Here is a small recap of my experience in running one of the races that is on the bucket list of many runners around the world. This was typed out on tablet and phone screens, hence, excuse any blunders. Couldn’t post it earlier due to technical difficulties.
A year ago..
Around this time last year, I ran my 3rd full marathon in Madrid, Spain. It was my biggest race to date and the best performance up until Dubai earlier this year (4:17 in Madrid vs. 3:47 in Dubai).
Several Dubai-based Dubai runners took part in the 2014 race, and that inspired me to decide to run it in 2015. I didn’t sign up to the ballot though, and I did not act on my decision for months. To give some background, for most races, you only have to register, pay the fee and you’re set. For the more popular races such as Berlin, New York and London you need to enter a ballot, or earn your spot via a good qualifying time for your age category or a charity spot.
Since I didn’t even enter the ballot, and my times are nowhere near the required qualifying times I had no choice but to try via charity. After months of little activity, eventually, there was a discussion in October or November on Facebook between fellow runners about the London marathon. I asked for help in finding a charity spot. A good friend and runner Haider Khan offered to help via the charity that he fundraiser for last year, which is Anti Slavery International. After some back and forth discussions, I received the confirmation to take part.
Training and the build up to the race:
I had a very long season this year, the nature of Dubai’s summer heat makes it hard to train for Autumn marathons, so my plan was to do Dubai in January and a spring marathon in Europe (I.e. London, or another city if I do not get the visa. Details to follow).
My training for Dubai started around October, I ended up having a great build-up to Dubai, sleeping and eating we’re good, training was consistent and the weather conditions were kind before and during the race. What happened in the months between January and April was basically less than ideal nutrition and lack of sleep. I didn’t have any proper recovery since running in Dubai. Right after the race, I traveled to see family and because I felt good about myself I didn’t really have a recovery period. I had ran the race on Friday and then went back to light training within days, never really giving my body and aching muscles a break. Ironically in between the two marathons I only got to race in two events: The RAK half marathon and the. ITU triathlon in Abu Dhabi, which was my first triathlon. Missed pretty much most of the races in the season due to poor judgement, forgetting to sign up or illness.
My training with Abras was focusing on running on Mondays (intervals), Wednesdays (tempos) and Fridays (long run) with cycling or swimming for cross training on Saturdays along with light jogs whenever I could. The marathon pace I was targeting was 5:05, with the aim for a time of around 3:30 hours for the actual race. I was able to keep up with that target during the long run training runs (1km at marathon pace and 1km at a slower and easier pace).
I had trouble with the visa as I had to apply twice to get it, which was not a very convenient situation since a. I could not post much about my fundraising initiative and b. I was training hard for a race I didn’t even know if I’ll actually take part in. Thankfully I did not have to reapply for a third time and I got the visa. A tip to people trying to apply for tourist visas: You have to prove in as much detail as possible that you are coming back to your home country and that you have no intentions to stay permanently in the UK.
With three weeks to go, problems started. We had a massive sand storm which affected the whole region, even leading to many flights being rescheduled in several airports. The sandstorm was quite bad, and many, many people got ill, sadly I was one of them. I had to spend several days in bed and lost over a week of training. Pathetic fatigue from sickness and the symptoms never really went away and were still around, so I had to start tapering earlier than I usually do. A couple of days before traveling I cut my nails and didn’t do it properly, which ended up leading to toe pain on the right foot. It limited my mobility and I had a limp when walking around the airports and in London. The diet and sleeping we’re not spot on in the two weeks ahead of the race, but I tried my best.
On the fundraising front, I had not made much progress up to the day of travel, however, the donations poured in in the days leading up to the race. The target was achieved the morning after the race. I cannot thank my kind friends, acquaintances and strangers enough for their support. Truly overwhelmed.
The expo, where the bib numbers and tags are given was a great experience on its own. Usually in smaller races you simply pick up your stuff and that’s it, however, in London it was a massive running and fitness exhibition. I walked in telling myself I’ll only buy necessary stuff, ended up buying way more than what I had planned to. Well worth the two or three hours I spent there.
The big day is here. The toe has not healed, the weather forecast was not encouraging (wet, cold and windy). I slashed my hopes of a 3:30ish finish and decided to just go out and enjoy the day and the support around London’s roads. If the toe and the body feel well I’ll push for a personal best time, if not, I’ll just go out and make the best out of it. I covered the troublesome toe with Vaseline based on a recommendation by a triathlete friend, and it seemed to do the trick!
Made my way with the masses via the bus and tube to the start line in Greenwhich Park, massive and well organized area, never seen so many runners gathered in one spot! I was within the red start area. There was a blue and a green area as well. Each start went out from a separate location and joined up at different points in the race.
The race itself was amazing. Biggest I’ve been in to date, probably the biggest I will ever be in for a while! More than 36 thousand runners took part in the race and it was an incredible scene. Wherever you looked, there were thousands of bodies ahead of you and behind you. Usually in races as you progress there are more and more spaces between runners, and at times you’d wonder if you’re still on the correct route. Not in London. There were tens of thousands of people lining up London’s narrow roads, the noise levels were unreal. Lost count of the number of bands, people with big speakers on balconies and people along the route with megaphones. I heard so much about this race, but this was well and truly above and beyond anything I expected.
Due to my toe situation, I decided to just go at a relatively easy pace, slower than my target pace, but just a couple of seconds faster than my previous marathon’s pace. My plan was to see if my stamina and the toe could handle this pace for the whole 42.2 kilometers. Thankfully the toe held out for most of the race, the Vasline trick worked, my stamina however didn’t last. Eventually the body and muscle fatigue that were built up over the last couple of months caught up with me. I was on course for a marginal PB up until the 35 kilometre mark, after that my legs gave in and I started the dreaded walk and jog combination. That’s what we call ‘hitting the wall’, when your body has depleted and drained its glycogen and energy reserves and has pretty much thrown the towel. As clichéd as this might sound, but the crowd did really make a difference this time around. In most races I’ve ran in, apart from the start and finish lines, the crowds are almost nonexistent along the course. The crowd in London was something else.
My pace dropped but with the 40km mark approaching I went back to jogging, squeezing whatever little energy I had left and pushed through till the end. Other runners were also as supportive as the crowd. Eventually my finishing time was 3:51:13. Which is about four minutes slower than my PB. If the race had a normal build-up, I’d be gutted now and would kick myself for what could have been. Considering the circumstances and that I was mentally prepared to jog/walk for 5+ hours just to finish, a sub 4 hour finish was very welcome.
One thing I should point out is that the kilometre and mile markers helped mentally. As someone who used the metric system their whole life, it was unique and different. It offered a different type of psychological stimulus. Mentally, it’s easier on the mind to know that there are ‘only’ 20 or so miles to go rather than 32 kilometres.
All in all, the best race I’ve ever ran. Great crowd, organization, support and vibe. I’d highly recommend it to any keen runner. And I’d love to run it every 1-2 years. Next up on my agenda: Nothing really. I just want to do more things that I don’t get to do very often while marathon training, such as swimming, playing football, cycling and having a bit of a life!
Till next time. Thanks London, thanks to the massive crowds, thanks to my family and friends who have always been there. I would also like to thank my friends and connections for their donations and support, including, but not limited to: (Many donated anonymously, hence I wouldn’t know who they are unfortunately!)
Natalie, Tarek Soliman, Tariq Barakeh, Ali Ramadan, Khader, Sami, Maha, Mazen, Joseph, Moha, Simon Putt, Simon Thurston, Angeline, all the Abras runners, Atefeh, Daniel, Farah, Cirdvarun, Dee, Gerald, Ian, Adam, Shaha, Tarek S, Lee, Lana, Ziad, Elie, Layla, Kinan, Chandra, Nick and Debbie Powell, Tracey, Nabil and many, many more.