Today is Sunday 26th April – the date of the 2020 London Marathon. Except it's not happening today.
Last year, I ran the marathon – for the first time, and it was one of the best days of my life.
Before the memories of the day blur too much, I wanted to write them down. Perhaps someone else is thinking about taking part on this incredible day once the world returns to some form of normality.
Here's my story.
The build up
“Good luck! I’ll be watching from the pub.”
This was the first person I saw after leaving the house – a black cab driver – on my walk to East Dulwich station. What an appropriate way to start the most London of days – by bumping into someone with the most London of professions.
It was early. It was quiet. And it wasn't raining. Not hot, but also not cold. Perfect running weather.
It was eerily quiet – was it really the right day? Was this just a dream? Can I return to bed?
I had nothing but nerves. I could barely speak from the moment I woke up.
Should I drink more water?
Should I drink less?
Have I eaten enough?
Should I eat more?
I don't feel hungry! I don't want to be sick!
Will my top rub?
Will my knee hold out?
What if I trip?
Are my trainers going to be OK?
What if my timing chip doesn't work and my times don't get counted?
What if my bib number falls off?
Did I actually register everything OK?
What if I injure myself and have to pull out – my whole family are following me from the app?
Am I going to get there too early? Too late?
Once I reached the station – the platform was quiet, but a handful of other runners turned up. Clearly they've done this before. This is the correct day! This is the correct time.
When I arrived at London Bridge Station, the atmosphere became real – it was busy, despite being so early on a Sunday. People were shuffling around, following coloured flags to different platforms.
When I reached the top of the escalator up to the platform for the train to Maze Hill there were plenty of police around and lots of runners. The helicopter in the sky set me off – this is real. This is the London Marathon – and I am taking part in it.
Police were everywhere – looking after the runners, helping guide everyone to the right place. An immediate wave of positivity, of excitement, but also of collective nervousness diffused through the air.
London Bridge is where you must say goodbye to anyone you've been travelling with up until this point. You're on your own from here. I had to disconnect from the warm reassurance of Lauren. What I'd do to go and sit in a cafe and have a bacon roll right now...
The train journey vanished past, and before I knew it, we were at Maze Hill station.
The walk from the station to the start area was rather long – about 15 mins. Did my training prepare me for this extra endeavour? Is this going to use up that pocket of energy I need for the ".2" of the 26.2 miles?
As soon as we entered the start area, there were photographers snapping us. There was just such a positive atmosphere everywhere – everyone helping, everyone running, and everyone working. From security personnel to Lucozade hander-outers – everyone's there to wish you a great day and help you do it.
My first stop at the start area? A cup of tea. Nothing I need more than the reassuring comfort of a cuppa.
The holding area is like a large park full of other runners. It's where you wait until you get funnelled into the starting area before beginning the race. I got there with plenty of time – reassuring, but giving me a solid hour to think and worry and get excited. Do I drink more? Do I eat more? This might be my last chance? Do I pee (again!)?
I spoke to a chap in the toilet queue who was running his 3rd marathon. Perhaps twice the age of me. There are amazing stories in everyone here. The reassurance of speaking to people who have done it before fills you with confidence – other people have run this before, they've survived, and they've come back for more!
I was running for one of my favourite charities – the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution). Conveniently, anyone running for the RNLI is given a bright orange bib, which makes it possible to find them in a crowd of thousands of runners.
I found another RNLI runner* before the start, he gave me some reassuring words and we patted each other on the back, and then it was time to head to the starting line.
Let's do this!
The run itself turned into a blur – from start to finish.
There were moments that stood out to me – tiny details of crystal clear perfection that punctuate the otherwise blurred smudge of adrenaline, exhaustion, sweat, and tears. It's those moments that paint the bigger picture of why this event is so special.
As you move from a slow walk, into a slow jog, into a "we're doing this!" pace crossing the start line, you are met with your first crowds – the supporters cheering you on from Greenwich. The families, the small children, the elderly, the celebrities, the musical acts – you can't help but feel something deep inside you. It's a special day and you're here, and you're now officially running the London Marathon. You go!
The start was busy – everyone's bunched up, and as the race progresses, everyone spreads out. For me, I was worried – my lower legs ached a lot. It was similar to some of the runs I did in training. Thankfully, though, as with my training, this aching seemed to eventually pass and I got into a rhythm.
I had done many Parkrun's in the build up to the marathon, and this was part of my mental model to get around. Parkrun is 5km around your local park. "One Parkrun, down, just 7 and a bit to go!"
Running past The Valley – the football ground of Charlton Athletic – was a particularly special moment for me at the early stages of the race. The Valley is where I've visited on many occasions with my dad, with my grandad, and where my dad has visited many times since he was a child. To run past it as part of this big day was heart warming. To know that my family were following along via the app, watching my progress. I could visualise my dad saying to my mum "Jimbo's going past the Valley now!"
I found it so important to motivate myself through those early miles – I found myself only getting into a rhythm after a good quarter of the way through. With a rhythm you can almost put a lot of the run on autopilot, but you have to work to get there. And I found the best way to get there was to put one dumb foot in front of the other, to smile, and to soak up the incredible crowds cheering you on.
Just before reaching the Cutty Sark, I saw an older chap walking by the side and said “you can do it mate!” He replied heroically with “don’t you worry, I’ll be there!” That's the spirit.
The cheering got the better of me just after the Cutty Sark though. Another special stage of the race for me – I knew my family and some friends were watching from here. I tried to look out for them but everything was a blur.
My obsession with finding people caught me out – I was more focused on the crowd than the road – than the bottles and drains and slipperiness... "Go on Jimbo!" "Go on son you can do it!" from the crowd. I couldn't help but wave, and clap the amazing people cheering me on. I look up to smile. And...
I thought my day was over. I thought I was going to be limping from here on out. Not even half way through, and I've gone and tripped. I've come down on my ankle and I've surely sprained it. It HURTS. I almost landed on my face.
I had to stop. Not part of my plan. I twist and I turn my foot. It still moves. But it's not too awful. Can I keep running on it? Let's try. One, two, three...
OK. OK we're back in business. WE CAN DO THIS. COME ON.
By some weird stroke of luck, or perhaps by the overwhelming levels of adrenaline rushing through my bloodstream, my ankle seemed to be OK. No need to call this whole thing off and let everyone done. Let's push on.
Before I knew it, we were at Tower Bridge – crossing the iconic point, and critically passing the half way mark. The actual half way mark is "just around the corner" from Tower Bridge – in fact a could 500 metres. In the scheme of things, this is a small distance, but every stride is worth of celebration in this race.
I remember Tower Bridge with true affection. The crowd quite literally roars as you proceed through. The power of the crowd is hard to describe, but for me it felt like they were lifting me up and throwing me into the sky so that I could soar over Tower Bridge like a rocket through the sky. It's hard to feel pain or exhaustion when you have hundreds of smiling faces cheering you through one of the greatest landmarks in the world.
Passing the half way point left me with two feelings – I can do this, but also: I am now running away from Westminster and out to what is widely known as the toughest part of the race, the Isle of Dogs.
The crowds dissipate out at Isle of Dogs – you're running through mostly residential areas, and the cheers quieten down. You're well over half way through the run, but you're also still an unspeakable distance from the finish line. There's nothing you can do other than to keep plodding along, and to keep taking in as much Lucozade as you can.
I learnt I can't eat while running at this point – I had a cereal bar snack to top up my calories, but attempting to eat it made me feel like I was trying to clasp an Apple bobbing in a tub of water with my teeth. Running and eating in unison is a skill I doubt I'll ever pick up.
Thankfully, Isle of Dogs started to turn into Canary Wharf again, and I was running through the cold glass and steel surroundings of the modern financial district of London. You could easily be in New York here – I always remember this stage from watching the Marathon on TV as a child.
I waved to the RNLI supporters who had a stand at Canary Wharf – another turbo boost just like cruising over Tower Bridge. Except this was MY turbo boost – because of my bright orange bib. Anyone with an involvement in the RNLI felt like an extended family on the day.
The boost from the RNLI cheers got me onto what I convinced myself was the "home strait" – still many many miles from the finish line, but finally the road you run is taking you back towards the centre of London. The direction I had been craving to head in ever since passing Tower Bridge.
By the time I was passing Somerset House, and the second RNLI stand full of cheerers, I could feel the excitement taking over my whole body. The turbo boost of passing the Thames RNLI station, combined with the realisation I only had a few miles to go, made me realise: I think I am going to complete this.
That feeling made me realise something else: I think I can perhaps run faster. I think I can speed up. I can see the Houses of Parliament, I am so nearly there.
The finish line and beyond
Throughout my training, my number one priority was to get through the race, and complete the 26.2 miles. My extremely quiet secondary goal was to achieve a time of under 4 hours. I didn't tell anyone about this goal, but I could feel it eating me inside to try to aim for it.
On the day, I ignored any concept of time – I simply ran in the moment. I ran to what my body told me, and I absorbed every ounce of energy the crowd could give me.
By the time I reached Buckingham Palace, and sprinted as hard and as fast down the seemingly infinitely long Mall, I knew one thing for sure: I am going to finish!
I ran through the finish line, and... I, I... I DID IT! I did it!! I finished!!
I didn't have any idea what time I had done – the big clock on the finish line isn't of much value unless you're Mo Farah. And the idea of the time of day and calculating that minus the time you crossed the start line is not an equation I had the mental capacity to complete.
My first realisation of my time was a text – "Under 4 hours!" – I didn't believe it.
As you finish you're looked after by some of the most amazing volunteers you could ever have the privilege of meeting.
From the people handing out bananas and water, to those giving out medals, to the paramedics checking you're OK, to the wonderful lady who wrapped the foil around me: “don’t worry, if you’re mum can’t be here to do it – that’s what I’m here for.”
All I can remember at this point is wanting to break down in tears. But I had no tears, I just had the feeling of speechlessness and disbelief.
The whole day
On the 28th April 2019 I ran the London Marathon, along with 42,484 others. I raised £2,788.36 for charity. And my official time for completely the run was 3 hours 56 minutes and 10 seconds.
To everyone who donated to the RNLI, to all the amazing volunteers, medical professionals, and race stewards who made the race happen (and would otherwise be helping out today), to everyone at the RNLI who made it a sheer pleasure to take part, to all the thousands of runners who trained so hard, and to all of the amazing family and friends who supported me – thank you.
If you've ever wondered about doing the London Marathon, I hope this post will make you realise you can do it, and that it'll be worth it.
* It turns out, my fellow RNLI runner at the start of the race was Mike Carhart-Harris – who was kind enough to read this post and message me to let me know. You rock, Mike!