I always have an issue when organisations boast they are the “greatest” or “best”. The Lakeland 100 claims to be the best ultra race in the world. What do the organisers of the UTMB say about that? London Marathon claims to be the greatest marathon in the world. Based on what? According to who? Because it is in London?! What do Tokyo, Boston, New York or any of the other world marathon “majors” have to say about that?
Given the build up I was expecting to be blown away by my first experience on the streets of our capital for the 37th edition of the Virgin Money London Marathon. It didn’t quite live up to my expectations. Lets take the expo at the Excel Centre for example- if your idea of queuing up for ages to collect your number in a hot, noisy and stuffy arena to shuffle through a load of over-priced, corporate and pretty unnecessary gear is your idea of fun then you are living the dream. I was quite glad to get out of there as quickly as possible to be honest. I didn’t even mind that they had run out of goody bags for competitors (they are usually full of crap anyway), but there were plenty of unhappy people. At least the Expo warms you up for crowds and queuing, as come race day you can expect to do plenty of this.
Sunday turned out to be warmer than forecast- 16 degrees and the sun fully out. Despite what the BBC TV commentators said about it being ideal running conditions, (maybe for a 400m lap around a track Steve/Brendan), I can tell you it was not. I was glad Paula Radcliffe corrected her colleagues on this- I think you will find 10 degrees cooler and cloudy would be ideal for a marathon, chaps. It was ideal spectating weather though, and the crowd support along the entire course was unbelievable, every inch of the course was packed full of people, some of them sober, all incredibly noisy, with some very entertaining signs and banners:
“If you think your legs are aching, my arms are killing holding this sign up!”
I spent the first five miles weaving incessantly in and out of people- I had started in the green zone which is for “good for age” competitors and merges after a few miles with the red and blue start zones. I had made the mistake of thinking that everyone would line up in the start time area allocated to them- so at the 3 hour predicted race time area I wasn’t expecting to have to dodge around people quite literally walking after one mile. Well done too to whoever decided that the “celebrities” (and I am talking z list) should start at the very front despite whatever predicted finish time they had, thanks, really enjoyed the extra energy spent running in and out of them.
Those first five miles were probably the most un-enjoyable moments of my running life. I felt like I was in one giant crush of people, barely able to move my arms backwards for fear of striking a man dressed as Captain America in the nose. It is carnage. Runners cutting across to grab drinks, a shriek of “bollard!” every few hundred metres, a quick sip of a full bottle of lucozade before lobbing it to the side of the road (what a total waste), pure claustrophobia. At least the amazing sights keep you entertained. Oh no hang on, the first half of the race is south of the Thames, so not much worth looking at believe me. Yes rounding the Cutty Sark at mile 6 six is a highlight, but the only one in 12 miles until you reach Tower Bridge.
Once over the bridge and past the halfway point you start to weave around the Isle of Dogs, and bar a glimpse of the O2 arena and Canary Wharf, it is not exactly inspiring surroundings. Fair play to the crowds- they are still there in their hoards though, incredibly supportive to every runner but especially if you have your name printed on your front- they go absolutely wild for that. At one point I was running alongside someone with “Ross” on their front- so I naturally attempted to harness the spectator shouts and pretend it was all for me. That tactic worked for a few miles but after a while it just started to piss me off- incessantly looking around thinking there was someone in the crowd who knew me is a draining experience! When I started going backwards at mile 20 I think “Ross” must have left me for dust, as it went a bit quieter.
Don’t get me wrong, the course starts to get quite interesting approaching Westminster and Big Ben. The only problem with that is you are about 25 miles in to a 26.2 mile race (or 26.8 miles after all the weaving). So with a mile to go I couldn’t care less about looking up and enjoying the finest sights our capital has to offer- just get me to that bloody finish as quickly as you can legs! Basically you could do with a few more Buckingham Palaces’ at miles 18, 20, 22 and 24…….
Please don’t take my negativity about the course for sour grapes- yes I was disappointed with time of 3.07.55 but I was pleased with my run as I physically couldn’t have put any more effort in or go any faster on the day. This was my 15th marathon (4th road), and as courses and experiences go it was one of the worst. I expected so much more of it. I like to run on interesting courses, with inspiring surroundings, and for me London just doesn’t deliver on that. Yes I much prefer to run off road (in fact I have a fairly strong dislike for road running per-se), however I have enjoyed other road marathons I have done before- Munich starts and finishes in the Olympic Stadium, goes straight through Marienplatz and weaves around the English Garden and is a far more interesting route in my opinion. I guess when you have 39 plus thousand runners finishing as on Sunday you cant help but use the odd dual carriageway, but it doesn’t make it much fun.
The greatest marathon? Clearly that is such a subjective question that it can’t possibly be answered in such a sweeping way. My personal favourite though is the Scafell Pike Trail Marathon. Variety of terrain, amazing views, peace and quiet, steep climbs, sweeping descents, lack of hype, low key like most off road races, basically the opposite of London and trumping any road race. But that’s just my opinion, and we all have our own reasons why we like to run, so don’t let me put you off the London Marathon. It has amazing crowds, an affordable race entry fee, excellent organisation, unbelievably moving individual race stories and huge amounts raised for charity.
Just keep the hype in check, there are plenty of other “great” marathons out there.