London, five years, and a beginner marathon attempt saga

10:52pm, 15th Aug 2020 | London Marathon | 9 Comments
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I first entered the London Marathon ballot for the 2017 race, in early May 2016. I was about a week away from getting my first 10k race under my belt and I knew a marathon was completely beyond me at that point (and still would be a year later), but I got caught up in the hype and told myself that I was only entering for the magazine, and that there was no chance of getting in through the ballot anyway. Everything went to plan in October 2016 - I did not get in through the ballot, and the consolation magazine was super shiny. This was a great result! I resolved to enter the ballot and get myself a shiny consolation magazine every single year from then on.

In 2017, I did not get a shiny consolation magazine. Instead, I got a shiny 'You're In!' magazine and a place in the 2018 race. Oops.

The thing is, although I was very surprised to get in on my second attempt, I was also delighted, proving maybe that I had sort of secretly wanted to get in the whole time. I knew how lucky I was to get a ballot place and was determined to run the race, despite the fact that at that point I was only up to (very slow) half marathon distance. However, as my husband and I were planning to move house (with all the accompanying stress and logistics) in early 2018, I decided to defer the place to the 2019 race. This would also have the bonus of giving me an extra year to train and prepare. My race times, while still slow, were gradually coming down a bit, and by the end of 2018 I was hopeful that I would be able to run London in about five and a half hours, maybe six on a bad day.

In January 2019, I embarked on my first ever marathon training plan. Unfortunately, I made a few mistakes in my training, and they ended up compounding each other quite badly.

The first and probably worst mistake was that I selected a beginner marathon plan, and at the time, all the beginner marathon plans I could find were set out in time rather than distance. Having checked again online just now, I can see that all the ones I looked at back then have now been updated so that the longer runs are set out in distance, probably because it has since been realised that telling a slow beginner runner to run three and a half hours (which will only take them up to 15-17 miles or possibly a lot less if they're very slow) as their longest marathon training run is not a great idea. Towards the end of the plan, I was beginning to realise the flaws of this approach, and made sure that I did run a distance-measured 22-miler as my longest run - however, by that point, the damage had been done, as I just didn't have enough of a base.

The second mistake was to succumb to the lure of the treadmill. We had some bad winter weather during the first few weeks of 2019, and so my husband and I bought a treadmill to use for runs on icy or snowy days. I found that running in a nice warm house in front of the TV was a lot cosier and more bearable than pounding the pavements out in the cold, and so even as February turned to March and the winter weather disappeared, I stuck to the treadmill, managing to catch up with about a year's worth of BBC Four music documentaries in the process. Again, I did brave the roads for my 22-miler, but I really should have done the majority of my training out there.

The third mistake was to believe my watch over the treadmill. For some reason, my comfortable running pace on the treadmill is much, much slower than on the roads - slower even than my walking pace on the roads. As such, I simply didn't believe the treadmill display when it told me that I'd only run six miles in two hours. My TomTom watch told me it had been ten miles, I would have run about ten miles in that time on the roads, and it felt as though I'd put the same effort in as when I ran on the roads. As such, I thought the treadmill simply must be wrong. But it wasn't - somehow, I really was only running at this impossibly slow twenty-minute-mile pace - and so over the course of the marathon training period, I actually wasn't getting nearly as many miles in as I should have done.

That 22-miler, three weeks before race day, was really tough - but I persevered, because I knew I wouldn't be able to achieve the distance mentally if I hadn't done at least 22 miles in training. I did, slightly despondently, revise my predicted time to six and a half hours based on that training run, but still hoped that the adrenaline would carry me through on the day and I'd end up doing closer to six.

Race day was so many things, and there were so many complications. I started off well - I didn't go out too fast, it felt very manageable, and if I'd been able to keep up that pace I would have finished in about five and a half hours. But after the midway point, I just got slower and slower and slower until it got to the point that even when I was 'running', I was being overtaken by walkers. Miles 15-22 were a slow, painful nightmare, and my strongest memory is just screaming at myself inside my head, 'YOU NEVER, EVER HAVE TO DO THIS AGAIN'. I really had wanted to run the whole way, even if it was the incredibly slow 'overtaken by walkers' type of running, but even that ambition had to go, and I ended up walking most of miles 22-24. Funnily enough, that energised me a little, and I felt quite a bit better once I was on the Embankment.

However, by that point, the well-documented problems with the 2019 back of the pack had caught up with me, and so I spent mile 25 weaving around enormous vehicles that were moving far too quickly given that there were still runners on the course. It was really hairy and I'm still amazed that nobody got flattened. I also feel lucky that, because I only slowed down in the second half of the race, I didn't experience most of the problems reported by other back of the packers such as water stations having been packed away too early, cleaning vehicles spraying runners with chemicals and other issues.

Mile 26 was great, because I knew I was nearly finished and so my legs were suddenly working again! It was also the mile when my watch died. My poor old TomTom's battery couldn't cope with so many hours of recording (part of the reason I replaced it with a Garmin later in the year), and I had to spend quite a bit of time over the next few days manually adding waypoints and timestamps into my GPX file so that it displayed the last bit of the route accurately!

In the end, I finished in 7:13:44 - nearly two hours slower than I had originally hoped. Despite everything, it was still a magic day. I suppose your first marathon always is, no matter how badly it goes, and at the time, I was 100% certain that it would also be my only marathon. I did feel a bit disappointed that my marathon 'PB' would always stand as such an incredibly slow time - but as far as I was concerned, my one marathon was over, and that was it.

Fast forward a couple of months. There had been a lot of anger and upset among slower runners about the issues that had affected the back of the pack, and the story had been picked up and repeated quite widely in the media. As a result, those of us who had taken over seven hours to complete the race were asked by VMLM to complete a survey about our experiences as part of their investigation into the issues. When the investigation was complete, they set out the mistakes that had been made and the ways in which they were planning to correct them, and, much to my surprise, offered all seven-hour-plus finishers in the 2019 race a free, guaranteed place in the 40th Race in 2020.

At that point, I was unsure about taking up the place, as I was still leaning towards 'never again'. However, as I was very aware that I would quite possibly never have another opportunity to improve my London Marathon time, I eventually decided to accept the offer.

(It was also around that time that I started using Fetch properly, having joined the site in 2016 but never really explored it - this was because some of the other running forums I was on were being slightly less than gracious about the idea of slow runners getting a free London place as a reward for being slow. I can understand that frustration, but there really were genuine issues that marred the 2019 race for some of us. I never expected the free place, but I think it was a kind move on the part of VMLM, and I feel very lucky to have a second chance.)

In January 2020, therefore, I started training for my second London Marathon. The training was going brilliantly - I did all my runs on the roads, was doing really good pace in my long runs, took 12 minutes and 50 seconds off my half marathon PB at the Inverness half on 8th March... and then we all know what happened next. Five days after Inverness, London announced they were postponing to October due to COVID, and within a week, all the other spring races I was booked for had also postponed.

Thankfully (or not), the postponement of London was far from the worst thing about that particular Friday the 13th for me (my husband had a bad epileptic seizure on a work trip hundreds of miles from home, was hospitalised and then went missing for a couple of hours - it was a very fraught experience and put things into perspective!) - so on the day, despite my readiness for the race going to waste, I could not have cared less. The ongoing world situation has also been a fairly big perspective-changer!

At the time, like a lot of people, I was absolutely sure that the rescheduled October date for London would go ahead. However, by the point at which it was actually time to start training again in June, I was not so sure. I really did try to follow my training plan, but I found that the motivation just wasn't there, and I was falling behind with my long runs, and I knew that if the race did go ahead, it would be a really nervewracking process to get down to London and run it, given the pandemic. As such, it was a genuine relief for me when London announced their updated plans for the next few years and confirmed that there would be no in-person mass race this year.

Although I won't be ready to run a full marathon in one go by the 4th of October, I have entered the Virtual London Marathon anyway, as participants have 24 hours to complete the distance and can take breaks. I am combining it with a challenge I have been keen to do for some time - the 'run a mile every hour for 24 hours' challenge - as my usual 'mile' route is more like 1.2 miles and so I will be running about 28.8 miles over the course of the day. For me, this won't count as a real marathon (it feels like a very different kind of challenge and one I'm really excited about!), but it does feel like a fitting end to my 2020 'season', such as it is. (Well, presuming the 10k I'm booked for towards the end of October doesn't go ahead... it'd be a surprise if it did!)

As for the proper London Marathon, as a 'back of the pack' entrant, I can now defer my place to October 2021 (but not 2022 or 2023, like other categories of entrants can). I will absolutely be doing this, and hoping very hard that things will be back to normal by then... and that summer training for an October date will go a lot better next year than it has done this year!

It feels a bit strange that I will be running a London Marathon in October 2021 as the indirect result of a ballot I entered in May 2017, but these are indeed strange times. It also feels pretty strange that I will be running possibly the only two October London Marathons ever (the virtual one this year and the real one next year).

In the meantime, once my autumn challenges are done (I've now also signed up to the Virtual GNR for a good bit of September training!), I'll be focusing on 10k training over the winter before building up to half marathons again in the spring. I'm hoping that that will give me a bit of a speed base and help me get that 5:30ish marathon time that I wanted in the first place... or possibly even the 5:15ish time that I was set to achieve in April 2020 based on my training at the time! It'd be very nice, in October 2021, to take a full two hours off my previous result.

And then in 2022 and every year afterwards, I will be right back on the London Marathon website, putting in my ballot entry and looking forward to my shiny magazine. By then, I will have done my fair share of Londons, so I will be more than happy with the magazine - though of course there will always be that tiny glimmer of hope!

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Running (slowly) since 1st June 2015 and running every day since 1st January 2020. When not running I am a sort of editor/writer/poet/game designer hybrid portfolio type. I blog at and also syndicate my running-related posts to my Fetch blog!
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