The London Marathon 2021

It's autumn 2021, and we're back to big-time racing after eighteen months of pandemic and (in my case) injury. What does Toppy think of the London Marathon? And how did it go? Read on ...

Race Review: How's the London Marathon?

For those of you with short attention spans, and don't want to bother with the whole thing:

If you only run one marathon, make it the London Marathon. If you only run one race, make it the London Marathon.

I ran in high school. I did cross country every year, and a couple of years of track. So I ran a number of races. I did the Terry Fox run once, so technically the London Marathon wasn't my first road race (nevermind my first race). But when I returned to running as a middle-aged adult, it was the first race I ran back in 2017.

At the time, I thought "this was great, but let's try not to run the same race twice". My logic was that it would be more fun to explore different courses, different cities. I like exploration, and I should do that with my racing.

I was right, of course: I love exploring, and want to run as many different races as I can.

But I was also wrong, because the London Marathon has a magic that I've not discovered anywhere else. If there's any race worthy of being run repeatedly, it's this one.

It has all the benefits and drawbacks of any massive event, which is to say: there are crowds.

Some of the drawbacks:

You will start behind thousands of other runners, and many of those will be slower than you are. You will start ahead of many thousands, many of whom will be faster than you. And it might take 20km of running or more before you're out of the annoyance of avoiding them.

The water stations will be busy. It will be impossible to go through them at speed, as other runners slow (occasionally to a walk) to grab their water. You need to navigate other runners who are also hydrating, and the many water bottles on the ground.

For these reasons, it's harder to get a PB in London than it is on a similar, but less busy, course elsewhere.

The benefits:

There's someone running your pace. Several someones. If you have a goal, you can find a group with a similar goal, go out together, and hold each other accountable.

But neither of these is what make London the best. What make it the best race in the world is the combination of the city and the crowds. I am convinced that there is no race crowd anywhere as loud or supportive as the London crowd.

London Marathon - Cutty Sark

And the course is designed - I'd like to think purposely - to have the runners turn a corner to suddenly find themselves at a landmark with a cheering crowd. The first time this happens, at the Cutty Sark in Greenwich, was the most amazing experience I've had as a runner (back in 2017 - I knew what to expect the second time around). You make a turn, and the boat is there, it's beautiful, and the crowd is the loudest thing you've ever experienced, and they're cheering YOU on.

It's amazing there. And at Tower Bridge. And as you approach Buckingham Palace.

And this is why it's a PB race. Marathons are hard, and motivation is an issue for anybody in those later painful miles.

Thousands of screaming fans? It can't be beat.

London Marathon - Tower Bridge

Race Report: 2021 Edition

So how did it go in 2021?

Well, let's start with the ...


Initial Goal: Finish the race. Set between breaking my ankle on January 15th and having it surgically repaired on January 17th

Bigger Goal: Set an official PB, and beat the 3:18:57 set at Berlin 2019. Set after I managed an official half marathon PB at Paddock Wood.

Stretch Goal: 3:10. This would be Good For Age and gain me automatic entry for 2022's London Marathon. It would also be ten minutes under my Boston Qualifying time, and pretty much guarantee an entry to 2022's Boston Marathon. Set because it would tick some lifetime goal boxes.


Preparation for the London Marathon was shockingly bad, and shockingly good.

The Shockingly Bad: I broke my ankle on January 15th, went into surgery on January 17th, and promptly did no weight bearing for 6 weeks.

On March 6th, I started to work towards putting weight on my foot again - walking with crutches, in a boot. Stationary cycling.

I tried to run for the first time on April 28th. I failed.

I tried to run for the second time on May 3rd. I failed.

I went for my first successful run - run 1 minute, walk 5 minutes, 5 times - on May 15th.

I went for my first run without walk breaks on June 14th.

This left me sixteen weeks to go from my first run to the marathon. NOT IDEAL.

The Shockingly Good: I had a broken ankle and had finished rehab 16 weeks before the marathon. I had no base mileage to work off of. That 16 week block must have been full of setbacks, right?


Runs that did not go to plan, June 14th to October 3rd:

  • August 26th. Felt something wrong in my ankle just over a mile into a 12 mile run. Stopped. Felt okay the next day.

And that's it. Sure, I wasn't always comfortable and I didn't always hit the paces I wanted (when I even knew what paces my body was capable of), but ... one run off plan over a 16-week block? I'll take that when I'm healthy.

I worked my way up to a peak 55 mile week, including intervals, tempos, long runs with marathon pace, and everything else you'd expect to see in a normal training plan. This was unbe-fucking-lievable.

The Race

My best guess coming into race day was that I was in good enough shape to run 3:15, if conditions were right. I would head out at that pace, and see if I was feeling good enough to let the crowd carry me to something faster.

But conditions were great, the early course is downhill, and I just went with it.

5k in 21:59. 10k in 44:22. Halfway in 1:34:31.

I was at that 3:10 pace. Which was wonderful, but also - probably - not sustainable. No matter, though. Once I saw I was (well) under 5k in, I was sold on it. Top goal. Sub-3:10.

Sadly, things began to hurt at that point by the time we reached mile 15 - it was not going to be held for the full 26.2 miles, and project "salvage a personal best" was on. I kept a reasonable pace for another five miles, but after mile 20 I was considerably slower.

The PB looked at risk after mile 25 - I'd slowed to an 8:30/mile pace, and I had to climb away from Embankment and through Westminster, facing both elevation and turns. But I managed to pull things back together and crossed the line in a new best time: 3:17:00.

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