Race Review : The Virgin Money London Marathon 2017

You’re not allowed to say anything negative about London apparently. People go bananas about it. I have been warned. But then again I am not negative by default, I have been called a cynic, but I am more of a cynical realist, leaning towards being a closet optimist. I want every race to be awesome and some really are. I call races on the things lacking, that detract from the experience in an honest way. But telling me that I am not allowed to have any opinion other than staring starry eyed at it, foaming at the mouth, is not going to fly. In fact, I will list that people can be real dicks about London as the first negative point. See what did there, dicks? You became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Negative point #1 People can be real dicks about London.

Cue the HYPE!

There is a lot of hype around the London marathon and justifiably so. It is one of the 6 majors. It has been going for 30 years. It is one of the biggest marathons in the world. It is one of the best supported sporting events in the world. And it is the biggest mass participation charity event in the world. And maybe that is why I am reluctant to start this blog jumping around like a crazy person, foaming at the mouth and waxing rhapsodic about crossing Tower Bridge, the level of support, the Mall, Buck House, that tear jerking theme tune, and all the razzmatazz that comes as part and parcel of the Virgin London Marathon 2017.

This is a mass participation event that boasts well over 40,000 runners and is almost impossible to get into for some, and you have to look at the why. That is simple, the London marathon has charitable roots. It was started to raise funds for the people of London, the charities therein and for the betterment of many. There are GFA places that a lot of people I know get, club places.

Note: Here’s an idea, start a running club, apply to be recognised by the British or English Athletics Association and then apply for club places. It may be the easiest way to get in.

This leaves the ballot. In 2016 247,069 applied to run the race through the ballot, and had to wait the months and months until the result was announced. Many people were disappointed, most in fact, me included (for the 5th time), as am sure the ballot only offered 15,000 or so places, and many, who’s heart was set on running the London marathon, had to take the charity places available, and raise up to and beyond £2000. The fact that London gives away 15,000, 16,000 17,000 places to charities (and by gives away, I mean charges them a lot) means that those places are not available to runners who just want to run it, who don’t want the additional pain and stress of raising £2000 and the potential further pain of being hounded by the charities if you don’t get the minimum number they want. So I guess the argument a lot of people have is that you can run marathons all over the UK, all over the world, by just paying to run them. You don’t have to go through a ballot for most. Some, and I tend to agree, think that people who want to sign up and just run should be given more of a chance. If you are going to expand the numbers, expand them there. So negative point #2 is the number of places available for runners who don’t want to raise money for charities.

But all that said, it is clearly an amazing event. It raises a record breaking amount for charity every year and I do not think it is going to change anytime soon. It is growing in numbers, but am sure those numbers will be charity places too, and not given to the quarter of a million people entering the ballot.

And so there is a mixed reaction to London, although I would say a VAST majority of it is positive. But there are races that people either love or hate. I, for one, have absolutely no interest whatsoever in running the Great North Run. Some people love it. Some people hate it. I just think the sheer volume of people for a half marathon and the newspaper hype about getting entries is nonsense. Some people love it, and they are most welcome to have that opinion. I don’t hate it, I just don’t have any interest in running it.

For 5 years of running (Christ, has it been that long already, where did the time (and my hair) go?) I entered the ballot and got a rejection. I moaned about it a little, and the unfairness of the universe, but then moved on, picked other races in the Spring months to make up for it and ended up running Disney Florida and New Orleans in a US two-fer, and the Two Oceans in Cape Town, and Manchester and then Copenhagen Marathons last year. You just have to get over it. Indeed, this year, I was so over it by the announcement of yet another ballot failure that I signed up for Brighton, Barcelona and MK marathons.  So getting a London place on the cut-off day kinda makes it an interesting time with 4 marathons in a 7 week period.

The Brother and the 11th Hour

Two marathoners in the making (and a twonk)

So, how did I get to run it? Fortuitously is the answer. I had tried to be a little cheeky and entered both myself and my baby brother into the ballot to double my chance of getting a spot, as I firmly believed he would have absolutely no interest in it, or would show a modicum of interest before bailing mid-training and then give me his place, if I didn’t get one. And, of course, that is exactly what happened. Well, kinda.  Other than the fact that I did not get in, and that independently both my brother and I decided that, in his fortieth year it would be a great thing for him to do. And so it was that he got in and I did not.

Brother Coveting my Manchester Marathon Medal from last year

As history will highlight this is now becoming a “thing”, of me applying for something, not getting in, and then me telling other people about it, and them getting it. And he would not be the only London marathoner who got in because of me. It made me a bit of a grumpy sausage to be honest, but then a stroke of luck…

el grumpo

I do not know what made me do it, but I emailed my charity of choice (Pancreatic Cancer UK) out of the blue to say that I would be happy to step in if they needed me. I had done this before for Royal Parks last minute, and Berlin, as I was trained and happy to help out. After all, they have to pay for these places and if people drop out they lose that revenue. Anyway, I emailed then went to lunch and, whilst there my phone rang. Now, I never answer my phone, even if I know who it is, and this was an unknown number but still, for some reason, I answered it. It was the charity, people had dropped out, that day happened to be the deadline day for gold bond charity place registration, and could I sign up before 5. I did ask if the £2K could be raised over the course of the year and not just in the next 7 weeks and they said yes. Boom! In there like…

And so to the Race Targets

I have pushing my idea of having multiple targets and for Brighton and Barcelona was happy to hit at least some of the 10. For London, however, the targets have changed:

  1. Beat Brother!!!!!
  2. Finish (obvs)
  3. Finish well and healthy (again obvs)
  4. Finish having run most of the way
  5. Finish having run ALL of the way
  6. Sub 5 (it may sound easy, but given the muddy, hilly, difficult marathons I have run since November, it is not)
  7. Within 20 mins of my PB
  8. Within 10 mins of my PB
  9. PB
  10. Sub 4
  11. All of the above

My brother is 4 years younger than me, taught Krav for a while, but in the last few years has enjoyed the good life so much he has developed a bit of a paunch. But, as part of his marathon place, he got thousands of pounds worth of medical tests to make sure he was fit and healthy, a personal trainer and a tonne of my less used kit (including a Garmin Vivoactive), the jammie goit.

Chunk and Chunkier

 He did train, though, which is something I rarely do. I just run maintenance runs between races. He ran a 15 week program, discovering what it was like to push himself week on week, upping his miles. I was kinda jealous. And so that first target, to beat him, really was up in the air. And moreso given we were in different start pens. So I wouldn’t know if I had beaten him until after we had both finished.

Red Five

One for the Star Wars nerds here. This was my starting pen.

Red Five

The Race

The start area is huge and we took the Jubes to Canary Wharf, chatting with a fellow runner from Manchester who was running his first marathon, then the DLR to Greenwich. I sounded like a voice of reason and an old war horse as they speculated about x and y and I gave them anecdotal accounts of races from my years of running. I walked my brother to the start of his blue (ballot) pen, and then headed to the red (charity) pen where I caught up with Lou from Bacchus and Jen.

It was here that I was introduced to the term “Camelling.” I had not come across this before but Jen assured me that it mean two guys were running as a camel, one the front and one the back, like a pantomime horse. Although, I am not sure “camelling” is in common parlance outside of Jen’s south London realm.
Oi, Trev, fancy a bit of a camel? Audrey’s at bingo
Time ticked on and the toilet queue went down in the space of 25 minutes. You know, as you look at something in the distance and you can just about make it out as you walk towards it? And the closer you get the sharper in focus it gets with every step? Well that is true for smells too. I could smell the portaloos from a good 30 yards away and, with each step closer…
Once micturition was complete we made it to our pens. And praise the LORD! Hallelujah! The pens were actually policed. For the first marathon this year people checked our race numbers and wave numbers and we joined people who were actually supposed to be there, and not asshats who had pushed their way to an earlier wave. I was happy about this until, shortly after the start, when the announcer called out that someone in a Mr Blobby costume just went by. In wave 1? Oh come on! And I was determined that if I did anything that day, it would be to beat the guy/girl who started way ahead of us in costume.
And this would be the kind of race where the costumed folk get their day. After Jen and I had parted ways (she is a nippy one), a Womble ran alongside me for a while, then into the distance. It was Orinocco, and not Great Uncle Bulgaria. Both were there. I saw a heart, shoes, a helicopter, a boat, a giant poppy, several boobs and a herd of rhino. And well done to all of those valiant fundraisers.
The south London part of the race, outside of the Cutty Sark (where a running couple got married), was a little dull and residential. It felt a bit like any other race, other than I could see the Shard, the Walkie Talkie and Canary Wharf in the distance from time to time and knew that I was making progress towards the part of the course I knew well.
Smiling at mile 13? Crazy fool.
Crossing Tower Bridge was amazing. And soon I was onto the Highway and the only there and back of the whole race. Out to Canary Wharf, then back again and toward the embankment. We had been told that there was a #UKRUNCHAT cheer point on the Highway opposite the Dominoes (my local pizza delivery when I lived in St Katherine’s Dock) at the petrol station. So I picked up the pace and started running, looking from side to side and seeing… nothing. No one I recognized. All that effort for random strangers.
I turned south as I reached Canary Wharf and I was going well, or so I thought, but then the wheels started coming off. You know that song “Three Wheels on My Wagon”? Well the Cherokees were definitely chasing me. It was quite hot, but nowhere near as hot as Brighton or Barcelona, and it wasn’t hilly. We just had a few inclines at tunnels and underpasses but my battery was being quickly drained like my phone on 4G.  It was then that I met with the #UKRUNCHAT superstar @_Jen_mo who was also finding it hard.
I want to say “at least it wasn’t just me” but I can’t. Jen trained very hard for this, and when she said that she had seen the wonderful Tim Superman Jones on the ground too I was worried that something more was afoot.  And, indeed, after the race lots of people are saying they had issues.
Jen kept me company as we came out of that part of town and headed back along the Highway, looking for but not seeing the #UKRUNCHAT cheer point for a second time and then getting a little high as we jogged by the RUNDEMCREW cheer point. It was pretty epic. Dozens of them, their runners faces on placards (including my friend Melissa Fehr), and the overpowering smell of ganja. Honestly, we had to laugh. It was like walking onto the set of a Cheech and Chong movie.
If you are currently reading this blog whilst eating dinner I suggest those with a weaker than normal constitution put down the fork to save any vomitus at the family meal. For it was about this time that I discovered that the left side of my vest was quite wet with blood, and the right was starting to join it. Yes, the new charity vest had rubbed the crap out of my moobs and I entered a stage of the race that I like to call Nipple Carnage.
I let Jen go ahead, as she had a point to prove to herself and I was now embarrassed. London does, I admit, have the most support in any race I have done. Whilst you can ride the wave of enthusiasm for most of the way when you tire and people cheer you force yourself to keep going, rather than listening to your body, and taking a pause. In most races I would happily slow to a walk when tired. But in London you are urged to keep going. And so I kept going, but with people on both sides I couldn’t hide the fact that my vest was being less and less purple and more and more bloody. I adopted a new tactic, to run on the right side of the road, and pretend to look for people I cared about on the left side. This meant that I got to avoid all the horrified faces when they spotted my nips on the right, and those on the left were too far away to see anyway.
I saw Carl amidst a group of girls and got a cheer and then I was in the home straight. My walk to work, along Victoria Embankment, all the way to Westminster Bridge and then the all familiar turn up by the Treasury and along St James Park before the final turn by Buckingham Palace and the Mall and the finish.

The Video Finish

Now something to notice is the woman in the right hand side of the screen. She was unconscious, and they (being stewards) carried her over the line. I had this conversation with someone only last week. If I have an injury, say with a mile to go and someone offers me a shoulder to lean on I would take it. I am, after all, still being propelled by my own steam. But if I am not compos mentis then I do not think that counts. I would not want to be carried to the finish as I would not have finished. That is just me. Maybe others feel differently. The poor girl was in a state though, and maybe the steward was trying to get her to the medics over the finish line. Let’s just hope she is ok.

The Bling

Love it. I really do. It is double sided and both sides are great, one side shows the landmarks, the other the route. It is already on the rack, bling 135, my 11th marathon and 5th of the year. Job done.

How I did?

I was slow, half hour slower than expected but…

Did we do it?
Yes we did!
  1. Beat Brother!!!!! (by 49 minutes – tick)
  2. Finish (obvs) (tick)
  3. Finish well and healthy (again obvs)  (tick, especially compared to the unconscious woman they carried over the line in the video)
  4. Finish having run most of the way  (tick)
  5. Finish having run ALL of the way (nowhere close)
  6. Sub 5 (it may sound easy, but given the muddy, hilly, difficult marathons I have run since November, it is not) (just missed out on this)
  7. Within 20 mins of my PB (nope)
  8. Within 10 mins of my PB (nope)
  9. PB (noperooney)
  10. Sub 4 (Nah)
  11.  All of the above

So 4/11. It could have been better. 5 mins faster and there would have been the sub-5 tick I wanted. But London was a lot more challenging that I had anticipated. I would say that it is the toughest road marathon I have done. I know a lot of people struggled. Maybe the crowd, as you don’t want to be seen to be walking, and so will push yourself even when a wiser head would say drop your pace, walk, take stock are to blame. Maybe it was the overcrowding. Who knows? And who cares? We all did it.

Both feet off the ground? I am technically running.

Not as hilly as Athens, not as hot as Brighton. Lots of people found it hard. And the crowds!

Negative point #3 was the pace group jostling: This happened to Helen, Jen and me at different points and more than once. I have run with pacers before. I have paced before. But at London, with the huge amount of first time marathoners/newbies taking their brain out and tethering themselves mentally to the pacer, barging everyone else out the way, it just got too much. They are basically dogs called to heel and it is poor race etiquette. The course and the times they passed meant it was too physical, even though I was happy to shove back twice as hard.

So maybe it was the overcrowding that makes it so tiring, the constant checking of your pace, of people dragged along faster than you would want, and then virtually coming to a standstill the next minute. Next time, if there is a next time (ballot from now on for me, am not raising £2K again), I will be better prepared. And yes, I beat the guy dressed as Mr Blobby who lied about his expected finish time.

In Summary

The London Marathon was great. I did love it, but maybe not as much as I did Barcelona, but I think that was based on how I feel about my run more than anything else. It felt like it was the biggest marathon in the world. The field never thinned out. The support never thinned out. And that sheer volume of people maybe makes for the downsides of it being too crowded.

Would I recommend the London Marathon? Of course I would. I just hope you can get in.

Would I run the London Marathon again? Of course I would. I just hope I can get in.

Listen to the 100 Marathon Club podcast here


MILTON KEYNES MARATHON and all it’s delights

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Great read and I can relate a lot to parts of your blog. Great North I’ve done, over hyped and over marketed. I can say every other Half I’ve done is better than that and in some way London is the same. Its a bucket list race but it can be a victim of it’s own success. I’d only ever do it again off a GFA or a champ start.

    Races organisers only learn from constructive criticism, if it’s great fab but don’t stop others from having a honest but different view point. On Twitter I saw a lot of people getting attacked for daring to be negative.


  2. Simon Scott says:

    Agree with loads of what you say, this was my first marathon and I loved it but the weaving around people who were apparently aiming to run the same time as me was insane. I passed almost 11,000 people in the first 35km and finished 5 minutes over my target of 4 hours. Within minutes of finishing I was planning on running a less crowded race. I’d do London again, I raised over £3k and am proud but I’m not putting myself through the stress of that again. So, as for London, I’ll try the ballot but I’ll also look for another challenge for myself.


  3. chriswholt says:

    Finally got round to giving it a read, honest as ever Mr Knees. I’ve got London deferred for next year, excitement & dread in equal measure!


  4. Geraldine Bhattacharya says:

    Great read…thanks.
    I’m in for 2018 and it’ll be my 3rd. I keep telling myself it’s the experience not the time that counts….but that’s rubbish. I’m going with a charity as no luck with ballots on previous years. Are the charity places also started according to expected time? I ran 3.30 in Sydney so would rather not be meandering around Mr Blobby but I’ll probably just need to suck it up!


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