2020 saw a shift in the way we race- with many events cancelled, postponed or switched to a virtual format. It was the year I had promised myself I wouldn’t run a marathon and instead triathlon would be my main focus but as race after race was removed from my calendar I suddenly found myself with nothing to focus on. This coupled with general fatigue from the changing restrictions meant my motivation to run took a bit of a nosedive over the summer. Then along came the virtual London Marathon.
On the 4th October 2020 over 37,000 runners took part in the Virtual Virgin Money London Marathon- running the iconic 26.2miles anytime within a 24 hour period, anywhere in the world. You could run this in one go or break it down into smaller amounts. This was a chance to run the London Marathon YOUR WAY and celebrate the 40th anniversary of the race.
In all honesty I was sceptical about a virtual race. Whilst I’m far from being the world’s greatest runner I enjoy racing. I love the build up, pushing myself, soaking up the atmosphere and the sharing the buzz of a big event with friends. A virtual marathon, especially one with limited time to train for potentially offered none of the things I loved about racing. But the idea of completing the London Marathon in some capacity (especially when I was usually so unlucky in the ballot) drew me in and without pausing to think I was signed up- and I had roped a friend into running it with me (socially distanced of course!)
My training was haphazard at best but finally I felt like I had something to work towards, even though we had decided that our only goal was to finish. As the day grew closer we planned our route, arranging our meeting time and religiously checked the weather. The night before I was filled with the nervous excitement that you get with any big race, but the difference being I felt like the pressure of a big race wasn’t on top of me. I didn’t need to pack a bag for the finish, navigate the tube to the start, set an alarm ridiculously early or queue for a portaloo. All I had to do was wake up, get myself ready and start my watch at my front door. It was probably the most chilled start to any marathon- I even had a bit of a lie in compared to most!
The weather wasn’t onside though- with pouring rain and blustery winds, a definite change from the 24degrees I originally ran the London Marathon in in April 2018. I set off in my rain jacket to meet a friend further along the planned route, at this point in time the restrictions allowed small group exercise. We were equipped with bags full of snacks, water bladders, a spare change of clothes and the accessory of 2020- facemasks. Our route hugged the River Thames running parallel to much of the actual marathon route- we chose this as it is a wide path to enable us to maintain our distance and we were very glad that we weren’t following a main road as to avoid being splashed by cars and buses. However it was not without its challenges as later in the course we had to navigate our way around some very large puddles- one which I accidentally submerged my whole foot into.
Within moments of starting, I spotted another pair of runners also embarking on the virtual race, exchanged some rather excited waving and carried on. Soon more and more runners appeared, all distinguished by their London Marathon race numbers. Friends and family had even come out in the rain to cheer at a distance and were offering claps and smiles to any runner passing by. As we approached Greenwich we intersected the main marathon route at the Cutty Sark (you’re advised not to run the marathon route, but it is pretty difficult when you live on the marathon route!) and then again at Tower Bridge. Tower Bridge is one of the most iconic parts of the London Marathon and roughly represents the half way point. Even with no crowds it felt magical crossing the Bridge, reflecting on the memories of the real race day. Some of the vehicles crossing the bridge spotted our race numbers and soon we were cheered on by a chorus of horns and shouts of encouragement from car windows (a pleasant change from the usual cat calls!).
As we embarked on the second half of our marathon the weather worsened and I was very glad of the spare layers stashed in my bag. We also stopped to pick up some snacks- the offerings at the co-op were better than any aid station I had ever been to! Around 32kms I took my first walk break, at this point we had come off the river and were navigating our way through Canary Wharf, towards the river crossing that would take me home. I could feel the wall coming and my legs were tired. I was really glad of the company at this point. After everything we endured in 2020 with being isolated from friends and family it wasn’t the crowd support or the buzz of a big race that mattered, in this moment- it was the friend running 3metres from me who knew exactly what to say to get me through.
The last 5kms were a slog, the weather was throwing everything it had at us and I had needed to stop and walk a few more times. As I reached the final stretch I was completely alone. There was no finish line, there were no hugs, no medal or race blanket- just a quiet sense of achievement and the knowledge that you were sharing this moment with runners from all over the world.
And just like that I had completed the virtual London Marathon. Marathon number 5 and the one I have enjoyed the most.
All the participants of the 2020 Virgin Money Virtual London Marathon have since entered the Guinness World Record Books as the most users to run a remote marathon in 24 hours.
If you’ve not been successful in the 2021 Virgin Money London Marathon ballot all is not lost. After the success of the 2020 event, the Virtual London Marathon is back for 2021 and will take place between 00:00 and 23:59 on Sunday 3 October 2021- the provisional date of the actual race.
If you have been unsuccessful in the ballot follow the link on your email to your result then follow the instructions from there. To register you will need the email you used to sign up to the ballot and your ballot reference number. Entries cost £28 for UK residents and £38 for overseas to account for postage charges and you will receive a finisher medal and t-shirt (the t-shirts are usually good quality so even though there is no option to opt out I hope you will get lots of use out of it and treasure it).
The virtual event even counts towards the London Classics if that is something you’re seeking to achieve. However, the virtual event doesn’t count towards the Abbott World Marathon Majors.
Whilst the rejection from the ballot is disappointing, trust me after 11 rejections I completely understand, the Virtual event is simply fantastic. Sign up here.