Half-marathon man

I've decided to run a half-marathon in Bristol. In a couple of weeks. Why not? Well, there are all sorts of good reasons why not. For a start,
although "half" sounds comfortingly like a cop-out, or at least a moderately soft option, dividing the full 26 miles by two still leaves you with the alarming prospect of 13 miles.

Thirteen miles is the kind of distance you travel in a car or a train. It's the distance between, for example, Bristol and Bath. If two towns are each served by a separate station, it's a pretty good sign that you ought not to be running between them. We all know the story of the first person to run the full marathon, in ancient Greece: he delivered his message successfully and then died. I can expect, therefore, to be at least half dead at the end of the run. Why would I train for several weeks in order to bring myself closer to the grave?

The official rationale is that I'm raising money for the Moldova Project, an organisation that supports families in one of the poorest places in Europe. But no one's ever done any kind of sponsored event out of altruism alone. At the heart of it, it's about my ego. I want to see myself as the sort of person who can run a really, really long way without stopping. Why?

Pain barrier

Perhaps it's a sign of the comfort of modern lives that we insist on filling them with as much discomfort as possible. As the comedian James Dowdeswell points out, our grandfathers didn't come home from a 12-hour stint down a mine and say, "What I need now is a good workout." Fewer and fewer of us have jobs that require physical exertion, at least of the kind displayed by previous generations of labourers; more and more of us are able to bluff our way to a living by acting as consultants, fixing computers, or claiming to be stand-up comedians. (Admittedly, "standing up" is at least in my job description, but the working hours wouldn't impress someone who had spent 40 years shovelling coal.)

Most people at the gym would say they're trying to stay in shape, compensating for the ease with which modern living enables us all to get fat, drink alcohol and shout at fitter people on TV. But I think there's something more peculiar at work, too: a fundamental perversity of human nature. If life doesn't contain enough pain, we'll seek it out. If life doesn't force us to run 13 miles, we'll find a way nonetheless.

After all, the people you see at the gym aren't merely keeping fit. They're bending themselves into extraordinary shapes on crash-mats, wincing and groaning as they grapple with weights that would shame an elephant, doing convoluted exercises on machines that look like torture instruments. If it were just fitness we were after, we'd all be running. But we want more. We want to ache. That way we won't feel so guilty that we spent three hours of our working day arguing with someone on Facebook about whether or not A-levels have got easier.

Although my running has been going reasonably well, the process of collecting sponsors can't help but make you think: what happens if I don't
manage to do this? You see a lot of people on TV coverage of the London Marathon swanning triumphantly over the finish line and handing a huge novelty cheque to charity. You don't see so many runners shamefacedly handing back their sponsorship money because they got six miles in and then their knees gave way. But it must happen.

Where Eagles dare

My sister knows someone who ran last year's Bristol half-marathon so slowly that she was forced to give up for the night and go back the next day to finish the distance. There are many ways of putting a positive spin on a less-than-impressive performance - it doesn't matter how long it takes as long as you get there, everyone loved Eddie "The Eagle", etc - but it's fair to say that if you enter a race, it's probably the minimum requirement to complete it on the same day as you started. There's not quite so much glory in creeping, exhausted, over the finish line if the streets are deserted, the people who give you your commemorative T-shirt have gone back to their day jobs and the finish line has been replaced by roadworks.

I'm hoping adrenalin will carry me through this and other worrying thoughts, and I'll add "half-marathon" to the (so far very short) list of physical accomplishments in my life to date. And if it doesn't work out - well, the course goes past the house I grew up in, so I know that the number 43 bus goes that way. Wish me luck. Even better, sponsor me via my blog. Or, if you like, just sit back and, on 5 September, reflect with satisfaction every few minutes that you aren't running 13 miles.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 30 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Face off