I step through the archway into the Championship starting area. Whereas the mass start is abuzz with excitement, here the runners are reserved, concealing their enthusiasm for the sport that consumes their lives. Most are just sitting in the large tent, conserving their energy like predators about to go out on a hunt. They don’t want to burn through valuable fuel resources walking about in the sun; they know what’s ahead of them and that they’ll need every ounce of energy they can muster when it comes to the crunch.
We shuffle towards the start line. I’m aware that it’s one of the few occasions that I’m in the majority by being clinically underweight. I’ve been scanning the weather forecast constantly for the past three days, hoping for a cool grey morning, but as I glance up I see that there’s not a cloud in the sky. I’m already starting to feel the heat and we haven’t even got going yet. ‘Go slow’, I tell myself’, ‘be sensible. This isn’t the day to go storming off or I might end up on the roadside like last year.’
The crowd cheers as Mo Farah is introduced just a few metres in front of us. I watch the big screen as the Queen pushes a big red button from Windsor Castle and I’m suddenly engulfed in the horde of runners. I cross the start line and begin my assault on the 2018 London Marathon.
Although the spring sun may be burdening us, it has certainly brought out the crowds onto the streets of London. As I pass through the iconic landmarks on the route – the Cutty Sark and then Tower Bridge – I’m greeted my a fanatical fanfare of British exuberance. I’m assured that this must be the greatest race on Earth, and realise that although it may seem like it, I am not running this alone. The first half flies by. It feels so easy and I have the unrelenting urge to kick on, but I heed my own advice to remain sensible. I assure myself that the pain will come, but for now I’ll just enjoy the race while I’m blissfully pain-free.
I didn’t drink at all during my last marathon but today at each water station I take a swig and then drench my hair with the rest of the bottle like everybody else around me seems to be doing. As I creep past mile 19 I start to feel fatigued for the first time. I’m still cruising through the field but am now having to work for it. Each time I see a stretch of shaded road I get a little burst of energy, only for the sun to swiftly return in all its sweltering glory.
I pass the gel station approaching mile 22. It looks harrowingly familiar. I have flashbacks to last year when I collapsed on the floor at this mark in a heap of exhaustion. I’m encouraged by how much stronger I am this year but also reminded of how far I still have to go.
With just under three miles to go I will myself to push on and finish strongly but the heat cruelly saps my energy. I begin to grimace for the first time and distance myself from my surroundings. I yell out loud, telling myself to focus. This is what I’ve trained for, this is the time I have to dig in.
A runner comes up to my shoulder; he senses that I’m slowing down, that I’m weakening. He’s that predator about to pounce on his prey. But no, we’re not fighting against each other; we’re fighting together, the same battle against the same 26.2 mile enemy. As we make eye contact we fist-bump and the two of us press forward along the Embankment.
As I pass mile 25 though I just want this to be all over. What seemed so easy half an hour ago has transformed into an insurmountable ordeal of anguish. I question my motivation for putting myself through this but try to banish the doubts from my mind. I approach the 800m-to-go mark, feeling that inextinguishable fire in my legs which dragged me down last year. I turn onto The Mall, glance at my watch and realise that I’m somehow about to miss out on the personal best which I so confidently thought I was going to break.
I grit my teeth for the last time as I suddenly sprint for the finish line, desperately reaching for that elusive energy reserve that might miraculously get me to the finish faster than I have ever managed before. The next thing I know I’m lying on the ground, but this year on the right side of the finish line. I try to stand up but fall back down as my legs have turned to jelly. I’m dismayed by my lack of effort in the last couple of miles, but in truth I probably couldn’t have run any harder, and I could take a measure of solace from that knowledge.
A few minutes later I drag my broken body further down The Mall and collect my bag. I’ve received a text from the London Marathon: my official time is 2:41:43. It’s almost poetic: a one second personal best. It’s a joyous moment yet I laugh at the futility of running hundreds of miles a week for months just to improve by a single second. However, in many ways, whether I had run a second slower or a second faster was not at all important to me. Eluid Kipchoge, who went on to win the race, spoke about how he wasn’t focussed on the world record many thought he could break: all he wanted to do was “run a beautiful race”.
For me, this was the completion of a journey which started two and a half years ago when I joined the UCL running club and the wider LUCA community. I’m not sure what exactly has propelled me to become a marathon runner, but it certainly started here in London. Hopefully, it won’t be the fastest I ever run, but this will forever be my most memorable marathon. My beautiful race.