Friday, April 18, 2008

The London Marathon

It's 6:20am. I wake up without an alarm. Even though my body clock is likely still set to 1:20am, this feels normal. I take my time getting ready for the marathon. I affix two analgesic patches to the outside and top of my knee, covering them in an Ace knee sleeve. I have no idea what to expect from today's race. How far will I run before knee pain kicks in? Will I be okay with not getting a medal or shirt?

The one item I don't have with me is my iPod. This will be my first marathon without music. I want to savor the experience in full. I want to hear the crowds cheering, and I want to be able to talk to people. I also want to prove to myself that I can run a marathon without music, and that I don't use it as a crutch. Rather, it simply makes the experience more enjoyable for me. Except for when it's the London marathon. If I ever run Chicago or NYC, I won't listen to music. Ironically, the London marathon is very accepting of headphones, and they have no rules in place that don't allow them.

The sun is shining and it actually feels hot out. I walk down to the hotel lobby and board the bus that is taking us to the start line. The bus is full of Americans who used Marathon Tours to book the trip and receive a guaranteed entry. The ride takes an hour. I don't talk much to the other runners. Most of them have someone else with them, but I am alone. I stay calm, and just try to remember that this race is for fun. Having fun is most important.

I arrive at the start area. The race is so large that there are actually three different starting areas that meet up at mile three on the course. I try to catch a glimpse of Rosa with the elite women, but we aren't allowed to get that close to the start line. I check my bag and think to myself "now I really have to get to the end somehow-- I need my bag back."

I talk to a few random people. Whenever I say I am from the U.S., the first question they ask me is if I have run the New York City marathon. They all assume that American marathon runners have run that one. I make my way to the starting corrals, or "pens" as they call them in the U.K. I am in pen 5, based upon the projected finish time I provided in October. We wait in the pen for about 20 minutes. I talk to a woman from Scotland who is hoping to beat her 3:48 PR from the Edinburgh Marathon. I tell her that my goal is simply to finish.

The London Marathon Course

Miles 1-4

The gun goes off and it takes about three minutues for me to cross the start line. After crossing, I continue on at a snail's pace, as this race is very crowded. The first mile is painfully slow. There are times when the running stops, and I actually have to stand still. I can't even walk. These bottlenecks continue on and off, all the way up to mile 8 of the race. I am happy that I am not trying to "race" this one. This part of the course is boring. There is no crowd support, and it's basically residential areas. I remember from the course map that it's a point-to-point race. So we start in the suburbs, and we don't enter central London until nearly halfway.
Mile 1: 10:27
Mile 2: 9:19
Mile 3: 8:59
Mile 4: 9:02

Miles 5-9
The crowd support starts to show up at about mile 5, although the course is still boring at this point. Knee pain has not yet kicked in and everything is feeling good. I tell myself that I hope I can hold out until the course gets scenic. That's why I travelled all this way-- to see scenic London while running a marathon! Also, I don't think there are many tube stations at this point, so I hope to get to an area where there are more stations.

This marathon has many, many costumed runners and stunt runners. For example, one runner is trying to set the world record for longest scarf knitted while running a marathon. I see a man running the marathon in nothing except for a thong and running shoes. On his back is written: "Does my bum look good in this?" I see a group of six runners chained together. I see someone running as a banana, someone as a butterfly, and someone as Minnie Mouse. I see Brett Favre running with a football.
Instead of cups of water, they give mini water bottles at each station. This is nice because you can carry the bottle with you and you can drink it quickly without the water going all over your face. However, I know that drinking the entire mini bottle would cause cramping, so I drink no more than half the bottle at each station. I'm actually really hot during these miles, and glad I am in a tank top as opposed to long sleeves.

Mile 5: 9:10
Mile 6: 9:51
Mile 7: 9:36
Mile 8: 8:52 (fastest mile of the race- my PR pace!)
Mile 9: 9:20

Miles 10-13
I can't believe I have made it this far without my knee hurting. Everything feels good, actually. The pace is easy and I am enjoying the run. I can't go any faster than I am going because it's still too crowded. I don't want to waste energy weaving through people, so I just stick with the pace that the crowd is going. I do feel a bit sluggish, and I attribute that to jet lag. Also, it had been about two weeks since I ran anything that was 5 miles or more.

It suddenly starts pouring down rain. Out of nowhere! It had been in the forecast, but I wasn't sure when it would start. I am drenched. It pours really, really hard, and I the water tastes salty as it washes away the sweat from my face. A little rain is fun, but this amount of rain is tough. I feel badly for the spectators who are getting soaked and aren't in dry-wicking clothing like the runners.

Running across the Tower Bridge just before the halfway point is an amazing experience. The bridge is quite grand and there are tons of people cheering wildly. I feel like a rock star. Just before crossing, I hear someone call out "Elizabeth!" I look, and I see that Zoe is cheering for me! How wonderful to see a friendly face. Even though I don't live in the UK, I still have my support person cheering for me. Zoe had run the marathon last year, but did not get into the lottery this year.

Mile 10: 9:00
Mile 11: 9:18
Mile 12: 9:08
Mile 13: 9:19

Miles 14-17I cross the halfway point at 2:02 and I think of my mother tracking me online. She must be relieved to know that I at least got halfway. The rain stops and the sun comes out again. I am thoroughly drenched. Surprisingly, my knee still feels ok! I am having some minor aches in my quads, but nothing out of the ordinary. Now that I am in central London, I know that there are tube stations all around and I can drop out at any time if need be. But I then tell myself that if I made it halfway, I should be able to make it to the finish.

During this part of the course, I the elite women running at miles 21-22. I look for Rosa. I later learn that if I had been just a few minutes faster, I would have seen her. But Rosa had passed the mile 22 marker before I reached that area. As I run, I am fixated on the elite women, and some of the elite men. They are going extremely fast, and it's very motivating. Their side of the course is empty, while my side is still too full to choose my own pace. At this point, the pace is still being dictated by the crowd.
Mile 14: 9:16
Mile 15: 9:33
Mile 16: 10:00
Mile 17: 9:39

Miles 18-22
These miles are the hardest for me. I hit a bit of a wall at mile 19, and I just don't feel like running anymore. I slow down and I feel a lack of energy. My carb-load hadn't been very significant because I honestly didn't think I would be finishing the race. My lack of training for the past 4 weeks is beginning to show itself.

At this point, I know I am going to finish, but I picture myself walking the last six miles. I think of how much walking I can do to still get my time under 5:00. I tell myself that walking is acceptable, because I don't want to push myself too hard and risk further injury. But I don't actually walk until I hit mile marker 20. I walk for about a minute, maybe even less. It's almost impossible to walk because everyone is cheering "you can do it!" and I feel like a wuss if I walk. I decide to do the "survival shuffle" which is a very slow run. I think that a 4:13:08 is still possible, but I am perfectly happy to accept anything under five hours.
We run through a tunnel for about 1/4 a mile. I have never run a race through a tunnel before, and it was interesting.

Mile 18: 9:19
Mile 19: 9:47
Mile 20: 9:50
Mile 21: 10:27
Mile 22: 10:49 (slowest mile of the race)

Miles 23-Finish
I become energized once again as I approach the 35K mat. They are tracking 5K splits, and I know that my 30K-35K split was by far the slowest. The sports beans I took just before mile 22 are beginning to kick in, and I tell myself if I run a 10:00 pace for the last three miles, I make my goal of 4:13:08. But I can't walk, and I can't go slower than a 10:00 pace. It's just three more miles, and that should be very easy. Easy. Easy. Easy. I repeat it over and over again.

I see Zoe at mile 23 and she again calls out my name. I get excited to see her. At this point, the crowd support has gotten even more massive and the course has finally thinned out. About half a million people have come out to watch this race, according to a radio report I had heard on the bus that morning. I look to my left and I see the London Eye.

I seem to be on track for a perfect 4:13:08. I pass the mile 25 marker and it begins to pour down rain again. Couldn't it have waited a few minutes until after I finished!? The rain only motivates me to go faster as I pass Buckingham Palace. There is no mile marker for 26, but there are signs that say "800 meters to go" and then "400 meters to go", and I can't think in terms of meters at this point.

I turn a corner and the finish line pops up right in front of me. Much sooner than expected! Usually I can't wait to approach the finish line, but this time, I am a bit disappointed that I had reached it faster than predicted. I am on track for a 4:10, and I figure I can just wait to cross. I start to walk slowly, but then a woman passes me and says "come on, you're almost there!" But I am intentionally walking to get my perfect 4:13! Then I see the race photographers, and I don't want a photo of me walking, so I start to jog. My watch time is approaching 4:12, so I have to decide if I want my 4:11, or if I am really going to wait for 4:13. This all happens in slow motion.

The rain is coming down in buckets and I want to be done with the race, so I make a strong finish, crossing in 4:11:57.

Mile 23: 9:35
Mile 24: 9:41
Mile 25: 10:20
Mile 26 + 0.2:

After The RaceI am supposed to meet Zoe and Rosa in the Overseas Runner area, but the rain is coming down so heavily, that all I want to do is collect my medal, finisher's bag and go back to my hotel. I don't see them anywhere, so I head for the tube.

Usually, when I finish a marathon, I am extremely sore and still immediately afterwards. It was not the case with this marathon. It felt more like a training run than anything. When I train to qualify for Boston, my long runs will be done at a pace of about 9:30-9:35, so this was like a long run.

I simply cannot believe how well my knee held up. And that I managed to pull off a 4:11:57 with such little training. It was really a miracle. I had my finisher's medal, my finisher's shirt, and I can now say that I completed a marathon without listening to music. What a fantastic and memorable experience!

Results & Statistics
  • 14,559 of 34,212 total finishers
  • 2,689 of 10,638 female finishers
  • Average finishing time: 4:26:09
  • My finishing time: 4:11:57
  • Rosa's finishing time: 3:10:44
  • 7 marathons completed-- 3 have been faster, 3 have been slower


  1. Hi,

    I went wandering around the net looking for a course map, and came across your little London Marathon story. I am running it for the first time in 2010...I have only been running for 4 months, and have already got a messed up knee...but it will be fine.

    Anyway, it was a great read and very well written. It also made me look forward to running it even more next year.


  2. Gosh that sounds like an INCREDIBLE experience! Wow, I'd love to do the majors some day!