NOTE: While we don't yet know if the 2020 Virgin Money London Marathon will actually take place on its special pandemic date of Sunday, October 4, it's worth noting that organizers have been willing to take extreme steps in the past to get their elite field to London ready to race. In 2010, a volcano in Iceland shot a massive ash plume into the atmosphere which all but shut down commercial air travel. In my 2010 story, below, read what then race director Dave Bedford did, and how one athlete, Mara Yamauchi, struggled mightily to get to the race. Exhausted from her trip, she would finish tenth
(Update: ) Mara Yamauchi finished 8th, not 10th, at the 2010 London Marathon. She actually crossed the finish line in 10th place, but the first two finishers, Liliya Shubukhova and Inga Abitova, were later disqualified for doping.--Ed.
LONDON (22-Apr-2010) -- Organizers of Sunday's Virgin London Marathon faced one of the biggest challenges in the 30-year history of their race this week as the ash plume from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland caused the closure of Heathrow and other airports in Europe, forcing them to make costly, alternate travel plans for their elite athletes.
PHOTO: Mara Yamauchi arrives at Shoreham Airport outside of Brighton in Sussex on her way to the 2010 Virgin London Marathon (Photo courtesy of the Virgin London Marathon)
"Overall, a pretty challenging week," race director Dave Bedford told reporters at a press conference here today. "But, it's what we do."
Bedford's team, led by elite athletes manager Glenn Latimer, chartered several private planes to collect athletes from Nairobi and Eritrea in Africa, modified travel plans on commercial carriers to divert athletes to open airports, chartered a jet to collect 24 athletes in Madrid, and even hired a four-passenger propeller plane to fetch British star Mara Yamauchi and her husband and coach Shige from a small airport in northern France. Bedford estimated the cost of the modified travel was £147,000 (USD 226,000), but said that it was money well spent to protect the quality of the race.
"We haven't been sitting down there worrying about that," he said of the extra expense.
No athlete faced bigger problems than Yamauchi, who finished second here last year. She and Shige needed six days to get here from their high altitude training base in Albuquerque, N.M.. The Yamauchi's trip began last Thursday when the couple flew to Denver to chart their course to London, concerned that they needed to be proactive because the volcanic ash problem was growing worse.
"It was a long and, let's say, interesting journey," Mara Yamauchi said at a news conference today. "It took us just about a week to get from New Mexico to London. It was very tough at points. There were times we thought we wouldn't make it by Sunday."
The Yamauchis spent two days in Denver trying to initiate a flight plan which would land them in England, or at least Western Europe. Carrying 100 kilograms of luggage, including a massage table, they flew from Denver to Newark, N.J., on Saturday, where they had arranged to board a flight for Shannon, Ireland, because that airport had briefly been open. But by the time they got to Newark, Shannon had closed again, and their best available option was to fly to Lisbon, Portugal, where their real adventure began.
"When we arrived in Lisbon we said, fine, we're in Europe," Mara said. "Let's try and get a train to Madrid. But you couldn't find information anywhere. Shige said, 'let's get a taxi.' And I thought, this is going to cost quite a bit of money. And he said, 'never mind. We've got to get to the London Marathon. David Bedford will pay, surely.'"
For 650 euros, plus a 50 euro tip, the couple hired a taxi driver to drive them to Madrid, a nearly 800 km ride. In Madrid, they managed to arrange for a rental car, a scarce resource during the flight crisis, at a cost of 1800 euro. They drove themselves to Paris where they got a small break at a nice hotel to get much-needed sleep.
"We didn't have much time to sleep," Mara explained. "I hardly did any training during that time. I couldn't really find time for meals, really. We were just grabbing sandwiches here and there. Physically, it was quite tiring. Mentally, it was also quite tiring sorting out the journey."
In Paris they convinced a Cambodian cab driver to take them to the beach town of Le Touquet on France's north coast where elite athletes manager Latimer had arranged for the small plane to meet them at a local air field. The cab fare was 450 euros, plus a 50 euro tip, Shige said. Bedford said that the small plane cost £1400 to rent. They flew to Shoreham Airport outside of Brighton in Sussex on Wednesday where race officials picked them up.
"It's been a mental roller coaster," Mara said. "Having finally gotten here, to run well on Sunday would be fantastic. It would be the icing on the cake."
In Shige's mind there was no doubt they would make it.
"If you have a will you have a way," said the self-taught coach. "We were just committed to come here. We really trained hard for this."
Two of Yamauchi's two key rivals have also made it to London, defending champion Irina Mikitenko of Germany, who came by train, and 2006 Virgin London Marathon champion Deena Kastor of Mammoth Lakes, Calif. Kastor, who only arrived here late today, flew on Tuesday from Los Angeles on a hastily arranged itinerary on Tahiti Air to Paris, where she spent all of Wednesday. From Paris, with the help of Susan Judy at Flynn Sports Management, she got a ticket for a direct train to London today.
"It was definitely one of the more challenging trips I have taken in my lengthy career," Kastor told reporters on a teleconference. "I went through seven different itineraries until finally landing in Paris and getting a couple of trains to arrive here this afternoon. One of my itineraries had me going through Colombia, another one had me going through Casablanca. Luckily, I didn't have to take any of those."
Kastor's husband, Andrew, who accompanied her for today's teleconference, had better luck traveling than she did.
"My husband left almost two days after me and got to London before I did. So, I think my anxiety to get here kind of hurt me that my travel ended up so chaotic."