The atmosphere started to build almost from the start of my journey to Greenwich Park from Barons Court at 6.45 in the morning. It only took two stops on the Underground before several fellow Marathon runners got on, immediately recognisable by their red Virgin kitbags and timing chips on their shoes. Conversation was instant: “Is this your first time…which start are you on?” Numbers snowballed with every stop, all bound for Charing Cross. Eventually an army of us arrived at Greenwich.
There was an air of nervous excitement in Greenwich Park. I had arrived early to enjoy the atmosphere and just take in the occasion. I chatted to a few people in between trips to the loo but after a couple of conversations all I wanted to do was to get on with it. At 9.00am it was time for me to start my race routine. I stripped off, packed up my kit and checked my bag onto the baggage lorry. After a quick warm up I was in my starting pen buzzing with anticipation. The spirit of the runners was fantastic. I was chatting with a group of runners around me. At a different time and place we would have buried our heads in our newspapers and ignored each other – but not here. On the start line of the London Marathon the goodwill and spirit of shared endeavour was palpable.
Then the moment came. “4, 3, 2, 1…” boomed out over the PA system helped by the crowd. We didn’t hear the hooter but we heard a cheer and then…… nothing. I am sure someone further forward was running but we weren’t. After a few minutes we began to shuffle forward, then walk and then stride out. Finally after about 15 minutes we walked through the gates of Greenwich Park, turned sharp left and there in front of us was the start line – a large red arch emblazoned with the words: “Good luck- we’ll see you at the finish”. Without a moment to take in the scene we were running under the arch and into the 2012 London Marathon.
The first few miles had a party atmosphere. The sun was shining brightly, it was warm, people were chatting and laughing and the large crowd at the start were very enthusiastic. But it soon became obvious that the crowd hadn’t gathered just for the the start – it was going to be like this all the way. I tried to settle down into a rhythm but the sheer number of runners made it almost impossible to get any pace – no bad thing. As things spread out I picked my way past a few people but then thought better of it. “Go with the flow” I told myself “Be patient”.
After about 3 miles the runners from the Red Start and the Blue Start converged. A loud chorus of boos went up when we saw them which was answered by their jeers. It was all good natured and in a moment we merged into one race. On through Charlton the crowds didn’t let up but a real taste of what was to come greeted us in Greenwich Town Centre. Spectators standing 3 or 4 deep on the pavement hollering their support. A jazz band was playing outside a pub and the smell of smoke from a barbecue hung in the air. This wasn’t a long distance run, this was a party. As we ran through Greenwich I experienced the first of two incredible coincidences. In front of me I recognised a girl called Kayla who I had run most of the Race Your Pace ½ with in February. She seemed pleased of some company and we ran together for the next 10 miles.
The next big landmark was the Cutty Sark at about the 6-mile mark. As great as it was to see this famous landmark back on the London Marathon course, the sharp hair pin bend in the road that wound around it became a real bottleneck and the race slowed to a jog. I had to keep reassuring myself that there were over 20 miles left in which to make up any time we lost here.
Once we passed Cutty Sark I felt as though I had really settled into my pace. Despite the crowded road I was managing to maintain my planned 9-minutes a mile pace, I felt good and so far there was no complaint from my knee. As we pressed on, still south of the river, through Deptford, Rotherhithe and Bermondsey I was bowled over by the sheer size and enthusiasm of the crowds. Over the next 6 miles we passed choirs singing, a band of bagpipers piping, cheer leaders, a drum ensemble, a steel band and several mobile discos. Every pub had a party. South London was rocking!
With the 12-mile mark behind us and almost 2 hours on the clock, we left Bermondsey on Tooley Street before taking a sharp right hand turn towards the River Thames. I wasn’t prepared for what I saw next. It seemed like all of a sudden soaring above us in all its glory was Tower Bridge – what an incredible sight. The bridge was packed with people occupying every vantage point. Even the small windows at the very top of the bridge had people leaning out of them. Crossing this iconic London landmark in this way, deafened by the noise of the cheering crowd, was a real moment to savour.
Over the bridge we turned right and started the procession out to the Docklands. For many this is a low point. You instinctively want to turn left over Tower Bridge and head towards the City and the finish. Turning away from all that just reminds you that the job is only half done. For me though this was to be a high point because another ½ a mile or so down the Highway was the Shelter cheering point where my family and friends were. Looking intently at the passing runners trying to pick me out were Cate and Matilda together with my sister Lucie, her family, our friend Tor and her daughter Sophia. I saw them before they saw me. I stopped briefly, enough time for shrieks of recognition and high fives all round before continuing on my way with a loud cheer from all the Shelter supporters ringing in my ears. It is difficult to describe just how uplifting it is to see your family and friends standing at the side of the road supporting you. It put a spring in my step for a mile or two. In all the excitement I had also just passed the half way mark in almost exactly 2 hours. So at this stage I was on track. But the hard part was to come.
I felt OK as we ran through Limehouse and started a 3-mile loop round the Isle of Dogs. As we ran up the Westferry Road during mile 16, the second of my coincidences happened. Alison, one of the many runners with who I had shared the experience on Twitter, appeared just in front of me – at least I thought it was her. I had never met her but I recognised her from the cause she was running for which was written on her back. I ran just in front of her to see if she had a name on her front and she did. I said a brief hello, but knew that if she felt like me, now was not a great time for conversation, so I pressed on. Out of 37,000 runners, what were the chances?
It was somewhere about mile 17 that I began to feel the effects of my efforts – nothing sudden, but my legs had become noticeably heavier and my feet were sore. The Isle of Dogs part of the race was my low point. It was a long way into the race but still a long way from the finish. I tried to break the race ahead into “bite-sized” chunks. Let’s get to Canary Wharf I told myself – we can think again there.
Canary Wharf was worth getting to! It had been designated as the “Virgin Money Mile”. The race program promised this would be a mile of “cheering, music and excitement”. It was a perfect description. Once again spectators were standing many deep on the pavement and the atmosphere was amazing. Canary Wharf is a small business district and is made up of a collection of skyscrapers. It was a little disorientating not to be able to see the sky but the atmosphere more than made up for it. The noise of the crowd and the live music echoed around the buildings making it all sound louder than it really was. However this only briefly took my mind off the job in hand which was getting harder and harder. I had now passed mile 18 and maintaining my pace was becoming a challenge. I felt like I was working hard but looking at my watch I could see my pace was dropping. On top of this the route through Canary Wharf was full of twists and turns – there are 6 ninety-degree turns in the space of a mile. This meant a lot of stopping and starting which disrupted any rhythm I had left. By the time I turned out of Canary Wharf I think I knew that a sub 4 hour finish was going to be very hard. The next couple of miles were tough.
As we turned onto Poplar High Street at about mile 20 I felt my morale lift very slightly. For the first time all day we were pointing straight at the finish line even if it was over 6 miles away. I tried to encourage myself. “It’s just a 10k” I said over and over. At this point I had to admit that I wasn’t going to beat 4 hours. It was now important that I gave myself a new goal or I knew I would see my time just drift away from me. My watch said 3.07 hours. I told myself that even in my current state I could run 10k in an hour. “4 hours and 10” I told myself. “We are going to finish in under 4 hours and 10”. And on I went.
On Poplar High Street, for the first time all day I felt hungry. I had eaten nothing apart from energy bars and gels since 6.15 that morning – no wonder I was hungry. And then something extraordinary happened, as if someone intervened to help me. About 20 yards ahead of me an arm came out of the crowd holding a peeled banana. It sounds comical to recount this now but at the time I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. I looked at the man holding it as if to ask if the banana was for anyone in particular. He nodded at me, the look on his face telling me that it was mine if I wanted it. I took it and thanked him. He said nothing and bent down to pick up another banana to peel for the next runner in need. It tasted like no other banana has ever tasted! As silly as it may seem, that moment above all captured the spirit of the London Marathon for me. This man was spending his day giving to people in need and asking nothing in return. Whatever else he was, at that weary, fatigued moment he felt like my guardian angel.
As mile 20 came and went in Poplar, I knew that the next hour was going to be hard – harder than I had imagined. I had a mental plan to cope with this, but of course having devised it in my head and never truly tested it I shouldn’t have been surprised that it was no good – it wasn’t helping me. As the fatigue set in and every step became an effort I reached for anything I could to help me. Eventually I managed to get my daughter, Matilda’s, voice in my head saying “Come on Daddy you can do this”. I went round that short phrase on an endless loop. Then my niece Molly joined in. Molly and Matilda are great friends and the mental image and sound of them encouraging me really lifted me.
People will tell you that the crowds will carry you through. They are right to a point, the crowds were a huge support – I will never have anything but the highest praise for the London Marathoncrowd, but this was now about me. About how mentally strong I was and about what I had in my heart. The race was taking its toll elsewhere. Runners were stopping to stretch out cramp, others were standing by the roadside being treated by St John Ambulance volunteers. Gone was the jovial atmosphere of the first few miles. Everyone was now in their own world grimly trying to hang on – each in their own way. Around me more and more people started walking. I knew that if I walked it would be very difficult to start running again. “You are not going to walk” I ordered as if I was moderating a conversation between my mind and my body. “You are not going to walk” in between my daughter spurring me on. “You are not going to walk” became my mantra.
Progress was slow but I kept pace with my new sub 4.10 goal. Every step was an effort but eventually, after what seemed an age, but really was about 25 minutes, there was light at the end of the tunnel. The Tower of London was the first landmark that told me we were at the beginning of the end – 23 miles down. We ran on into Lower Thames Street and the familiar surroundings where I have done many of my early-morning training runs before work. Under the bridge at Cannon Street with hundreds of cheering spectators looking down on us and then into the underpass on Upper Thames Street. Here I saw Kayla again. We had split up at about mile 13. I asked how she was doing. She looked at me with a straight face and uttered a single word: “Shit!” No humour. Just an honest appraisal of what she felt. She didn’t want to talk so I pressed on.
As we came out of the underpass and back into the daylight by Blackfriars Bridge the first thing I saw was the London Eye. A welcome and impressive site. But as I came round the long slow bend onto Victoria Embankment I couldn’t quite take in what I saw. The entire length of the Embankment was a throng of people on either side. They were standing 5 or 6 deep as far as the eye could see, surrounded by flags, balloons, sails, banners. It was the most incredible sight. The noise of cheers, hooters, horns and music was almost deafening. Just when I thought I had seen it all in Greenwich, Tower Bridge and Canary Wharf, this! It was as though the London Marathon had saved the best for last. Every charity had a cheering point on the Embankment, each doing its best to be the loudest and most encouraging. Every time I looked up at the crowd I saw nothing but smiling, friendly faces willing runners on. I had my name printed across my chest and must have heard “Come on Peter” 20 times as I ran. If I had not been so entirely spent I am sure I would have cried but I didn’t even have the energy for that. I looked out for Cate and Matlilda at the Shelter cheering point but my mind was fuzzy and I couldn’t quite work out where it was – even though I had written its location on a band on my wrist! But as I made my way down this human corridor of goodwill I knew my job was almost done. I even found a slightly longer and faster stride although not for long.
Slowly Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament hove into view as I ran under the 25-mile arch. Never have those historic buildings looked so good! A sharp right into Parliament Square and then on into Birdcage walk – almost there. A sign board in the middle of the road told us there were 800 metres to go. I could see the next sign up ahead saying 600 metres to go but it was a long time coming. At the end of Birdcage Walk we took a sharp right in front of Buckingham Palace and under the arch which said “You have 385 metres left”. This was our gateway to the Mall to begin the triumphant run down the home straight, the run that I have done over and over in my mind in the last 4 months. I thought I would want to savour it, to enjoy my moment of triumph. I had even thought, when imagining it, that I might want to slow down to let the moment soak in but not a bit of it. I just wanted to cross the finish line and stop running. Slowly but surely my weary legs carried me along the Mall and to the finish. I crossed the line after 4 hours and 8 minutes of running and went from London Marathon Runner to London Marathon Finisher.
For a moment I felt nothing except a physical sense of relief that I could stop. I walked for a bit, feeling slightly unsteady and was funnelled into the finish area with everyone else over a small wooden walkway. At the end of it I was greeted by a cheerful lady who smiled and hung a medal round my neck. God bless her. She had probably hung several thousand medals that day, but she looked me in the eye with a huge smile and said a heartfelt “Well done” as if I was the first person she had decorated.
As I walked through the finish area I took a moment to myself. I looked at my medal and finally the excitement overcame me and I punched the air with both fists and shouted “Yes!”. Then excitement gave way to emotion. Exhausted and with my defences low and feelings high, there were a few tears.
I was soon reunited with my family and friends at the Shelter reception in Villiers Street. Shelter have been a fantastic support and their after race party was no different. I almost lost it again as I walked in and the entire gathering stopped and applauded me as they did every runner who arrived at the party having finished. Everyone was on a “runners high” – chatting away furiously, each with their own war stories to tell. It was just a marvellous time to savour our experience.
So my London Marathon 2012 story is at an end and I think it has ended successfully. I didn’t make my sub 4 hour target. But written on my wrist during the Marathon, as it had been on all my long training runs, were the words: “Be All You Can Be”. I think on the day I was that – I left nothing out on the course.
My memories of this experience are too many to list here – but all positive. The million-strong London Marathon crowd who lined almost the entire 26-mile route are unforgetable. The run over Tower Bridge, seeing my family at the Shelter cheering point and the Banana Man on Poplar High Street are also highlights. But the run up Victoria Embankment will be the indelible image that will always stay with me. It was simply breathtaking.
I am sure I will actively enjoy the satisfaction and sense of achievement of my London Marathon run for some time to come but there will come a time when I will, metaphorically at least, pack my London Marathon 2012 experience up in a box and store it away. And I will open it on occassions in the future when I want to remind myself of the soaring spirit that people are capable of; or when I want to reassure myself that we can do anything when we put our mind to it; or if I want to reaffirm to myself that in the right conditions, the default behaviour of human beings is to be generous, kind and helpful. But most of all I will open it simply to bring back all the special memories of that extraordinary day in April when I ran the London Marathon.