The Virgin London Marathon 2018

My road to London began almost exactly two years ago, with my first Elgin Park run (April 2016).  My wife, Sarah, was fed up of my sedentary lifestyle and wanted me to get some exercise!  Like many people, I rapidly became addicted to this friendly, weekly run and started running by myself during the week also.  My PBs started to come down, but by late spring 2017, my training had reached a plateau.  I decided to take the leap to join Moray Road Runners in July 2017 (I had by this time already run a half marathon in Edinburgh during May).  This was something which I had been putting off as I felt I wasn’t fit enough or fast enough to join a running club.  What a great move!  MRR is a super-friendly club which actively encourages newcomers of all ages (even late starters like myself, already aged 51 at this time).  Within a few weeks of joining the Club, Parkrun PBs we’re coming thick and fast and half-Marathon and 10km times were improving.

By late 2017 I had (like previous years) received a no-place in the London Marathon ballot.  My son, Oscar, had been offered a London Marathon charity place by Greenwich Winter Night Shelter, where he volunteers for in London. Oscar had previously run the Edinburgh and Richmond half-Marathons with me, so I was disappointed to be unable to join him in London.  I had asked most of my family and friends for sponsorship for a half marathon earlier in the year, in memory of a friend who had died from a brain tumour, so felt I couldn’t enter London as a charity runner (as I’d end up asking the same people for sponsorship again).  I had already decided to run a marathon in 2018 and subsequently entered for Manchester.  Within a matter of weeks, however, I was hugely honoured to be pulled out of the hat for the MRR place in the London Marathon.  I could join Oscar after all!

Training for my first marathon

I decided to use the Runners World marathon training programme.  This is a 16-week schedule, with a programme of 5 runs/week and two rest days. The mileage peaks at 48 miles/week in the most intense week, prior to tapering for the marathon itself. I used the sub-3 hours 30 minutes Plan.

Training went well from late December and through the winter.  I attended as many Monday and Wednesday night Club sessions as possible, and otherwise trained mainly alone.  The roads to Mosstowie and Pluscarden as well as Longmorn and Lhanbryde soon became good friends and well trodden!  My routes and times were regularly uploaded to Strava, as I continued through the winter.  The racing year started very well with a PB for me at the Kinloss to Lossiemouth Half-Marathon in February (1:32:12, down from 1:45 at Edinburgh the previous year) and 1:32:31 at the Inverness Half soon afterwards (although I ran the first seven miles too quickly and suffered during the rest of this race – good training on how to pace a full marathon!).  Two cross-country races at Forres and assorted, often gruelling club sessions continued up until April.  Already time to start tapering for London!

Having spent most of the winter putting my 5km, 10km and half-marathon times in to marathon race time predictors, I decided that I could run London in 3 hours 25 minutes.  This was the most conservative output from the Slate Marathon Calculator (other more optimistic calculators predicted anything from 3:15 onwards).  This would require 7 minute 50 second splits for the London marathon. I trialed a couple of long runs (up to 19 miles) at this pace, and felt I could hold this for a marathon. Only time would tell…

The London Marathon
22nd April 2018

Sarah and I flew to London on the Saturday.  Oscar had already been to the Expo to register me and collect my race number, race bag and shoe timing tag (the DLR train strike didn’t materialise, so I could have collected the number in person on Saturday).  We met up with Oscar at his flat, had lunch, and after some quick shopping retired early to our hotel.

On Sunday, I had slept well and woke early.  As planned, all my race gear had been set out the night before, race number attached, gels etc ready.  We met some Blackpool runners at 7am breakfast (like most Runners, having porridge and toast!).

“Any top tips for a first London Marathon?” I asked one runner.

“Don’t do this one!” he gleefully replied!
The forecast race temperature was between 23 to 24C and predicted to be the hottest London Marathon in history.

A short tube journey from Notting Hill to Charing Cross was followed by a surface train journey of around 30 minutes from Charing Cross to Blackheath.  All tube, bus and rail journeys around London are free to marathon runners – what a great service!  The train to Blackheath (for the Blue Start) was packed with runners and their families and friends.  All talk was about the forthcoming marathon, and this was a great way to calm pre-race nerves.

Sarah and I arrived at Blackheath station around 9:05am which allowed ample time for the short walk through the lovely Blackheath town centre to Blue Start.  Sarah said goodbye and went to her viewing point at Christchurch (Greenwich) which is Oscar’s Night Shelter, and also around the 6-mile mark on the marathon route.  Oscar had stayed overnight with a friend in Greenwich close to the Red Start.

The atmosphere at Blue Start was electric.  Thousands of runners were milling around by this time. (Oscar was starting from Greenwich at nearby Red Start).  The other Green Start completed the field of 40,000 runners.  I had been sipping on my pre-race Lucozade Sport and made two trips to the men’s toilets before the start!  The organisation was incredible and queues were minimal.  Music was blaring through the PA system and pictures from the TV relayed via multiple massive screens.  A TV helicopter hovered overhead…things were getting serious!
My bag of belongings was loaded onto a race truck in an official race bag with my number affixed, and I did a very half-hearted warm up trot around the Start area for a minute or so.  It was already warm in bright sunshine and I was conscious of trying to keep cool for as long as possible.

At around 9:40, runners were advised to find their Start area, prior to the 10:00 race Start.  Mine was pen 2.  I had decided by this time to aim for more conservative 8-minute Mile splits due to the 23C heat prediction.  This would give me a 3:30 finish.  The London Marathon organisers were at pains to ensure runners adapted their goals to the hot temperatures.  The 3:30 Runners World pace runner (how could he do this with a back-pack and bloody big flag?!) was in the pen behind me, so I wasn’t able to immediately join him.  Close to the 10:00 start time I was able to position myself at the back of pen 2.  The marathon was to be started in waves, with each pen being separated in time.  We all were able to view a huge screen which was relaying HM The Queen about to press the start button from Windsor Castle.  A cheer went up as the elite runners were released at 10:00.  Within two or three minutes the pen ahead of me was released, and the several hundred runners in my pen slowly moved forwards.  By approximately 5 past 10 we were walking slowly and by 10:06 I was in a slow jog and about the cross the start line.  Garmin GPS watch at the ready to time my splits, we were off!!

I was conscious of the fact that the first two miles in London are slightly downhill, and runners tend to set off too quickly.  After several glances at my watch, I settled in to 8 minute/mile pace which felt easy.  According to Paula Radcliffe on TV the evening before: “if the first miles feel too slow, you’ve probably got the pacing about right”. Already, the crowds of spectators were huge and I was hugely enjoying being part of this event.
After approximately two miles, red and blue starts converge in a dual-carriageway section and subsequently merge. Mile markers are very clearly marked by over-road arches.  Water stations were present at every mile after the two mile point (apart from five stations which were Lucozade Sport orange bottles).  I took my first bottle of water at three miles and after a couple of gulps, poured the rest over my head and discarded the bottle (drink, douse,drain, discard, as recommended for hot racing by the VLM organising team).  This was repeated at virtually every mile (due to the increasing heat) apart from a couple of water stations which I missed by mistake.  The organisation of these stations was incredibly efficient.

The miles passed by quickly, and I was able to sit at 8 minute miles without difficulty.  Sarah and friends were at the church at around 6 miles and I passed close by and got a big cheer!  Shortly after this came a wall of sound as we passed through Greenwich and around the Curry Sark.
The miles passed by relatively easily and I was soon running over Tower Bridge towards the half-marathon mark, with a shout from Andrew Beaton.  After the bridge, we could see the elite runners heading in the opposite direction, already well in to their marathon.  The thing that surprised me most about London was that I expected to sit with a pack of people (or person) and run several miles with them (as I’ve done in previous half marathons).  What actually transpired is that I was always with a jostling, changing cluster of runners and trying to avoid slower runners in front whilst trying to maintain a semblance of the blue line painted on the road (the shortest distance.  On finishing,I found I had run 0.28 miles longer than the 26.2 distance, which is common for most runners).  I ran the entire race in this fashion with an ever changing field around me.
Sarah and friends popped up again (unexpectedly) on the Isle of Dogs and gave me a boost at a point where I was starting to get tired.

Sarah pops up around 25 km, Isle of Dogs

By 17 to 18 miles I was conscious of the fact that running was no longer “easy” and I was no holding on to 8 minute splits, but dropping anything from 10 to 30 seconds per mile. Rather than try to increase effort in the by now very hot temperature, I decided to let the splits drop slightly. The saying: “it’s a 20 mile warm-up for a 6 mile race” was going through my mind. The last thing I wanted to do was “hit the wall” at any stage. By now, a significant number of runners had slowed down, many were already walking and a few unfortunate people were receiving First Aid.

On TV somewhere around 30 km

At 20 miles I was tiring and keeping a close eye on the splits. I didn’t want to slip too far from 8 minutes. A spectator had a tray of half-bananas and I gratefully received one instead of taking my fourth gel. The crowd remained incredible. With only six miles to go I knew I only had to hold on, I’d started with a conservative plan and this was now paying off. The months of training was giving me confidence that I could finish with a respectable time. At around 23 miles, Andrew Beaton (Inverness) gave me a welcome shout out and steeled me for the last few miles. By the time I was running along the embankment towards Westminster I was pretty much on autopilot with nothing left in the energy bank (my pre-race thoughts of negative splits in the last two miles completely forgotten!). The run around Westminster Palace and on to the Mall soon came up and I was running towards the finish line!

I crossed the finish for my first marathon in 3 hours 37 minutes and 7 seconds (officially).  My average split time was 8 minutes 12 seconds/mile.  I was seven minutes slower than my revised (hot weather) planned finish time.  The official temperature was 23.2C.  The organisers were again magnificent.  I expected to be hustled away from the finish, but everyone was able to hobble at their own pace into funnels and collect their medals.  Next for a few official photos and collection of race bag from the lorries.

Oscar finished his first marathon in 4 hours 36 minutes and 14 seconds. The closest MRR to me was Simon Macdonald, who finished the marathon in a scorching PB of 3 hours 25 minutes.

Would I do it again? Immediately!! At no point did I feel that I was not enjoying the experience. I soon got feedback from friends in all directions. Bernard Salmon was spectating but unfortunately missed me passing. Other friends had popped up to shout out at various points along the route. I had a moment of glory at 30km when Sally Bruce, Carol Sim and others spotted me on TV at the 30km point. The London Marathon was a lifetime high point, not least as I was able to run it with my son, Oscar. I hope to follow it up with some more half marathon runs followed by the Manchester Marathon next year.

Huge thank you to Moray Road Runners for their friendship, support, incredible training programme and, not least, the opportunity to race with the Club ballot place in London this year.

Oscar and me!

Iain Macdonald
26th April 2018


Iain Macdonald

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