Inspirational stories and insider knowledge to help you run your best marathon

·26-min read
Photo credit: Andy Dixon
Photo credit: Andy Dixon

The marathon is a great unifier. From Olympians to back-of-the packers, we all run the same distance. We all go through the highs and lows, triumphs and disasters. We learn our lessons, enjoy our personal epiphanies and endure our lonely hardships. Here, runners from everywhere on the finish time scale recall their most memorable marathon moments to inspire, inform and connect with anyone who has experienced a 26.2, or has one in their sights.


Photo credit: Cecy and Victor Montes
Photo credit: Cecy and Victor Montes

1. My Verona

‘I met Cecy in the loo queue of the 2013 Verona Marathon. I’d just come out of a cubicle that I’d rejected on the grounds that it contained a squat toilet, and was looking for a more civilised sit-down WC when a woman with a megawatt smile and bright-pink knee-high socks, cheerily piped up: ‘Yes, they’re all squatty potties!’. With only a few miles to go, I came across her again. In our brief time together I learned she was running her first marathon in honour of a friend who had breast cancer (hence the pink socks) and also in memory of her brother Nene, who’d been murdered by a Mexican drug gang in Chihuahua.

Cecy wanted to wait for her husband, Victor, to catch up with her as he’d torn a hamstring, so I continued without her to the finish line inside Verona’s fabled Roman amphitheatre. It was pouring with rain but I had to see Cecy finish, which she did, hand-in-hand with a hobbling Victor, like a sodden Romeo and Juliet. I’ll never forget the conversation we had in the downpour afterwards, where Cecy poured out her heart about the love she’d felt for her brother and her determination never to waste even one minute of her life thinking about the people who’d taken his life. She and I went on to run two other marathons together − Tucson and Malaga − where Cecy ran with her brother’s name on her race bib. Having bonded over the loss of a loved one (my beloved mum was run over and killed while training to run a marathon with me in 2007), we’ve remained close. For me, that’s the most wonderful thing about marathon running: you always get a medal, but you never know when you’ll come away with a new friend.’

Lisa Jackson, RW columnist, 10 Marathon Club member and author of Your Pace or Mine?

Photo credit: Sam Mellish - Getty Images
Photo credit: Sam Mellish - Getty Images

2. Panda-monium!

‘I ran the London Marathon in a panda costume for a Guinness World Record. It's a surreal experience doing your last-minute race prep in a small tent next to a post box, a three-person sausage dog and a couple in handcuffs. From the beginning to the tube journey home (still in costume, being glared at by a small dog), it was joyous, bizarre and very, very hot. The most memorable moment, though, came just a few miles in. The crowds were still relatively sparse, and a hundred or so metres ahead of me I saw a little girl in a buggy with her mum, presumably waiting for whoever they were cheering. The girl was clutching a toy panda. As I got nearer I saw the mum point at her panda, then back up the road to me. The look on the little girl’s face as she turned with solemn awe from the toy to me, and back again, will stay with me forever. It was the look of a child who is absolutely convinced her toy has come to life and is running towards her. She got my most enthusiastic double-pawed wave of the day.’

Kate Carter, RW contributor and 13-time marathoner

3. On the right trail

‘The volunteer at the food station perched high on the South Downs couldn’t have been more apologetic: ‘I’m so sorry, there’s no soup this year but we do have buns, sausage rolls, teas, coffees…’ That moment at the Beachy Head Marathon, as she continued through a list that would put many a cafe to shame, profoundly and permanently changed my thinking of what a 26.2-miler could be.

‘Up until then I had only completed large, city road marathons packed with big, cheering crowds and sound systems blasting Eye of the Tiger. That’s all fine, but I now hankered after a less intense experience, which I found on the trails rather than the asphalt. Suddenly I’d ventured into a world where PBs and split times – and whether I was ahead of my mate – didn’t matter. Instead, I could admire the scenery, breathe in the country air and appreciate the terrain. If I walked up a steep hill, who cared? If I slowed to chat to a fellow runner, no big deal. On that day I learned to savour running 26.2 miles – while wolfing down a bun – rather than just getting the race done.’

Adrian Monti, RW contributor and 12-time marathoner

Photo credit: Finn
Photo credit: Finn

4. Bird watching

‘I see the ostrich approaching across the dry grass, around 14 miles into the Lewa Marathon in Kenya. The small field has spread out now and I find myself running on my own across the open bush of the Lewa wildlife conservancy.

The bird is strutting around, feathers puffed up. Is that some sort of challenge? Behind it is a female ostrich, paying it no attention. I’m not interested in your female friend, I want to tell it, as its gangly legs start taking pointed steps towards me. Maybe if I don’t look at it, it won’t see me as a threat. I could stop, of course, but this is a race, and I can see a few other runners bobbing away in the distance ahead of me. They must have passed by here safely. So I take my chances and run on, my head down, avoiding eye contact. It’s only later, after the race, that I find out an ostrich can disembowel a person with one kick.’

Adharanand Finn, author of Running with the Kenyans

5. Day of destiny

‘In 2012 I ran 12 marathons in 12 days as a fundraising challenge. Starting in Harrogate and finishing outside Buckingham Palace. Day 5 (Leicester to Derby) was my nadir. About four hours in I was nowhere near finishing, shuffling along, head bowed against the December wind and rain. My left knee was the size of a grapefruit, the street was lined with pawnbrokers, bookies and boarded-up shops, and the wrong turns I’d taken meant I’d be clocking close to 30 miles. I was on the verge of jacking it in.

‘I waddled into a Subway to gather myself. With no money, I simply sat on a Formica seat and gave myself a talking to – out loud, much to the alarm of the other customers. I broke the remaining 10 miles into tiny chunks to focus on one at a time – and heaving myself out of the door was the first achievement. From there I hunched and hobbled my way through the oncoming darkness, dragging my knackered leg behind me. After seven hours and 45 minutes I finally stumbled into the nirvana of our Holiday Inn Express, where the rest of the team cheered me home.

‘The next day it took me half an hour to get out of bed, but the most astonishing thing happened: I completed the run two hours quicker, and every subsequent day I got faster, finishing day 12 feeling like I could have continued at a marathon a day indefinitely.

‘The human body is amazing. Once it works out what you’re up to, it’ll (almost) always adapt. I gained huge experience and confidence from that challenge and discovered that Churchill had it right: when you’re going through hell, keep going.’

Kerry McCarthy, RW commissioning editor

6. The first of many

‘I've run more than 50 marathons, but it's my first that I still remember most clearly. It was the Snowdonia Marathon and I camped the night before near the start, waking up to find a chicken in my tent. It was freezing and I couldn't feel my feet until the top of Pen y Pass, four miles in. Then I ran much too fast on the long downhill section that followed. I remember getting to 18 miles and thinking it felt easy... but in true marathon style it all went horribly wrong shortly afterwards.

‘The final couple of miles were off-road and both my quads cramped up on the last descent so I couldn't bend my knees. Painful as it was, the experience changed me for life and kindled an enduring love for the marathon distance. I still have my slate finishers' coaster on my desk as a reminder that sometimes you just have to work hard and be patient.’

Jen Benson, author of Short Runs in Beautiful Places

7. A family affair

‘A few years ago I toed the line at the Wales Marathon with Jen. We don't often get to race together, as we normally take it in turns to race or support, but we'd both signed up to this one. We raced around the scenic and hilly course until about mile 18. By this time I was struggling, but Jen looked fresh, so I told her to go and watched her disappear up the road. The feeling of immense pride in Jen mixed with a huge dose of fire to train well and race faster has stuck with me ever since.’

Sim Benson, author of Wild Running

8. The sub-3 breakthrough

‘Is it too facile to choose the time I first broke three hours? The thing is, it cost me so much effort.

‘For many years my cousin (another Vassos) and I would travel all over Europe with the same obsessive goal. Cousin Vassos graduated from 3:07 (Milton Keynes) to 2:58 (Eindhoven) with barely a hiccup, and promptly lost motivation. But however hard I tried, I couldn’t persuade my legs to cover 26.2 miles in any less than 3:02:11, the figure etched in my mind, the excess 132 seconds taunting me during every training run.

‘Then, one day in London, it all just clicked. And the moment I turned up The Mall, saw the clock and knew it was in the bag has become my happy place. Yet somehow I lost the medal. They say nothing worth having comes easy. That’s why I’ve kept every one of my 76 other marathon medals. Each was hard-earned. But I’d swap the lot for that one, London 2016.’

Vassos Alexander, broadcaster and author of Running up that Hill

Photo credit: Chris Jackson
Photo credit: Chris Jackson

9. Failure is not an option

‘My first marathon was almost a disaster. I collapsed at mile 24 after not drinking enough water, and was carried off unconscious with a temperature of 41C. When I woke up, I thought I was dying. But after two hours with St John Ambulance I was allowed back on the course and finally crossed the line in 6:22. It certainly wasn’t the sub-4 I had been aiming for. My family assumed I’d pack in this marathon lark, but I was so cross with myself that I went back the year after and got that sub-4. I was 43-years-old and never imagined that almost a decade later I would still be getting faster. So, London here I come...’

Sophie Raworth, BBC newsreader

10. A Himalayan high

‘My Himalayan 100-mile five-day adventure is one of the most memorable, tough, beautiful and life-enhancing races I’ve ever done. Day Three is a marathon, I started in the crisp fresh air feeling good and enjoying slightly surreal moments such as passing India Armed Guards and checkpoints with bananas and salted potatoes. Then, as we descended from the mountain top through the dense trees, I started to hallucinate through fatigue and the altitude. Comparing notes with the others at the end, it turned out there was not a line of monks at one of the checkpoints! That’s the moment that stands out, but was also endures is that a race can give you lasting friendships, help you raise money for good causes (for me it was Mind’s The Big Change in memory of my cousin Jenny, who took her life), take away the concept of time, gadgets and comparison, and dare you to push your potential and see what's possible.’

Kim Ingleby, Mind and body coach @kimingleby

11. The comeback

‘In 2016 I fell critically ill, contracting a rare form of malaria after cycling from London to Rio for charity. I ended up in a coma and on life support. My hopes were slim, and when I started to pull through I was told that I had all sorts of damage and wouldn’t be able to run again, let alone take on a marathon. Some 18 months later I was standing on the start line of the London Marathon with my best friend, wearing a Malaria No More vest. All I could think about was how fragile I had been and how I had a kidney problem, nerve damage and all sorts of other issues. What was I doing putting myself through this?

‘After five miles I tripped and fell flat on my face, cutting my shin, knee, chin and chest – and (worse) smashing my phone! Three runners picked me up and I just carried on running with blood dripping down my leg, knowing that if I stopped, even for a minute, I wouldn’t have been able to carry on.

‘With four miles to go I was struggling massively but my bestie got me to the finish, telling me to dedicate each of the last miles to a significant person or moment in my life. We crossed the line holding hands and both burst into tears. It was the slowest marathon I’ve ever run by a long shot but by far the most incredible achievement and experience I’ve had during a race. Nothing is impossible.’

Charlie Webster, broadcaster and campaigner

12. Walking to victory

‘Just 5km into the 2019 Paris Marathon, my knee tendonitis flared up. Piercing pain with every footstep made running impossible and I slumped on a bench, belly full of carb drink, Nike Vaporflys on my feet, accepting my race was done. I phoned home for some comfort in the face of my first DNF. “It’s OK”, came the advice, “just don’t do anything stupid like try to carry on.”

‘It was the kind of blue-sky day that Paris was made for, so, rather than head back to the start, I decided to clear my head by walking to the next Metro station. As I padded along I glanced at my watch. Current pace: 12:30 min/mile. I did a quick sum. At this pace I could walk it in under six hours. And that’s what I did, never sure if the next km marker would be my last. Five hours and twenty seven minutes later I crossed the line.

‘Of the 40-something marathons I’ve run, including a sub-3, this remains one of my biggest triumphs. Stubborn and a little stupid, yes, but finding the strength to get up off that bench and turn a day I wanted to forget into one I’ll always remember is a comeback that I still draw on when things go wrong. I’m also pretty sure I now hold the world record for the slowest marathon ever finished in Nike Vaporflys.’

Kieran Alger, RW contributor and 50+ marathon finisher

13. A Womble's wisdom

‘The finish line was in sight. I turned that wonderful corner onto The Mall 20 years ago this April, both hamstrings on my then 18-year-old legs cramping. Glory was in my grasp, but first I was to learn a formative lesson, courtesy of the Womble that emerged on my left shoulder. The figure sprinted ahead, head bobbing from side to side. Racing is a humbling experience and I thank that Womble for setting me up for a lifetime of being chastened.’

Jonny Muir, author of The Mountains Are Calling

14. Enjoying the journey

‘I ran the Valencia Marathon in 2016 with no target time in mind – just making it round would do. Even with this relaxed approach, 26.2 miles is a massive undertaking and the usual pre-race nerves surfaced, but at mile 20 my strategy of not pushing to my limits bore fruit, as I realised The Wall wasn’t going to be an issue. While others around me were crumbling, the realisation that I was not only going to finish, but finish feeling relatively comfortable – slow, but comfortable – was a magical moment that made the final 10km, dare I say it, enjoyable.’

Isaac Williams, RW contributor

15. Horse sense

‘A horse has a top speed of 50mph. A man has a top speed of 20mph. To think that a man could beat a horse in a race, you’d have to be mad. Yet the Man vs Horse marathon challenges homo sapiens to do just that. And in June 2014 I was among a select group of bipeds attempting to beat their four-legged foes over the distance. In the end, I finished 34th – ahead of most of the humans and, improbably, most of the horses, too. But as I drove home, it wasn’t that statistic that stuck in my mind; it was little moments, where I might have pushed harder or given more. When it comes to the marathon, I concluded, it’s not always the quickest runner who wins but the one with the best jockey – the one whose inner voice refuses to let them walk, slow down or give up. Because, ultimately, it’s not horses we are racing. It’s not even the other humans. When it comes to the marathon, we are only ever racing ourselves.’

Rick Pearson, RW section editor

16. In it together

‘At the 2018 Tokyo Marathon, the atmosphere was unlike any race I'd run before. Looking around to see street signs and billboards in Japanese, it felt so foreign, but surrounded by runners you feel so at home; it was a great reminder of how running unites us all. My favourite moment epitomised this: I ran up to former supermodel Christy Turlington, had a chat and took a selfie with her. In that moment we were both just runners, trying to get the marathon finish line like everyone else.’

Charlie Watson, Dietitian and Six-Star Marathon Majors finisher

17. The big Mall moment

‘My memorable marathon moment is running down The Mall at the London Marathon. It’s such a magical experience for everyone and after years of watching it on TV I found it surreal and amazing to actually be running to that iconic finish line. It’s a special memory I’ll never forget.

I hadn’t run a very sensible race. I’d calculated the pace I should realistically aim for but when the gun went off I got consumed by the excitement of the occasion and just went for it, trying to keep up with the lead group. Never having run a marathon before, I didn’t quite comprehend just how much bad pace judgment can catch up with you. I managed to run the qualifying time for the major championships but I ran the second half seven minutes slower than the first and felt delirious during the last 40 minutes. I learned my lesson, but I feel regardless of how you’ve run, just completing the race is so uplifting.’

Jo Pavey, four-time Olympian

18. Rookie errors

‘It was Paris 2011, my first attempt at 26.2 and my first big race. I burned nearly all my energy rushing around to find the bag drop and the start, and generally being nervous. I had no watch back then and, on reflection, I’m pretty sure I went out too quickly. By mile 14 my legs felt like sandbags. I fell over into a Superman position, face first into the cobbles, at mile 15 and dropped all my energy jellybeans.

By mile 16 the four-hour pace group caught up with me; a mile later they cruised off into the distance as I got slower and slower. Somehow I kept up the running motion but it was pure agony to the finish line. I was oh-so-happy to see it, but my very first thought once crossing the line was “Oh for god’s sake, I’ll have to do that all over again to get my target time.” The memory makes me smile, as it was all the rookie errors condensed into one race. Shortly after this, I joined a running club and bought a watch and learnt all about pacing myself….’

Susie Chan, 40-time marathoner, @susie_chan_


19. In your own good time

‘I’d made a big deal about breaking 2:30 at Valencia in 2018, but an over-exuberant start meant I was slowing and it was getting mighty close in the second half.

‘Digging deep in the final miles, focusing on the one person ahead who had paced it worse than I, rather the bundles passing me, I thought back to the pre-race goals and now all that mattered was giving it my best. If I gave it everything and was a few seconds over, then so be it, but I was going to give it everything I had.

‘It wasn’t until 300m to go that it felt OK to celebrate; there would be about 30 seconds to spare, so I enjoyed that moment. Had it been paced perfectly I may have finished slightly faster, but then there might not have been the struggle and it wouldn’t have meant a much.’

Robbie Britton, running coach and GB ultramarathoner

20. A helping hand

‘The Boston Marathon has been described as “14 miles of fun, eight miles of sweat and four miles of hell”. The sting comes between miles 17 and 21, with a series of four hills ending with the famous Heartbreak Hill at 20.5 miles, cruelly positioned for when one’s energy and morale are starting to flag.

‘It gets its name from the 1936 race, when defending champion John Kelley overtook Ellison ‘Tarzan’ Brown on this stretch of road. As he passed, he gave his rival a pat on the shoulder. This just fired Brown up – he chased down Kelley and went on to win, thereby according to The Boston Globe, “breaking Kelley’s heart”.

‘Chasing a PB at Boston 2011, the wheels started to come off. I limped to the side of the road and tried to stretch some life back into my cramping hamstrings and it was only then, bent double, exhausted and dejected, that a chalk drawing of a broken heart on the road reminded me exactly where I was.

‘At that moment, a runner patted me on the back before continuing. It brought me to my senses – the crowd’s roars of encouragement were suddenly deafening, and I noticed the arch marking the top of the hill was only 50 metres away. I pressed on, made it to the top and there saw with a feeling of boundless relief that the road to the finish – and a new PB – was downhill from then on. So thank you, unknown runner, for your simple, wordless act of solidarity, that stopped me becoming another victim of Heartbreak Hill.’

Andy Dixon, RW Editor

21. The power of self-belief

‘It’s 30km into the Berlin Marathon when I catch the four-hour pacers and laugh. I hadn’t believed running coach Lewis Moses, founder of New Levels Coaching, when he said starting slower would pay off. It was pouring with rain, my Garmin had gone mad and I’d been listening to The Greatest Showman soundtrack for the past three hours, but I was running stronger than I ever had and for the first time, I really believed in myself. I crossed the line in 3:58, having run a negative split and taken 12 minutes off my PB. I’m proud of that time, but even prouder of the fact that I’d learnt to believe in myself and my abilities as a runner, which is something you can’t see on my Strava feed.’

Jane McGuire, former RW deputy digital editor and multiple marathon finisher

22. The tiny things

‘At mile 22 of the 2016 London Marathon, I clambered aboard a rollercoaster built for one and did not, could not, get off until I crossed the finish line. In those four miles, I endured and enjoyed marathon moments I won’t forget.

‘First came the calf cramp. I hobbled to the barriers to stretch it out. Behind me, my girlfriend was passing. “Pick it up, Carroll!” she called with the cackling glee of the irretrievably deranged. The spectators at the barrier gave me a look that said they wanted to be sympathetic, but how could they, what with all the laughter. That was a moment to cherish.

‘The next came when I felt my coordination begin to abandon me. I was weaving and wobbling when from behind, I heard a man call, “Come on, John C, you’re almost there.” The night before, I had felt a bit of an eejit writing my name on the back of my top. Now, I was helplessly grateful.

‘The third moment came a mile later, when I again made my shambolic way to the barriers. A woman handed me a bottle of water and, on seeing that I could not open it, took it from me, flipped it open and handed it back. I wanted to hug her, but my arms were not working.

‘The fourth moment came seconds after I was handed my medal. I dropped, seemingly boneless, to the ground. Another runner came over and handed me a bottle of sports drink. “Drink this, you need some sugar in you.” And then he was gone.

Those people showed kindness, warmth, encouragement and concern for me, a stranger, just because I seemed to be in need. Those moments mean nothing to them now, but they continue to mean a great deal to me. And that first moment? Oh, that still comes in handy, when an argument is not going my way: ‘Remember that time…?’

John Carroll, RW contributor and multiple marathon finisher

23. The hard lesson

‘Mile 23 of the Rio de Janeiro Marathon – my first 26.2 and my first encounter with The Wall. A combination of ignorance (this was a long time before I boarded the good ship RW) and a preposterous notion that running with no extra fuel was a true, pure test of my body and spirit’s capacity to endure the distance meant I had taken in nothing but a few sips of water in the preceding miles. The fuel tank was empty, hydration levels Sahara-esque and the wheels came off completely.

Despite the stupidity and futile self-harming of it, I’m glad it happened like that. It’s a moment I think back to often and it taught me two important lessons about marathon running and life in general: 1) Appropriate snackage is often the key to happiness and 2) We are stronger than we know and no matter how bad things feel, with determination and bloody mindedness you can always keep going.

Joe Mackie, RW deputy editor

24. The sound of success

‘I ran the 2019 London Maarathon while recording a podcast. It was my slowest and by far the most enjoyable. Mile 24 is a great stage in any marathon, it’s a tipping point when the proximity of the finish starts to overpower the pain of the distance already run. At London it coincides with Blackfriars Bridge and a cracking sound system. I’d already started to feel a bit giddy and with the more social vibe of the podcast and the deep house music echoing under the bridge I found myself falling into a kind of rave flashback mindset. Everyone was screaming, whooping, encouraging each other. The worst was over, the finish in sight, and we were totally enjoying the moment. We surged towards the noisy crowd on the other side of the bridge, a yomping barbaric army making merry hell on the way to the Mall. I’ll never forget the second we burst back into the light. The noise of the crowd, the music, the sheer head-shredding unadulterated joy of it.’

Paul Tonkinson, comedian, RW columnist and sub-3 marathoner

25. The warrior code

‘I’ve run many London Marathons but 2008 stands out. I was in a PB-chasing marathon-a-year phase; I wasn't there for the bands and the high fives and the jelly babies, it was all about results. Early in the race, somewhere around Woolwich, I was going well when I gradually became aware of a soulful chanting, accompanied by a feint, rhythmic chink of metal. The sound grew closer until a gap in the pack opened up to reveal six Masai warriors, wielding spears and shields, running and singing in unison. I'd heard about them on the news. These warriors had travelled from Tanzania to raise funds to bring clean water to their village.

They appeared almost to dance rather than run, feet clad in sandals with jewelled bands jingling around their ankles and wrists. I thought about how far away from home they were, how alien London's dense, crowd-lined streets must seem and I found myself fighting back tears, incredibly moved. I ran beside them for a few moments. Adhering to the mile targets on my pace band seemed suddenly unimportant compared with the privilege of doing so.’

Sam Murphy, coach and RW columnist

Photo credit: Damian Hall
Photo credit: Damian Hall

26. Changed forever

‘A first time is special. Even if, in marathons as with some of life’s other rites of passage, it’s usually the clumsiest, messiest and least successful one. My 26.2-mile debut was Brighton in 2012, which I ran dressed as a toilet to raise money for WaterAid. People kept shouting, "You look a bit flushed mate". Which was funny for the first 10 miles.

At 17 miles – not coincidentally the same distance as my longest ever run – I smacked into The Wall. It was uncomfortable after that. And much slower. But the crowds were incredible. I felt such a rush of warmth from them, I thought my ears – and my heart – would explode.

Finally crashing over the line, I'll remember forever. Suddenly everything went quiet. Everything stopped. My world had changed. Everyone around me was wrapped in silver. My feet were in bits. But I'd done it. And it felt so good. I wanted more. This. This was for me.’

Damian Hall, coach and record-breaking ultramarathoner

Photo credit: J. Quinton - Getty Images
Photo credit: J. Quinton - Getty Images

26.2 The truth about marathons

‘Crossing the line in one piece! I never thought I could run a marathon… it’s long, long way!’

Kelly Holmes, double Olympic Gold medallist

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