Not everyone’s experience of the London marathon last weekend was a positive one. Elizabeth Ayres was the official pacer for the 7.5 hour group – the first time that such a pacing group has been introduced to the marathon. She found the experience so distressing that she recounted it in detail on social media, and her story has subsequently been picked up by the BBC as well as national and international press.
The aim of including slower-paced groups was a deliberate move on the part of the London marathon to make the run “more inclusive”, but this wasn’t Elizabeth’s experience.
So what happened? “The first mile was fantastic – it’s what you see on TV,” says Elizabeth. “But at about a mile and a half, these flatbed trucks and vans started weaving around us, beginning the clean up ops.”
Understandably, this was enormously demotivating to Elizabeth’s pack of runners. But worse was still to come. “When we got to 5K where there was supposed to be a water station, there wasn’t one. We got to 6K, and there was no water station there either, not even a sign. For about 11 or 12 miles, there was no water, no Lucozade, no support from the officials.”
And then the sprayers started. “Then we got these big orange vehicles coming though, spraying liquid. They came up right behind us. I told them to back off, and he just kept coming forward. Then they started spraying, it was all on the back of me. He did that for two miles. Thankfully they got held up before we got on to Tower Bridge, but then we got penned in by sewage trucks all the way across.
“At the other side of the bridge, it all started again, and that’s when the abuse started. One of my runners asked about water, and a marshal said, ‘if you weren’t so fat, you wouldn’t be so slow, would you?’ I told him he couldn’t talk to people like that. There were quite a few of them doing that – ‘Come on, hurry up!’ – I was so mad.”
At mile 22, Elizabeth was informed that the organisers had changed the official finish cut off time to 6.40 rather than 7 as previously agreed. “So then people were getting upset and saying they wouldn’t get their times. It was such a slap in the face to these people who had trained and looked forward to their day.”
The disappointment and bad management didn’t stop there. When they reached the embankment, they were all forced on to the pavements. “We had to fight through tourists and spectators, and there here were massive bags of rubbish all over the place.
As we came around to Buckingham Palace, I told all our runners to start running – and a lot of them did, I was so proud of them.”
Elizabeth and her band of runners made it over the finish line, only to be told that they had to walk to the far side of the mall to collect their goody bags, and to add insult to injury, “by the way the t-shirts are all extra small”.
So what’s happened since? “When I posted on my little blog, it was only to my 20 or 30 followers, but when I woke up the next morning I thought I’d broken Facebook! And then the phone started ringing…”
Elizabeth has subsequently featured in national and international press and has even appeared on the Victoria Derbyshire programme on the BBC. “She was so lovely! She took no nonsense.”
But the BBC isn’t the end of the journey. As Elizabeth explains, this is just the beginning of the fight. “I talked to Hugh Brasher [the event director] yesterday and told him I’d accept his apology for now. I can sympathise with them that they can’t offer all answers right now, but it took them three days to respond to me about what we were sprayed with. And I’ve heard nothing about the roads closing at 7 hours when they’ve got a 7.30 pacer. Or why the contractors were doing what they were doing. I bet they didn’t chase Mo with a clean up lorry because he was going a bit slow! No one was shouting abuse at him!”
“I’ve had so many messages from people saying that this isn’t new, it happens every year. I feel that the the London Marathon is not really sincere about inclusivity or resolving these problems. I told Hugh that I’m going back next year whether I have a place or not, and I’m going to walk behind the very back and see what happens. I said that if nothing changes, the attention it has brought this year will have nothing on what happens next year. There will be 600 of us at the start line with plenty of water and jelly babies, to make sure they look after their back markers.”
So how can we help? “I want to raise awareness of the back of the pack. They’re not all there because they didn’t bother, or they’re too fat. They should be encouraged: they’re being active and making a difference to themselves. A lot of the runners at the front and middle don’t see this, even at the local races. Marshalls go home, spectators leave. It would be nice if running clubs could be more inclusive.
“I run with a crew called Backpackers, based in London. You can run no matter what your pace is, and it caters for everybody. I started pacing for their races when I was coming back from injury. I’d pulled a calf muscle, and I fell to the back and everyone was having a laugh and eating sweets and listening to music. I like being at the back, it’s so much fun!
“The runners at the back are the heroes,” Elizabeth says emphatically. “We should give people `at the back a cheer, and ask if they’re okay. Look after the back of the pack: they’re the ones most likely to come back!”