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Gavin knows what it's all about

It’s time for a right royal knees-up

Gavin Brown @gavbrown_metro

William and Kate have picked the wrong date. While the royalists will have us dusting down the bunting on April 29, London’s biggest street party will run its course 12 days earlier.

More than 35,000 runners will throng the streets from Blackheath to The Mall and hundreds of thousands more will line the pavements to watch the procession pass. Bands will play, children will cheer, food will be happily shared and drink thirstily drunk. And there won’t be a trestle table in sight.

The Virgin London Marathon, the largest single annual charity fundraising event in the world, began life in 1981, four months to the day before Prince William’s dad walked up the aisle. Back then, the royal nuptials probably drew a bigger crowd, but it’s also true that a race that famously ended in a hand-holding dead heat between Dick Beardsley and Inge Simonsen had a far happier ending than Prince Charles’ first marriage.

Although a serious sporting event, the spirit of the early years of the race is perhaps best captured by Dave Bedford, then a former 10,000m world record-holder and nightclub manager, but now a former 10,000m world record-holder and the Marathon’s elite race director, a role he relinquishes after this year’s race.

Bedford wasn’t directly involved in 1981, but chose to take his place in the 7,747-strong field at a few hours’ notice after a few pints and a curry the night before.

It was a classic case from the file marked “things that seem like a good idea when we’re drunk” and ended with the curry being deposited halfway round the course and a clearly dishevelled Bedford crossing the finish line, one of 6,255 to do so, with a hangover and a powerful sense of what this new event could become. Thirty years on, only one of those feelings still lingers.

But for me, born in the mid-70s, the Marathon was never new. Rather, it belonged alongside the Boat Race and the Grand National as one of the cornerstones of spring. As far as I was concerned, it had always been there, and was one of the few things worth climbing out of a tree or leaving the BMX on the path for to come inside and watch on telly.

The haunting, inspirational music used by the BBC to accompany its coverage sent a tingle down my spine (it still does) and I was in thrall to early winners such as Steve Jones and Ingrid Kristiansen. In short, I wanted to run 26 miles through central London chasing a milk float under the admiring gaze of David Vine.

I still do.

As a nine-year-old in rural Wiltshire, entering wasn’t yet an option. But watching the TV coverage of the race, it didn’t escape my limited attention span that, for far less talented runners than Jones and Kristiansen, it was. The key to the Marathon’s past and enduring success is that anyone can take part.

Right from the off, the race became a charity event with thousands raising millions for worthy causes. Indeed its founders, Chris Brasher and John Disley, made raising money for sports and recreational facilities one of the race’s six founding principles. The fact they also pledged to “show mankind that, on occasions, they can be united” may betray the fact that, like many great ideas, the London Marathon was conceived in a pub.

So charitable status was secured from the outset but it was Bedford, who took the reins in the 1990s, who recognised the power of combining a world-class race for the elite runners while working in tandem with charities to deliver a more focused fundraising effort.

The result was a race in which the runners themselves have raised a phenomenal £506 million in 30 years for a myriad of good causes, with a further £35 million distributed by the event’s own charity – The London Marathon Charitable Trust.

As Bedford himself put it: “Until the early 1990s much of what happened around the Marathon was ad hoc, spontaneous. We gave it some shape and direction.

“So that was quite a journey. Because of our input, much of that has now developed the race into the largest annual fundraising event in the world – last year £50.6 million was raised by runners in the race for charities.”

But fundraising figures alone do not make the London Marathon. Behind every vest, every T-shirt and every fancy-dress outfit on the 26-mile course is a story of personal achievement. Anyone who has taken their place in the mass field will have spent some time staring at the back of a T-shirt bearing the picture of a loved one, often a child.

These runners aren’t worried about personal bests; for them, running London is a form of remembrance, a celebration because, to borrow a classic cliché, in the London Marathon everyone is a winner – quite a feat in a field of 35,000.

For a select ultra-minority, the goal might be victory itself or a qualifying time for a major championship. For the club runners who follow, it’s probably a personal best, perhaps breaking the time barrier that gains them guaranteed entry for the next year’s race through the Good for Age scheme. But for others, who have barely rounded the Cutty Sark before the sharp end of the race is over, it’s about finishing, about proving to themselves – and others – that they too can run a marathon.

Proof for me finally came in 2007 when, 20 years after my maiden cross-country victory, I finally took my place alongside some of the best distance runners in the world in the London Marathon. Race winner Martin Lel was almost certainly on his fourth plate of spaghetti carbonara by the time I turned into The Mall but I like to think I took more time to savour the atmosphere than the nippy Kenyan.

Things got off to a spiritually brilliant start with church bells in Charlton playing the BBC race theme, a tune that stuck in my head for a good 17 miles before being replaced by my own internal, slightly deranged, rendition of The Flaming Lips’ seminal She Don’t Use Jelly – a selection inspired by the kind offer of Vaseline from a member of the St John Ambulance.

The bells were followed by the high-fiving street kids of Woolwich, the likely lads dishing out slices of oranges in dear old Deptford and the lager and Limehouse drinkers on the far side of the Thames.

Then it was the dreaded Isle of Dogs, a time for soul-searching during a seemingly needless loop that takes you away from the finish and where many people hit their own private “wall”. But for me, both in 2007 and since, the mental barrier fell across the road once we turned for home and approached Tower Bridge.

It’s a feeling not exclusive to fun runners, with British No 1 Andrew Lemoncello, eighth in 2010, admitting that most elite athletes question the point of carrying on here – a feeling compounded by the sight of The Tower hotel, where the top athletes stay, just to the left at about the 23-mile mark.

But the runners in the mass field don’t have that option. For them, there’s no place for an early bath. Redemption, pride, relief and a plastic bag containing their valuables is three miles away on The Mall.

Then it’s time for a right royal knees-up – and decrepit European aristocrats are not invited.

3 Responses to “London Marathon”

  1. Simon Coote April 13, 2011

    Morning Gavin, memories go back to St. Johns School cross country when the likes of yourself were at the head of the field and the likes of me were being strong shouldered and holding up the rest of the runners. Nice piece of writing and good luck for this weekend, haven’t got to the marathon (yet) but have my first half marathon this year (ahhh!) All the best with the wall at the Isle of Dogs. Simon

    Reply
  2. great article! very inspirational – and i’m not talking about the arm bands.

    Reply
  3. Excellent description of something I will never do myself, but which I am always impressed by the efforts of others. Nice story

    Reply

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