Sunday, May 13, 2012

London Marathon Recap

Although I'm well aware that it's stating the obvious, the one word that I'd use to describe the marathon is HARD. It was so, so, so hard. I'm very proud of finishing, even though the last 10 miles of the race were really, really difficult. I wish I had been able to go faster, but am well aware that without the training that I put in, that it might have been even harder. And, despite what I might have said right after the race, I'm totally ready to do it again (and, yes, I did enter the ballot for London 2013).


I finally had my first marathon-related bad dream the night before, when I dreamed that I was going to miss the start (I'm blaming all those posters in the Tube that warned us not to be late on marathon day). This had a useful side-effect, as I was awake 15 minutes before the first of the four alarms that I had set the night before. I set out all of my clothes the night before and my bag packed, which helped me get ready quickly (and left more time for checking e-mails/tweets/texts from everyone, too). I had a bagel with cream cheese and a cup of tea before I set out.

The VLM is so big that there are three start lines – Red (charity runners), Blue (ballot winners), and Green (elites & VIPS). All three starts are at Greenwich, but you approach the park from different train/tube stations, depending on the color of the number on your bib. I was blue, so I had to go to Blackheath Station, via the special train from London Bridge. When I first got on the train, there weren't very many runners (I, however, was surprised to see how many people were on the train at 7:15 on a Sunday morning), but the train really started filling up as we got closer to central London. There were a few minor delays to show our bibs for free travel (or, you know, had to pay because there was no station guard to let me through the gate), but I squeeeeeezed on to the super crowded train, just before it left for Blackheath. By 8:15, I was in Greenwich.

I really enjoyed the journey. For a start, it was a reasonably late start, for a race and, since London's transport is already so good, it was really easy and fast. Admittedly, I was on the early side, but I knew that I didn't want to stress out about being on time. Additionally, everyone was SO FRIENDLY and chatty! Lots of people were also running their first marathon (or their first VLM) and we bonded over that, while the vets reassured us that we would be fine. I love being around other runners and the sense of excitement and occasion was overwhelming on the trains.

After arriving at Blackheath, it was just a short walk to the Start village. As before, it was moving to see hundreds of runners all making their way to the start. When we got to Greenwich Park, itself, you could see the three blimps that mark the three start lines and the balloons that line the start chutes. Of course, I knew there were balloons, because I've watched the VLM on tv before, but seeing them in person really drove home the whole "OMG GOING TO RUN THE LONDON MARATHON" theme of the day.

The start village was really well organized. There were loads and loads of portapotties and, this being England, the queues were efficient and cheerful. My favorite thing was that they had a HUGE tv screen where someone was roaming around doing interviews with the runners at our start, as well as letting us watch the start of the elite women's and wheelchair races. It was that sort of thing that really let you feel like you were part of a world-class sporting event, not just the pack that ran hours behind the really fast people. I had a banana, used the toilets a few times, put my bag in the baggage truck, borrowed someone's tub of Vaseline when I realized that I'd forgotten to grease the chafe-prone spots on my arms, and finally decided that it was time to head to the starting pens!

By 9:45 (start time), it was decidedly sunny. The temperature still wasn't that warm, but the sun was definitely starting to heat things up. I was so, so grateful that I had remembered to pack my sunglasses and wore them for almost the entire race (I took them off for Tower Bridge & the finish, because I'm vain like that). I also had a pair of cheap cotton gloves and arm warmers that I'd made by cutting off the toe of the socks that I'd gotten on the airplane.

The start pens were a bit of a mess. I was in pen 8 of 9, but I think the pens weren't actually big enough, so everyone was just kind of hanging out next to them, figuring that we'd get in eventually. While I waited, I finished stretching, took a Gu, then realized that I didn't have any water – so I took a couple of swigs out of a water bottle that someone else had abandoned. I know, I know – but you do what you have to do, right? But, eventually, we started what I call the "death march" toward the start line. I have no idea when the gun actually went off or anything – it didn't seem to matter. So, I spent the last few minutes before the run chatting to a man dressed as children's animated character Peppa Pig. Apparently he actually owns the costume and has brought it out for several children's birthday parties, as well as running in it. He was aiming to get around the course in about six hours. I thought he was a bit nuts!


The Start line was a bit anti-climactic, really. Everyone was pretty spread out by the time we go to it, so I had no problem stepping aside to take its photo!

The highlight for me of the first few miles were actually the speed bumps in the road. At every single one (and there were maybe 10 or so over the first few miles), they had a volunteer stationed on either end holding a sign and yelling out "HUMP!" It was hilarious (you’ll have to take my word for it). Some of them got really into their HUMP duties. Another highlight was running past one of the Olympic venues - the shooting will be held at the Royal Artillery Barracks. There 
was actually a competition taking place during the marathon (they’re testing out the venues) and so some of the officials and athletes came out to see us, instead. (There were also rounds going off, making me sort of wonder if we’d be taken out and shot if we slowed down too much.) Weirdly, they weren’t making a sound, just standing there silently, watching. There was also a shop of Olympic merchandise, but I didn’t see anyone ducking out of the race to get their stuffed mascots or anything.

The first 10 miles or so were definitely my favorites of the race. We were, for the most part, running through fairly normal neighborhoods and EVERYONE was out having a street party! The spectators in London were fantastic - lots of little kids wanting high-5s, people passing out sweets, the pubs were going MENTAL and cranking out the music. My favorite group of spectators was also in that early group: a group of Sikhs had their drums out and were lining the pavement for almost a full block. To me, that is what London is about - everyone celebrating together in their own way, bringing their own cultures to make a wonderful, diverse city. I might have teared up, seeing them. It was also around this time that I passed two people on stilts and someone "dressed" as the Blackpool Tower. Around mile 5, we came to the Cutty Sark, where the crowds were fantastic. I did think about stopping off for a Nando’s, though.

The next highlights for me were seeing my friends, who I knew would be waiting for me about mile 8.5 and 9.5. Caz & Lynne were a little earlier than I expected, but they did a great job getting my attention. For their efforts, they got a very sweaty hug from a slightly gross Joyce. :-) I also found Ana, my old flatmate, at mile 9.5 - apparently we picked a really good spot for her to be standing (and 
basically out her front door - she lives right on the course). Turns out, however, that the poor thing got to stand right next to a bagpiper while she waited for me. I grabbed my extra Gu from her and a lovely, lovely bottle of weak lemonade and was off! I cannot say enough about how awesome it was to have my wonderful friends following me around London and being there right when I needed a friendly face or a word of encouragement. They spent a lot of time dashing around the city and were just so incredibly supportive. They even happily hauled around an emergency kit of things - pretzels, salt tablets, and extra gels (I didn’t have a chance to practice with Lucozade, which was the brand on the course, so I had to use the Gu that I brought from the States). 

I used to live in Southeast London, so much of mile 9-13 was really familiar to me - I used to buy groceries at the big Tesco at Surrey Quays and the bus home went right along the marathon route. Ana had pointed out some of the landmarks to me the week before, too. Some of my colleagues had lived at mile 12.5 while I was on law school study abroad and, of course, I did a TON of running right around Tower Bridge when I lived in London. So, unlike some people who apparently didn’t expect to see Tower Bridge when they turned THAT corner, I totally did.

But, OMG. What an incredible, incredible moment. Without a doubt, it was the best moment of the race. I could pick out the spot on the Bridge where I watched the race in 2006 and 2007, when I’d spend a couple of days afterwards thinking “I could do that! I should do that!” That’s where my dream began and here I ACTUALLY was - running the London Marathon! Last year, I ran to the Bridge on my “I must run the Thames Path every time I come to London” mission and took a few photos, thinking to myself “the next time I do this, it might be for the Marathon.” DREAM COME TRUE, y’all! DREAM COME TRUE! The crowds were fantastic and I put on my biggest, cheesiest grin for the cameras. The only sad moment was when I saw another runner take a bad fall just after the Bridge (I saw more runners than I would have liked to either fall or just after a fall, being attended by the First Aid responders.)

I had originally thought that “the Highway,” the mile-long stretch that goes from Tower Bridge to Canary Wharf, would be kind of dead. I was completely wrong. People were lined up 5 or 6 deep on BOTH sides of the two-lane road, screaming their heads off. I saw my favorite MP’s brother at this point, cheering for his charity and passed along the message that our mutual friend was rubbish for not coming out as he said he might (sorry, Pete, my brain might not have been working very well). You could also see some of the fast club runners and good for agers on the other side of the street, already at 21-22 miles. This was halfway and I got my iPod going just after crossing that mat. Caz & Lynne were waiting for me somewhere around mile 15. I believe I told them that it was HARD (which pretty much is word that I’m still using when someone asks how the race was)!

I felt good at halfway and I thought I’d been nice and conservative in my pacing. I thought I might be able to make my time goals, but I wasn’t really prepared for what came next. Somewhere around mile 15 or 16, I think I hit the wall, which I just wasn’t prepared for at that early point in the race. I’d had a really bad 19 mile long run and two great 20 milers, so I hoped that boded well for race day. Sadly...not so much. My calves kept threatening to cramp, so I stopped a lot to stretch them - which proved to be a welcome excuse to just hang my head over my knees and get a bit of an energy boost.

The crowds through the heart of Canary Wharf were also incredible. Apparently my friend Alison was there and saw me, but I missed her because I was just so out of it. For some reason, my main memory of Canary Wharf was that one of the streets smelled really, really bad - like car fumes, if I remember correctly (which I probably don’t). Around here, I kept passing and getting passed by someone dressed as Tinky Winky the Teletubby (for the record, I did beat him in the end). I had a detailed conversation in my head about whether or not his headpiece was correct (it was). I also almost caught up to the 4:48 pace group, but then they kept chugging away as I got slower and slower.

Caz & Lynne and I had our last rendezvous point just before mile 20, on the Poplar High Street. (For future marathon reference, this was a great place to meet friends - there’s a DLR station and there just aren’t very many other spectators, so it’s easy to find people, plus C&L were smart enough to borrow camping stools and could chill out waiting for me. They reported that a lot of people were making good friends with the fence behind them, stretching out their legs.) It was great to see them, even if I was exhausted. Lynne told me that I was on for a 5-hour finish and they took some exhausted Joyce photos while I stretched out my calves. It was definitely a boost seeing them. Poplar was also nice, because it was a return to the street party atmosphere that we’d had in the early miles, with everyone out on their stoops enjoying the runners and the beautiful day. My favorite spectators of the day were in Poplar - two people, clearly hungover, lounging on a couch that they’d dragged to the curbside, smoking cigarettes and surrounded by empty beer cans. WINNING!

After Mile 20, the whole thing just seemed to stretch on and on and on. I kept thinking we were almost to the Blackfriars Tunnel, but it just never came! I did resolve that I was going to keep running and chugging as much as I possibly, possibly could in that last 10K and, for the most part, I did (except the tunnel, which I’d given myself permission to walk). The crowds were great, but all I could think about is “am I done yet? where’s Parliament? am I done?” There was a lovely sign at 24 miles which said something like “In two miles, you’re part of history,” though. In the last miles, I realized that I was neck and neck with someone dressed as Percy Pig (my favorite M&S candy and minor obsession), which I thought was both appropriate and vaguely humiliating. She (it turned out that Percy was a woman after she took off her head at the finish line) was my rabbit for that last mile or so.

I was so, so relieved to get to Birdcage Walk and to make the turn into the Mall. The 385 yards to go sign was particularly awesome. I felt like I was going as fast as I could and it wasn’t very fast and I wanted to enjoy the whole thing, but I also really wanted to stop running! It was awesome to cross that finish line, but I didn’t start crying the way that I did at Birch Bay. I didn’t feel very different, really. I talked about it later with Juliana and realized that it isn’t the actual running of the marathon that makes you a marathoner and makes you stronger, it’s the five months of training where you push yourself to get out of bed, even though you’re exhausted and it’s raining and all of those hundreds of miles that you run on your own. I think that’s the part of the marathon that’s transformative. Because I did that! Going 26.2 miles is a big deal, of course, but the bigger deal is that I made it to that start line trained as well as I think I could have. Birch Bay was almost a bigger deal, because it was the moment that I knew I’d done what I could and that I was going to be ready for whatever London threw at me. I wish I’d had a better day “on the day,” as it were, but I am so proud of all of those months of running that got me to the finish line, in the end.

At the finish line, I got my chip taken off and they crowned me with my medal. It was such a surprise - I figured the design would be the same as the past two years, but with a different year. Instead, it was completely different and beautiful! I absolutely love it. I walked through to get my bag of clothes (immediately putting them on, since it was clear that I’d finished right before the the rain started, and it was getting cold) and finisher’s bag. I called Duchie and told her I was not in a hurry to do another marathon any time soon - I believe I might have said that it would be a few years.... Oops. I do, however, LOVE the photo of me talking on the phone to her (chocolate milk in hand). :-)

Caz & Lynne found me at the top of the steps after I left the secure finish area and gave me BIG HUGS and a Cadbury gold medal. We shuffled off to the Cancer Research reception and I ended up with a nice massage. While I was waiting, I couldn’t believe that I was the only person doing any stretching! It was also very weird to have two different people each working on a calf a the same time - in different ways. I had also asked them to do my lower back, which is how I discovered some fun chaffing. But, the best part about the massage was just that I got to LAY DOWN. Boy, did I need that. We found Ana, too, and I am SO GRATEFUL to my entire team! You were wonderful! Please let me know if I can ever be your cheerleader!

So, yeah. That was the marathon. It was so hard, but it was amazing. I am so glad that I ran London, because it was the most incredible experience. I don’t really know what I could have done differently, other than hydrate even more the day before and even sooner in the race itself. I don’t think I went out too quickly - since I was right around my uber-conservative 11-minute pace. But, the main result of my performance is that I’m GOING to have to do another one, just because I KNOW I can do better. I know I said I was only going to do one marathon - ever - but, now I know that I’m not done with the distance. Stay tuned.... :-)


DGri said... Reply to comment

Yep. Just as I expected. Beautifully written! What an amazing experience! And, don't worry, you made me cry. I know those feelings all too well! This is so wonderful. I'm so glad to have been a distant, viral part of the experience thanks to your writing!

I'd love to train for a marathon with you sometime. Perhaps one in Seattle? I'd love an excuse to visit my family!

Let me know (because I AM serious)!!! Keep up the amazingness!!

Patty White said... Reply to comment

Fantastic finish and nice recap of race! Congratulations Joyce! On to the next!