2017 London Marathon time, which considering the stark difference in weather, shows my progress – but I am simply being pedantic now!
The London Marathon 2018 was such an emotional, demanding and yet rewarding experience. I have never run in such heat, and after a harsh winter training I had no level of acclimatisation. I accept that I acted accordingly to the conditions, it was not an easy choice, but it was the right one. My friend knew how much I wanted that sub 3:45 time and for her to tell me afterwards she was proud of me for not pushing and for accepting the result I wanted was too risky helped to justify my choice even more. She is an inspiration to me in so many ways and I am thankful and lucky to call her both my friend and running buddy.
To be honest, writing this blog post has really helped me process my London Marathon experience, and I went through waves of real emotion reliving it all. I actually cried in bed when I arrived back to Lincoln on Sunday night too, tears rolling down my cheeks again, ending the day the same way it started many hours before. I am not sure what they were tears of really… a mix of relief and happiness I think. The London Marathon 2018 tried to break me, but failed.
Alice's Adventures In Running Land
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