A London Marathon like no other takes place on Sunday. The field is small, elite, and will be running tight laps rather than a wide loop. But there will be a Welsh flavour, too, all looking for fast times as Owen Morgan reports.
Four Welsh athletes will take their places in arguably the greatest and most exclusive marathon fields ever assembled this Sunday.
With a mass participation Virgin Money London Marathon event out of the question this year due to the COVID-19 restrictions, elite men’s, women’s and wheelchair races will go ahead in the capital on Sunday.
Lining up on a closed loop course around St James’s Park will be Natasha Cockram, Charlie Hulson, Josh Griffiths and Dan Nash.
The quartet headed to London on Friday to join athletes from around the world in a biosecure bubble set up in a hotel in the capital, where they will stay until their respective races start on Sunday.
Swansea Harrier Griffiths has happy memories of marathon running in London having shocked the athletics’ world by emerging from the club running ranks to win the British title at the 2017 event.
That outstanding performance earned him a place on the Great Britain team at the World Athletics Championships marathon in the city later the same year.
Then, at last year’s London Marathon, the self-coached Carmarthenshire runner posted a personal best of 2:14.25.
While Griffiths accepts this year’s race will be a very different experience to his past performances in London in many ways, much will still be familiar.
Griffiths said: “It’s obviously going to be different to a normal London Marathon, but in terms of the elite field it’s very similar. If you look at the elite field from 2019 and compare it to this year they are almost the same.
“And after 400 metres of the race the elite field always breaks away anyway, so as nice as it is to start with 40,000 people you’re often on your own after a little while anyway.”
The 38-strong men’s race features a stellar list of the world’s greatest marathon runners, even after the late withdrawal of Ethiopian legend Kenenisa Bekele, which will deny athletics fans of a much anticipated showdown with world record holder Eliud Kipchoge.
But Griffiths admits he will miss the unique London Marathon atmosphere with the restricted elite field and without the usual throng of spectators lining the route.
“I think the main difference is going to be the lack of a crowd and the course,” he told Dai Sport. “The crowds in London are amazing and the course is iconic as well.
“That said, I think the course this year is very fast and it’s flat, you can just get into a rhythm and pick off the laps.
“It’s probably faster than the normal London, I will miss the crowds for sure but I will focus on my own race, so I don’t think it will make too much of a difference.”
Griffiths feels the course, which features 19 laps of an enclosed loop of St James’s Park before the traditional finish on the Mall, could work in his favour in order to clock a fast time.
“The laps don’t really bother me. I’ve done 10k on the track which is 25 laps. I’ve done lots of track sessions which feature loads of laps, cross country has got laps, so it’s not something that is completely new to me.
“I haven’t done 19 of them in a London Marathon before obviously, but the World Champs in London was a lap course. I feel like I’m a bit better prepared experience wise than some others, but everyone is going to be ready to run, it’s still 26 miles at the end of the day.
Excited to be racing the 40th @LondonMarathon in October! Big thanks to the organisers for giving us a chance to race! Just over 6 weeks to go 🏃🏻♂️ #the40thrace #LondonMarathon #Take2 https://t.co/Ra8RMmhh09
— Josh Griffiths (@JoshGriffRun) August 21, 2020
“The course looks fast and it’s flat, you’re not going to get much flatter than that in London. The field is good, I feel good so I will give it a good shot and see what I can do.”
Griffiths believes this year’s unique format will be a perfect opportunity to show off the growing pool of marathon talent in this country ahead of next year’s Olympic Games, along with the World Athletics Championships, Commonwealth Games and European Championships the following year.
It’s a prospect that Griffiths himself is hoping to take advantage of.
“I actually think it’s a really good chance to showcase elite marathon running and British marathon runners.
“Often the elite race gets lost in the middle of all the other things going on. But this time all three races are separate so there is no reason why they can’t get a good focus on each race. It would be nice to see them show the elite British men and women.
“It’s a shame everyone else can’t be there, but it’s a good chance to focus on the talent we have in the sport.
— Virgin Money London Marathon (@LondonMarathon) October 2, 2020
“There are lots of championships coming up which is exciting. Once the world gets back to normal there will be lots of things to aim for.
“This is a good chance to get a good time on the board and help myself to get selected for one of those competitions.”
Another athlete looking to take advantage of the potentially speedy course is Micky Morris Racing Team athlete Cockram.
However, just a few weeks ago, the Gwent athlete who moved to a new base in Norfolk earlier this year, feared she wouldn’t make the women’s race start line alongside the likes of world record holder Brigid Kosgei, world champion Ruth Chepngetich and 2018 London champion Vivian Cheruiyot .
Cockram has made several emergency trips back to Wales in order to get treatment for a mystery ankle injury.
Cockram said: “I had a bit of a mishap about two weeks ago, I wasn’t sure whether I was going to make the start line.
“I did a workout on the Friday, which was the best one I’d ever had and then two days later I couldn’t even run. My ankle was just too painful.
“I had an MRI and an ultra sound. They couldn’t really find an awful lot. But with a bit of extra treatment, some extra rest and talking to the doctors and physios, it’s just been okay for the last week or so, so I’m ready to go again.
“I saw a physio in Cwmbran every day for a week before they went back into lockdown. Then I saw the Welsh Athletics physio and doctor. So a nine-hour round trip to get physio, but it was worth it.
“I’m back running pretty much pain free, so I’m excited to get going again.”
Like Griffiths, the 2:30.49 marathon runner feels the course and the occasion itself is made for fast times, personal bests and Olympic Games qualifying standards.
Cockram said: “I think as an elite athlete it’s going to be good. It’s unfortunate the masses don’t get to race. Without them the atmosphere is not going to be the same.
“But from an elite perspective I think it is going to be much better, because it is more geared to a time trial and getting that Olympic standard rather than the race itself.
“With it being laps is going to help and it’s quite sheltered as well. It’s obviously flat and continuously turning right but I don’t think there are any sharp bends so that will be good.
“Looking at the course profile, it looks like the turns are not sharp enough to really slow you down, they’ve taken that into consideration when planning it so I think it will be a fast course.
Among other things we do to support runners at all levels, we run a scheme to invest in British elite marathon runners, who are often underfunded yet inspiring to many.
— TheMilestonePursuit (@the_milestoneP) September 11, 2020
“I’m definitely hoping for a PB. I just want to get the Olympic standard, which is 2:29.30 or faster so that will be the aim. Hopefully, get a PB either way, but that is the main aim to get the Olympic standard.”
Another Welsh athlete with ambitions of gaining an Olympic standard on Sunday is Flintshire’s Hulson, who made a spectacular marathon debut in Valencia last December when he clocked 2:14.22.
In a recent interview with the Trackstaa.com website, New Balance athlete Hulson said: “The plan is just to improve on 2:14. I do know that I am capable of going quicker.
“Perhaps in the region of 2:12 or lower. But yeah, this race is mainly to improve a fair bit on my debut in Valencia and I know then than I will be right there around the Olympic qualifying time.”
Hulson, who works full-time at the family bakery in Mold – generally starting at 6am and finishing at 5pm – said: “I’m not going to go mad, I’m planning on a negative split to get in and around 2:12.”
The fourth of the Welsh quartet is Cardiff’s Nash, whose tweet to organisers back in August helped persuade them to invite more domestic athletes like himself into the elite field.
Nash may not be a full-time elite runner, but as his 2:18.51 personal best confirms the 50km British record holder is a high quality athlete worthy of his place in the field.
— Dai Sport (@Dai_Sport_) September 3, 2019
After arriving at the secret bubble location in London on Friday, Nash said he was delighted his speculative tweet had paid off.
The 50k World Championship individual bronze medallist told Dai Sport: “I’m in the bubble and it’s all a bit strange having everyone here in masks and socially distancing and all that, but it’s good to be here and it all feels quite real now!
“We’ve all got these computer chips basically which we carry with us at all time and if we go within two metres of someone else they start beeping at us. So you’ve got to stay away otherwise you’ve got to put up with some annoying beeping!”
However that hasn’t stopped Nash rubbing shoulders – figuratively speaking – with the likes of Sir Mo Farah, who is acting as a pacemaker, and the second fastest marathon runner in history Bekele, before the Ethiopian was forced to withdraw.
“We saw him when I first arrived and then half an hour ago they said he had pulled out with a calf injury which is a bit of a shame.
“It’s really exciting, there are lots of other famous names walking around. We all had lunch earlier and again it was strange that we were all social distancing, but having Mo Farah sitting at the table next to you is pretty cool and I’ve definitely not had that experience before!”
Nash, who is helping nurture the next generation of Welsh endurance athletes as a coach and in his work as a PhD student researching training and load monitoring, is certainly not in London just to do some star-spotting.
For those of you who missed my Physiology of Endurance Running webinar series, the recordings can be found here:
Part 1- https://t.co/QQmj6Gyi7e
Part 2- https://t.co/fyNeuVoJjB
— Dan Nash (@Dan_Nash94) June 5, 2020
The Cardiff Athletics man is eyeing up a new personal best and in the longer term hopes for a spot on the Welsh team at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games in 2022.
“Training has gone well and I’m feeling really fit which hopefully means I can make the most of the opportunity I have been given,” says Nash.
“There is a bunch of Brits here, I think we are going to plan to go through halfway in 68 minutes and then we’ll see what happens from there.
“I think some are likely to push on while others will hang on to try and hold that pace, but there are certainly quite a lot of Brits who are going to try and work together and hopefully have a good race.”
Like Griffiths, he feels the event is the ideal opportunity to highlight British distance running.
“I’m hoping they will do that in the TV coverage and it won’t just be the top five or 10. I hope they do use it as an opportunity to profile a few more of the Brits because I think there is going to be a good British battle with 14 of us racing.
“We are all going to be reasonably close, we are going to all be between around two hours nine and two hours 16. Hopefully the coverage represents that and shows it off.
“I don’t think that would have been the case if it had been the usual mass race. I’ve had quite a few interviews and it’s been the same with some of the other Brits. I think we are definitely getting a higher profile than if it had been a mass event.”
— Peter Gillibrand (@GillibrandPeter) October 2, 2020
Nash’s Cardiff vest won’t be the only one on show this Sunday with club mate and English international Josh Lunn also taking part in the race, while Matt Clowes, Jake Smith and Charlotte Arter are due to take up pacemaking duties.
In the wheelchair races, British Paralympic great David Weir will be aiming for a record ninth win in the men’s event, with course record holder Manuela Schar attempting to follow up her 2019 success in the women’s race.
Although they won’t be on the streets of London, 45,000 people across the UK and 109 countries have signed up to take part in the virtual 2020 event.
They will run the 40th race from home or anywhere in the world on the course of their choice between 00:00 and 23.59:59 BST on Sunday.
You can watch all the action from central London on the BBC, starting from 7am on BBC2 with the elite women’s race.
Over on BBC One, the men’s race coverage starts at 10am, while the wheelchair races will be screened on BBC Two from 1pm.
There will also be coverage on BBC iPlayer, BBC Sport website and mobile app.