Don’t Look Left

London Marathon JB
Photo credit: Darren Over

A four-hour finisher’s guide to the London Marathon.

So, you’ve put in the required months of training, slowly building up to the big day – your very first London marathon, and quite possibly your very first marathon, period. You’ve (hopefully) been training with one of the Serpie marathon groups and you’ve got plenty of advice from the club’s large group of multi-marathon veterans. Their tips on how to tackle the esteemed event are invaluable. I tell you this as one who listened intently and let their words guide me through four very tough, but life-affirming, hours.

But what follows is my much more random, possibly misremembered, and hopefully helpful guide to attempting a slightly more sedate ambulation of our city’s cordoned-off streets for the very first time. So, let’s begin…

Don’t worry about the start

It’s huge. I mean middle-sized-city, catastrophe-teeming, horde-of-displaced-people huge. The walk (and it will be a walk) to the start line, will be the slowest five to ten minutes of your life. You’ll be pumped up on nerves and adrenalin and all you’ll want to do is start running. Be patient. Your time will come.

Look up from your watch so you don’t miss the discarding of old clothes (the roadside will resemble the world’s worst jumble sale), the cheering crowds and those sneaky TV cameras. My key piece of advice? Do not assume your face will get lost in the throng. I did, only to get a Facebook ‘friend’ screen-grabbing my two seconds of fame for a Where’s Wally pun.

Oh, and do not laugh at or tease the person next to you in the donkey-fridge-rhino-diving suit. They will be running past you sometime before the finish, and you will feel less bad about that if you don’t take the mickey out of them now.

Embrace the race

Encircled by runners, there will always be someone to strike up a conversation with. Do not ignore this opportunity. It’s a good way to pass the time in some of the race’s less scenic areas (Charlton, Woolwich and Surrey Quays didn’t make it into the Lonely Planet). Don’t be too disappointed however, when you lose them in the ever-shifting mix of lycra.

Learn to love the crowd

The spectators are one of the great wonders of the London Marathon. For 26.2 solid miles, they will be jammed against the barriers, often three or four deep. The sheer number of people who come out to support you is truly mind-boggling. Many will clap, many will cheer. I know you’ve heard it before, but do write your name on your running top, you’ll hear it shouted out repeatedly in encouragement. Some will have sweets they want to give you. Try not to take too many.

Find your rhythm

DO NOT get carried away! You’re at the start of 26.2 miles, so settle down into your pace. After all it’s six miles before you’ll even get to Greenwich and Cutty Sark, and a few more after that before your second big landmark, Tower Bridge. If you’re looking for a few seconds of fame at this point, make sure you run close to the outside kerb. I managed to “accidentally” photobomb a TV interview. Three more seconds of televisual immortality was mine.

Don’t look left

Once the Thames is crossed, you’ll be dismayed to find yourself heading away from the finish and out to the Isle of Dogs. It’s crucial here to not look across the road and be blinded by the really fast runners who, having completed the Isle of Dogs loop, are now motoring towards the finish. Concentrate on your own race. I cannot stress this enough. Don’t look. No, really, just don’t.

Need an injection of zest? Not a problem. Stay right and you’ll hit a line of Serpie supporters, waiting to high five you on this stretch of the course. By now you might need it.

Point your friends and family in the right direction

At the Isle of Dogs spectators thin out. If you’ve got people coming to support you, give them a tube map with Island Gardens DLR station heavily circled. In red. With arrows. Hopefully they’ll take the hint.

Don’t give up

It sounds obvious, but as you leave the complicated Wiggle of the East Bit, your leaden legs will start to question your sanity. You’ll have completed 20 out of the 26.2 miles, so it’s bound to start hurting, and all that talk about gritting your teeth to grind the run out to the finish will suddenly make far too much sense. The crowds will raise your spirits, but ultimately, it’s down to you.

You’ll want to give up. Please don’t. The finish, and glory, is close (even on that riverside stretch that extends into infinity, promise). On the plus side, you’ve now got less than 10k to run, and it’s the nicest, most scenic and best supported part of the marathon.

Keep your head at the end

The final triumphant sweep into The Mall, past Buck Palace, looks amazing. You, on the other hand, might not. Then, after everything, you’re through the finish line. You finally want to stop moving. But you can’t yet. First you have to navigate your way along 200 or so metres of the London Marathon finish funnel on the Mall, while remembering to:

  1. Collect your medal.
  2. Get any food/drink you can get your hands on.
  3. Pose with your medal for the official photographer (smile and don’t look like you just want to collapse).
  4. Collect your this-wasn’t-this-heavy-before bag of belongings from the lorry.
  5. Collect your goody bag, discarding any leaflets (unnecessary weight).
  6. Stumble/stagger/hobble/limp into Horse Guards parade ground to find your family and friends. Or just crumple in a heap and let them find you (whatever works at this point).

Relax. It’s really, finally over

You did it. All those months of hard training have paid off. Congratulations. Go and find the Serpie pub and have a drink, or five. You have very much earned them. Then sleep for three days.

And one final thing…

I can’t write a guide to the London Marathon and not mention (one final time) the key factor that helped me through the race. The Serpie supporters. You will see them everywhere, even the Isle of Dogs. They will cheer for you, encourage you, high five you, take photos of you and carry you forward. When you really, really don’t want to keep moving, they will persuade you to keep going. In short, they’re awesome.

Photo credit: Richard Swinford

James Brown has been a triathlete since 2009 when he borrowed a friend’s old race bike and struggled to even complete the standard distance London Triathlon. After joining Serpies in 2011 and the Serpie tri squad a year later, he’s managed to improve. A bit.