If you have ever watched CSI, Criminal Minds, or indeed any of the myriad FBI/crime-based TV shows, you will know that returning to the scene of the crime is a perverse way for criminals to bask in the glow of their work – it is generally a mixture of narcissism and stupidity.
Having endured such a miserable April day in 2011, I think that my desperate desire to return to the scene of that abominable crime against running definitely falls into the ‘stupidity’ category. But, here I was, five years later, waking up in my parents house in Bexhill once again to set off for Hastings to catch a bus to London. Except, not quite yet – because this was 01:30am, and I didn’t need to be out of bed until five. Dammit, why couldn’t I sleep? I wasn’t nervous, and I had the benefit of knowing the London Marathon to some extent so it wasn’t new to me in that sense. I just couldn’t switch my brain off, so I laid there, in my bed, with my eyes closed, slowly waiting for the minutes to click past until the alarm signalled it was time to move.
I hopped out of bed swiftly and made as little noise as possible to avoid waking Lyndsey, and Delilah sleeping next door. I showered quickly and clambered sleepily into my vest, shorts, socks, and warm over-layers. I put contact lenses into bleary eyes and headed downstairs to finish getting ready. I began drinking water, made my porridge and prepared my coffee (the first caffeine hit in weeks) to enjoy it on the bus.
The porridge was a little lumpy, but it went down easily whilst we drove to Hastings to meet the bus. It was a few minutes late which got the nerves firing, but it turned up eventually and we settled in for the trip up the A21. I nibbled an oaty-based bar and supped on my coffee as the sky darkened and the heavens opened. ‘Please,’ I thought, ‘let this rain stop before we get to Blackheath.’
Whoever it was that was listening, heeded my plea as the rain stopped, though the cloud cover continued and the wind kept the temps low. Keen not to sit around and get colder I basically spent my time from 8am milling around the Blue Start area, looking out for people I might recognise, and making one or two trips to the loos. Eventually I spotted the imitable Susie Chan and stopped for a chat with her before it was finally time to succumb to the growing toilet queue for one last pit-stop before stripping some layers off and handing my kit bag in.
Making my way to the holding pens, via a quick hop, skip and a jump by way of a ‘warm up’ I spotted Graham Carter handing in his kit bag and we wished each other a brief “good luck.”
I settled into my designated number 4 start pen (of 9), which are designed to hold runners roughly in speed order according to the time they enter on their application. With my 3:20(ish) target time, I found myself positioned nicely in between the 3:15 pacer ahead and the 3:30 pacers behind – perfect. So what the people “hoping for sub-4” were doing stood next to me beggars belief and really grates on me.
Generally speaking, there are two options for the first mile of a marathon. Do something ridiculous and go too fast and pay for it later, or get so bogged down by people being in the wrong place that you run your slowest mile of the day. I was firmly in the latter camp; despite only taking 90 seconds to cross the start line the traffic was bad, and it was hard to get in a flow as I was even overtaking people walking within a hundred yards or so. It should be compulsory to turn up to the start pens with a printout of your training from Strava showing that you can go someway to maintaining the target race pace for that pen.
Anywhoo, I digress…
So the first mile was slow, the second got a little better, and the third (downhill) mile was positively buoyant as I remembered how I had felt at this stage five years ago, overwhelmed by the emotion of it all. This year it was all business – making sure I stuck to my target pace as best I could, relaxed my shoulders, and controlled my effort. At 5km, just as the two separate start lines come together, I spotted a shock of bright yellow hair and realised I was coming up past Iwan Thomas. He was on the inside of the roundabout as I passed on the outside so I couldn’t really swing by to say “hi” but at least I can say I overtook an Olympian in a running race!
The next few miles passed without incident. I feel like I noticed more about the route than I had previously and as we came past the majestic Maritime Museum on the left I was excited to run past Cutty Sark as the route had been changed in 2011. We swung a quick right, and as I was on the inside of the course it was a tight turn. I spotted a large cycling-style bottle in the gutter and as I stepped aside to avoid this someone kicked a water bottle which landed squarely under my foot. My ankle rolled over it, I stumbled, and pain shot up my left leg. Someone asked if I was OK, I said “yes” as I hobbled along in some discomfort and prayed that I hadn’t done anything serious.
The crowds at Cutty Sark are everything you hear about, and more. The noise was amazing and it was incredible to run past this landmark. The lull that follows is a little uninspiring, but this is all just building for something momentous : Tower Bridge. I had it fresh in my mind not to get too caught up or overwhelmed by the support here. Five years ago I seem to recall a growing sense of discomfort here and being totally distraught at how much I was hurting whilst the crowd cheered me onwards. This year I focused on the end goal and hoped to make it to the other side without sprinting.
On the North side of the river the route heads eastwards towards the docklands and despite going at a good pace, I was amazed to see the front-runners heading West on the other side of the road at 22 miles. At this stage the two men were running together and looking incredibly strong. I cheered Callum Hawkins as he passed (ultimately finishing first Brit, and qualifying for Rio in the process) and I hoped to see Robbie Watson from the podcast, The Rob Watson Show, as I knew he was desperately hoping to achieve the same feat for Canada. In doing so, I think I dropped my focus here momentarily so it was probably good that the two sections diverted apart again soon after. Entering the docklands area all I could think about was the moment that Mum ran past me, thankfully without noticing how bad I was doing. I did a quick head-to-toe check to see how I felt, and I was pleased to report that all systems appeared to be green (having completely forgotten about my ankle by now.)
Mudchute comes along at mile 17, and from here things started to head downhill a little. Aware that Alma was somewhere on this stretch of highway cheering people on, I kept my eyes peeled to see if I could see her. Much as it did when I was spying the elites at mile 13, this action meant that I relaxed my focus on pace and as a result it slowed slightly. I saw Alma, waved hello, and trucked along to the 18 mile point. As my watch ticked off the mile I noticed that I had dropped 15 seconds or so beyond my target and I was aware I couldn’t afford to do that. Strava shows miles 19 and 20 getting faster again (arguably too fast at 20 with a 7:25) and then the wheels began to loosen themselves.
Miles 21 and 22 were completed in eight minutes each, and I was clinging on rather than pacing this. I was taking gels according to my scheduled 40 minute interval, but I wonder now whether actually I wasn’t taking on quite enough water. I knew Mum and Dad were coming up sometime soon and just before the 23 mile marker a large group of NSPCC supporters had roused me from my stupor. Before I knew it I finally heard my name being shouted in a voice that sounded familiar (having heard shouts of “Go Chris” almost the entire route since crossing the line – it’s amazing what sticking your name on your vest can do!) I turned my head to the right to see Mum and Dad at the barrier shouting enthusiastically. I gave them a thumbs up, and powered on – not feeling particularly thumbs-up’y.
The volume at Tower Hill was remarkable, but unlike 2011 it didn’t reduce me to tears. I thought about how much it had hurt to walk so much of this second half of the race and vowed not to resort to that again. Soon, runners enter the dark tunnel in which no supporters linger. This was, again, a more positive environment than last time because the sense of an orange, sticky, miserable place, had been replaced with loud music and someone commentating over the load speakers very enthusiastically.
On the final stretch along the Northern embankment I have the distinct sense that I almost didn’t know what I was doing other than trying to run forwards. People were overtaking me seemingly at quite a rate, but I was also passing people – especially those stopping to stretch at the side of the road. I could feel my hamstrings starting to question the sanity of the situation but I am eternally grateful that they kept their concerns largely to themselves. Big Ben loomed ever closer, but it still felt a long and painful journey as we finally swung to the right and up Birdcage Walk.
For a long while I thought about when to start my ‘sprint finish’. At Frankfurt I was cruising past people and my results show a fast finish to the race. Here, I knew I was struggling to keep any sort of pace, and in fact miles 25 and 26 were both completed in 8:15; at least I was consistent for that last mile. The 800 and 600 meters to go signs came and went. I pushed doggedly on towards the right hand turn on to the Mall.
385 yards to go. That sign that signals it’s nearly over is like a god send. There is another slight turn to the right, but then right there in front of me is the finish line. I am determined to enjoy this moment. I feel like I am speeding up – but the results suggest otherwise – and I raise both hands in the air. I have beaten the London Marathon; I have vanquished the demons that have been on my back since that fateful day in 2011.
Collecting the medal, goody bag, and kit bag couldn’t be much easier than it is at London. Running for the NSPCC enabled me to enjoy an incredibly short walk to the post-race reception at the Royal Society. The round of applause as I entered was rather humbling, but nothing compared to the ovation I got as I entered the massage suite. I hate being the center of attention, but at the same time it was pretty epic. The lovely folks who attacked my weary limbs did a great job of making my legs feel vaguely human, but I still had to tackle the stairs to get back to the food. I grabbed some pasta and bolognese and headed out onto the balcony to be reunited with Mum and Dad.
The rest, as they say, is history. It was a long, but pleasant afternoon as we headed back to the bus collection point, made the long journey back to Hastings. I had a quick shower whilst trying not to swear too loudly as the hot water hit any slightly chafed areas and then Lyndsey, Delilah and I got into our car and headed for home. Curry and beer was a welcome reward for finishing the marathon.
My official time is 3:25:14.
A PB over Frankfurt by 5 minutes and 12 seconds. It was a hard earned PB and certainly wasn’t so controlled as that effort in October had been – but I suppose that is hardly surprising given the circumstances.
I am over the moon with how the race went. Two days later, having gone for a 2.5 mile walk yesterday lunchtime, my legs feel great (except maybe for a little tenderness around my ankle when stretching it fully) and I am looking forward to my first gentle run tomorrow. Less than five weeks to the next one now – can I keep up my record of PB’ing every time?
I have raised a little over £500 for the NSPCC in the build up to the Virgin Money London Marathon 2016, and I thank everyone who supported this excellent cause from the bottom of my heart. I have decided to keep my page open throughout the year until I finish the last of my marathon trifecta this September. If you would like to donate, you can do so here : https://bit.ly/ChrisMercerRuns