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This is what it’s like to run the London Marathon

Anyone who’s ever run a marathon will tell you that getting through those 26.2 miles isn’t only a physical test – it’s just as much about mental endurance. We’re here to help with that.

Fear of the unknown can play a big part in pre-race nerves, and that fear is only heightened when you’re taking part in one of the major global marathons.

That’s why we asked Catherine Smith, who ran the London Marathon last year, for her step-by-step guide to this iconic event. From how to secure your place to what it really feels like when you’re halfway through, read on for everything you need to know about running the London Marathon.

The application process

For first-time runners, the most common ways to enter the London Marathon are via the ballot or a charity place.

Ballot places

Ballot places are randomly allocated to people who entered the ballot. If you’re successful, you will receive an email with the details on how to pay your entrance fee and secure your place.

However, when entering the ballot, you have the option to donate your entrance fee to the London Marathon Charitable Trust. If you choose this option and are successful in the ballot, you will have already paid your entrance fee and have secured your place. Unsuccessful? You’ll automatically get entered into the lucky draw for a second chance to win one of 2,000 extra places. You will receive a training top even if you don’t get a spot.

If you choose not to donate your entrance fee in the ballot and are unsuccessful, or neither chance works out when donating the entrance fee, there are still plenty of charities accepting runners!

Charity places

There are around 750 charities holding 15,000 places in the London Marathon. The application process differs between charities but usually involves answering a few questions and agreeing to fundraise a certain amount. Once your place is confirmed, you’ll often receive fundraising support and of course a charity t-shirt before the big day. Larger charities tend to hold more spaces and even have supporter stations along the route.

I ran the London Marathon (my first-ever marathon!) with a charity place from National Maternity Support Foundation.

Pre-marathon admin

The Running Show

Your race number is available to collect at ExCel London over the 4 days leading up to the event. As well as collecting your marathon essentials, the running show is an experience in itself, with displays and information about the marathon. There are talks by professional athletes offering advice, official London marathon merchandise and other popular brands selling marathon goodies. You will also find charity stalls ready to meet their runners! Although you can assign someone else to collect your race pack, I highly recommend experiencing it in person if you can, as it helps you prepare for the big day.

The important things you receive at the running show are a clear bag and running number with its chip (this is what tracks your running time).

Before the London Marathon

Ahead of the marathon, you will be assigned a ‘wave’, made up of people with similar predicted finish times. Each wave will have an assigned start time, colour, and lorry number. When you arrive at your coloured start area, this is where you will find your lorry number. You put your clear bag in the lorry, along with anything you want at the end of the race. I would suggest a change of shoes (flip flops!), food, drink and extra layers. Once you’ve dropped this off there can still be a bit of time to wait before your wave can begin. That’s why it’s important to have another extra layer that can be kept on for now and then taken off as you reach the start line, where there will be charities collecting this clothing.

And finally, before you begin the race, make sure to decide where you will meet your supporters at the end, just in case you can’t get in contact.

And you’re off! Running the London Marathon

During the race

A runner’s-eye view from the London Marathon. Photo: Catherine Smith

Once you’ve crossed the start line, the adventure begins.

The opening metres of the course are lined with VIP seating and celebrities.

After the first three miles (5k), all three start lines merge and the first water stop is available. From this point on, water is available every mile. This is given out by the incredible volunteers, in small bottles that can be carried along the route. There are also recycling points to dispose of the bottles.

Although there are quieter spots that are harder for spectators to access, you will be blown away by the incredible atmosphere throughout the whole course. The first key landmark that attracts thousands of spectators is Cutty Sark. The 152-foot-tall ship confirms you have checked off the first 10km of the 42km course.

The generosity and spirit of the spectators remain strong throughout, with spectators giving out fruit, sweets and words of encouragement.

After another 5km, once you’ve passed Surrey Quays, at the 15km mark you’ll find the first Lucozade stop, where you can take on essential glucose.

After completing the next 5k, you will reach Tower Bridge, again a very popular spectator spot. But once you’re over it, you’ve made it to the ‘highway’ – the halfway point! When I ran the London Marathon, the highway was transformed into a party area with music, dancers, and encouragement.

It is important to stay focused on yourself here as you begin to see runners (who have completed 22 miles) running the other way. But don’t worry, the routes are separated by barriers, so you won’t get lost.

This middle section can feel like a long task, but you do get to take in the sights of Canary Wharf.

Once you’ve ticked off 21 miles, you have reached Rainbow Row, another area full of dancers, music and celebrations. It is important to enjoy these parts and take in the experience. People wait years to experience the atmosphere and it may be the only time you get to do it!

After another 2 miles, you will reach the highway again, where you passed the runners before. You are onto the final few miles here.

You may feel like you’re struggling here, but just think about the finish line, you can do this!

The final miles have lots of key landmarks to enjoy. These include the Shard, St Paul’s Cathedral and the London Eye.

Once you’ve seen the London Eye, you have just over a mile to go. But this mile can feel like forever…

The London Eye: a mile to go

It’s a long straight road, so it can be challenging mentally and physically, but the spectator support is still strong.

The final part of the race is down the Mall at Buckingham Palace. Once you’ve reached the Palace there are only 200 yards to go! Can you get a sprint finish?

Don’t forget to smile as you cross the finish line for the official photographers!

After the race

Once you’ve crossed the finish line, you’ll be given your medal and can collect your goodie bag, which has your t-shirt in it. You can then start to walk down to the lorries to collect your bag – this walk can feel like forever!

Once out of the athlete-only area, there are signs A-Z which are meet and greet areas to go and celebrate your achievement with your supporters. In this area, you can also find areas for charities with lots of runners.

My top advice for running the London Marathon

Catherine Smith, having completed the London Marathon

You can finish it!

Even if you need to walk the entire route, it is possible! No one will force you to stop the race, you will be able to finish it, even if it is in the dark. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other. As long as you’re moving forward, you’re getting closer to the end.

Enjoy it

Don’t wear your headphones the whole route. Soak up the atmosphere and chat with other runners. The spectators also play a massive part in your London Marathon experience, so make sure you can listen to their support.

Don’t stop

Seriously, don’t stop unless you have to. Stopping during the course can make your muscles seize up and make it harder to get going again. If you need to rest, have a light walk, and picture that medal.

Take advantage of the fuelling stations

Even if you don’t finish the whole bottle or cup, take the water and Lucozade. Little and often is better than downing full bottles when you’re desperate. The same goes for the energy gels, even if you take them and carry them in your pocket for when you need them.

Focus on yourself

As it is such a big occasion, it’s easy to get swept up in what everybody else is doing. There will always be people running past you, there will be people that look like they’re taking a walk in the park, and it’s easy to compare yourself. Just remember, you are competing in your own race. Everyone has different techniques and you are likely to only see them for 30 seconds, you have no idea what the rest of their race has looked like!

Words by Catherine Smith

Feeling inspired? Discover how to go from running a 10k to a marathon.

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