London Marathon 2024 - Race Report

Sunday, April 21, 2024

This is THE race I have been trying to run for years, and when it finally came, it didn’t disappoint despite a sub-par performance on the day. I accomplished most of what I set out to achieve, and had an amazing day.

Goals

  1. 3:20:00 - Fail
  2. 3:30:00 - Fail
  3. 3:40:00 - Pass
  4. Bonus: Experience it - Pass
  5. Bonus: Raise money for WWF - £800+

Results

Time: 3:38:21

Position: 12,670/ 50,000+ (masses)

Report

It was a bright and sunny, but bitterly cold morning. Wind chill was around 0°C. As I threw off my warm layers, and approached the starting gate, I was at the peak of my anxiety. It had been building for days, probably weeks. Finally, I was only metres from the London Marathon start line and everything I had been working towards over the last 4 months was finally being released. The emotion was palpable. Tears moistened my eyes briefly . I could feel the stress starting to evaporate as I crossed the start line. I knew that this was it. Everything I had trained for, everything I had read and learned all needed to be implemented to the letter if I was to get my marathon PB.

The Finish Line

3 hours, 38 minutes and 21 seconds later, I was crossing the finish line without a PB. My anxiety and nerves had been replaced with elation and exhaustion. There was pain and nausea mixed with joy and pride. I had a London Marathon medal around my neck finally! There was a tinge of regret that I didn’t get my PB, but after the last few hours, I was more than happy to have made it to the end, and done it in a good time.

The last few hours had been a rollercoaster of emotions. The whole of London had come out along with my family. This was London on one of it’s best days. But it hadn’t all been smooth sailing.

As I had stumbled over the finish line the first thing I wanted to do was stop, lie down and try not to be sick. I’d spent the last 10km struggling hard when my legs just ran out of energy. I hadn’t been topping up with gels since around 25km after getting at stitch, whilst simultaneously feeling sick and hungry. I didn’t have any reserves left in my legs and kept having to stop, stretch and walk. The support kept me going. Incredible crowds kept me going. “Go on Carl. Keep going!”. High fives kept me going! Knowing I had family out there supporting me kept me going, and having people who had made charity donations on my behalf to the WWF kept me going.

But where did my energy go? This all comes back to the anxiety that had been building over the last few days and weeks. From the Wednesday my appetite had just fallen off a cliff. When I did eat, it was just butterflies and they have next to no carbs! I always get race nerves, but that’s normally on the race morning so it doesn’t really affect the carbo-loading during the previous days.

Let's go!

The start went perfectly. I had said to myself, run the first third with my head, the second with my legs and the third with my heart. I didn’t go off too fast, in-fact I had stuck almost exactly to the 4:44/km pace I needed despite the long downhill in the first few km.

Cutty Sark

I was actually having fun. High fiving all the kids! Enjoying the atmosphere. It was busy on and off the course. there was almost a fun run atmosphere. It didn’t feel like a race, and my legs felt really good. By the time I arrived at the Cutty Sark, 10k in, I felt like everything had bedded down and I was just gliding along. The only issue at this point was my vest starting to rub, but that wasn’t anything to worry about. Somewhere in the crowds was Shadia cheering me on but it was that busy I didn’t see her.

At almost the half way mark, is one of the iconic landmarks on the course, Tower Bridge. I got my phone out to take some photos and was surprised to find myself heading up hill. It’s probably the first uphill on the course that’s noticeable and by the time I was halfway across my HR was in the red zone, but I didn’t really notice until after because the crowd here were electric, and the backdrop was incredible. The course narrows over the bridge as you pass under the iconic towers, and on each side there’s people 5 deep cheering everyone on.

Tower Bridge

Then before you know it, you’ve crossed over and started towards Canary Wharf. I hit the half way mark with a 1:41:55. I was a little behind target, but my pace was good and I had just ran one of my top 5 half marathon paces. On the other side of the road, the pros flew past which was awesome to see and really makes it feel like a big event being on the same course as olympians and world record holders. They have a head start, so it’s not really fair!

It had all being going well, until it wasn’t. As I got towards 25/26km I started to get the sense that the easy bit was over. It started with a stitch, which meant that I just couldn’t keep up the pace. I put this down to 2 things. Coke, and shortbread. Since I hadn’t managed to carbo-load due to the anxiety over the previous days, I had decided to nibble some shortbread all morning before the start in an attempt to gain some energy. Likewise, before the race I’d needed a drink, and my thoughts went straight to something with sugar. Coke. Now a combo of carbonated sugar, and Scottish biscuits were enacting their revenge!

After backing off the pace somewhat, the stitch mostly went away, but I didn’t want it back, and made the mistake of stopping eating my energy gels or drinking much water. About 5km later, in the low 30km range my pace started to fall away from me. People say that the halfway point in a marathon is about 30km. I now understand why. The last 12km felt like more effort than the first 21km. Every time I looked at my watch I could see my pace dropping and felt my PB attempt slipping though my fingers. I would slow, then a dinosaur or a seagull would overtake me and it would spur me on for 500m, then I’d slow and someone would yell “Go Carl” and it would be another 300m or so.

Even when I arrived at Big Ben and I knew it was 1km to go, it felt like an almost insurmountable task. Flashing back to October last year and the Chester Marathon, the last 1km had been hard, but I still had something in the tank. This was just running on fumes. The only thing I didn’t want to do was to walk that final bit. I could see my time was now looking nearer to exceeding 3:40 and if I walked then my final target would have been missed. I just had to grit my teeth and slog on.

400m to go and it was “just one loop around a track”. That felt like a big ask, but I forced myself with all my remaining effort not to slow or walk. Finally rounding the corner in front of the palace with about 200m to go, the finish line appeared into sight. Can I summon up a sprint finish? No. not even a slight uptick in pace. That’s how empty my tank was. Just put one foot in front of the other and reel it in and try not to trip over the timing mats at the finish line. Then, as suddenly as it had started, it was over. LonDone! Someone placed a medal around my neck and I finally the magnitude of what I’d done finally struck home “I’ve got a London Marathon medal. I’ve actually got one. Wow.”

London Marathon Medal and me!

Almost immediately as I finish, Shadia called me to try and meet up. I’m trying to explain where I am and how we can meet but my brain just doesn’t have the ability. It’s a mess.

It’s hard to describe to someone how f**ked you feel when you finished something like a marathon. It’s not like being tired from doing a 5K when you start out running. It’s not like your first 10K either, or even a half marathon. Your body is just exhausted. Every muscle aches. You have no energy. After 30km your energy supplies have dwindled and you are left tired and broken.

Eventually Shadia gets some sense out of me and we try to figure out a place to meet. A bit dazed and confused I shuffled off towards blankets, Lucozade and the exits. It’s busy, so we change the plan a few times, finally ending in Charring cross for a celebratory beer, before heading back to base. And with that, the London Marathon is done.

Route

Kit

Kit
  • WWF Vest
  • Salomon Running Vest
  • INOV-8 Race shorts
  • Nike Air Zoom Alphafly Next% 2
  • Garmin HR Pro band
  • Garmin Epix2
  • Shockz OpenRun headphones
  • Salomon 500ml bottles (water)
  • SiS energy gels (various flavours)

Lessons

Post race I jotted down my thoughts in a mind-map so I could quickly explore how things went. This isn't something I have tried before, but it worked really well to quickly surmise the whole event, training and experience of the London Marathon.

Mind Map of my race review

Nutrition and energy

My fuelling pre race, was s**t. I know this. I should have been aiming for 600-700g of carbs a day from the Wednesday onwards and failed hard. This hit me hard in the race. that was the fabled wall. There’s nothing more to say about this.

There’s 2 things I’m looking at to fix this. Other types of gel. Energy drinks on the days leading up to it. I think I can handle them despite the anxiety and it’s a good way to load up some carbs at least!

Training plan and goals

I set out in January a goal to beat my Chester PB of 2023. 3:32:36. For Chester I had done no specific training, although I already had a regime with a lot of base (Z3) runs, ParkRun’s ran as races most Saturdays and a long run each week, with a few bing half marathons. There were about 2 30km+ runs over the 4 months before. I was probably averaging 50km per week.

For the London Marathon I started training on the first of January, following my Garmin Epix’s suggested runs. This pushed me pretty well, and was a good mix of long, hard and easy runs. The problems with this arose when Idris went back to nursery and the germs got him! That meant rubbish sleep, and the suggested runs tried to be nice, which meant it was all short and easy.

I started looking at a range of plans which could push me hard enough, whilst also not taking up every waking hour with running. I can’t remember now, because I didn’t write it down, but the closest I got was Jack Daniels advanced or Pfitz 12/50, but both of these still weren’t quite a good enough match, so the only option was to roll my own.

This boiled down to a simple plan:

  • Monday: Z2 / Recovery
  • Tuesday: Sprints / hills
  • Wednesday: Z2 / Recovery
  • Thursday: Threshold or intervals
  • Friday: Z2 / Recovery
  • Saturday: Long run at base, increasing to 33km
  • Sunday: Base

Most runs ended up being around 10k in length apart from the long runs. I also dropped ParkRuns on a Saturday so that I could focus on the sprints/intervals and long runs without being too knackered. From February my long runs were around 21km, but during March I started to push these to 33km. All the time this was going on, my predicted Marathon time was improving from low 3:30s towards the low 3:20s. So far so good.

Because of this shift in my predicted time I changed my goal from beating my PB, to going for 3:20. This was probably a mistake, and I should have looked at RunAlyze’s predicted time which takes into account weekly mileage and longest runs over the period. It turned out to be more accurate. I think if i’d gone out of the gate slower, or dropped my pace and continued fuelling when the stitch arrived I wouldn’t have hit such a wall and missed my PB. Lesson learned.

Anxiety and stress

I over think. A lot. Not being at home the lead up added to my stress. Travelling down a few days before and trying to incorporate sightseeing really didn’t help. Add into the mix, trying to do sightseeing with family and help coordinate where to watch was probably the another nail in my PB attempt.

One other aspect around this event was the historic significance of it to me. My previous job, starting 15+ years ago, had revolved around the London Marathon like the earth around the sun. It was seen as one of the pinnacles of the road race calendar. Back then I didn’t even run, but a large part of me started running due to this. Because of Realbuzz I ran my first half marathon and for years I have tried, and failed, to get on to the London Marathon, so to finally be able to run it, and to be in a position where I can run it well (pushing for a PB) was a lot of self inflicted pressure.

My solution is to more races of a big nature. Keeping me out of my comfort zone can only help me get used to it. Mixed in with better planned travel/sightseeing and I might just be race ready. I hope so, because I’m signed up to Chester and Yorkshire marathons in October already!

Fundraising

Remember when you were a kid and did charity fundraising for 5p a length of the pool, or something like that! Well, I hadn't really done any since then. When I signed up for the London Marathon to raise money for the World Wildlife Fund it was always something I kept pushing back to do later. I was a little nervous to ask for donations. When my WWF vest arrived, I knew it was time to grow up and just ask.

The reality is that you have to pester people. Some will love your cause, or your dedication and other’s not so much. You’ll get something from someone and then the ball is rolling. The lesson is, do it ASAP so you have time to ask again, and again in different ways.

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Carl-Topham

Thanks to every who donated, liked and shared my campaign. As one UK supermarket says… every little helps.

Miscellaneous

I’ve always been worried about running out of water. That was never going to happen if I’d looked at the route maps. Every 5km is plenty. I ran with a vest so I could carry 1 litre of water! That’s excessive and caused my running vest to rub and then bleed. This wasn’t a show stopper until a few days after, but unless I’m out on the trails, or self supporting, then a smaller waist pack should be enough.

It’s not all bad

Family support throughout my training and accommodation for my long runs especially from Shadia. They’ve been flexible and allowed me to have time to do what I needed to do which has massively helped.

In the last month or so I started to add in some strength training. Mainly press ups and sit ups with some stretching also. Unlike last years Chester marathon, it may have contributed to me being able to continue running only days after. Chester crippled me for over 2 weeks.

Final thoughts

I’m doing it again, somehow, some day. While it was a very hard day, especially the second “half”, the sheer atmosphere and emotion just made it epic.

This was THE race for me. While I didn’t get the result I wanted to, it was an incredible, enjoyable experience that I already look back on with fondness and pride. I think there are some valuable lessons to take away from it which I can apply already so hopefully this will be a notable stepping point in my running achievements.


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