The story (and irony) of a ‘Good For Age’ Virgin London Marathon place

The story (and irony) of a ‘Good For Age’ VLM place… 24th March 2016

It arrived through the post this morning: my Virgin London Marathon ‘Good for Age’ entry pack. It’s my third time securing a place by virtue of achieving a ‘qualifying time’, and – dare I say it – I’ve become a bit blasé about it.

But it wasn’t always this way. Here’s my story.

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My first ever London Marathon was when Tilly was 7 months old. It was my post-pregnancy goal – my reason to come back fighting. This diary entry was written when Tilly was just 11 weeks old:

“Getting through the pregnancy seemed a long haul – especially in this job – but we got there, and on 22 September at 9.10pm Tilly Cullen Hanson was born. This whole journey has given me a brand new perspective on the pressures of being a new mum, having expectations of my own body that are unrealistic, and adapting to a totally new way of life. Experiencing new responsibilities, having a new focus and a (very) high mountain to climb to get myself back from a walking incubator to being ‘me’ again all seems like a daunting task. My little girl is now only 11 weeks old, and my challenge has just started. Only this time I want to be fitter, stronger, and faster than before. Why should being a mum mean that I have to compromise my fitness, my running (which I love), my body and my confidence? I refuse to accept that it does. Watch this space for proof of that.”

And so I completed the 2011 VLM in a time of 4:25. I was ecstatic at having completed my own, very personal goal. However, I wanted to do better: I knew I could do better. Given more time to train, to allow my body longer to recover from being wrecked by forceps and episiotomies – I would be back, and I would break 4 hours. That was my goal.

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My first Marathon: VLM 2011 in 4:25

So, in 2012 I returned – having managed to bag another ballot place – and I crossed the finish line in 3:50 and a few seconds (the few seconds are important. You’ll see why.) Back then, the Good for Age qualifying time for me was 3:50. I had no idea it existed. I’d never heard it, let alone allowed myself the self-indulgent fantasy of believing I was capable of achieving it. But shit! When I found out about it, I looked again at my time. Bloody hell! I’m only a few seconds off it! Just as before, I wanted to do better. I KNEW I could do better. With even more training, more discipline & more dedication, I believed I could achieve that standard.

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VLM 2012: 3:50 and a few seconds…

So, I wrote to the VLM Race Director, My Hugh Brasher. I explained to him that I fully believed I could smash the 3:50 GFA qualifying time right out of town, if he gave me the chance – I mitigated that had I not stopped on route several times to arse about and take selfies of Will Young and Iwan Thomas (both of whom I passed) then I would have – without question – qualified automatically for 2013 VLM entry.

One of his minions wrote back to me. Unfortunately, those ‘and a few seconds’ were a few seconds too many. She explained to me that if they were to nudge the cut-off qualifying time for me, it would open the floodgates to an endless number of other just a few second-ers and erode their management of the GFA application process. Disappointed, I understood and accepted their stance. It was – and still is – arguably a far more achievable qualifying time for females than it is for males, and I respected the floodgates argument. I would have to try again, and do better.

Unfortunately, in 2013 I didn’t secure a VLM place: the Ballot Gods weren’t shining down on me, and so I entered the Edinburgh Marathon instead. It was still possible for me to prove to Hugh and his Minion that I was true to my word, and that I COULD do better. That year, I’d battled with glandular fever, dramatic (unhealthy) weight loss, and it was touch & go as to whether I’d be fit enough to run the marathon at all, let alone go for a GFA qualifying time. The Leeds Half marathon in early May was my test: if I could do that in reasonable time and feel OK, I was still running Edinburgh. And so I did. My health having been hit and miss for the entire build-up, I struggled most of the way round, and crawled over the finishing line in 3:45 and a few seconds (these few seconds are now important too. You’ll see why.)

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THIRD marathon… Edinburgh 2013…the few seconds really matter. Again.

Dear Mr Brasher,

I’m writing to let you know that I have just completed the Edinburgh Marathon in a time of 3:45 and a few seconds. You may recall that I wrote to you last year after completing the Virgin London Marathon in a time of 3:50 and a few seconds.

When I passed the finishing line in Edinburgh and I looked at the clock, I couldn’t believe I’d qualified for a VLM Good for Age place for 2014. And then I looked at the website, and noticed that the goal posts had been changed whilst I wasn’t looking.

I understand that the qualifying time has been reduced for my age category from 3:50 to 3:45. I am devastated, as I’m sure that had I known this was the case, I could have dug deeper and shaved off those few seconds.

As it stands, I’m writing to you again to ask you for a chance to prove that I can meet this standard.

With kind regards,

Rachel Cullen

So, TWICE I was the ‘almost’ girl. TWICE I was seconds away from the cut-off ‘Good for Age’ qualifying time. TWICE I wrote to Hugh Brasher – VLM Race Director, asking him to allow me to squeeze through the turnstiles and give me a chance.

He wrote back to me: personally, this time. His reply said:

“Dear Miss Cullen

Thank you for your letter. I am pleased to be able to offer you a place in the 2014 Virgin London Marathon. My assistant will be in touch with you regarding this.

Good Luck

Hugh”

And that was it: I was in.

I came back in 2014, and I ran hard. I was hoping for somewhere around 3:30, and set of at that pace. But I knew I could do more. I knew I could do better. I crossed the line in 3:22 and I’d smashed through all of those barriers that had kept me hovering around the GFA qualifying time – and writing begging letters to Mr Brashner – for the previous two years.

I didn’t need to write to him again, but I did anyway. Just to say thank you for giving me the chance to prove that I could earn myself a Virgin London Marathon Good for Age place in my own right.

I’ve had one ever since.

*the irony lies in the fact that I’ve had to defer from this year’s VLM due to overtraining! Who’d have thought?! I may write to Hugh instead…

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