In October 2018 I found out I had a place in the Virgin London Marathon; I was shocked.
I am not a runner, in fact I hate running, but I always love a challenge. Challenges are what change you and I knew I could do this, albeit slowly! That’s why I entered… oh! and because my friend Alison who ran in 2018 told me it would be fun and the group of us that entered said we’d have a great time… but I was the only one that actually got a place!
At the time I found out, my husband Simon was being treated for Cancer at the Yorkshire Cancer Centre, Bexley Wing at St. James’ Hospital, Leeds, so I decided to raise money for this incredible unit to give a little something back and set a target of £2k. His treatment was gruelling and battering him but I knew that any pain and difficulties I would go through in training and running a marathon would be nothing compared to the pain he was going through from cancer and the treatment.
Simon was a runner: I was not! He thought I was an idiot, in the nicest possible way, for entering but was proud of me for taking on a challenge that would be mentally and physically boosting and draining in equal measures… and it was. It was tough, especially as I resent every step of running and find it so boring (still do!); it’s just not my thing! But I was doing it. In fact, I started my training prior to finding out I had a place ‘just in case’ I did! I always like to be prepared.
Part of my drive was to be stronger and fitter to support Simon through his treatment, because I could not look after him if I was not in good mental and physical shape and every day before I visited him in hospital I would hit the roads to get stronger, for him and me and the possible challenge ahead, and whilst I hated it and most days didn’t want to go out, I had that thought continually in my head of ‘this is nothing compared to what he has to go through’ and that was my drive, my inspiration and motivation.
In November 2018 Simon died. The cancer was cleared, but the treatment was too much for him and led to technicalities that meant his body couldn’t carry on. It was heart-breaking, (it still is) but with the knowledge I had the place in the London Marathon, the need to push myself, challenge and change myself to complete the 26.2 miles and the desire to raise money in his memory for the amazing cancer centre that looked after him so well, became stronger and more personal. This was now for me, him and every cancer patient that could benefit from my fundraising. So, through one of the hardest times in my life learning to embrace grief and heartbreak, be a Mum and run my own business, I kept training.
Roll on through the first few months of 2019 and I was putting all the effort in and racking up the miles. I was on schedule; doing the long training runs up to 20 miles. It wasn’t fast, but I was doing it, I’ve never had any doubts about finishing the London Marathon because I knew I had the physical and mental strength and I was doing it my way, my speed, because after all, a marathon is a distance and not a speed. I had implemented my strategy of ‘The Three Ps’ – I knew it was possible, I had a productive plan and the Marathon was my performance. In spite of grief, losing the love of my life and everything else going on, I was ready. Let’s do this!
I’d planned the Marathon weekend to be a great weekend with my son and some of my closest friends who were all there to support me because they’re kind and amazing like that and we were going to have a great time, which we absolutely did. I knew taking part in the London Marathon would be hugely overwhelming emotionally and that I’d spend the whole time in tears, thinking of Simon, the reality that he wasn’t there with me and seeing all the other incredible runners, each with a different incredible story to tell.
I’ve had friends who have taken part before (side note: they’re all fans of running and great at it... unlike me! I was also actually meant to take part in 2014 but found myself in hospital having my gallbladder removed); they said it was fantastic, the atmosphere is electric and it was the best experience of their lives. I was now prepared for one of the best and most overwhelming experiences of my life. I was going to do something only a small percentage of people get to do and it was going to be awe-inspiring. I was going to be so proud, delighted and humbled and I was so pleased to have raised nearly £3.5k for my friend Jacqui’s fund (Jacqui’s Million) at the Yorkshire Cancer Centre.
On the morning of the London Marathon I woke up fresh and happy, no nerves, just a feeling of determination, focus and being ready. We’d had a lovely marathon eve in our apartment on The Strand with friends and a superb meal courtesy of Fabrizio the Italian private chef (he’s excellent, hire him!). I had my sensible breakfast of porridge and banana and a slice of toast and headed to the start line in Blackheath with my best friend of 25 years, Kathryn.
There were hoards of people, but it didn’t feel overly daunting. I kept my head and was determined to run my way and not get caught up in the masses or feel nervous of the incredible runners around me. If anything, I found the start a little underwhelming; nothing great to be said for the atmosphere stakes, just lots of focussed runners.
I’m not going to go into mile by mile detail, but mile one was awful… I’d started too fast despite ‘running my own race’. I always walk the first mile in training to get into it, but I couldn’t do that here; it’s not the done thing amidst seasoned runners. But I did it and carried on and actually, it all became fairly easy.
The Cutty Sark was fantastic. I knew my friends were there courtesy of our WhatsApp group which we all sent messages in over the marathon day. I’d ask for a taxi or wine to get me through; they’d tell me they were in the pub; that kind of thing! It was a real boost to see them and I was pleased I was actually running quite strongly at that point! I could hear them shout ‘keep f****** going’ – a phrase which had become my slogan since they bought me a keyring with it engraved on in the final weeks of my training!
It was good… but a few miles later I felt starving hungry and weak, the quick start had caught up with me. Thank goodness for the kind lady in Bermondsey who gave me a jammie dodger; I’m sure it saved my life because after that and a few painkillers I was off again. At this stage the crowds were great and the people so supportive; the residents of London and supporters were truly awesome and around the next corner was Tower Bridge… half way and where I got to see my son and friends again… and I was still running!
Now, at this point the advice is ‘don’t look left’ as the runners to your left are 10 miles ahead of you. What they don’t tell you is that it’s not just a case of not looking left, the reality is you’re running past each other for 1 ½ miles and there’s droves of them running against me, ten miles ahead and giving it everything with only 4 miles to go…. I still had another 12… Oh the thought!
I tried to get that thought out of my head but being by myself, with no-one to talk to it all became a bit lonely, quiet and boring…. we were entering part of the course with fewer onlookers and more and more runners were passing as I started to slow, just chugging along at my own little pace. Thank goodness for my best friend Kathryn who picked me up at mile 15 and ran with me, in her jeans for two miles to keep me company before I saw two more friends at mile 17. But then it was time to go it alone through Canary Wharf and it was quiet, no atmosphere, little support and I got so bored, the misery of it all set in… the more bored I got, the quieter it got, the slower I got. I was stuck in this infuriating gear of slow running that was slower than walking but it just physically hurt so much to walk. But I was still moving and I never once thought that I couldn’t finish, though the question of ‘why was I doing this?’ was very prevalent. It was for the money I’ve raised and out of sheer spite and determination, that’s why I was doing it.
As miles 17-21 carried on I got more and more bored, more resentful of every step, lonelier and more frustrated because what was meant to be an overwhelming experience wasn’t at all. I’d hardly thought of Simon, which made me mad, though I’d asked him to help me along a few times and then the sun would shine in the sky so I knew he was around, but I guess I wanted to be overwhelmed emotionally; maybe I needed it as part of my grief process, but it just wasn’t to be… and then the worst thing happened. The experience that I now know hundreds of people in the 2019 Virgin London Marathon had suffered right from mile one and I so feel for them because it was awful and certainly not what any of us signed up for.
I am a slow runner…I just am… probably more because I resent it physically… my brain hasn’t taken the approach that if I run faster it will be over quicker… there is just a lack of cohesive communication between brain and legs, regardless of size, weight, fitness or desire! It’s been the same way my whole life. Therefore, I’m what is affectionately known as a ‘back of the packer’ and I’m good with that. In fact, whilst I’m competitive in most things (OK all things!), I’m really happy to be in the back few hundred or thousand at the London Marathon and I’ve always made it very clear that I had no interest in time, but completing the distance because no-one is paying money to a great cause for me to be quick... they want to know I’ve earned the donations; and I did!
However, the experience of the ‘Back of the Packers’ was beyond belief and this whole scenario caught up with me between miles 20 and 21. Since Mile 13 the streets had been quiet, hence my boredom, only relieved by the passing fun of Karaoke Man! There was no real atmosphere and as we got further on you could see things were being packed away. But my experience post mile 21 was this… The coaches behind me, then driving past me, then ahead of me, then behind me again… these were the coaches that scooped up runners who couldn’t make it. Also, hot on my heels were the road sweepers cleaning trucks, blasting their chemicals over the painted blue line to clean it off the roads.
Water and Lucozade stations were abandoned with no more supplies and the feeling of impending doom got stronger and stronger. Mile 22 and the barriers are starting to be taken down. Now yes, I’m well aware this is one of the busiest cities in the world and it needs to get back to functioning, but the roads weren’t due to be re-opened until 7pm and it was little after 5pm. But the road cleaners and officials were fast behind me and it was making it all the more difficult as they had little respect for the runners. Without even having control I felt myself getting even slower as I was so annoyed and disappointed at the lack of atmosphere and support.
Don’t get me wrong, the few kind local people I did see were incredible, but a few sporadic faces along a course that had been lined with thousands is hardly the boost to get you going. Mile 24 and I could see my best friend again and she knew I was ‘gone in the head’, even more than usual! She ran with me, well she ‘ambled’ and I was still stuck in this annoying slow running gear that was really starting to infuriate me as it was getting slower and slower and had I been able to walk it would’ve been faster!
I was still alongside the cleaners, getting spattered with water and chemicals and then the real kick in the backside happened… the vehicle with the big flashing sign that says words to effect of ‘this road will be re-opening, please continue on the pavement’. Utterly brilliant! I am that much of a failure that I can’t even do the whole marathon on the course. But I was annoyed because I could see hundreds of people behind me, all in the same boat, in fact they’d had it much worse for much longer, and there was still plenty of time before the roads were due to open and we were well inside the time allowed to complete the course.
At the time nothing was amusing, but now the thought of my best friend Kathryn, marching down the embankment on the pavement in front of me and several other runners shouting ‘move out the way, marathon runners coming through’ is pretty amusing. She’s a rock star!!
I was finally nearing the end of the 26.2 miles and thinking well at least this should be good, the great atmosphere and pride of running down The Mall that you see on TV and people tell you of? And I was going to run it all to the finish where I’d get that medal. The very few people I saw were all so kind and supportive and maybe if it had been an hour or so earlier it would have been different, but the finish was the icing on the cake with no kudos, atmosphere or celebrations to talk of. I was deflated. However, maybe if I hadn’t just had to fend off coaches, lack of water, road sweepers, cleaning trucks and a closed course and battling with people on pavements I might have been there an hour or so earlier? Just a thought!
So, yes! I ran the 2019 Virgin London Marathon and I completed it, within the allowed time and I got a medal. I raised nearly £3.5k for a cause so dear to my heart, but was it the awe-inspiring, pride making experience I hoped it would be? No, it was terrible and I’d never do it again. Not because I couldn’t but because I wouldn’t want to if that’s how everyday people who put everything physically, mentally and emotionally get treated by the organisers of what is meant to be the greatest sporting event in the world.
Yes, these elite runners that can run it in little over 2 hours are incredible and inspiring athletes and they bring the press plaudits the event needs and I’m in awe of their abilities, but when the decision was made to make the London Marathon inclusive it should mean just that and every entrant should be taken care of, regardless of age, size, weight, ability or time. Some of the ‘Back of the Packers’ affected by the poor support of the marathon organisers and abuse from contractors have raised thousands of pounds for incredible causes and not only challenged themselves mentally and physically but actually made a difference to people’s lives who will benefit from the money they raised. These are incredible people who, regardless of the time it took them to complete the 2019 Virgin London Marathon, should be praised, thanked and supported. They did it not for the glory, but to help others and to step out of their own comfort zones. They are people going through illness, grief, anxiety and so much more but they did something incredible and the experience they deserved was taken away from them.
Am I proud of what I did? Maybe one day, but not this week; this week is tainted with a feeling of failure, anger and overwhelm for all the wrong reasons, but when I rationalise it I know I did something pretty incredible that challenged me and was entirely for the benefit of other people living with a disease that is brutal and has ultimately, in my life, left me without my Dad and husband and I know it’s a pretty small club of people that can say they completed the London Marathon. It’s just a shame the organisers can’t see this and appreciate the real people who go all out for others.
Rant over… it’s done now… but never again! My body is nearly back to functioning! A huge congratulations to anyone that ever takes on this challenge whether you’re an athlete or one of the back of the pack party! Whatever your reasons for doing it you ARE incredible and strong and never ever forget that and if you’ve had a great experience of the London Marathon then I am truly pleased for you. That is awesome. It’s just not my personal experience.
The hugest thanks to everyone who sponsored me for the event, I did finish it and the money will be well spent on cancer patients. A huge thanks to my son and friends for getting me through it, we had a great weekend regardless! Shame about the full working day of running in the middle!
PS: The story of the experiences of the ‘back of the packers’ is hot in the press right now and you can read a couple of blogs about personal experiences, including one account from one of the official pacers for 7 ½ hours (why have an official pacer for 7 ½ if you’re not going to let them do their job and strip the course before she’s even got through mile one?) here:
PPS: the ‘back of the packers’ were referred to as ‘fat and slow’ by some of the workers clearing the course. Two points about this.
1) Yes I may well be, deal with it! I do! But it’s not the sole reason I’m slow!
2) Kind of funny that the only Marathon finisher t-shirts available when we were all finished were size XS! What does that tell you? Maybe that you don’t have to be a size XS to finish a marathon quickly as the bigger size shirts were all snapped up?!
PPPS: If you got this far, thanks for reading my personal account of the day. Like anything I feel better for writing it, even though it’s taken a few days to find the words. No more marathons but plenty of challenges ahead to raise more money for this great cause including trekking the Great Wall of China! There’s no time limit on that, the wall’s been there for long enough and won’t be ripped up as we walk it!! You can sponsor me here if you like! Thanks! https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/teamkerwin