For many years I have watched the London Marathon on the television, marvelling at the images of seemingly ordinary people doing an extraordinary thing: running 26.2 miles and often raising incredible sums of money for charity. For a few years I worked as a charity events organiser, and in this role I had to organise post-marathon hospitality for those running to raise funds for the charity. Every year I would momentarily feel inspired and wonder if I could ever run a marathon, but the moment soon passed!
But in the last few years I have started running myself, starting with parkrun and then more recently through a running club, and so I have joined a community of runners many of whom are often training for or taking part in marathons in the UK and abroad. In the run up to this year’s London Marathon I found myself tracking friends who were taking part in marathons in Brighton, Manchester and Paris on the respective marathon’s app, and eagerly following their progress from the comfort of my sofa.
This year the London Marathon became even more special to me because as well as knowing a number of people who were running it I had a very small part to play behind the scenes in the organisation of the event. Along with a number of other volunteers from my local parkrun, Walthamstow, I helped out at the start of the marathon, with the large baggage trucks that transport the runners’ bags from the start to the end of the race.
Having volunteered some months ago, I began to question the wisdom of this decision when I discovered we were leaving the Walthamstow parkrun site at the unearthly time of 6am. But once on the bus with all the other volunteers, the mood was infectious with everyone in good spirits and excited to be taking part. On the bus we were given our instruction booklets, security passes and VLM2018 branded jackets, and we headed for the start at Blackheath, arriving long before any runners got there. There we were given a briefing, along with volunteers from other London parkruns. The guy giving the briefing mentioned that whenever runners talk about the London marathon, they often comment on how brilliantly run the baggage operation is – no pressure then!
We then headed for our respective baggage trucks. Walthamstow parkrun volunteers had been allocated the “Championship” baggage truck in the Blue start area – the championship runners are the very fast club runners, just one step behind the elite runners. The Championship runners had their own penned off area of the start area, which was eerily deserted as we were there so early. But it gave us time to have a very welcome cup of tea/coffee and get our bearings.
Just behind our truck was a warm up area used by some of the elite runners, including the Weirwolf himself, David Weir, so we spent some time watching them warm up. The day was extremely hot and sunny, even so early, and as the runners start to arrive in the area many of them tried to sit in the shade of the changing tents. We took up our positions, with 6 of us harnessed to the inside of the truck and the rest of us behind a crash barrier ready to take bags. Many of the Championship runners didn’t want to put their bags on the truck until the last minute, so for quite a long while we had nothing to do except dance to the music being played on the loud speakers, including doing all the actions to Y-M-C-A! Eventually the first runner handed in his bag, Bridget taking his bag and the rest of us cheering! A slow steady trickle of runners handing in their bags soon turned into a manic stampede as the start time grew near and for a good 15 minutes it was frantic and really hard work to try to get everyone’s bag on the truck in time. We had been instructed to ask the runners to tie the drawstrings of their bags so that nothing fell out, but this task seemed to be remarkably challenging to many of the runners! But soon all the bags were on the truck, and the area was back to being deserted with just a few stragglers queuing for the loos. As we were about to finish, a runner came up and asked where she should go. She pointed out her celebrity wristband and wondered if there was a separate area she needed to go to. I had no idea who she was, but discovered later she was Rochelle Humes, the singer from The Saturdays!
Having taken all the bags, and seen all the runners out of the area, our job was done and we were released and able to go and cheer the runners through the start line. It was an amazing atmosphere, with everyone really excited and anxious to get going. Because of the heat the organisers had suggested that people didn’t wear heavy fancy dress costumes, so there were fewer rhinos, giant cakes, and other assorted costumes than in previous years, although we did see a running dinosaur and a bottle of beer. I was amazed at how I was able to spot friends from my running club and from parkrun amongst the thousands of runners queuing for the start, which happened in waves. Cheering them on with cowbells, rattles and whistles we made quite a noise but it seemed to be appreciated by the runners!
A group of us went to a spot on the route where we could cheer our friends and family members who were running. I was glad I was able to get there just in time to see a friend who lives in Cornwall run past – I shouted his name – Paul – and he ran back to give me a hug. He later said that it gave him a real boost to see a friendly face at that point. There was a fantastic atmosphere, and the crowds were three or four people deep all along the crash barriers protecting the route. It was incredibly hot though, and we did see a number of people receiving help and suffering from heat exhaustion, and I later found out that it was at this spot that the Masterchef contestant Matt Campbell collapsed and later died. And so a week later I took part in the #finishformatt initiative and ran 3.7 miles and donated to the Brathay Trust in memory of Matt.
I then went to the finish where I was able to meet up with Paul who despite having been tripped up by another runner by the Cutty Sark, resulting in a huge graze to his hip and grazed knees and hands, had finished in an amazing 3:06:29 – and he managed to get from our cheering point at 22 miles to the finish faster than I managed it on the tube! I was amused to see a pub on Whitehall had put an inflatable finish arch around the entrance to the pub, but the thousands of people milling around the area needed no encouragement as it was so hot the pubs were doing a roaring trade.
I finished the day by going to meet up with friends from my running club in a pub back in East London – and was amazed to find three runners who had run the marathon already in the pub and looking far fresher than I did despite their having run for over 26 miles!
It was such an emotional and amazing day, and many of my parkrun and running club friends were talking about entering the ballot for a place for next year’s marathon. Carried away with the atmosphere and emotion of the day, I started to wonder whether I could do it. Could I? Despite one friend asserting that “everyone has at least one marathon in them”, I think I need to get a few half-marathons under my belt before I even start to think about running a full marathon. But maybe one day…? But I’ll definitely be back helping with the bags again next year if I’m free and get the chance. It was such a brilliant day, and definitely showed London off to its best – no wonder the event has a hashtag that sums it up: #SpiritofLondon.