Sore Nipples and Trench Foot at the London Marathon

Mo Farah will be leading the way in this year's London Marathon
Mo Farah will be leading the way in this year’s London Marathon

The London Marathon is one of the great city sporting events. A quality elite race, which this year sees British double Olympic-gold medallist Mo Farah gunning for a first ever victory at the distance, and, trailing in his wake, some 35,000 runners of less obvious ability.

Some are decent club runners who will be aiming for the three-hour mark or under. Others will be happy to make it around in eight hours.

This army of runners and, let’s be honest, walkers, has an equally grand army of supporters, not least the various charities which benefit to the tune of millions of pounds. The admirers, though, also come from the front end of the field.

In 2001, I was covering the race as a journalist and, in the days leading up to it, had the great pleasure of chatting to the Ethiopian Derartu Tulu, an Olympic champion on the track who went on to do great things on the road, not least winning that edition of the London race.

Rather carelessly, I used the word “hero” in one of my questions.

Derartu Tulu: a great champion off the road as well as on it
Derartu Tulu: a great champion off the road as well as on it

“No, no, no,” she said shaking her head at me. “We are not the heroes. We are professional athletes. This is our job. When we wake up in the morning we train. This is what we work for. The real heroes of this race are the thousands of people who have proper jobs and then have to try and fit in training as well. It is not easy. And they raise all this money for charity. These are the real heroes.”

A year later, I made the rather rash decision to join the herd, to see if I could cover the 26 miles, 385 yards – the distance from Windsor Castle to White City in London as measured for the 1908 Olympics in London. That is 42.2 kilometres in new money.

During the course of the three and half months training and, of course the race itself, I learnt a fair amount about the Dos and the Don’ts of running a marathon.

So, here are a few tips. Let’s be radical. Let’s give them a name. Drum roll please, “…and welcome to….”


NIPPLES: Take care of them. They are very sensitive and don’t take kindly to sustained chafing. I once came home from a training run and thought one of my nipples had fallen out; it was so terrified by all the chafing it had in fact retreated, inverted. Some people lean towards a hefty smear of Vaseline. I always preferred the double elastoplast laid in a cross across the nipple. Must be something to do with my Catholic upbringing.

TOES: This is probably more of a training tip than a race tip. The toes take a savage pounding in the months and weeks running up to the race. I had the athletic equivalent of trench foot when both big toenails turned black and ultimately fell off. This was entirely my fault. I had failed to keep my toenails short; they jammed against the shoes and caused subterranean bruising on the toe. Painful. Lesson: cut you toenails before the race.

THE WALL: It exists. You will run straight into it at about 20 miles. It hurts. But the odd thing with this Wall is that you can run through it. And doing that will, in a strange way, make you stronger. Mentally at least. And that run up the Embankment will be all the more beautiful for it.

Haile Gebrselassie giving some good advice to a first-time marathoner
Haile Gebrselassie giving some good advice to a fellow first-time marathoner (Photo: Mike King)

TOILET: One of the perks of being a sports writer is that you get to interview some of the greatest athletes in the world. One of these, Haile Gebrselassie, gave me the most succinct piece of advice ever. “The most important thing for anyone running a marathon, doesn’t matter what the standard, is to make sure you go to the toilet just before the race.” Simple but so true. You don’t want to be lugging last night’s dinner around with you wondering whether you can make it round the course without hitting the portaloos dotted around the course.

CURRY: Following on from the above, it is important to think carefully about what you eat the day before. Best not to go for six pints and a curry. It will announce itself somewhere on Jamaica Road. Best to stick to the pasta and salads and water. Keep the pints for the post-race celebration. They taste so much better on the way down than on the way up.

ENERGY BARS: Don’t be tempted. I made the mistake of thinking I needed an energy boost around Canary Wharf. I had a good rhythm up until that point. Having eaten the bar, I managed another mile before the guts started churning. Several portaloos later, I crawled across the finish line. If you do need to eat go for a banana. But best to leave it with a mate to collect. They go very squashy very quickly if you carry one in your bumbag.

The temptation to showboat is always there especially across Tower Bridge: try to resist

SHOWBOATING: By this stage you should have worked out where the most prominent tv cameras are going to be. By all means put on your best gurning face. But be wary of giving it the big sprint. It isn’t worth it. The first such corner is Cutty Sark – only six miles in – and then the crossing of Tower Bridge at 12 miles. If you have your rhythm, stick with it. A rapid sprint across the bridge – actually it is more of a bob and weave – can upset said rhythm and leave you gasping as you approach halfway. If you do need to showboat, save it for the last 100 metres in front of Buckingham Palace, raise your hands above your head like a champion and try to look fresh for the official photograph.

It hurts but it is worth it: every broken toenail, every chafed nipple
It hurts but it is worth it: every broken toenail, every chafed nipple

MY NAME IS….: First time I ran the London Marathon I scoffed at the idea of writing my name on my shirt. I thought it was a bit silly. Then I heard all the encouragement handed out to the runners around me. Their ears pricked, their nostrils flared, their eyes shone a touch brighter. I felt rather left out. The following year, I did do the name thing. And it was wonderful, to have all of these people lining the streets crying out encouragement.

PATIENCE: Anyone who runs a marathon runs with a watch. You will have a pretty tight idea of how you performed in training and you will know roughly what times you need to be ticking off to hit the target time. Ok, all well and good. But remember that your training has probably been done on deserted pavements and toepaths, far from the madding crowd. The London Marathon is the madding crowd and, unless you are Mo Farah, you will be in the thick of it. Ahead of you there will be people who are slower than you; behind you runners that are quicker. There is no such thing as keeping a straight racing line; it is all about weaving and being patient. If you get some open road enjoy it, it won’t last. Your times will almost inevitably be slower than in training. Don’t worry about it and don’t try to compensate with a mad sprint that will balls up your rhythm.

The end is a wonderful thing
The end is a wonderful thing

ENJOY: One of the most irritating parts of training is when people ask if you are enjoying it. “No, I bloody well am bloody not,” you want to yell as you smile through gritted teeth. “It is cold, it is wet, I am knackered after a long day in the office, the baby was crying all night and I have just had to run up Sydenham Hill. How the hell could I possibly enjoy that?” Even race day is a toughie. You will be tired, sleeping badly, wondering if you will wake up in time, in Richmond Park early, stretching, limbering up, and wondering at what point exactly you should head for the toilets. But when the gun goes and you slowly inch towards the start line, it does become quite fun. Yes it hurts, and you will probably hurt for a couple of hours/days afterwards. But when you cross that line, you will relish one of the greatest moments of your life; the satisfaction of personal achievement. Besides which you can also appreciate the amount of money you have raised for charity through doing it.

The London Marathon is a wonderful event. I feel very lucky to have run it twice. Best wishes to all the runners who put their best foot forward on Sunday.

©Barney Spender 2014

Follow me on Twitter @bspender