London Marathon tips
As a few of our runners are doing London this year, I thought I’d share some tips from my experiences last year as well as some other advice I found on an online forum last year. Now I’m definitely not claiming to be an expert of marathon preparation or indeed running one so a lot of this is ‘learn from my mistakes’ rather than ‘do what I did’. It’s also not conclusive so don’t use the packing section as a checklist as I’ve only pointed out a few essentials that you might otherwise forget or not think about. I’ve tried to put it in some sort of order and hopefully a lot of it will apply to those running other marathons or particularly if you’re travelling to a race of any distance and staying the night before.
The most essential item is your confirmation letter so you can pick up your race pack. Without this, you can’t race and it’s game over whereas although it wouldn’t be ideal you could arguably buy anything else you forget. You also need ID to pick the race pack up. Also remember any Hotel confirmation you might need. As for running kit.- whilst you should have a good idea of what the weather will be like 24 / 48 hours in advance it’s better to be on the safe side and take everything from vest and shorts to base layers, gloves and hat. Ideally you should have done long runs in what you intend to wear on race day. In my case, the weather’s been hot on race day so I’ve worn a vest which I never normally do in training which brings us onto Vaseline! Not being used to wearing running vests can cause friction / chaffing under the armpits. Also need to apply in ‘sensitive’ areas. Even if you’ve never had any problems before on long runs, the additional few miles could be when it occurs and you definitely don’t need any additional discomfort. Also think about what you intend wearing before / after the race. Advice is usually to keep warm / dry. I went for some old jogging bottoms and a hoody that I didn’t mind leaving at the start line. If rain is forecast then worth taking a cheap jacket or a lot of runners favourite – a bin bag poncho. After the race you might be desperate to take your trainers off so you might want a more comfortable footwear option or flip-flops. If you do for the latter, remember that you’re still in big crowds after the finish and the last thing you want is someone stepping on your bare toes so you might want to wait until later.
You also need to think about food. What will you eat the day before? What will you have for breakfast before the marathon? Do you need to take any of this with you? I’ll come back to this later.
A lot of the advice I read suggested going on the Saturday would be an absolute nightmare and I’d be queuing for a good hour or so to pick up my number – well I must have been really then as I walked in at around 1pm and went straight to the desk and had it within seconds. I also chose to drive to the Excel Arena which had plenty of parking and didn’t have any issues with traffic. I had my mum and Amanda with me so it would have cost more for the three of us to get two trains from the hotel than it would be to drive and pay for parking. If you are travelling up and going to the Expo on the Saturday, then although I had no problems picking up the number, the Expo itself is extremely busy. Don’t get carried away with the freebie tasters on offer – sports drinks, energy sweets, Clif Blocks etc as you don’t want to risk trying something that could upset your stomach the day before. If you want a London Marathon tech-t-shirt then I’m afraid it’ll cost you £30+ but as you don’t get one in your goodie bag after the race, this is where you’d have to buy one. Personally, I didn’t think there were too many bargains to be had but you could easily spend hundreds in there with all the latest sportswear and gadgets. If your running for a big charity then it’s very likely they’ll have a stall there so well worth going over as they’ll probably have some freebies for you and will look out for you on race day at their support stations to cheer you on.
Lucozade have pacing bands available which you can wear around your wrist and have all the splits so you can see if you’re on course for your time. Well worth picking up some for any supporters with you as well so when they are tracking you, they can see if you’re on course for your predicted time. Personally I’m a bit of a numbers geek so I’d prefer to try and work it all out in my head which is a nice distraction. Also worth visiting the Runners World stand where they’ll have details about what pacers they’ll have running (typically every 15 minutes from 2:30 to 5:30) and which starting pens they’ll be in. Your starting pen will be the little number on bottom corner of your race number and you won’t find this out until you pick it up. Therefore its worth finding out if your pacer is in the same pen. I was somehow allocated pen 9 out of 9 meaning I was behind the 5:30 pacer who started at the back of pen 8 even though I was aiming for somewhere around 4 hours. Hopefully this won’t happen to any of our runners this year as they are very strict about starting pens and they won’t allow runners to move up pens although it’s generally accepted that you are allowed to start further back. This is a bit of a nightmare if you really want a certain time as you’ll have to then pass one or more of the pacers (with one for each time starting at the two main starts) and they have dozens of runners sticking to them like glue so are really difficult to get around without massively going out of you’re way and putting a bit of a sprint on.
If your supporters with you or friends / family are planning on tracking you via the website it’s definitely worth explaining a few things to them. The splits are every 5K and what happened with me is that I fell apart after 30K meaning my supporters were panicking when the 35K split took ages to appear. Remind them you’re running a marathon and bad patches are almost inevitable at some point. There can also be slight delays on the splits coming through so tell them not to panic. Similarly if you give them a Lucozade pacing band it’s worth pointing out that if they see you got to half way in 1:57 this certainly doesn’t mean you’ll definitely come in under 4 hours and they should probably allow a bit (a lot) of leeway for the second half of the race. Of course, hopefully things will go amazingly for anyone reading this and you’ll be super consistent throughout but thought it was worth a mention.
In recent years they give you a big red drawstring bag with your number and other bits in and it has a space to put your baggage label sticker which matches your race number. Most people use these but just be wary that they aren’t the easiest, most comfortable thing to carry to the start so you might want to use a rucksack instead.
The night before
Depending on where you’re staying, it could be very busy with tourists, other runners and their supporters who are all looking for somewhere to eat so you might want to book somewhere in advance. The usual advice is not to eat too late so this is where you might need to be a bit selfish and book at a time convenient for you and not just go along with any supporters coming with you. Obviously don’t try anything new and although carb-loading is recommended, you should really be doing that in the week leading up to the race rather than eating a ton of pasta the night before. Personally, I think I ate way too much the night before and couldn’t resist a massive desert as well – maybe keep the big treats until after the race. If you don’t mind eating your pasta cold then you might even consider taking some up with you to stick to what you know and not be tempted by the other food / drinks on offer at a restaurant. Hydrate well in the days leading up to the race although I’d probably stop drinking water early evening as you don’t want to be getting up in the night to go to the toilet.
This is obviously personal preference but I would recommend sorting out race kit, pinning number on, sorting gels, drinks etc the night before as it’ll help you sleep better the more prepared you are. Try and get as much sleep as possible but I’ve read somewhere that as long as you have a few decent nights sleep leading up to the race, one restless night before it won’t actually affect your performance that much.
Getting to the start
Breakfast – have you paid for bed and breakfast? Do you want to risk someone else’s cooking on marathon day? Will they have what you normally eat before a long run? My pre long run breakfast is porridge and toast but I’m staying in a Travelodge for the Manchester marathon this year so I’m seriously considering taking a toaster with me to ensure I can have the same as I normally do and then buying a porridge pot that only requires boiling water (I assume I’ll at least have a kettle!).
Getting back to London – the thing probably stressed me more than anything else was how to get to the start. Even though my accommodation was only a few miles from the start, it required 3 train / tubes obviously meaning 2 changes in the right places. I’d come up with an alternative which meant getting a bus and then a train but it was to a station a further half a mile from the start. It was only the night before whilst reading the London Marathon magazine and looking at timetables I realised my plan wasn’t going to work (can’t remember why) resulting in panicked planning to revert back to the 3 train / tube route and figuring out all the various platforms, times and where to change. In other words, plan your route with as much detail as possible deciding on what time you’re going to leave the hotel and what time your first method of transport is and where you need to change if necessary. The good news is that if your staying anywhere within a 20 mile radius of the start, you’re almost guaranteed to see several other runners at the bus / train station. I got chatting to a couple of Scottish runners at the first train station and tagged along with them and was really lucky to find the next train / tube waiting when I had to change and ended up getting there in almost half the time I expected. Plus transport for runners on the day is free so no need to worry about taking money / card.
Depending on what colour start you’re allocated, there’ll be a good 10-15 minute walk to the start area. There are hundreds of portable toilets and in my experience everyone just started queuing at the first ones they seen. I walked on a bit further (which happened to be nearer to the starting pens) and there were no queues at all. It was only in the 45 minutes before the start that it got busy and queues were around 15 minutes long at one point. Go as many times as you can as toilets on route are actually quite few and far between. Someone in work with me stopped at 15 miles at some of the toilets on route and had to queue for 10 minutes which isn’t ideal at that stage. They have water available at the start (and Lucozade I think) but if you don’t normally drink just before a race then don’t do it now as it could result in an early stitch or needing the toilet during the race.
How early you get there and what time you go into the starting pen again is personal preference. I normally like to turn up as late as possible and go into the pen last minute but I did turn up a good 90 minutes before the start and go into the starting pen with about 30 minutes to go last year. When to go in the starting pen probably depends where you want to start – if you want to be at the front of the pen then you’ll have to get in there 30 minutes before, if your happy to start at the back because maybe you’ve been allocated a faster pen than expected then you might as well take advantage of going to toilet one last time and maybe sitting down a bit longer as you’re going to be on your feet long enough as it is. If the weather isn’t looking to good then worth taking a bin liner or something to sit on beforehand.
Keep warm and either take old clothes that you don’t mind leaving in the starting pen, or put in your bag and take it to the baggage drop which is literally dozens of lorries which carry them all the end.
This is where the experts / other peoples advice comes in rather than my own as I failed to do most of this and suffered as a result.
1. Don’t weave around people – not only will this add time, but it’ll add distance – I ended up running 27.1 miles and I honestly thought I stuck to the racing line quite well and kept weaving to a minimum. A lot of people don’t realise that there’s actually a painted blue line around the entire course which shows where the racing line is and how the course would have been measured. It’s impossible to stick to due to the number of runners but well worth keeping an eye on to make sure your not running a wide line and adding distance and therefore time to your run.
2. Stick to your nutrition / hydration plan. This is really important in the early stages when you might feel great and don’t feel like you need a gel or drink but it will help you later in the run. London has water stops every mile so it’s very tempting to drink more than you have done on training runs. Also don’t try anything new on the day.
3. Get your name printed on your running top as the crowds are awesome and it’s great when you get some encouragement whether it’s mile 1 when feeling great or mile 21 when you might need a bit of a boost.
4. Concentrate. There’ll be runners surrounding you throughout and add to this the dropped bottles, banana skins, gel packets etc it does mean you have to watch your step to avoid tripping over something or someone.
5. Don’t go to fast at the start. It’s a long race and you’ll regret it later. It you lose a minute or so in the crowds at the start, it’ll only take a couple of seconds per mile to get that back.
6. Don’t use any more energy than you have to. There’ll be hundreds / thousands of supports looking for high fives and it’s easy to get a bit excited in the early stages and weave around high fiving everyone but you might regret it later.
7. Ignore the race clock. Unless you’re a sub 3 hour runner it’s going to take you anywhere between 10-25 minutes to cross the start line and the race clock which is at every mile marker and every 5K will show the gun time, so don’t panic when you get to mile 2 and it says 42 minutes or something!
8. ENJOY IT! Most people sign up for London as it’s a race they’ve watched for years and always wanted to do. There are literally hundreds of other UK marathons to choose from if you’re desperate for a certain time but none compare to London for crowd support and landmarks along the way. Soak up the amazing atmosphere. I’m not saying don’t run with an i-pod / mp3 player as it’s a good boost later on in the race but don’t spend too much time on your playlist as you literally won’t be able to hear the music at some points along the course as the crowds are that loud.
After the race
You’ll be directed to walk up onto a platform so a volunteer can take the timing chip off your shoe which is certainly a big help after running 26.2 miles. There’ll be a couple of photographers on the right hand side which are quite easy to miss but I definitely recommend going over and having your photo taken with your medal which will then be on the website to purchase within a couple of days. Of course you can do this much cheaper yourself with whoever you have with you but bear in mind this will be a good 15 minutes later so your not getting the full effect of the ‘I’ve just completed the London Marathon’ smile / relief / tears / pain / glory.
The bad news is that after running 26.2 miles, there’s an agonising half mile walk up The Mall. Along the way you’ll see the baggage lorries and despite the fact that up to a hundred runners per minute are coming across the line, the volunteers are looking out for your number and in some cases have your bag ready to hand over before you even get there (this may be because you’re hobbling at 1mph and taking half hour to get to them!). This may change this year but last year they had meeting points in Horse Guards Parade with big letters for people to meet up at (normally going on the runners surname). Make sure you’re very clear with your supporters where your going to meet afterwards as the last thing you want is to walk any further than you have to. Have a secondary meeting point just in case it’s an hour later and you still haven’t found them as mobile signal can be difficult to get with the amount of people.
If you’re running for a big charity it’s likely they’ll have an after party somewhere. If you’ve got in through a charity they might even provide transport but if like me, you just chose someone to raise money for one without a minimum sponsorship then you’ll either have to battle it out in the extremely busy tube / train / bus stations or walk. I chose the latter as it was ‘only’ about a mile away. Its worth going though as it’ll normally include a much needed massage, plus food and drinks. Plus by the time you’ve spent an hour or so there the trains and buses will be a lot quieter.
Hopefully you’ll have booked the Monday off work so enjoy a well earned drink and put your feet up!