My first London Marathon, and my first time guiding a blind runner in a race

For me, April 2017 will be remembered for staging one of those ‘life moments’ which will live on in both my memory as well as the very fibres of my body. Challenge 4 of my 12 in 12 saw me tick off another of my bucket-list entries, as me and my great pal Nick took on the London Marathon. It was our first London Marathon, and the first race I’d ever done guiding a blind runner. No pressure there then…

The London marathon and me…

As a saucer-eyed kid, I used to watch the London Marathon on the TV. After I’d seen the winners cross that magical finish line, full of inspiration and energy I’d shoot outside to go and run up and down our street. I had no idea, no concept even, of pacing and would be absolutely shattered after less than five minutes. How did these people run for hours on end?! They must be Heroes, Supermen/women! For the past 30 years, whenever I hear the music that is played on the BBC’s coverage of the London Marathon, my spine tingles and my eyes mist over.

There is no doubt that this iconic race holds a special place in my heart. The emotions of it have built up inside me, layer upon layer with each edition. This has been compounded in more recent years for two reasons. Firstly because I’ve got into running in a big way, and secondly due to the fact that my great pal Ian has been running in it and doing superbly well (2h 38m in 2016!). I may have had misty eyes tracking his progress too, but don’t tell him…

But would it live up to my own hopes and expectations? Would my first London Marathon really be as magical as I dreamt?

What have the London Marathon and the Taj Mahal got in common?

Some years ago, Sharon and me met up with a couple of great friends for a backpacking trip in India. While we were there we, of course, visited the Taj Mahal. During the build-up to racing in London, I had strong echoes of the feelings I’d had before visiting this iconic Indian wonder.

When I was the same age as that saucer-eyed kid I mentioned earlier, I used to collect the small cards that came in packets of PG Tips tea bags, which I’d collect and put into albums. One of the collections, Features of the World, had a picture of the Taj Mahal. Almost all of the pictures in that album were of natural wonders and landscapes, so the Taj Mahal seemed the odd one out. I remember asking my mum about it, and she told me what she knew about why it had been built and how beautiful it was meant to be.

I stared at that small photo a lot as a kid, wondering if it could really match up to the hype. When we got out of that Indian taxi and walked through the arch to where I knew that classic view awaited me, I had my head down, looking at the floor. There was a big part of me that didn’t want to know if it was as amazing in real life as I’d been lead to believe. There was a big part of me that would prefer to live my life hoping that the Taj Mahal really was a magical place to visit. I didn’t want to have to deal with the very real possibility of being disappointed.

As I came out from under that arch and lifted my head up, everything in my world stopped. The crowds of people, the battering heat and the hustle of excitement from all of the other tourists – it all stopped, was silenced as the building before me pierced me with its beauty and serenity. Pictures cannot do it justice. It has to be felt to be believed.

Words and photos can never explain how it makes you feel
Words and photos can never explain how it makes you feel

 

Running my first London Marathon– did it match the hype?

Like seeing the Taj Mahal, running my first London Marathon surpassed all of my hopes and expectations. It also has to be felt to be believed. From the incredibly welcoming folk at the ExPo who smoothly registered me, to the very helpful staff at the Travel Lodge, and the amazing buzz in Pepenero Italian restaurant, where we ate that evening, it felt as though the whole city was quivering with excitement at what was to happen along London’s streets the following day.

The next morning I was up early and Sharon and me made our way to the tube station. It was full of runners, and when a guy dressed as a red telephone box wobbled onto the platform, we all broke into spontaneous applause and gave him three cheers! Everyone was buzzing, especially the phone box… The London Underground had extra staff on, all of whom were extremely helpful and encouraging. We got to Greenwich and met up with Nick, who’d stayed at a mate’s house the night before. We made our way to the start zone, dropped our bags, queued for the loo and then got into our start pen with about 15 minutes to spare. The nervous excitement grew…

Before we knew it, there was a countdown, a honking horn, and we were moving towards the start line. Five minutes later, we crossed that line and were off – we were actually running our first London Marathon! We grinned childishly at each other –it felt so good.

The Red Start Zone was where we began our first London Marathon
The Red Start Zone was where we began our first London Marathon

And that was when the magnitude really hit me. There were supporters crowding the route from the first few meters. It felt to me that the entire 26.2-mile route was lined with people high-fiving, shouting, screaming, dancing, playing music, blowing whistles, banging drums, ringing cowbells, bashing clapper boards and handing out jelly babies (we had quite a few, so special thanks for those!). Towards the end, one lovely couple were even offering small glasses of white wine!

There was one particular section which epitomises the incredible energy pulsed out by the crowds. Towards the end of the race, the route dips into the Blackfriars Underpass. Out of the sunshine and away from the crowds, we were suddenly immersed in a dark and muted space. The only things I could hear were the pounding of feet, ragged breathing (probably mine), people vomiting at the side of the road, while others peed with immense sounds of relief up the tunnel wall.

Without the energy of the crowd, the race had all of a sudden become an internal battle. But, as we made our way through the tunnel, I felt and then heard another sound, a deep reverberating drum, which, like a lion’s roar, could be felt in both the bones and the stomach. It got louder. And louder. It was joined by shrill whistles, clanging bells and a wall of music. Then we burst out, back into the sunshine, back into the riot of noise and colour. And man, did I feel alive!!! I could not stop smiling.

Giving something back – the RNIB

And if all of this wasn’t special enough, there was an extra layer of depth, a richer feel-good factor to this race. I not only had the pleasure of running it with one of my oldest mates, but we also ran to raise money for a great cause. Nick told his very frank and honest story in this post, and running has become such a vital part of his life as he continues on his inspirational journey of recovery. He wanted to use his first London Marathon to give something back to a charity who have helped him for most of his life.

The Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) are a UK-based charity that helps people affected by sight loss. They have enabled Nick to lead a fully independent life, despite being completely blind since his mid-twenties. Through the services the RNIB offer, he’s able to get around more easily, access everyday services more readily and has access to a vast library of free Talking Books. This charity has made such a difference to his life, and it was an honour to help Nick raise nearly £3000.

Running my first London Marathon was my first contact with the RNIB. A few days before the race, I received a card in the post thanking me for helping. It was a lovely surprise. After the race, The RNIB had hired a pub close to the finish for an after-race party. All of the lovely folk at the RNIB made us feel so welcome and were so genuine in their gratitude. It’s a special feeling to know that my old mate Nick has a group of people like that to call upon if need be. So, thank you, Lizzi, Bindy and Hannah – and the rest of the RNIB team – for all that you did on making our first London Marathon even more memorable.

Nick’s fundraising page is still open, so if anyone wants to donate a bit of spare cash, head over here.

Thank you card sent from the RNIB to thank me for guiding my blind mate round our first London Marathon
This card from the RNIB means a lot to me

So, what was it like guiding a blind runner in a race of 39000 people?!

Although Nick and me have done a lot of training runs together, both on road, trail and cross-country, we had not raced together prior to our first London Marathon. In all honestly, I was very anxious about it beforehand. I worried how we would navigate through such a close pack of people. And I worried how we would be able to maintain the pace we needed for the time we hoped for. I also worried about all of the bottles that would be strewn on the road around the water stations, and I worried about me losing concentration and leading Nick to hurt himself, or somebody else.

All of these things turned out to be challenges for the day, but they were nowhere near as bad as my imagination had allowed them to become. We started the race in the Red Zone, in between the 3h30m and 3h45m pacers. Much to our surprise, we had lots of room around us, and as the race started we found ourselves running comfortably at 8.25m per mile pace, which had been the aim. So far so good.

Mary Keitany and Caroline Kipkirui London Marathon 2017
At the start of our first London Marathon, we had some space around us. But not as much as Mary Keitany and Caroline Kipkirui did here 😉

After a short time, the other start routes (blue and green) merged with ours, and things then got pretty congested. Nick and me were linked by a short rope with two loops, one on each end. My right and his left forearm were in contact too, as an additional steer. We were forced to slow down often due to the press of the pack, as we couldn’t find a gap big enough for the two of us to move through side by side. Whenever the roads were nice and wide, things got better and we were able to pick the pace up again. Then the route would cruelly narrow and we’d be back in a dense pack.

We also learned a valuable lesson with regards to our arm contact. In training runs, we only have contact at the forearms for the more tricky bits. In this race though, due to the close press of the other runners, we were almost always in contact at the arm. As the race wore on, the inevitable rubbing of our arms began to make mine really sore. Nick improvised a tightened grip on the rope which effectively lashed our arms together. This worked well, but we both had to concentrate to keep in in place. Next time, I’ll wear a long sleeve top.

One of the most frustrating things was that runners overtaking us from behind would cut us up as they got past us and looked to weave through a gap in front. We both had hi-viz vests on, Nick’s saying Blind Runner, and mine saying Guide Runner. Despite this, it felt as though a good few runners were in their own race bubble and didn’t realise how close we came to clipping their heels.

As the hours ticked by, I began to feel more confident in my guiding, although it was definitely tricky. I couldn’t let my concentration slip for a second and had to be super clear with my verbal instructions at all times. Not so easy as my voice seemed to get weaker as the race wore on! Luckily for me, Nick is such a natural runner, that he instinctively seems to know what to do. We make a pretty good team, I think, which is quite handy given what we’re up to later this year…

Some valuable lessons were learned running our first London Marathon
Some valuable lessons were learned running our first London Marathon. Photo courtesy of Paul Deconink.

Thank you

I hope I get to run London again one day. I’d love to soak up that incredible atmosphere without the anxieties of the unknown which stressed me out this time. But if I don’t get to, when it comes time to do the final reckoning on the balance sheet of my life, the 2017 London Marathon will be one of the highlights. It really will be one of the magical deposits scribed in the ‘In’ column.

If you were in the race or the crowd, I’d like to say a massive thank you for making that atmosphere what it was – electric. And a huge thank you also to all of those many people who sent messages of support for us. It really meant a lot and kept us going on more than one occasion.

Special thanks to my good lady Sharon, who was also attending her first London Marathon. She battled through the crowds with a large backpack to take most of these lovely photos and to shout encouragement to us at the Cutty Sark, London Bridge and then the finish. You are a legend (and that bag was heavy)! In testing times, you shine like a diamond. Courage is grace under pressure, and you have buckets full.

Tower Bridge, London, heaving with runners in the 2017 marathon
Long had I wanted to run over the iconic Tower Bridge. To do so with my old pal, Nick, was great

Lastly a tribute to Brendan Foster, who has commentated on the London marathon since the first race in 1981. For me, his voice is as synonymous with this incredible race as the title music is. Thank you, Brendan, for all of the emotions. Your last was our first.

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