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The Virgin London Marathon is one of my favorite big city marathons. There really is something special about doing it. I’m not sure if it’s the fact that it’s our home soil marathon major, if it’s the fact that you pass some of London’s greatest landmarks, because the route is pretty flat and fast, because so many are runners are all toeing the line together all ready to complete 26.2 miles and give it everything they’ve got, or because the crowd support is so amazing it sends shivers down your spine. All of these things together make it a great race. If you are doing the Virgin London Marathon (or any other marathon this spring) I hope you have a brilliant day.
The start at Blackheath and Greenwich Park is very busy. There are thousands of runners everywhere. I like to think of the first part of the course as the start area. It’s vital to know your way around. Know where the baggage trucks are and where your start area (blue or red) and starting pen is. It’ll take you longer than you think to do everything on race day morning so give yourself plenty of extra time. Once on the start line you will spend quite some time standing very closely to fellow runners in your starting pen. You are likely to feel very nervous at this time. Take a few minutes to calm yourself and reflect on all your positive moments in training and racing. A few deep breaths in through your nose and slowly out through your mouth will help calm you on the start line. Soak up the atmosphere and enjoy it.
Once the gun actually fires and the race starts it may be at least 15mins or more before some of you cross over the start line. One the race is underway and you start moving forwards use this time to stay calm and relaxed and don’t worry. Your timing chip will not be activated until you cross the start line.
In the first mile as you head out along Shooters Hill Road (Blue start) or Charlton Way (Red start) you will still be running very close to other runners and may find it hard to get into your running stride. Just relax and don’t waste energy weaving through people. The race will soon stretch out and in a couple of miles you will find your space to run. Look out for the first mile marker on Vanbrugh Park if you set off from the Red start or Shooters Hill road if you started at the blue start. You’ll have been joined by the celebrity runners from the Green start just before this point. At the first mile marker check your mile pace and make sure you are not going too fast. If you are a little outside of your target pace then stay relaxed and make the time up in the second half of the race.
At mile 2 check your pace again. You’ll probably still be running very close to other runners. It should feel easy at this point. That’s right. EASY! If it doesn’t you’ve started off to fast. Use the first few miles to get into your stride, and warm up. Use this time wisely to just relax and soak up the atmosphere, you’ll need your energy for the latter stages of the race.
Just before mile 3 on John Wilson Street the different race starts from Blue and Red converge and you may find some of that space you were starting to enjoy has disappeared again. The first water station is just after this point at mile 3 so take on board some fluids.
Despite there being so many people around you don’t panic. Stick to your game plan. The start at the Virgin Money London Marathon can feel quite fast. Mile 3 is mainly down hill, so relax and use this to your advantage. Still keep to your own running rhythm. Don’t try and dodge and weave in and out of other runners.
By mile 4 you should notice that you have more room to run and you are able to get into your running groove. You should look to maintain this and enjoy your running. Feel good and in control at this point. Look out for the Lucozade fuel station to top up your energy and fluids. It’s important to stay on top of your energy and hydration needs throughout the race.
By mile 5 you should have found your marathon legs a little and feel like you are getting into then race. Take advantage of many sights and distractions along the route and enjoy some music from the bands, pubs and spectators lining these early miles of the course. The crowd thickens as you pass through Greenwich towards the Cutty Sark but don’t be tempted to raise your pace just to look good. Stay focused and just keep to your personal running groove. Enjoy the atmosphere here as the crowd is amazing.
During mile 6 Cutty Sark comes into view be prepared for a bit of a bottle neck as you make a few tight turns to run around the ship. You should feel relaxed and in control. The crowd feel really close at the point. Although you might want to speed up as you’ll be feeling good remember you’ve not even covered a third of the total race distance so hold on to your enthusiasm and be patient with your progress.
Having just left the hustle and bustle of the Cutty Sark you’ll head out towards Mile 7 through Greenwich where the road widens.
Expect to find a little more space around you. Not much in if you’re running around at around 4-5hr pace but you should have sufficient space to be into your stride. The roads will still be packed with runners and supporters. You should do another pace check between mile 7 and 8 and once again settle into your marathon pace and rhythm. Keep it smooth, metronomic and in control.
Leaving Greenwich and running through Lewisham at Mile 8 celebrate the fact that you’ll have covered the first 3rd of the race. This is a great milestone and one to be proud of. This first 3rd of the marathon is so important. It can really set you up for the all important middle and final thirds of the race. At this point you should still be feeling comfortable and in control.
You’ll go past Deptford Park and this can be a slightly quieter part of the course (although still lined with people!) so aim to focus and hit cruise control for the next 5 miles. Be patient and tick them off. Now is a good time to take water on board.
As you approach Mile 9 you’re entering Docklands for the time. You pass around Brunswick and Surrey Quays. The course twists and turns a little more. This is good time to focus on you and how you’re feeling. Take time to relax and enjoy the moment and what you are achieving. Remind yourself how far you’ve come on your journey. Think about how you started your marathon campaign and enjoy the fact that this is it. You’re actually doing it.
As the course straightens out through miles ten and eleven focus on your even pace and getting some fuel and fluid on board. There is a Lucozade aid station at mile 10 so make sure you grab some fuel. As you approach an aid station you don’t need to rush for the first person that offers you a drink. Take your time and stay relaxed. There are many helpers passing you a drink as typically an aid station will stretch for 50 – 100metres. Often the people towards the middle and back of the aid stations have more space and grabbing a drink is easier. Be patient once you have your drink. Carry it with you and sip it for a while. Take care discarding it when you’ve finished not to throw it in the path of fellow runners.
This part of the course feels like a change from the early part of the race. It’s almost like the calm before you reach a real high point of the course. It’s a good opportunity to compose yourself and get yourself ready for the second half of the race – without doubt the toughest part. Here settle into your pace and remind yourself that the first half of the course is transport for the second when your race really begins. At mile 12 the crowds really deepen as you hit Jamaica road and the approach to Tower Bridge.
This is one of my favourite parts of the course. You can hear the crowds, music and electric atmosphere as the River Thames gets closer. As you turn right and see Tower Bridge rising ahead of you resist the temptation to pick up your pace and sprint as you run over Tower Bridge. It’s easily done as you hear the shouts and applause from the thousands of spectators that line the bridge and beyond. Keep calm and really soak up the brilliant atmosphere as you cross the River Thames.
As you run down the other side of the bridge it slopes gently, you’ll see the Tower of London on your left hand side and then and you’ll turn right at the onto East Smithfield road in Tower Hamlets. You may get a glimpse of me and the other elite women running on the other side of the Highway heading towards mile 23.
You’ll soon approach the half way marker take some more water on board and you’ll soon see the all important 13.1 miles – you won’t miss the arch of balloons and the large clock. Do a half way time check. Again, enjoy this moment, feel strong, relaxed and in control. Collect your thoughts and gather your courage. From this point on your race really begins.
As you leave the half way point feeling in control you can start to count down the miles to the finish, this can be a real motivator as the numbers decrease and your confidence grows.
As you head through Tower Hamlets and towards mile 15 you will start to see the high rise buildings of Canary Wharf looming in front of you. Keep your focus on your pace and rhythm. At 14.5 miles you will make a sharp right turn as you start your journey towards the Isle of Dogs. Just after the 15 mile marker the Westferry Road heads into a tunnel. This is a quiet part of the course with just the sound of runner’s feet echoing in the darkness. Use this quite time to reaffirm your positive thoughts and your can do attitude. As you emerge from the tunnel you will head on some smaller less crowded roads towards 16miles and just 10 more miles to go!
The Isle of Dogs can be the place where many runners start to struggle mentally. Get tough with yourself and be positive. Stay focused and you will get yourself through this part of the course. Draw on some of the strategies you practiced in your training to get you through any hard moments, and remember they are often only moments!
Soon the crowds pick up again as you head into Canary Warf. Miles 17 to 19 are the most twisty parts of the course. Take care around the corners as a change of direction can sometimes feel awkward when you have been running this long. Take time to fuel up for the final part of the race when you pass water and aid stations.
Once you hit mile 20 and start to head out of Docklands along Commercial Road the countdown is clearly now on. This is the part of the marathon that physically and psychologically can be very tough. The roads seem long, the surface hard and the finish still some way off. It for the next 4 miles that you really have to dig deep. You’ll head along Commercial Road past mile 21 and back along the Highway. Here you are likely to see runners still coming the other way between miles 13 and 14.
Once you hit mile 23 at Tower Hill things start to go crazy. The finish line now is almost in reach. But not quite. The crowds in this area are truly inspiring and amazing but you’ve got to keep a hold of yourself at this point. No sudden bursts or accelerations. Although you’ll be feeling really tired the final 3 miles are super important. Marathons can be made or lost in the final miles and so you need to be physically and mentally braced for the battle that lies ahead. You’ll pass the final Lucozade aid station just after along Upper Thames Street around mile and continue under Blackfriars – it’s dark and can be quite eerie in the tunnel and then you head up and out to join the Victoria Embankment. Once you reach this point you’ve just a couple of miles to go. The crowds here can be 10 people deep and they’ll continue to line to course right along the Embankment. It’s an amazing feeling being this far into the race. With over 24 miles behind you at this point stay strong and concentrate as you continue with the river on your left to mile 25 Waterloo Bridge, the London Eye and straight ahead Big Ben.
A sharp right at Bridge Street and you turn away from the River Thames leaving Big Ben behind you and you head along Great George Street in to Birdcage Walk. At 26miles you’ll have St James Park on your right and the finish is almost in sight. This is truly a moment to use the crowds to pull you along that final half a mile. At this point the noise and excitement are simply amazing and you’ll be drawn along by the energy and enthusiasm and of course your own adrenaline.
You’ll go around the roundabout with Buckingham Palace on your left and turn into the mall with just 200m to go. With the finish in sight it’s likely you’ll experience all sorts of emotions. The pain and fatigue feels intense but the lure of the finish line and success puts all that to the back of mind. You’ve got to push with all your strength this final part of the course and cross the finish line smiling.