Race Report for London Marathon by Steve Doswell

Hey Jude, it’s the London Virtual Marathon

With a combined age of 235 years, a seasoned ‘fab four’ Bournville Harriers set out on Sunday 4th October to run the virtual London Marathon (Jude Glynn, Sara Hewison and Steve Doswell, aka me) and Edinburgh Marathon (Pete Hickman). All four of us had been thwarted over and over again this year in our separate ambitions to run a real, actual, full-fat 26.2 event, first in the spring, soon after lockdown began and then again in the autumn when the spring marathons, canned by Covid and rescheduled, got kicked down the road again, this time all the way into 2021.

  1. It’s an irony that in a year that’s given its name to perfect vision, none of us saw Covid coming. Not even going to a well-known high street opticians would have given us the foresight to know that marathons we’d signed up for in Manchester, London, Edinburgh, Lake Constance (Germany) and Ljubljana would be postponed, in some cases twice. Some of us had been training almost non-stop since last winter, keeping our late 1950s/1960s-vintage frames roadworthy and ready for the rigours of a 26.2 mile road race. And when even the late-entry ‘Covid-proof’ Boston (Lincs not Mass.) event was pulled just days before a convoy of assorted Bournville Harriers were due to head east to paint the town teal, it looked like the game was up for 42K aficionados this year. True, I’d run the distance as part of Xenophon’s 4x4x4 relay event, and we’d all run 20, 21, 22 and 23 miles together on our Long Sunday runs, but there’s nothing to beat being part of an official city marathon with all the noise, pzazz (and portaloos), crowd support and sense of occasion (unless you’re an ultra runner, but that’s a whole other level of crazy). But plan A went the way of all spring marathons, plan B ditto for the autumn events. Boston would have been plan C…

So when Jude, Sara, Pete and I headed out from Rowheath on soggy Sunday wearing our virtual London and Edinburgh running numbers, it was a decidedly low-key plan D option. Still, we’d earned the right to have a pop at the distance after racking up nearly a thousand training miles each and keeping a high base of fitness throughout the year. In our rule-of-six Sunday running bubble we’d enjoyed the company and support at various times of Stacey Marston, Clare Mullin, Rich Shearing, new member Mike Podmore, Guy Marston, training for his own epic 100-mile challenge, and not least, John Cheel. And John it was who joined us for the first few miles on this Marathon Sunday. Someone had called us the Fab Four, which on that morning made John the fifth Beatle (musical references in this report may be lost on some. If so, don’t worry, just let it be!).

We headed towards Harborne via the university and the QE in what mercifully proved to be the last of the weekend’s epic rainfall,. Despite our differences in pace (Sara has a sixth gear and turbo  booster, Pete and Jude can really pick up the pace, too, while I run more sedately) we stayed together, stopping occasionally to check that the official app was still tracking our runs. If it hadn’t been, we had Strava and Garmin as back-up – there are occasions for the pleasure of an untimed run but this wasn’t one of them!

John was still with us as we joined the Harborne Walkway and he stayed with us until we were half-way along it. Then, just as we may have begun to wonder if he had also secretly signed up for the whole marathon, he wished us luck for the rest of the run and turned off. We continued, into Summerfield Park and beyond, took a wrong detour past City Hospital, stopped for a Google map check to see how to get to our next destination – Edgbaston reservoir – and rerouted. Jude had remarked that people passing us were oblivious to the fact that we were running a marathon. It was true. Despite our running numbers, no heads were turned and our presence clearly left the locals of Dudley Road unmoved. That soon changed when we skirted the surprisingly low waters of Edgbaston Reservoir (Pete: ‘I think the tide’s out…’). Passing under a semi-covered section, we were startled – and lifted – by clapping and cheering as we passed from a young family – mum, dad and three children. Seconds later we heard ‘Come on, Jude! Come on, Bournville Harriers!’, turned and saw a group of figures we didn’t recognise a few yards away. We waved anyway. Just moments later again we stopped for a water break and a passing group of men in their 20s enthusiastically wished us good luck for the rest of the marathon. By this point we were really buoyed up by what seemed like a representative slice of Birmingham people wishing us well. It may not have been a traditional city marathon but we no longer felt invisible. Enjoying the sudden esteem, we decided to go round the reservoir again, hoping to milk it for a second time! Sure enough the family was still there and they greeted us with a similar warmth and noise.

By this time the weather had settled into a pattern that stayed with us for the rest of the run: a short shower, clouds, a hint of sunshine, clouds again, another shower, another glimpse of sunshine. We reached the canal and ran round the Soho Loop. A quick refuel, water break and photo opp (Pete had spotted some cormorants on a factory roof) and we made our way up the main Wolverhampton canal under Smethwick Galton Bridge (both the elegant grade 1 listed bridge itself and the station of the same name which straddles the canal) towards West Bromwich. The M5 loomed high above our heads on a viaduct over the canal. Beyond the steel and concrete, this stretch of the canal is a ribbon of nature, a narrow green strip of plantlife and waterfowl threading through the industrial heartland. As well as cormorants, we saw herons and moorhens (and a dead rat) amongst the rushes. Here also, a few passers-by spotted our numbers and wished us well. Likewise other virtual marathoners along this stretch, including Jude’s next door neighbour. We exchanged verbal high-fives with them all.

I’d identified 16.2 miles as a turnround point, estimating that the remaining 10 miles could then be completed entirely canal-side, back towards the city and then out to Bournville. If I’d calculated well, we’d finish within sight of Rowheath – or at least the aroma of Cadbury’s. We regrouped – more water, gels and jelly babies – took more pictures and then began the long return to Bournville.   After long months of constant training my own physical and mental stamina were high and I had no doubt that I would finish. But still… 18,19, 20 miles in a marathon are always tough, a lot of energy spent and a long way still to go. I began to drop back, before rejoining Sara, Pete and Jude at the next fuel and photo stop back at the Soho Loop. We then agreed to split up until the finish. I watched them head back towards Brindleyplace, took another minute and more fuel, and then began my own slower return towards town. By the time I reached the NIA  and then turned the corner towards Edgbaston, I was on home territory and could visualise each curve, each bridge, each station, all the way back to Bournville. After University station barely two miles separated me from the target. At Selly Oak came a rousing shout of ‘That’s it, mate! Lift those legs! Well done!’ from a canal boat. I counted down the remaining bridges. Finally, Cadbury’s came into view, then Bournville station. I spotted Pete, then Jude and Sara. By the time they’d finished they’d opened a 20-minute gap on me. I heard a fanfare from my phone – the marathon app telling me that I’d completed the full 26.2 miles in 4:49:54. It was time to stop running, enjoy the sheer relief and take a celebratory Fab Four runfie, which we did with help from our fifth Beatle, John Cheel, who’d magically reappeared to greet us at the end of our marathon mystery tour, as had our reps coach, Lorna Al-Ani. Together we trudged back towards Rowheath, picking up the pace for a final triumphal jog, to be greeted by clapping, cheering and cowbells from Bournville Harriers gathered at the pavilion – a welcome sight. We may not have seen the Cutty Sark or Edinburgh Castle, Lake Constance or Ljubljana, or even St Botolph’s, Boston’s landmark church. But it’s the 26.2 miles that matter. We’d run an official marathon in 2020. It may not have been how we’d planned it but we’d got by. Together. With a little help from our friends.