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Tom's London Marathon adventure!

Having been lucky enough to land a spot at what is one of the most sought after races in the global running calendar in the 2019 Ramsbottom Running Club ballot, I eventually got to represent the club at the most historic event last month. 

I’ve felt an urge to put in writing an account of my own personal experience ever since I returned home so here goes...

Those who know me will no doubt be aware that I’ve really struggled, far more than I anticipated, with the sheer amount of planning and associated stress I felt in the lead up to the event and especially in the last couple of days beforehand. Travel, train, tram, tube, tickets, tests, texts, times, trousers, trainers  (using just one letter of the alphabet!) gives an insight into my mindset as I braced myself prior to my departure for London.

Saturday 2nd October 

After a relatively uneventful train journey down south, apart from a mild panic that I’d boarded a train which I didn’t have a ticket for (I refer you back to my mindset above!!) I eventually arrived in the big smoke. I travelled on Saturday morning, the day before the race and planned to go straight to the expo where all runners were required to drop off their race bags and pick up their race numbers before the big day. 

After arriving into London Euston, a mere twenty minutes in to my onward journey across London, my RRC kit had been spotted and I was asked if I knew Eve Hart - her fame spreads far and wide!

Arriving at the impressive ExCel Centre, the race expo was an experience in itself and all told I spent a total of two and a half hours snaking my way around a huge warehouse in rows up and down, only to come back out of the very same door which I’d entered!

There were a few frayed nerves at this point as queues aren’t enjoyable at the best of times but with the ever present shadow of a global pandemic hanging over us all, there was a general rumbling that thousands of people in a warehouse didn’t feel like a great management of the crowds. Nonetheless I somehow managed to strike up conversation with a couple of women who were perfect by way of a distraction from the whole situation as we shared stories of training and aspirations for the day ahead whilst laughing at the situation we found ourselves in. I didn't catch their names so I couldn't do the usual Strava stalking and check out how they’d done the day after! 

So on leaving the expo at around four o’clock to travel to my hotel with my race number safely tucked away I remembered reading the warning that if you hadn’t got your number by half five on the Saturday then that was that - “no number no race”. The reason this sprang to mind was the queue had quadrupled from when we joined the back of it so I dread to think what time those latecomers were there until and I must admit I felt a little better that this milestone had been ticked off my list.

Next stop was to check into my hotel, grab some food and prep my gear ready for the early start the morning after. I researched a number of Italian restaurants in the local area and set off to grab myself some sort of a pasta dish - a tried and tested night before carb loading meal. Having passed numerous restaurants which were all absolutely heaving with scores of people waiting outside I ended up with a chicken pasta meal deal from Boots you can take the man out of Bury…! 

After laying out my gear and setting my phone and watch alarms, checking both were set for the very early start at least a dozen times, I was spent and ready for a good night's sleep before the morning after. I can hear you all laughing because you know it never works that way. I tossed and turned and woke numerous times, the last being five o’clock wondering if I’d missed my alarm!

Sunday 3rd October 2021

This was it, it was race day and I faced the final hurdle of getting myself to Blackheath -the location of my start line.  

I jumped on the train at the start of its journey so happily got to relax in a seat all the way whilst the carriages filled to standing room only all around me. It was pulling into one of these stations where I thought I got my first sight of another ram which was later confirmed to be Janet Campbell waiting to board the already jam packed train. 

It wasn’t long before I was finally at the blue start zone and feeling slightly awestruck at the sheer scale of the place. I was well aware that this was one of three start points so that was mind blowing in itself. 

The usual pre-race routine for me normally involves a trip to the loo so with plenty available and a good hour to kill before I needed to make my way to the start wave holding area I took my leave. I then attempted to relax as much as possible in a field with entertainment provided from some BMX riders interspersed with some banging tunes to get us revved up for what was to come. 

It was actually decidedly chilly as the clouds shadowed the sun that was promised so the decision to wear extra layers to throw in the clothes donation collection near the start was well considered. 

I had been quite immersed in the entertainment for a while when I decided I needed to get up and have a little stretch of the legs. At this point there were around twenty minutes to go. 

I realised that the huge swell of people gathering around me and the reason I couldn’t see the big screen anymore was that there were the longest toilet queues I’ve ever seen stretching the whole length and breadth of the field. Then I heard someone calling my name and turned to see none other than super ram Nigel Hartley who it turned out was in exactly the same pen as I was so in that peak stress moment where you’re desperate to just get going but there’s still a wait on your hands this was a lifesaver. 

We had a chat and in next to no time we we’re beginning to move towards the start of what the last two years had been building towards. A few last words of encouragement were shared between us before we parted company to tackle our own 26.2 miles as thousands of others around us were also doing.

It’s been a very unusual twenty two months since that ballot result for obvious reasons with all events grinding to a halt for a considerable period in between. Since events had returned properly I’d only managed one parkrun and that was the grand total of my organised running event experience. Inevitably that buzz of a race day which was so long in the making came rushing straight back through me so this was it - it was on.

09:42 | Blackheath 

After dropping a gel literally ten steps in I settled in pretty quickly running the first 5k without incident and feeling good. A little before the first mile we were joined by those who had started in the green start zone as the two waves merged. The roads were nice and wide at this point so it was still reasonably straightforward to pick your way through the crowds. 

It was when we reached the 5k point and the people from the red start zone came into view that I got a real sense of just how many people were running this incredible race. 

We were separated still but on different sides of the same road. A little further down the road we finally all merged into a big heaving sweaty mass of effort and the next 4k was probably the most challenging with road space at a premium. 

I managed to spot a woman from Cambridge Running Club who was doing an amazing job of managing her way through the field so I decided I’d run directly behind her. She steered us through 4k’s worth of traffic (including plenty of jumping up and down kerbs and frightening the life out of some of the spectators!). I even managed to get on the television at this point (27 minutes into part two of the coverage). I thanked her for her efforts and as the busyness seemed to ease slightly I knuckled down to the job in hand again. 

When I heard mention of the London marathon previously I conjured up three images in my mind: the Cutty Sark, the Tower Bridge and that finish down the Mall. I was looking forward to hitting these iconic landmarks along the way but somehow managed to almost completely miss Cutty Sark, only just catching sight of it over my shoulder! I’d put this down to the pure concentration that was required to ensure that either I didn’t cause or suffer a trip by focusing all my attention down at my feet during those early miles.

The next moment was worth every second of effort that had gone beforehand. Turning a corner and seeing stretching out in front of me the sight of Tower Bridge ahead was something else only surpassed by the deafening wall of noise that met every single runner as they crossed.

The halfway mark was shortly after this and again it was time to settle back into the concerted effort required to reach my ultimate goal. The next few miles were fairly uneventful and it definitely felt as though the roads were becoming a little less busy. It was around that 16 mile mark I had my first wobble. I was feeling the effort and the sight of a ten miles to go sign didn’t particularly lighten my mood however I do have a special mention for someone who did give me that well needed boost and that was Richard Thatcher who I suddenly heard bellowing my name from the other side of the road. I’ve no idea how he even caught sight of me but those couple of words of encouragement did me the world of good and really helped me double down to the task in hand.

One thing I will mention at this point is for anyone attempting a marathon for the first time the greatest piece of advice is to make sure you have your name visible on your number or clothes because that boost from hearing strangers cheering you on can be so uplifting (incidentally I totally forgot this but was quite pleased I seemed to be running at a similar speed to someone called Tom for a good few miles so that worked out quite well!).

Those last ten miles slowly reduced in number as the effort became increasingly more difficult. It was probably at 7k to go when my split times finally seemed to be succumbing to the exertion of the previous thirty five. Still I continued to push on but after losing a little more time over the next 3k I knew that I just needed to stay in the moment and try to finish as strongly as I could and my reward would be a huge PB. I can’t tell you how long the last couple of kilometres felt and it didn’t help that I actually ended up running an extra 300m according to my garmin so whilst my watch was telling me I’d finished I definitely hadn’t! So all that remained was that famous run to the finish line up the Mall through those arches and the indisputable fact that I was officially a London Marathon finisher.

I picked up my goodie bag with the prized t-shirt and medal and headed off in a daze of euphoria. As I hobbled back to my hotel to collect my things and begin my journey back up North I continued to be pinged with the efforts of my fellow Rams who were all producing spectacular feats of courage and determination so whilst I barely saw them at all suffice to say I was with them in spirit as I’m sure were so many of this amazing club.

That could and probably should be the end of my story as I settled in for the long train journey home (thankfully somehow with a table seat for that well needed extra legroom!) but there was one last twist to this tale. 

Once the train arrived in Manchester I instinctively made my way to the tram station and purchased my ticket. It was during this process that I heard the station attendant speaking with a mother and daughter telling them that there was a replacement bus service to Bury (literally the last words I wanted to hear at that point) and that they should just buy a ticket and head outside giving them some instructions as I finished my purchase. So I caught their eyes and told them I was going to follow them if they didn’t mind. Out we went after a very brief chat about having done the marathon (I was wearing my finishers T-shirt at the time). Outside there was no sign of a bus and it was all very chaotic, however the daughter was already ringing her brother up to try and get a lift back to Bury. It was at that point after having the briefest of conversations that the mother offered me a lift home. This really touched me and was such a life affirming moment after having experienced so much earlier that day. It turned out they live literally ten minutes away from my house and were such a lovely family. It was a perfect end to what was a very lengthy and emotionally exhausting couple of days.

I would never have had this opportunity were it not for Ramsbottom Running Club so thanks for the memories and if any of you are considering throwing your name in the hat for future years, but aren’t quite sure, then please let me suggest that it will be something you remember forevermore so don’t delay a second and get your name in that hat.

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