London is one my favorite cities in the world and to be able run the marathon there has been one of my dreams for a long time now. Not anymore. I did it.
Here's the full story.
First off, you don't just enter the London marathon. It's sort of a lottery system, you submit your application and a couple of months later you get notified on wether or not you made the cut (there's different rules for UK runners and foreign runners, not important here). I had entered myself in 2012 and did not get selected then. This year, I didn't want to leave it up to chance. I found out that the marathon organization gives out numbers to a couple of travel agencies (one in most EU countries). So I contacted the Belgian travel agency well before they started taking applications (which was August 15th, 2012). It was a bit more expensive than I had originally thought but that's because you had to book the total package (eurostar + other transport + hotel + marathon race number). But I went for it anyway. (Spoiler: happy I did)
Because the entire trip was arrange and booked by the travel agency, it was sort of a group-trip as well. Nothing against that, just a little weird when you're used to travelling on your own.
Up bright and early and up to Brussels South, where the entire group (85 people in total, not all runners) met at the Eurostar gate. Checked in, read a book, had a drink and at 8:52 we left for London. Once we arrived we all moved to the bus (going through St. Pancras International on a busy morning with 85 people takes some time). We got onto our busses and from there we drove to the Marathon Expo at the ExCel convension center. Here we picked up our bid number and our timing chip and we had on hour to looking around to do some shopping. (I got me a TriggerPoint Massage ball and some Union Jack branded RockTape)
Back on the bus and to the hotel. I stayed at the Bloomsbury Holiday Inn, near Russel Square. We collected our keys, dropped of the bags in the room and then I headed off on my own (the group was going to walk from the hotel to finish, which was at the mall, but I'd seen all those places before so I didn't join them). I toped up my Oyster card and jumped on the underground, first stop: Nude Espresso on Soho square for some coffee and cake. Then, up to Tapped & Packed, more coffee (both are very close to the Totemham Court Road tube station). More walking around in the sun (the weather was absolutely smashing, tshirt and sunglasses for the better part of the afternoon), went to St. Pauls, walked the millenium bridge, Thames side, etc...
Back at the hotel by 19:30. Checked all my running kit, put it all in the bag we received with our number. That bag had our number on it and it was to only thing we were allowed to take to starting area (we'd deposit the bag before starting and pick it back up afterwards). With everything packed, I took a hot bath (yes, the room had a bath) and went to bed around 21:30.
Breakast at 6 in the morning, on the bus to Greenwich by 6:45. - wait, that sounds rediciously early? - Yes, it was. The start was planned for 10:00. But we had to be this early because the bus we were on had to be in and out of the area before they closed off the roads for the race. So, at 7:20 we arrived at Greenwich park and we headed to our starting zone (All of us were in the Blue zone).
The London marathon has 3 starting zones for non-elite runners: Red, Green and Blue. All 3 zones are divided into "boxes" that indicate the pace and the target time of the runner. All 3 zones start at the same time but follow different routes until they converge on each other somewhere between 3 and 5km. This is done because otherwise there'd such a massive amount of people packed together that you probably wouldn't be able to run for the first 5km. By separating the zones, the crowd has tined out enough by the time they joined again.
With over 2 hours of waiting to go, a couple of us found a place in the sun and exchanged marathon stories. Time flew by and before we knew it, it was time to get changed and drop of our bags. A final gear check (food, water, music, chip) and we headed to our respective starting boxes. 20 minutes to go. Right before the start, there was 30 seconds of silence for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing last week (30 seconds at the elite start and 30 seconds at our start). And then we were off, short spurts of running mixed with walking for the first couple of hundred meters until we cleared the boxes and turned onto the street towards the official start.
The weather was great, the sun was out in full force and around the 7km mark I was a little worried about getting a heat stroke as I wasn't wearing a cap or a hat (who'd have though the weather was gonna be this nice, probably the first sunny weekend we've had this year). Just made sure I kept drinking enough, got to stay hydrated. 15km, feeling good, not sure what pace I was at but just kept going.
Just before 20km, we made a right turn and there it was, Tower Bridge. The entire course had been packed with the people cheering us along but running across Tower Bridge, man, amazing.
Around 25km both my feet started to hurt really bad and I had to slow down. As I walked past a water station (drinking and running at the same this is not something I'm good at), the 3h45m pace-team passed me so I was well ahead of pace. From 18 to 20 miles I stayed with the 3h56m pace-team but they didn't run at a very consistent pace (speeding up and slowing down quite a lot) and at the 21 mile marker I had to let them go as well. By then the 2 blisters I had on both my feet had brust and the pain in my feet got worse (and you feel that pain every time your foot hits the ground, tough but had to keep going).
This is where I want to say thank you to all the people who came out to cheer us one. Literally every meter of sidewalk along the course, on both sides, was packed with at least 2 rows of people. Holding signs, handing out candy and small pieces of fruit for the runners (first time I've seen that during a marathon). At mile 21 there was a lady with a huge sign that said "Finishing is your only fucking option". Damn right. Onwards.
Mile 24 and 25, running with the Thames on our left, surrounded by a mass of people, just passed 4 hours. Turn right at Big Ben, an even bigger crowd here. No 26 mile banner, just one that said "600 meters". 400. 200. Turning right onto the roundabout in front of Buckingham Palace, I stay left and got out of the pack. Another small turn onto the Mall and the finish line was straight ahead. Sprinted, all out, balls to wall as they say. Finished. 4 hourse, 8 minutes and 33 seconds. Bam.
The only thing that slowed me down were the blisters and considering that the farthest I'd run in training was 17km (that probably explaines the blisters), I'm very, very happy with my time.
20 meters past the finish line, staggering and swaying left to right, an official urge me to get out of the way. I stood aside and turned to see what was up: a guy had just proposed to his girlfriend moments after they both crossed the finishline, a crowd had gathered around them (myself included, I had to get out of the way because I was in front of the camera filming the moment). She said yes off course and things got very emotional after that :)
I walked on, got my timing chip removed and collected my medal and my bag and then I made my way (slowly and not very steadily) to the overseas runners area, where the travel agency had set up a meeting point. That's also where I met up with my mom and my sister, who had come over to London for the day to cheer me on. Together we made our way to a first aid tent to get my blisters checked out. There was no qeueu (big surprise there) and I was in & out (and patched up) in 5 minutes. Then we walked over to Covent Garden where we ate something and headed back to the hotel after that. My mom and sis had to catch the train back to Brussels they couldn't stay long, we said our goodbyes and I headed to my room for a long hot bath. Exhausted and too tired to eat, I decided to have a quick bite to eat at the hotel bar. By 21:00 I could barely keep my eyes (I'd been up since 5:30) and turned in.
Woke up around 6:30 (seems early but that ment 9 hours of sleep so that's not too bad), snoozed and dozed off again. Got up at 7:40, packed the rest of my things, checked out (left my luggage at reception) and had breakfast. I sat with our trip-organizer, a 72 year old man called Wilfried. Looking at him, you'd say he's 60 max. He attributes that to the 36 marathons he ran throughout his life and by always being surrounded by active people. An interesting and passionate man.
After breakfast I headed into the city for some coffee. First stop: Nude Espresso on Brick Lane. Had a couple of espressos and starting writing this post. Meanwhile it's just before noon and I've move to "Look Mum, No Hands", a rather famous (in the coffee-lovers crowd at least :)) bike shop/coffee bar for lunch.
We meet back at the hotel at 16:45 and take the bus back to St. Pancras. We should be back in Brussels around 21:00.
This has been an amazing expierence and defenitly the most beautiful marathon I've run so far. The atmosphere on the course amongst the runners, the people beside the course cheering us on, the beautiful weather, ? And off course: London.
Thank you all for the support, both virtual and in person.