It was almost like a scene from a science fiction film, something like the Midwich Cuckoos; from all over London lycra-clad people were emerging from their homes and converging on Greenwich Park. Easily identified as part of a tribe by our red kit bags and bottles of Lucozade, we all responded to the mysterious pull of the mothership (well, hot air balloon) tethered over south-east London.
Another bottle of sports drink, queue for the Portaloo, and it was time to line up between a man carrying a washing machine and a War Horse puppet as the gun went to start the London Marathon. The first impression was of slight anti-climax. I’d been building towards this moment for the last nine weeks (I was a late and surprised substitute for an injured runner), and when the gun went off, nothing happened. Twenty-five minutes later I reached the start line and the crowd broke into a run. The first few miles had a religious flavour, a Catholic priest standing on the kerbside murmuring blessings and scattering droplets of holy water, a mile or so further on a more evangelical, louder group hurling ladlefuls of holy water across the runners, who at that point included a couple as Adam and Eve. Church bells were ringing, and at one point a steeple was pealing out a familiar tune, the Chariots of Fire theme. Music continued to be a big part of the day, I passed a marching band, trotting along in formation playing show tunes, several sound systems playing ‘Proud’, a drum group positioned under a flyover to wonderful effect, a karaoke stand belting out Neil Diamond and a pub near the Tower shaking the ground with Iron Maiden’s ‘Run to the Hills’.
Towards Greenwich the crowds got thicker, and from then onwards there wasn’t a clear patch of pavement on either side of the road. Everybody said ‘the crowd’ll get you round’, and I hadn’t really understood just what that meant, but they did. There was so much going on at the side of the road, small children demanding high fives or holding out jelly beans, bands, cheerleaders, a clog dancing display, fancy dress costumes and people just having fun, that I didn’t have time to think about the fact that I was running. I had also been told how important it was to put my name on my shirt, so I did. It meant that every couple of minutes somebody called out ‘Come on Alexandra’, and I had to look to see who it was and smile at them, so I ended up smiling most of the way round. I was also scanning the crowd so as not to miss the various people who had said they would be there to cheer me on, particularly my husband, who spent the day dashing around London in order to pop up at as many places as possible, giving me a great boost every time I spotted him.
As well as the spectators, the other runners provided a distraction from the actual business of running. There were the wonderful costumes, people who decided that 26.2 miles wasn’t enough of a challenge and had made it harder for themselves by wearing several stone of rhino, or being mauled by a life-size tiger. Is it just London? I can’t imagine there are many other countries where you would see two men dressed as a double-decker bus overtaking a girl dressed as a testicle. Many of the runners not in costume were wearing their stories on their shirts, pictures of friends and relatives that they had lost, or who were affected by injury or disease. These often brought a lump to the throat, and as I got more tired, and the emotion of the day built up, several of them had me close to tears (the Bliss slogan – ‘for babies born too soon, too small, too sick’ – got me every time). For a bit I felt slightly detached, I was running to raise money for the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, an organisation which does great work and for whom I’m very proud to work, but I don’t have any close personal connection with adoption. I was running because somebody else had had to drop out at the last minute, not because I had a story driving me on; there was no picture on my shirt, just the BAAF logo. Just before half-way I ran past the group of BAAF supporters, giving another boost to the spirits. It didn’t click until I was about a mile past them that the almost-teenager standing with her mother in that group was a child in whose case I’d been involved several years ago. There was a story standing there, two people whose lives are happier because of adoption, and there are hundreds of others out there who I don’t know and will never meet, but who have been touched, directly or indirectly, by the work BAAF does. That realisation had me welling up again (hold on, it’s a hot day, can’t afford to dehydrate!) and pushed me on into Docklands.
In the last few miles people started struggling, sitting by the side of the road patching up blisters, trying to stretch out cramped muscles, even being given oxygen by St John’s ambulance staff. The route went into a tunnel at Blackfriars, where spectators weren’t allowed, and the withdrawal of support, plus the uphill slope out of the tunnel, had an impact, but by that stage I realised that I was actually going to make it, I could crawl to the end if I had to. I slowed to a walk out of the tunnel, but then spotted my husband again, watching out for me on the Embankment. I didn’t want him to see me walking and persuaded my legs to start running again. Watching for him as he jogged along keeping level with me from behind the crowd got me as far as Westminster, and there was no way I wasn’t going to run that final stretch. There are markers to the end, 600 yards to go, 400 yards to go, but I swear they were placed a mile apart. Round the front of Buckingham Palace and I could see the finish line, I was actually going to have run a marathon. Never thought I would, didn’t think I could, but I did, I really did. I have an odd expression in the finisher’s photo, my face hasn’t made up its mind whether to laugh or burst into tears. It was a hugely emotional day, and despite what the photos might suggest, I loved every minute. I’ll be applying for another go next year as soon as the ballot opens.
The only negative note is that I haven’t met my fundraising target. It’s not too late to help me with that, my page at www.virginmoneygiving.com/AlexandraConroyHarris is still open. Please consider visiting it.