A Spectator’s Report
For the second time in two years I found myself in the supporting role at the Virgin London Marathon. As a rather long(!) point-to-point race with tens of thousands of runners and many more supporters crowding the streets of London, being a spectator at the right point at the right time to cheer on your runner is a sport in itself.
Last year, I deposited a rather nervous Alister at the Blue start, having escorted him to Blackheath station (on the south of the river Thames) via the very efficient Transport for London train/tube system and up onto the Common. I was then lucky enough to have a friend escort me around London to ensure I didn’t get lost. We legged it back to Blackheath station and made our way to Shadwell tube station. A short walk from here, you can watch the runners go past at 13 miles. It’s just past Tower Bridge for the runners (and they see you on their right), then, once you’ve spotted your targets, you can run/walk/push past the spectators to the underpass to get on the other side of the dual carriageway and wave, shout and cheer again at 20 miles (again on the runners’ right). I made my way to the Acorns’ charity cheering post last year and stayed with them so Alister could spot me (although the Striders hoody is great for that purpose), but I found myself waiting for well over two hours. I then had a mad rush to try to get to the finish. I chose Westminster tube station and found myself on the wrong side of the marathon route. This meant me and about 5000 other people were all trying to cross the race at a designated crossing point and it took AGES. I missed any chance I had of seeing Alister run along the finishing straight, managing to make my way to the well-marked meeting area along Horseguards Parade well after he’d finished to find him slumped on a kerb, grinning like a mad man and halfway down his first can of London Pride. Good lad!
This year, I decided to try and spot Alister four times along the course and to do it more effectively. I again deposited him at the start, the Red start this time, but we still arrived via Blackheath so Alister could enjoy the approach to the Common the same as last year. I hung about with him, meeting Barrie and watching for other purple hoodies, until he wanted to get sorted in his Red start area (which spectators can’t enter). I escorted him to the entrance and wished him luck. He was definitely more relaxed than last year. Lesson 1 from last year: TELL YOUR RUNNERS WHERE YOU’LL TRY TO SPOT THEM. There are so many people both running nd spectating it helps if you’re watching out for each other. I told him I’d try to be between 6 and 7 miles, just by the Cutty Sark.
Transition 1: Blackheath starting area to Greenwich (walking)
I headed off, clutching my Transport for London travelcard (well worth the money!) and walking as fast as I could, following a rather useless map provided in the marathon pack in the general direction of Greenwich and the Cutty Sark. It’s important to plan ahead and check out your next transition as you can get trapped in by the marathon route and struggle to make your next rendez-vous, and I knew I needed to be near the Cutty Sark DLR (Docklands Light Railway) station. After a few wrong turns and a few policemen who only seemed to be able to direct me to New Cross (“sorry, love, we’re normally motorway cops.” Thanks, fellas!), I spotted the cones and police cordons indicating the route ahead of me and stumbled upon Greenwich the long way round. I’d made it there before the first runners (always the Elite Women – they set off first) came past so had some time to get myself in position. I walked through a bit of Greenwich, avoided the Cutty Sark itself (apparently, it’s quite common to get trapped in the route there) and made my way to the correct DLR station. From there, I went the shortest way back to the route and positioned myself near the barrier at about 6.75 miles. No loitering in a pub or grabbing any breakfast for me – I learned last year that if you see a bit of barrier, grab it – it’s usually about 4 people deep by the time the runners come past and you’ll have no chance of spotting anyone. There was about 15 minutes to wait before the Elite Women came past so I updated Facebook for people following Alister and the other Striders at home, and let my mum and dad know where to watch out for me on the telly! My dad was also a dab hand with the live tracking of the runners, and he texted me when Alister passed key points throughout the race so I knew when to expect him at my viewing point. This was incredibly useful throughout the marathon as my phone internet signal was not great due to the huge number of people. Another advantage of going to Greenwich is that they have lots of ‘Spectator Marshals’ who give advice as to where to stand, and give out ‘Spectator Information’ booklets with tube maps and route maps and advice for spectators (such as what times to expect the runners through each mile marker) which was great. Lesson 2: GRAB A SPECTATOR INFORMATION BROCHURE QUICKLY – THEY SOON RUN OUT.
After cheering on the Elite Women (including the northeast’s Aly Dixon) and the wheelchair athletes it wasn’t long until I spotted Nell McAndrew (who gave me a wave to acknowledge my ‘Go on, Nell’ as she passed at some considerable speed!) and then Anna, Ian Spencer and Alister. Anna didn’t hear me shouting (Lesson 3: ALWAYS SHOUT FIRST NAME AND SURNAME OF YOUR RUNNER, OR THEY’LL ASSUME IT’S GENERAL SUPPORT OR SUPPORT FOR SOMEONE ELSE AND THEY WON’T TURN AROUND!) but I got a smile and a wave from Ian and Alister. Knowing my next transition needed to be quick, I ran off before I’d seen anyone else, updating Facebook as I went. Dad texted to confirm Alister had passed 10k (which I’d already established!) and updated me on his pace – spot on target! Good going, Mr Robson! I Facebooked an update as I ran.
Transition 2: Greenwich Cutty Sark DLR to Shadwell DLR
On running into the DLR station, it was HEAVING with people, but marshals were less-than-helpfully directing some unsuspecting travellers to other DLR stations. I joined the queue to get in and listened to the announcements. The sheer volume of people trying to make their way around the same route means that the most popular Tube stations get extremely busy and I listened carefully for news about Shadwell. Sure enough “Shadwell tube station is currently closed due to reaching maximum capacity. Expect delays”. Plan B it is, then!
Transition 2: Plan B: Greenwich Cutty Sark DLR to Limehouse DLR
I’d been put on to an alternative viewing point by someone before the run, and, checking in my invaluable spectator guide, I found that if I made my way to Docklands, I could watch the runners come past at just after 14 miles to begin the Docklands loop then, after seeing them, walk 100 yards down the road to see them again as they completed the loop at 20 miles. I made it onto a DLR train (see Alister’s photos for what fun the DLR trains can be if you’re a 10 year old wannabe train driver. Or if you’re Alister) and studied my Spectator Information. I needed to aim for ‘Narrow Street’ round the corner from Limehouse DLR station just after 14 miles of the route. It seemed this was a reasonably well kept secret as most of the train travellers continued on towards Shadwell (good luck with that!) and I got off with about 20 others at Limehouse. I asked a Spectator Marshal helpfully kitted out in HiViz and a friendly smile where I could find Narrow Street. “14 miles marker, love, down that road there” and pointed me towards a large board outside the DLR station saying ‘Narrow Street this way’. Very helpful! It was less than 2 minutes walk and I seemed to be one of the first ones there, straight onto a patch of barrier (claimed as my on very quickly with rucksack tied to the railing and hand spread widely onto the barrier – similar tactics can be employed to get to the front of a very busy bar!). I’d missed the Elite Women but spotted Nell McAndrew storming past. I struck up a conversation with friendly people on either side of me at the barrier – one couple watching for their son who was hoping to run a similar time to Alister, so I updated them on the pace and when their son would likely pass, and a gentleman to my right waiting for his daughter who was completing her first marathon to raise money for a cancer charity in memory of her late mum. Very emotional! I started enjoying myself, shouting for everyone who had a name on their vest. It wasn’t long before the gentleman enquired as to how I knew so many people – I explained that I only knew a few who had yet to go past but that I was just offering my general support to people who had probably put their names on their vests to get encouragement shouted to them. He liked this idea very much and he joined my shouting; we soon had the whole barrier shouting out the names of everyone passing us, trying to make sure everyone got a shout-out, with special joint shout-outs to those who looked like they were beginning to struggle. I went a bit bonkers when Anna went past, and even more when I saw Alister, who turned towards me as he spotted me in the crowd. I thought he was going to come towards me for a kiss, but instead he kindly threw me his very hot, wet and sweaty fluorescent yellow hat which, as I caught it, splattered me and those around me. Thanks, love! It’s a good job I’d made friends with my barrier-mates by then!! The son of the couple next to me went past just after Alister and I joined them in cheering him on. I also managed to spot Ian Spencer a bit further back but must have missed Jane Ives and Barrie. I did manage to spot Anthony Corbett from Quakers, a Durham parkrunner. I waited just long enough for Claire Readey to spot me – good job I had the hoody on or she’d have missed me and I didn’t spot her as she was at the other side of the road. She looked quite strong, chugging down a sports drink as she passed, and she sounded quite chipper as she shouted back to me. I jogged a little bit with her, then turned around to get to the 21 mile point before Al arrived.
Transition 3: 14 mile point to 21 mile point
An easy one, this – a 100 yard walk across Narrow Street and back towards the Limehouse DLR station. The only problem was that the crowds were now 4-5 deep at the barrier. I wandered along the route looking for a weak spot in the crowd and spotted my chance, edging in towards the barrier. I managed to claim a small section before any of our runners went past and, within minutes, spotted Anna Seeley. She acknowledged my cheers with a smile then an ominous raise of her eyebrows. The lady next to me commented on how fresh Anna appeared to be, but I know Ms Seeley well enough to know that those eyebrows meant ‘I’m not enjoying this very much’. Still, she was ahead of Alister and I wasn’t worried about her – but I knew she wouldn’t be happy with her time. Only a few minutes later Alister came jogging past (the gloves were spotted well in advance) and he veered across the crowds to come over and give me a sweaty kiss, nearly tripping over the kerb in his exuberance! He was still grinning so I was relieved! He was still running at PB pace. I waited a few minutes longer to try to catch some of the others, but when a mum with two kids came past, desperately trying to get to the barrier for the kids to shout for their Dad, I let them in to my spot and ran off towards the DLR to try to get to the finish to watch Alister come along Birdcage Walk.
Transition 4: Limehouse DLR to Westminster tube station
The DLR station was still reasonably quiet and well staffed with Spectator Marshals. Unfortunately, the second I made it to the platform, I heard that Westminster tube station was overcrowded and experiencing long delays, so I knew I’d need another change of plan to make it to the finish for Alister. Plan C!
Transition 4: Plan C: Limehouse DLR to Piccadilly tube station
I knew I could run to the finish from Piccadilly tube station, which was on the correct side of the run route for the finish and about a mile away, but the journey there involved a few stops and changes. I plotted what I thought would be a quick route there, but warnings of delays meant I changed my options a few times, finally making it to Piccadilly to find a hugely busy station. It took about 10 minutes to get out onto the street, but then I took off running towards the finish. Texts from my Dad, however, told me Al was past 25 miles and I knew I wouldn’t make it in time to see him finish, so I headed straight for the meeting area. This is a long, wide area along Horseguards Parade, round the corner from Admiralty Arch, and consists of an avenue of trees, each one labelled very clearly with a letter of the alphabet. Despite the crowds, it’s surprisingly easy to spot people you know, and I was pleased to see Ian, our host for the weekend, waiting there to congratulate Alister. He’d been tracking him live on the website, too, so knew he was doing well. Within minutes I had a text from my Dad to say that Alister had crossed the finish line in a new PB, knocking 9 minutes off his time from last year. I knew I’d be meeting a happy husband! It took Al a while to wind his way round to us from the finish area (although it’s incredibly well organised, with runners’ kit bags given directly to them within 50m of the finish line), and I soon saw him approaching us with can of London Pride in hand and big grin firmly plastered on his face. Anna wasn’t far behind, and we wandered through Admiralty Arch to Trafalgar Square and on to a pub for a few beers before making our way home.
So, in summary, the spectating is an adventure in itself and I really enjoyed it, despite being on my own. The atmosphere at London really is something else – the cheering, the camaradarie and the support extend to all the supporters and you leave feeling you’ve been a part of something really special. If you fancy trying the supporting role, my main advice would be to plan your route, buy a travelcard, and make friends along the way!!
Oh, and stay over on the Sunday night so you don’t have to fight your way back across London with a runner with sore legs and tube stations packed to capacity. And don’t use East Coast trains – two journeys to the VLM in two years, both with over 5 hours delays….