Finding myself on the streets of London as I beat my previous London Marathon appearance, 14 years earlier, by 2 hours and 3 minutes.
I sat down on a path in Dulwich Park on 10th September just before 7am, shortly after being forced to abruptly stop my training run due to a nagging pain in my right hamstring. With the wires from five sensors connected to a heart monitor poking out from under my shirt that the hospital asked me to wear for 24 hours after having experienced heart palpitations two days earlier. I thought my London Marathon appearance for 2021 was over and had a lot of uncertainty about the future.
In the very least I knew any semblance of a good training effort was unlikely for the remaining 3 and a half weeks. This wasn’t great news, and in the past I would have held a major pity party, and that may well have been the case had I not spotted a snail. Yes, a snail.
It immediately took my attention off my latest training drama, and as I watched it make its way across the path, a calm descended on me. A sense of perspective soon followed. I watched it (and recorded the moment) for 2 minutes and it had a profound impact on me. I needed to be patient and slow down, in all areas of my life.
My aspirations could take slightly longer but they were not out of my reach. I needed to be less serious and smell the roses along the journey towards my goals. In the immediate term. I needed to focus, embrace the situation and do whatever the one thing was that would move me towards my goal. In practicality, that was to get up and start the walk/limp home.
Over the course of the next 3 weeks, after being given a clean bill of health for my heart (which I was very grateful for), I had various attempts to get back to running. Interspersed with massages and acupuncture, ice and a number of epsom salt baths. Supported by thigh and ankle strapping and metres of kinesiology tape.
My hamstring issues reappeared twice there after, including just 2 weeks before the race. Thinking clearly I called a cab rather than aggravate it further and didn’t run for 5 days. In the past I would have ignored and denied it was there and caused more damage by carrying on. More massage and acupuncture and a few final runs. Including a 2hr 20 min 17.5 miler visualising the finishing line on The Mall and I knew I would be able to get to the start line.
During that run I set myself a goal of getting round in a good time the following week.
The build up to the marathon included a trip to the Expo and London Excel. It was fantastic to be around so many participants and really feel the vibe for Sunday. Meeting the WellChild team was brilliant and to see so many other individuals were running for them. Hearing we had raised over £200,000 to help sick children was humbling and inspiring.
Different for 2021 was the fact I had to drop a bag, that had been sent to me previously, with my post race clothing and other items, at the expo. This would be collected after the race and have my medal, finishers t-shirt and drinks added. I spoke with Stuart from Abbott World Marathons about the virtual Abbott Marathon in November. I have applied for this as my next target. Running all Abbotts is a goal of mine.
Sunday 3rd October 2021 – Race Day
My alarm went off at 5:30AM after an epsom salt back and an early night after laying out my kit for the next day. This was it. London Marathon morning! I had porridge oats and almond milk, strapped up my legs and ankles with tape, and put on my race gear. As we could not leave anything at the finish line, it was recommended to wear items of clothing to keep warm that you were happy to discard and would be donated to charity. I likely put as much thought into what to wear (and say goodbye to) as my race strategy!
Leaving my house and getting to my local station I immediately saw other runners. The swell grew at each stop and nods of respect and a few words of encouragement were shared. It was noticeably chilly (still before 8am) which was the centre of the conversation.
Arriving at Blackheath the atmosphere was buzzing with the hum of anticipation in the air. I walked up to the Blue start area, where we had to show our negative lateral flow test, before entering the large field where there were toilets, a big screen, information desks and water stations. It was around 8.30am and still over an our till my wave (wave 3) was starting at 9.40-9.43.
Final preparation included eating a banana, a long dynamic warm up, various chats with other runners, entertainment on the screen from Peckham BMX, seeing the elite runners start, and final visit to the toilet (the queue was well over ten mins).
Jogging over to my pen at the last call, I showed my number to enter, watched messages of encouragement from my boys and responded with my own. Took off my extra clothing, checked my laces (had another quick comfort break), and with a few hundred other runners in a rolling start we were off! We were running the London Marathon with 26.2 miles ahead of us.
Immediately memories started flooding back from running the course 14 years ago and new memories were being made. The support from my first few steps onwards was incredible. I had my name printed on my WellChild singlet in yellow letters and consistently I heard shouts of ‘Come on Phil’, ‘Well done Phil’, ‘Go Phil!’. What a difference from running alone in the early hours of the morning in South London, and the thrill and experience makes all the training worth it.
I settled into my running and unsurprisingly my pace was slightly quicker than my target 5min per kilometre. The first few km are downhill and, added to the adrenalin of running London and with others, it made a quicker tempo easy, with my heart rate still in check.
At around the 5k mark, all runners have merged from the three different start lines. I found there to be sufficient space to go at my own pace for most of the race, with the occasional pinch point. But it was worth it to feel a sense of community and camaraderie with others setting off running their own race. The encouragement continued as we ran west from East London.
My nutrition plan for the day was to have an energy gel every 30 mins, from 40 minutes into the race, and top it up with fluids every 15 minutes, from one hour in. This meant I was carrying seven orange SIS gels and around 250ml of water with an electrolyte table dissolved, in my soft drinks bottle. I held all this around my person in my Naked running belt and vest.
The first gel was consumed and it helped keep me focused with something to keep track off on my watch, as well as my pace and heart rate. The only point I felt uneasy was after inadvertently adding to my nutrition plan by drinking an additional energy drink offered on the course. This led to my throat grating and slight nausea later on in the race. I managed to settle my stomach when I next drank water, also offered by the incredible volunteers (Thank you!).
The Cutty Sark was the first major landmark we visited around on the South of the River Thames. It is an iconic location on the course and the noise was electric. Whilst one of the slowest and congested sections, as you have loop around the boat before continuing on your way, I could not help by smile broadly at the vibrancy and positive vibes, coming from the crowds. They were ten deep at points. All celebrating the event, the participants, and the fact some semblance of normality was back. The London Marathon was being run again in person, and virtually, by so many. That was something to celebrate in itself.
From about an hour in, after having my first sip of fluids, I put on my Audible book to help me stay in the present on the long straight before we crossed the river. As pre-planned Marcus Aurelius – Meditations was my book of choice. I get a lot from listening and reading the great Stoics and this book in particular helps keep me grounded, grateful and humble and living my best life in the moment, as it could be my last.
There are both kilometre and mile markers in London, and a blue line on the ground indicating the perfect route to run 26.2 miles and no more. Combined with my Garmin watch, this all helps keep track on how far you are from the ideal route at any point. My watch indicated that I reached each distance slightly earlier than the course distance marker but I was not wildly off track. This is important if you are targeting a specific time as you could have a false sense of comfort you are within your target time. In reality, it actually takes you a couple of minutes or to reach the finish line, which is your official marathon time, not your watch.
Back to the present and I was approaching the famous river crossing over Tower Bridge (headphones out!). WHAT AN EXPERIENCE. The crowds were amazing from the second we could see the bridge in the distance. The build up and anticipation is palpable and it does not fail to deliver. Continuous cheering from both sides really brings a sense of euphoria and it is easy to be swept up in a sense of achievement. However, having ran the race before I knew were not even at the halfway point. In my mind, from an effort perspective, halfway is really at 20 miles, not 13.1. This experience and perspective helped me considerably, compared to my naivety in 2007 when I allowed myself to get distracted and lose focus on the challenge ahead.
Turning right, back out towards Canary Wharf, it is at this point you can see the quicker runners running towards you, over eight miles ahead. I was in awe of the pace I saw from the athletes ahead who had covered over 32k. It was my pleasure to clap them as they passed. But then it was time to get back to my own race as we passed the 13.1 mile (halfway) marker.
Running through the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf is considered one of the hardest parts of the route as the exhilaration of Tower Bridge dims, and the realisation of so much more road ahead of you dawns. This year, however, I was prepared. Embedded in my mind from 2007 was the moment I stopped running. In the underpass around 24.5k into the race.
All those years ago I didn’t really get going again and it took around 3 hours just to finish from that point. I have played back that moment, returning to the underpass in my mind and the realisation of my situation 14 years ago, many times. Running through the underpass for the second time I felt a lot of emotion, I real sense of poignancy. Like I was washing away of the hurt, the negative sentiment I have pressed on myself, and the rewriting of a new narrative. I looked up and thanked God for opportunity and blessing of being able to conquer my adversity in some small way. Although it had taken 14 years, the time doesn’t matter, I had returned, faced up to my challenge, been vulnerable and humbly committed to learn from my previous experience and overcome the obstacle in the way.
“The obstacle in the way, becomes the way”Marcus Aurelius
The cheering continued throughout, I vividly recall the sincerity and warmth in the encouragement that continued. I did laugh however at one point where it felt everyone was calling my name, only to realise there was another runner to my right also called Phil. But I’ll keep telling myself those cheers were all for me 🙂
As we turned back toward the way from which we came I was feeling strong and calm, and in fact was passing other runners. The GPS signal was not great because of the high office buildings so I had to rely on feel and it felt good not to ‘clock watch’ for a few minutes.
Just before the 20 mile marker a particularly loud cheer came from the crowd on my left. I was my work colleague Kieron! What a delight to see someone I knew with his broad grin on his face. It gave me such a lift as I entered the last 10k, which I consider physically and mentally the halfway point on a marathon. A quick check-in on my body, in particular my heavily strapped hamstrings, and apart from a few niggles we were all good.
Each kilometre and mile was ticked off one by one. I could not help but count them down now. Turning back to the river had led to being faced by a brisk headwind, and some unexpected sunshine. We really had lucked out on the weather.
The Blackfriars underpass emerges onto Embankment. I used to run along the river here in the opposite direction a few times a week for a number of years in my lunch break, when working close by. This time, again drawing from memories of my run (or for the second half, my walk) in 2007, I dug deep and pressed forward. Turning the corner at Big Ben, the final kilometre or so is recognised around the world as one of the most iconic finishes in world sport. A long stretch up to Buckingham Palace having passed the 600m to go marker, through the 385 yards to go arch and here I was, on The Mall, still running, still striving, still smiling. The absolute joy and relief and sense of achievement as I crossed the line was unexplainable.
I had not beaten my personal best, but I had achieved my goal of bettering my only previous London Marathon time by 2 hours. The burden of being vulnerable in this journey lifted off my shoulders. Putting myself out there, reliving difficult memories of 2007, facing up to the obstacle in the way and overcoming various major set backs in preparation, the challenge of hitting my fundraising goal, combined with my growth as a person this year created a melting pot of emotion that transcended anything I have felt before. Elation, disbelief, and pure euphoria. Suddenly, an inner peace descended on me and a sense of calm confidence at the realisation that this was a turning point in my life. I will take this momentum forward and cannot wait to see what the future holds.
There are so many people to thank who have supported me in this journey. Firstly, and most importantly, my wife Christina, who is my rock. I have been training hard, and at times, being super focused on my running and writing has led to long runs at inconvenient times. Christina has been so supportive, as have my boys, who I hope in some way, will witness my effort and growth by facing challenges, as a path they may seek to follow. Thank you to my physio, Scott Newton, my coach Kev Hanover, and my sports therapist, Tessa Glover. All who have been key parts of my development and recovery from injuries. I would not have got to the start line without them. Thank you to WellChild who gave me the opportunity to run again in the worlds greatest marathon. Finally to all my friends and family who have supported me with encouragement and sponsorship, it means the world to me. We passed the target of £1600 for WellChild which will help a lot of sick kids.
If you have been considering challenging yourself to hit a fitness goal, no matter whether it is a 5k run or marathon, please just do it. I started walking as I couldn’t run more than a few minutes back in 2006. It is one of life’s simple joys and anyone can do it. Please have the confidence to try. I believe in you, and I am here for you, as is the amazing running community and humanity itself.
If you don’t believe me, just watch a video of the crowds at London on Marathon day. A joyous celebration of human spirit and collective support. And you can be a part of it too. Keep entering if you do not have success in the ballot, or run for a charity, you will truly have one of the greatest experiences of your life.