Monday, April 30, 2007

The London Marathon Part 3 of 3

I particularly like the support shown from the local residents. I am touched by some residents who roped in family members to support runners in different ways. It did seem to me they had pre-planned their support on who does what on race day. Well coordinated! Some kids as young as three were handing out jelly beans. Cute! Some gave oranges, some candies; a few others connected rubber hose from the gardens to spray on runners, a lot offered high 5s but most of them cheered, cheered and cheered. It was just magnificent.

I was never worried about the distance markers. It was in the English unit, miles. Markers were on gantries. Each mile was marked. A “Half-Marathon” gantry was also put up several metres after the 13th mile mark. After all it was 13.1-mile to a half-marathon. I noticed that the run up to the finishing line was marked in hundreds of metres instead of yards or miles.

Coming from a tropical country helped a lot. At least in managing cramps. I found the weather hot, but still milder than Malaysia’s. I guess Malaysians are packed with an extra radiator or convector in our body systems so we could handle the heat on that day. I didn’t go through any of the showers unlike the local runners. In fact, from past triathlon experiences, cooling the body with shower was a bad idea. It worsens the cramp.

Applying Vaseline during the race was useful. I did not have blisters after the race. I had always applied it at the start but doing it during the race was also a sensible thing to do, as I found out. There were St John’s volunteers stationed along the route handing out the petroleum jelly to runners. I liked the way it was administered to runners. Volunteers had the jelly butter-spread on their palms and runners only need to tap on their palms to get it. No stopping; seamless application.

The drink stations deserve mentioning. All stations were clearly signed. As the race was sponsored by Vittel and Lucozade, the former provided water and the latter isotonic. Drinks were handed out on both sides of the road to avoid runners from jostling and pushing from the back. According to the runners’ guidebook, the tables were spaced over approximately 80 metres on each side and supplies distributed evenly. Little details like this made tremendous difference to the flow of the race.

Water was offered at every mile from the 3rd to the 25th mile. Vittel handed out water in 330ml plastic bottles with the top removed. I felt it was wasteful to having only a few sips and tossing the bottle away. That’s what the others did as well. Even if the organisers could not agree that they were being wasteful, I bet most if not all runners would agree that the bottles on the road were a hazard to them. Good ol’paper cups were still the most practical, environmentally friendly and safer to runners.

Lucozade was available at miles 5, 10, 15, 19 and 23. It was handed out in 330ml pouches. I like Lucozade and I just wished they could make a comeback in Malaysia soon. Firstly, it was non-carbonated and secondly it tasted and worked better than the carbonated ones.

I met a Pacemaker at the Tower Bridge. It was Quek Ai Ling, a keen marathoner from Singapore. I was not aware it was her until she called on me.

“Hi! Are you a Malaysian?” she asked.
“Yea…” I answered and before I could continue, she asked
“Are you Alden Yap? I am a Pacemaker too.”
I said,” Ah! You must be Ai Ling. PM Tey told me about you! So nice to meet you here!”

The marathon crowd was so huge I lost her within a minute!

Mile 25, Embankment

When I spotted the 25th mile mark at Embankment, my motivation level inched up 2 notches. I suppose this translated to a quicker pace. My time was 3 hour 52minutes then. I was contemplating whether to push for a sub-4 but the math did not make it look simple. I had to finish 1.8km in 8minutes?? No way! But I pushed for it nonetheless.
When I saw Buckingham Palace, I knew it was near. Then I spotted “600m to the finish line”. The countdown moved on to 500m and 400m and that was when I clocked 4 hours on the dot. A straight road after the right turn at the roundabout leading up to the finish line suddenly opened up majestically. I wished the Queen was watching from the palace. I knew I had moved over 4 hours so I finished off the remaining distance in a relaxed pace. I crossed the finish line at 4 hours 1 min and 50 seconds, my personal best for a marathon!
Crossing the finishing line was the best feeling ever in this marathon, probably because of the expectations and emotions that built up towards the race. I felt like I had achieved a great milestone in my running “career”.

After crossing the finishing line, we were ushered to the medal collection area. It was where the champion chip was collected as well. The medal looked great but to us runners, it was more than a piece of metal. Whenever I look at it, I see hard work, sweat and lots of discipline!

The flow from finish line to baggage collection was impressive. The flow was arranged in such that runners would first take a photo with their medals, then collect a goodie bag and claim their baggage.

O yea, my shoes. I wore the Saucony Trigon 4 and it was really good! No blisters, black toe or other foot injuries. I would recommend this for normal foot runners.

I went back to Embankment to do my bit and cheered on other runners. I saw a troop of soldiers marching on with their heavy baggage. It was sort of a touching scene; their facial expression, sweat, pushing forward the last one mile and people cheering them on.

I returned to Cambridge on the same day. I could hardly take the stairs the following day. Both my legs were all sore. But that just showed that I had made great efforts for this race and for my personal best. If I had to describe the London Marathon, I would not regard it as a competitive race. In fact, I would advise prospective runners to not treat it as one or as seriously. It is really meant to be an entertaining, fun and interesting run. I would never trade an entry for the London Marathon for anything else. London being the Number 1 marathon in the world was certainly befitting of the title!

The London Marathon Part 2 of 3

22nd April. I woke up at 7am to catch a train to Greenwich Park. Marathon runners get to ride on the tube for free. I was impressed they had such arrangements with the organiser. The organisers worked alongside with the Transport for London (TfL) to make travel a hassle-free arrangement for runners.

The night before, I asked the station master how was I required to prove that I was a runner.

He said, “Just show your tabard. As long as you wear it up prominently on your vest, that’d be fine.”

I said, “You mean I have to be in my running gear? I’d feel strange. I don’t want to be taking the tube in my running shorts and vest. Can I just wave the number at the officer in charge tomorrow?”

He said, “Well, as long as it’s prominent.”

I thanked him and left. I thought, “That was flexible.”

After checking out from the hotel, I went on the tube. There were already runners at the station. When I was on the Central Line, I spotted many runners who were already in their gears. Some were pinning numbers to their vest. I could already feel the energy building up to the race.

I changed train at the Bank station for the Dockland Light Rail (DLR). I was glad I familiarized with the train lines and travel time it took the day before. I was looking for the DLR bound for Lewisham. When the DLR called at the Canary Wharf station, there was a huge crowd who tried to squeeze into the coaches. Runners and supporters alike, the train didn’t fit everyone in. Changing at the Bank station was perhaps, the smartest thing to do. I had a seat the whole journey; not until something happened.

An announcement came.

“This is a service announcement. We are expecting some delays for the train bound for Lewisham. A train ahead of us has broken down at the Mudchute station.”

It only dawned onto everyone that we were the guys affected by this service announcement when it repeated for the second time. People were sighing and complaining about the bad timing for the service breakdown. But nobody could have avoided it. The DLR was the only way to Greenwich Park. **Okay, let me correct this. It's the only "most direct way to Greenwich Park"**

Unaware of the time and that it was ticking, already passed 9am, people were getting restless. The sweltering heat and stagnation did not help assuage passengers’ concerns. I was still calm, or trying to be calm. I downed two Mars bars while waiting for the train to make some progress. Chocolates were a tranquiliser I suppose. We were making snail pace progress, advancing no further than a few metres before it stopped again.

Bad news. I spotted two trains in front of me and they were no movements at their end too. I took the tube map and checked where we were. Okay, next up was the Crossharbour station. Counting down to the stations before Greenwich; four more stations away. Great, that means we were at least 3km away from the park.

I always had this “what if..” thoughts in my mind and this time you would have guessed it was nothing good. I thought, “What if we had to walk from Crossharbour to Greenwich?” It’d be a mad dash!

It was already quarter passed. Mars bars couldn’t help assuage worries. Phone calls and people’s chatters about reaching on time further exacerbated the situation. Anxiety grew and we were still at the track in the middle of nowhere. Then the train moved. It stopped at Crossharbour.

Another announcement came.

“This is a service announcement. We apologise for the delay due to a broken down train at Mudchute. This train will now terminate at this station. Passengers are requested to alight here.”
Oh Nooooooooo!!!!!!!!!

A voice from the PA system followed, “Ladies and gentlemen, we apologise for the inconvenience caused. Please follow the route down at the pedestrian tunnel and it should take approximately 12 minutes to Greenwich Park.”

Oh drat! My worst fear came. We had to walk to Greenwich Park! With so little time left, I had to walk to the park and this didn’t include the time for me to change into my running attire!
How improper to remember my first marathon in London. Oh wait, London Marathon? Could I even make it in the first place? Time check, time check! It was already 9.50am. The race was going to start in 10 minutes and I haven’t changed. I spotted the baggage storage area and dashed to the place. I was holding the kit bag on one hand and another was taking off the layers, hopping and running and changing into my outfit at the same time. Thank God I had them on, so it was only a matter of taking the outer layers off. I felt like a Clark Kent transforming into Superman. I handed my bag to the volunteers and didn’t even think if I had left any essentials for the race.

Damn! It wasn’t a 12-minute walk in the end. It took 25! As soon as I reached the red start line, the starting shot was fired. Good timing. But I didn’t do warm ups, wet my lips, to the toilet or do whatever. I just started the marathon. The thing is I nearly missed the marathon! Just unbelievable!

The start line was a long one. It took 10 minutes to cross the line and activate the chip.
Despite all these anxieties, I did manage to strike a conversation with an American runner, Sarah, who was next to me at the start. She hailed from New Jersey and was also doing her first London Marathon.

She exclaimed, “Gosh I nearly missed the race. Terrible!”

I said, “Hey, me too!”

“Quite a hot day to run huh?”

“Yea, it’s unusually warm today. I guess coming from a tropical country helps to run in this condition.”

“It’s too hot for me. I hope I could make it back.”

“What time are you aiming for?”

“3:20 perhaps?”

“No way! You’re fast.”

“I’m trying to outdo my time in New York. I did better there and won a prize. But I decided to take it easy here. You know, there’s no way I could win here.”

And so I was talking to a professional runner. I was still wondering what her time was in New York since she has won a prize before.

As the race started, the anxiety disappeared. Perhaps I was too pre-occupied with the atmosphere that I have lost touch with the earlier sorry state of things. You would have been in the same position too if you had seen what I saw. The legion of supporters who packed the streets was the order of the day. People were cheering and supporting like nothing I had seen before.

Just when I was focusing on the people and the cheering, there was a “rhinoceros” in front. Not too far from Mr Rhino was Mr Scooby-Doo! Surprises came one after another; then it was Tinkerbelle, Borat, Viking, Darth Vader, a big Lucozade bottle etc running alongside! I just couldn’t help but cheered them along. So, I had from “Run Scooby run!” to “Run Borat run!”. Cheering helped the breathing I suppose. I noticed I had less breathing difficulties when I cheered. Try it next time. Just get a fancy dress category and you would have reasons to cheer. Or maybe politicians work the same too. Sorry, no malice intended. Anyhow fancy dress, marathon and tropical weather don’t seem to paint a rosy picture in my imagination.
I admire the spirit of those who ran in the fancy dress or mascot category. I admire their guts too. As a marathon runner, I am aware of the difficulties in completing a 42km run, what more dressing up as a mascot to run. It is no laughing matter. Laughter is one-way and it only comes from the crowd and supporters. It demands more than stamina and mental strength to put up with accelerated exhaustion, unnecessary pain and aches to the body and not forgetting this year’s unusual sweltering heat. If I had to choose for an exception, I would say Borat. He basically had the advantage over runners with his outfit.

What I would remember fondly of the event was spotting three priests in different locations cheering for runners outside their parishes. One priest even sprinkled holy water and blessed runners! Now, that was really unique. There were also street bands, performers and cheerleaders lined up along the route. Try thinking Elvis (the role that I played in the 2006 Pacesetters Annual Dinner), try thinking Nat King Cole, try thinking Nirvana impersonators who were lined up throughout the route. And then there were school brass brands to add to the variety.
I think the idea of giving opportunities for school talents to perform in the public, regardless of their skills was a fantastic idea. Whoever thought of that should be rewarded. It does not only create a win-win situation but also reforms the quality level of performers by instilling responsibilities of individuals to perform their best. It pushes pupils out of their shells and challenges them to take on these bold moves. Such public exposure would only strengthen their confidence and give them an opportunity to evaluate themselves from outside. Besides it enriches the whole marathon experience too!

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The London Marathon Part 1 of 3

I was having a conversation with a friend from Loughborough about the difference between the British and the Americans. The talk wasn't something controversial. Nothing about the accent, the lifestyle, politics or traditions as you may have thought. It was just the choice of words that they use most of the time.

She said, " You know, I am quite tired of the way British flatter themselves. All they do is call themselves Great, Great and Great. Great Britain, Great Ormond Street, Great Barford Bypass! And as if Great wasn't good enough, they even have Greater. Greater London, Greater Manchester, Greater Glasgow. "

I said, "Well, The Americans? Can you say that they are more subdued with their ego. They too like to be known as being on top of things so they settle for "New". New York, New Jersey, New Orleans, New Mexico, New Hampshire. They brand themselves as being the latest. It's still an obsession. Oh well, I suppose it's for motivation purposes. Like it or loathe it, these two countries made it as the super powers of the world. So, it doesn't matter whether they were Great or New! They are super and they are powerful!"

So, what's all these got to do with the London Marathon? Nothing I suppose. Just firing the first salvo about what I thought of the race. It was Great! It was New for me! I suppose there's something I could agree on this time; the Great London Marathon. O gosh, it's gonna be a long race report from here. I haven't even spoken anything about the race! But since I'm writing this in Scotland, I will continue parts 2 and 3 in Cambridge.

At the Excel London and entrance to registration

I left for London a day earlier to collect my running bib and to find out the location of the start line. Collection was at the Excel London and start line was at Greenwich Park. How significant! What better place to start the race than at the mother of all start lines; the Greenwich Meridian Line! What is that? If you've been traveling in different time zones, you'd be told of the time in your location in the GMT format. So it's like GMT+1, GMT+8 etc. Malaysia's time zone for example is GMT+8. GMT being the Greenwich Mean Time, Great Britain is at GMT. As the name suggests, the dividing line is located at Greenwich!

The mother of all times. What better way to start the marathon than at the Greenwich Meridian Line

The collection was housed in this big hall at the Excel London. It was a big exhibition centre like the PWTC or KLCC Exhibition Centre. Just huge. But it was necessary because the crowd was tremendous. When I reached Excel at 3pm, the energy surrounding the place was incredible. Buntings were hung to greet runners, there was a band rolling out tunes to pump up the motivation level of the people, people were walking out of the building with the race bags and the weather was great!

The organising in Excel was absolutely fantastic. You can tell that the organisers did not do this for the first time. The flow of registration was an impeccable arrangement; the point we collected our numbers to the point where we are officially registered for the race. Going to Excel was an experience of its own. I have been in the organiser's position before (Penchala Tunnel Run) and Excel certainly presented a learning experience as to how a sophisticated race like an international marathon should be organised. Little details like queuing by the range of numbers helped to avoid the jostling and pushing in the queue.

The range of running numbers. Wait, where's 51000-53,000???!!!

For a race like London, you can bet that there was certainly a massive range of numbers at the booths and they had many of them.

You can see that running is getting more and more sophisticated by the way registrations are done. Previously, you just go to the booth and have your names ticked on a piece of paper. Today, every runner is given an enveloped that contains their bib number, chip and stickers to be tagged on your bag. The envelope is bar-coded.

The registration flow- Get your running envelope which contains your bib number, chip and a bar-code; scan and you're registered!

So, you take the envelope and ChampionChip to be scanned together into the system and voila, you're registered! Then you move on to registering your email address so that you can be contacted as soon as the results and photos are out.

Email registration for the marathon photos.

When you run with the chip on race day, the split time is automatically keyed into the system. With such accuracy and efficiency, runners could basically know their running time as soon as they cross the finishing line! That's really fast! But since you've registered your email address earlier, they will send out the results to your email too. Now, that is what I call sophistication and London was just that.

There is something for everyone in Excel.
Excel had something for everybody in every nook and cranny of the venue. I did pay alot of attention to the GPS-based Garmin navigation system which is "God-sent" for runners. You can basically map out your running course and calculate the actual distance of the course after your regular training or race. Forget about arguing if you've done an actual 10km race or that half marathon in PJ was only 20.1 km, the Garmin will give you the answer. From marathon peripherals, liquid fuels, new running products to signing a huge autograph board, you wouldn't notice that you've while away a couple of hours until your feet starts to ache and you have a race tomorrow! When I attempted to stamp my mark on the autograph board, I could hardly squeeze in anything within those confined spaces that earlier runners have signed on. No space, just too tiny for anything.

Lucozade, one of the main sponsors of the race, provided a useful pacetracker wrist band to provide tracking assistance. I tried taking the 4.5 hour band but it was gone by the time I went to take one. Are they serious? So many people aiming for that? People can't be any worse than me, could they???
Pace tracker. The 4.5-hour wrist was gone! So were the 5 and 5.5! I settled for the 4hr 20min band instead.

What I found interesting in Excel was the number of European and British Marathons that had their individual booths represented on that day. Those marathons that would make us drool in Malaysia; Paris, Stockholm, Dublin, Venice and the Berlin Marathons.

Booths for upcoming marathons

There were also those that I felt like going e.g Vienna, Porto, Edinburgh, Blackpool, Turin, Lausanne and the Beirut Marathons. The venue was such a mecca for marathons. It was a buffet!

The red start line

The number of toilets available at one of the three start lines. Good clue about the sheer number of runners who'd be turning up for the race.

After collecting the race pack, I headed for the start line to get a feel of the travel time that would be required in the morning. I went to Greenwich Park. Damn, I was glad I did that because I had trouble finding the red start line and it would have been a mess if I tried doing that in the morning. Also, it proved to be extremely useful in the end as I nearly missed the race in the morning, and I really mean not running the marathon. Stay tuned for Part 2.....

The plastic bag that was given to put my belongings on race day. It's a huge bag. Backpack inserted to indicate the things that could fit into it.

All set for the race. Final checklist; chip: check!, red shoe lace: check! bib number: check!, Gel: check!, alarm set: check!, breakfast for tomorrow: check!