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A marathon success: the finish line

A marathon success: the finish line

Well this is me, writing from the other side. No, no, I’m not dead – as close as that felt at times – but rather I’ve finally crossed the finish line.

I’ve tried to keep you up to speed with my marathon journey over the last 3 months and now that journey is finally over. But I can’t just sign off yet, I’ve got to fill you in on the gritty details of the day.

The final running gearweek into training was strange. Known as ‘the taper’, it’s a very sedate week for all marathon runners as the aim is to rest as much as possible before the big day. Not being up at 6am thumping out the miles came as a blessed relief, I’ll admit. As the Saturday before rolled around, I realised how much I had to do before my family and their pets descended on my flat. In between dusting, polishing and scrubbing, I laid out everything I needed for the marathon. By the time I was finished, my bedroom floor was a sea of lycra, energy gels and warm layers – whilst the rest of the house was spotless.

Finally the hoards arrived. Pasta was eaten and plans were formed. It was like a military operation – I had printed off maps and was marking who would be where and when. My sister, her partner and the two dogs would be at Limehouse Basin – which serves as a viewing point for miles 14 and 21. My friend had managed to wangle tickets to sit at the Grandstand – right by the finishing line – and it was agreed my mum would be there, with another of my friends, sitting comfortably as all the finishers crawled in. A cluster of other friends would also be at Limehouse holding a bunch of helium balloons so that I could spot them. Another bunch would be at mile 8, Rotherhithe, with pink pom-poms and banners. Some old workmates would be ‘around mile 3’ (I was less hopeful of catching them). CPRE folk would be scattered over the course, much like the energy gels I would consume and discard (the guilt of littering never left me before you ask!).

As inevitably as death and taxes, Sunday made its way around. The plans were in place. The carbs had been eaten. The preparation runs had been trudged. There was nothing more to do.
I arrived at ‘Runners Village’ (the corral where all runners gather, eat bananas, go to the loo A LOT and deposit our bags before heading to the start) and the full scope of the race’s organisation hit me. The London Marathon has a reputation as the most efficient of all the big races not just in the UK but the world. Having been going for 35 years this year, you’d be right to assume that they’d had time to hone what makes a perfect marathon. But when you see it in action, the sheer magnitude of the effort involved is indescribable. There were volunteers everywhere – people ready to reassure; direct hither and thither; take your kit bags. And the lorries! Usually, at any race (big or small), you leave your bag in a tent and pick it up at the end – no big deal. But with the London Marathon, you entrust your bag to the HGV bearing your bib number. There were dozens of them, all lined up in a row – much like a layby on the M4 - and they were there to take the tens of thousands of runners’ bags from the start in Greenwich and then drive the 10 or so miles to the finish line on the Mall. It’s a good test of faith: that moment when you hand over your precious kit to the volunteer in the HGV.

I am lucky that I had managed to make a new friend during this time. On the drive from my house, I spotted a lone runner waiting anxiously for the notoriously unreliable P4 bus. I hopped out and offered her a lift. Running – and racing – tends to do that; they bring out the best in people. You’ll find that, before most races, total strangers are talking affably with one another, reassuring each other, offering one another pieces of fruit, all because they share the same challenge in front of them. It’s a wonderful thing to witness and to experience. And so I had someone to talk to in those nerve-wracking moments before the start. Her name was Lisa and, by good fortune, she was in the same holding pen as me. Designed to stagger the start times so that the fastest go first, holding pens mean that you should be with people who will be racing at a similar time to yourself. It’s a good way to control the ebbs and flows of a 36,000 strong crowd all moving in a (hopefully) forward motion. Lisa and I absorbed it all. From the alarmingly laid-back man behind us (‘I’ll just see how I feel’) to the charity fundraiser wearing a karaoke kit around him, belting out pop songs to the great entertainment of the gathering crowds.

And then we were off! Lisa and I agreed that we wouldn’t try to stick together (almost impossible amongst the throng) and, having swapped mobile numbers beforehand, would share times and photos after we’d finished. I still have her number and we occasionally message about how the running is going.

I barely remember the first 13 miles. All I envisage is just a sea of supporters, shouting out names – my name amongst them! Having a stranger shout “Go Toni, you’re looking GREAT!” is just about the biggest thrill I have experienced. But I do remember the emotion of going past the Cutty Sark and then over Tower Bridge. At mile 14, I spotted a bumper crop of friends and family: I clocked the dogs before I spotted my sister and partner, shrieking frantically at me somewhere past Tower Bridge; then, keeping my eyes peeled for the balloons, I saw my best mates waving and cheering me on. Seeing loved ones is so emotional – it really lifts you and makes the next few miles just that bit easier.

But that feeling of buoyancy didn’t last long. At mile 16, I could feel my quad muscles seizing up. I hadn’t experienced that during training, so it did feel like sod’s law. The five miles through Canary Wharf and the Isle of Dogs was one big, pain-filled blur. You should see the photos taken of me over this point: my face is one of grim determination.

At mile 21, I spotted my balloon-festooned friends again. It was much, much needed. Having slowed my pace down, I had time to weave over to them and high five them all as I trotted by. Somewhere along Commercial Road, I spotted George – my workmate and the fellow who got me the place in the first place.

The last five miles, though still some distance, do feel like the finishing stretch and I remember them vividly. The sea of faces along the Embankment… the fact that I knew we’d be turning at Big Ben and the agony that I could see it from miles away. Why did it never feel like it was getting any closer?!

Then the huge banners emerged from the sky, emblazoned with the words ‘800 METRES TO GO!’, ‘600 METRES TO GO!’ I cannot lie - these annoyed rather than motivated me. 800 metres felt like another country away. Then the turning from Birdcage Walk to the Mall – this is it!

I could see the Grandstands in front of me. I really wanted to see my mum but there were so many stands! How would I ever see her?! Then I hear her. The woman who had been utterly ambivalent about my training (to say she’s not the sporting type is an understatement) and who just hoped that I’d “not die”, was frantically screeching and waving at me. I thought I’d dissolve into tears but I kept going. I crossed the line.

I thought it would be a strangely impersonal finish: grab a medal; collect your bag; get on the tube. But the volunteers were there again, saying to each and every finisher with unabating enthusiasm: “very well done” and my faith in the lorries was justified, as my precious possessions were handed back to me. Floating towards the meet-up area to find friends and family, so exhausted it felt like my sense of self was more in spirit than human form, I let the relief flood over me. Waiting under the tree marked with ‘W, X, Y, Z’, I found my mum and friends. There was lots of hugging but I just remember the feeling of tiredness and happiness. That and the burning desire to throw my trainers in the bin and never run again.

That feeling lasted about 2 days. One week later, I was back running with a renewed sense of purpose… and three black toenails.

If you would like to sponsor me, you still can by visiting my Just Giving page

Read more about my marathon challenge:

A marathon challenge: Part 1
A marathon challenge: Part 2
A marathon challenge: Part 3

There was lots of hugging but I just remember the feeling of tiredness and happiness. That and the burning desire to throw my trainers in the bin and never run again.

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