Anya Culling: Running with the London Marathon Elite Field


, by Anya Culling

Photography courtesy of: Anya Culling / Simon Roberts

After first racing the London Marathon in 2019, Anya Culling's progression through the sport has been rapid and impressive. In 2024, Anya lined up as one of just sixteen Elite Women in the race. Here, Anya reflects on her experiences at the London Marathon, and how it felt racing alongside the best runners in the world.

Until I ran the London Marathon 2019, I thought this was a race everyone was trying to win… How wrong I was. Every person pounding those pavements has a reason for doing so, and I can almost guarantee it’s not to win that race. Maybe they are doing it for themselves, for someone they care about, for a cause far bigger than just running 26 miles / 42.2km.

I was part of the stampede of footsteps - the 50,000+ people running The London Marathon this year. I was running alongside Megan, who was doing the race for charity in memory of her beloved dad, Hugo who was gunning for a World Record in a Santa costume, Becky who was running her first marathon back after injury, and Emile Cairess who was trying to qualify for the Olympics.

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This year is the third time I have run the race, but my first time toeing the line with the elites. I have been lucky enough to experience the greatest marathon on earth from three different perspectives since 2019; the +4hrs mass start, the championship start, and now the elites - each time has been a pinnacle moment in my running career but how did they differ?

Photography courtesy of: Anya Culling / Sportograf

The Mass Start

In 2019 I started at 11:31 am in Group 6, so was one of the last waves to cross the start line. I remember being petrified and massively overstimulated in a multicolored sea of strangers. The nervous energy was contagious. I didn’t have a watch on, I didn’t have Strava, no carbon-plated shoes, just my wired earphones and a phone I couldn’t use because my hands were so clammy.

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The charity mass start of the London Marathon is the pinnacle of human benevolence. It is a unique chance to discover the true extent of the support, and the enormity of the brilliance in London. It shows the best side of humans whether you are running or lining the streets. I remember running, searching the crowds for my family and meeting eyes with strangers searching for their loved ones. I learned to dodge bottles on the floor and felt grateful I didn’t have to run in a rhino costume. Every time I stopped to walk a stranger would shout my name as it was written on my vest, and through my tears I would keep pushing. I high-fived every single Super Mario ‘tap to power up’ sign, ate every jelly baby, and hugged my parents over the barriers. I finished at 4:05 pm in a time of 4 hrs 34 mins which I was so immensely proud of.

Running as an Elite

Since 2019, I have run a PB of 2 hrs 34 mins, knocking two hours off my original time. This qualified me to line up as an Elite at the London Marathon 2024. The energy was different but equally as powerful. I was lining up with champions - the people who inspired me - in the greatest female Elite field the London marathon has ever seen. I felt out of place, like a fish out of water, but I knew it was just the same London Marathon course that I had run twice before.

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The amazing thing about the marathon is that whether you are aiming for sub-five hours or closer to two hours, every runner is going their hardest.

I knew I may never get this opportunity again so I was determined to treat it as one big party from Greenwich to Buckingham Palace. I spent the night before in the elite hotel, watching what the other elites did. I had handed in my elite bottles that I had decorated with pink ribbon, and eaten a beige dinner of rice, pasta, and potatoes.

I wrote ‘Smile’ on one hand and ‘Run Fearlessly’ on the other.

The morning of the race, with shaky hands I pinned my bib number reading ‘Culling’ (rather than a number) for the first time onto my vest. I had worked so hard to be given this opportunity but still felt a huge sense of imposter syndrome. I had to take a step back and remind myself that no one in my family has ever run, I didn’t run until I was in my twenties, and I never EVER thought I’d be here five years ago. I deserve to be here. I wrote ‘Smile’ on one hand and ‘Run Fearlessly’ on the other.

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Standing on that start line, knowing that all eyes were on just us 16 female elites, was an exposed feeling. It was amazing that my Granny could watch from home, but it also meant that anyone could watch me at the start of this race live. I could feel the energy from the current world record holder Assefa in front of me, eyeing up Jepchirchir who would go on to get the female-only world record at the race. The adrenaline from Charlotte Purdue and Calli Thackery who, having already secured Olympic spots, were there to pace the leading British female. I could feel my pulse in my ears, waiting for the countdown to the moment that had consumed my mind for months was here, reverberating through my whole body like a heartbeat.

I felt like a thoroughbred out of the blocks, but I knew there was a full race to be run. I had fully accepted I would run the entire race alone as is the case for many elites in female-only races as the field is so small. I took it in my stride and knew I had to embrace all the energy from the support to get me through - those standing on their doorsteps in their pajamas, the bands and DJs belting out beats to run to, my family and friends in matching bucket hats with my name on the front - you have no idea how much your support helps a runner.

I finished in a time of 2:44 and 16th elite female, not a PB but a time I am so insanely proud of. I knew it was going to be a tough day out there running alone in the elite field but I ran a hard effort and with no one to race, the crowds were my energy. I absorbed the atmosphere and wanted to enjoy every mile. I couldn’t have been more successful in the fact it was my favorite race ever.

The marathon transcends why we run. I run for my pursuit of fearlessness. The marathon is a long and unpredictable journey but my motivating factors will always be the challenge, the challenge, and freedom; a metaphor for life. The London Marathon 2024 taught me to find my inner strength. Time and time again running proves I am more capable than ever I thought. So why would I limit myself in everyday life?

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