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Neil Featherby: A trip down memory lane with the London Marathon

PUBLISHED: 13:09 23 April 2020 | UPDATED: 13:09 23 April 2020

Runners set off at the start of the Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon, in Hyde Park, last year Picture: PA

Runners set off at the start of the Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon, in Hyde Park, last year Picture: PA

PA Archive/PA Images

I make no apologies for drifting off back down memory lane again this week, especially as what should have been the UK’s biggest road race the London Marathon was due to be taking place this coming Sunday.

Runners making their way past Buckingham Palace towards Constitution Hill for the finish line of the 1981 London Marathon Picture: PARunners making their way past Buckingham Palace towards Constitution Hill for the finish line of the 1981 London Marathon Picture: PA

I will never forget listening on the radio to what was the first ever running of this huge event in 1981 and whilst it only had 7,000 competitors taking part, back then that many people for a marathon was considered pretty huge. Incidentally, the race was not televised live until the following year.

However, and while I was fully consumed by this amazing race, it was another four years before I got to stand on the start line at Greenwich where by then the race numbers had risen to over 30,000 entrants.

That of course was 35 years ago and whilst I struggle to come to terms with wondering where all those years have gone, coincidentally I also just happened to bump into my old coach Ian Fowlie last Sunday morning when out running along Marriotts Way.

Whilst of course we kept our social distancing, I did also joke and say to him “you always did struggle to keep up with me anyway”. Apart from him mumbling something under his breath along the lines of shut your mouth, we did very much reminisce as if it was yesterday.

I really can remember almost vividly so much about what was the culmination of several weeks and months of hard training to be in peak condition for that marathon which at the time really was a huge occasion for me.

I was also lucky enough to have got into the race via what was the AAAs marathon championships also being incorporated which for us lucky ones meant a chance to have plenty of space along with a warm up and chill out area prior to the start.

Norfolk also had a fantastic representation of runners of high quality and had even spoken amongst ourselves about it being an unofficial county championship.

My aim along with that of Thetford AC’s Kevin Meardon was to run 2 hours 20 mins or just under if possible for which we lined up on the start line together. At the time, the world’s leading female distance runner was Ingrid Kristiansen from Norway who was also looking to smash the ladies world record with a 2:20 clocking so from my perspective I knew it was going to be an interesting run.

The weather was pretty much spot on too, so no real excuses if it went wrong.

The pacing was bang on at 5mins 20 secs each mile right up to half way. Going over Tower Bridge was awesome too where Kev’s biggest supporter, his late dad was there shouting words of encouragement to both of us. We were also just ahead of Ingrid at this stage, but from the loud cheers of the crowd and the lead milk float, we knew she was coming up behind us when at 15 miles she went effortlessly past.

At this stage I was also aware that Kevin was going through a bit of a bad patch and whilst I urged him to stay with it, especially as I could now see the leading lady disappearing off into the distance, he said to me, “off you go Neil and I will see you at the finish”.

Before I knew it, I had latched on to a former GB marathon representative Gateshead Harrier’s Max Coleby who had a best of 2:14 and was also one of the founders of the Great North Run.

We ran side by side along the embankment when I could see we were gaining on Ingrid and I said to Max: “She’s coming back.”

“She’s world class, Neil, and she is going to smash the record today, but I don’t think we will catch her now,” he replied.

With that, I put my head down and went for it and it wasn’t until I watched the race back on the TV that I realised I had passed so many great athletes who I so much admired, such was my focus.

Then at exactly 41k in Birdcage Walk where there was a fixed camera on our leading lady and two other top guys, I went past in full flight shouting out words of encouragement as I could see she was grimacing a little. She glanced up as if to say thanks and it was full on to the finish.

I knew I wasn’t going to go under 2:20, but I did still smash my previous PB that day with a 2:20:47 clocking for which I was more than happy with at the time.

Ingrid Kristiansen did of course smash the world record with a 2:21:06, a record which was to last for another 13 years.

Kevin Meardon finished in 2:23 as did another one of Norfolk’s best in Gregor Booth, who had just moved to the county and went on to not only become one of my mainstay training partners for several years, but also a fantastic runner himself going on to gain international honours.

Ian Fowlie finished in 2:34 and while there are far too many other really good athletes from Norfolk to mention, I am pretty sure we had five under 2:30 and at least another dozen under 2:40.

All in all it was a great day and an awesome race to be involved in. Going back to where I went past Ingrid at 41k, I also got a really nice mention from David Coleman who was doing race commentary.

Oh and as for Max Coleby who said we would not catch her, he finished one second in front of her.

The 1985 London Marathon is on YouTube, which I do still have a look at every now and again, especially at what was my little moment of fame. The men’s winner was none other than the great Steve Jones who was at that time undoubtedly the world’s leading marathon runner winning in 2 hours and 8 mins just ahead of Gateshead Harrier and the previous year’s winner Charlie Spedding.

Needless to say, I do feel so very sorry for all those people who were looking forward to running in this year’s big race and in what would have been the 40th running of this amazing evet.

However, come Sunday morning when out running with my dogs, I will still be looking back very much on what really was a great day for me and of course many others all those years ago.


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