CEO’s Blog: London Marathon 2021 (Part 2): Je ne regret rien!

My regular readers will know from the trail of breadcrumbs I have left in my past two blogs whether to read on or not.  This blog is the second, and concluding, part of my marathon adventure and, once again, you are warned that what follows is wholly self-indulgent and largely unrelated to the blogs I typically write about leadership, schools, children and stuff. 

So, if you stop right here, there are no hard feelings and I’ll hope to pick up with you via my next “proper” blog later this month.  If you’re still here, remember that with choices come consequences.  And also remember that you get what you pay for – and this blog is free!  There is a quid pro quo, however.  Whilst this blog is essentially a way for me to document what I will state here at the outset was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had, it is also a way for me to avoid boring others to excess in the real world.  If someone is interested in my marathon (I use the possessive form, because it is mine now!), I will direct them here.

I’ll begin by reminding you where we left off in Blog #1 in mid-September: a few weeks before the race, training going OK, some nerves, random ornithology about herons and pheasants, and much excitement.

Now we can fast forward to Saturday (2nd October) and the day before the race.  The bag is packed and the train from Watford Junction is booked.  The plan is to drive from home to Watford (which, remarkably, is 26 miles from central London), park up and get the train in from there.  My wife’s thinking is that if she has to scoop me up off the tarmac at the end (neither of us really know how likely this might be), she can at least bundle me into our car – where there is a blanket on stand-by – and drive us straight back home.  Vicki has been amazing in her support for all this throughout, helping with logistics, motivation and fundraising.  She is a star.

Next stop after arrival at Euston is the London Excel Centre, for bag drop-off, final registration (proof of ID, lateral flow test result etc.) and to collect the bib for the race.  The queues are long, as we were warned they would be on the day before the event, but the atmosphere is jovial, and the excitement is palpable.  There are a worrying number of young, athletically-framed young men with chiselled features and broad shoulders, accompanied by slender young women clad in Lycra.  By comparison, I present to the officials as someone who is holding the kit for a friend who has popped to the toilets.  Imposter syndrome was hanging around my neck tighter than the drawstrings of the bag.  They call it “Maranoia”, and it is very real!

Then after all that, back onto the Docklands Light Railway to Canary Wharf and the hotel for the night.  A carb-laden pizza, a glass of wine (to settle the nerves) and an early night with “Strictly Come Dancing”, listening to the torrential rain outside and hoping for calm skies in the morning, which there were.  A breakfast of porridge, beans on toast and more porridge – again in the company of the ripped, the bronzed and the beautiful, and a photo (in full gear – including the recommended bottle belt) before setting off via Lewisham to my start at Blackheath.

The train to Blackheath was packed with runners and the smell of anticipation and “Deep Heat” muscle spray was in the air.  My start gate was “Blue” and my wave number was “13” – neither the colour nor the number that is characteristic of optimism and success.   But superstition is for the weak!

Then we wait.  And wait.  It is now 9:30 am, and all the sponsors’ hot air balloons and rah-rah commentary over the Tannoy cannot provide comfort or distraction.  I talk to a nice man called Vash, who is running his first London Marathon too (for the “Make a Wish” children’s charity) and a lady from Texas who has been training in 100-degree temperatures for this.  As the day unfolds, her training will be more relevant than she envisaged at the start.  It will get very warm later!  A few photos at the start line, throwing away the old and tatty hand-me-up hoody that I took from my son’s wardrobe to keep me warm before the race, and we’re away.   It’s 10:36 am, and we have 26.2 miles to go – except for the meandering and weaving that will add precious extra yards to the route.  If the race goes badly wrong, those extra yards are very much on my list of excuses together with various real and imaginary causes of my downfall which include an olive of dubious origins on my pizza, my choice of running socks and the air conditioning in the hotel but excludes diet, training, and inherent ability.

Before moving to the race itself, I must write briefly about the people I met at the Marathon.  They were incredible.  So many individuals with stories of personal courage, and so many running for great causes, raising funds for those who need them, or in memory of those no longer with us.  From a diversity of backgrounds, places, ages and contexts, “#WeRunTogether” was a fitting strapline for the race, celebrating the return of the mass participation event after two and a half years, and the fact that the event unifies us all.  It is the contradiction that we all collectively are running our own race individually.  It just works.

For race day at least, it seemed all of us were able to suspend our cynicism and embrace our humanity.  It was truly inspiring.  I ran alongside a range of other competitors, but only for a few miles each.  To find someone with a pace, a gait, a time target and energy levels to match one’s own is pretty much impossible.  So we’d run, chat, and either I’d move off or they would.  There was “John” from Hertfordshire, running for Macmillan who saw me through Miles 3 -7 (past Greenwich Maritime and The Cutty Sark) until the ‘Kernow’ flag that adorned his running vest was greeted by whoops of delight from a Cornish contingent of spectators and he was lost to them.  Then there was Craig from Basildon, and Rebecca from Cape Town.  All with stories, all first timers like me, and all great people.

So, let’s pick up at Mile 8, where we see (but don’t photograph – the phone has gone away now, it’s only function being to track my route via GPS for the App.) high streets with steel bands, dhol drummers and busy pubs blaring out “Eye of the Tiger”, “We are the Champions” and other suitably upbeat tracks over loudspeakers.  It’s just great.  At Mile 9, we are over a third distance, and all is good.

The half-way stage is just the other side of Tower Bridge which, to run across, is a high point of the event.  Shortly after, we find ourselves in something of a “contraflow”, with the more experienced club runners heading towards Embankment and the finish (they are on miles 21-23) whilst we literal ‘also rans’ are trudging through Miles 14 to 16.  The sun is high in the London skies now (about 1:00 pm) and the opposite carriageway has more than a few runners now walking.  Psychologically, that’s not great to see when we know that they are far ahead of us and we have all that to come, but the legs are still functioning fine and I choose to turn a blind eye, looking to the crowds on my near side as opposed to my fellow runners beyond the barriers. 

Miles 16-18 are largely residential.  No real landmarks to see (and I’ll admit that my gaze was sometimes towards my own feet rather than the scenery) and the crowds were sometimes quite thin.  I comfort myself on mile 16 that there are only ten miles to go, but then I think back to where I was ten miles back (and Cutty Sark) and become acutely aware of just how much running still lies ahead – and that’s if I’m lucky!

Mile 19 is a high point.  We’re back at Canary Wharf and the business district.  The high-rise office developments offer welcome shade from the sun, and there is a brilliant surprise around one corner when Vicki cheers me on and takes an ‘action shot’ as I run by.

Then we’re back onto the ‘contraflow’ for Miles 20 to 23, but this time heading towards Embankment ourselves.  There are still plenty of brave souls pouring through in the other direction at mile 14, and I’m beginning to feel leggy.  I am not watching the time on my watch at all, but I am conscious that I’m slowing down from a pace that was quite pedestrian to start with. 

At some stage after Mile 23, we move into what is clearly the final phase.  Basically, a 5K.  The contraflow is over, and we’re running through undulating tunnels and flyovers towards the banks of the Thames.  After Mile 24, I see green matting that reads “2000 metres to go” as I run across it.  That, and the amazing crowds, give a much-needed boost to morale: I will do this, and I am not going to walk!

We turn right at The Houses of Parliament and the heavens open with a ferocious cloudburst (I am running for ‘The Rainy Day Trust’ after all!) and we head towards Buckingham Palace and The Mall.  We pass a “600 metres to go” sign, and then we turn the final bend.  I congratulate random strangers running alongside me, and they reciprocate.  We’ve only gone and bloody done it!

Marshalls give us a smile and a hearty “well done” and gently shepherd us away from the finishing line and towards our bags, containing our medals.  The rain stops, and we literally bask in the warmth of achievement.  I check the time: 4 hours 31 minutes and 23 seconds.  I’d hoped for ten minute miles (which I’d calculated as a 4 hour 30 minute finish), and worked out – and I’ll admit that this was only when my brain was no longer mush – that the 0.2 miles at the end meant that I’d got there.  My average time was 9 mins 59 seconds per mile, would you believe.

So.  That’s it.  We found our way back to the tube, to Euston, to the car and home.  I was exhausted, and thought I would fall asleep on arrival home.  The reality was that I was awake much of the night, still “buzzing” from the day. In actual fact, most of this blog was written during that time. 

I always round off my blogs by thanking you for reading.  However, here I want to thank all those who supported me – through encouragement or sponsorship – to do this.  If you wanted to help ‘The Rainy Day Trust’, my page is still open here. They’re a very worthy cause that I’m proud to have helped.

Thanks for reading. 


CEO’s Blog: London Marathon 2021 (Part 1): Better to live with remorse than regret?

Readers of my September blog will recall me advising (or warning!) that there would be an additional, running-themed, blog this month.  This is it.

One of the highlights of summer tends to be that I can get out a little more, especially during school holidays.  However, it has still tended to be essentially leisurely:  the occasional glance at the watch but nothing more, accompanied by an Amazon Music playlist or an Audible audiobook, and the thought of a nice cuppa at the end. 

This changed, out of the blue, about five weeks ago.  A text from a colleague asked whether I wanted to take the place of a charity runner in the London Marathon who had dropped out with injury.  Knowing its place in the calendar to reside in April each year, I became excited at the prospect of six months to get ready to race in the spring of 2022.  It was a jaw-dropping moment when, discussing fundraising with the charity’s CEO, I was advised that the postponed 2021 London Marathon was, in fact, being held on 3rd October.  But, having wanted to run London several years earlier, I recalled the psychobabble of sporting biographies.  Everything from it “being better to live with remorse for what you’ve done than regret for what you haven’t” through “I’ve missed 100% of the shots I never took” to the somewhat masochistic “pain is temporary but victory is permanent” told me to confirm my entry. “Just do it.” And I did.

My six months’ training had turned into six weeks.  Leisurely ambles along my local streets transformed into longer and longer stretches in the early hours of Sunday mornings along canal towpaths and country lanes – with increasing amounts of water, jelly babies and other sustenance crammed into my pockets.  Just me, the herons (towpaths) and the pheasants (lanes). 

Quite different to the course itself:

Fundraising has gone really well, and I want to take this opportunity to thank all those who have supported the charity I’m running for.  The Rainy Day Trust does some incredible work with tradespeople who have encountered hardship, and for young people who have barriers to their journey into becoming a skilled tradesman or woman.  Running for them is an additional motivation.  My late father spent his working life in the building industry, and so this cause resonates with me.  If you want to know more about The Rainy Day Trust, or show your support, here’s a link:

Now we’re three weeks away.  The train to London is booked, as is the hotel room.  The jelly babies have been purchased.

I’ll be writing a ‘Part 2’ when I’m through the other side.  Better to live with remorse than regret?  I’ll let you know!

Thanks for reading. 


CEO’s Blog: September 2021: The “thief of joy”?

It was wonderful to see colleagues and children returning to our schools at the start of the month.  I have felt a palpable sense of resolve to meet the challenges of the term ahead, and an excitement at the re-engagement with friends and acquaintances after a summer break which, for many within our school communities, included a significant amount of work as preparation for the onset of the new academic year.

Looking back at my blog for September 2020, I concluded with the following: “But let us all hope for calmer waters and more favourable tides than those we’ve encountered most recently.”  This time last year many of us, or arguably most of us, looked forward to 2020-21 as the time when schools would return to a “new normal” and examinations and tests would determine the final outcomes for the children of Years 6, 11 and 13.  This wasn’t mere wishful thinking, but a reasoned series of assumptions based on the information that was forthcoming at the time. 

Today, we also look forward to “calmer waters and more favourable tides” and with greater confidence than this time last year.  It is our innate optimism as educators that drives us to look at the future positively.  Within John Taylor MAT, our statement of intent is that “we believe in the power of education to improve lives – and the world.” That is an inherently optimistic view of both education and the future, and I continue to subscribe to it unashamedly.

Whilst on a lengthy run a couple of weeks ago (more of running in a supplemental blog in a fortnight’s time!) I was struck by a quotation from American moral and social philosopher Eric Hoffer (pictured below) that featured in the audiobook I was “reading” at the time (by another American social philosopher, Thomas Sowell).  I bookmarked the section, and have found the quotation subsequently and transcribed it here:

“There are many who find a good alibi far more attractive than an achievement. For an achievement does not settle anything permanently. We still have to prove our worth anew each day; we have to prove that we are as good today as we were yesterday. But when we have a valid alibi for not achieving anything we are fixed, so to speak, for life.”

Eric Hoffer, The Passionate State of Mind: And Other Aphorisms [1954]

One doesn’t have to have worked in a school to recognise the above as being a succinct but highly accurate attitude to life that some individuals will exhibit and seek to exploit.  It is in no small part the work of the “rest of us” – young and old – in school and beyond to challenge the alibis and settle for nothing less than achievement.  And having sought achievement, recognise and celebrate it when it is evident – and then insist on greater accomplishment still. 

In our school communities we want everyone to become the best version of themselves they can.  This means comparison between their past self and their present, and the comparison between their present self and their future.  “Comparison is the thief of joy”, as the ancient Sufis claimed.  But in that context the comparison is with others – their wealth, their status, their achievements, and even their happiness.  In our schools, we avoid comparison with others when it comes to an individual and their progress.  To do otherwise, opens the door to the “good alibi” that Hoffer seeks to guard us against.

So, let today be your best day – except for tomorrow, which will be better still!

Thanks for reading.