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Athlete Focus: 'Marathon Jobs' by John Gilbert - Part 2

TriBlogsby TriBlogsJun 17th 2013
Earlier this year we introduced a blog series written by John Gilbert about his experience of running in the Marathon for the London Olympic's Test Event. In this second blog, John describes yet another unique marathon experience, this time running as a Paralympic Guide runner in last years Paralympic Marathon. Read below for John's account of his experience as a guide runner in the biggest Paralympics to date.
My name is John Gilbert. I am a long distance runner who competes regularly for Kent AC, mainly specialising in cross country and marathon running. In the space of just over a year I was tasked with running 2 marathons, where the emphasis was not on a fast time or team result, but carrying out a specific job. This blog describes the second of those marathons.

Marathon 2 ¬- Paralympic Guide Runner!

LOCOG had my contact details from when I ran in the London Olympic's Test Event. They sent me an email in May 2012 where I was asked if I would be willing, if the need arose, to act as a guide runner for any visually impaired athletes whose official guide could not make it to the games. LOCOG were not even sure that any volunteers would be required but they wanted to make sure they had a few volunteers just to be on the safe side. I jumped at the chance but realistically did not think I would ever be needed¬...¬.....

Roll on August 10th 2012. I received a call from Chris Cohen at LOCOG who informed me that a Hungarian athlete due to run in the marathon required a stand in guide. The Hungarian Athlete¬'s official guide had suffered a serious injury whilst training for the Paralympics. I agreed to do it. I had never really believed that I would actually be needed to be a guide, and so I was now faced with the challenge of guiding a Paralympian on the biggest day of his athletic career, around a twisty 26.2 miles marathon course, with absolutely no experience of guide running at all!! To say I was shi**ing it was an understatement! Yes it was a great opportunity and I was excited as well as being a bit nervous about the whole thing, but above all I wanted to make sure I did a good job and not let down the athlete. Matters were made that bit more complex by the fact that the athlete I was guiding (Csaba Orban) was not going to be travelling over to the UK at the start of the games with the other athletes. This was due to the fact that Csaba and his wife were expecting the birth of their new son (born on the evening of the opening ceremony!) and so Csaba wanted to be there for the first few days. This meant that I would have very little time to practice being a guide runner with him, 3 days in fact, as Csaba got to the Olympic village on the Thursday before the marathon. Csaba was a lot more relaxed about this small amount of time we would have to practice than I was, so this did make me feel better about the whole thing.

Meeting Csaba in the Athletes Village

I met Csaba for the first time on the evening of Thursday the 6th, after finally finding him in the athlete¬'s village which was a bit of a mission! We chatted about the race, tactics, pacing and how he would like me to guide him. Csaba¬'s pb for the marathon was 2hrs 54mins 36secs which was run in the qualifying for the games. His coach had decided that due to the slower nature of the Olympic course with its twists and turns, that he would set out at 3hr pace and then push on in the latter stages if the legs were still there. I was able to offer fairly detailed info on the course, mainly due to running the test event a year earlier. I would pace Csaba by running on his right hand side, we would hold a chord between us but this would not be tied. My main jobs were to keep Csaba updated with the current pace at all times and warning if we drifted off this pace (in either direction). I was to also inform Csaba of where his competitors were and of course of any upcoming turns or obstacles. I would need to pass Csaba his energy drinks as we passed the team drinks table. I had to do all this within the rules, the main rule (and most worrying aspect for me) was that if you drift in front of the athlete at any time you risk disqualification. Sounds simple, but in practice this was a lot more tricky than you expect. Quite often in training you will run alongside fellow club mates, but never do you have to purposely stay slightly behind them and no more than 0.5 meters away. Our differing heights and running styles, negotiating obstacles, corners and my concentration span all contributed to me regularly at first drifting in front of Csaba when practising. This was swiftly followed by a bit of a telling off each time, so I did get better at it (eventually!)
Athlete Focus: 'Marathon Jobs' by John Gilbert - Part 2
Running and Refueling

Over the next 3 days we met up to train together for an hour or so each day. We ran together in the Olympic village. This was ideal practice for being a guide runner as not only were there lots of turns to negotiate, but there was also lots of people and traffic to dodge. We did a variety of sessions from just jogging to running at race pace and some fartlek style intervals above race pace to blow the legs out before the race. It was during these 3 days that I got to know Csaba and was so impressed with how friendly he was with anyone he came into contact with. He could literally strike up a conversation with anyone and have them smiling and laughing. After each session we ate in the village dining hall. This really brought home to me how well you are looked after as an athlete at major competitions. The dining hall was the size of a large supermarket, the perimeter of which was lined with hot and cold food counters serving food from all corners of the world, even desserts! This was all free and available 24 hours a day! The discipline athletes must need to have to not make too many visit¬'s to this place is pretty remarkable.
Athlete Focus: 'Marathon Jobs' by John Gilbert - Part 2
Race Day!

So after pretty much three sleepless nights worrying about getting the first ever Hungarian to compete in a Paralympic marathon disqualified, it was the morning of the race! I met Csaba at the start by the team tents. The Hungarian tent was next to the Kenyan tent and Spanish tent. One of Csaba¬'s hero¬'s Alberto Suarez (the world record holder for the T12 marathon) was in the Spanish tent and Csaba went over to congratulate him on his recent world record (Suarez would go onto to break this again in just a few hours.) We spent the next hour trying to relax and chatting about the race. I picked up my guide vest and we eagerly awaited the ¬'30 minutes to go¬' warning, after which we went to check in and then go and warm up. Sitting in the check in area with the 19 best T12 marathon runners in the world was a humbling and exciting experience. I can only imagine how you must feel if you are the competing athlete at this point. We passed though check in and started to do some gentle jogging. Big crowds had already started to form around the start and finish area. The atmosphere was already building, there was loud music, and I could see Sebastian Coe doing some media interviews. It was at this point that Csaba turned to me and said ¬"John, you will have to excuse me as I get a little emotional¬" And I could see what he meant this was MASSIVE!!!! We gathered ourselves, and focused on what lay ahead. It was race time!

The race went off on time. We knew that with all the nervous energy the first couple of km¬'s would be too quick so the plan was just to roll with it and then gather ourselves once the field had strung out a bit and settle into the target pace of 3hrs. I was regularly relaying the current pace to Csaba, who by the end of the first small lap was flowing nicely. By this point the Kenyan and Spanish runners had powered off in front and we found ourselves just off the back of a small group containing a Russian and Portuguese athlete. There were already crowds lining the streets, and I could sense the affect that the louder crowd sections had on Csaba. I had to warn that the pace had surged at these points!

As we began the start of the second lap I passed Csaba his drink from the feed station and we began to gain on an Israeli athlete. I could see a string of other athletes ahead in the distance along the Embankment. It was hard not to get excited at the prospect of chasing these athletes down, but Csaba was keen to stick to the planned pace and rightly so, it was still very early in the race. We reached half way just under target pace, but it was shortly after this that Csaba started to run into problems with his stomach. He kept battling on but I could tell he was struggling. I was starting now to regularly raise my arms to get the crowd to cheer us even more as we went past, in the hope that these sudden bursts of sound would offer some distraction to Csaba¬'s discomfort. It was on the last lap that things started to get a bit tricky, the pace had slowed and Csaba was sick 1 mile into the last lap. Despite this Csaba was soon back running again, reaching target pace very quickly, by now we had drifted slightly outside the 3hr mark but he was not giving up! But then again another 2 miles on Csaba was sick for a second time, he was in obvious pain, but again he just picked him self up and battled on. This determination not to give up started to pay of just as we were approaching the last section along the Embankment. Csaba was now flying, we were playing catch up on the pace but it could be do able. With the crowd noise roaring in our ears we covered the last 3km almost as quickly as the first 3km and sprinted down the finishing section on the Mall. The time agonisingly close to 3hrs but in a very creditable 12th place:

Csaba¬'s run was one of the bravest and determined runs I have ever seen in my time as a runner. I am pretty sure that a lot of runners would have given in with stomach problems that bad, but Csaba powered on and was rewarded with a great Paralympic marathon debut. It was true strength and I will always be inspired by it!
Athlete Focus: 'Marathon Jobs' by John Gilbert - Part 2
Reflecting on what had been an amazing few days...

In our tired states (both mentally and physically) we did an interview for Hungarian TV and then went for a drink in a pub just off Trafalgar square as Csaba was keen to check out a typical English pub before the closing ceremony. We had a few pints and then I took back Csaba to the Paralympic village on a busy hot tube, where we stood all the way and Csaba being his typical self, struck up at least 2 conversations with random people on the way, a true hero! I said bye and thanked Csaba for an amazing few days, it was all over!
Athlete Focus: 'Marathon Jobs' by John Gilbert - Part 2
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