The ramblings of a middle aged marathon runner

by Jo Rolls 

25 years ago I lived in a Studio flat in Streatham, South London. I smoked a pack of Marlborough Lights (amongst other things) a day and had a fairly liquid diet most weekends! I also worked in the charity sector as a fundraising manager which meant that I managed our London Marathon teams every year. I personally would not have run for a bus back then (why bother there’s plenty come along) and yet, every year, I would go and support our runners, get sucked into the energy and excitement, the atmosphere and electricity – watching all ages, shapes and sizes running with their hearts as much as their feet and think……. I could do that.

24 hrs later I’d come back to my senses and go back to my early 20’s lifestyle until the next year!

Fast forward 24 years to October 2021 and the opening of an email that, for the 6th year in a row, I thought would be a “sorry you’ve not got a place” that actually turned into a squealing, crying, nonsensical mess when I realised I’d actually got a place in the biggest event of my life – London Baby – I was going.

Cue immediate stressing about accommodation, logistics, training (I’d not planned any long runs for 2022 as my husband was doing his first marathon and had supported me so much during my previous couple of years of training I felt it was now my time to repay the favour), the right shoes, the right kit, fuelling…… the bloody event was 6 months away and I was already having sleepless nights! Thankfully, a lot of this calmed once I’d booked the most expensive Premier Inn of my life and knew we had a place to stay relatively close to the start!

Panic subsiding there was the small matter of training. I re-downloaded my Hal Higdon app (I do like to follow a plan) and plugged in my details – oh yay, training starts the week before Christmas and my first long runs will be Christmas and New Years’ days (they weren’t!!!!) For the last couple of years I’ve been incredibly lucky to have a fantastic running/training buddy who, knowing my complete lack of any sort of internal compass or memory of routes, would take me out for my long runs each weekend on a magical mystery tour of the fells and trails – she’s not a big fan of roads – so much of my training for London was done on my own. This is no bad thing when, on a good run, I will happily sing myself silly to my cheesy running playlists or on a bad run I would give a navvy a run for his money in the language that would come out of my mouth when pushed to the side by errant car drivers or having taken a wrong turn (yes even on the roads I can get lost). It did make training much less enjoyable, however and quite a lonely prospect when we really started to get into the longer distances. Completely sick and tired of the amount of times I’d run past the Swinny or through Portinscale I entered a few races (Haweswater Half – awesome and Coniston 14 – Brutal) to break up the monotony and then eventually for my last 20 mile run sacked the road off completely and coerced my dear running buddy to take me for, as flat as possible, a trail route – it was so good and she managed to keep it to around 2000ft of ascent (which is pretty flat for her!!!)

The key thing that marathon training has taught me is there’s not always any rhyme or reason to what is a good run and what is a bad run. Sometimes the most beautiful of days on rested legs in wonderful surrounds could feel like the hardest run ever and on the flipside, slogging along in the wind and the rain for 18 looooooong miles on my own, legs like lead could leave me with the biggest smile on my face and feelings of “I can do this”. Distance (and I know to some marathon isn’t really distance!) running is most definitely so much in your head and I’m ridiculously good at getting “into my own head” that managing those feelings whilst on a training run was probably the best training I could have.

So….. cut to the chase….. marathon weekend arrives. I feel sick just getting ready for the Lorton 10k so coming into marathon weekend I was pretty horrible to be around – from manic laughter to unexpected tears and an almost constant feeling of washing machine in the stomach – I was just the person you wanted to share a 5.5 hour car journey to London with!

Picking up my number at the Expo was one milestone and the washing machine churned slightly less, getting to said expensive Premier Inn and working out timings for the train the following day a bit less churning still. Flat lay on the bed, pho dinner consumed and an early night had by all meant that, actually race morning arrived fairly calmly.

I was Red Start, wave 5 – a short train journey from Woolwich to Greenwich Park and then following hundreds of other runners and supporters all chatting, slightly maniacally, on their way up the hill to the holding area. The atmosphere was buzzing. Nervous energy abounded and chatter, laughter, squealing were the order of the day (and that was just me!) It was dry, it was cool, the marshals were already the most positive, enthusiastic life affirming people I’d ever met and then it started to rain………

Living in the Lakes, you think id’ have got used to it by now, but I don’t think I’d ever had that vision that my London Marathon day would be started by me shivering and wet. Then my marathon playlist wouldn’t play. Expertly crafted for the highs and the lows of my run, there would be no Unstoppable, no Spice Up Your Life, no Greatest Show…… just me and my thoughts – what a dangerous place to be! So, I guess what I’m saying is what started exactly as I thought it would was starting to go a little south. I felt like I started on the back foot and although the crowd support and energy was amazing, I didn’t feel quite….. right.

It was busy, of course it was, there were 48,000 runners, but at the start it felt like they were ALL trying to get under my feet or into my space! I missed my husband and daughter at the planned first cheering point (4 miles in) but the rest of the crowds, stood in the pouring rain, made so much noise, with so much enthusiasm – they were all absolutely amazing. I don’t have a lot of recollection of the route. I watched a lot of feet and empty plastic bottles so as to not trip over, I danced to drummers and sound systems and laughed at the wonderful drag queens in Rotherhithe. I picked up a woman who fell and cursed several who nearly made me fall too, their blind drive to stay on the racing line or to get to water making them oblivious of anyone else around. I’ve NEVER known sound like it. At times the noise was so immense – cheers, whistles, drums, music – all rebounding from tall buildings or echoing down tunnels, could be quite disorienting whilst at the same time made you feel so proud that people had taken the time and effort to come and cheer you on.

Coming across Tower Bridge, was everything I expected it to be – iconic with unbelievable crowd support and pretty much your half way point. Spotting the TV cameras and the official photographers gave me a little kick up the arse to remember I was supposed to be enjoying it and to smile a bit more!!

I was tracking about half a mile ahead of the official mile markers, which was a killer and by 20 miles what would “usually” be a just 10k to go, turned into a sh*t still 10k to go. Rainbow Row (along with a caffeine bullet) at about 21 miles spurred me on, more smiles, more drag, more music and happy faces (and no rain by this point which helps!) and it was on to the roar of the Embankment and my last few miles. I missed my husband and daughter again on Embankment, although they saw me – I had my head down and was just concentrating on one foot in front of the other at this point. Had I seen them, there probably would have been tears and snot and I might not have been able to get going again so, all in all, a good thing. Then there was Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, that gold thing on top of the white thingy in front of Buckingham Palace and it was the last 385 yards….. what the bloody hell is a yard? How far was that? There is the end, I can see it, the timing clock, the gantry – must smile, must pump the air with my fists, must get across without falling over……. and then it was done!

An awesome medal (if I do say so), a very heavy goody bag (water and Lucozade), an unbelievably lovely marshal and, to make me a real London marathon runner, a silver foil blanket!

4:08:53 – not fast, not slow, not bronze road standards (grrrrr!) but done. And I’m proud. I am a London Marathon runner, I have the first (and probably only one) of my Abbot Majors stars and I am glad that I can now sit down without holding onto something.

London – you were confusing/amazing/exhausting – I will (probably) be back!