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Top Tips for London Marathon First-Timers

Ooh, there’s less than a month to go now til the London Marathon. Are you excited? Nervous? Terrified? Any (or indeed all) of those three are acceptable and quite understandable. I ran London for the first time last year. It was my ninth marathon and, although never terrified, I did alternate between excited and nervous in the run-up. After several unsuccessful ballot applications I’d worked really hard to get my Good For Age place, and I think I was worried I wouldn’t do it justice on the day. I really wanted to get another sub 4, but in the end I didn’t quite make it; you can read how it went here. I thought I’d only do London once, but when I realised my Good For Age was still valid for 2018 I couldn’t resist coming back on unfinished business!

To be honest, running the actual marathon was the least of my concerns as the big day approached last year. I was more worried about transport and logistics. Being a simple northern lass I am unused to the ways of the Big Smoke, so had to plan everything to the nth degree. I find I feel less nervous if I’m well organised. So here are my top tips for the VLM if you’re running it for the first time, and especially if you aren’t a local.

If you need to book transport and accommodation and haven’t done it yet, DO IT NOW! Otherwise there probably won’t be any hotel rooms left. And be prepared to pay upward of £150 for a Travelodge/Premier Inn room that would normally cost about a third of that. That’s just how it is I’m afraid. I must say, when I ran Paris and Berlin accommodation wasn’t the massive rip-off at marathon time that it seems to be in London. If you’re wondering whether to stay near the start or the finish, there’s no perfect solution. My advice would be to stay near a tube or railway station that makes your journey to the start as stress-free as possible. Last year I stayed at a Premier Inn near Cannon Street station, which was perfect. This year I’m going straight back up north afterwards, so I’m staying near Kings Cross, then I can pick up my bags and make a swift getaway when I’ve finished. And, of course, train tickets cost more the closer to travel time you buy them.

You might also want to consider booking somewhere to eat on Saturday evening in advance. Obviously there are no end of restaurants in London, but if you want Italian (for carb loading purposes) near your hotel at a particular time, I say you might as well find one and book it. One less thing to worry about.

You’ll need to pick up your bib number at the race expo at ExCeL before Sunday. This may sound obvious, but someone I know who’s running London for the first time this year recently asked me “When do they post out the numbers?”. They then had to change their train ticket to allow time to get to the expo before it closes on Saturday! So I’m just putting it out there to be on the safe side, because under no circumstances will you be able to pick it up on the day. The earlier in the week you visit, the less busy it will be. And while we’re on the subject of the expo, think very carefully about whether you really need to spend loads of time there looking at stuff, especially if you’re visiting on Saturday. It’s a fair schlep out there to start with, and you really need to be resting your legs as much as possible the day before. It’s great to browse all the lovely, shiny running kit, but think about why you’re there. Same with sightseeing; it’s tempting to do loads of walking around town, especially if you’re there with non-running family/friends, but you really shouldn’t if you want to be at your best on Sunday. Something to consider.

Make sure you know which start area you’re on and plan your journey there before the day itself. Trains and the Tube are free for runners, so it’s the obvious (and quickest) way to travel. And allow plenty of time to get there, as trains can get very crowded and it’s a bit of a walk from the stations to the start areas. When you get there, if you’re dropping a bag do that before you get in the toilet queue. I encountered several people last year who were in the loo queue with their bags when the final baggage call came; it’s quite a while before the start time. They then had to abandon the queue to drop their bags, then get back in it again! Bring an old fleece or jumper that you don’t mind throwing away to keep you warm before the start, then you can drop your bag straight away.

Don’t set off too fast! The whole atmosphere is really exciting, including seeing the elite start on the big screen, so the temptation to go for it like a greyhound is huge. Follow a pacer to keep you on track if it helps. If you don’t rein it in, you’ll really regret it later on. You should get to at least halfway feeling comfortable with your pace.

Don’t drink too much. It’s tempting to keep sipping at a drink when you’re hanging around in the start area just for something to do. From mile three there is a water point at every mile along the course, so there’s no need to overdo it before you set off. Unless it’s a really warm day you might not even need to drink at every station. Otherwise you’ll be slowed down by toilet stops!

People often say at races that ‘the crowd will get you round’. Nowhere is this more true than London! The crowds are huge, noisy and amazing, so there’s a wall of noise all along the course. Some people actually find this a bit oppressive, but I loved it. For this reason, don’t assume you’ll be able to see or hear your supporters en route. Last year my husband said I just ran straight past him at two separate points, even though he was shouting my name, simply because I couldn’t make him out amidst all the stuff going on! But at least there’s plenty to look at when you start to flag.

No matter how tired you are, enjoy that final stretch when you turn right at Buckingham Palace and run towards the finish line along the Mall. I deliberately slowed down last year to try and take it all in. Also: I was knackered! The crowds, the music, the commentary, the flags… it’s a unique experience that you might only have once in a lifetime. Don’t rush it, you’ve earned that big finish!

If you’re meeting people at the end, arrange a specific point to do that. There will be thousands of people milling about in the finish area, so it could take a while to find each other if you’re just randomly seeking each other out. You can’t totally rely on phone contact, as the network often gets overloaded with calls. There is an official meeting point, so make sure in advance you know where you’re going to be. Otherwise you might be like me and the OH the first time I did the Great North Run – wandering round for an hour and a half before you finally find each other!

Do you have any top tips for London? I’d love to hear them. Whatever you do, have a brilliant day!

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