Journey to the Start Line - or how I got to run my first Half Marathon at 69

Sunday 3rd April 2022, 12.34pm. Finished the London Landmarks Half Marathon (LLHM) in 2 hours 37 minutes. 9,262nd out of 17,177 runners (if I had been a year older then there would only have been 18 of us doing it). And a decent chunk of money raised for the lovely Make-A-Wish Foundation, a charity that provides experiences that make dreams come true for children suffering from critical illnesses.

More later about why I chose to run for Make-A-Wish, but as I wrote the above it felt very me, me, me. Of course, in doing the run there was a strong sense of ego and achievement. But getting to that start line was far from straightforward, and Superman for Seniors I am not. So this is the story of my journey, as much comprising lowlights as highlights.


December 2019: The revival of running after more than 30 years. Even in the younger person efforts, I had never run more than 8 miles. So I dragged out ancient trainers, donned polo shirt and floppy white shorts, and trotted round the streets near my then home in Crouch End. Doing 20 minutes of running, I was pretty happy with myself.

Early January 2020; I did a short run in the morning before leaving for a holiday in Sri Lanka. On a return road I tripped on an uneven bit of pavement, and went flat on my face. A cut opened underneath my chin, and I discovered what is blood plasma. This kept coming and coming, so I spent the tube journey to Heathrow clutching my chin while trying to keep control of my luggage. Luckily the plasma had exhausted itself just in time for me not to be refused boarding

On return from travels I felt pretty confident about picking up the running, after three weeks that involved massive steps climbs to reach Buddhist temple, but yep, there is a thing called overconfidence. My younger daughter, a seasoned runner, suggested a c. 6k run up and down the Parkland Walk, Finsbury Park. I didn't realise how awful I felt until I lost control of my legs near the end and could only stop by running into a wall. Two days to recover. Work to be done. 

The next few months saw steady development. And the pounds starting to drop off were coupled with motivation going up. Now I had found a better route, a circuit of Finsbury Park and a convenient 5k. Roads entirely closed due to Covid, so no worry about running close to others during a time when we were all uber neurotic. Flappy white shorts had been replaced by some decent running gear, and there were just the ancient trainers to ditch and replace, requiring a trip to Run & Become in Victoria. A proper gait analysis, though running up and down the pavement I wondered if imposter syndrome would set in. The outcome was an immediate improvement in times, and slowly I found myself creeping up to 10k.

Beginning of 2021: a move to a new home in Kentish Town, and the prospect of running on Hampstead Heath. Fabulous to have such a variety of routes. And a short bus ride down to Regent's Park gave the option of a flat route to balance against the hills of the Heath. A circuit of the Outer Circle was c. 5k - very convenient.

April 2021: A family 10k around Regent's Park. Broke 59 minutes, although this involved near killing myself to beat elder daughter, who is a good runner too but had been off with injury for some time. Being competitive can be a curse.

Progress into the summer, with 12/13k now comfortably achievable. However, time for another complacency warning, It may surprise some of you, but it can get hot in the UK from May onwards. So on a Park 10k mid-morning I found myself worryingly slowing down from 8k onwards. I finished on the east side of the Park, and set off across the road to find shade, only to find a peloton of Park cyclists bearing down on me, a frightening experience. I wobbled back to the pavement, but on the second attempted crossing was none too steady.

I did make it, but had been spotted by a couple of bike riders, who stopped to check if I was ok - kind souls. By now I was sitting down on the pavement. One asked if I had water with me. I said 'no', and the chap shook his head, producing his bottle and insisted on me drinking. How at my age had I not recognised the risk of dehydration? My embarrassment was compounded by the arrival of the traffic police, they apparently bored with stopping cars doing 21mph down the edge of the Park. " 'Ello 'ello, are you in need of medical attention?". I protested no, and thank goodness they accepted my story. The cyclists rode off, and I vowed to invest in a running belt with water bottle.

5th September: the Cancer Research 10k through Central London. A joy, and the first mass run I had done for an age. Without knowing how, I found myself doing sub-6 minute kilometres (this is quite good for someone of my vintage), drawn along by the crowds. The only fly in ointment was my elder daughter (who had now picked up her training) putting on the afterburners and whizzing past me around 8k. I did 57 minutes 42 seconds., according to Strava. Well pleased.

And in the wake, no shock that I decided to do the LLHM in April 22. Something seriously challenging for my Big Birthday Year. And plenty time to work up some distance to a point where I would know that 13.1 miles was achievable. Onward and upward.

That phrase 'according to Strava'. It came back to me when I was given a Garmin watch for my birthday in October. I will not bore the less interested with detail, but Garmin timing is much more precise, and also it feeds the result on to the Strava app so you get all the data. Goodbye kind Strava for timing measurement, and now I knew that when it said I had done 10k on the Cancer Research and I was still 200 metres from the finish line, it wasn't the race organisers who were wrong. Oh well, better for it to be accurate.

Autumn was then pretty good, until the day of the Dachsund. I was out on the Heath, looping round the Boating Pond (if you know it). On the path the creature, off the leash, (both animal and owner exercising their natural human rights) ran across me from nowhere and got tangled in my legs. Dog jumped away startled; I went flat on my face, getting up and running on pretty quickly out of embarrassment. Once home it became clear that the ribs had suffered. Bruised on the right side. nothing worse. 'When does it hurt?' 'Only when I laugh'. Apparently that joke has been around since the 19th century. I wonder if Dachsunds were invented then.

Someone said that it is easier training in the winter, as you don't get the heat. You don't get the heat: you get cold, and wind, and rain....and muddy paths on the Heath. Yet I had taken the LLHM challenge, so time to get out there ready for the next incident.

That sounds fatalistic, but....... After an indulgent holiday period, it was time to punish the body with a post-Xmas run. I was probably not in fabulous form, but out I went for a stretching 11k with an elevation gain of 159m (meaning serious uphill bits). Coming back down through the Heath, and admittedly tiring, I rounded a corner near Dachsund spot, circumvented a person in front of me, put a foot in a puddle to do this.....and immediately lost my footing and crashed into a fence. Ha ha - what injury this time? Well, some rib bruising this time on the left side (symmetry is important), but more significantly a sprained left wrist. Idiot, could you not have learned to stop and walk past? Apparently not.

However, one does not run on one's wrist, so within a few days into 2022 I was out again, sticking to pavements and nervously aware of the injury. All ok. And it was time to choose a charity for the LLHM. I have previously given to the biggies such as Cancer Research and Alzheimers. I scanned the options to look for a smaller one. Make-A-Wish caught my eye - spectacular experiences for children who should have everything in life to look forward to but whose futures have been confounded by illness. I look back on my now moderately long life, and find it is peppered with mental snapshots of my own experiences. What might a child get out of a wish come true? So Make-A-Wish. No brainer.

Back to running. Up now to 15k, one 18k with some severe plodding towards the end. Not bad. Could I avoid another fall? Answer - nope.

On a final circuit of the Regent's Park Outer Circle. About 13k, aiming for 15. And here I must plead the issue of wearing Varifocal glasses, where when you are looking up you do not have good vision of what is directly below you (the reading element bit). This explains why I occasionally miss a step when walking. Anyway, I caught sight of a person crossing the road in front of me, this timed beautifully with an emerging piece of raised pavement and some tired legs not picking up as well as they had earlier in the run.

Splat! And a very firm splat - the jarring on the pavement now has become one of my snapshots. Amazingly the wrist was undamaged, but there were bruises, plus cuts to my hands that have now healed but still with faint receding scars. I picked myself up, finished the run, and slunk off home in a deflated state. 

Under two months to 3rd April, and me feeling fearful about another fall with inadequate time to recover before the event - not being able to do the run was unthinkable. Luckily Parliament Hill Running Track is just up the road from me, so I played safe and took a one month subscription for the chance of dead flat running. The downside to dead flat running was that beyond 5k it was brain deadening despite headphones with a 'running' playlist. But it was ok.

Surely nothing else could happen? Well, if you have stuck with me until now you will know that the answer is 'no'. From about six weeks out I had sensed a slight niggle behind my left knee. As runners will know, first inclination is to run it off - usually the niggle will go after a bit, even if there is soreness after the run, With just over three weeks to go, I decided I had had enough of the track and set off on a last Heath run. From the beginning the niggle was there and not going away. The niggle became growing soreness, and just under 5k, thankfully near the bottom of Parliament Hill Fields, the soreness became ouch ouch and I had to pull up. Another depressive trudge home, wondering if I would get to the start line.

Enter Christos Sarafelntin. Christos specialises in sports massage, He also is an Ultra runner (for the uninitiated this means you do runs in excess of 100k - that is not a number error). I had booked him in anyway for a week's time, but now contacted him when home, and a couple of hours later hobbled round to the gym where he consults. The reassurance was astounding - I was not out of it, and with appropriate rest and moderate exercise I ought still to be able to participate. Positive attitude needed. After massage and some acupuncture I already felt a little better.

And so with a couple of further Christos sessions I more or less recovered, finally doing a 5k on the Heath a week or so before the event, and emerging unscathed.

The LLHM day: First to say that the whole thing was superbly organised, and my resolve had been fuelled by encouraging messages from Make-A-Wish including a hand-written card received through the post - lovely touch. And enough sponsorship to bump up my target a couple of times. 

The run: So much encouragement from spectators, and with Team Colin dodging around central London to cheer me on every couple of miles. I'll level: up to 15k was comfortable, 15-18k was sort of ok, and the rest up to 21k bloody hard. The last stretch is along the Embankment from Tower Hill to Downing Street - the crowd (and Make-A Wish team was there at 12.5 miles to cheer) were terrific, but the legs felt near shutting down, and there were a few short walking spells.

With no more than 500m to go, I did a little walk round the corner from Northumberland Avenue towards Whitehall, thinking that I would only now see the gang after the Finish, to find them (to my embarrassment)  standing waiting. I picked up the legs, and younger daughter trotted alongside me for 30 metres or so to give me that last boost.

And the finishing line. I leaned against a barrier. A St John's Ambulance person came to check if I was ok. I said I was just stretching. It was 90% true. I had done it.


If you have lasted until now, thank you. I will end with my subsequent exchange with Christos, and will share his message back:

'Congratulations, that's an amazing effort. I am glad I managed to help you, but your will and resilience were the main factors'.

I am back to feeling the sense of me, me, me with which I started this piece. Many of you will have taken on, or will take on in the future, a challenge at least as tough as mine. I can only say that nothing is impossible, and making it a fundraising effort adds to the satisfaction of achieving the goal. Perhaps I could see doing the LLHM as my 'Wish" - if so, it came true.



The author is a writer, speaker, historian, occasional tour guide, and former Managing Partner of a City law firm....and also a runner.