Well, here we are. The deed is done, the marathon is run…
As many of you will know from my Facebook updates, I travelled down to London on Saturday afternoon. I had previously booked a hotel in Bexley, in a package that included a special breakfast and a coach to the starting line. The room itself was impressive – both in that it was nicely decorated and in that it could have easily slept four (even though I’d only booked for myself). The breakfast itself was not as special as I’d perhaps envisaged – basically being a buffet of toast, porridge, cereal or cooked English breakfast. I had the latter with extra hash browns – partly for “carb loading”, but mainly because I’m addicted to potato products.
After a quick pack, during which time I had to check three times to ensure that I had remembered my running number, I headed for the buses. We left the hotel at a little past 7am and were on Greenwich Park for around 7.30am. I quite quickly became apparent what a vast event this was and how beautifully it had been organised. The bus pulled off the road onto a specially laid temporary road. We all offloaded and began the mile-long walk to the Red Area (there are three start areas, which are allocated on ability – Red being the colour of the Masses).
Having arrived at the Red Area, we said a goodbye to our supporters (well, the others did – I forgot to bring any… knew I’d forget something) and headed inside. Basically this was a massive area that had been fenced off and contained a couple of toilet blocks, a tent handing out free water, a tent handing out free coffee (which took me nearly an hour to find!) and a big TV with commentators and apparently Jonathon Edwards.
The downside at this stage is that it was barely 8am and nothing else happened until 9.45am. We drank water, looked bored and eventually put our bags on the lorries (to be delivered to the other end). Apart from that, there were brief moments of interest (mainly hearing the elite runners start) but that was about it.
Until our turn…
The mass race (starting at the Red Start) was further split into nine categories by expectation/ability – one being those who would finish before they started and nine being those who had never run a marathon before or were doing so in some bizarre outfit. I was assigned to group nine, so I took up position in the starting line up. I must admit, there are few occasions on which I can recall having seen so many people in such a space. I have done some big festivals and the like, where there a lots of people – but not all lined up like that. I was truly astounding to see and be a part of.
At 9.45 am our race started. The feelings of doom and panic that had been building over the morning suddenly reach a crescendo and you start to wonder if it’s too late to sneak out the back! Obviously that number of people do not all cross the line instantaneously, so you begin the stop-start able towards the starting line.
Twenty-five minutes later, you turn the corner and pass the start line – marked by a big arch reading “see you at the end”. I must admit that by this point I had reached almost almost euphoric state. Whatever the outcome, it was now inevitable – so lets go! Initially the runners are still quite tightly packed, so there is no real way of doing anything exciting. There’s also a good crowd – mainly supporters wishing to see their loved ones on their way – so you feel quite buoyed by the whole experience.
The first few miles are relatively residential and I was surprised by the crowds. I had expected the initial throng of relatives and then nothing until we reached the first major landmarks, but the population of London were out in force. It started out more as encouraging clapping, although I was surprised/scared by one particularly mean woman with a deep, husky voice shouting “Come on Sean” (arghh, I’m running, I’m running!!!).
I initially started well, although I will admit that it was not long – only a few miles perhaps – before the twinges started and I started alternating between walking and running. I have made no secret of the fact that my training has been less than perfect and less than consistent, and it very quickly entered my mind that I may come to regret this. I also experienced a very strange occurrence in my right foot – what I could only compare to a bone breaking, although I’ve never knowingly done that to any bones in my feet and no subsequent evidence of this has materialised. However, the “cracking” sensation followed by a white pain that made walking on the foot unbearable, which quickly dissipated and then periodically twinged for the rest of the race. Not altogether fun.
I will admit that I could not (except perhaps through hypnotherapy) do a full walk-through of the entire event in sequence. I also suspect that there are few that would read such a document (it has been noted that I ramble in my blogs anyway!). So I will not endeavour to give a full blow by blow account. I was of course aware of passing the beautiful, stunning presence of the Cutty Sark, which looked amazing in the glorious sunshine. I was also intrigued by the long beam on the opposite side of the road, parallel to the floor – and it was only when you glanced the full length that you realise that it was the BBC camera, which was thankfully not recording (physical exercise and cognition are apparently mutually exclusive, at least in my existence).
Tower Bridge of course is a most significant part of the race, less for it’s national symbolism and majesty and more because it immediately precedes the half-way point. I had hoped to run the entire length of the bridge, but unfortunately the legs were unwilling by this stage. It would not be long before I dropped running from the itinerary altogether.
Canary Wharf is actually quite a strange place to run around. On an island with such immensely tall buildings, you get quite a strong breeze even in calm weather and the mirrored glass reflects the sun down onto the roads – so you’re running under twice the amount of daylight and heat. The effect puts one in mind of running as an ant under a magnifying glass!
I will admit that shortly after this I became a little less aware of my surroundings…
Having started out feeling relatively confident, as stated I quickly changed into a mixture of walking and running. At about the half-way mark the running became non-existent, so walking ruled. I am blessed with a long stride (assisted by long legs) and I have always been able to walk quickly, although it is rare (i.e. unheard of) for me to cover such distances at speed. I therefore forced myself into what could loosely be described as a “route march” – walking a little too quickly but maintaining that pace. I was pleased to realise that this pace was actually faster than a lot of those running. It was also fairly consistent, so while many were still switching between running and walking, I was actually achieving the same overall speed.
It must be said that by the 18th mile I had had enough. The pace had perhaps slowed, despite my best intentions, and you’re aware that the mile markers are becoming increasingly far apart (I am currently trying to develop a scientific theory to quantify the elasticity of the mile…). However, I was still vaguely aware of my timings (remembering that my start time was twenty-five minutes after the race start time, so a little light maths was required). I suddenly realised that even with my depleted state of perambulation, it would still be possible for me to achieve a 6 hour race. So I strengthened my resolve (or what was left of it), ignored my body (or what was left of it) and dug deep. The last miles were some of the most tortuous moments in my life – a statement I believe I can say with no exaggeration. Big Ben was a small relief (passing him indicates that there’s roughly one mile left), but he can be seen for several miles – taunting in the distance.
I must take a moment to discuss the weather – especially for England’s most famous race! All of the forecasts that I had seen in the weeks leading up to the event had indicated a bit of dampness. The forecast from the day before and even the day itself indicated rain. So imagine my surprise when it was fine – no better, warm – indeed too warm. The only fear I had was a hot day (I can overheat doing nothing in a walk-in freezer), so this basically amounted to the sum of all fears.
Until the last mile…
With roughly two miles to go, the clouds started making their presence known. Half a mile later, it started to rain. With one mile remaining, the heavens opened – and it was cold, wet rain that seemed to want to wash away your soul…
I was not impressed!
On a flip-side, I must talk about the crowds. I had expected some crowds to have gathered around key landmarks, but I was not prepared for the response of the capital’s population. From the start through to the finish there were people crowding the streets. I do not think that there was one ten-yard stretch of pavement along the route that had not got someone clapping or cheering or shouting. At least every mile, especially in town centres, there were bands on – some rock/pop types, two steel bands, two orchestra’s, one collection of bagpipes… Every pub you passed, the pavement was packed with people, drinks in hand, shouting encouragement (and not a swear word heard – cannot imagine that in Leicester!), and most of the pubs had DJ’s and PA systems shouting their encouragement over motivational music. All along the route, children stood at the side of the road, “hi fiving” every runner that passed. And the sweets…
Several articles that I had read indicated that while fluids were provided (either water or Lucazade) and there are two points were Lucazade Gels are handed out, it is best to take some form of calorie intake with you. There are several scientifically-advanced (expensive) products on the market, each more foul-tasting (and expensive) than the last. However, almost all agree that the best fuel for such occasions is Jelly Babies – a good sugar hit, no real mastication required and they taste nice. So I had taken two bags with me. I need not have bothered,
From the start, the population stood there with boxes of sweats. Everywhere you looked, people stood with arms outstretched, ready to pass sweats to the runners. At one stage I nearly tripped over a small child as they tried to deliver sweets to a runner in the middle of the street. I even saw one woman trying to hand out ham sandwiches and sausage rolls.
And the most beautiful part of the crowd – the encouragement. As stated, everyone had a positive word to help you on your way. The Legion had kindly provided me with my running vest and had printed my name on my chest – and everywhere there were people shouting “come on Sean”, “you can do it Sean”, “you’re nearly there” (although the first time I heard that was as I passed the 5km mark, so I’m not sure how encouraging that was…).
The last miles of the race were gruelling. My calves were screaming, my ankles were on fire, my feet (particularly my right) were unable to bear pressure and my brain had climbed into a little escape pod, preparing for the inevitable implosion. So I took out my headphones, listened to the crowd and walked for all my worth. I have never had strangers shouting encouragement at me before. Kind words, motivational words – in a couple of instances, even military-style “get your arse moving” type words. And all for a bloke that they’ve never met and never will. It was humbling, fantastic and immensely appreciated.
The amazing thing is that they would have been doing it for over three hours before I showed up and quite probably three hours after I’d passed by. Each named individually, each time a heartfelt cry of encouragement.
The last stage of the race was an incredible mix of emotions. Determination to finish, being aware that there should be cameras taking my photo so I needed to attempt to look human. Disbelief that I could actually have finally made it. Pride in my accomplishment and that I had not left down those who had supported me (my biggest fear in any of my endeavours, be they exceptional or mundane). And, surprisingly low in the ratings, relief that it was actually over!
I passed the palace with not real acknowledgement (I am an avid Royalist – so ignoring it feels wrong really) and headed up the Mall. The final 375 yards feel surreal given the circumstances (and the pain). I did attempt to run, determined to finish with style, but basically there was nothing there – the reserves long since gone. And then it was over. I went under the arch and met a few people who congratulate you (again, each individual gets a heart-felt remark, no matter how many thousands go past). You get shuffled up a little ramp and some people cut your timing tag off. You then shuffle down the ramp and get presented your medal (not by Prince Harry unfortunately). You then get given a goody bag containing a couple of drinks, some food and a foil blanket (which is impossible to unfold, I had to ask for help!).
I then collected my bag from the lorry. I dug out my towel, dried myself off – and cried. For the life of me I couldn’t explain why, and I was damned if anyone was going to see me (especially anyone who may be related to national television). So I stood there with my face buried in my towel for either a few seconds or an eternity, lost in a group of emotions that I doubt I will ever be able to articulate.
Having eventually gathered myself and dug a few more clothes out of my bag, I then proceeded to go the wrong way down the path and ended up outside the area and unable to easily get back in. This was not a set-back – I did not have to worry about meeting people in the meeting area. So I headed for the tube (do you know how many steps there are to the Northern Line!!!), then to the train (which was massively over-crowded) and finally to Leicester, where my Dad pick me up and I went back to my parents – relieved to be home and practically incapable of walking.
I will leave the story there for the moment. Needless to say it was a touch emotional. It also involved a bath, a very welcome meal and a lot of feeling sorry for myself…
Before anything else happened that evening, I asked my Mum to take a few photo’s of the “conquering hero”. To my mind I look surprisingly good and certainly a lot better than I actually felt. The vest was too tight and exercise doesn’t suit me, but other than that, I think they help to convey how I was feeling at the time…
There will be the official photo’s as taken by the Marathon’s own photographers – these are gradually coming online over the course of the week. If you are interested, head to http://results-2012.virginlondonmarathon.com/2012/ and enter runner number 46369, then follow the link to the photo’s.
As for the final time - 5 hours, 42 minutes and 23 seconds.
Over-all I’m quite chuffed. All that is left to do is to actually train before the next one.
And there in lies a lesson I feel. I am nothing that society would consider exceptional. Despite the rumours (hehe), I’m not a super hero. I most certainly do not have special strengths, or at least none that I am aware of. So it is true that anybody and everybody is capable of running a marathon. I do believe there are certain things that are required though.
Training should certainly be one of them. I have done quite well having left it out, but it was pointed out to me – how much better would I have done if I had trained? That said, there is no need to go overboard (unless you want to), so extreme eating plans and giving up alcohol (shudders…) are not necessary.
Support is an essential component. I occurred to me very early on in the race that if I was doing this solely for myself, I would probably have given up in the first few miles. I can’t think of any reason to put yourself through something like that for your own sake. But if you know that there are people supporting you and willing you on – people who believe in you – people you don’t want to let down – then it’s an entirely different proposition. I am blessed with such people and they were a major factor in my ability to do what I have done.
The other component, and again one that I view as essential, is something you truly and passionately believe in. For me, the Royal British Legion are not just a charity I promised to raise money for so I could run the Marathon. They are a charity I believe in deeply and have wanted to help for years now.
Many of you will know that my brother was in the Army. It seems it was always something that he was going to do and he had my whole-hearted support in doing so. However, there are obviously risks associated with the job, risks that the individual cannot necessarily control. And I am more than aware that the hardships faced by those serving in the Forces not only affect them, but also their families and friends. I remember the moments of fear and heartache when my brother was in Iraq – wondering what he was doing, hoping he would return safely.
The Royal British Legion have helped to support those who serve in the Armed Forces, their families and loved ones for over 90 years. It is a sad truth that practically no individual returns from a combat deployment without being changed either mentally, physically or both. The Legion provides support for all who need it, whether in providing assistance in getting used to life without a limb to dealing with the horrors that an individual has witnessed. They help those leaving the military in settling back into civilian lives. They help families cope when their loved ones comes back having changed. And they help families when their loved ones never come back at all.
That was one of my motivations for running the marathon, to help support those who had not been as lucky as me.
There is still plenty of time to support me in my goal, to help the Royal British Legion improve lives. You can give online at http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/SeanLitchfield or message me at email@example.com. Any help you can offer will be immensely appreciated.
So this is for my brother. This is for my family. This is for my friends and supporters.
This is for my Forces family. This is for all those waiting for the loved ones to come home. And this is especially for those whose loved ones never will…
From someone who can’t quite believe what he has done and is tremendously humbled by the experience.