Running the London Marathon has been a dream of mine since I was a kid. I say “a dream”, but for most of my life it was a pretty unrealistic one, since I didn’t run and had no intention of starting.
But I’d always enjoyed watching it on TV and had been hugely impressed by tales of ordinary people who’d done it. It was only after I started running six years ago, gradually increasing the distance and running a few half-marathons, that I began to think I might have it in me to run 26.2 miles.
I ran my first marathon in Liverpool last year and loved it. My training went well and so did everything on the day, and I ran it in 3:47, a time I was more than satisfied with. I considered entering another marathon this year, although I hadn’t committed to one.
In mid-January I was offered a coveted London Marathon place.
It’s the big one, isn’t it, the London Marathon? The one everybody’s seen on telly. The one that, as soon as they find out you’re a runner, people ask you if you’re going to do. The one that’s hugely over-subscribed every year. It was 13 weeks away, which wouldn’t leave me long to train, but I couldn’t really say no, could I?
Already at a fairly decent level of fitness, I tweaked the training programme I’d used for Liverpool, leaving in the interval and tempo run elements and adding a mile or so to the long runs each week in order to build up to the distance needed. It wouldn’t leave me time to get in the five 20-milers I did ahead of Liverpool, but I’d get in two, or possibly three.
And that was the dilemma. Approach the race with only two 20-milers done, but have a three-week taper; or get that third long run in, but just two weeks before the marathon? I went for the latter, which, in the light of what subsequently happened, was probably the wrong decision.
The last long training run itself was fine, but during my tempo session the following week, nine days before the race, disaster struck. Three-and-a-half miles in, on my third lap of Eaton Park, I felt my calf tighten. I stopped right away, and walked home. Later that day, I was limping quite badly.
Over the forthcoming days, I went for a sports massage and applied ice and heat to my calf at various points, and also did the exercises the therapist gave me. The calf was definitely a lot less painful, although I could still feel some stiffness. I was worried about how it would hold up during the race. The weather forecast was also concerning me.
On the morning of the race, I took the Tube to Cannon Street, and from there a train, packed with fellow marathon runners, to Maze Hill in Greenwich, walking from there up a fairly steep hill to the Green start on Blackheath. Even by then, it was hot and sunny – the kind of weather you’d welcome under any other circumstances, but not when you’ve got a marathon to run. But the atmosphere was the amazing and with the excitement building, I did my best to put my worries to the back of my mind.
Round my wrist was a band, picked up at the race expo the previous day, listing split times for a four-hour finish. Even then, despite my previous sub-four finish, I thought this was probably a bit over-optimistic, given the heat and my injury, but I didn’t realise just how wide of the mark it would be.
I was determined not to set off too fast and to keep the pace to somewhere around nine-minute miles for the first few miles. I was just about managing it, too, as we ran through some fairly leafy areas of south-east London. I could still feel some tightness in my calf, but it was nice to be running again after a nine-day lay off – and in the London Marathon, too.
But the euphoria was short-lived. Somewhere around the 3.5-mile mark – again – I felt the calf tighten up even more and it started to give me quite a bit of pain. I was pretty gutted as I’d felt good up to that point.
Barely half-an-hour in, could my race really be over?
I really wanted to stop there and then, and in normal circumstances I would have done, but the knowledge that so many people had sent messages of support, had sponsored me for Teenage Cancer Trust and would be willing me on kept me going. Well, that and the fear of missing out on all the big crowds and the famous landmarks, and of returning without the medal I’d trained so hard for. And the prospect of dejectedly making the journey back to central London on public transport in full running kit may have played a part, too.
Coupled with the injury, I was really struggling in the 24C heat. I haven’t run in those temperatures before. Well, actually I have, but then I turned round after five minutes and went home. That wasn’t an option this time. Out on the road, I was looking for some shade to run in, but there was virtually none, and no escape from the sun. The only brief respite came later in some of the tunnels and underpasses.
I was taking a bottle of water at every drinks station along the way, and, apart from the stuff I poured down the back of my neck, was drinking it all. In the course of the race, I think I also drank four bottles of Lucozade Sport and gulped down a couple of the gels that were handed out, as well as the four I’d brought with me.
Although I was continuing to run, my pace had slowed right down. I really didn’t think I’d be able to complete the race, but somehow carrying on seemed a better option than stopping, even though my body was telling me to do just that. So I started to set myself targets based on where I felt I could drop out with dignity intact, but constantly revised these. So “Just get to the Cutty Sark” became “Just get over Tower Bridge” and then “Just get past halfway”. At some point I must have realised I could make it to The Mall but I can’t remember when that was.
Somewhere around the halfway mark I heard someone call my full name and I turned to see my former colleague Keith Whitmore looking down his camera at me. My smile and thumbs-up pose don’t give an accurate impression of how much I was suffering at that time, but it was great to see a familiar face.
My pace was still slow, and a lot of runners were overtaking me, but I was passing people who had already stopped running and started walking. I was pretty sure I’d be joining them, but I was determined to put that moment off for as long as I possibly could.
The next milestone was Canary Wharf at 18.5 miles where my wife and sons would be waiting. I knew they would have been tracking my progress on the Virgin Money London Marathon app, and I guessed they’d have worked out something was wrong. At one point I considered stopping when I saw them and saying “Let’s go home” but by the time I got there I’d resolved to keep going.
Seeing them gave me a real boost, and I managed a smile and wave as I ran past, and , but cramp was starting to make an appearance. A couple of miles further on, it forced me to stop altogether and stretch for a minute or two, before walking for a bit and then starting to jog – I couldn’t really call it running at this point. The same thing happened a couple more times.
You’ve got this!
All the way round, the crowd was fantastic. Without them, I don’t think I’d have carried on. Every few seconds I’d hear a total stranger shouting “Come on Jon!” Sometimes they would add “You’ve got this!”, and I’d think “I’m really not sure I have.” It might sound a bit trite, but there’s no doubt it did spur me on, as did the Teenage Cancer Trust teams cheering whenever they saw me approaching in their colours.
I was still having a hard time of it by the time I reached the Embankment. Somewhere around here I spotted a “two miles to go” banner and I remember thinking: “Come on, that’s only a couple of times round Eaton Park.” As I neared the end of the Embankment, I was walking, but told myself I needed to be running by the time we turned right at the Houses of Parliament, and that then I mustn’t stop until the finish line.
My legs received the message and reluctantly complied, and as I turned the corner into Great George Street, continuing into Birdcage Walk, support from the roadside seemed to intensify. I knew by then I’d finish, and that I just had a few more minutes of running left, painful though they might be, and that it would soon all be over.
I felt a real sense of relief and satisfaction as I crossed the finish line. I’d got round in 5:18, an hour-and a half slower than my PB, but in the circumstances I couldn’t have been more delighted or proud. It had been hard and painful for all but the first few miles, and I’d found a level of determination that I didn’t know I had.
People have asked me if I enjoyed the marathon, and I don’t honestly think I can say yes. It was tough, very tough. The toughest thing I’ve done. But it was an absolutely amazing, intense experience, and one that I can’t see myself ever forgetting.
The calf is still very swollen and sore, and I’m certainly not going to be running anywhere for a little while, at least.
People have also asked “Would you do it again?” and the fact that I haven’t immediately said “No!” makes me wonder if, actually, the answer is “Yes”.