They say no marathon is ever easy, and it’s certainly true. Even with a fantastic training season where for the first time ever, I accomplished all of my long runs, even extending one to 21 miles and didn’t bail out on a single one, 26.2 miles still hurt. However, the London marathon was as close to perfect as could be for me. With amazing organization and a great course, the London Marathon should be high on ever runner’s race bucket list.
As my fourth of the six world major marathons, and sixth total, London should have felt like no big deal. But even with a decent amount of experience in the marathon, I was still anxious about it. Berlin last fall went so well – only the second time I ran a marathon without hitting an insurmountable wall and finally breaking four hours – that I tried to keep my expectations for London low. I promised myself that I’d be happy with any finish regardless of time since the self-imposed pressure was off. One mile in though, I knew I was going to want to push it for a new personal best.
Logistics leading up to the race were flawless. As the first travel marathon where we were bringing our twins – about to turn three – we knew there would be enough stress about getting around the city and the race with them that we couldn’t afford any difficulty with the race itself. Thankfully, the organization was top notch with frequent updates and information. I even managed to sign up for a test trial they were doing with borrowing warm lined capes before and after the race rather than utilizing kit bags for checking and found it incredibly easy to handle that as well.
London is taking measures to advance itself as the leader in sustainability for major marathons. The cape trial was just one attempt to reduce the impact on the environment by eliminating plastic bags and giving runners the option to use a warm cape before and after the race. I was able to pick mine up at the expo, wear it to the start, staying warm with just my normal running gear on underneath, drop it off right at the start line, pick up a clean new one at the finish line, and stay warm as we celebrated around London after. Another innovation was the use of seaweed balls instead of packing for sports drink at several aid stations. While I didn’t try one because I brought my own fuel and didn’t want to try something new in the middle of the race, it is still an intriguing idea and one I hope to see other races emulate. The massive piles of paper and plastic cups, gel packets, and other detritus along a race course has always made me feel unease, so it would be nice to see it tackled.
The marathon expo was held at the Excel center, a huge conference and event center in the massively developing Canary Wharf area just outside central London and an easy ride on the train. The boys were very excited to ride the “big, fast train” out there and the openness of the space worked very well, making even the moderate crowds on Friday before the race feel smaller and less packed. Beside bib and cape pick up, there was a huge merch store from New Balance where I of course picked up an official jacket and running shirt and the boys got “my dad runs things” marathon shirts which they wore during the race. New Balance also gave runner and supporter supplies including signs, pop sockets, buffs, and some snacks which were great for the boys. I even got some new shoe laces which will go nicely with my new “Run LDN” New Balance shoes I picked up, and a bottle opener.
There were also a bunch of other exhibitors, sponsors, and stores, though we only glanced through them. The ones that stuck out most were a Nike one where runners could try to match Kipchoge’s world record marathon pace for a minute on a huge treadmill – we didn’t see anyone fly off it – and a short digital race track where runners could get a ton of statistics on their stride, gait, and other running measurements. The boys loved running across this one, even after face-planting once because of their excitement to run like daddy.
Taking inspiration from my success at the Berlin marathon last fall where we walked nearly 20 miles two days before, and a relaxed 10 miles the day before the run, we similarly took the days leading up to the race to explore the city. After the expo on Friday, we walked around the major sites of the city including Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden, Buckingham Palace, and of course Horse Guards where the boys wouldn’t let us leave while they watched the horses on guard. On Saturday, we walked around a bit more but spent most of the morning at the Natural History Museum where we saw the dinosaurs and tons of animals on display. I thought with all of the fresh air and excitement, the boys would sleep easily, but while they did on Friday night, the night before the marathon they of course refused to go to bed. Thankfully with a somewhat late start of 10:30, I didn’t need to get to bed incredibly early, but when they started to fight sleep until after 11pm, we just decided to let them sleep in bed with us.
Getting to the start line the morning of the race was very easy. Not only was the route simple, but it was well marked from major stations and completely free for anyone with a bib on. It was very easy to find the right station too, even with a connection to the regional train line since pretty much everyone on the train was heading to the start line. Thanks to well-marked and separated color coded start areas, it felt like far fewer than 42,000 runners were lining up. I made my way to the Green Start area, about a half mile though unfortunately up what was probably the steepest hill of the entire “course” for about a half mile and found a large secured area in the park with my fellow green runners. I immediately noted the huge number of runners geared up in costumes for charity and world record attempts. Apparently because of the fast pace of the course and the number of supporting charities, London is huge for running in costumes. I saw numerous snowboarders, trees, rhinos, panda bears, and even a tent lining up with me.
Each zone was organized into a number of numbered start waves rather than corals which meant more time to stretch, use the numerous restrooms – the most of any race I’ve been too and with the shortest lines – and grab a water before lining up. I really liked the way it was organized which meant way less time standing still in a packed crowd and basically only lining up about 5 minutes before starting. The start was incredibly well organized as well with each wave starting immediately after the previous, resulting in a constant flow of runners. I believe they got all 42,000 runners started within 20 minutes of the first elites hitting the course.
The only issue with this strategy was that it was easy to run into slower runners from previous waves. I’m not sure if I was too conservative in my estimated pace or just got a bad assignment. For the first three miles or so, I was passed by a constant stream of runners at a faster pace than me, even while going faster than I should at under a 9-minute mile pace. Even the pace group I stuck to was heading out a bit too fast. Learning from previous races, I backed off and settled into a comfortable pace and let them flow past. However, buy mile three, either they all realized their mistake and slowed down, or more likely I had caught up to the slower runners from the wave ahead. I don’t know if it was the narrowness of the course, the international field of runners, or something about London running etiquette, but I had a very hard time getting past people and ended up adding nearly a half mile to the entire marathon distance from weaving around people. By the halfway point I realized the better strategy was just to squeeze between people, even if it felt counter to how I like to run normally. Otherwise I’d be running a marathon and a half. It may have actually ended up helping me though as it forced my pace down and allowed me to negative split the second half of the race.
Even with the additional dodging, or perhaps because running laterally was using different muscles, I felt great the entire race. My first three marathons all resulted in me hitting a terrible wall between 18-20 miles and having to resort to walking for part of the race. Chicago in 2017 was the first time I made it through all the way and didn’t have any issues. I was still terribly sore, but not incapacitated. Berlin was the same and London as well. I believe some of it is better training, some just experience, some better pacing strategy, and the most may be from fueling. In previous marathons I barely ate before the race because my stomach would feel weird and be a bigger problem for me than the running. In Berlin especially, I ate a much bigger dinner the night before and ate real food for breakfast, heavily carbs, and didn’t bonk at all. I followed the same approach in London with english muffins, jam, an even a croissant. I also forced myself to eat fueling snacks every 6 miles until at mile 24 I was still feeling full from the last ones. Because of this, I felt like I had plenty of energy the whole time.
The course in London was nice with a very flat overall profile and tons of support long the way. In these regards, it was heavily reminiscent of Berlin and Chicago more than New York, Philadelphia, or Belfast. While the course wasn’t quite as scenic to me as Berlin where it felt every corner was another historic church or building, there was still plenty to see along the way. Early on we passed Greenwich Naval Observatory and College, a beautiful building and where the Prime Meridian passes through, as well as running around the huge ship, Cutty Sark, and along the river. At the halfway point was the most notable landmark, Tower Bridge. Turning a corner and seeing it approaching was a stunning moment and I saw several people get emotional while taking it in. Along the entire route there was a huge crowd with tons of support, maybe more than any other race I’ve been to, but the bridge had the most by far. It was hard not to get pumped up and run too fast because of it. We also passed great views of the Shard, the tallest building in the UK, The Tower of London, the London Eye Ferris wheel, and Parliament and Big Ben – unfortunately under heavy scafolding due to reconstruction efforts that will go until 2022. We even passed Buckingham Palace where I swear the queen was waving at us, though it might have been marathon hallucinations, right at the end before turning onto the Mall for the finish line.
One of the odd things about running a marathon is that even when you feel good and think you’re pushing harder in the second half, because of the fatigue on your legs, the same effort actually means you’re going slower. I felt so good at the half way point that I decided to up the pace a bit. I felt like I was increasing by a solid 15-20 seconds a mile, but it actually ended up only being about 5. After a short stop where my wife and the boys were cheering me on around the 18 mile mark, I had lost nearly a minute and needed to make it back up to beat my Berlin time. Though the boys were so overwhelmed by the runners that they barely noticed me as I stopped to say hi, I did eventually get a big smile and a “daddy!” which gave me enough energy to push harder. The last 6 miles in particular I felt so good I eeked out another 10 seconds per mile and was able to quickly catch up to the pace group I had abandoned at the start and got past. What felt like sprinting the final 1k down the Mall was probably more like a 9 minute mile pace, but I was able to cross the finish line in 3:58:12, a new personal best for me by a little under a minute.
At the end, I received one of the coolest finisher medals yet, my new cape, and a big recovery bag with tons of treats the boys devoured before I got a chance. The European brand of recovery drink, Lucozade is a bit less heavy than Gatorade, and I felt better after chugging it than I normally do after a race in the US. It did take a while, nearly an hour to get through the finish line area and find my wife and the boys due to a combination of confusing signs, no cell reception, and my own past-race daze, but once we met up we headed off to the Audible after party. Audible had sponsored the race as the official audio provider. My wife and the boys were able to cheer for me at the official Audible cheering section along the race and they even provided a post-race party nearby with drinks, food, and an awesome rooftop bar area to enjoy and bask in the celebration. After two weeks of not touching a beer leading up to the race, a drink there was blissful and the boys loved running around the area and showing off their running skills.
I hadn’t been expecting any particular result in London other than finishing, but thanks to an incredibly well-organized and run race, I was able to bring my personal best down again, and had my best run along the way. The course included a ton of interesting landmarks and thanks to amazing crowd support, was easy to keep going. Of the four major marathons I’ve now run – something I never thought I’d be saying 5 years ago when the furthest I’d ever run was a quarter mile – London had some of the best support, a fast course, and was incredibly easy logistically. While it often gets lost behind the size and scale of New York, the history of Boston, and the records of Berlin, it is a phenomenal race that should be near the top races for every runner. While I want to complete my world major tour first with Tokyo and Boston, I would definitely go back to London for another great race there.