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A day in the life of a London marathon runner

By Daniel ‘pump those knees’ Parker and Debbie ‘fists of fury’ Sims


Pull on your lycra, tie up your shoelaces, pin your number on your vest, and join us as we run the Virgin London Marathon in blog form. While police and security have been stepping up after Boston, we have been trawling Oxford University Press’s online resources in order to bring you 26 miles and 375 yards of marathon goodness. Get ready to take your place on the starting line.

The reason that you’re about to run a heart-bursting 26 miles is the Greek legend of Phidippides, a soldier and messenger who ran from the Battle of Marathon to relay news of the Athenian triumph over the more numerous and powerful Persians. After he had passed on the message, Phidippides collapsed and died of exhaustion. In order to avoid the same sticky demise as Phidippides, it’s best that you do some running in preparation for your big day.

It’s not just about physical preparation though. You may have done exercises that grouped together would rival Sylvester Stallone in Rocky, but you need to be mentally strong too. Segmenting is a technique athletes use in order to make a long event less overwhelming. They might break a marathon up into mile-long segments, or set a goal for a certain part of the course, rather than think of the marathon in its entirety. This might have been useful for Jo Brand who said in 2005: “I’ve set myself a target. I’m going for less than eleven-and-a-half days.”

Eat healthy

Are carbs your best friend? No? Well it’s best to get acquainted and fast! Carbohydrate loading is a procedure followed by some athletes to raise the glycogen content of skeletal muscle artificially by following a special diet, usually combined with a special exercise regime. For a marathon runner, the procedure starts seven days before a race when the athlete depletes the muscle of glycogen by running a long distance, usually about 32 km (20 miles). For the next three days, the athlete eats a high protein, low carbohydrate diet, and continues exercising to ensure glycogen depletion and sensitization of the physiological processes that manufacture and store glycogen. For the final three days before the race, the athlete eats a high carbohydrate diet, and takes little or no exercise.

On the starting line

It is thanks to Christopher Brasher and John Disley that there is a starting line at all, as the pair organised the first London marathon in 1981 after running the New York marathon together in 1979. As Chris Brasher’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography explains:

“He was impressed with the scale of the race, and with the fact that it welcomed runners of all abilities, ages, and backgrounds, thus diluting the marathon’s élite sporting reputation and making it a civic, multicultural occasion. Returning to London, he wondered in his column in The Observer ‘whether London could stage such a festival.’”

London certainly could stage such a festival, and in 1981 thousands of people lined London’s streets to watch 6,255 runners finish the race. Since then the marathon has grown dramatically, with hundreds of thousands of people expected to watch over 35,000 runners take part in the race this year.

Now it’s your turn. You’re on the line and your knees are shaking. It’s time to channel the past greats of Marathon running to gain some much needed inspiration. Violet Piercy was a symbol of strength between 1926 and 1938 as the first British female long-distance runner. She ran long distances “to prove that a woman’s stamina can be just as remarkable as a man’s,” (South London Press, 2 April 1935), and is often credited as the inspirational figure behind modern female long-distance runners.

Or maybe it’s the modern greats of running that you need to draw inspiration from to stop your shaking legs? Almost as if they are acting on their own accord, your hands rise above your head and form a tea-pot-esque symbol. People are giving you strange looks but you don’t care, you’re doing the “Mo-bot” as you try to draw strength from British Olympic hero Mo Farah.

Running the marathon

London is a beautiful place to run and the many historical landmarks around the city punctuate your brave endeavour, providing some respite to that painful burning sensation in your legs. It’s akin to a touristy bus tour of London — without the bus — and you pass buildings such as Sir Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral, as well as 10 Downing Street — home of Prime Minister David Cameron — and 30 St Mary’s Axe (also commonly referred to as the ‘Gherkin’), designed by the architect Norman Foster.

It’s not just the buildings that you should be paying attention to as you run. If you’re really fast, then you’ll be jostling for position with Paula Radcliffe, winner of the Women’s London Marathon in 2002, or Baroness Grey-Thompson, winner of the Women’s Paralympic London Marathon in 1992, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2001, and 2002. However, it’s more likely you’ll be rubbing shoulders with a number of the ‘Mass Start’ celebrities who frequently run the London Marathon such as the former Lord Mayor of London Nicholas Anstee, the cricket legend Sir Ian Botham, and the explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes.

Nearing the end

But you’re not finished yet! You’ve heard rumours but didn’t believe it could be true; the mythical beast known only as ‘the wall’. It normally affects runners around the 20 mile mark but when Jade Goody ran the Virgin London Marathon in 2006, it hit her around the 10 mile mark, and she subsequently dropped out. But it’s not just ‘the wall’ that affects marathon runners. You need to take on water as you go around the course but did you know you can actually drink too much water? A condition known as hyponatremia affects runners who lose salt through sweat but drink too much water to counteract this. Assuming you’ve drunk the right amount of water, you turn the corner past Buckingham palace, you lift a weary hand to wave at the Queen, and take the last few steps to the finish line…

After the race

You’ve done it! You’ve completed the London Marathon and finished in first place. Now you can kick off those running shoes and relax. But wait! A man in a white coat and a clipboard is approaching you. You don’t have the option of running away as muscles that you didn’t even know existed are cramping up. He takes you into a separate room and conducts a doping test. Apparently, setting a world record when you’re a ‘Mass Starter’ is a little bit odd. Don’t worry, you weren’t to know. After serious interrogation, you’re found not-guilty of doping and are free to pick up your medal. Looks like you won’t be appearing in Chris Cooper’s Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat after all.

You can find more about the online resources mentioned in this article with these links: Oxford Reference, Oxford Index, ODNB, Who’s Who, Oxford Dictionaries Online, and Oxford Medicine Online.

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Image credits: (1) The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Photo by Martin Addison. Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons (2) Mo Farah – Victory Parade. Photo by Bill. Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons (3) Wilson Kipsang 2012 London Marathon. Photo by Tom Page. Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons

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