Many of us dream of running the Virgin Money London Marathon. It’s an iconic race that attracts runners of all abilities and every walk of life every year. But what is it really like to run it? Here runner Simon Aldridge shares his VLM experience from start to finish…
Getting a place
It’s another dreary Monday morning and back to work. I check Facebook and one of my friends has posted ‘OMG what have I done?’ and it’s a picture of the London Marathon ballot place confirmation letter. Immediate excitement – I can’t wait to
get home to find out if I’ve been successful or not.
Arrive home, no post for me, doesn’t bode well. I say nothing and we have dinner. Suddenly Lizzie, my wife, pulls out a parcel and says ‘Surprise! I’ve been keeping this for you!’ She was excited for me as it was from Virgin and knew I was very keen to get a place. I open it, heart pounding and it’s… ‘Sorry’ for the third time. I was gutted and
my wife felt very guilty as she was hoping it was going to be a nice surprise. Time for a sulk I think!!
I had always thought I would leave my destiny to run a marathon to the ballot result, even though I had always planned to run for a charity if I got in. But as another year had passed, and with me going to be 59 this year, I decided I didn’t want to wait for chance anymore and would apply for a charity place. Last year I had sulked for so long that all places had gone by the time I realised this, so this time I immediately got in touch with Muscular Dystrophy UK who I had already raised money for in the past. They have very close links with our friends whose son has Muscular Dystrophy and is the reason I want to raise money for them. They explained all the details, I filled in the form and then within 24 hours – ‘OMG, what have I done?’ – they gave me a place. Talk about mixed emotions – firstly hugely excited and pleased to be given a place, which then changes to panic and apprehension as the magnitude of what is required over the next six months sinks in. I now have to raise at least £1,750 and train to run 26.2 miles – wow!!
Plan of action
I then have to reassure my family it will all be alright, as they are a little concerned. I have had a few health issues over the years including collapsed lungs and a serious car crash, which left with me with four cracked vertebrae in my neck and resulting metalwork holding them together. I assure them I have discussed all these with my doctor and there is nothing to worry about – my dad just thinks I’m barking mad and why would I want to run that far!
It’s really difficult to know where to start preparing yourself at this point – I immediately get out all the saved torn-out sections of running magazines I have accrued ready for this moment and attempt to come up with training plans and diets for the next six months. The Virgin London Marathon Team send you lots of advice and papers, and then Muscular Dystrophy send you loads of advice and information. Eventually you have just to settle on a plan that sort of looks achievable in the time available and fits in with your abilities and circumstances. I’m not sure I realised it at this point, but it is a huge commitment.
Having recently completed my fastest half-marathon, I felt reasonably confident that I had a head start in my preparation and would only need minimal additional training in the intervening five months to get me up to marathon distance – how naive was I?
Things started well enough – just keep up the steady training and then ramp up after Christmas – easy! Suddenly, out of the blue after maybe going to sleep in an awkward position, I have a dreaded knee problem. I rested, but it didn’t improve so off to the doctor. It is quite amazing (and I’ve spoken to a number of people since then who agree) the pressure of an injury when you are aiming for something as big as the London Marathon is intense – everything seems to be exaggerated with the fear of not making the start line looming large in your head. The doctor can’t identify it so recommends a visit to a physio – all this time no running – tension rising! The physio thinks it may be related to my gait and that I should do exercises to strengthen my gluteus medius and use inserts in my shoes to stop my knees collapsing inwards. I know my shoes are okay as I had gait analysis last year so I go and buy my inserts and lie on the floor doing the recommended ‘clam’ exercise. All I have to do now is be patient and everything will be fine! Injuries are hard to cope with and I do understand why people get so down when they have long-term ones. I must admit I had even started to find out what the situation was with withdrawal and deferral, but tried to stay optimistic.
After three weeks of abstinence – which seemed like a lifetime – and with my bank account gradually emptying due to my private physio visits, I gingerly start to run again. To my surprise the knee feels okay when I run but, bizarrely, I am struggling to get in and out of the car and climb the stairs at times. I’m not sure my two-hour commute every day in a manual car is helping my left knee, but needs must. Time to start training again much to the relief of my wife who I’d been driving mad with my marathon talk – if only she could have known what was coming in the next four months! It is now less than 16 weeks to the big day.
It was during this non-running recovery period that I really started to appreciate being part of a group preparing for the marathon. Muscular Dystrophy really look after their runners and provide access to an experienced marathon runner, Bernie Henderson, who always seems to have a sensible answer to the many questions he gets. I also had the chance to be part of #TEAMORANGE via their Facebook page. I was a little sceptical about contributing initially, but very soon it becomes a great meeting place to discuss all your aches, pains, concerns, doubts and everything else marathon related. You know they’re not bored or fed up with hearing about it (like most of my family and friends by this stage!) as they are all going through the same things. Plenty of positivity about injuries and recovery kept me feeling good about it all.
Training and long runs
I now start to ramp up the miles, but still rather steadily as I’m nervous about my knee. The weather is starting to become a major issue and is seriously affecting training due to the snow, ice and sub-zero temperatures.
My preparation was based on a 16-week plan with a seemingly gentle increase in miles, with the long runs gradually going up by a few miles every week.
I was highly excited when I ran 15 miles, as this was my furthest ever and I felt pretty good. The next weekend I ran 16 and it felt absolutely terrible with pains everywhere, tiredness and breathing issue. Ultimately, I think the body needs a couple of long runs to get used to the pounding you are giving it. Fortunately for me, a woman in the village, Nicola Abbate is training to be a physio and needed people to practise on. She was very happy to get some experience giving massages to someone who was actually training quite hard for something. It was a great benefit to both of us – thank you Nicola.
I booked up for the obligatory midway half-marathon to keep a focus to the training. I chose the Milton Keynes Festival of Running Half Marathon and thoroughly enjoyed running with a group of people.
The next month was where training went into the high-intensity zone. The weather was getting worse, but the long runs had to be done otherwise London was going to be almost impossible. I have no choice but to wrap up, don my new hydration backpack, load up the gels, put the headphones on and go for it. Over the next few weeks I do 15, 16, 12, 15 and 13 miles, but have still not done a really long one. I plan to do one on the Sunday before we go on holiday, but the snow is 5 inches deep and it’s very windy, so I delay it. We had booked a holiday in Mallorca to coincide with the longest runs time period, so I could have some fine weather and get rid of some of the winter blues. Unfortunately they are also going through bad weather and it is the coldest and wettest it’s been there in 20 years – how unlucky is that? At least it’s not snowing and I manage to do a 19-mile and 20-mile run during the week along very beautiful coastlines.
It’s during this running period that you suddenly realise that runs of up to 10 miles become almost inconsequential due to your enhanced fitness. It’s a great feeling to sense your fitness is improving; the hills now don’t seem so tough, although living in the Cotswolds, you’re never more than a few miles from an even-steeper incline!
Even after these runs and loads of reading I’m still not really sure about race fuelling – I have now decided a banana and flapjack at about halfway might be a good energy and morale boost rather than just gels.
MD #TeamOrange are posting large amounts of reports and achievements of their experiences, distances and feelings. The camaraderie is really supportive and inspiring – it’s good to feel part of a team. Nobody really warns you how training for a marathon completely takes over your life and it was reassuring to hear other people were having similar experiences. It’s not easy for the people around you, because if you’re not actually running, you’re talking about running – sorry Lizzie.
All of a sudden the long runs are done and it’s only 3 weeks to go. TAPERING at long last. Lots of advice, but the general consensus is to keep running gently and gradually ramp down the miles and avoid injury.
Maranoia has now set in big time and everyone in the group is suffering from aches and pains, sniffles and doubts about arrangements. We then get even more things to worry about when the DLR workers look like they will be on strike the whole marathon weekend causing issues getting to the Expo to collect our numbers plus travel to the actual marathon start itself. Additionally, you couldn’t make it up, but after weeks of running in the rain, snow and sub zero temperatures , most long runs being run at about 5 degC, the weather forecast for the big day is looking more and more like it’s going to be very hot.
Just counting down the days now trying to stay relaxed, sleep well, carb load, hydrate and keep the legs and body ticking over. Coverage of the Marathon is now being advertised on the TV – the butterflies are starting to increase – it is really close now.
Now trying to focus and be methodical – I lay out all the running gear I need: all the fuel I need: all the documents I need to actually get the all important number so I can actually run the race. One final gentle massage and then it’s off to London. The excitement is really building now and this is enhanced as Lizzie my wife and Emily my daughter are coming to support me. I also feel an additional strength and desire to succeed as Paul and Angela Dickson, whose son John is my inspiration are also coming up to cheer and maybe even help carry me home!!
Time to go up to London for the big weekend. I’m trying to get everything done as early as possible and then have a relaxing evening before the big day. We get into the correct hall and head for the registration point. I proudly collect my number: 50050. Then it is off to collect the timing tag. When this part of the day was done, I admit I was absolutely elated as now I knew I could and would run!
The day does get tougher after this. It’s heaving and with the heat it feels very oppressive. I am very keen to get out and find our accommodation as I am finding the heat and hustle and bustle quite tiring now. I didn’t enjoy the registration experience at all apart from actually getting my number and meeting the MD team – it was very hard work the day before I was running.
We manage to find our final tiny exit door and make our way to the back of the queue for the DLR and spend 20 minutes in the very warm weather waiting to get onto the platform to catch a train. Finally we get on and find our way to Lewisham to meet up with our daughter and find our accommodation. The rest of the evening was spent fussing around sorting out my kit, my fuel and my plans in the morning.
It’s a beautiful sunny day, but is already feeling quite warm. I go straight to the baggage lorries to meet up with the other Muscular Dystrophy runners. Really good to actually meet some of #TeamOrange people I have been chatting to on Facebook.
The race has now officially started! This year they are doing staggered starts to try and reduce the overcrowding on the first few miles of the course and, finally, after nearly 30 minutes, it’s our turn. Immediately we are being cheered on and my name is being called out. I was completely surprised by how many people are out supporting already.
At about 10 miles I’m suddenly feeling very tired. I continue to take a water bottle at every station. I am taking a mixture of High 5 gels and Clif Bloks to keep the carbs up, plus sipping my electrolyte drink. I muster up some energy as I approach 12 miles, as I know there is a Muscular Dystrophy cheer point and I want to look lively for them. Suddenly, one of the highlights of the run comes into view – Tower Bridge – and I get an extra spring in my step and try and take it all in.
Further on, the crowds get smaller and, with the additional heat from all the concrete, it does feel a bit of a low point, but at about 16 or 17 miles it gets lower. I have suddenly started getting really bad pains in my right knee and hip. It would be so easy in many ways to just stop, as my knee really is hurting now, but then I think of all the reasons to continue.
The next few miles are a bit of blur, as I’m just trying to keep going. When Tower Bridge comes back into sight, the spirits are raised as I know I am on the home straight. I have now run further than I’ve ever run in my life. The crowds are really big now and the cheering is deafening – there is no way I’m not going to finish!
I come to the final Muscular Dystrophy cheer point, and I am really excited to see my wife, daughter and John’s parents, Paul and Angela, there. The final mile must one of the longest miles of my life. Finally, I am running down the Mall. The finish line is such a welcome sight! We are ushered through to get the all-important medal – it feels fantastic to put it on! What a huge moment of pride; I have actually run a marathon! We go into the Army & Navy Club and are greeted by a huge cheer from the Muscular Dystrophy staff, volunteers, families and the runners already back. I am met and congratulated by the Muscular Dystrophy marathon guru who has been a font of knowledge for us all.
About a day later, when I am driving back from work, I suddenly get this great big smile on my face as the realisation of the enormity of what I have achieved [hits me]. I have just run the 2018 London Marathon, the hottest on record, and raised over £3,400!
It has now been a few days since the Marathon and a few final thoughts – my body has never been put through so much exercise and pounding and I don’t think I’ve ever been fitter. There have been a few lows but it has easily been the most fantastic, enjoyable and rewarding experience of my life. Inspired by John and running for Muscular Dystrophy was obviously a very personal thing for me and I’m very proud to have raised a good amount of money for Muscular Dystrophy UK so they can improve the quality of life for the people affected, and to bring cures closer to reality. I can’t imagine there is a better charity to have run for – they looked after us fantastically, supported us in all our fundraising activities and supported us so well before, during and after the Marathon itself and Bernie Henderson’s help has been outstanding and invaluable. It has been an absolute pleasure and honour to have raised money for the charity.
I also want to say thank you to all the #TeamOrange Facebook group who hopefully read this and are able to relate to some of. It was like having your mates with you all day every day – someone always seemed to be there to respond to any comment or posting however silly and I’m so proud of us all for achieving what we have done in the marathon and more importantly the huge amount of money we have raised.
If you would like to find out more about Muscular Dystrophy UK and details on the various muscle wasting diseases supported by them then please follow the link below: www.musculardystrophyuk.org