On 21 July 1964 Mildred Sampson of New Zealand broke the world record for the women’s marathon, running in 3 hours 19 minutes and 33 seconds. On 26 April 2015, at the London Marathon, 451 women beat that world record. One of those women was me, another was the greatest marathon runner the world has ever seen. Now that’s what I call progress! Back when Mildred set her record, it was extremely difficult for women to get the opportunity to run marathons. The men that organised these races believed that women weren’t constitutionally strong enough to complete the distance. Obviously no intelligent person really believed that a body designed to withstand child birth was incapable of running 26.2 miles. What they were really worried about was that if they allowed women to experience the joy and freedom of running they would be less interested in cooking their dinner and ironing their shirts. How right they were!!
Lining up in Pen 3 at the green good for age start I was surrounded almost exclusively by women, not surprising as the good for age men would have been starting further forward. My nerves had been reasonably under control until I entered the pen but with 20 minutes until the start I had nothing to do but wish I hadn’t had the last cup of coffee and wonder if I’d be able to last for 26 miles without a loo stop. The green start was really small and it felt more like a local race than one of the world’s biggest marathons and it took just 40 seconds to cross the start line. My goal of beating Mildred’s world record and finishing in 3.19.32 or less required 7.37 minute miles but I knew that the course would measure longer on my Garmin so was aiming for 7.30’s. I went off pretty fast, partly to try and get a bit of space around me but mostly because I really, really needed the loo. I think I stopped around mile 2, broke the world record for the fastest female wee in history and was finally able to settle into the race.
I can’t remember where it first happened, maybe as we were approaching Cutty Sark, but the crowds got thicker and I was just hit by a ball of sound. Like a thunder clap it was so loud you didn’t just hear it, you felt it. It really was breathtaking and then I knew what a special race I was running in. I’d read and been told that the crowd support at London was the best in the world but I assumed the people that said that hadn’t run New York. But London is definitely louder! Crossing Tower Bridge, looking up at that iconic structure, with the cheers in my ears I found myself getting short of breath with the excitement of it all. It really was too much. My mantra changed from ‘Run Strong. Like a Girl’ to ‘Calm Down. Breathe. Don’t Blow It’! I just about managed to get a grip and focussed on searching for my family in the crowd along The Highway. I was sure they wouldn’t have been able to find a spot amongst so many people but there they were, a patchwork of multi coloured down jackets, screaming my name. I waved back at them furiously and the crowd around them responded and cheered even louder. This was just overwhelming, and I choked on a sob of gratitude that there they all were, yet again, standing around in the cold, willing me to do my best.
Another sonic boom around Canary Wharf and then back out along The Highway where my family had planned to cross the road and see me on the other side. Again I was convinced this would be impossible amongst so thick a crowd but distracted myself from the pain by searching for them. And then I heard my name being shouted, turned around to see Fiona Jamie jumping up and down and waving furiously. I was yet to compose myself after the excitement of seeing Fiona when seconds later there were my family. At this point I practically hyperventilated and received a pat on the back from a fellow runner, assuring me that their cheers would get me to the end. Along the embankment and more shouts of ‘Tara!’ and there was Vegan Dave and later on my friends Joe and Jane. In 2014 I’d chosen to run Brighton marathon instead of London because I liked the local support of friends in the crowd and here I was in one of the world’s biggest marathons seeing so many familiar faces and hearing my name. I knew it would be a miracle too far for my family to make it to Birdcage Walk and apparently they only just missed me but it didn’t matter. I knew I’d done enough to get that world record and I crossed the line in 3.18.44. For the number geeks amongst you my 5k splits were 23.19; 23.12; 23.47; 23.47; 23.41; 23.40; 23.34; 23.28. My second half was 12 seconds slower than the first.
I love marathons because I think they show humanity at its very best. So much effort and striving, giving and supporting, goodwill and compassion. All the supporters willing total strangers to achieve more than they thought they could. All the individual stories and motivations that get the runners to the start line and all the willpower that gets them to the finish. In my experience of 7 marathons no other race encapsulates all this better than London. It’s too soon to decide whether to do it again, I think I might need a bit of a break and try and improve over the shorter distances. But I have already had a sneaky peak to see who broke Mildred’s world record next and in what time. Maureen Wilton 3.15.23. I reckon I could beat that!