The London Marathon is often referred to as the greatest marathon in the world. And while I suspect this phrase most often emerges from the mouths of house-proud Brits, or polite East African winners talking to the BBC, I can say that as a Londoner, there’s no better way to kick off your career as an amateur marathoner.
Directing 40,000 people safely around the streets of London in the space of one day must be a logistical nightmare, yet I’ve never come across a race so smoothly run. From the bag drop that you don’t have to queue for, to the abundant portaloos, to the starter’s gun that went off bang on time, to the music, cheering and hundreds of volunteers along the route, the entire event spun along like one very well-oiled machine. Speaking of, my favourite detail of the day was the St John’s Ambulance workers whose only job was to stand by the road with globs of Vaseline in their outstretched palms. For any desperate runner hobbling by with red raw armpits or inner thighs, the green-clad volunteers must have seemed like a heavenly mirage.
But most of all, the London Marathon wouldn’t be what it is without the hundreds of thousands of supporters (800,000 was the figure this year, apparently) that line the route, waving banners, offering (and eating) jelly babies, swigging their breakfast pints, and yelling cheerfully at the silently suffering runners. It’s no coincidence that the ballot for 2018 opens this week – both long enough after the race for the runners to forget just how much it hurt, but soon enough for the supporters to still be infected by the energy and carnival atmosphere of the day.
It’s probably stating the obvious, but being on home ground at a marathon gives you a massive advantage. Nothing gets you through the tough parts like knowing you’re going to see your best mates around the next corner, or your running club cheering your name 4 miles from the finish line. Some of the London clubs have turned cheering into an art form, with confetti cannons, oversized flags, printed heads on sticks, and dozens of fellow runners (who would kill be taking part, by the way) screaming encouragement from the side of the road.
While the elites turn up to London to record punishingly fast times (Paula Radcliffe set her famous world record here in 2003; Mary Keitany nearly beat it this year), more than half the entrants will come in at over 4 hours, with medals awarded to anyone who gets across the line by the 8-hour cut-off. This huge range has turned the London Marathon into what founder Chris Brasher called “The Suburban Everest”, and is what creates such a joyful, inspiring celebration. It’s hard to tell yourself that you couldn’t complete a marathon when you’ve just watched a 60-year-old on two crutches hobble past, or heard that someone set the world record for fastest marathon with a tumble drier strapped to their back (5 hours and 58 minutes, since you ask).
As for me, free of both fancy dress or injury, I decided that for my first marathon I’d take it easy from the start and get round in one piece, rather than risk going out a bit faster only to crash and burn before the end. With pretty much consistent splits all the way, I crossed the finish line in 3:37 – a little slower than I would have liked, but within the time needed for a GFA ballot spot next year. Which I guess means I have to come back and beat it.