London Marathon 2021 – running on the memory of being fit!

The race I hoped to run in April 2020 finally happened in October 2021 and it was even better than expected!

The Preparation

You can read the detailed preparation and issues on THIS BLOG. In summary I trained properly for a race that never happened, with a coach and sports massages and even trying to have a healthy(ish) diet then the race was postponed and I bounced about in the intervening 18 months in a mixture of races, ultras, stupid virtual runs, injuries, sickness and then tried to squeeze some training in for London when it looked like it might finally happen. What had been a sub 3h10 plan (hopefully sub 3h05) race was now far more focused on enjoyment. Based on fitness and my only other marathon this year being 3h45 I had a fall-back plan of sub4, and a target of sub3h30 that looked a bit of a stretch.

Eventually I’d like to do all the majors and ideally have respectable times on the finish certificate (for me that currently means 3h30, if it takes me another 20 years to do all them all it might well be sub6) but despite three attempts at London a sub 3h30 had eluded me and I typically have a disappointing finish time. Against all evidence to the contrary I really wanted to go sub3h30 to add to my Chicago time. In my unconventional training I did a 40 miler 2 weeks out and a hard effort 5k race the Monday of the marathon. Mentally these really helped as I proved to myself I could go further and faster than the marathon, so set an envelope I could try to work in and hoped the speed and endurance would meet in the middle like long lost friends and get along well.

The Expo

More to read HERE but worth noting some people on the Saturday queued for up to 4hrs to do bib collection and bag drop and the ban on under 18s was a surprise to many causing issues with toddlers and youngers kids. Go earlier in the week if at all possible. If it’s a race you’ve trained 16 weeks for and spend £1000s on sports massages, recovery shakes, magic shoes and coaching then maybe a half day off work is a wise investment to avoid 4 hour queues.

Race Day

I boarded the coach organised by Redway Runners to the start line, dressed in finest clothes borrowed from the charity pile and was whisked to the start line.

Start Waves

For 2021 they had organised more start waves than usual to aid social distancing. I was Blue 3 and we assembled from 9:22 in the pen ready to set off at 9:40, so 10 minutes after the elite men, a gap I didn’t expect to close. The elite women were even further ahead.

I’m genuinely not sure how the start pens were organised this year. There was some grouping for the Abbots Marathon Age Group World Champs that I’m not sure was entirely successful. Seemed a large portion of the entrants had bibs on their rear denoting them as being in the champs and their respective age groups but most seemed to have been given start pens far too close to the front as they were passed by streams of people. Not sure how pleasurable it would have been for them to be jostled and tutted at for 26 miles whilst they fought for their own PB.

I was still down as a finish time of 3h05 from my original application so also expected to be passed a lot aiming for nearly a minute per mile slower that the pace group I presumed I would be set off in, but in the event found most runners around me the same or significantly slower. This continued throughout the race as I was generally weaving through. Had I actually been in shape for 3h05 and running at that pace I think it would have been a very frustrating experience. Train for a 3h05, put your finish time as a 3h05 and get stuck with a load of 3h30 or slower runners ahead?

In an ideal world if you want to run close to 3 hours at London I think you need to run it elsewhere first, get the Good For Age or championship start and then have a chance of achieving it on the day otherwise be prepared for a lot of weaving and bunching at the turns where pace drops considerably.

Still cold

Start Area

If you’ve not been to London before it’s really worth noting how cold and open the start area is. Despite a week of rain the day was fortunately dry and bright but I was still covering my shorts and vest under full length fleece pyjama trousers, two hoodies, a rain poncho and woolly hat and wasn’t too warm. Had it been raining I’d have wanted more, but was surprised how many runners were trying to wait the hour or more with no disposable clothes at all. Also worth considering carrier bags for your shoes as the start is all grass so can be very wet and it would be good to start the race with dry shoes. For anyone reading this in future years, 2021 was unique in that your drop bag was collected at the expo so anything you wore to the start was either carried for the whole race (lots of runner has full ultra race vests on) or thrown in the charity recycling bins. Hopefully this is a one off as it wasn’t ideal either environmentally or with the added Expo queues.

After the usual queues for toilets and urinals (worth taking some spare tissues as the toilets were running low even at 8:20am) I wandered into the start pen. As expected the mobile phone network was struggling with 50,000 runners plus family, volunteers etc in one place so it was largely impossible to contact friends. If you’re planning to meet someone in the assembly areas have a clear agreed point and use texts as they tend to get through quicker. After dropping off the clothes into the charity bins I stretched as much as able in the pen and got ready to run. My plan was to try and run 8 minute miles and decide sometime in later half if I felt able to hold it, fall apart or maybe even push. I had Aftershock headphones with me for motivation but they weren’t on as I hoped the crowd and bands would provide the soundtrack which inevitably they did.

Four of these for the race worked a treat!


For once I’d planned a little on this. Having heard a lot of runners complain about cramp at Brighton on a reasonably warm day I sorted four small bags with salt tablets (from ultra running) and a Caffeine Bullet for the boost. These can be hard to unwrap mid-race so I took the wrappers off and loosely rewrapped. I also had four gels and two as spares. I’m never a fan of gels but found on a recent Centurion event I can stomach the Salted Caramel Gu so had these.


As we crossed the line I settled in and made a conscious effort to enjoy it and not focus on the time. This was made much easier when Julius popped up on my shoulder. I’d not seen him since we ran the reverse London in 2019 so was great to meet up and we ran and chatted, the constant conversation should have ensured we went steady but we were still clocking miles well under the 8 minutes we’d both had as targets. Mentally it felt good to have company and not clock watch and after the first couple of miles came up ahead of pace but felt good I resolved to ignore the watch and check at halfway, and make a decision then whether to part company and slow or carry on.

On the out and back section we saw the infamous Richard McDowell running back the other way at a pace few could sustain for a single mile. He finished in 2h23m06s. That’s officially nippy.

Such was the easy nature of the run that I missed halfway and only at 14 miles did I realise by which time I couldn’t even be bothered to check on time and try and work out what I’d gone through halfway in. Now I check results it was 1h40 which would have probably alarmed me on the day as I’ve not been in 3h20 shape for some time. It was good to just run and enjoy it and I didn’t want to mentally deter myself from carrying on. This is far removed from the expected metronomic “every mile within 2 seconds of the target” that my original London in 2020 would have been. Essentially I‘d left my legs to do the work whilst I chatted. They’ve done loads of these I don’t really need to check on them just keep on top of gels and fluids.

Somewhere around mile 6 or 7 we’d caught up with Rudi, clubmate and my sports masseuse. He’d been training properly and was looking very steady and comfortable. Having chatted on the coach down I knew he was targeting a faster time than I so there were some doubts on my pacing but again I was having too much fun to dial it back so we slowly edged ahead.

Genuinely one of my best marathons ever due to these two gents and the chatting.

At around mile 15 he caught us back up (because he knows how to pace) just as Julius began to fade so I stuck with Rudi as was feeling good.

The 35k sign popped up and I could mentally pretend there were only three parkruns and a warmdown to go. It’s a measure of just how mixed up the start pens were that despite steady pace we were still having to fight through the runners ahead. It was only in the final few miles that I felt I was finally in amongst similar paced runners. Anyone running 3h05 pace from my pen might never have felt that. Also noticeable was how many runners were struggling, leaning up against barriers and fighting cramped muscles. I made a conscious effort to take the salt tablets for fear of joining them.

All too suddenly mile 20 popped up. In the 20 mile race a month previously I’d struggled to even finish and had fought for a time of 2h46. On marathon day the official clock hadn’t yet reached 2h46 and I knew I had more than 10 minutes less than that on chip time but still didn’t want to check my watch and start doing the mental maths on possible finish times.

I was feeling well enough to push the pace but knew it was too early so resolved to stay steady and enjoy the race as you never know how often you’ll get to run London and after a couple of years of race cancellations running any event is something to appreciate. I got a bit emotional after the 22 mile marker knowing that despite a lot of issues I was on for a decent time. Rudi had commented earlier in the race we were looking around 3h25 and I was happy to believe him.

The first time I checked my watch was coming up to 23 miles and I was a smidge over 3 hours in. This would have been a disaster in 2020 when I’d hoped to be on Birdcage Walk or at least past the tower of Big Ben by then but this time it was a massive boost. In fifteen minutes more than that 20 mile race I’d covered a further 3 miles and I can assure you I do not run 5 minute miles. This was all done to consistent but steady faster miles. It was a massive improvement in 4 weeks. Crucially I knew I could carry on whereas at the previous race the 20 left me hobbling.

Rudi had gradually dropped back a little over the previous mile and I decided it was time to see if I could push. Just a parkrun to go. My legs had done all the work and it was time to check back in and see if they could ‘drop the hammer’ ‘enter the pain cave’ ‘change up a gear’ or whatever silly phrase you’d like to use. They came back with a resounding ‘no’ pointed out they’d done 23 miles at a decent lick very undertrained and were happy to cruise it in. I was now checking the watch and seeing that sub3h25 might be achievable. Several times I tried to break into a (relatively) fast finish but lack of training, lack of fitness and a still congested course meant I eventually was happy to wave at the palace at 3h25 and cross the line at 3h25m39s. A finish time I would have bitten your hand off for earlier in September when I wondered if sub4 was out of the question.

Oddly Facebook popped up the next day with a post from Bournemouth where I’d set a marathon PB only a few seconds faster five years ago. I’m happy to be back able to accidentally run times that would have been a PB before.

As is tradition I went off to find some beer and some friends. And a man from Cuba who wanted to buy my medal and top – you can read more about that HERE.

Photo stolen from Helen.

London has definitely re-awoken my desire to get back to proper marathon training and I’m starting to look for a race to target. Much of the running with Julius we discussed various running friends and the massive improvements they’d made with determination and focus. I honestly believe GFA is possible for anyone if they really want it enough and I’m beginning to think I do. It won’t happen overnight and I’ve missed the GFA cutoff for London 2022 anyway so it would be 2023 at the earliest. Watch this space!

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