So: I didn’t win the London marathon. I was 39587th out of 42,428, finishing in a personal best time of 6 hours, 8 minutes and 4 seconds. Lots of you will have seen videos and updates on the day but I thought it would be worth making a note of how the day went before time erodes my memories. So – whether you’re thinking about running a marathon yourself, want to make sure I earned your sponsorship, or just want another look at my legs – strap yourself in and enjoy! (PS – you can still sponsor me at www.justgiving.com/antonyjcbutcherlondonmarathon)
The day began at 6am. Although the race doesn’t start until 10am I had an MS Society photocall at 9am, last minute shopping to do at 8am, and a photocall with BBC Radio Leeds at 7am – and with 40,000 people heading to Greenwich I wanted to make sure I didn’t arrive late. On top of that there was lots to do to get ready – nip guards, vaseline, sun cream, blister plasters, eating breakfast (which I shared with a cat!) and packing everything I needed once I crossed the finish line.
I left the house at 7am in a bizarre mixture of old painting clothes and an orange tutu. I was staying in Seven Sisters in North London and at this early hour there were no other London Marathon runners about so I stood out like a sore thumb. Before I jumped on the tube I had a phone chat with Andrew Edwards of BBC Radio Leeds – discussing why I was running, what it’s like to run the marathon, and how I was feeling. It was a great way of getting my head in the game and I just about managed to avoid crying on the air.
Then it was onto the tube to London Bridge, a quick visit to the M&S to get some vegetarian sweets that I’d be using to give me that sweet sugar hit that I’d need to get me through the marathon (lots of people use gels but I find that if I have more than one of these at a time I have to spend more time sitting than running). Then it was on to Greenwich where I rang mum to let her know I was on my way and my first Facebook live of the day. These really were amazing – to know that hundreds of people were watching from home, cheering me on and sending me messages of encouragement was so powerful. I met all of the other people raising money for the MS Society next to the Greenwich observatory – some of them I’d met before and some I was meeting for the first time in real life. It was an amazing team of people – many like me have family members who live with MS, and quite a few people have MS themselves.
Once we’d had a group photo we headed off to the bag drop – after liberally applying layers of paracetamol and ibuprofen gel to my knee. If you’ve been following my training you’ll know that things haven’t been going according to plan. I’ve been struggling an with injury for about two months and despite a range of advice and treatments I hadn’t run more than about 10km without my left knee seizing up, so I was willing to do anything to try and avoid this recurring.
At this point there was still half an hour until the start – and an hour until I would cross the start line. This is the time to go to the toilet, chat with other runners, go to the toilet record a live Facebook video, go to the toilet, look out for people in costumes, go to the toilet… By this point I had been drinking more than I need for about 24 hours as part of my hydration strategy and so at times I left the toilets and straight away joined the queue again.
In the run up to the start I was deep in conversation with another tutu-ed MS Superstar – Paul. It was wonderful to have someone to wait with – sharing motivations, fears, hopes, and jokes. At 10.10 Andy Murray plunged the starting button, the elite men crossed the line, and me and Paul entered our starting pen. With so many people running the marathon there are three start lines and at each start runners are seperated into waves to make sure that the route doesn’t get too congested. There was time for one last live video – and time to regret I hadn’t made one more toilet trip – as I crossed the start line at 10.49. I’d started about 2 people in front of Big Ben (him of finish line fame) and by this point Paul and I had been joined by Tammie, yet another tutu-ed MS Superstar. The three of us were very visible and were getting lots of support and encouragement from the crowds.
For the first few miles everything felt great. Even though it was early in the race and the red route hadn’t joined the other two start lines the crowds were great (including a curious horse!) Me and Paul were particularly delighted when we reached the first toilets at the 2km mark. I have never run into a toilet with such enthusiasm before!
As we moved on and merged with the green and blue starters just before reaching the three mile marker, the crowds started to grow. Nothing will adequately convey the amazing support you get from the crowds at London. As you run you’ll have thousands of people calling out your name, cheering you on – its the closest thing to being a celebrity I can imagine.
If you’re thinking about doing it I’d encourage you to put your name on your top and run on the outside so that people can see you and call out your name. There are also lots of signs (favourites included “I’m cheering for you random stranger”, “smile if you aren’t wearing underwear”, and “you’re running better than the government”). If you respond to the crowds – thank them, wave at them – or even better hi-five kids on the outside of corners who aren’t getting hi-fived – you’ll get even more enthusiasm and cheering.
At the 5 miles marker I did another Facebook live. My knee was starting to twinge but it wasn’t too bad and I was still drinking in the celebratory atmosphere. There were lots of bands and I got a bit carried away on Facebook, riling up the crowds to make some noise. Shortly afterwards we approached the Cutty Sark after finishing our first 10km – meaning we were about a quarter of the way round. I jumped straight on FB to share this major landmark but it seems the video cut a bit short. Whilst we were running round I heard an extra large roar of approval and witnessed another runner down on one knee – his t-shirt saying “marry me”. That’s one way to make sure you get on TV!!
From the Cutty Sark to Tower Bridge is a bit of a blur. It’s another 10km but I was caught up in the moment. Tammie had run on ahead leaving me and Paul to run together. There were a few quieter areas – the winners had been finished for over an hour by the time we reached Tower Bridge – but there were still lots of excellent crowds. There were a few “showers” – large hoses spraying most of the road. They might have been useful in last years heat but this year it just wasn’t warm enough so we tried to avoid them as much as possible. When the bridge came into view I pulled up FB again – sharing the real life crowds with my virtual crowd. My knee had been twinging a bit so by the time I reached Tower Bridge I had walked a few times. Everyone talks about Tower Bridge being a huge highlight – it’s a wall of sound with people screaming your name. But for me Tower Bridge was a real low point, as it was the last time I ran in the marathon. I pushed myself to gently jog whilst I crossed the bridge but when I slowed to a walk afterwards I felt my knee lock up. I tried to jog a few more paces but immediately a jolt of pain radiated from the outside of my calf and I had to stumble back to a walk. Paul stayed with me for a few minutes but I encouraged him to run on – we still hadn’t crossed the half way line and he had his own race to run.
It’s hard to find the words to express how I felt at this point. It might sound strange but my first reaction was guilt – I’d worked so hard and come so far to get to this point with so many people cheering me on from home and I felt like I’d let them down, along with all my generous sponsors. I’m not ashamed to admit that I had a bit of a cry – I knew that I wasn’t giving up but I felt like a bit of a fraud. This part of the course doubles back on itself – I was heading for a loop through Canary Wharf with runners who had already done this coming back past me on the other side of the road. I limped across to the centre line because I didn’t feel like I deserved the support of spectators, and every time that a marshal cheered me on I started weeping again.
For the next 5 miles or so I was by myself, putting on my headphones to try and motivate myself with music. As long as I didn’t bend my left leg there wasn’t any pain – but every now and again I’d forget or misjudge a pothole and would send another burst of pain up my leg. This loop through Canary Wharf feels like it goes on forever – it was 9 miles until I would return past the half way mark. As I was now falling behind my target pace many of the earlier crowds had started to dissipate, and the runners began to thin out. I knew that I had to keep going but I wasn’t in a great place mentally. I was avoiding going on FB as didn’t know what to say. I’d put a picture up at the half way point saying I was limping but speaking to camera felt like too much. At some point I stopped at a St John Ambulance station for some paracetamol – but also because I just needed to break out of my own headspace. I’d texted mum and Lizzie but no-one knew how much I was struggling.
By the 30km marker (which in my head was the 3/4 way done marker) I caught up with another MS Superstar – Becca. Becca’s nan has MS and we got talking about our motivation for doing the marathon. After the race I got a really nice message thanking me for chatting when she was losing the will – but this was completely mutual. Our chat helped refocus me on why I was doing the marathon and reminded me that whether I sprinted or hobbled across the finish line I should still be proud of what I achieved. I’d never met Becca before – in fact, I didn’t really know any of the MS Superstars in person – but we were all going through the same challenges and this common bond made us a team – helping each other out on the day. Whilst we were walking together we also briefly appeared on the BBC!
As I started to finish the loop and began heading West towards the finish line we caught up with another MS Superstar – David. David is also from Leeds and his partner went to University with me, but we hadn’t managed to have a proper natter until the day before when we had gone around the pre-marathon expo together. David lost his mum to MS last year and was running in her memory. He’d also just reached a lifetime total of £20,000 raised for the MS Society and when we’d chatted we’d formed a real bond. Like myself, he was walking as his thighs had swollen and he was unable to run anymore. Having company really helped lift the fug that I had fallen into and even though the pain was getting worse as my right leg had to do the work of two I began to enjoy the marathon. I moved back to the outside of the course to engage with the crowds and even made the effort to hobble out for high-fives. At mile 20 I whipped out my phone for a FB live update – finally confident enough in my ability to talk for a few minutes to camera.
The next 5 miles are a blur of sweets and people and pain. With my original target out the window the 5 hour 30 pacer and 5 hour 45 pacer slowly overtook me. I struggled to keep up my power limp – when I started limping, the time it took me to cover a kilometre only went from about 7 minutes 15 seconds to 8 minutes 5 seconds; but the closer I got to the finish line the slower David and I were moving, as the toll of pushing on when injured took effect. But as the pain increased, so did the realisation that I was going to do this. The crowds were starting to thin – by now 5 hours had passed since the race started – but those who were there were incredible with their support. It turns out the crowd love a well-built ginger in an orange charity running vest and a bright orange tutu who is clearly limping – I couldn’t move 10 metres without people cheering me on. We powered past the Tower of London along the embankment, past the legal inns, slowly approaching the Houses of Parliament.
At mile 25 I pulled out my phone to go live across the finish line – and you can still watch the last 17 minutes here. I went live early in the hope that there would be lots of people sharing the finish with me – and so far over 500 of you lovely people have shared some of the last mile with me. You can tell that I’m not with it when I call the House of Parliament Buckingham Palace. I saw an old friend cheering me on and hobbled over to say hello before she reminds me that I’m going in the wrong direction. Me and David tried running several times but each time had to go back to hobbling – the pain was just too much to bear. As I couldn’t bend my left knee I was more galloping than running, but by this time my right leg was in agony after having done all of the work for half a marathon. My feet had odd blisters where my lopsided walk had put extra pressure through my feet – and on both feet the blister plasters I was wearing were starting to peel off.
As we approached the countdown to the finish line both David and myself took a few moments to share our motivation to camera as we both have mums who have suffered from MS. All of the pain, the emotion, the training came back to us both, spurring us on to the finish.
As we approached the last corner we went past the last MS Society cheer point – a carcophony of noise from people who also shared a connection to MS and wanted to see us finish. We took off at a canter but had to stop shortly, hobbling around the last corner before twice trying to honour the 6 hours since we’d started with a running finish. I seem to remember David pulling ahead but the photos also show me ahead at one point – by this time I was no longer speaking to camera as I focused everything I had on reaching the finish line. On the video you can hear me calling out in pain before I reach David and we grasp hands just before we cross the line.
I only know what happens next by watching the video. After I cross the line I semi-collapse on to a hoarding. A marshal and first aider approach and ask if I’m OK; I respond to say that I’m fine but that my knee injury is hurting. We take a few steps towards the medal and suddenly everything becomes too much – the pain, the exhaustion, the culmination of two weeks of emotional turmoil helping mum move into a nursing home and I just break down. Even if everything had gone to plan, running a marathon isn’t a walk in the park- but I’d been through so much that my body began to shut down. I was helped to the volunteers giving out medal barely able to walk – I remember holding onto a barrier to stay upright. You then have your photo taken but I couldn’t stand up without leaning on a barrier.
As I wasn’t a critical case I then had to walk what must have been no more than 50m to the first aid tent. When I got there I was escorted to the very end past a small army of paramedics and advanced first aiders. I remember being told I’d have to wait but I think I went straight to a stretcher. Getting down to the stretcher was interesting as I couldn’t bend either leg at this point so I basically fell in its general direction and the person treating me had to grab one end as I nearly fell straight off. She put an ice pack on my left knee and removed my shoes and socks but my blister plasters had become stuck to the inside of my socks so these were ripped off. If you’ve not worn blister plasters before you should know they are extra sticky. She then lanced a number of blisters – I stopped paying attention because by this time Lizzie had seen me cry my way over the finish line and was ringing me but I couldn’t hold the phone above my face, dropping it on my nose. I then had some quick physio to my right leg. As I hadn’t collected my post run shoes I had to put my running shoes back on without socks until I could collect my kit. It took 3 people to get me upright again.
I can’t remember if I rang mum at this point. I know I spoke to my cousin Helen who had played such an instrumental role in getting me as far with my training as I had got. She had also run the marathon but in much more style (and quicker) than I had. I couldn’t work out what number I was to collect my bag so just kept asking if I was at the right place yet as I walked along the lorries that had transported them from the start.
At the finish line I met Gus from the MS Society who was there to walk me back to the reception. We only had to walk about 400 metres but it took about half an hour – we had to cross over the course again and by the time we got there the course was being taken apart (even though there were still official pacers on the course).
Even though a week has passed it doesn’t seem real. Already lots of the detail has gone and I can only remember broad feelings and specific instances – it’s almost like my brain coped with the pain by not recording everything. Watching back the videos I took is weird as I just can’t remember speaking the words. It’s almost like I dreamed the whole thing.
Two days after the marathon, and after a visit to the sports masseuse and a gentle bike ride I was able to walk well enough to go and visit mum. I showed her the photos and the video I took on the day. She asked me why I hadn’t given up when it started to hurt, or when my leg had frozen. The answer was the same one that I gave on the day. Mum can’t give up having MS. She can’t take a break or take a day off. So there was no chance in hell that I was going give up.
This is one of the hardest fundraising challenges I’ve ever undertaken. You’ve heard of couch to 5k – I did couch to marathon. Now that it’s over I never have to run a marathon again, although I might do a few 10ks or half marathons in the future (myself and Lizzie are talking about running a half marathon next year). What I will be doing though, is going down to London next year to give those running the race the support that I relied on to get through the race.
At the same time, I only did the London Marathon to “warm up” for my bike ride across America next year. I raised £3500 (and counting) from doing the London Marathon and have already raised another £1500 for the ride across America – making a total of £5000 out of my £20,000 total.
Once I’ve had a bit of a break it will be time to start cracking on with training, logistics, and fundraising before I head to New York next April. I have been out on the bike a couple of times since the marathon and I’m already feeling much more at home in the saddle than I ever have in a pair of running shoes. I just hope that I’m up to the challenge.
For now – if you’d like to join me and a team of super friends in baking a cake (or two) for your place of work or play on July 3rd click attending on the below event and let’s see how much money we can raise in one day.
And finally – if you know of anyone who lives in the green area on this map please comment below or drop me a message. I’m not contacting anyone yet – just working out where I might know people. Thanks!
(PS – you can still sponsor me at www.justgiving.com/antonyjcbutcherlondonmarathon)