So, I finally I was to arrive at one of those events that defines your life into two halves – before and after running a marathon. I had those pre-exam nerves and couldn’t relax. As I arranged everything I would need for the next day a nagging feeling that I was missing something struck me, and as I searched again through the instructions I finally found a sentence that confirmed my fears; I didn’t have the clear plastic kit bag that you had to use to get your things transported from the start to the finish. Perhaps it fell out of my bag at the Expo, perhaps they never gave it to me at registration. I’ll never know. I did see two people with the kit bags as I left the Expo and wondered where they had got them. The helpline couldn’t say for sure they would have spares, so I packed light in case I needed to take up kind offers from other Eagles with spare space in their kit bags, and took my spare clothes in a similar bag from another half, just in case that was acceptable.
Given all this I was even more grateful to only have to make to Ealing Green for 6:45am to catch the Eagles coach to the start. It was cold, but fortunately not windy on the exposed Blackheath starting area, and after a photo we split into our separate start areas; I was in Blue. It was on a scale I hadn’t seen before; rows of baggage trucks along one side, port-a-loos along another and the starting pen along the third, with urinal areas and large changing tents in the middle, and an EHM team handing out bottled water. I went straight to the info tent where to my delight they had a box of spare kit bags. It had felt like unboxing a new toy only to find it dented, and suddenly I felt like a genuine full participant like everyone else. However, as I packed light, I was feeling the cold and on the edge of shivering in a long sleeve T-shirt and bin bag, and was hoping that I wouldn’t use up too much energy keeping warm in the long wait until the start. After a second nervous visit to the urinals, we dropped off our kit bags with 30 minutes to go. The queues were just beginning to stretch out across the start area as we entered the start pen. The warmth of the surrounding runners made it a bit warmer as the minutes ticked down and we finally shuffled forwards. I’d put in an very optimistic finish time when I applied so was fortunately in pen 2 with some other fast Eagles runners, and when the hooter finally went it took less than 40 seconds to cross the start line.
The main aim of the first few miles was to settle into an efficient rhythm at the right pace, which seems bizarrely slow given the excitement. After about a mile, just when it looks to be thinning out a bit, the Green start suddenly merges in. Shortly after I saw someone in my peripheral vision lose balance, perhaps clipped by someone else. It looked like he would be righted by the runner between us, but he somehow missed him, and in what seemed like slow motion he tumbled to the ground. Fortunately, perhaps because he had plenty of time to think as slowly fell, he didn’t land hard, but did a sort of stuntman roll towards me so I ended up hurdling his head, his hand clipping my foot on the way over. I could hear the sounds of runners trying to avoid a pile up behind me, and made a split second decision that I wasn’t in the best position to help, and I would more likely add to the carnage if I stopped.
After 2.5 miles the course drops down off the heath down into Woolwich, where the huge mass of the red start flowed in like a giant tributary. It must have had a later or slower start as I saw the red 3 hr pacer go past, and I’m sure I glimpsed Jose up ahead, which worried me. I was checking my kilometre splits and freewheeling down the hill had got me ahead of schedule of my target time and I consciously tried to scale it back as we headed to Greenwich. The crowds that lined the route were getting deeper and noisier, and charity cheer squads would erupt into deafening cheers if one of their runners were spotted. I ran along the side of the stream to take in the atmosphere. I had ironed my name onto my Eagles vest a couple of years ago for the EHM, and I was getting plenty of plenty of personal encouragement. I vividly remember catching the eye of a man about my age, who with the SE London accent I remember from my childhood told me ‘Come, you can do this Harry’ like a friend I had known all my life. It was around this time I spotted the first of the mobile Eagles cheer squads, standing on something to rise above the throng.
I was checking my km splits on my watch, and checking the clock times on the mile markers against my Xempo pace pocket. The water stations were every mile or so, and even if you missed them, you could find a runner who had finished with a bottle. Each time I soaked my head and took a swig rather than a gulp. I carried four gels to take every 45 minutes, alternating caffeine ones, though the first one I took resulted in mild stomach cramps which had me worried for a while.
After the landmark of the Cutty Sark there were a lot of miles to tick off to Tower Bridge and the psychologically important milestone of half way, when the miles left are less than the miles run. I was beginning to spot the same runners again, and would exchange the odd words with runners from local clubs I recognised. The pace wasn’t feeling as easy as at the start, and I knew the halfway in terms of effort was still some miles away. As I passed the London Pride stand they were blazing out Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Bonkers’, and I was emotional transported to watching the GB hockey team score in the 2012 Olympics down the road. I loved the music at various places around the course, whether live bands or blaring out of loud speakers.
It was shortly after halfway that the elite men came flying down the other side of the road on the way to the finish – a reminder that we were in the same race, though I was some way behind. I’d purposefully not run the route in training as I wanted to experience it all fresh. This did mean I was a bit disorientated in the Docklands, not quite sure where I was headed and the effort was steadily building. When I finally ran past the towers at Canary wharf I didn’t have the energy to look up, and was thankful of the roving Eagles cheering me on. By 20 miles I was beginning to feel drained and focused on ticking off the 3 miles to the cheer squad. The stream of runners had thinned out a bit, and more of them were struggling. I had steadily banked another couple of minutes ahead of my target, but I still feared hitting a wall in the last few miles and fought to keep the pace up.
I was worried about not getting up on the pavement early enough for mile 23 and ran on the right hand side to make sure I didn’t miss it. When it arrived it seemed very narrow with a marshal on it who wasn’t looking in my direction. It may have been the emotional lift of seeing my wife and kids but it suddenly felt like running down a steep hill. I hadn’t planned what I should do, and I just let out a roar as I ran past a blur of familiar faces, high fiving as I went, and it seemed over in a second.
Then came the dreaded underpass out of the reach of the crowds. I was really having to work hard now but I was determined not to drop the pace. The Embankment seemed to go on forever. I was catching three men in an inflatable boat. I’d run with Darth Vader for bit, been overtaken by a monk and passed someone dressed as a peanut, but up until now I hadn’t seen too much fancy dress, and I was determined not to beaten by the boat. Turning round past the Houses of Parliament, the photos show I’ve got full race face on with half empty half haunted expression. I remember seeing people stopped with less than a kilometre to go trying to stretch out cramp and hoping that my legs would hold for a few more metres. When I turned into the Mall and could see the finish I knew I could make it, though no sprint finish; my body was in too delicate a state to try anything that rash. I managed an Eagle pose for the cameras and then a wave of relief as I made the finish line over 3 minutes inside my target time and gratefully received a medal. But as I picked up the goody bag and walked down to the baggage trucks chatting to a Fulham runner the pain in my legs seemed to get worse as they stiffened up. The sun, which had come out in patches during the last few miles suddenly seemed intense and hot and I was glad not to still be out on the course. I went to meet Plan International who I raised some money for, as it seemed rude not to say hello, and they were very charming and grateful, and gave me another little bag of goodies.
I walked over to the pub in Waterloo and was struck by the number of people who stopped to congratulate me. One family even asked if they could take a picture of me with their little girl. Getting on the bus in the morning with all the other Eagles, and then starting the race in a crowd of tens of thousands, it was easy to forget what an achievement running a marathon is, and this was an unexpected but welcome reminder. They didn’t ask what time I got – just the finishers medal was enough. Everyone has had their own journey to the finish line, and I have been more fortunate than most. A group enjoying some beers on the Southbank in the sunshine called over to say that the café was giving out free brownies to marathon runners, which turned out to be true.
The Eagles were gradually arriving at the pub and following a welcome shower in the gym round the corner I finally met up with the family for a welcome beer. The rest of the Eagles, runners and supporters filled up the corner of the pub, the beer eased the pain, and we relived the day’s achievements. It was people chatting about marathons they had run which had finally hooked me into trying to enter the London marathon – I wanted to feel part of that world, to share the experience. It was also a challenge to motivate me to improve as a runner. Apart from the slight hiccup with the kit bag I had been incredibly lucky, from winning the last ballot place to staying injury free and fit during the training, to having perfect running conditions in what is arguably the best marathon in the world, with the best cheer squad of any running club. People asked at today’s victory brunch when I will be running my next marathon. But I can’t see how I could possibly top this experience.
I don’t feel qualified to give any training advice, my training had fit around family life and was influenced by what I felt comfortable with from my experience as a rugby player in my youth. Be wary of people who are more excited about success, than doing the thing that they want to be successful at. I enjoyed the whole journey; training runs along new routes or with fellow Eagles, club champs races. Run your own race and enjoy your running.