26 April 2015 19 min read
London is arguably the greatest city in the EU. 8.5 million inhabitants are unparalleled. Even Berlin, in second place, doesn’t even come close with its 3.5 million people. This is a metropolis, maybe even the only real one Europe has to offer.
With its history of world exploration and subsequent domination London and the UK have played a major role throughout the last couple centuries in the history of the world. Well, not so much the UK, but rather England within the UK. If you’re interested in the difference and would like a good explanation of the current situation, “Commonwealth”, “The Crown” and the like, check out this short Youtube clip.
Recently, the UK seems to have lost its position of power within the EU. It has always been a special place not only because of the geographic separation from the continent, but also for historic reasons. Having ruled a quarter of the world at one point, lost everything after the second world war and now being one small part of a 28 nation union must be hard on the self-esteem of a country. Although there are quite a lot of similarities with Germany, the two countries have handled this pretty differently. Berlin seems to control the steering wheel of the union right now, when London is currently not even really in the car, as British comedian Eddie Izzard (also an avid marathon runner, by the way) pointed out in 2007:
I would like to see the UK becoming a much more committed and more important part of the EU, not only because I think London is probably the best and the most interesting city the whole of Europe has to offer. The union would benefit a lot of a larger involvement. Hopefully, politicians over there will eventually come along. The doors are very open, as I see it.
One of the signs of the importance of London is the sheer size of its marathon race. It is the most popular marathon race in Europe and therefore the hardest to get in. Although by the number of runners, Paris and Berlin have bigger races, London has a lot more people that would like to run, probably because it is a much bigger city. Although there are about 40,000 slots, you have next to no chance to secure a spot in the race by normal means. Another option is to become a charity runner. That means you have to sign up and commit to run for charity and collect a certain high amount of money for them in order to get a spot. I tried that for the 2014 race but wasn’t even successful that way, because way too many people had the same idea. So I found out about a third option: travel agencies. There are two big agencies in Germany which secure a limited number of spots and sell them to people like me as a package, including a hotel room and some organizing help. Both of which you might or might not need. In my case: might not. But this is a way that worked out for me, luckily the agency I called had a spot left, so I chose the cheapest hotel option to get my marathon ticket. It was quite expensive, but this is an experience of a lifetime. It felt wasteful, because I wouldn’t even need the organizational help of the agency or the hotel room, because I have quite the marathon experience and also, we were planning to stay at our friends’ place in London.
Another unusual thing happened in the weeks before the race. I got an email from the Virgin Money London Marathon, as its official name currently is, saying that I would have the opportunity to get a free shirt with my name printed on it so that the crowds can cheer for me. Why not, I thought. Clicked the link, put in my name. Then it said: “Want to have your name on the back of the shirt as well? It’s just 8 pounds!”, yes sure. 8 pounds is still a good deal for a printed shirt, I thought. When I got to the shipping step, it added 14 pounds for overseas shipping from the UK to Germany to the bill. That seems a bit excessive, but now I’m too invested in the idea to stop the process. After all, 22 pounds is still not that bad. So I committed and waited for the shirt to arrive. It didn’t. For some other reason I checked my spam mails a couple weeks later and found one from these people. “Here is your printable postage stamp to send in your t-shirt with!” — What? So I have to send them my own shirt to have them print something on it? I could have done that myself! But now I had paid for the service, so I looked through my running shirts. Every single one of them had something printed on, mostly from other marathons. So I ordered a new plain running shirt, of course. Another 20 Euros. I sent it in and received it a week later, with my name printed on both sides as promised. For about 50 Euros total, what a waste. It didn’t even look that great.
Except for that slight mishap the unusual registration for the marathon went through without a problem. So I trained a bit during the past four weeks after Bratislava. Didn’t have lots of time for it but I think it was enough. Then, three or four days before the marathon race I developed a cold. I’ve never been sick right before a marathon, so naturally I panicked a bit. I researched for a while on what to do now and found out about the so-called “Neck Rule” (great name, especially so in German, where Nacken can also be used as an insult): if the pain of the cold reaches areas below the neck (for example, lungs, stomach, etc.), no sports. If it’s above the neck, you’ll be fine. What a relieve! I tried it right that day, it was Thursday before the race on Sunday, and it worked. I even felt a little bit healthier after the short run. The only thing that stressed me out a bit was that the people recommended not to go at full speed during the marathon but rather to take it easy. But I want a new personal best! When I thought about it, I realized I would just have to accept that advice and take it slow during this marathon. Finishing is more important to me than a record time.
I didn’t want to give up so easily though, so I researched ways of naturally getting rid of a cold as fast as possible. The result: drinking lots of milk and eating red beets with honey. Okay, done! I had as much as I possibly could on Friday. So after half a day of work I drove down to the Kita and collected both kids and then went to the airport to meet Sophie there, because she had to work another shift today at the hospital. It was quite the race, because the streets where jammed and I took a wrong exit on the Autobahn. In the end everything worked out and suddenly we found ourselves at London Heathrow. Our friends Bille and Björn, whose flat we were supposed to stay at, was at the other side of the city. Figuring out the best way there took some time, but eventually we chose to buy Oyster cards and absentmindedly enjoyed 2 hours of subway riding through the soil beneath Europe’s biggest city.
It was nice to see them again and meet their 9-months-old son Benjamin for the second time. They are quite the interesting couple. Björn is half Swedish, half Dutch, and Bille is half Swiss and half British. He works at The Economist and she is a public health advisor, and because of her government-backed work in Cameroon a couple years ago she holds four passports: the Swiss, British, German and Cameroonian. They both are quite the global citizens and fit very well into London. Another thing I’m really interested in witnessing is how their trilingual education of little Benjamin will go over the years. Björn speaks Swedish with him, Bille speaks Swiss-German, and with each other and everyone else they obviously speak English. I think if anyone can pull that of, they will have the least problems with this.
So, settling into a family within another city for a few days is very nice, because it helps to get a better connection to the area and general place you’re in. Unfortunately, for our little Vera it wasn’t so easy, she let us sleep for about 3 hours in that first night. Which is why I decided to use up my chance of staying the night before the marathon at the hotel I had to book.
On Saturday we had planned some activities without really realizing the amount of energy and time we would need in order to fulfill them. I had to collect my racing number at the marathon expo half-way across town, and then we wanted to meet Sophie’s aunt Sandy and her two adult kids Julia and James. Just two items on the list, but with our kids and the incredible distances we had to cover in London it took up the whole day. We started with an obligatory red double-decker cruise towards the marathon expo.
When we reached the expo we realized there wasn’t enough time left to make the meeting with Sophie’s family, so we split up. Julie and I collected the marathon stuff at the ExCel centre while Sophie and Vera rushed to meet the guys in time.
Another hour and a half of train and bus riding and we were reunited, about an hour late.
I like them, there were really easy to talk to and very interested in us and loved to play with the kids. Afterwards we decided to go for a little walk in Dulwich together.
It was already late in the afternoon when I left for my hotel room, which was all the way on the other side of the city, in Paddington. Of course. Another 90 minutes of sitting on different busses. I spent at least half of the day in public transport. Now my 24 hours of solitude started. I can’t remember when that had last happened and I didn’t meet one person I knew during such a long period of time. It felt strange.
I started a new book, went out for some more pasta and fell asleep at half past 9. After an uninterrupted 8 hours of sleep (can’t imagine the last time that happened, as well) I woke up just before my alarm went off. 5:25 in the morning. A good time to rise and shine. Right. The special marathoner’s breakfast started at 6:15 and I had brought my special marathoner’s muesli. At 6:50 there was supposed to be a shuttle bus service from the hotel to the start of the race, but I saw no bus. A lady who turned out to be one of the organizers of the hotel-marathon-package I had bought helped me to find the busses, a 5 minute walk away. 7:25 and our bus reached the start of the race in Greenwich Village. Okay, but the race doesn’t start until 10:10. What now? Almost three hours of waiting ahead. It was rainy and quite cold, I guess somewhere around 5 degrees. Fortunately the marathon was huge and well organized, so there where tents for us to wait in.
The tents filled up and I killed the time by having a phone conversation with Julie, listening to a whole album by British rock band TesseracT and walking around watching what happened.
On that picture you can also see the long queues of people in front of the estimated 1,000 portaloos. It was a ridiculous amount. Comparable to a huge open-air rock concert.
Suddenly the waiting crowd started cheering really loudly, because national marathon hero Paula Radcliffe joined the stage and said a few words. She is really loved in this country, apparently.
When the MC announced that Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto would be competing today, there was just a tiny bit of excitement. Those two are probably the best marathoner’s in the world right now, both now here at the same event. That doesn’t happen that often. I remember Berlin 2013, when Kipsang competed and set a new world record, the crowd went wild hearing his name announced during the pre-race entertainment. London doesn’t seem to care that much.
My health had improved slightly but I was still a bit anxious about how the race would go with all the sneezing and coughing. I think the adrenaline of the pre-race hours played a major role in helping me ignore the illness.
Just a few minutes left now and some giant balloons where fired up, but not released into the air because of the weather conditions. I lined up in the blue starting area. There were three different starting points that eventually joined the same course, blue, red and green. Just because this race was so huge. I’m standing in the middle of the blue area with my predicted time of around 4 hours, so just a sixth of all contestants were in front of me.
The minutes before the start were ridiculous: almost everyone had brought an old jacket or pullover with them, which they now wanted to get rid of. So what I saw was thousands of these flying from the center of the people towards both sides at the same time. For about 5 minutes. It looked insane. I think these clothes are given away to charities.
Then it started. Finally! Four and a half minutes later I crossed the starting line. Right behind it was a platform for a couple hundred spectators. But these were making noise for us like a couple thousand, it was incredible and actually gave me goosebumps.
As expected the streets were really crowded. The course first led through what you might call the outskirts of London, but still there were spectators standing in several rows at every meter of the course. And because of the insane amount of runners who were all starting at the same time, we were bumping into each other all the time. When we were joined by the people from the green starting group a few hundred meters after the start it got even harder to find some space to run in. It was a bit confusing with the pacemaking runners, because each starting group had their own, and for some reason they were not really in sync. So early on I passed by two 4:30 finishing time pacemaking runners and two 4:15 ones. They were a bit apart already. But when I saw the 4:00 hours guys, the two of them had quite the distance between them. Who was the right one? I struggled to get to the 4:00 hours runners, because behind him there was a huge crowd of all the people who had set that goal for themselves. I had to make quite the effort to get through. Right in front of that pacemaker was a bit more room. But now I could see the next 4:00 hours pacemaker and was wondering which one was right. Anyways, I just kept my pace and decided not to care for now.
When I saw these three people, one of the other runners next to me said: “As if it’s not hard enough without carrying that thing!”
I had read that a lot of people would be in funny disguises at this race, but hadn’t seen that many so far. Probably because elaborate disguises inevitably make you run more slowly.
We came across lots of pubs, because that is what London is mostly based on. I really like that pub culture and it seems way more classy to me than our German Eckkneipen equivalent. All the pubs had good music in front and people holding beers and cheering more loudly than everyone else. Then we reached the point where we were joined by the red starting group, finally. It was unusual, because when that happened, both running groups broke into a loud and very sarcastic booing towards the other group. Really funny. This joining of starting groups wasn’t a first for me, but usually the people then start clapping or cheering for each other. Not here, because the British really have a good sense of humor.
What was a first for me, though, was the type of measurement during a marathon: miles instead of kilometers. The UK still holds on to their Imperial System although the legislation says the metric system shall be preferred. It will probably take a couple of decades or centuries (if ever) for the population to adapt. But I thought it was interesting with the miles. Seeing my progress in miles and doing some more calculations in my head during the race kind of spiced the whole thing up. And 26.2 miles just is a lower number than 42.2, so it might even help to cope with the distance mentally. However you choose to interpret the circumstances.
A couple of miles later I met this guy:
What a guy! He was simultaneously dribbling those two basketballs all the time. Every couple minutes he screwed up but the runners around him helped him retrieve the basketballs quickly. I ran besides him for some kilometers and got to witness the reaction of the spectators: they were screaming in excitement when they saw this!
The spirit and number of the crowds got bigger and bigger as well. People were standing in so many lines I could sometimes not even see the end of them. Sophie had planned to meet me at Mile 8, but it turned out to be very hard to do so. Subways were so crowded they had to shut some of them down, and getting through the masses with a two-kid stroller is really difficult. We texted back and forth to make sure we don’t miss each other. When I reached the bridge where she was supposed to be I looked everywhere, walked and tried to spot her. No chance. It was an especially crowded place, but who could have known that. So I gave up, a bit sad, and got on with the race. We texted some more and Sophie was also sad that this didn’t work. It really put a damper on the race for a while.
But she didn’t give up and researched some more to find out where to better meet me later. And I vowed to myself that I would stop at that next point and wait for her until we meet. And then these guys cheered me up.
What I hadn’t mentioned before was the huge amount of charity runners. I guess about 80 per cent of the runners had been wearing a shirt that said which charity they were supporting. Very good. I even saw a guy with a Nepal Earthquake Charity shirt on, and that disaster had just happened two days before the race. Incredible reaction time. Also, all the major charities had their own cheering groups with flags and special entertainment along the course. These were always the loudest. I could barely hear the Runtastic cheering from my friends on my headphones.
Then, suddenly after an innocent turn to the right, I saw this:
What followed that great Tower Bridge crossing was the half-marathon mark. At that place the street was divided because it was used twice for this course. Some very fast athlets came running towards us for about 2 kilometers. I was guessing at which point in the race they were because I hadn’t studied the map very carefully. But then I saw a marker on their side of the road: kilometer 35! Yes, kilometer signs were also there, but a lot smaller than the huge gates at every mile. We were just half-way there and they were already almost done. Fast people.
The course led into the Canary Wharf quarter of the city. What a great place! I’ve never been there before but it really appealed to me instantly. It was even more crowded here as it was before.
This was supposed to be the next place were I had the theoretical chance to meet Sophie. Mile 18. We texted some more and she had the great idea to hold Julie’s pink Hello Kitty umbrella up into the air, so I could spot her. And it worked! I really met them in these insane crowds! Vera was a bit lethargic to my arrival and Julie was busy eating something, but to hug Sophie for a few seconds helped immensely.
I was now at kilometer 30 and it started to get difficult. Although I had a PowerGel at kilometer 25 it felt like my energy was leaving me and I got really hungry. The crowds seemed to know this and more and more of them were handing out candy and other little things to eat for the runners. That barely happened at other races! Very generous of them. I took some jelly bears, and although they were tiny they did the trick and helped me a lot.
At some points the organizers gave out 500ml bottles of a Powerade fake brand. It was delicious and also really helped, but apparently I was almost alone with that opinion, because the streets were always covered with nearly full bottles right after these stands. What a waste. I noticed that I didn’t drink as much water as I normally do at a marathon. Maybe because of the cold that I still had. It made me slightly nervous and I tried to take in some more.
When I reached kilometer 35 it was the same place as before at kilometer 21, but this time I was one of the faster runners. The tables had turned. There were still lots of people who had just reached half-way after about 3:30 hours. And now, finally, most of them were in disguise as promised. Really big disguises, they must have struggled a lot with them. Many of them were just walking. The time limit for the whole race was unusually long with 8 hours, so I think most of them probably finished the race even if they were walking the whole distance.
At kilometer 36 it got quite hard for me. Another PowerGel helped again, but I was thinking: how on earth will I be able to complete that Ironman triathlon in August? But I guess that’s good because it makes me realize that I need to train a lot more for that one.
Kilometer 39 and we finally passed through the City of London with its 11,000 inhabitants. What? If you didn’t know about that (secret) city within the city, here is some more CGP Grey for you:
If you want to know more about the City of London, here is Part 2 of the explanation.
Getting really close to the finish right now. Another famous landmark led the way.
Just a little more left to go now, a turn to the right and there was Buckingham palace. I remembered the pictures of the last Royal Wedding a couple of years ago. Another turn to the right and there we were on The Mall.
A giant screen was put up, showing the runners coming towards the finish line.
Here it comes, people raising their hands in the air being proud of their achievement. Me too.
Quite a good time considering my cold and the very full streets and the extra kilometer I had to run in order to avoid bumping into too many people. 4:00:48 in total at the end, oh come on! Still, I’m alright with that.
I felt really good having completed this one. Now there was another extramile to go until we were able to leave the area. Most runners collected their bags they had checked in at the start. Probably containing some warm clothes. I never do that. And especially here, it seemed a bit excessive.
The organizers handed out some swag bags as well, containing drinks and food and a finisher’s shirt. Good bags they were, a nice collection. I sat down for a couple of minutes and then made my way to the subway station. The hotel was supposed to be near the finish, but “near” is very relative in London. It was another 20 minutes of subway riding and 10 minutes of walking. I did fine, though. Lots of other runners struggled to walk down the stairs to the subway, I felt compassion for them. After my first marathon I had pain at every step for three days. But lately the runs don’t seem to affect me that much afterwards. Quite the contrary, I prefer to walk around and keep the legs working after a race.
My hotel room fortunately had a tub, which is always great for muscle relaxation. So I had one and topped it off with a 20 minute nap and a large Subway Sandwich. Aaah! When I was walking towards Paddington station again to get to the subway leading home to Sophie, the daughters and the Bille/Björn/Benjamin family, the city was still full of marathoners. Many were proudly wearing their medals and a lot of smalltalk with strangers was made. The radio stations talked a lot about the marathon, even in the subway stations the announcements were not only to warn people about the public transport difficulties today because of the race, but also to congratulate everyone in a very cheerful tone. I liked that! It seemed like an event the whole city was behind. When I changed trains at Canada Water, I saw that the whole station was renamed to Buxton Water, which was the company providing the drinking water for the run. What a fun publicity stunt! Even all the illuminated signs were changed.
90 minutes later I was reunited with the family. Celebrated by playing chase with Julie and having a couple of beers with Björn.
The next day was basically just the return home. 8 hours in total from door to door, quite long for an inner-EU trip.
Thanks for reading and cheering, everyone! Until the end of May, when we’ll go to Stockholm!