I’m reading a book by Rob Macfarlane called ‘The Old Ways’. It’s a book about journeys on foot, essentially an exploration of walking both physically and metaphorically. Macfarlane is passionately interested in place, the use of space by humans and their interaction with the environment. He is also interested in ghosts, not in the traditional haunting sense but rather as companions on our own journeys. Old wayfarers travelling old pathways. Somehow we have an awareness of those who have walked the path before us.
As well as the ability to recall metaphysical travellers, in The Old Ways, Macfarlane argues we can take those landscapes with us; ‘we tend to think of landscapes as affecting us most strongly when we are in them or on them, when they offer us the primary sensations of touch and sight. But there are also the landscapes we bear with us in absentia, those places that live on in the memory long after they have withdrawn from actuality, and such places – retreated to most often when we are most remote from them – are among the most important landscapes we possess’.
I’ve long suspected both to be true. Many times over the years I have felt companionship while travelling paths alone, both urban and rural. Companionship that is ethereal not animal or vegetable and in some of my loneliest times, has been a source of comfort to me.
I also love to recall routes of runs I have done. They create a backdrop to my conceptualised happy place, (the dentist is never quite so scary when I can recreate the London Marathon in my head). I can while away hours, travelling virtually while on lockdown. And the mind is so clever, I can recreate emotions, smells, sights and other events happening in life at the time of running the event.
I started running with my father when I was small, it has been a faithful companion ever since. I’ve not always run regularly but I’ve always held the possibility of it in my heart. I picked it up again after I moved to London and wanted to train for the Metropolitan Police fitness test and then gradually increased distance. It was through work I learned of the local race circuit that existed in both running and triathlon.
In those days, before Ironman gained the popularity it has in recent times, running a marathon was the pinnacle of sporting prowess for the ‘average’ person. The London Marathon application process was still via ballot, but instead of online, a paper application needed to be completed and posted to Marathon HQ in London, then the long wait began.
London Marathon cashed the accompanying cheque before notification. So, instead of waiting for the magazine announcing the result to arrive, you could tell by checking whether your cheque had been cashed. My bank statement arrived the same day my friend rang to see if I had heard anything. I sat on the floor with phone wedged between ear and neck while I opened it. I saw it immediately, the line on the statement showing a cheque for £23 had been cashed.
I laughed and threw a few ‘Oh fucks’ to the sky, I was in.
The lead up to the first marathon is dominated by uncertainty. At that point, you genuinely don’t know whether your body can withstand being dragged around 26.2 miles. It turns out, that actually the dragging (as such) is not the hard part. The difficulty rests in having a reason to do so knowing it’s going to hurt. But in those days I was still naive so I downloaded a training plan from Runnersworld and followed it pretty much to the letter. (It’s the only time have ever really done so – but that’s another story for another day).
Running the marathon is much more of a mental than physical feat. When hosting my marathon training seminars, even now, I always start by telling the audience if they had to run a marathon the following day, they could. Sure, it would hurt, and they wouldn’t necessarily achieve their best performance and almost certainly would struggle to get out of bed the following day. But the key point was they COULD.
All they would need is a good enough reason to do it. So the training is about making the run more enjoyable and getting out of bed the next day a less exciting and painful experience. I would advise them to make sure they knew why they were doing it. The ‘why’ is the most important part of the whole bloody thing.
In truth, before the race I couldn’t have answered the why with any real altruistic reason. In the year or two before I had ridden John O’Groats to Lands End before running my first half marathon in the New Forest the weekend after. I ran too fast in the first half and so struggled over the last three miles but it didn’t feel terribly difficult. So, I felt enticed by the challenge of the marathon, the thought of which scared me.
The training went ok actually. I did most of the prescribed runs, even during a trip to New Zealand over the Christmas period. I was lucky enough to be working in Kennington in London at the time and took advantage of being able to run on a significant portion of the last four miles of the course.
I was starting from the blue pen, my conservative finish time putting me into pen eight of nine. One of the first things that strikes you when entering the start area is the energy. A latent flow with the potential to be either nerves or excitement depending on your interpretation.
There is an immediate sense of having a common goal. But instead of competitive it is supportive. As though the energy regardless of its original intent, is being concentrated on a specific direction (from start to finish) and is as powerful as a tsunami.
Other marathons have a similar feel, but none is so explicit as London. I suppose this is partly due to the narrow streets of London concentrating the flow of the runners and bringing supporters into close proximity. It is a life affirming place to be.
The first few miles from Blackheath were dominated by a sense of the mundane, expressed in the street furniture, the road humps, signs for schools and zebra crossings. I felt the domesticity of the place and felt out of sorts, a blot on the landscape.
The urban environment surprised me. One comes to assume the route is a plethora of landmarks. In fact the first 12 miles are made up of a cacophony of residential streets, car parks and high streets in the less salubrious parts of London, broken up by a fleeting view of the Cutty Sark in Greenwich.
I was extraordinarily excited to hit Tooley Street at the twelve mile mark. It was the first time I knew where I was and my own mind map kicked in with ghosts of my past visits.
Those were in the days before an upgraded London Bridge Station, drinking extortionately priced wine in Hays Galleria in the early nineties and earlier still, visiting the London Dungeon before it moved to the Southbank.
Of course, we didn’t get as far as London Bridge as the route turns right off Tooley Street and onto Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, iconic and undoubtedly recognisable. Once off the bridge the route turns right again and onto the Highway, the out and back section leading to the docklands, Isle of Docks and the city.
I was fascinated to get to this part as it was an area of London I had barely explored. People often describe the Isle of Dogs as a difficult part of the run, as then it was devoid of supporters (that’s not the case today, the route is wall to wall spectators from start to finish).
Personally, I loved it. After the sensory overload of the previous miles, the quiet was welcome and provided a pause, time to regroup and refocus. There was no doubt it was starting to hurt now.
In later marathons, I have always thought that if you can get to half way in a reasonable condition then the finish is in the bag. But in this run, I set my ‘get to’ distance at 16 miles, figuring beyond that I was in single figures and could walk it if required.
Once out of the Isle of Dogs, the route meanders into Canary Wharf. Tall buildings and lots of turns, it was really difficult to get a sense of of where I was. Lots of people have since reported a similar experience.
I don’t remember much about the first time through here, other than a sense of weekday workers streaming in and out of the buildings. They were represented in my mind as a blur of colour around the building entrances. It felt frantic and claustrophobic and I was very relieved to get out.
The last four miles of the London Marathon is a showcase of iconic skylines. Once off the highway, the route passes the Tower of London for the second time and then hugs the river along the north bank along the embankment towards Big Ben.
I was exhausted but supremely excited. I knew where I was, I had trained on these streets. I had walked and cycled along these roads a hundred times and they felt like old friends. It was here I felt the pull of the finish. Like a magnet strong, powerful and impossible to ignore. Despite my fatigue and drawing energy from the crowd lining either side of the road, I picked up the pace.
Just before Big Ben and the turn right across Parliament Square to Birdcage Walk, I bumped into a colleague from work. Strangely, in subsequent years I was to bump into him in practically the same spot twice more. It happened so often, I would wonder whether it was a coincidence or he was stalking me or indeed, I was seeing a repetition of our first meeting in my mind. We exchanged a few words and then I lost him in the crowd.
I read prolifically in the run up to the marathon. I tried to absorb as much information as I could and in the end, there was only one piece I retained sufficiently to use. It came to me in Birdcage Walk as I mentally prepared to run across the front of Buckingham Palace to the finish. The advice, was to ensure you check around you in the final minutes to make sure a bloke in a rhino suit wasn’t preparing to sprint past and ruin your photo. I had heard horrendous stories involving wombles, bananas, fridges and several groups carrying boats. I did not want to be a statistic!
So, I glanced over my right shoulder and to my eternal horror, saw the grim reaper with full scythe looming just beyond. Whether this was an omen or just fancy dress can not be determined. But I refused to accept being beaten by either. So I put my head down and sprinted for home, ruining forever the first ‘glory hands aloft as I cross the finish line’ shot.
The medal and post run comedy walk were not my only mementos of the event. A few days after the pain subsided, I was left with a budding passion for ‘going long’ and a feeling that soon my life was to change forever as a result of it.
Flora were the sponsors that year. Their ‘thank you’ advert featured an exhausted runner, lying on the grass under a tree. His shoes had been taken off and discarded next to him. The caption read ‘your heart loves you but your feet think you’re an idiot’ and that pretty much summed up what it was like to run my first marathon.