Start Zone C. Just ten minutes to go now before the gun. I fire up my Garmin watch, suck on an energy gel and tuck the empty packet under the fence. I find a gap in the crowd, and as I stand among the nervous banter, I feel a familiar calmness. I’ve negotiated the journey, the Expo, and got myself in the right place, at the right time, with everything I need. I’ve done the complicated bit. The rest is simple. Not easy but simple: as my wife likes to remind me, “One foot in front of the other, keep going.”
The PA is blasting out upbeat music with a rapid tempo and feisty female vocals. The training went well this time: no injuries, some good long runs. I’m ready.
A countdown and the klaxon sounds. The elite dash off to the sound of an over-excited announcer, and restrained applause from the mass of runners. We edge forwards and after a few minutes are able to run as we cross the start line. The first mile is quite frustrating, expending energy weaving past large and slow runners who have got themselves in the wrong start zone by predicting a hugely optimistic finish time. But when I check my watch at the end of the first mile, I find that I’ve started surprisingly fast – faster than intended – but I feel strong, so I don’t slow. I’ll leave that for later.
Well meaning spectators call out “well done”, and we think, we’ve done nothing yet; marshals call out “you’re looking good” and we know it’s a lie but thank them anyway. We get into our rhythm, and start taking in the placards supporters are holding: “Toenails are overrated”, “Tap here to power up”, “Best marathon I’ve seen today”. We high-five some of the kids who have come out to see their mums and dads. Drummers, cheerleaders and bands line the course.
The early miles pass comfortably, with the mile markers flashing past with little apparent effort as I cruise through the sweet spot. I reach halfway some way inside my target. But I’m slowing already, so I know the second half will be very different. I quietly let go of my most ambitious target of running a London “good for age”, and dig in at a safer pace to make sure I finish under four hours.
Negative thoughts swim in. When my Garmin reaches sixteen miles, my first thought is great, only ten more miles to go. But no, the official marker is still point one of a mile away. And the distance is 26.2, not 26. Somehow that 0.3 acquires a crushing weight in my mind.
At mile seventeen I suddenly get a stitch. I try a trick I’ve read about: exhale on every second footstep on the opposite side to the stitch. I don’t know whether there’s any science in this, perhaps it’s a placebo. It seems to work.
We enter a park on a broad path made uneven by tree roots forcing their way up. I’m getting pretty tired now, the uneven surface breaks my rhythm, but I make sure to lift my feet safely above the bumps.
The mile markers grow ever further apart. At twenty-three miles I calculate I can afford ten-minute miles now, and will still be just under four hours. But my oxygen starved brain has forgotten the point two again. I’ll have to find a late surge if I’m going to do it. I grit my teeth and try to pick up the pace.
As I enter the last mile I start to feel light headed: I reach for a gel but I had the last one half an hour ago. The last water and energy station is miles behind me. Push on. I feel my legs get weaker. At last I turn a corner and see the finish line, close yet impossibly distant. Two hundred metres to go. The crowds are now five deep just behind the barriers, but I hear their roars of encouragement as if they were a mile away through a tunnel, a distant dream. The sound from the PA swirls in my head. I lose control of my legs and start to wobble. I just need to walk a bit. Stop a bit…
I’m looking at the sky. I close my eyes. There’s a moment of sweet peace. I can stop, everything will be fine. A figure bends over me, holds my head up and tries to get me to drink. His face blurs and fades.
But soon I feel better. I get up, and feel a surge of energy. I cover the last metres smoothly and lightly, and as I glide through the finish line I’m pleased but slightly surprised to see my mother, father and grandmother waiting there for me, looking just as they did when I was seven.