I was bathed in sweat. My heart was beating far faster than it had for many a year, while the people all around me were applauding, wishing me well, and themselves revelling in such a happy occasion. No, this was not the 2022 London Marathon held on 2nd October, but the Jersey Spartan Club House at around 11:30am on 26 December 2019, just a little time after the last finisher, no doubt filled to the brim with turkey and trimmings, had completed the Spartans Boxing Day 10k race. I had just won the raffle to gain the Club’s London Marathon spot in a little under four months time, and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I’d only ever done one marathon (in Jersey) two years previously, when I’d barely ticked the “sub-four hour marathon” box and hadn’t particularly felt the need to do another one after that experience. Yes, I’d entered the London Marathon ballot a few times over the years, but I’d never imagined I’d be lucky enough to gain an entry! Now here I was with it confirmed – Was I ready for the training? Was I ready to go for a quicker time? Was I ready to spend copious amounts of money on fancy new running shoes to make my feet look good? And most of all, was I ready to tell my wife that she was about to become a Marathon Widow again…………………? YES I WAS!!!
My training got off to a good start, courtesy of a detailed training plan from the Spartans stalwart, and enigma, that is Dave Woodsford, and it looked like it would suit me well. Essentially, you picked the marathon completion time you wanted to aim for, which then dictated the pace of four main runs each week – interval training with the rest of the Tuesday Runners outside the Radisson on, you guessed it, a Tuesday night; a short but quick run mid-week, a long-ish marathon-paced run on a Friday, and then a slower-paced run on a Sunday whose mileage increased week by week, until the eye-watering recommended total run of 28 miles was accomplished pre-marathon. Inbetween, strength work, hill work, and other types of runs I didn’t understand (what’s a Fartlek anyway?!) were recommended and I needed to fit all of this in alongside other commitments, such as family, elderly parent care, beer, work, charity work, beer, having a social life, sleep, beer, and not necessarily all in that order.
Then came Friday 13th March 2020, a few hours after I’d completed my longest marathon-paced run to date of 13 miles, and the inevitable decision came through from the organisers of the London Marathon that the 2020 event was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. I got home to fall into the arms of a very understanding and consoling………………beer…………..(and wife), but really we looked at the bigger picture of the world at that time (where would we get toilet roll?) and knew it was for the best. Running took a back-seat for me for a long time after that – I focussed on my family, keeping my business running through the pandemic, and grieving the loss of my father in early 2021, so it wasn’t until later that year that I laced up the near two year old unworn Saucony’s from the bottom of my wardrobe and focussed on getting fit once more.
At the time of the cancellation in March 2020, I was offered two dates to defer my entry by the organisers – either October 2021 or April 2022. By the latter date, I felt the world would be more back to normal, so plummed for that and stuck it in the calendar. Nice. Now I could train through the winter in the cool and be well-set for the main event. But fate once again had other ideas, and thought it would be a good idea to set myself and the 42,000 other entrants off to train during the hottest summer the country had experienced since a little after the month I was born in 1976, following a decision to move the date of the event to October 2022. Not great news by any means, which I believe, ultimately resulted in me being the primary cause of the hose-pipe ban being declared in Jersey by the end of August, due to the quantity of water I was needing to ingest during each training run.
I fully committed to the training from the start of the year; said a heart-rending goodbye to the volume of my weekly beer intake, and focussed on the London Marathon date in October. Aside from a dalliance with Covid, off-island holidays, or the odd work commitment, over the next nine months I didn’t miss a session with the Tuesday Runners. (That’s on a Tuesday night in case you missed it earlier. Outside the Radisson. Highly recommended. Tuesday). I did all the 5k race’s, the Half’s, the ten-miler. I even competed in my first-ever cross-country races. I joined the Sunday Run Club runners (That run is on a Sunday, believe it or not. Imaginative fellows us runners. Again, highly recommended for those of you who like to run, chat, laugh, make lovely friends, and vote on who’s got the nicest shoes each particular week). I felt fit. I could do this. I was running as well as I ever had and before I knew it, I found myself on the marathon start line in Greenwich to be struck by a thought that gave me chills and filled me with doubt –the longest run I’d done in training was 22 miles, but, as recommended, it was at a slower pace than I needed to run. The longest run I’d done at marathon pace was 14 miles, and so I was heading off into 26.2 miles of the unknown, to trust Dave’s plan, to trust my fancy new trainers (which did indeed make my feet look great and invite uncomfortably envying looks from many of the assembled masses), to trust the hours of training which had resulted in me missing doing the “blue” jobs at home, missing helping the children with their homework (that was a Godsend to be fair), missing beer, missing the feeling of not having sore legs, missing the house not being filled with the smell of sweaty training gear, missing not being the designated driver. You get the message. And so, back to Greenwich – Mr Motivator himself had done his best to warm us up, the down-drafts from the blades of the BBC TV helicopters overhead did their best to do the opposite, and next thing we were off. Game on.
The beauty of having a club running spot was evident from the outset. Everyone I’d spoken to who had done the London Marathon previously had said that for the first 5 miles or so, it was not possible to run at your planned pace because of the sheer volume of runners, but amazingly that didn’t turn out to be the case. Being in the “yellow” start group meant we were some of the first to be let loose on the course and so could run to our heart’s content straight away. I had been training for a time around 3 hour 35 minutes, which meant I needed to hit an average of 8 minutes 10 seconds for every one of the 26.2 miles. The first 5k split let me know I’d done it with an average of 7 minutes 58 seconds per mile. “Slow down Connolly! You’re going too fast!”, said every fibre of my amazing new shoes, but I felt comfortable and settled in. By 10k my average was 7 minutes 59 seconds and all felt ok. Now the main reason I felt comfortable, was that my senses were being bombarded with the most amazing outpouring of support from the general public that we passed along the way. You don’t get this kind of affection running down the Five Mile Road at 9:30am on a cold Sunday morning in January, being kept refreshed by the waves of the Atlantic blasting over The Splash. The effort people went to was amazing, and they included:
- Two 60 year old men with arms crossed, dressed up as the Blues Brothers, looking disarmingly stern on their third-floor balcony, blasting out Madness from the chest-high speakers they’d brought outside.
- A Drag Queen on her balcony, in full regalia, microphone in hand, blasting out her rendition of Diana Ross numbers.
- Armies of families surrounded by speakers in their driveways, mostly with a penchant for 70‘s and 80’s British guitar classics – Queen, The Clash (“London Calling” Get it?), The Rolling Stones
- People with flags, with bells, with sweets.
- a very motivational old lady, who looked at least 112 years old, standing solo, trying to give each runner in the foreground tinnitus, courtesy of the air horn she was blasting at point-blank range and at two second intervals.
- A man incanting the “The Lord’s Prayer” (and apparently distributing Holy Water as necessary, I found out subsequently from another runner)
And then, just before mile seven, we neared Cutty Sark. Of course I’d seen the footage over the years on TV of the iconic route around the tall-masted dry-docked ship, but nothing, just nothing, had prepared me for this. Before seeing the ship, we could see the BBC cameraman piled high on a temporary platform at the end of the road adjoining its position. And then we heard the noise. It was unreal, and I suppose a taste of what its like to be truly famous – it was the noise from a throng of onlookers and well-wishers that looked ten deep on either side of the road for hundreds of metres, cheering us on. I suddenly realised that my arms were now held aloft, high above my head, and waving madly and completely uncontrollably as the emotion of the moment took hold. I wanted to say “Hi”, to say “Yes, this is an amazing moment!”, and to say thanks to everyone there. As my arms continued to flap involuntarily at an alarming rate and height, I sailed around that glorious ship doing a very accurate portrayal of Mr Tickle, and trying to memorise every step to be replayed in my head in years to come. This was worth it.
And so it continued from there on – my next 5k split was 8 minute miles, the next was 8 minutes and 1 second, at 25k it was back to 8 minutes, and at 30k was 8 minutes and 1 second. Hang on, 30k?!! 30k is equivalent to nearly 19 miles! Dave’s plan was working – I could do this! The route continued to wind its way over Tower Bridge, past the halfway point and then out and around Canary Wharf in the east, being monitored by the towering office buildings on either side of the road, which ably bounced the cheers of the onlookers between each other. And the sights continued to astound as well – a full Symphony Orchestra, a Big Band playing jazz, troupes of drummers located under fly-overs whose beats shook the chest and made your legs run to their rhythm, DJ’s, an earnest group of Morris Dancers tapping their poles and making us envious of their sprightly leaps.
But I also had my own cheerleading group, consisting of my wife, two daughters, my sister and her husband and they were working hard. My brother-in-law was a seasoned London Marathon “cheerer”, and so had mapped out a plan to take in as many vantage points along the route as humanly possible, with the only caveat being that you needed to be as fit as Eliud Kipchoge to achieve it. They were by far the biggest encouragement I needed through the whole event and my mood shifted upwards and upwards every time they appeared. I can never thank them enough for their efforts. By mile 18 I had seen them three times, and they were beginning to look more tired than I was. “You can do it!”, “You’re doing amazing!”, “Only a few miles to go!”, I shouted at them. It seemed to do the trick, because they popped up again at mile 24 along The Embankment, still festooned with big smiles, Irish flags, and armfuls of energy gels, which they were ingesting at regular intervals.
By this point I was shattered, and even though I’d consumed around 5% of Italy’s annual production of pasta in the preceding week, I was literally running on empty. The 35k split turned out to be 8 minutes and 3 seconds, with the 40k one at 8 minutes and 5 seconds. The baying crowds had thickened in the last miles, the sun had come out in place of the forecasted rain, but all I could think about was finishing and keeping those legs of mine moving at the pace I’d trained them to go. I got to Buckingham Palace with only a quick turn right and few hundred metres to go down The Mall, and I used the last of my energy to charge with a sprint down that red-coloured road to the finish line. I could almost hear the chords of the Chariots Of Fire music ringing in my ears, as I majestically bounded at top speed down that stretch to receive my well-earned medal. However, I subsequently discovered the following – if you have access to the BBC iPlayer, and go 1 hour, 14 minutes and 40 seconds into the London Marathon Finish Line coverage stream, you will see an Irishman appearing in the top left corner of the bottom screen, wearing a red hat and a blue Jersey Spartans t-shirt, looking like he badly needs the toilet and had just learned to walk the day before. Not a pretty sight.
My finish time was 3 hours 32 minutes and 30 seconds, and I was over-joyed. Never in my life had I imagined I could run that distance in that time and I owe a debt of gratitude to all the advice and encouragement I had received along the way, especially to my friend Spencer, who ran most of the training miles with me since January. From being a small child watching that very race with my late Mum on a Sunday morning every April and hearing her gush about how in awe she was of each and every person who had participated, I now had achieved that feat. She died from motor neurone disease 12 years previously and so it felt good to raise the flag, via Just Giving in the weeks before, for the local MNDA charity in Jersey, of which I am the Treasurer. Knowing before I set off that I had raised over £2,000 to help people affected by the disease on the island was a real push in the back during the race as well, and that was the extra motivation I needed at the end. So a massive thanks to Jersey Spartan Athletic Club for granting me their place in this year’s race and I promise that I gave it my all.