Back in 2003 I was editing the Time Out guide to London and received an invitation to a cocktail party at Buckingham Palace. It was fun watching Liz get hammered on dirty martinis.
In truth, I barely saw any Royals as I accepted glass after glass from silver trays at the reception for members of the tourism industry, but I did appreciate their interest in folk like me, whose work was to sell London to Johnny Foreigner. And it’s a fine story to tell the grandchildren. Every year I am reminded of this city’s pulling power when I run, or support, the Virgin Money London Marathon.
This year, as I believe I have mentioned, I could not run the marathon owing to injury. I was, however, delighted to play the part of bossy old aunt (as well as Marathon Gran) to my nephew, Douglas, who was running this distance for the first time.
In fact, you could say, if you were as obsessive as me, that last Sunday was the first time the young man had run any distance. Training had been hard to fit in alongside work and two young children, he confessed. Then knee issues, coupled with shin splints (curses of the beginner runner, both) had scuppered his schedule. The the family had gone to visit his Brazilian wife’s family in Fortaleza and he hadn’t had a moment to himself to take a few long slow runs along the beach.
The upshot of all this was that his longest run had been 17 miles. My prediction, therefore, was that his first ever marathon would not be a comfortable experience, rather a test of mind over matter. I foresaw frequent walking breaks and a long, slow race.
I had downloaded his number, and that of my running buddy Sarah, who’d also had a truncated training schedule owing to illness, on to my VMLM app, and set off with white-faced, porridge-filled, Vaseline-nippled nephew to the red start in Greenwich Park. Once I’d seen him enter his pen, I jogged home to collect his wife and two children, aged four and one, to track his progress through the festive streets.
Dani, Douglas’s wife, is not a runner, or the most enthusiastic of walkers, but very proud of her husband’s ambition. She blanched when I answered her question about the length of a marathon, and practically fainted when I told her that public transport wouldn’t be an option when it came to following the route, because of the sheer weight of supporters. If I had told her before we started that we were going to follow the runners from Surrey Quays to St James’s Park, and that would be a four-mile route march, she may well have decided to watch her beloved’s progress on the app from the comfort of a coffee shop near the finish.
Most people don’t share my geeky obsession with London Marathon facts and figures, and Dani, like most people, wasn’t aware of the huge crowds the best marathon in the world (don’t let people tell you it’s New York) attracts, and that it’s nigh-on impossible to catch a glimpse of your favourite runner, let alone feed him a jelly baby, unless you set up camp at a very specific non-landmark and have some sort of a banner.
Dani loves sightseeing, though, and as I steered her through the cheering crowds to watch the 40,000-odd (some very odd) runners stream across Tower Bridge (we viewed this from More! London on the river), then distracted her with HMS Belfast, the Gherkin, Walkie Talkie building et al , Tate Modern, the Millennium Bridge, St Paul’s Embankment Gardens, Westminster, Whitehall and St James’s Park, I felt a huge surge of pride in this extraordinary city and its fabulously eccentric marathon route. It’s true there are some hideous longueurs around the Isle of Dogs, where some of the views are less than edifying, but Dani didn’t have to witness the grubby bits. She snapped the pretty views on her phone, and watched on my phone app as her husband made his torturous way round the Docklands loop. I stationed her at Mile 25 to await his triumphant, if painful, final mile, with instructions on how to get to the Finish, so that I could divert to the Chandos pub, where Kent AC marathon runners convene to discuss triumphs and disasters, and where I was due to buy a pint for Sarah, who, according to her little red dot avatar, would be gagging for ale having trotted seemingly effortlessly round the course in a pleasing three hours and 45 minutes.
Meanwhile, Dani and the children had to wait awhile before she could catch sight of her husband finishing the last mile, but she was having a spot of bother making the marathon app on her phone, not to mention keeping the children amused. Sensing her frustration, a woman offered to help: searching for his number on her phone and keeping Dani apprised of his impending approach. Thanks to this kindly stranger, Dani filmed Douglas jogging bravely past, waving and blowing kisses on his way to the finish.
Douglas ran the whole way, finishing in four hours and 44 minutes, and was re-united with his family in the park, wearing his medal with pride. The little family live in Dorset, but visit London pretty regularly to stay with me and show multitudes of Brazilian relatives the picture postcard sights. Whenever they visit I do my bit for the tourist industry and big up London enthusiastically. It took the London Marathon, however, to show this city at its biggest and best. With music, dancing and impromptu street parties at every mile, this was a London ebullient enough for the most Brazilian of tastes.