When the annual London Marathon starts this Sunday 4 October, it will look worlds away from previous editions of the race.
The UK’s coronavirus lockdown forced the April race to be delayed for six months, and only a handful runners, all elite, will be taking part on the official course around St James’s Park in central London.
The 45,000 other participants will run or walk a marathon (26.2 miles, or 42km) at a time and place of their choosing on Sunday, logging their progress on an app to make their time official and secure a much-revered medal. If there is an advantage, it’s that people from around UK, and across the world, can make their front door the start and finish line.
Here are some of their stories.
Cumbersome Cornish coast costumes
Gill Silverthorn has had a few odd looks from people while preparing for her proxy London Marathon, which will take place along coastal paths and promenades around Penzance, Cornwall.
Gill, a semi-retired shop owner who lives in Sennen Cove, laughs as she describes the facial expressions of three construction workers who saw her out running earlier this week – in her 10kg rhino costume. “They probably thought they’d had one too many beers last night,” the 60-year-old says.
While it might be a comical sight to behold, wearing the costume is no laughing matter.
“You run along holding the head still so you’re in a really difficult running style. You’re hunched over. You sort of have to crane your neck to see. And you mustn’t swing around because your head is so big that you might bash someone else on the path,” says Gill.
Gill, who has just about recovered from the blisters she got while doing 2,000 laps of her patio on the day the marathon should have gone ahead in April, will have her husband Kevin on hand to steer her around any obstacles – “pavement, bicycle, pedestrian or whatever”.
She hopes wearing the cumbersome costume will be worth it to raise awareness for Save the Rhino. “You get people coming up taking photos, the kids love it, and people [will] ask what it’s all about.”
‘We’ll be starting at midnight’
Around the time Gill will pull her costume on on Sunday morning, Sue Flynn hopes to already be crossing the virtual finish line.
Runners must start and finish their run between 00:00 BST and 23:59 on Sunday – and Sue, 49, is setting off as the clock strikes midnight.
The manager for PricewaterhouseCoopers persuaded her five fellow runners to get the race out of the way as early as possible so that she can give her son a lift to his Army training base in Pirbright, Surrey, later that day.
She’s not daunted by the night-time excursion because she’s done plenty of miles in the dark during previous winter training sessions with her local club, Coulsdon Runners. Sue and her fellow club runners will have an afternoon nap on Saturday, a big meal at 18:00 BST, and then set off, at a safe distance from each other, at midnight.
The group has picked a route that repeatedly loops back to a pet shop in Coulsdon, south London – owned by another running pal – which will act a base for the inevitable pit stops needed during the seven-hour-ish effort of running and walking.
Sue, who is originally from Australia but lives in Purley, “really missed everybody” at the club during lockdown – and she’s found training for the virtual marathon a great way to reconnect.
The experience also means Sue can add to her tattoo collection. She’s got inked tributes to each of the previous other three marathons she’s done – Dublin, London and Brighton – on her leg, and is excited to add something “a little bit different” to the mix.
From Big Ben to Brisbane
Sue isn’t the only one who will be starting early – in UK time, at least. Elizabeth Gallagher lives in Brisbane, on Australia’s east coast, so it’ll be 3am UK time – and midday in Brisbane – when she starts her race.
Elizabeth, 36, hadn’t been running during lockdown, but when the race went virtual she got “so excited” and took the plunge. “It was midnight here and I just booked straight away. And then the next morning I thought ‘Oh no, what have I done?'” she says.
Since then, training has been going well. But Elizabeth does feel wistful about being 10,000 miles (16,000km) away from the usual start line in Greenwich, south-east London, near where she lived in 2017 and 2018.
“I really wish I was there now. I’ve got heaps of friends in London now so they’d be out. Fundraising would have been easier. The weather would’ve been much nicer too,” she says.
As Brisbane’s spring creeps towards summer, Elizabeth has been doing dawn training sessions to avoid the heat of the day. But a forecast of 27C for Sunday morning and rain in the afternoon means she plans to set off in the middle of the day.
“It was a decision between getting sunburnt or getting a bit of rain. I went for rain.”
Elizabeth, a public servant for Queensland’s government, says the event will be pretty low key for her, and hopes for the simple post-race luxury of fish and chips on the waterfront with her boyfriend. As is the wish for many people on their first marathon, Elizabeth says: “I just want to finish.”
Switching Tower Bridge for Top Gear’s test track
On the other end of the spectrum of marathon experience is Chris Finill.
Chris, 61, is one of the “Ever Presents” – a group of only 10 people who have completed every London Marathon since it began in 1981. He turns up to the race year in, year out, because it gives him a “sense of continuity and connection”.
“When I ran my first London I was 22, an undergraduate at university, and now I’m semi-retired. My parents died long ago but they would come up and watch me when they were around, and my children first went to the London Marathon when they were three months old and now they’re all in their mid-20s or early 30s. So the whole of my adult life, it’s always been there,” he says.
Chris had hoped the Ever Presents might be allowed to run in central London, where the elite runners will be competing, as representatives of the non-elite field. But he points out that most of the veterans are over 70, and therefore at higher risk of a serious coronavirus infection.
“It’s not the way any of us want to run our 40th Londons but under the circumstances, it’s the very best we can do,” says Chris, who is the finance bursar at the Duke of Kent School in Ewhurst, Surrey.
Chris, who lives in Cranleigh, has had his fair share of bizarre experiences while running London – such as the brutal 2018 edition which he finished in a haze of pain after breaking his arm in four places just 3.5 miles in.
But this year completing the race by running laps of Dunsfold Aerodrome in Surrey – Top Gear’s test track – will be up there with the most memorable.
As fun as speeding along a racing track might be, Chris is hoping the virtual race will be just “an interesting blip in London’s history – whereas at the moment it feels like an enormous cliff face that we’re all facing”.
“It will be more meaningful to get to the finish on Sunday than it would be in a normal year because most people’s journeys to get to the start line have been pretty difficult – let alone the race itself,” he said.
“So I think we’ll all feel a particular sense of relief and satisfaction when we cross that finish line.”