Monday, 23 April 2012

London Marathon 2012

Short Version:  Wow!

Long Version:

London and Paris (the week before) were like Night and Day.  Starting with the expo where I had my race number, tag and bag of goodies within 20 minutes as compared to 4 hours at a similar time on the day before the race.  The Expo itself was much more commercial though and did seem like a highly efficient machine for squeezing money out of pockets.  I don't mean that in a bad way but it was certainly a contrast. 

Aside from the efficient registration process, the most striking service available was an on-demand T-shirt printing service.  I handed over my charity running vest and £8, waited an hour and picked it up again with my name printed on the front in big, bold letters.  Thankfully, I have a short name which was clear and easy to read.

That evening, to avoid a replay of my Parisian discomfort, I kept to very simple foods.  Probably a little too fatty but when nine people are at table together you need to go with the flow.  I tried to stay up as late as possible but went to bed early-ish and hardly slept.  As usual.

Race day started with a relaxed drive to the train station and then a short hop to my designated start area.  London has three of these with the routes running in parallel before merging after 5k (3 miles).  The facilities were very good and there were enormous numbers of toilets which more or less met the demand.  Additionally, some of the volunteers were tasked with keeping them stocked with loo roll.  I can't begin to say how great this was.  Well done, London.  The bag drops were also very efficient and there was plenty of water and sport drink available.

The multiple start zones worked extremely well and, even though there were 5000 more runners than Paris, I was across the start line within 15 minutes rather than 45. 

There were supporters everywhere.  I don't think there was 10 metres of consecutive, unoccupied space on the whole route.  At many events, the crowds turn out to see the elites go by and then fade away leaving only family and friends watching for their own runners.  It seems like most of London hits the streets, picks a spot and stays there for as long as the runners come by, cheering and encouraging the participants.  So much so that it can be quite a challenge for the aforementioned family and friends to follow their runners round the course.  Of the six planned cheering points, we made two and I was very pleased with that.

Almost all the hills are in the first 7k (4 miles) and are generally quite short.  Actually, I'm going to go metric from here forwards.  Those "mile" thingies are just so depressing.  I know there are fewer of them but they're so long.  I like the way the kilometres tumble.  Particularly impressive at 10k was the newly restored Cutty Sark.  Note to self:  Go and visit this sometime.

Facilities around the route were excellent with plenty of water stations, shower and toilets.  One of the two poor points (I'll cover the other later) was the food stations.  Basically, there weren't any.  Every 8k, there was Sport Drink and occasionally Gels.  The quantities were well-judged, no stations I passed were empty.  Unlike Paris. 

But this was also part of the problem.  It's the only half-marathon or longer race I've ever done where there was no food available.  No bananas, no oranges, no raisins, no sugar, nothing.  Many of the spectators had brought fruit, jelly beans or wine gums that they offered to runners and a lot were very grateful for it.  Fortunately, I had some of my own energy bars which I supplemented with a single gel and sport drink but I don't like them and I don't train with them which could potentially have been a problem.  I need to read the race documentation more carefully in future.  Lesson learned.

My pace was good (for me) out to around 15k but then I discovered that my energy reserves were not really recovered from Paris.  Although I jogged the whole course, walking only to grab a bottle and to drink from it, my pace gradually slipped away.  The crowds really thickened up on the approach to Tower Bridge (almost 20k) and there was a real buzz crossing this icon of the city that carried me on to the halfway point.  In spite of the crowds, the Isle of Dogs seemed quite bleak, probably mostly because of dwindling energy reserves. 

Things improved around Canary Wharf and the crowds really got loud which kept me going until 34k where my family and friends were waiting with smiles, banners and encouragement.  Fortified again, I headed for the last 8k and, really, I didn't use any energy for this part at all.  The cheering of the crowd carried me through it from the Tower of London (best landmark by far) all the way to Buckingham Palace.  Even the odd tunnel didn't deter me the way it had the week before as you could hear the cheers all the way along.

The finish was really exhilarating and I even broke into a proper run for the last few hundred metres.  The organisation at the finish was largely efficient right up to (and including) the baggage claim.  Which brings us to the other organisational lapse mentioned above.  Leaving the finisher's area (loaded down with bling, naturally) there was a huge crush getting to the meeting points, utterly gridlocked.  I spent more than 45 minutes walking about 200 metres.  I'd been lucky enough to have a dry and mostly sunny race but during this point, it began to rain leeching body heat away and draining the last bit of energy away.  Sadly, we failed to meet with the charity's representatives.  To make matters worse, it was very difficult to get away from the finish (hence the overcrowding) and we were a long while getting away. 

In summary, London was a singular and amazing experience.  One to be repeated if at all possible.