London Marathon Race Review

My last race was in February 2020. I had two marathons planned in 2020, Boston and New York. Neither of those happened obviously. Both were moved to 2021, but Boston reduced their field size, so no Boston for me in 2021. Instead I got the chance to run London, which I obviously took, since it’s almost impossible to get into the London Marathon through the ballot (about a 4% chance, probably less if you do not live in the UK). But London was now taking place in October and New York still at the beginning of November, so I decided to postpone New York until next year. 

Despite the pandemic, I was pretty fit in 2020. I ran a 5K PB in February and I ran two virtual marathons within the span of a month in September and October. Skip ahead to the beginning of 2021 and I hardly have the energy to walk the mile to the grocery store. Not sure what happened, presumably something to do with my heart medication since I wasn’t ill or something like that. It just happened. 

This lasted for about 6 months until I decided to switch medication and things started to improve a little. But it resulted in my longest run for the marathon being only 16K. Not the most ideal preparation, but I also didn’t have the option of deferring my place at London, it was a take it or leave it kind of thing. 

I decided to take the gamble, but this being Covid times, the gamble required me to take several covid tests for me to be able to run. I took a PCR test in order to be able to fly to the UK and get into the expo to drop off my bag and pick up my number.

Friday

Unfortunately, due to Brexit and slow traffic, I only arrived at the expo 45 minutes before it was due to close. So I quickly dropped off my bag (which you now needed to drop off at the expo, rather than on race day to minimize touch points, although I’m not sure having 40,000 runners at the expo really counts as minimizing touch points, but at least they’d all been tested). There was also not a whole lot of merchandise left at the New Balance stand, at least not for the women, for the men there was still quite a bit. So I left the expo a bit disappointed, since I’m normally a fan of World Marathon Major expos, but due to the late arrival and due to covid, this one was kind of disappointing. 

London Excel, London Marathon Expo

Saturday

On Saturday it was time for test number two to get me into the starting pen the next day and test number three to let me fly home again on Monday. I also went to the New Balance store to see if they had more merchandise. They did have a few marathon jackets left, but they were holding an event in the store so I was only allowed in for a few minutes. Managed to find a marathon jacket, happy I got that, but they didn’t have any of the stuff left with the Thames on it. It was a very rainy day today, so I didn’t do too much. Briefly went to the British Museum, but was also trying not to spend too much time on my feet. 

Race day

The weather predictions looked good for race day, about 11 degrees in the morning and about 16 in the afternoon, but in the afternoon the wind might pick up and there might be some showers. The waves were more spread out this year than previous years due to Covid. Rather than starting one wave after the other right away they had smaller waves which they started one by one. London Marathon had increased the number of bibs of the actual race from around 40,000 to around 50,000 and besides the actual race there were also 50,000 bibs available for the virtual race, but I’m pretty sure London didn’t really count on all of those actually taking part. 

The good part was that they gave you a clear window of time to arrive at the station closest to your start line (there are three start lines: Red, Green and Blue which could start simultaneously and the first few kilometers of the route would be different and after about 5k they would merge, a bit like the New York Marathon) and a clear time of when to be in the starting area and when your wave would start. I actually liked it this way, since I was the last wave for the Blue start, I knew when I needed to be there rather than having to wait around in the cold for hours. I hope London keeps it that way, since it went really smoothly and you don’t have runners waiting in start pens for no reason. The start waves also weren’t that busy, a bit under a thousand runners per wave, which also meant the runners were spread out over the course more easily, giving you some space to run.

Waiting for the start

Since I’d been so low on energy for most of the year and having a bit of an achilles niggle for the past few months, I either expected to run out of energy during the race (which is a struggle anyway with a heart rate of 180+ for at least 6 hours) or for my achilles to kill me at the end of the race. Neither which actually happened. 

The first few kilometers were downhill and everything went fine. London Marathon is known for its runners in fancy dress running for charity, so along the way I saw a rhino, a four person fire truck and a guy keeping a football in the air the entire time. After about 5 kilometers the Blue and Red routes merged and not much later I saw Chris running in front of me, quickly said hi, after which we continued on at our own pace. After about 10k you get to Greenwich and the Cutty Sark. There were quite some spectators there and some tv cameras. 

I managed to keep a decent pace until 13k after which I slowed a bit, but it went alright. At around 20k you round a corner and all of a sudden there it is, Tower Bridge. What a sight. Running over Tower Bridge with people cheering you on is quite special. But shortly after that I noticed my lower back started to hurt and I remember thinking “that’s pretty soon, I still have a really long way to go”. I looked at the tracking app and it was still predicting me to finish in about 6 hours. That seemed a little too optimistic. 6:15 seemed more realistic. On my way to Canary Wharf my calves started to hurt as well. Later on my quads started to hurt as well. Of course, running a marathon hurts, but normally it starts hurting from 30k onwards, not from 21k.

In the beginning of the race I had felt my achilles a little bit, but ironically at this point it didn’t hurt at all anymore, but the muscles in my legs had trouble contracting. Since they had bottles of water on the course, I decided to change my nutrition plan a little bit. Normally I use 4 sticks of Tailwind in one bottle and carry that with me and drink water along the way. But the Tailwind is very strong and I don’t really like the strong flavor. So for London I decided to mix two sticks in a bottle, drink that until it was gone and then take sticks with me and mix those on the go in the water bottles they had on the course. In hindsight, not a great idea. The top of the bottles were quite hard to unscrew and the Tailwind sticks had been in my flipbelt for quite a while by that point and the powder had been pressed together. So in the end, I could hardly get the bottles open and hardly get the powder in, resulting in me not actually drinking the entire two sticks I had planned on. I did drink the Lucozade they offered on the course, but there were only three lucozade stations with cups that were only filled about ⅓ of the way (obviously you can’t put that much in them, because you need to be able to grab them while running).

At around 30k I had the feeling like I’d already ran a marathon, but I still had 12k to go. It was getting harder and harder to lift up my legs. I also noticed the sky was getting dark and there was no way to avoid the downpour. It also got very windy at that point, so far a short while it was very wet and cold, but luckily it didn’t last long. 

London Marathon is known for its crowds. If you ask runners what they like about the London Marathon, they are quite likely to answer the crowd. Normally there are over a million people along the course. Due to covid the organisation had asked to only bring one supporter per runner, but it also seems that other spectators stayed home and maybe watched the marathon on tv instead. Either way, there definitely weren’t a million people along the course. Especially at Canary Wharf it was pretty quiet. Sure, there are always less people along the course when I come by, since I’m a back of the pack runner, but even rewatching it on TV it still didn’t look as busy as previous editions. It definitely wasn’t as deafening as the crowds in Brooklyn during the New York Marathon. 

Almost at the finish

At around 35k I decided that I probably needed more salt, but didn’t have any extra with me, since my Tailwind normally had enough in it. I decided that if I saw a supermarket along the course I could just quickly pop in and get something salty. However, we were heading back to central London at this point and the roads here were closed off on both sides, meaning it wasn’t really possible for me to just leave the course unless I maybe climbed over the barriers, but I could hardly lift my feet, let alone climb over the barriers. So, I came up with plan B, surely the medics along the course would have salt. In the meantime spectators along the course were handing out sweets a lot, but that wasn’t what I was looking for. 

I struggled my way to around 38k. At this point I was even struggling to maintain a decent walking pace let alone a decent running one. I found a group of medics and physios and asked for salt, but they didn’t have any (I was somewhat surprised about this, since everything else was really well organised). So I decided to keep sipping the Tailwind I had left and just struggle on for the last few kilometers. Along the Embankment, the Houses of Parliament and past Buckingham Palace on to the finish. In the end I finished in 06:24:27. Not my fastest time, but faster than Chicago in 2019.

London Marathon medal

I picked up my bag, which already had my t-shirt and medal in it (pick up crates were numbered and they had put that on your bib, again, very well organised) and struggled my way back to the hotel. I did pass a tube station along the way, but it had stairs and that definitely didn’t seem like an option at that point. With previous marathons I had taken the metro back to my hotel and navigated stairs, but my legs were definitely worse than previous marathons since the pain started so much earlier in the race. What went wrong? I guess probably a combination of things. I wasn’t well trained, had changed my nutrition plan slightly and I also had the feeling that my body chose to use my muscles as energy source sooner (using fat is not really an option with such a high heart rate) rather than trying to shut down my GI tract. The positive side effect of that was that I was less nauseous after the race, but it didn’t help my race time.  

I’m not unhappy about the time, it’s about average for me. But it would have been nice if I could have enjoyed the run a bit more rather than being in pain and it would have also been nice to enjoy the famous crowds. But I realize that I’m lucky that I had the opportunity to run London at all, since it’s so difficult to get in and it’s also great to see mass events returning after covid. And I got my 4th World Marathon Major star, just two more to go. 

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