The London marathon is one of the biggest and most famous distance running events in the world.
This year (2017) my wife Susan ran it, and I watched it as a spectator.
To be perfectly honest, (as a spectator) it was an experience I hadn’t anticipated or expected.
- 1 Securing A Place In The London Marathon
- 2 The Excel Experience
- 3 London Transport – Travelling Around
- 4 Accommodation
- 5 Morning Of The Race
- 6 Where To Watch The London Marathon From?
- 7 My Viewing Locations
- 8 Heading To The Finish Area
- 9 The Meeting Point After The Race
- 10 Food and drink After The Race
- 11 Journey Home
- 12 Summary of The Day
- 13 Top Tips
Securing A Place In The London Marathon
First of all, I’m one of the majority of people who can say they’ve never run a marathon.
Last year my wife foolishly optimistically entered the ballot to run the London Marathon.
Now, if you aren’t raising money for a charity (upward of £1500 as a minimum) your chances of getting an entry is around 1 in 5.
Many people I know have tried unsuccessfully for several years.
Like me, my wife Susan had never run a marathon before.
Susan is a member of a lovely little, local running club – known as the Sleaford Striders.
She’s not into competitive running, but enjoys the fitness and social aspects.
Like so many people in this country (and around the world) running the London Marathon was on both of our ‘hypothetical bucket-lists’.
So last year (back in May) she decided to enter.
To her amazement she defied the long odds by getting a place!
The Excel Experience
Before you can take part in the marathon, you need to register in person at the Excel Centre in London.
It’s here they give you your race number to pin on your running vest along with the obligatory ‘goodie bag’.
The Excel Centre in East London opens about a week before the event, to accommodate the 40,000+ participants.
I’m quite sure the organisers could register you online and send your race number etc. through the post.
But that’s not how it’s done, and you have to organise a separate day to do this.
We live about 2 hours away from London and decided to get the train down early Saturday morning (the day before the marathon) and head straight to the Excel Centre.
From there we had a hotel booked that was within walking distance to the start line.
Registering at the Excel was an experience in itself!
Obtaining your number and goodie bag is pretty painless. A little time waiting in lines but no more than 10mins or so.
After that you get to walk round the place, which is full of anything to do with running.
From running shoes, clothing and gadgets, to health foods, motivational speakers, running demonstrations and activities.
Here’s a video highlighting the event:
There was also a huge massage area to help get your legs sorted for the race.
Susan really wanted a massage, but the wait was far too long to warrant it.
So I volunteered to massage her legs later that evening – which incidentally was pretty darn good apparently!
After about 45mins of looking around and resisting the urge to buy stuff we really didn’t need, we headed back out to check-in to our hotel.
London Transport – Travelling Around
I have to give a lot of credit to the City of London transport for how they manage to ferry so many people around with so little fuss.
The underground and overground trains that run during the weekend of the marathon seem to cope amazingly well.
More trains are put on, and the frequency they run are increased.
Sure there are times when you have to wait and que up, but on the whole I was delighted at how smooth the event took place regarding travel.
The staff were also really friendly and helpful and usually with a smile on their face!
It can be quite stressful travelling around London if you’re not quite sure which train you should be getting.
So it was great that there was always a member of staff to point you in the right direction.
Top Tip: If you intend on watching the London Marathon in the future – plan your travel itinerary carefully. It will save you a lot of stress!
I would also have alternatives (or a plan B) in case you need to deviate from your schedule.
For those running the marathon, transport around London is free on the day.
As a spectator you don’t need to worry about transport costs.
A one day underground pass for all zones is only about £10.
Despite the fact it’s marathon day and there are other big sporting events going on in the capital, there is still plenty of accommodation to be had.
Obviously the sensible thing to do is book your accommodation as early as possible.
The hotels nearest the start and finish lines are in high demand, and you’ll be lucky to book a room unless you book well in advance.
Your plans for the weekend will largely dictate which area you book your hotel in. As will your budget.
Being London marathon virgins, we weren’t quite sure what to expect, or what would be the best location for our 1 night stay.
Our plans were to travel down to London the day before, (Saturday) stay overnight and travel back home after the race.
we Susan booked us into a hotel as close to the start as possible.
We actually booked into a hostel which was a 10-15min walk to the start line.
Location wise it was great, because we didn’t have to fight with the crowds on the tube or have the worry of being delayed for any reason.
So..back to our hostel!
As far as hostels go it was very good. Nice and clean, quiet enough to get a good nights sleep and comfy beds.
They even put on a runners pasta meal the evening before and provide breakfast.
If you want a little more luxury such as a tv and towels, toiletries etc. then you’ll need to look at something else.
For our needs it was fine and very reasonably priced, although if we go again we’ll probably upgrade to a hotel a little more luxurious!
If you’re interested, the hostel is called Via Lewisham (part of the Via chain).
Morning Of The Race
Susan was getting pretty stressed the night before the marathon, doubting her ability etc.
But after a very comfortable nights sleep she felt good and was raring to go!
Start of the race for the majority of runners is 10am so we left our hotel about 8.45am
As soon as you start getting closer to the start line you start to feel the buzz about the place.
Anticipation, fear, dread, determination, excitement, joy – pretty much every emotion seemed to feel the air.
There were lots of stewards directing people, helicopters flying overhead and the sound of upbeat music could be heard at the starting area.
There were so many runners in bright colours and dressed in fancy dress costumes.
How they manage to get round in some of those costumes I do not know!
I grabbed a coffee from one of the many coffee shops. (The hostel coffee was disgusting!)
We easily located the start line since we had walked up there the evening before and knew the layout etc.
After a couple of photos and lots of love and “good lucks”, Susan entered her start area and I left her to her pre-race warm up routine thing (whatever she needed to do!)
Where To Watch The London Marathon From?
Just like your travel plans, you really do need to work out in advance where you intend to watch the marathon from.
Virtually the whole route is lined with spectators and some areas like the Cutty Sark area and tower bridge, people get there hours before, in order to get the best viewing point.
However, it’s not as bad as you might think, and there are actually plenty of good places to watch from.
Most roads will be closed on the day of the London Marathon, so you’ll need to use public transport or walk, to get to your chosen spectator spot.
If you want to be near the end of the race to watch the runners cross the line, then you really do need to be there first thing in the morning and be prepared for a long wait.
People take fold-up chairs, and food and drink and make a whole day of it.
The start line is also understandably busy, but a good place to be, as long as you get there early enough.
After watching the runners set off from the start, you can then rejoin the route further along and watch somewhere else.
There are some good websites that helped me decide on where to watch in order to get the best views and experience.
Make sure you download the Virgin London Marathon App.
This app has lots of great features.
It shows the location of designated pubs and restaurants that are open for the marathon, and where live bands and/or music will be playing.
It also allows you to track up to 10 runners along the route.
This feature is invaluable because I could keep track of where Susan was on the course and be prepared for her as she got close to my location.
My Viewing Locations
1. Greenwich (Mile 6)
A good few days before the race I decided on 2 places to watch the marathon from.
The first location was in Greenwich, just before mile 6.
I read that it wasn’t too busy here and it had good views of the street.
The runners are also still fresh and smiley at this point.
So there was plenty of high fives and banter between them and the spectators. (A big contrast to my second viewing point at mile 17!)
There was a pub open for light refreshment! (the King William) and a steel band (Nostalgia Steel Band) playing opposite.
It also meant that I could walk there from leaving Susan at the start line, and be in position in plenty of time to see her run by, as well as seeing the elite runners.
I didn’t watch the start because I wanted to guarantee a good spot.
As it happens I could have watched the start and got to my location in time, but it would have been a bit rushed. I hate rushing!
So I left the hordes of runners going through their warm-up routines and took a stroll through Greenwich Park (which is really lovely) and down to Trafalgar Road to the King William pub.
I arrived about 9.45am and the atmosphere there was brilliant!
The steel band was starting up and people were starting to take their preferred vantage point.
After popping in to the pub for a liquid refreshment and a wee, I found a great little spot that looked up and down the road.
I was able to phone Susan to let her know exactly where I would be standing.
I also had a big green and white flag (my local football team’s colours) so she could locate me.
Having a flag (ideally with a pole) really helps if you want a runner to see you. Otherwise you’ll just get lost in a sea of people and colour.
The road has quite a few residential properties on it and people were hanging out of windows and sat on balconies.
The spectators around me had flags, boxes of sweets for the runners and some were in fancy dress!
It was brilliant to see the elite runners sprint past with the TV crews and security bikes.
Then came the masses.
A few of the quick club runners started to file through, and then it got veeery busy with the amateur runners.
The roads aren’t that wide like they are in the New York Marathon for example, and the runners really were shoulder to shoulder at times.
Most runners have their names printed on their vest so the spectators can shout words of encouragement to them.
It was great to see the response and pleasure from the runners as you shouted
any old shit at them their name and offered inspirational advice!
At this point a lot of them responded with “thank you” and “cheers” etc. or just a thumbs up and a smile.
You are also aware of how many of them are running in memory of a lost one or for a charity that perhaps helped someone close to them.
You could tell by their faces what this meant to them and it made me feel very humble and honoured to be able to support and cheer them on.
Here’s a quick video I took on my phone:
Needle In A Haystack
After about an hour from the start, Susan was heading our way.
Unfortunately the street was packed with runners and I wasn’t going to be able to spot Susan unless she was virtually next to me!
Letting her know of my exact location paid off though (as did my waving green and white flag) because it was Susan who spotted me.
I would never have seen her otherwise, and she would have passed me by!
She saw my flag and came bounding over for a hug.
There were 3 of us at this point and she was delighted to see us all..albeit very briefly.
She looked very fresh and had a real spring in her step which was great to see.
After a quick chat, a hug and plenty of encouragement we sent her back on her way.
We thought it was be prudent at this point to have another pint (you need to keep refreshed as a spectator!)
2. Isle of Dogs, West Ferry Road (Mile 17)
Our second viewing area was at around mile 17 on the Isle of Dogs.
From Greenwich we were able to walk to this point.
We walked past the Cutty Sark (a very popular spectator location) which was mobbed, and then under the river Thames via the Greenwich Foot Tunnel.
It was a bit of a scrum to get into the tunnel, but once in, it was free-flowing.
The walk only took around 35 minutes.
The second pub (I mean location) had the Dixieland Jazz Orchestra playing outside.
The atmosphere was brilliant again, and there were a lot more people here.
This is a good second viewing area for a lot of people as it’s easy to access and there is a lot of places to watch from.
We still found a decent position to watch from, which was pretty much in the area where I previously told Susan we would be standing.
As it was at the first location, we witnessed a real party atmosphere…for the spectators that is!
For the runners however, it was another story!
17 miles (27kms) of running, was taking its toll on some of them.
The high fives had stopped, the banter and chats between runner and spectator had all but dried up, and some of the facial expressions weren’t of a particularly happy appearance!
Some runners were in a lot of distress and needed medical attention.
Some were walking and some were saying things like “what the hell am I doing?!”
None of them though, passed us without receiving a barrage of encouragement and support!
Shouts of “keep going (name)”, and “you can do it (name)” constantly rang out.
I was even starting to lose my voice! (poor me).
Back to the app and Susan was inbound.
Sure enough, just like before, she spotted us (via the flag) and dragged herself over to us.
A very different sight from mile 6!
I think her first words at this time were “oh my god this is awful”.
She was genuinely knackered.
She hadn’t picked up any sort of injury (although she felt sick) so I was confident she would get herself round.
I did feel for her as we sent her on her way again.
No sooner had she stopped, she melted away again into the mass hordes of runners.
Heading To The Finish Area
Mile 17 was the last time I saw Susan on the route.
However, in hindsight I could have been quicker getting on a train and finding another viewing position around the 24-25 mile point.
I could have done this by getting a train from the Island Gardens station.
Instead I walked for about 45mins to meet up with some friends and then got the train from Mudchute station.
When we eventually boarded the train, time was against us and the only option was to head towards the finish area to meet Susan and our pre-planned place.
As you can imagine, the finish area around St James’s Park and Horse Guards Road was extremely busy, with many roads around the area blocked off.
It took a about a 30-45mins walk from leaving the train at Westminster, to locating Susan.
I do regret not being a little more organised and getting to a 3rd viewing point towards the end of the course.
I thought it would be far too busy with spectators in this sort of area, but there was actually plenty of room to see the runners.
The Meeting Point After The Race
There are A to Z meeting points clearly marked for runners and spectators to meet after the race.
I had arranged to meet Susan under letter T.
After fighting our way through the crowds me and my team of supporters met up with Susan.
We were about 20mins late getting there because of how busy it was.
Despite the number of people, the organisation was first class.
You just need to be patient and expect to take longer getting to where you want to be.
Susan was understandably exhausted and adamant she would never run a marathon again!
Update: Susan (and myself) have entered the ballot for the 2018 London Marathon!
Food and drink After The Race
Once your participation in the marathon is over – either as a runner or spectator, your thoughts naturally turn to food and drink.
We had pre-booked a restaurant near to the finish area a couple of weeks before the race.
This is a really good idea, as everywhere is busy.
It took another 20mins from finding Susan at the meeting point, to get going and start walking to the restaurant we had pre-booked.
Unfortunately we were a good 40mins late for our reservation and they had understandably given our table to other people.
My advice would be to give yourself a lot more time from when you think you’ll leave the meeting area, to getting to the restaurant (if you pre-book one).
Because the restaurant/pub was so busy we ended up jumping on the tube and headed towards Kings Cross station.
Here we managed to find a restaurant with enough seats available to accommodate 6 of us.
This is a really nice way to end the marathon.
We all had a drink to celebrate the day and chatted about the race.
It was lovely to see Susan in her finishers t-shirt and medal worn proudly around her neck.
After an hour or so at the restaurant we headed to Kings Cross train station to get our train back home.
It is only an hour journey, but we booked into first class – and were pleased we did.
Even as a spectator it was quite a tiring day walking around and jumping on and off trains.
So to have a little luxury and plenty of leg room was money well spent.
Summary of The Day
This was my first experience of watching a marathon and to my surprise I absolutely loved it!
The weather was great and the people of London were so friendly and welcoming and chatty.
Londoners often get a bad rap with regard to their friendliness to outsiders, but I witnessed nothing but warmth and good feeling.
The organisation of the event was fantastic – especially the transport and associated staff.
As a spectator pre-planning is the key.
Get organised, do your research, and have a contingency plan. The day will be so much more enjoyable.
- Plan travel and viewing locations in advance.
- Book accommodation as early as possible.
- Take folding chairs if you plan on staying in one location.
- Take a box of sweets for the runners to grab as they run by.
- Take a flag pole or just a flag that will get you seen, if you’re there to support someone.
- Arrange before-hand with whoever you are going to support roughly where you will be located.
- Mobile phones are a must!
- Pre-book a restaurant and/or hotel well in advance for after the race, if you intend to stay.
- Allow for extra time. It will always take you longer than you think to get somewhere.
- Be prepared for a lot of standing and a lot of walking.
Other items to consider:
- Sun cream
- Warm clothes
- Waterproof jacket
- Food and drink