FEATURE: The Otford ‘footballer who runs’!

Back in 2011 the ambition for Otford local, Jon Drake was to run a marathon, and one in particular, The London Marathon. Fast forward nine years and incredibly Jon has managed to rack up an astounding 117 marathons including ultra-marathons, to his name.

So how does someone go from what seemed (particularly more so with hindsight!) a relatively modest ambition, to that of a serial multi-marathon runner? We caught up with Jon to find out how (and why?!).

“When I first started to think about running the London Marathon in 2011, I was still playing 5-a-side football twice a week, along with 11-a-side football on both Saturdays and Sundays. Although not injury prone, I did not think I would make it to April without any issues.” he said. However, at the time the Las Vegas marathon was run in December. “I thought that if I could just get through pre-season and up to December, I would stand a better chance to get to race day without any injuries.” So Jon obtained his place for the Las Vegas marathon and began his training. “I set myself a target to run the marathon in under 3hrs30mins. I found a training plan online that consisted of 3 days running per week, but with hindsight, and anyone with marathon knowledge will tell you, this was nowhere near enough mileage, even with all the football”. He soon discovered there was also lots to learn as well, not just how to get his body used to the mileage, but also how to take on food and drink on the move and what his body would need to sustain it for a whole 26.2 miles.

Jon receiving his ‘6 Marathon Major’ medal.

Having never run any distance before, Jon started with running 3 miles. “My downloaded plan took me from 3 miles up to a long run distance of 20 miles and I started my training in July for the race in December. I ran only up to 20 miles (twice) you never run the full 26.2 miles in any training plan.” So on race day, when he hit the 20-mile point, and was exhausted, Jon was apprehensive that he would be able to keep moving forward after that point. “I was fairly sure I would cross the line but how long that would take and what state I would be in, was a mystery.” Recalling the final stages of the Vegas marathon “I will never forget seeing the big light shining from the top of the Luxor Hotel near the finish line, which was about four miles to go from the Las Vegas strip, it never seemed to get any closer for what seemed like hours!” Jon completed the marathon in 3hrs42, a fantastic first race, but on crossing the finishing line, had already vowed ‘never again’.

Back in the UK and with the pain now forgotten about however, Jon started to turn his head back to his ambition to run the London marathon. “It occurred to me that if I could stay injury free and keep training, I could possibly run London in April if I could get a place”. He contacted a charity and got offered a place if he could raise £1500, so he accepted. Jon set himself the same 3hrs30mins finish time, and began his training. “When London came along I couldn’t do as well as Vegas and finished in 3hrs58mins. Once more, I vowed never again.”

So, having now achieved his ambition, to run the London marathon and at this point having also vowed ‘never again’ at the end of a marathon as many times as he had run one, many would be forgiven for thinking Jon would be hanging up those marathon trainers. But for Jon himself, there was unfinished business. The allure to complete a marathon in 3hrs 30mins was too much and it didn’t take him long to decide that he would try the London marathon again. He applied and obtained another charity place for the following year. “All the training and my limited knowledge said I was on track for my 3hrs30mins finish time, but my watch packed up on the train and I went off too fast without my watch to guide me and I cramped up towards the end, limping over the line in 3hrs48mins. Yet again, I said I would quit”.

But in typical fashion, once the pain had subsided, Jon was already scanning the internet for his next race. “I found a relatively local race, ‘Kent Road Runners Marathon’ in Gravesend, on a purpose-built cycle park, a flat course ideal for those seeking a personal best time.” This was to be held two months later in June. “I thought as I had not hit my time in London I would try again in June, but again no joy in beating the 3hrs30mins that I was aiming for. By this stage I had stopped telling people I was doing another marathon.”

Another internet search and Jon found a race in November near Leeds Castle (Kent), called the A20 Path’s and Downs Marathon and he entered this. “It was far from flat with the first half being up a series of hills, but by some miracle I managed to finish in 3hrs25mins to finally break the 3hrs30 barrier”.

Mission accomplished? Not by a long shot “I didn’t want to stop running at this point, firstly I knew if I stopped training after working so hard to get to the pace and level of fitness I had, then it would be such a struggle to work my way back to that level. Secondly my diet is so poor that if I don’t run 35-40 miles a week in training then I know I would pile on the weight. When I first started running I was over a stone heavier than I am now, but I don’t really lose weight anymore just keep it stable.”

Going into 2014 Jon entered the main ballot for the London marathon (having raced the previous two with charity places). Against the odds, he got offered a place and so began the training for his 3rd London marathon. “I think it is my own competitive nature that keeps me coming back. I am never about beating anyone else, more pushing and testing myself against previous times and the course.” When race day came and on the third time of asking in London, he finished in 3hrs27mins.

Jon returned to the Kent Road Runners marathon in Gravesend for his second time, and it was at this race he met Traviss Wilcox, who was (at the time) president of the 100-marathon club and also a race director of his own race series. “He asked me how many marathons I had run and explained to me his running philosophy. He did not like training runs, they bored him, instead he ran multiple marathons each year which meant that he did not have to do lots of boring long runs as part of his training, as the marathon would be his long run and he could just do shorter speed work in between each marathon”.

The race that day didn’t go as well as his previous two, finishing in 3hrs31mins, but Traviss had sown a seed in Jon’s mind. “If I was going to continue running – despite not enjoying the training, then why not run multiple marathons and less long runs. I enjoyed the race days, but the training not so much. Conventional wisdom is to run one maybe two marathons per year and train for the remaining time, and although that would have probably got me faster times sooner, I would not have enjoyed it nearly so much”.

Jon ran his first race of 2015 with Traviss at the Martello Marathon in Folkstone, a course that has multiple loops up and down the coastal path. On the day of the race there was a 30-40mph headwind running away from Folkstone and then wind assisted returning. “I didn’t run a great time and drove back up to Sevenoaks to play football in the afternoon, but I was hooked. I ran 15 marathons in 2015 including my first back to back marathon (2 in 2 days), then 23 races in 2016, 28 in 2017 and 24 in 2018”.

Included in this amazing tally are the ‘6 Marathon Majors’, a series of six of the largest and most renowned marathons in the world – London, Boston, New York, Tokyo, Berlin and Chicago. A truly remarkable achievement, even more incredible when you realise more people have climbed Everest than have completed all six majors.

In 2019 Jon completed another 20 marathons, including 4 marathons in 4 days and also set a new personal best time. The year also brought Jon membership to the illustrious 100-Marathon Club, a club exclusively for people who have run 100 marathons or more. This also allows him to wear the club’s shirt and colours.

Remarkably when you speak with Jon, despite all of his achievements, he is still reluctant to refer to himself as a ‘runner’. “I maintain I am a footballer (and not a good one) that runs, rather than a runner.” He also openly admits that he actually dislikes running and purely only enjoys race days. “I don’t enjoy running, training can be hard and boring running the same routes day in day out, but knowing I will be running a race even if it is the local Saturday Parkrun, the training serves a purpose and I find competing easier to push myself”.

However, Jon happily shares with us the mental benefits he finds with running. “More so the training side than in races, is the time it gives you alone with your thoughts. With several businesses to run along with children etc there is not often time where you are not distracted and so on an hour training run you can process your thoughts and organise how you will deal with various things.

I don’t really subscribe to being stressed myself, but there are often situations where I am annoyed or I have to deal with work problems and after an hours’ worth of running I have calmed down and formulated a game plan of how to deal with whatever needs to be done. Don’t get me wrong 50 minutes out of the hour I am busy asking myself why I am doing this or silently complaining about how hard the session is or how one part or other of my body hurts, but in between the moaning, I do really benefit from the time to think.”

So what is in store for 2020 and beyond for the Otford ‘footballer who runs’? Well, he has already booked himself into various events throughout the year, including another attempt to complete a 100-mile race – having got to 88 miles on a previous attempt. He will also be taking part in four 50-mile races and will also run the Boston marathon 6 days before he runs the London marathon for his 4th time. “Perhaps when the fun stops I will stop, but probably not.”

Sponsor Jon in his next London marathon
Jon is running the London marathon in aid of London Youth, a fantastic charity helping to provide a lifeline and vital safe place outside of the family and formal education for young people, where they can develop confidence, resilience and skills. Please do visit Jon’s Just Giving page; justgiving.com/fundraising/jon-drake3 where he and the charity would be most grateful for anything you can give.