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Tips for the London Marathon

Posted on 23 April 2009 | 5:04pm

A Facebook friend sent me a message this morning ‘any advice for a first time London marathon runner?’ So I whacked off a few thoughts. ‘You should do that as a blog,’ she replied back. ‘Fab tips.’

I love it when other people give me ideas for the blog, especially when I’ve already done the work. So here goes.

The first thing is to be happy you’re doing it. Squillions of people will be with you, and supersquillions more would like to be. Many can’t do it because they couldn’t get a place. Others, me included, can’t do it because they’ve had injuries and are worried they wouldn’t get round.

It’s all my own fault. I had this mad idea to run fifty miles on my fiftieth birthday, almost two years ago. I figured, on the distance runner’s logic, that if you can run a yard, you can run another; if you can run a mile, you can run another, and once you’ve done 26.2, it’s less than the same again before you’ve done fifty.

Fat chance. I was barely into the training programme when, in no particular order, I had problems with a calf, two knees, an ankle, a foot, a hip, a back, a left big toe, a right small toe and a shoulder (though I think I did the shoulder when I switched to the bike.)

Add in the fact my asthma has got worse in the last year or so and you’ll know why I will not be there on Sunday. I now wonder whether I will ever do another long run again, partly because I love the bike too much now.

Anyway, that is all by way of preamble to any advice I might pass on, but it underlines how happy people should be to be there at all.

Right, tips.

I’m assuming you’ve done the training. If you have, you’ll be fine. If you haven’t, expect even more pain than the ones who have.

With just a couple of days to go, all you should be thinking about now is the state your mind and body are going to be in on Sunday morning. With running, as with anything else in life, if you wake up feeling good, the chances are you’ll do better.

So between now and then – as much rest as possible, as much sleep as possible, as much pasta as possible, as much water as possible. I think I did my last run on the Thursday, fairly short. Some people like to have a loosening run on Friday and/or Saturday too, but I’m not sure it’ll do that much good. Have a massage instead.

Don’t do anything too exciting on Saturday (another good reason for me not doing it this year as Burnley are at Southampton and it could be an important game for all sorts of reasons). Maybe go to the cinema. 2003, I went to see Maid in Manhattan with my daughter Grace. Looking at Jennifer Lopez. Perfect day-before preparation, I found. Then more pasta, more water, more peeing, and get to bed, after any rituals you might have. I always like to lay out my gear, and pin on numbers, the night before. I also plan my energy gel intake then, then lay out top, shorts, socks and shoes. I obsess about how much gear I’ll need to keep warm in the build up, and how I’ll get it back at the end, but I make Saturday night my obsessiveness cut-off point. Decide all logistics then.

Once you’ve woken up on Sunday morning with that ‘feeling ok’ feeling, go for a pee and if it comes out as clear as it has ever been, that is another good sign. But keep drinking. And keep peeing. All the way to the start line. Well, you know what I mean.

Have a warmish bath, and stretch in the bath (I got that one off Paula Ratcliffe). Try to catch a bit of the build up on the telly. You’ll have a sudden real sense of being part of something great and important, and that will help kick you into a good expectation gear.

Breakfast – depends on the indvidual, but you are going to be using a lot of calories. I went for loads of bananas and scrambled eggs. Lots or orange juice and water. More peeing.

Give yourself plenty of time to get to the start. Enjoy the nerves, your own and everyone else’s. Stretch lots. Drink more water. Pee if you can.

Don’t set off too fast. Easier said than done. The adrenaline, the noise, the adrenaline of everyone else around you, it all combines to make you charge off because it feels so good. But you pay a price later on. Get into a rhythm that you know from your training runs, maybe just a bit inside it, and stick to it.

Take on water, lucozade, energy drinks, whenever they’re offered. You’ll sweat most of it out. If you have to pee, pee. Sorry to go on about peeing, but it is really important. Marathons are one place where I feel really sorry for women.

If you’re struggling at any point, latch on to someone who looks like they’re going at just inside the pace you think you should be doing. Follow them step by step. Get into their rhythm. If they’re too fast, find someone else. Once you’re settled into that rhythm, pick it back up and move out on your own.

If you find your mind saying to itself ‘oh shit, 20 miles to go,’ tell your mind to be quiet. Instead, say to yourself ‘if I get to that tree down there, I will be a bit nearer the end … once I have turned that corner, I will be even nearer … I am behind lots of people, but I am ahead of lots of people too … once I get to where that woman with the orange hair is now, I will be fifty yards nearer the end.’

Count steps to pass time. Do sums with your mile times. Let the crowd carry you – they will. Enjoy the music along the route.

Be emotional if you feel emotional. It is emotional. Every event I do, I spend part of the time thinking about the deaths of my best friend John and his daughter Ellie, in whose memory I work for Leukaemia Research. If you’re doing it in memory of someone, talk to them at the tough bits. You’ll find they help you through.

One other thing I found helpful – imagine the people who like you on one shoulder pushing you on, and the ones who don’t (most of mine were journalists) on the other shoulder trying to hold you back. The good ones spur you on.

Once you’re past the Tower, just let the crowd carry you. They will. You’ve only got a few miles to go now, and though they’ll hurt, you’re feeling the end is in sight. Once you’re in Parliament Square, you’re even beginning to think you’ll miss this when it ends.

But when it does end, be prepared for one of the great emotional highs of your life. Enjoy it. Wear the medal with pride. Drink lots of water. Eat lots of food. Pee. And prepare to walk downstairs sideways in the morning.

Finally, make a donation to Leukaemia Research if any or all of these tips help get you through.

  • David Fagan

    Good blog Alastair. Also injured here after I decided that 7 miles per week was a reasonable ramp for someone who had spent the last 20 years running just 7 :-). still I did manage Paris before my mara career ended.

    As for tips…if your mind say’s “oh shit…20 miles to go” I would suggest you give up…feeling tired after 6 miles is not a good sign!!

    Also agree with the elation comments….I felt very emotional at the end of Paris. Good luck to all who take part.

  • terry evans

    I’ve never ran a marathon or come close, but will watch on Sunday crying in awe at those that do. I just got emotional reading your blog and enjoyed the insight that you gave. Good luck everybody that is running on Sunday, be sure there is a soft sod in Cardiff cheering you on!

  • Greg Waller

    I saw your review of the Murakami book on running in the Guardian, which I really enjoyed.There is definitely such a thing as the runner’s mind. I also remember your series for the Times about training for the marathon, which I cut out and kept. As a result I got turned onto podiatry and proper running insoles. I was one of the unlucky ones not to get a place, but I am doing the next Edinburgh. Enjoying the blog, political and non politics alike

  • Em

    Water, pasta, check out hot Latina women (allow me a gender substitute), rest, bath, bananas, water, water closet.

    Got it! Thanks.

    Then you talk about things that confuse me. Tee hee. Ok, I run for thirty minutes three times a week — and that’s it. There is obviously a gland or hormone of sorts that compels me to keep at it, that rush that raises my endorphins and serotonin, but it’s not something I enjoy just thinking about it doing. Not at all.

    I find that I like to play. I don’t watch football but I meet up with friends several times a week and we play soccer for a couple of hours. In the Winter, we play hockey or I put my girl skates on and rehearse the same easy, long velocity jumps I did when I was ten.

    Nothing against those who go to the gym, or run or cycle, but it’s interesting to me how adults take out the element of play out of sports. To a non-marathon runner, marathons look like self-imposed torture. As a Catholic, I can only guess a Protestant invented the discipline.

    I believe more people would get into shape if they remember how much fun it is to just go out and play with friends.

    That being said, good luck to all the runners on Sunday.

  • AC

    Another Facebook friend has reminded me of the most important tip of all … vaseline! Private parts, all rubbing bits, between toes, shoulders, ankles, nipples, whack it on all over.

  • David_Fagan

    oops…should have read 70 miles per week!!!

  • CPW

    “the most important tip of all … vaseline! Private parts, all rubbing bits, between toes, shoulders, ankles, nipples, whack it on all over.”

    Throw in a gimp mask and amphetine soaked orange and you’ve got yourself after hours at the Tory party conference.

  • Eve

    Having not run since the 80’s (I walked quickly a couple of times in the 90’s but realised it wasn’t for me) I was amazed to discover your tips made me want to, one day, run the London marathon!

    Although it also made me want to pee.

  • Trevor Malcolm, Portsmouth Hampshire


    Listen up, young lad. On 2nd February 2029, the Alastair Campbell blog celebrates its 25th birthday. And you’ll have long since joined the ranks of those old codgers whose advancing years prohibit them running any further marathons. Ever

    Reading your “Tips for the London Marathon” you posted on 23rd April, no need for you to describe quite so graphically how your limbs feel that first day after the race. “Prepare to walk downstairs sideways” on the morning after, you said

    Quite so, but in old age, that’s how you’ll feel struggling down the stairs sideways every damn morning, silly

    For example, instead of marathon reminiscences, you yourself will shuffle towards the bowl of soggy cornflakes your daughter Grace has selflessly prepared for the ageing gums of her Daddy to munch at breakfast

    Worse, you’ll mourn your marathon running heydays. What’s more, as any devout atheist will regret, my son, there’s much Biblical Wisdom about the spirit still willing, but the flesh is weak

    Weak flesh, says God, eh? More like pooped out and completely knackered flesh here in Portsmouth, I’d say

    Still, blessed be, AC. Because your blog of practical advice for younger runners, simply inspirational

    For that, thanks Coach. (Donation to Leukaemia Research already done, as you suggested, great idea

    Trevor Malcolm