Mac the Hack

‘Go on ‘Shell, you can do it gal!’. I looked round behind me, and realised with horror she was slowly gaining on me. The woman looked terrible, face purple, hair soaked with sweat, feet splayed out to either side, but…..she was gaining on me. ‘She’ was Michelle from Eastenders, in real life the actress Susan Tully. I knew from my wife’s magazine she was running in it six months before the event – with a personal bloody trainer, of course.

I was coming up The Mall, about half a mile from the finish of the 1990 London Marathon. This was a real ‘one-off’ because in 1980 my company had been a  sponsor of the first-ever London Marathon and I had helped out. I became hooked and vowed that one day that I would run it: just once. And that day had arrived…

Unlike Michelle however, I only had three months to prepare for this monumental day. If you are a commoner like me, and not a member of any running club, it isn’t easy to be accepted for the Marathon: I had been applying for several years without success. In December 1989 I was away at our annual sales conference getting Brahms like you do, and on phoning home I was told there was a letter from the organisers of the marathon. It said that I was in – on April 21st 1990.

To say I was astounded, nervous or apprehensive hugely understated my position: I was in total shock. If you take heed of the advice of professional long distance athletics coaches they advise never, ever to undertake anything like running marathons without at least one year’s training.

But I was forced to start training in earnest immediately after Christmas, and that was a story in itself. The main point of marathon training is to keep pushing back the barriers of distance, always running further every session to prepare your body for the ridiculous ordeal you are going to eventually put it through.

One is also advised to run in shorter races at intervals leading up to the big event, gradually running longer distances to prepare one for the incredible shock to the system.

This one received a very rude awakening, getting worse by the day: I began to have aches and pains in places I didn’t know I had places. But I followed the crash training program advised and even somehow competed in a couple of shorter races.

On the great day with many doubts and trepidations I rose very early and drove myself into central London. I left my car in a multi-storey car park near Trafalgar Square and caught the train to Greenwich, the Great Park is the famous start of the London Marathon. The rain was drizzling softly in the misty park as we changed for the race.

In those early days the favoured apparel for such inclement conditions was to wear an inverted black plastic bin-liner, with holes cut for the neck and arms over your running kit, which can then be jettisoned easily when required – but gave the whole scene the element of farce. We looked like hundreds of extras of the suite of Spades in an Alice-in-Wonderland film.

My crash training program took me safely through the first half of the race, round the Cutty Sark with crowds two and three deep cheering, waving, shouting and offering us sweets. I felt euphoric as we approached Tower Bridge, the half-way point of the race. However, I had a long way to go – and a lot to learn.

Round the then-miserable Isle of Dogs negative thoughts began to creep in – was my right knee beginning to crack up again, as it had during training? Why were there suddenly more emergency tents? I grimly kept going and was at last rewarded, clearing that depressing area and rejoining civilisation, running slowly past Tower Bridge for the second time.

What should have then been a highlight, the Tower of London was agony as the cobbles were murder to run on, despite the covering red carpet to soften the journey. Previously I had fondly imagined the Thames to be a fairly straight run east to west. Is it hell, it twists round and back again and I began to think I would never see Big Ben, the actual finish of the race. At last I spotted it and was suddenly cheered by seeing all my family, bless ‘em, who by now had turned out on the Embankment to urge me on.

Surviving somehow through Admiralty Arch I made it to The Mall but with about half-way up I suddenly heard the cockney cheering of the hangers-on. The good-natured London crowd were urging Susan Tully on in East End parlance – and Michelle was slowly-but-surely catching me.

It was that fact alone which produced something in me, from where I have no idea. There was absolutely nothing left in the tank, I was running on a mixture of adrenaline and will-power alone. A British fighting spirit, a refusal to be beaten after coming so far welled up inside me. No way, I told myself, no way was ‘Shell’ going to beat me, with her personal bloody trainer, and her posse of groupies.

Somehow, micron by micron, I began to pull agonisingly slowly away from my innocent ‘enemy’. The woman will never know the effect she had on me that day. At long, long last I staggered past Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament and over Westminster Bridge to cross the finishing line.

It had taken me four and a half hours, and I had plundered the depths of my courage and reserve – but I had done it. In the official program I am officially listed three ahead of Ms Susan Tully, and I am truly grateful to her for putting a bit of spice into my finish to the race.

I received my medal, and I have photos, videos and treasured possessions of a wonderful day. My Dad had died of cancer two years before, and as a result I wore the shirt of a family charity called ‘BACUP’, raising over £2,000 on the day.

After the race I was re-united with my family and we all drove home to a great party to celebrate. Apart from the pain of all the training, I did enjoy the experience and vowed to keep up with my running after the Marathon. Did I? What do you think – of course I didn’t. I sank back into my armchair, drank a toast to Michelle and thanked God for my success – and successfully vowed never ever to do it again,

‘Cheers, ‘Shell, we did it, Gal!’