Mark Armstrong: London Marathon madness or magnificence? A long run that turned into 26.2 miles

Alison Armstrong, Mark Armstrong and John Cracknell after taking part in the Virtual London Marathon

Alison Armstrong, Mark Armstrong and John Cracknell after taking part in the Virtual London Marathon. Picture: Alison Armstrong - Credit: Archant

Let’s get this out in the open straight away - I ran a marathon on Sunday - the 40th Race - Virgin London Marathon.

Alison Armstrong, John Cracknell and Mark Armstrong get ready for the start of their Virtual Maratho

Alison Armstrong, John Cracknell and Mark Armstrong get ready for the start of their Virtual Marathon. Picture: Alison Armstrong - Credit: Archant

But why, when you have a weekly running column, have you not mentioned you were planning this, I hear you ask?

I only signed up for it about six weeks ago because my wife, Alison, entered and I didn’t want to miss out. Granted, it’s not the best reason, but it’s the truth.

As soon as I got my place I realised it was a silly idea. Apart from a couple of easy 16-mile training runs I hadn’t done any kind of consistent long distance training for a marathon.

Alison, on the other hand, trained for the Manchester Marathon earlier this year before its postponement and did a couple of long training runs over the last month to prepare. She’s the sensible one in this relationship.

The aid station put on for us for our Virtual London Marathon event. Picture: Alison Armstrong

The aid station put on for us for our Virtual London Marathon event. Picture: Alison Armstrong - Credit: Archant

I’ve been focusing on training for the Blickling Half Marathon recently and didn’t want to compromise that.

Therefore I decided that I wouldn’t run the marathon. I would support Alison for the last 16 miles and help get her through those notoriously last few tough miles.

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That had been the plan right up until about 8pm on Saturday night…

Seeing Alison’s nervous excitement as she got everything ready for the following morning was too much - I had to try and run it.

So instead of reaching for another beer I started cobbling together water bottles, gels and mini cheddars (obviously) - I was ready.

A friend of ours, John Cracknell, would meet us at 7.30am and run for a while to get his weekend long run in, more on him later… (Grandad was looking after our children so hold fire on calling Children’s Services…)

Alison had planned the route, which consisted of starting from our home in Wacton, doing a five-mile loop through Forncett St Peter, before heading off towards Hempnall and running back. It was beautifully flat for the most part, just how I like it.

There was to be no chasing of personal bests - the plan was always to run at a comfortable pace from the start and look to sustain it all the way through. Alison and I (as well as John it would turn out) wanted to be part of something unique (yep, I really had been sucked in by the London Marathon marketing department).

I didn’t feel great for the first five miles, which was concerning - what on earth would I feel like at 20 miles?

A banana sorted me out though and the marathons of the past all came flooding back. If I was going to do this then I needed to maintain a comfortable pace and fuel it. As soon as I started to feel a little empty I knew I needed to have something - a sip of an electrolyte drink or a gel whilst of course staying hydrated. I needed to ensure I kept a safe distance from the dreaded ‘wall’.

Spirits were high among the three of us when we got to halfway and another friend, Naomi Stockwell, joined us for a few miles. Having Paula Radcliffe and Steve Cram provide us with mile markers via the London Marathon app, which was logging our distance, also helped.

When we got to the halfway point a few joints were starting to say hello as we went over Tower Bridge... or past Hempnall Primary School as was the reality.

The rivers of conkers that were along part of the route were also a concern and yes, I was once again mocked.

It was also around here that John, who is also training for the Blickling Half Marathon, needed to turn back if he was going to stick to his plan of running 16 miles.

“I’ve been with you for this long now, I’ll just go a bit further…”

I thought to myself - he’s in this for the long haul - he’s as silly as I am.

There had been a lot of chat until Naomi departed at the 16-mile point to get on with her weekend. This was also the part of the route where we doubled back on ourselves and started the long journey home. We all took a walk break of around a minute, took on some food, and then cracked on.

There was definitely a change - there was far less chat - everyone was inside their own little mental bubble and personally I was just looking to keep on top of my fuelling to maintain energy levels.

We were a team, dragging each other along, and it highlighted the power of the group. I’m not sure any of us would have maintained the consistent pace we did in what were pretty miserable conditions, without each other. I know I would have struggled a lot more.

There were a couple of ‘hills’ on the way back, which you would barely notice with fresh legs. When you’ve got 20 miles in your pins then each one felt like a mountain.

We had our final stop at the 21-mile point at John’s house where his wife, Caroline, had provided an aid station of water and gels. There was even a sign willing us on - perfect.

This was the final point John could properly opt out of going the full distance.

“Well, I might as well do it all now as I’ve left my car at yours…”

Yep, he’s definitely as silly as me - good man, we started as a three and we would finish as a three.

We managed to see a few other people who were also taking part in the virtual event, and they were all smiles - it must have been early in their run!

Alison decided to put some music on her phone on loudspeaker and spirits were lifted with her out of tune singing - we were on the home straight now.

I was waiting to hit the wall, which has happened in every other marathon I’ve taken part in, but thankfully it never came.

When Alison dangled the prospect of being able to dip under the four-hour mark we all quickened our pace a little until the hill on Flowerpot Lane in Long Stratton tried to halt my progress. My legs were going but I only had a few hundred yards to go… we were comfortably under four hours - a new personal best for Alison, John’s first ever marathon, and the first time I’ve ever got through 26.2m relatively comfortably. Incidentally we came in just under 3:57.

Was it sensible? Nope. Am I glad I did it? Hell yeah! Anything that helps to look back on a year beyond the time we all came to a standstill can only be a positive thing.

So thanks Virtual London Marathon - hopefully we’ll never have to see you virtually again, but it was definitely nice to be part of. Silly, but nice...

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