I’m sat on a tuft of grass at the side of a Greenwich road. It’s only 9.36am but the sun is already starting to scorch the back of my neck. Around me a multi-coloured shuffle of running shoes scuffs the grey asphalt of South East London, like bulls ready to charge.
Fifty or sixty caged runners fix their gaze on a point in the distance. Some stare intently at the race clock, ticking slowly towards 10am. Others fixate on a big red banner that says ‘START’. Wondering how long it’ll be before they’ll see the big red banner that says ‘FINISH’.
Laces are checked. Checked again. Shirts are untucked and re-tucked. GPS watches bleep into life. Mobile phones buzz with messages of support. Clammy hands clutch unopened gels. Hardly a word is exchanged.
In Pen Number One of the London Marathon, things are different. Focused. Serious. Not a rhino costume in sight. This is new territory for me and I’m feeling tense.
I put my head in my hands and press hard on my eyes, trying to blacken out the hubbub around me. I lock a pair of headphones into my ears and pump New Order’s Blue Faith into the darkness, trying to force out the scatter-gun thoughts. I focus on one thing – the race plan.
The numbers turn over in my mind: seven at seven, fourteen at six-forty, six point two at seven. Seven at seven, fourteen at six-forty, six point two at seven. Rinse and repeat.
I visualise turning the final corner onto the Mall with the clock on 2:59, creating a mental image of success.
Next time I look up, the big yellow clock ticks to 9:55am. With five minutes to go, the advice of my coach Giuseppe jostles its way to the front of my mind.
“Get your heart rate up to a decent level before you start,” I hear him saying. “You don’t want to start cold.”
I spring to my feet, and in what little space I can find, I start jogging on the spot. Prancing like a Spanish show horse until my Garmin registers 100+ BPM.
Next I rip open a carb gel, the first of seven gloopy strawberry and vanilla energy hits I’ll sink today. The pre-race ritual continues as I fire up my run-tracking app, Endomondo, and get my back-up GPS locked.
Next it’s music. I open my 3:15 minute long London Marathon Spotify playlist and think to myself, and hope I won’t need those last two tracks.
At that point I realise a tide of texts, Tweets, Tumblr notes and emails of support have flooded my phone. The support is overwhelming. Inspiring. Moving. Each collection of 140 characters pumps my chest a little more and makes my heart beat a little quicker. 108 BPM, says Garmin.
One email in particular stands out. A message from an old friend I’ve not heard from for ages. Someone I never thought I’d hear from again.
“You are so skinny,” It says, commenting on the new nine percent body fat frame I’ve chiselled out in training. “Happy birthday and good luck.”
This one means the world. There’s history here. It’s a message from the person who gave me Born to Run in 2010, the book that sparked my passion for running. The timing of it is uncanny. Knowing they’re on my team is huge. It feels like a circle being closed. Neatly. Fitting. It’s the finishing touch, the final motivational message.
I swallow a little lump that’s lodged in my throat and look at the clock. Fifty seconds to go.
Pressing play on Spotify means the Farm’s Altogether Now soundtracks the final countdown and our collective shuffle to the red-rubber chip-timing mats.
One step and a bleep later and I’m off running, chasing the clock through the streets of South East London. My biggest running challenge to date has begun.
Marathon starts are always busy but London is more congested than most. There’s a momentum in the first few miles that makes you feel like you, and the swarm of runners around you, have just been fired from a giant slingshot down the road. It’s hard not to take off like a shot.
But I’ve got a race plan. “7,6:40, 7” I mutter to myself. Three miles later I hit the 5km mark and realise I’m averaging 6:40 minute miles.
I do the checks. How do I feel? Good. How am I running? Is this pace ok? Yes. Brilliant, looks like I’m bossing this. Let’s kick on. I make the mistake most marathon runners make. The goal is sub-3 but I start to believe my training means I can go faster. The question is how greedy should I be?
It’s this kind of thinking that sees you retching up your pre-race breakfast at mile twenty two.
The 5km banner passes in 20:56. Then I reach the six mile mark having run every mile between 5 and 20 seconds faster than the plan. When it’s time to up the pace to the planned 6:40 for mile six to 14, I naturally start clocking 6:30s.
London’s streets and sights whizz by in a blur. I’m in the zone, taking one mile at a time. Every mile that ticks by in the planned 6:40 or less is just another piece of this puzzle slotting into place.
Around mile eight, I get a little nudge. It’s my friend Simon who arrives alongside me just in time to catch me singing terrible Euro techno out loud.
We share a few words. He’s incredibly chirpy but then he’s a comfortable sub-3 runner. “Having a great day,” he says. “Suns out, I’m running in my home city, catching up with friends.” His positivity gives me a welcome boost. In a sea of 35,000 runners it’s a great to literally run into a mate. But it’s brief. I have to say goodbye and get my head down to run my own race.
At mile 12, we cross Tower Bridge, one of the most famous sections of the course. I’ve been here before. Back in 2012 it made every hair on my neck stand and salute and this year is the same.
The crowds line the bridge with balloons, banners, clappers and klaxons. It’s a truly special moment, striding across an iconic part of London in the blazing sunshine with the cheers of thousands pushing you on.
No one here wants anyone to fail. It’s quite a unique feeling.
Mile 12 ends up being my fastest of the race so far at 6:33 and it means I hit the halfway mark in 1:27:54. I’ve bagged myself two minutes and five seconds. At this point I can still do the maths, I have 1:32:05 to get home.
But it’s starting to hurt. I’m already finding I’m having to dig a little deeper than I’d like and there’s a long way to go. The heat is taking it’s toll. The demons are starting to stir.
“The race starts at 20.” I tell myself, starting to fear I’ve gone out too quick.
Luckily I’ve been here before. The Classic Quarter, the Marathon du Mont Blanc, the Thames Path 100km, Chicago, Valencia, Berlin, all the races that have tested me in the past, now give me a powerful weapon to deploy – belief.
It’s a trick I tell myself over and over. Relentless forward motion. Quicken the foot strike, loosen the shoulders, drink water, eat a gel. Do anything that diverts your attention.
Four more miles pass, two of them worryingly ten seconds or so over the 6:40 race plan. I’m starting to lose some of the time I banked earlier. I’m starting to slow down.
Sometimes while you’re busy watching for that big right hook, running delivers an unexpected body blow. Just after half way, the London Marathon rabbit punched me in the kidneys.
I like to listen to music while I run. It’s a huge part of what keeps me going. For each marathon, I create a bespoke playlist with tracks carefully timed for the start, the metronomic middle bit, the tough part and the balls-out run in.
To make this possible, I carry my phone in a little belt around my waist and usually this is fine but around mile sixteen, just as Michael Jackson’s Beat It comes on, the tracks start to skip erratically.
Every three seconds the track jumps. I realise the phone touchscreen has come on inside the belt and, wet with sweat, is now happily skipping and jumping. Every part of me is soaked and I have no way to dry it and reset. It’s buggered.
I struggle on with the 15 second snippets for half a mile, hoping it’ll sort itself. It doesn’t. Eventually I have to make the call: stop and fix it or ditch the music.
Having lost time on the last two miles I decide I’m going to have to go au naturel for the final ten. It’s a big blow. I love my music and the loss of it weighs on my mind.
It’s stupid but the smallest things can throw you into a negative spiral when you’re pushing yourself on a run like this. The mind uses anything it can to try and make you quit.
I deploy another trick I’ve learnt on the ultra trails: let go of the negative thoughts, find the positives. Instead of Skrillex, I decide to tune into the crowd for encouragement.
Luckily London isn’t lacking in this department. Every twenty metres someone screams your name, urging you on. I decide to distract myself further by looking for familiar faces in the crowd.
If I can hang on at 6:40 pace until mile 20.2, I’ll have more than 7 minutes per mile to bring it home. Mile 19 and 20 turn out to be two of my fastest. I smash 19 out in 6:02 and twenty in 6:27. Now all I have to do is keep that watch at 7:00 or under for six more miles. It feels like a long, long way.
At some point the zig zagging stops and the London course spits you out onto a long four mile-ish home straight. I don’t realise it but dotted along those four miles are all of my friends, all at different points.
First I run past my family. It’s brief but I see the excitement on their faces. Their belief tops up my own reserves.
Every half a mile another familiar faces buzzes with the same enthusiasm and I realise this is what’s going to power me home.
At mile 22, I see the charity I ran the December Half Marathon Challenge for, Starfish. A little later there are friends from work belting out encouragement.
As I push my way down the Embankment with Big Ben in the distance, my friend Simon appears at my shoulder again.
“Lock onto it Kieran. Just lock onto it,” he says. It’s another little timely kick. Another half mile of motivation. Another mantra to utter. “Lock onto it.” I repeat to myself, trying to visualise the red tarmac of the Mall.
As we pass London Bridge to our left and sweep past the iconic sights that hug the Thames, I cash in some credit I’d stored up seven days earlier.
On my last long run I came into town and ran the last three miles of the course. This turns out to be a very smart move. Psychologically, I have the upper hand.
My brain knows what’s left, every yard of tarmac is in my mental and physical memory. I’m able to tell myself that I’ve done this before. I know if my mind believes it can be done, my body will follow. And it does.
With a mile to go the course hangs a right. Westminster Bridge veers off in the opposite direction and the Houses of Parliament loom large and majestic to my right. Oliver Cromwell’s statue peers down as I struggle past. I glance at my watch.
I’ve got about nine minutes to do the final mile. For the first time in three months, I realise I’ve almost certainly achieved my goal. Barring a catastrophe, the sub-3 marathon is mine.
I check the watch again to make sure.
And again. And again.
I’m still doing the sums when we reach the red asphalt of Birdcage walk with 800m to go.
To my left I notice a blind man and his guide pushing hard, the guide shouting encouragement with every step. I tune into his shouts and pretend they’re for me. That’s true achievement I think to myself. If he can, I can.
With four hundred metres left Buckingham Palace comes into sight. The crowds reach deafening levels. One more u-turn and we turn our back on the Queen’s London house, onto the Mall.
I’ve run this road over and over in training, each time visualising the moment I’d stride down here, wondering what that clock above the big red FINISH sign will say.
Thirty seconds later, as I cross the line, I look up and I know.
It says 2:59.