After nearly an 18 month wait, London marathon is finally here. As it’s a bit different this year here’s some tips on the Expo (yes we still have to go, yes I still don’t like them).
NOTE – no under 18s are allowed, this is enforced. If they’re teenagers and you can leave in the coffee shop whilst you collect the bib it’s not a big issue. If you turn up with a toddler on way home from school you’re going to have to go home and come back another day. Or find the least child-kidnapper-looking person to mind them.
Expo is once again at ExCeL which is an arse to get to and ThEy LiKe tO Do StuPiD CapiTAlisAtIoN.
ExCeL London, Royal Victoria Dock , 1 Western Gateway, London, E16 1XL
Virgin Money London Marathon Running Show opening times:
Wednesday 29 September 10:00 to 20:00
Thursday 30 September 10:00 to 20:00
Friday 1 October 10:00 to 20:00
Saturday 2 October 08:30 to 17:30
Getting there –
Still an arse to get to.
The closest station to the Virgin Money London Marathon Running Show is Prince Regent DLR.
If you drive it’s a bargain £20 to park. I’m told there is an Asda about 20 mins walk away, near Beckton station (thanks Gary!)
Drop bags –
This year to minimise touch points you have to take your drop bag to the expo – there are NO DROP BAGS AT MARATHON START
In theory the organisers have posted you a drop bag (big clear drawstring bag) for you to take along and drop off at the Expo. Mine, like many others didn’t arrive but don’t worry they have spares at the Expo (update – mine arrived the Friday before London, a full week later than promised).
What you put in the drop bag would normally be dependent on weather on the day but given you’ll need to pack a few days in advance based on dodgy forecasts I would suggest:
Warm dry clothes (full set including pants in case really wet)
Change of shoes & socks. Some people like those recovery sandals by Oofos. Those people are on a government watch list.
Bin bag for wet stuff
Wet wipes to pretend you’re clean
Battery pack for phone or USB lead and find a café to steal their power
Directions on where to meet loved ones – you may well have lost your phone and can’t remember which pub your husband is waiting for you at
Plasters for any blisters
Face mask if taking public transport (although few seem to bother)
What you need for the Expo –
Negative lateral flow test – either the text or the email. You’ll need to show this to staff to enter the Excel and again when you collect bib
Drop bag (or just the contents, they have spare bags if yours never arrived like mine)
ID to collect bib – I don’t think this was well publicised but there may have been documentation with the drop bag I never got that covered this.
QR entry code – either on the email sent before or install the official London Marathon app on phone & login as per the emailed instructions you should have received on Wednesday this week. It will also confirm your bib number if you never received the drop bag.
£20 parking charge if driving – machines take card. Or first born child.
Face mask if taking public transport (although few seem to bother) or if you want to wear in the expo. Maybe 20% of attendees and 50% of the staff had them on.
When you get there –
STEP 1 – BAG DROP
Head to hall S8 first. The event staff may want to see either the Covid test or your QR entry code on the app it seemed a little random what and who they asked.
This is where you drop off your bag and must be done first. Even if you don’t intend to have anything for after the race you must drop off the empty bag for them to put the finishers tee, medal, drinks and other goodies in. This is to reduce touch points.
From a rough estimate of the attendees when I went approx. 50% were taking the spare bags as either they hadn’t received one or had lost it. The volunteers have fat permanent markers to label up with your bib number. This is where the app is handy to check your bib number.
If you’ve not done a big race before then showing your bib at the end gets your bag back and is proof of ownership. No bib = no bag or at least a very long argument on why you lost your bib and trying to prove you’re not not some sort of weirdo with a fetish for stealing tracky bottoms and awful sandals.
For London this year your bib is printed after drop off and the crate your kit bag will be in at the end is printed on the bib along with start wave. This does reduce waste and needless bibs but as people found out on Saturday of the expo added enormously to the queues. Some reported total of 4hrs queuing for bag and bib.
Oddly despite picking the size of the finishers tee during registration, at drop off you get in the queue for whichever size top you fancy and they check your bib number against your name, add in the finishers top of that size and take it to the back for further bits to be added. Potentially this means you’re not guaranteed the size top you picked at registration if you’re one of the last to attend on Saturday, or it could mean they have a huge surplus of sizes due to the expected drop outs and the virtual race. This is yet another reason I wish they offered something like Tree Not Tees where instead of plastic tops shipped around the world that are often unused they could plant a tree instead. In the case of the finishers tees for 2021 this is even more relevant as they are NASTY. Mine is going straight on eBay.
STEP 2 – BIB COLLECTION
Head to hall S10, the event staff will want to see your QR entry code on entry. They didn’t seem to ask for Covid test. If you bring someone else with you they will also need a Covid test. As above, no under 18s allowed. Big issue for some and not well publicised.
Once in the registration desks are first and for normal runners they’re dead ahead of you. If Good For Age or Championship then find the appropriate desk for that.
The volunteers at the desk will want to see your Covid test, your bib number, and double check the name against your ID. As on previous years you can collect for one other person but need a letter authorising it and a copy of their ID.
Then they stick the chip on the bib and hand it to you. No big bag of goodies like previous years, literally a bib and some safety pins. Personally it made the whole expedition seem even more pointless. A four hour round trip, £20 of parking, to collect a piece of paper they could have posted (although given how unsuccessful the drop bag postage was maybe using address stickers isn’t their forte).
You are now done and can go home.
STEP 3 – NOT YET!
Just like a game show where they hate to see you leave empty handed you need to wind around the expo to the exit as going back out through the entrance would be impossible.
Presumably due to Covid and being close to other marathon majors the expo is pretty poor this year. None of the big brands like Nike, Asics, Adidas, Brooks are there. New Balance as the main sponsor are there, and for trainers there’s Hoka (if you like clown shoes, I actually do) and On (if you like squeaky shoes that pick up every damn stone, I actually don’t) but that’s about it.
Buying kit just before race day is never a good idea but this year there’s not really the option. The charity stalls are there and a few of the specialists in underwear etc but the selection is poor. If you went to The National Running Show in Farnborough this month you’d have seen far more brands.
STEP 4 – GO HOME
I love London Marathon but as with all Expos this is awful and pointless. Get home and do something useful like rest or have a massage. I managed to be in and out in 20 minutes and even then felt like a waste of my time.
It’s the week before London Marathon. On Sunday 3rd October 2021 I will be running an event I entered the ballot for in April 2019, found out I had a place for in October 2019 and expected to run in April 2020. Then Covid happened and it was delayed until October, then became Elite only (sadly they don’t consider me elite, something to do with being fat and slow) and I think it went to April 2021 (the memory mixes all the postponements up), before finally settling on October 2021.
My original plan for London was to actually focus on a marathon and train properly. Previously I’ve either run multiple marathons in a year, often several in a month, or been focusing on ultras so used them as catered training runs with the odd one run at pace if I felt good and got some surprise PBs. I finally felt it was time to see what I could do with a dedicated focus and see how much under my 3h13 PB that I’d run two weeks before a 100 miler I could actually go. This coincided with winning a local sponsored athlete program to receive running gear from Up & Running Milton Keynes, a training plan from Clean Coach Katie (now The Running Hub) and sports massages from Rudi at The Treatment Lab. It’s a measure of quite how much time has passed that the other athlete, Anastasia, is days away from giving birth having grown an entire human in the intervening period.
You can read how training went on my blogs from January 2019 onwards. I was a little stiff and slow from the previous year of ultras including Transgrancaria, Milton Keynes 24hr and Lakeland 100 so initially the goal was to drop mileage, rebuild my body, get me into shape and begin to build the focused speed work with a couple of half marathons in training to judge progress. High mileage and demanding races in 2019 had meant I was now working hard to go sub4 when previously sub 3h30 could have been considered achievable on most marathon courses.
For the first few months the training all went very well. I wasn’t yet back to where I wanted to be yet but was definitely making big improvements in the right direction and having the accountability of a coach really worked. No need to map your own runs, just look at the plan and do it. Even if it sounds a horrendous session and you want to sack it off you go and do it. I was also doing this odd stuff called ‘strength and conditioning’ by Katie and running specific exercises from Rudi.
Sadly Covid stopped being a weird thing happening in China and became something big and scary over here. By mid-March I could see the writing on the wall and that London was likely to be gone. There were still some who believed it might happen but then some adults still believe Boris is fit to hold office. The loss of London did dent my enthusiasm in the critical final month of training before the planned taper. It’s hard to run vomit-inducing intervals in preparation for a race that looks doubtful at best.
Then the inevitable happened and London was postponed. The hall at Excel that had been expecting to welcome thousands of runners for the Expo was now an emergency hospital for Covid patients that thankfully was never needed.
I ran my own virtual London at a steady effort on the day it should have taken place, skirting strangers as suddenly they were a disease vector or potential carrier rather than a person. When I got to the critical 18 mile point where in a race you’d begin to knuckle down and tough it out I decided to keep the effort steady, avoid stressing the body and save my best race for an actual event so jogged in a 3h32ish. It was a clear sign that the proper training plan from Katie had worked as I was back to where I had been before Lakeland ruined me and in a race environment would definitely have been looking at something much quicker, especially if I’d maintained the effort for the final month of training rather than sulking. In the alternate non-Covid world I would have hopefully been targeting sub3h05 with anything over 3h15 as a disappointment.
The intervening year and a bit between fake April London 2020 and actual October London 2021 were a mixture of highs and lows. I ran some daft lockdown challenges like the accumulator in May (1 mile further every day to complete nearly 500 miles in a month), and the rule of 6 (6 miles on the hour every hour for 6 hour) as well as a few marathons and ultras but approached Xmas 2020 feeling a little jaded and lacking in mojo.
As much as I’m naturally an introvert and all my running mates are typically idiots the loss of company on runs for much of the year, coupled with few races to target saw me finish 2020 undertrained and overweight.
I normally do at least one 100 miler a year and had only managed to fit in the track 100 by Cockbain Events. It followed a month or so of minor niggles and combined with threatening tsunami weather was enough for me to sack it off after marathon distance and record only my second DNF.
Another few weeks of pathetic runs followed. I forced myself out over Christmas with the government approved single buddy (Boris had promised to save Christmas so naturally most of the UK was in lockdown) and subjected a sequence of running mates to slow and whinging runs in an attempt to get some form and pattern back to training.
2021 started and I planned to hit it with the enthusiasm I had at the start of 2020. Running in groups was still banned so largely I subjected poor Chris to multiple stints of run backs for an out of shape runner, angry at his lack of performance and waddling mass. I resolved to lose weight and hit the spring events close to race weight. Or at least without my own gravitational field. What those spring events might be was anyone’s guess. As with 2020 I was making decent progress and getting a glimpse of some form, but then I tore my calf in late Feb and was off running for three weeks. The helpful Rudi had recommended two weeks of rest but given much of England was underwater anyway it wasn’t a huge effort to push it to three weeks. It was a little alarming how easy it became to not run. With lockdown in place I wasn’t even missing out on club runs, parkruns or races, it was just solo runs in the rain or annoying Chris that I couldn’t do and it didn’t seem a huge hardship to sit on the exercise bike in the warm and dry garage watching Netflix instead. Maybe I’d stopped being a runner?
Eventually I started a few tentative runs again and unlike most of my returns from injury kept the distances short with at least one rest day between. It was frustrating to be in March when I’d hoped to be approaching peak fitness and instead be the least fit I’d been in probably 7-8 years. Of course I consoled myself with the rubbish we runners are told “Every run is a gift”, “You’re still lapping everyone on the couch” and all the rest but ultimately when you’re struggling to complete a run you’d have done as a cool down after a hard effort none of them really worked.
Due to poor planning on my part and a few rescheduled races I had a very uphill climb with the 100 mile Thames Path in May, the 50 mile Rose of the Shires a couple of weeks before, and a marathon the week before that. 6 weeks to go from tentative jogs to 100 miles was ambitious but nearly worked. I finished the marathon (scraping sub4), completed the 50 miler (over an hour slower than my previous attempt) and got to 68 miles of the 100 before dropping. I wasn’t injured I just ran out of motivation and was disappointed at my performance. As with the 50 miler I was destined to be much slower than my previous attempt. Younger fitter version of me was kicking my arse. Clubmate Gary had popped out to say ‘Hi’ at the critical point my enthusiasm vanished and I took the nice warm DNF bus home to Milton Keynes.
A similar decision was made at the MK24 (24 hours to run as many 6 mile laps as you could). The previous event I’d won it with 104 miles, went home for a shower and came back for the awards. This time around I was laps behind younger fitter me and the other actual runners so at 40ish miles decided to call it a good training run and gave up. DNFs were now something that happened to me. A lot. Also ‘a lot’ was the phrase that could be used to describe my weight. My goal to lose 5kg in 2021 was now only 6kg away. Bugger.
There were two positives in this period. At the rescheduled Milton Keynes marathon despite a hot day and an undulating course I managed to dig in for a 3h44, my best marathon effort in probably a year although far from the relaxed jog I would have hoped given this would have been the time I paced had the Covid arrangements allowed official race pacers. The other was the return of club runs and in particular what I named the Totally Terrific Trail Thursdays where we took the club runs on tour and tackled some of the amazing trails around Milton Keynes. The combination of running mates and beautiful routes restored my mojo as we inducted new runners to the challenge of trail running.
With this uplift in enthusiasm I stood on the start line of the Wendover Woods 100 miler. It’s a formidable course, with similar elevation to the Lakeland 100 but more manageable 10 mile loops and actual trails rather than vague suggestions of how to get across the terrain. It was only the second running of the event and the DNF rate was expected to be high. The one big advantage for me was that I hadn’t run it before so for once younger fitter Mark could not beat me, even if the hills and mud did. Despite the usual up and down nature of a 100 and a serious “I want to go home” moment at half way I made a decision to finish and stuck it out. It wasn’t fast, it wasn’t pretty and it cost me two pairs of shoes but I was finally back finishing 100 milers.
Endurance was back (albeit very slow endurance) so I needed to concentrate on getting some speed. I was gradually ramping up the pace on the weekly 9 mile Brickhill runs and getting back towards respectable figures. We managed to get a holiday in Gran Canaria when Covid allowed and I spent 10 days hitting daily core and spin classes with some crossfit and gym work, with running as a seasoning on top. For those 10 days I lived the life of an (often drunk) athlete and came back feeling amazing. The afternoon we landed home was a local 10k. Having no idea on performance I set off at the back and ran at a controlled effort. Every climb seemed effortless, every runner in front a target to pick off. I crossed the line in 41 minutes. Not a PB but so much removed from the lethargic performance of the past year I was elated. I even finished thinking I could have pushed harder, not the usual “everything hurts, kill me now” of a fast 10k. I had now added speed back and it was only just August. With London in early October I had two months to build on this and record a decent time at London. Everything was looking good.
Then it wasn’t. The day after the 10k I began to cough. A lot. My temperature rose and it was looking like classic Covid symptoms. Multiple Covid tests proved otherwise and I was just suffering from a bad man flu. It passed in around a week and I began to feel a little better, even attending the Redway Runners Beat The Barge 5 mile race where once again younger fitter Mark beat me and I recorded a disappointing time for a hard effort. It felt like running through treacle but I was so desperate to be back running I ran anyway. In hindsight I returned too early as the next week I was hit with some sort of sinus infection that saw me unable to eat for over a week and mostly stumble from bed to office as best I could before returning to bed. Regrettably I missed the Greensands Ridge Relay, my favourite local ultra that I’d been looking forward to since it was cancelled in 2020.
In this period I probably spent 16 hours a day in bed debating ramming a knitting needle through each ear to relieve the pressure. Everything I swallowed caused a sudden pressure change in my head and made we want to cry or gag. I only managing to sleep in brief windows between the various pain meds kicking in. My best night’s sleep was when I complemented the meds with a couple cans of beer in desperation. I felt that rough at the time I didn’t even care for any medical issues I just needed sleep. This all sounds whinging but for the best part of 2.5 weeks I was the sickest I can remember being in my life and when I finally emerged the other side I was the lightest I’ve been as an adult and weak as a kitten as a result. The massive jump in speed at that 10k now looked laughable as I slowly returned to running for seemingly the fifteenth time since Covid first became a thing and at a painful, deep chested amble.
Having (finally) learnt my lesson not to come back too quickly I was a little more tentative on the return this time and tempered my need to maximise the remaining 6 weeks before London against being well enough to actually finish it. Being woefully off the pace for the 6m40s paced 4 mile run from Redway Runners I instead dropped to the 7m30s paced group where I also struggled to keep up. At my fittest my marathon pace is around 7m20s so failing to hit a slower pace for just 4 miles is humbling.
I decided to enter the 20 mile race at the MK Festival of Running a month out from London. I picked 20 over the half marathon distance as although further I hoped the lack of pressure to try and match a previously achieved HM PB would be better mentally. In an ideal world and with perfect training I would hope to run the 20 miles in under 2h30, ready to push the remaining 6 on race day for a finish sub3h10. As it stood I had a more realistic target of 2h45 with a fall back plan of 3h. I know from experience that if I can run 20 miles in sub3 then I’m good for a sub4 on race day. My performance was nowhere near where I wanted it to be (as evidenced by a hard effort parkrun in over 23 minutes) but I still clung to sub4 as the last vestiges of being respectable at London for a man that had hoped to be taking chunks off his PB and bearing down towards sub3 originally. The run went as well as can be expected. Lack of training and a hot day meant I crossed the line in 2h46 so close to what I expected but confirmed I was a long way off where I’d want to be.
The following few weeks I gradually pushed the effort a little, feeling the weakness of the previous illness gradual fade like a bad hangover. A combination of parkruns and the 730 group gave me two weekly paced efforts to gauge improvement and I gradually moved up the pack.
Another poor diary clash meant I had the postponed Big Bear Warwickshire Ultra (40 miles) two weeks before London. Many training plans have a longer run two weeks out as a final push but seldom are they as much as 20 and definitely not 40 miles. I viewed it as a long training run in my attempt to compress 16 weeks of structured training into about 6. I expected a 4hr marathon with a sucky half to follow as I slowly fell apart and was broadly correct finishing in 6h46.
The Monday before London I decided on a last minute entry for the Enigma 5k in the evening and lined up knowing a 5k race so close was ill-advised but would also be my final performance check to estimate my marathon time and work out my pacing. The race went well. Really well. I ran with clubmate John throughout as the lead pair and cautiously opened the taps a little at halfway feeling strong, finishing 1st place in 20m30ish and my fastest 5k since early 2020. As with the 10k it also felt relatively controlled. I certainly couldn’t have ramped up the effort hugely but there was certainly scope to have pushed a little harder and got closer to sub20. It was exactly the confidence boost I needed ahead of London.
So it’s now Wednesday, the expo is open (just this one year could they not have posted out the bibs?) and the optimistic Garmin predictor is suggesting a 3h20 marathon. My plan for Sunday is to go out at just under 8min pace and push from mile 18 if I feel good, with an A-goal of sub 3h30, a B-goal of sub4 and if that fails I’m going to find a pub on route, visit the off licence and aim to finish before the coach home.
Fitness and injury come and go, goals change and ultimately running is a pointless hobby we do for fun so I’m learning to be happy with very different outcomes from what I originally planned.
Preamble As is the way of running since 2020 this was a rescheduled event. I’d entered it in 2020 when it was due to take place in October. At the time of booking we were out of lockdowns, and the government were even paying some of your dinner tab to encourage you to go out and frequent restaurants, ignoring that this was slightly at odds with their drive to improve the nation’s health in the wake of a worldwide pandemic. This paradoxical approach is what happens when you elect Mr Bean and his house elf as leaders I guess. At any rate we went into lockdown 3 or 4 (who keeps count?) and it was moved to October 2021. Then London Marathon rescheduled and stole the date so Paul at Big Bear had to re-arrange again for September 2021.
The good news was it avoided the clash so I could run both (my London Marathon 2020 race having moved from April 2020, October 2020, April 2021, and finally October 2021) the bad news was it was 2 weeks before and I was poorly trained. I’d managed to finish Wendover Woods 100 miler in July but since then training had been a little erratic due to work, holiday and a three week stint of flu followed by sinus infection where I mostly stumbled between bed and office, didn’t eat for a week and barely managed to climb the stairs. Were it not for umpteen negative tests I would have sworn I had Covid. I’d managed a 20 mile race at MK Festival of Running two weeks before the Big Bear Ultra but that had done more to remind me how unfit I was than anything else. When you’ve run multiple hundred milers and 100+ marathons then struggling to finish 20 miles is a nice reminder of how far you’ve slipped.
Race Day As expected from Big Bear the pre-race communication was excellent and I arrived in Rugby knowing where to park (£2 for the day), how to get to the start, with the GPX route on my watch and directions to the start venue at the church about 800m from the car park. Being a short walk from the station it’s also one of the few events in the UK you can get to by public transport. Registration all went well. The race had mandatory kit list but given it was relatively short ultra (39ish miles) and in Summer on decent routes it wasn’t anything excessive like Lakeland 100. A nice touch was Awesome Coffee van parked up so I could get a pre-race coffee and brownie having forgotten to stop for breakfast on the way (like a pro).
After a pre-race briefing we ambled down to the railway cutting where the race started. The route is an out and back with railway cutting for the first few miles and wide enough for people to get into position and then a mixture of country roads, reservoir and footpaths until you hit the Grand Union Canal for the final out section then turn around and work your way back. It had been dry most of the proceeding few weeks and I stuck with road shoes. There were only a couple of sections where it was muddy and unless in future years it’s a proper washout I would definitely lean towards a road shoe as so much is tarmac or hardpacked/surfaced footpath.
The advantage of an out and back is you learn the route (it’s well marked) and can mentally count it back on the return (couple more miles of canal, then that road bit, then the aid station etc) and you get to see all the other runners whether they’re faster or slower than you and can cheer each other on. In my case I knew I was in shape for around a 4hr marathon and then a sucky half marathon to finish so the out leg was relatively fun and by the time I started to fall apart I was already ¼ of the way home on the return leg.
There’s no real elevation on the route, just a couple of uphills to aid stations and up from the railway cutting so it can be a very fast event if you’re capable. The winner was 4h31 and passed me on his return leg when I was at around 18 miles, with him on closer to 22 miles.
The weather started with a drizzle but not enough to bother with a raincoat (need one in pack as mandatory kit) and by about 11am had changed to a warm Autumn day. The aid stations are plentiful and three are in pubs so have proper toilets if you need them. I reached the turnaround aid station really fancying a beer but sadly the pub didn’t serve alcohol until 12 so had to head out on the return leg without. I hit the Two Boats pub at around marathon distance just over 4hrs and most importantly they were serving. This is also the pub I stopped at on the Grand Union Canal Race so it seemed fitting to stop and enjoy a cold beer in the sun with Redway Runner clubmate Jim on volunteer duties for company.
Beer done it was just a case of keeping momentum going on the return except for stopping to pet a particularly cute dog along the canal. The lack of training really showed as I was reduced at times to that awkward shuffle normally reserved for the final stages of a 100 miler. My race goal had been somewhere around 6h45 and I finally crossed the finish in 6h46, 23rd of 89 finishers with sadly a few DNFs including Si who I’d first met at Transgrancaria a few years ago. I’m hoping I’m not his bad luck charm. Broadly I’d run a 4h10 marathon, and after a pint and a chat a half marathon of about 2h30 so quite a lot of fade.
Would I recommend it? Definitely. This would be ideal for a first ultra due to the out and back nature (course familiarity, no need to get a coach back to start etc) and the length at 39 miles is a sufficient jump from marathon to feel challenging without being as daunting as a 50 miler. This also isn’t the sort of event where the sadistic Race Director sends you up and down a massive hill to try and break you. Best of all is no awkward stiles to clamber over. It sounds minor but in the later stages of an ultra when you’re desperate to maintain pace having to negotiate a stile with legs that refuse to bend is demoralising and makes you question your poor life choices. For the more experienced runners it’s either an ideal training event to test gear, nutrition and pacing or to go for a hard effort on a fast course.