My London Marathon

Mark Innocenti

I sit here overjoyed and in slight disbelief, it’s all a bit of a blur. In the weeks leading up to London I had been in two minds whether to race it ‘all out’ which meant attempting to go sub 2 hours 30 minutes or at least dip under my PB of 2:31:53 from Berlin 2018 OR just go out to enjoy the day and the crowds, whilst still maintaining a Championship Qualifying Time of sub 2:40.

I was very conscious of the punishing year to date, competing for England at 100km on road in April had taken a lot out of me and I had raced an awful lot over the summer (I was not being a good example to my coached athletes!) at all distances from the 5.4 miles Wendover Woods Hill Run, right up to a disastrous attempt for a fast time at the Ridgeway 86 at the end of August. I had not had the consistent speed work I would usually focus on before a marathon, however there had been glimmers of good form. Course records at the Chiltern Challenge 50km in July and also at the Dunstable 20 at the beginning of September, but I felt these performances had been largely due to the training volume at the start of the year rather than any specific training. I’d also picked up a very slight stress in my left foot after the R86 and had been nursing it a little, swapping some easy runs for bike sessions which helped improve things, albeit it remained a doubt in my mind.  

A week before the race I was still rather adamant I wouldn’t ‘race’. My daughter had been in hospital unexpectedly, work was manic and I just wasn’t ‘feeling it’. However, I was looking forward to seeing some friendly faces at the race, the buzz of running in the championship pen amongst some incredible runners and of course the home crowds. A few days before I decided I had little to lose and it would be silly of me not to attempt to run the first half well, then to reassess at that point, in the hope that I may be able to push for a PB from there. So the plan was to go sub 75 minutes for half way and the rest was in the hands of the running gods, if I blew up I blew up!

The morning of the race was relatively stress free, tubes and train worked well and there was the usual mix of nerves and excitement, although I did feel rather calm this time around, maybe due to putting less pressure on myself. The Championship pen is always a great experience, catching up with old and new faces and getting close up to the elite athletes; Bekele et al who were warming up. The weather was overcast, dry and no wind. We joked that ‘there will be no excuses today!’ I bumped into a friend and very good Serpentine Club marathoner Andrew Fraquelli (PB 2.28) and two of his club mates all looking to dip under 2:30. We agreed we would start together. Although I was conscious I would let them go if I felt it was too quick. We were brought forward to the line and there was a poignant minute’s silence in memory of the Queen. The elite athletes were announced to the cameras a few yards ahead of us and they gave their usual waves and within seconds of that we were off!

After the initial elbow jostling the first few miles is all about finding your rhythm, staying calm and not going off too quick. We ran as a small group of four early on, chatting a little and reviewing our pace each time our watches vibrated through a mile. We were all in good spirits and there is always a lift around the downhill at mile 3 which puts you immediately up on pace. I had written 3 mile splits for 2 hours 30 minutes (5:43 per mile) down the inside of my arm in biro and used that to judge things. The first 5 miles ticked by 10-15 seconds quicker and I was concerned that it was too fast. However, I did feel comfortable, my breathing was relaxed and running in a group helps to pull you along. A few more miles ticked by marginally slower but still ahead of time. The crowds were incredible around the Cutty Sark and the noise only grew the closer we got to the City. It was around this point where I lost contact with the runners I had started with. I had latched onto a much larger group of around 10-12, I looked over my shoulder on several occasions expecting my friends to catch me. However, the gap behind me had opened up. To avoid dropping back and getting isolated I made every effort to stay on the back of the group. As an ultra-runner I think I am perhaps more aware than most that any tiny benefit you can eek out in a race should be taken and it can build up to be quite significant over time. I chose to stay on their shoulders as it was an opportunity to conserve some energy for the second half.

Turning onto the iconic Tower Bridge is always one of the highlights of the race, the noise is electric, so much so that it encourages you to fist pump the air and gee the crowd up even more. It’s also very close to the halfway marker which I went through in 73:43, marginally ahead of where I wanted to be. It’s at this point where the mind games really start to play out. On one hand I was concerned that I had gone too fast and would suffer in a few miles time, and on the other I knew that the race really started now and I had given myself a great platform to do something I had always dreamed of. I kept telling myself, ‘this is what you train for’, ‘soak it all up’ and ‘don’t waste this opportunity’ and most importantly, ‘stay calm and don’t do anything stupid’! I found myself doing calculations in my head. If I could only keep pace to mile 18-19 I would then have an approximate ten second buffer per mile to still dip under the magic number, 2:30. It’s funny the tricks the mind plays on you, but it can also be a very powerful tool.

By mile 17 or 18, the field had spread out and I had a minor wobble. I found myself running on my own and got a little isolated in the twists and turns of Canary Wharf. The wind also seems to have a tendency to increase at this point on the course as it’s funnelled between the tall office blocks. I did have to work harder into the breeze for a mile or so and this resulted in my slowest mile of the race so far. Doubts started to creep in. Thinking I was slowing down I took my fourth gel slightly earlier than planned in the hope it would help avoid an energy crash. Fortunately, my pace seemed to return to where it had been. By mile 20 the streets start to become more and more familiar as you see the City ahead and various landmarks come into view. I spotted a few friendly faces in the crowd and a group of my old Highgate Harriers club mates had given me a lift.

‘Just. Ten. K. To. Go…..’

I was now working harder, there were less runners around me and the temperature was warmer. Nevertheless, my heart rate and breathing seemed stable and energy levels were good. Dare I say it, but I felt controlled, even fluid. As you repass Tower Bridge there is a lovely downhill sweep onto Lower Thames Street. I know it well from old Thursday lunchtime tempo sessions I used to do with colleagues when I was working in the City a few years ago.  This helps a great deal as I knew I would be approaching the Embankment soon enough and then Big Ben starts to come into view. The question was, did I have anything left or would the wheels start to come off?!

Amazingly, I continued to feel good and noticed I was starting to overtake one or two runners. I concentrated on the next, and then the next, each one giving you a lift while taking your mind off the pain. It’s enough to get your tail up and with a little over a mile to go I was giving it everything I had. The crowds near Big Ben and St James Park are electric. Breathing was now more laboured, I was puffing hard but just about hanging on and in control. Onto Birdcage Walk, time to start emptying the tank! As I turned onto the long sweep at Buckingham Palace I was really pushing, grimacing through the pain but in many ways it was euphoric. It’s not everyday this happens! This was it, the last 200 meters of the London Marathon, and as I turned onto The Mall there was nobody between me and the line. I sprinted with all I had, all the way through the line, oh the relief! I crumpled over to catch my breath. A glance at my watch – 2:27:19. I punched the air in celebration and shock, I had done it, a dream had come true, what a feeling! I subsequently found out this equated to 34th place in the masses (6th in age category), 62nd overall including the elite.

Thank you for reading this and to everyone for their support along the way, to the 7’s for pushing me on a Wednesday night and all the well wishes building up to the race. The smile hasn’t yet disappeared from my face. A special, special day.

One last note – Thank you to everyone that has turned up to the Monday track sessions so far and to the club for supporting it. It’s amazing that so many of you are getting involved and the encouragement and camaraderie during the sessions is fantastic. It’s a joy to see and long may it continue.

See you soon

Mark