Birdcage Walk runs along the south side of St James’s Park in the heart of central London, linking Buckingham Palace with Parliament Square. I’ve run along it twice, and both of those occasions have proven incredibly memorable.
The first was during the 2016 London Marathon – and it was not a pleasant experience. I arrived at Birdcage Walk roughly 25-and-a-half miles into my first marathon, utterly exhausted, emotionally drained and with my legs pleading with me to stop. Back in Greenwich, in the early stages of the race, I’d been averaging 7m 20s per mile or so. By the time I reached Birdcage Walk, I was trudging round in 9m 49s. I wasn’t enjoying myself. I just wanted it to be over.
It wasn’t the experience I’d expected. I’d always thought that Birdcage Walk would be a hugely enjoyable part of the marathon. After miles of meandering through south London suburbs and the cold skyscrapers of the Docklands, that was the stretch of the marathon course that really started ticking off the London landmarks. The Houses of Parliament. Parliament Square. Buckingham Palace. It was heavy landmark hit after heavy landmark hit.
Turns out sightseeing isn’t fun when you’ve pushed yourself far beyond the point of exhaustion.
The second time I ran down Birdcage Walk was a few weeks ago. And, once again, it was part of a big city race that in part wound its way through central London: the Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon.
The difference when I reached Birdcage Walk is that I was just 1.5 miles into a 13.1-mile run, rather than 25.5 miles into a 26.2-mile race. Basically, I was fresh, and able to truly take in – and enjoy – my surroundings. And, on an early October Sunday with unseasonably bright weather, I could truly appreciate the majesty of London’s landmarks, and I could truly appreciate how lucky I was to get the chance to run through the streets of one of the world’s great cities.
And Birdcage Walk wasn’t the only scenic part of the Royal Parks Half course – the route was designed to offer a really effective trip round London’s sights. After starting on the edge of Hyde Park, the course passed through Wellington Arch, down Constitution Avenue, and past Buckingham Palace onto Birdcage Walk. It then skirts the edge of Parliament Square before turning up past Horseguards Parade, turning onto The Mall before passing through Admiralty Arch, turning right at Trafalgar Square before a quick loop down past Downing Street and the Cenotaph, then going back up through Trafalgar Square before winding down The Strand past Charing Cross, Somerset House and Fleet Street. After that, it returns to Trafalgar Square, with another quick detour before it goes back through Admiralty Arch, down the length of The Mall, past Buckingham Palace again and back up Constitution Avenue before turning into Hyde Park.
It’s an incredible assortment of London sights – they just keep on coming. It’s a major contrast to the London Marathon, which only reaches central London late in the race, and where one of my abiding memories was how much of the course I didn’t know. So, when it comes to London landmarks, there is no doubt: the Royal Parks Half is better than the London Marathon. There. I said it.
Oh, and here’s the thing about the Royal Parks Half: all those landmarks come in the first six miles.
Which is both a good and bad thing. It’s good, because it means the first half is an ultra-enjoyable jaunt through London’s streets. But it’s bad, because it means the second half of the race simply can’t compete.
That’s because the entire second half of the event takes place within the vast confines of Hyde Park. And while it’s an incredibly pleasant place to run, it simply can’t match the first half for interest, especially since the course is made up of lots of long straights punctuated by tight turns. It’s not helped by the fact Hyde Park is surprisingly hilly – nothing steep, obviously, but a series of long, gentle climbs does sap your power a bit late on.
Those long straights certainly hit me a bit, especially as temperatures rose and I paid the price for messing up my pacing early on – ironically, because my Garmin’s pacing seemed to get a bit messed up all the historic central London buildings I was admiring. And that probably cost me a change to set a new my half-marathon PB – I fell around three seconds short. Which was… annoying.
But still, the Royal Parks Half proved a great event. With 16,000 runners – many of them taking part for charity – and a great location, it had a proper big event feel. Plus, there were plenty of nice touches, such as the novel wooden medal (for environmental reasons – pictured below during inevitable post-race Wahaca meal), a vivid yellow event T-shirt, and a fine assortment of post-race treats.
In fact, I’d say this: if you want to do a big-city race in central London, for the sake of doing a big-city race in central London, the Royal Parks Half should be your first choice. It hits more of London’s central landmarks than the marathon and, by doing them earlier in the route, you can actually take them in. Plus, because it’s ‘only’ a half-marathon, chances are you’ll be able to enjoy an afternoon in London afterwards, rather than simply being in pain.
So, from that perspective, the Royal Parks Half is better than the London Marathon.
Except it’s not. Of course it’s not.
Because the London Marathon is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a marathon, for one thing, and inherently the challenge of doing a full 26.2 miles makes it harder and more memorable than a half. And it’s the London Marathon, for another. It’s one of the world’s most famous races. Even if other races pass more landmarks, the London Marathon is just plain special.
Of course, it’s not really fair to compare the two events. They’re both runs, and they’re both based in the same city. But there’s room for both. If you want to a massive challenge, do the London Marathon (if you can succeed in the massive challenge that is getting a place). But if you want a really fun, big event to do that runs past the Queen’s house twice, I’d thoroughly recommend the Royal Parks Half.
So you’re running the London Marathon. Good for you.
You’re about to do something incredible. Incredible, and painful. But mostly incredible. Although don’t forget painful.
Anyway, forget the pain for a moment. Really, forget the pain. Because you’re in for an utterly unforgettable experience. And I’m a little jealous. Okay, I’m a lot jealous.
I ran the London Marathon last year, raising money for the South West Children’s Heart Circle (a very worthy cause, which, if so minded, you could support by donating here). It was intense, exhilarating, exhausting, incredible, overwhelming, exciting, incomprehensible, enjoyable, unenjoyable, and a whole lot of other adjectives. But, above all else, it was brilliant.
And also painful. Let’s not forget the pain. I’m sorry to confirm this to you but, yes, running a marathon is going to hurt.
But let’s not dwell on the bad stuff. That whole thing about pain being temporary, and all that? It’s true. Honest. In the closing stages of last year’s London Marathon I was in pain. Serious pain. So much pain. I ached so much I swore I’d never run a marathon again. And I meant it.
I meant it when I crossed the finish line, more mentally and physically exhausted than I’d ever been. I meant it that evening, when my legs barely walked. I meant it in the following days, when I couldn’t walk in a straight line, or without feeling the dull ache in my legs. I was never, I told myself repeatedly, running a marathon again.
I lied to myself. Less than two weeks later, I’d entered the ballot to run this year’s London Marathon.
I didn’t get in. And while I’ve since run the Houston Marathon, I’m still gutted that I won’t be out on the streets of London on April 23. Which is why I’m jealous of you. Not in a bad way, you understand. I’m genuinely happy for you. I’d just love to be there with you. Because, genuinely, running the London Marathon is everything that you dream and hope it will be.
Here’s the thing: I could offer you some sage advice and marathon tips right now. But I’m not going to. If you’re like me, you’ll be sick of hearing advice about pacing, timing, running technique, hydration strategies and all that sort of stuff. And, if you’re not, you can easily find advice from plenty of people far more qualified than me to offer it.
So I want to say a few things to reassure you. Because, if you’re anything like me, right now you’re probably thinking of little else other than the London Marathon. It will be consuming your every thought, at the back of your mind no matter what you’re doing. You’ll be nervous. You’ll be excited. You’ll probably be a little bit scared.
That’s all okay. Keep this in mind: you got this.
Seriously, you’ve got this. You. Have. Got. This. Really, you have. Just keep those conflicting emotions in balance and you’ll be fine. Be excited, but don’t get carried away. And be nervous, but don’t let it scare you.
Plus, it might not seem like it with the race yet to be run, but you’ve already done the hard bit.
All those months of training? All those long, long runs on freezing cold mornings, with nothing but your own thoughts and a clutch of energy gels for company? That’s the hard stuff. You’ve done that now. You’ve only got 26.2 miles left to run. And it’s the fun 26.2 miles. Enjoy it.
It will be a lot of fun. Remember that when the nerves start to take over. Take a deep breath, forget the nerves and enjoy it. Enjoy going to the Expo to pick up your number. Enjoy the nervous trip to the start in Greenwich on an early morning train full of equally nervous fellow runners. Enjoy heading into the start zone, and realising just how big the London Marathon really is. Enjoy dropping off your bag, enjoy your final pre-race pee (actually, here’s my one bit of sage advice: don’t forget your final pre-race pee).
Enjoy lining up in the start zone. Enjoy trying to fathom how big the race is, and how many runners are ahead or behind of you. Enjoy the nervous anticipation before the start. Enjoy the moment when you cross that start line and realise, at the same time as everyone around you, that you’re actually running the London Marathon.
After that? Well, there are a whole host of things to enjoy. 26.2 miles worth, stretching out over the course of the next several hours. I won’t spoil all the surprises. There’ll be things you’ll expect – running over Tower Bridge really is as exciting as you’d anticipated – and things you won’t. The wafting smell from a nearby KFC, anyone?
Most of all, no matter how prepared you are, no matter how big a race you’ve done before, you’ll struggle to comprehend the scale of the marathon. It’s huge. There are so many runners. There’s so much organisation.
And then there the spectators. Lots of spectators. So many spectators. They form a virtually never-ending wall of noise, cheering, motions and support. Enjoy the spectators. Enjoy the support. It’s amazing. It’s inspiring. It’s, well, a little overwhelming. Sometimes, you’ll wish there were fewer spectators and fewer runners, a little more space so you could get away from the constant noise, and get back to running by yourself, just like you did on those long, cold training runs.
But try not to be overwhelmed by the spectators. Let them carry you along, but don’t let them push you into going too fast. High five kids when you want a distraction, read the signs people are holding up when you want to stop thinking about your pacing. Even chat to them if you want. But stick to your plan. When you need to, just focus on your running, your time, your pace plan, yourself. Head down, and picture what it will be like when you cross that finish line on The Mall. Picture being given that medal (actually, one other bit of sage advice: when they put the medal round your neck, be careful you don’t topple over with the extra weight when you’re in a post-marathon exhausted state. It’s a really heavy medal…).
And remember, that’s what you’re aiming for: reaching the finish. Sure, set yourself a timing goal. I did. And push yourself to meet it. I did. I pushed myself harder than I thought possible. And, in doing so, I learned new things about myself.
Crucially, though, don’t let your target time consume you. If you miss it, you’ll be a bit disappointed. That’s natural. But don’t be upset: it’s okay. You’ll come to realise finishing is success in a marathon. The simple fact you’ll have done one is what will impress your friends and family.
And hey, if you really want to meet that target time, that can wait until the next marathon. Because, no matter how painful it is, no matter how much your legs hurt, no matter how much you doubt whether you’ll actually reach that finish, eventually you’ll want to do another one.
Honestly, you will. Running – well, limping, really – through the last few miles of last year’s London Marathon was the most painful, difficult, intense thing I’ve ever done. I still wince thinking of it now. It hurt. Lordy, it hurt.
But that hurt fades. Your legs will recover. You won’t forget the pain, but it will become part of the massive mix of emotions, feeling and experiences that make up the marathon experience. And you’ll look back at the whole event, on all those sensations, as one of the great experiences of your life.
That’s why I’m gutted I’m not running it again this weekend, and why I’m jealous that you are.
But I’m really happy for you. Your experience will be very different from mine, because every person’s marathon experience is different. A weird truth about a marathon is that, for such a big, communal event, it’s also an incredibly individual challenge. No two people will ever have the same experience. So go out there, and enjoy yours.
I’ll be cheering every single one of you on. Where I’ll be cheering from, I don’t know. I’m tempted to head into London, to join the crowds and cheers you on. But I’m not sure if I can. I’m not sure I could face being so close to it all, without getting really jealous that I wasn’t out there running myself.
But I’m happy you will be. Honest. So I’ll end with this: good luck. Enjoy it. Embrace it. Live it.
You’re about to run the London Marathon. The London Marathon! It’s going to be incredible.
And, yes, it’s going to hurt.
But it will be incredible.
But mostly incredible.
London Marathon 2016 runner 47812