26 April 2015
Training for a marathon is a long, slow process. It takes fortitude, courage and a dogged determination to get out and run, no matter what the weather, when your mind and muscles are screaming at you to stop and stay in bed. Running twenty plus miles is never easy, even if you’ve done it before many times. Anyone who thinks it is should go and and try. Sometimes doubts creep in. Why am I doing this to myself, maybe I should just turn for home now moments. Only the determined succeed. On our way back from Portchester, CJ and I bumped into Commando on one of his last ever training runs. The end was in sight.
The London Marathon is the pinnacle of any English marathon runner’s career, the largest marathon in the UK and the largest annual fundraising event in the world. Places are as rare as hen’s teeth so Commando was very lucky to be offered one through Southampton Sight. Given the debacle of Sarah’s place, doubly so. This was not just any old London Marathon either. The first event was held on 29 March 1981 with six thousand seven hundred and forty seven runners, making Sunday’s marathon the thirty fifth anniversary of the London Marathon. On Sunday more than thirty eight thousand people took part, the most in its thirty five year history. My amazing Commando was among them.
The morning began with a leisurely and rather early breakfast of porridge and toast in our hotel. Afterwards we retired to our room and Commando triple checked his kit while I made sure I had everything I’d need for a walk across the city from the start line at Greenwich to the finish on the Mall. I downloaded an app that would, reputedly, track Commando’s progress. In Manchester I’d tried something similar but it hadn’t worked too well and I’d had a few heart stopping moments where it failed to keep up and I thought he’d keeled over at the half way point because he hadn’t appeared to move for over an hour. Commando, in full kit, sat on the bed for some last minute checking of all the instructions and then we set off into the damp drizzle of London Streets.
As we made our way through Bermondsey, the Shard towered over us, the ragged top lost in the low cloud. The sighting of a Banksy, or at least some graffiti that looked very Banksyesque, made me smile. We were not alone, hundreds of other runners joined us in a heaving, slightly steamy stream of Lycra and red marathon bags through the railway tunnel to the tube station. Marathon runners were allowed to travel on the underground for free all day but I had to stop and buy a day ticket. Then were were packed like sardines into the train. There was a camaraderie amongst the runners, a few jokes, talk of hoped for times and even a man running in a furry dog suit carrying the head over his arm.
At Greenwich Park a huge red sign directed us through the gilded gates and we poured into the park surrounded by other runners and supporters. An air of excitement, expectation and nerves buzzed through the crowd as we marched up the hill towards the Royal Observatory. There would be no queuing to stand on the Meridien Line for us this visit, no stops for coffee or blue sky views over the Thames. Little knots of people formed under the trees, pinning on race numbers, checking watches, making phone calls to loved ones at home. Commando ate a banana and posed for his pre run photo in front of the group of flag carrying pace runners.
At the top we caught sight of the wet, empty course though the barriers and passed the back of the Observatory.
“Don’t worry about your time,” I told him. “This is not a marathon for personal bests, there are too many people for that. You’ll be caught in the traffic of runners, don’t try to go round them or get frustrated, you’ll just end up running farther not faster. Crossing the finish line is all that matters, however long it takes,” this was the voice of Moonwalk experience talking.
He nodded but I’m not sure he was listening. Soon we would have to part. Unlike other races where supporters can stand at the start line and watch the race begin, I would have to leave him there. After the horrors of Boston, security dictates that only runners are allowed into the start area. This is understandable but it was hard to take one final photo, one final kiss for luck, then watch him disappear, alone, into the throng. For a while I stood watching the place he’d been feeling slightly tearful and anxious. It was just before nine o’clock and it would be many hours before I’d see him again.
Alone I walked past the back of the Royal Observatory. There were still runners everywhere, obvious with their big red bags. The start is staggered, wheelchair athletes first, then elite runners, the ones who have a chance to cross the finish line as race winners. Finally at ten past ten, the ordinary men and women with extrodinairy courage like Commando, who run for nothing but pride and a finisher’s medal cross the start line. Looking from Greenwich Hill, the city was shrouded by low cloud and drizzle. Tiny specks in the distance were more runners making their way to the start or others, like me, taking the lonely walk back down. It was windy and cold. One runner, surrounded by well wishers, shivered as his blue wig was almost blown from his head. I wished I’d worn my warm waterproof coat but I knew I’d have regretted it later if I had.
Back in Southampton I’d plotted a nice seven mile route to the finish line on WalkJogRun avoiding the marathon course completely. I’d checked I could find it easily on my phone and was looking forward to a relaxed stroll, maybe a coffee and some lunch in Westminster and a little sight seeing before I had to get to the finish line at Horseguards Parade. There was a coffee stall near the Observatory so I grabbed a takeaway cup and sat on a bench to find my map. This was when I discovered the mobile networks were all down. My map wouldn’t open. Even the tracker I’d downloaded didn’t work.
Without my route there was nothing for it, I would have to follow the river until I came to a bridge, cross and hope I could find my way from there. For someone as good at getting lost as me it was not good news. The one saving grace was that I knew which direction to go. Two Moonwalks and a previous visit to Greenwich at least gave me that much. The river would have to be my guide but it was going to be a far longer walk than planned with none of the relaxed sight seeing I’d hoped for. If only I’d printed out the map.
Walking down the hill towards the Maritime Museum under trees dripping blossom and rain, there were others like me who had left their loved ones at the top and were making for the finish or a place to watch. There were no more red bags now. The race magazine I’d read warned to avoid the area around the Cutty Sark as there would be huge crowds gathered to watch the race. Much as I’d have liked to follow the advice I had no choice but to ignore it as it was the only way I knew to get to the river.
At the bottom I stopped for a look at the giant ship in a bottle. The memory of standing there with Commando brought tears to my eyes. How was he doing all alone at the start line? Around the corner I hit the barriers at the side of the course, already crowded with spectators. Crowds make me panic and I marched past wanting to get away from the race as quickly as I could. There would be no point in standing hoping to see him run by with so many others. Besides I didn’t have time, it was still only nine thirty, more than half an hour before he’d set off and I had a long, unfamiliar walk to the finish to worry about.
When I heard cheers erupt from the crowd though, I did stop. The wheelchair althletes were coming through. Being early there was still space at the barriers for me to squeeze in so I stood for a while and watched the first few pass. Most people, when faced with accident or illness of the kind these men and women have been would give up on life and feel sorry for themselves. What kind of courage must it take to overcome such a cruel fate and turn it on its head in such an admirable way? They sped past in a blur of thrashing arms and wheels and I cheered wildly along with the rest of the crowd.
There were crowds at the Cutty Sark but, thankfully, no so many I couldn’t get through with relative ease. Even so, I was glad to leave them behind and get to the empty banks of the Thames. Grey clouds still dropped drizzle over London. In the distance, past HMS Belfast, I could just make out the Shard, still half hidden in the greyness. At last I was really alone with a long and uncertain walk before me.