April 24, 2012

The London Incident: Virgin London Marathon 2012 Race Report

Date Event Goal Time Chip Time Gun Time
2012/04/22 Virgin London Marathon >4:34:44 6:15:52

This is a story of hope, fear, foolishness, failure, massive willpower, even more foolishness and consolation. Here’s how six months of training went down the toilet, literally.

In spring 2011, when I entered the lottery to run the Virgin London Marathon, I hadn’t run my first marathon yet. A lousy time at my second marathon in October 2011 made me consider quitting marathons. My spirits were buoyed when I surprisingly won an entry to run the London Marathon, one of the World Marathon Majors!

London was on my mind for the next six months of training.

My original plan to run a full in less than four hours didn’t seem reasonable. I felt strong, and my predictor runs were good, but not quite fast enough for 4:30 or better. I was able to avoid injury despite some ridiculous mileage. Just some soreness in my right calf in my last race, but I had a whole week to recover. All in all, I thought I was in good condition to beat my old personal best.

Pre-Race Travel and Misadventure

I traveled to England with my mom who is my biggest supporter and something of a personal doctor.

Flying to the race was rough. It was a six hour overnight flight plus a five hour time-change. Massive jetlag. The plane had individual screens, so I watched a little documentary called “The Spirit Of The Marathon” which followed several runners of various levels as they prepared for the Chicago Marathon. Good motivation, I thought.

Arriving four days before the race, we went straight to Manchester first to visit some family. I quickly realized that sleeping in hotels was lousy. Eating in a strange place on a budget is worse! A lot of the family meals were really good, especially the home-cooked ones! If only the family lived in London….

We took a train to London. That was quite a lovely experience. It was smooth, quiet, restful and scenic. The 1.5 hour subway ride from the train station to our hotel was very unpleasant. The worst part was having to drag our pair of 50 pound suitcases up and down hundreds of stairs. By the time we got to the hotel I was sore, tired and worn-out. I knew I was in trouble when later that night I had a fever and my heart rate wouldn’t drop.

Something bad happened the day before the race. Maybe it was the lousy breakfast at the hotel. Or maybe it was the questionable place we had lunch. My weakened state from the travel, fatigue, poor food and luggage hauling exertion probably didn’t help. Whatever it was, it put me down with the worst case of food poisoning I had experienced in years. Any nutrients I had were washed away the night before the race and I couldn’t get any back in! I couldn’t even sleep until I stopped trying to eat.

Here’s a big act of foolishness: Knowing full-well what my condition meant, I still wanted to do the race the next morning. In the final race instructions, they specifically instruct runners not to race if they have severe diarrhea. But I was so close… Foolishness


My race gear prior to the race (left) and a Canada/Running Room temporary tatoo I wore on my leg (right)

For breakfast on race day, I ate only two slices dry bread and hot water. I got to the start of the race okay

Mass Start

Before the Virgin London Marathon

The experience of being at a “World Major” marathon was overwhelming compared to some small fry races like Mississauga and Scotia. It’s not just the number of runners. It’s the MASSIVE amount of spectators. In some places it was 6 people deep! But through the whole course there were people everywhere!

I felt rather foolish with my choice of shirt. I picked one that said “Canada” across my chest. Little did I know that the common practice in England is to write your name there so people can cheer you on! Some people might have thought my name was Canada. Foolish

The first 10k were great! I kept right on my pace and felt right on. We passed through part of the Olympic park which was pretty neat. I had a good laugh when one bar we passed was blasting “Chariots of Fire” from its outdoor soundsystem. Perhaps the only bad part was that it was so crowded I couldn’t stop for 10-and-1 walk breaks. With so many spectators I didn’t want to stop either. Oh well, I felt like I was running in an aerobic zone and was quite comfortable. I really thought I could finish under 4:30. Foolishness.

Bonk Before London Bridge

Around 12km it happened. I bonked! Running on empty, I was pretty sure it was going to happen. All the tell-tale signs: dizziness, weakness, thirst, seeing funny colours. It’s happened to me in training before, and since I carry plenty of fat, I imagined I could still finish, albeit slowly, on fat metabolism. Of course, I would need water and electrolytes to finish the course. That was about to become a problem…

I was able to run comfortably at about 7:30 min/km in my semi-delirious state. People were passing me left and right. It hurt when the 4:48 pace group passed me. A lot of people in costumes were passing me too. I was pretty embarrassed by my slow pace so I tried to stay away from whatever side of the road had spectators, or in the middle when spectators were on both sides. Running over London Tower bridge was amazing, but I was struggling badly.

In a desperate bid to keep running I was eating as many gels I could fit in my face. The food poisoning in my stomach did not approve. I had terrible cramps in my stomach. I was practically doubling over in pain. When I stopped at a “porta-loo” station, I knew it was over. I lost A LOT of fluids and electrolytes. And a lot of time. Fortunately, most around me when I got out of the loo were slower runners too. I started drinking the provided Lucozade to try to keep my electrolytes stable. But the pain and cramps didn’t stop. I started walking a lot after a second bathroom break.

Despite my collapsing pace, I actually made it to the half-way point in a time of 2:33. Not bad all things considered. But things got much worse from there. When I finished a second bathroom break, I had been left behind by the pack and was surrounded by nothing by walkers doing the long death march to the finish.

Longest 8 Miles of My Life

Not a happy runner at mile 18 of the London Marathon

I met my mom on the course around mile 18. I was over 1 hour behind my expected arrival. I was so dehydrated I couldn’t even eat some crackers she offered me.

I could have quit right there. 8 miles of painful walking was ahead of me. I should be going to a hospital! But I wasn’t coming all the way to London to leave empty-handed. Even if it took 3 more hours, I swore I’d finish.

I wanted very badly to run, but the pain in my stomach was urging me to stop. It was for the best because I realized that it would be very easy for me to pass out because of lack of sugar, hyponatremia or a number of other exercise induced ailments.

I noticed that I was getting passed while walking. One couple ahead of me was trying to power-walk the course, so I tried my best to follow them. They were walking at about 9:00 min/km! That was actually really tiring, and my legs weren’t able to take that for too long.

The course itself would have been perfect if I was in good health. The weather was cool and not too windy. The water stations every mile were amazing, and they served it in bottled water so I could carry it with me between stations. There were Lucozade stations every 5 miles which were nice to look forward to. And for me, toilets every 2 miles were very handy! In other conditions I would have had the best time of my life.

Posing during the final miles of the London Marathon

And of course, it started raining with about 2 miles left. I would have been easily done and on the subway back to my hotel if I wasn’t sick. But instead, I get to run in the rain.


Home stretch

Somehow I found some strength in the last 3 miles. I was able to start running 1 and 1’s (1 minute run, 1 minute walk). Seeing the race photographers was very motivating to push through the pain and post for good shots.

The home stretch of the course was truly beautiful. The course goes along the Thames river, turns right at Big Ben, runs in front of Buckingham Palace and then the finish. I had never been so happy to finish a race.

Nearly killed me to earn this medal

Rough Recovery

I took the subway back to my hotel. My mom had gotten some sandwiches, but nothing stayed in.  Considering the pain I was in, my exhaustion and starvation, I decided I needed to go to a hospital.

My London Marathon medal and finisher shirt. Hard earned.

We took a cab from our hotel to the Royal London Hospital. It’s probably the most beautiful emergency room I have ever seen! At first, they told me I would have to wait over an hour, but apparently they have a special line for people who attempted the marathon. I was the first person to go there who had actually finished the race.

The nurse practitioner who saw me was awesome. She was from America and was very no nonsense. At first she said I must be fine because I finished the marathon. After she examined me a bit she gave me a battery of pills and injections and such. I wish had a picture of myself in the ER bed wearing my race medal.

I was given a bunch of pills and told to eat only some very specific things. However, being away from home made it difficult to eat so particularly. The next few days in London were rough. I was actually afraid of eating for a few days because of how much it hurt to eat.

The morning after the race at breakfast was very difficult. Right after the race I was only worried about staying alive. At breakfast I saw lots of other runners proudly wearing their shirts. At that point, I felt very bad for myself for failing so badly.

There’s nothing I can do now but learn from this for a next race.

Comments closed


  1. Hong says:

    There’s nothing to be ashamed of Paul. Now this is called digging deep my friend. Be proud of your accomplishment! who cares about time, you finished! It takes strength and courage not to call it quits! Well done my friend. Rest up and till the next race!

  2. Lisa says:

    As Hong said, it’s definitely not a failure. I don’t think I would’ve run the full length if I had the same issues as you! Don’t let one marathon ruin your running career, it’s always a learning experience! I’m still sure you had memorable moments while running it that next time you’ll for sure do great!

  3. macnic says:

    I can’t believe you finished. Simply AMAZING! I am in AWE and would have dropped out, I think. Don’t let it discourage you about the next marathon. This was just bad luck coupled with the worst luck ever in terms of sickness and food! You’ve already travelled for a run (Disney), so you know its not all that bad.

    I say, well done! Amazing to keep going after all of that.

  4. Lyndsey says:

    You did not fail, you overcame and you are an inspiration! I don’t even have the guts to do a marathon, you did it despite all you were up against. Like Hong said, that’s called digging deep. This was a test not of your running abilities, but of your determination and will, and you won!

  5. dilip says:

    Paul,I can only think of the mantra you told me during our Scotia Marathon’let the pain come-welcome the pain” what you have achieved is incredible.Yes, I must say that it was scary for me even to read what you were going through.I take my hats off to you for your ability to dig deeper in to consciousness.
    Experience such as this only toughens you up and helps you to appreciate the simple pleasures of being deep in the moment.

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