This area is exclusively for Team Starfish event fundraisers, raising money to help struggling families get a vital break.
As most of you are probably finding out, training for a marathon is a tough process. The truth is, once you’re out running, it’s quite lovely, but finding the time to fit these training runs in if you have a family/job/dog/Netflix Account (delete as applicable), is really not easy.
So why would someone make it even harder on themselves? It’s a question my girlfriend asked me many times as she has watched me train for the marathon in 2017. Because I planned to do it carrying a 100LB pack.
Now I should give a bit of background here. In 2015, my wonderful Mum had been admitted to a Hospice to receive palliative care for cancer. Since I had first started running marathons as a fresh faced 21 year old in 1997, she had been my biggest supporter, always following me around the London Marathon course each year armed with a Thermos, Jellybeans and a sandwich ‘in case you get hungry’. She was simply marvellous, and leading up to the 2015 race, I knew it might be the last marathon I would run with her around, so I wanted to make the race extra special. Long story short, I broke a World Record by carrying an 80LB Pack, dedicating the run to her.
Moving forward to 2017, and with the pain of the 2015 race a somewhat distant memory, a funny thing happened. I stumbled upon a blog by a chap called Chris, an ex-Royal Marine, who in 2016 had become the first man to ever achieve the marathon distance carrying a 100LB Pack. But here’s the thing. He name-checked me in his blog, as his inspiration to attempt the record, having read about me from the year before. So I found him on Twitter, sent him a message of congratulations and thanks, and to my surprise, he said the one thing I never expected: ‘Why don’t you try and beat me?’.
Chris had broken the 100LB Pack World Record in 7h and 46m. Quite impressive when you consider the weight is equivalent to two and a half water coolers, or one Kylie Minogue. Not being one to back down from a challenge, I didn’t hesitate. I said yes.
The FHA, who happened to be one of my sister’s favourite charities, granted me a place in London, and I set about getting myself ready for what seemed like a near impossible challenge.
The first thing I knew from my experience of 2015, is that training with the full weight too much is a really bad idea. It is just so damn heavy and the risk of injury is great. Instead, I did my normal running, combined with a lot of work in the weights room, concentrating on my back, legs and core. I absolutely hated it. I found it dull, repetitive, and had to keep reminding myself how important it was to put in the hard work. After 4 months of this, and with just two weeks remaining, it was time to fully test the pack by entering a Half Marathon. Living in Bucharest, the only option was an event in Cluj some 450KM north of the capital.
My girlfriend Marina and I travelled up the day before, and on the morning of the race, having applied copious amounts of strapping to the contact points the pack would hit on my body, we went to the start. Marina was going to do the 10KM event, and then come and support me on the course afterwards. After a few TV interviews, and filming evidence for Guinness (they require lots of it), I strapped myself into the pack, and got on the start line just in time for the beginning. The race starts and finishes in the impressive Cluj Arena, and as we got underway, I rounded the track and headed out of the stadium, I felt really, really good. This continued for about 2km, and then it all went wrong…
The pack started failing on me. The straps on the shoulders kept slipping, allowing all the weight to fall away from my back. My only option was to pull the straps tight, and keep hold of them for the whole race. But this caused its own problems. As the race went on, my arms began to cramp, the straps started to take the skin off my hands, and the pain in my neck and back, due to the unstable weight, was just excruciating.
It was a very lonely run for the first 10km, but with the full marathon being run over two laps of the same course, I started to get a few runners coming past and urging me on. This helped a little. But the real boost came when Marina popped up at 14km. She had finished her race and was now set on getting me to the finish. She walked every step with me, taking photos at each KM marker (for evidence) and pushing me on. Each kilometre just seemed to take forever, but after more than 3 hours, the Cluj Arena was in sight.
With bloodied hands, and a body ready to give in, I pushed on up a slight ramp that took me into the stadium. I could see the finish line on the other side of the track. With every last ounce of energy, I managed to break into a run for the last 200m, finally collapsing across the line in a time of 3 hours, 16 minutes, and 36 seconds. It was a new World Record for the Half Marathon distance, coming in under the target of 3:30 that Guinness had set.
But my initial elation soon became reality. I couldn’t have gone another metre on that course, I had absolutely nothing more to give.
Just how the hell was I going to complete the London Marathon in 2 weeks’ time?
After spending a lovely evening in the city of Cluj, Marina and I flew back to our home in Bucharest. The flight was short, and sadly so was the leg-room on the plane, so it wasn’t the most pleasant 45 minutes.
The next morning, Marina left for work, leaving me to hobble around the apartment feeling sorry for myself. The race in Cluj really had taken its toll on my body, and although I could feel that my legs would be ok, there was no doubt that my neck and back had taken a beating due to the 100LB pack not performing properly.
I did what I could with a foam roller and then sat at the desk in my home office, thinking about what I could do to make things ok for London. Then it hit me. I had the perfect person that could hook me up with a pack that was designed for extreme weight, my pal Alan. Alan had worked extensively in Afghanistan, and had a lot of military kit, including backpacks. We had a chat, he assured me he had just what I needed, and for the next week and a half I managed to relax, knowing the backpack issue was solved!
The following week, Alan met us off the plane at Gatwick Airport to hand over the pack. It was a thing of beauty! Plenty of removable pouches, good padding, tough and more importantly it looked extremely cool. In a coffee shop, Alan fitted the pack to me, making the necessary adjustments for a perfect fit, and as he did so, I was feeling full of confidence. From there, we met my Dad, went home, and the next day, Friday, we went into London for registration at the London Marathon Expo.
Now if you are running the VLM for the first time this year, you need to know that the Expo is absolutely brilliant. You have to go there to pick up your race kit of course, and there is so much to see and do, with entry free for everyone. Runners get a nice goody bag when they leave, and you get a chance to meet fellow runners, hear inspirational talks from professionals, and maybe pick up a bargain or two. But be warned, it is exhausting, so if you can go on Wednesday or Thursday, do so.
Saturday arrived and it was time to pack the pack to get it race ready and at the correct weight. The main part consisted of a 25KG bag of sand, covered in cling film in case of spillage, plus lots of weight plates, all packed in and around a sleeping bag, to ensure they remained in the right place and didn’t move. I spent a good hour filling the military pack, making sure that everything was just right. And then, when I was happy it was ready, I tried to pick it up to put it on, just to test it.
I made the mistake of trying to pick it up by the shoulder straps. As I began to ease it up off the ground, they literally ripped away from the backpack. I could have cried. It was 5pm, and I wanted to be eating and then sleeping by 10pm, but now I had a huge problem. Another backpack had failed me.
It was at this point that Marina took over. Seeing how upset I was, she ordered me to calm down, and demanded that my Dad find her some sewing equipment straight away. She had a plan!
Alan’s backpack was ruined, so Marina went back to the old one, which had failed me so badly in Cluj. She quickly checked its measurements on me, and then asked to be left alone. I was happy to leave her to it, as she had a serious look on her face. An hour later, she called me into the living room. Her idea was simple: to secure the shoulder straps so they wouldn’t move AT ALL, meaning once the pack was on, there was no room for adjustment during the race. Frankly it was stroke of genius. It wasn’t easy getting into the pack, but once I had, it just stuck to me like glue, with little movement whatsoever. But, would it survive the whole race the following day? We ate, went to bed, and I fell asleep knowing that although everything seemed to be against me, at least I’d be giving it a go.
The next day, after an early breakfast, we found ourselves in Greenwich heading to the start line. Being a Guinness World Record Attemptee (possibly a made-up word), I had been moved from the Red Start to the Green Start to be with the other Attemptees (definitely a word). It’s a funny place to be, because everyone around you is nervously dressed in something silly, undertaking media interviews or being checked by the adjudicators from Guinness. Inevitably, I found myself getting ready alongside Ben, who was going to try and break a world record carrying a tumble dryer, which was pretty impressive. Eyeing up my pack, he asked if he could try it on, just to see how bad it was. He ran a few yards up and down, took it off, and just smiled at me. ‘Nope’, he said, ‘no way I’d try and carry that’. This from a guy about to carry a tumble dryer for 26 miles! For comparison, my pack weighed almost double the weight of the tumble dryer, but to be fair to Ben, his weight was a lot more unstable.
A voice on the tannoy told us there were just a few minutes before the start. This was it, do or die time. It’s at this point in a marathon that something changes in me. Some might call it tunnel vision, or just being focused, but I really do seem to have a switch that goes on, telling my body that it’s time to do something special. The gun went off. The celeb runners at the front of the pack sprinted away far too fast (they were on camera after all), whilst the rest of us followed them. The Green Start only has around 1000 runners, so you are across the start line in no time. The London Marathon was underway.
Within just 500 yards, I had Marina, my siblings and a bunch of friends all waiting to cheer me as I got started. I wasn’t expecting it, and it was a wonderful surprise. With a few high fives and blown kisses I got into my rhythm. Running with the weight just wasn’t an option, because after all, gravity is a hard thing to beat. So I adopted a fast ‘shuffling’ march, something that I hoped I could keep up until at least half way. The world record stood at 7h 45m, and I had a simple game plan to try and get close to this. Chris, an ex-Royal marine that had set the record the previous year, had chosen to stop every hour to be treated with ice, receive massage etc. My plan was to stop just once, thus saving me valuable time.
After 3 miles, I felt ok, but then, I’d only gone 3 miles! Around this point, I was joined by an Irish guy who, although appearing to be super fit, was walking. Chatting to him, it turned out that he usually runs marathons in under 2:45, but he had suffered an injury a few weeks before. Not wishing to withdraw, he decided to walk the course instead, which would allow him to get a completely different perspective of the day. He was such a nice guy and stayed with me until we reached Cutty Sark just after 6 miles. From here, he wished me well and told me to push on because he felt he might slow me down. I shook his hand and headed off.
The next big milestone was Tower Bridge, and knowing that the half-way point was just past it, I kept an eye on my split times and kept up the same pace. Without a doubt, the miraculous work Marina had performed on my pack was paying off. Sure, the weight was still a huge burden, but it was solid on my back, causing a little less stress on my arms, neck and back. I passed through the wall of noise that is Tower Bridge, and turned right towards the Isle of Dogs. Just a couple more miles and I was hoping to see my support crew. I passed the half-way point, which is always a great moment, and glanced down at my watch. To my complete disbelief it was telling me that I had just gone through 13 miles in just over 3:10, 5 minutes quicker than my newly set Half Marathon World Record from 2 weeks before. This spurred me to push on to meet my crew, which couldn’t come soon enough, because my feet were really starting to suffer.
Around 20 minutes later, I spotted my mate Matt, jumping up and down in the crowd, making sure it was impossible not to see him. I stumbled past and he shouted that everyone was waiting for me about 50 yards ahead. Looking down the road, I could just see them, all ready, like a Formula One Pit Crew. I reached them, receiving a big cheer from the crowd, who had learnt from my pals what I was attempting to do. My team took over. Jon removed my pack, my two sisters each removed and replaced a shoe (I had planned to change shoes during the race to try and ease up pressure points on my feet), Marina massaged my shoulders. My brother fed me a sausage roll and a banana, whilst others stood by with drinks, gels and Vaseline, eager to try and help in any way they could. Anxious not to waste time, I made sure my running chip had been taken from my old shoes to the new ones, and Jon lifted the pack back on to my back. I deliberately went 5 or so metres backwards on the course (Guinness rules state you have to do this to ensure you do not travel any distance without the pack), and with another massive roar from the spectators, I was off again.
In hindsight, the idea of changing shoes was probably a bad one. For whatever reason, I could now really feel the blisters that were forming on my poor feet. With the amount of pressure going down into my feet, there was no way I was going to get away without blisters, but now, they really were starting to play up. Another mile past, and they really started to hurt, but I knew all I could do was grit it out and keep moving. 17 miles went down, then 18, and by 19, I was desperate for anything to take my mind off the absolute pain and agony I was feeling in my entire body. And that distraction came in an unlikely figure.
I hadn’t seen any ‘celebrities’ since the start area, but right in front of me, I became aware of a chap receiving a lot of screaming and hollering from the crowd. He was walking because it seemed his friend had hurt his ankle, and all I could hear from people was ‘Come on Ian’, and ‘You can do it Ian’. Who the hell is Ian I thought? All I could think of was Ian Botham, because I knew he liked to walk for charity, but this guy seemed a lot smaller. Anyway, I was moving faster and began to pass him. As I did so, he looked at me, read the sign on my backpack, and then shouted to the crowd; ‘Stop cheering for me, cheer for this guy!’. He then started chatting to me, and giving me encouragement. His name was Adam, and he played Ian on EastEnders. I hadn’t seen the show for years, but I vaguely recognised him, and for around two miles or so he urged me on, before telling me to go for it and get the record. Just 5 miles remained.
I kept moving at a decent pace and Ian and his friends fell back. No sooner had I said goodbye to them when another person latched on to me, having decided they too wanted to help me get to the finish. This time it was a lovely lady, looking splendid in a green tutu and matching wig and hat, who also happened to be Irish. She had been following me for a bit and could see I was struggling. She first offered me an energy gel, and then told me to just keep moving, that there was no need to waste energy talking if I didn’t want to, and that she would help get me to the finish. What a wonderful woman!
She was good to her word, veering off to grab me drinks or sweets, telling me stories about her kids, and how her friends never believed she could complete a marathon, and how this was one of the best days of her life. I was hurting so badly, but her cheery attitude really did help me. We were now by the river, with Big Ben way off in the distance, and I was at the point where I could hardly feel my legs. I had to use all my willpower to stay upright. 23 miles. 24 miles. I was getting closer. Approaching mile 25, I suddenly realised that my Irish friend had disappeared. I never got her name, but I really hope she finished her marathon.
Just 2kms remained, and it was at this point that I heard my pit crew again. There they were, going absolutely crazy in the crowd, and making so much noise and encouragement that I just suddenly had a surge of energy. Right next to them I saw the staff from the FHA, and they were going just as bananas as my friends. I had to keep moving. I could do this.
I reached Big Ben, took the sweeping right hand turn and ran towards Buckingham Palace. I was giving it everything now. The adrenaline was such that the pack suddenly felt light, my legs felt fresher, and before I knew it, I was running, not walking. I passed under the sign telling me there was just 385 yards to go. This was really happening. I was so close to 5 months of hard work being at an end. I turned on to the Mall, and there in front of me I could see it: The Finish Line. I became aware of the finish announcer talking about me, and could see myself on the big screen on my left. The people in the grandstands were on their feet cheering me and all the other finishers home. I admit, I was crying like a baby as I ran with my fists clenched, and across the finish line. It was over.
I was instantly grabbed by a couple of race marshals who helped keep me upright, and they moved into a special finish area for world record attempts. The Guinness staff were happy to see me, because I was the last attemptee (there’s that word again) to complete the course, meaning I was the last one to be checked. The pack was checked for tampering, and then weighed officially. Imagine if it was underweight! It took a couple of attempts, and then the official Guinness adjudicator looked at me and said ‘Congratulations, you are a new Guinness World Record Holder’. I’d done it.
Having set out aiming for 7h 45m, I had set a new record of 6h 47m 03s. I had smashed the 100LB Pack record by an hour, becoming just the second person to complete the feat, and the first to do it in under 7 hours.
After some press photos and media interviews, I walked through the long finish area in a daze. I still had the pack, but the sand had been taken out, making it much easier to carry. I picked up my kit bag, stopping for a selfie with the volunteer that handed it to me, and walked to the end of the secure area. Everyone was there waiting for me, and I embraced them all knowing I had achieved more than I could ever have hoped for; Two world record in two weeks.
I could finish by telling you about how my poor feet were treated by FIVE St John’s volunteers at the finish, or the joy of being taken straight to the pub for a Guinness (what else?) and a burger, but that’s not that interesting.
I’ll leave you with this instead. Running any Marathon is a wonderful experience. But running in the London Marathon is on a completely different level. It is one of the truly Great British days, and I am so proud to have run it as many times as I have. I’ll be on the start line on the 22nd, albeit with no pack this time, but running for the FHA and Team Starfish again. I know that up there somewhere, Mum is already packing her rucksack, Thermos and sandwiches to cheer me on.
Have a wonderful race day!
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