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Twists in the tale on the Thames Path 100 and why football is bad for you

Plus: a date with gay marriage.

I was supposed to be running the Thames Path 100-mile race last weekend – the flattest, fastest, most straightforward, easiest event in the country at this distance, if you can use such an adjective about any event at this distance. That was before the flood warnings and the snow made large sections of the path unnavigable on foot. “Ultimately the level of danger is deemed too high where it is not possible to make the distinction between the bank and the river,” as the event rules adjudicated drily.

This was before the organisers curtailed the intended route at a sailing club somewhere near Cookham (for the revised route, runners retraced their steps up and down the Thames between Walton and Windsor to make up the missing miles). And it was before my ankle slipped first one way across the ice and then twisted another way through the mud, in a clear act of self-injury with intent to avoid service.

I pulled out before the race started and spent the first weekend for as long as I can remember without running.

Itchy feats

Three months ago there’d have been no question of my not continuing. I entered – and completed – 115 different running events in 2012. These ranged from a six-day, 156-mile, carry-your-own-gear stage race to a five-in-a-day schlep around southern England that started with a five-kilometre parkrun in east London in the morning and finished with a midnight half-marathon in Brighton that evening. My highest-placed finish was third and my lowest was third from last, when I became the 134th person, out of 262 starters, to cross the finishing line of the Lakeland 100. (Actually, the Ultra Tour of the Lake District, to give it its snottier title, is 105 miles but the organisers of these things start getting sloppy about distances once they’ve got you outside the marathon comfort zone.)

A “dnf” (did not finish) or “dns” (did not start – worse, really, because it means you never even tried) “dnemh” (did not enter my head) during my 2012 miles in 2012 challenge But then that was for charity (Freedom from Torture, TEACH Africa and Whizz-Kidz), and on the same weekend last year I was getting sunburnt in the Barcelona Marathon rather than trench foot on the Thames. I must admit that having not one but two excuses for pulling out – an injury and a revised course that blew my self-supporting race logistics out of the water – was too much of a temptation.

Crunch time again

So what do you do with the weekend when you’re not running? Well, Sunday-morning football used to have its attractions. I even have a dim memory, from 20 years ago, of organising what was probably the only New Statesman team ever to step out on that particular field of dreams. If my memory serves me correctly, we lost 2-1 to a “Rest of the Left” team that included David Miliband.

He hit the bar with a header from the edge of the box. I substituted myself after playing 20 minutes with a broken finger, incurred at the hands of police wielding riot shields at an Anti-Nazi League demo the previous weekend. I may have broken another one last weekend as a result of donning the goalkeeper’s jersey – but not the gloves – in a game of fivea- side at my local sports centre.

I’ll see if the swelling goes down when I’ve finished typing this notebook.

Little France in London

I still turn out for games of five-a-side; the big pitches demand too much recovery time, now that so many younger players seem to be taking up the game. Yet despite the best efforts of the coalition government, the days when I was a regular demonstration-goer are long gone. But I turned out for the march to save our local hospital – again – a couple of weeks ago. And I strolled along to join the counter-protesters at the London version of la Manif pour tous (“demonstration for all”) in Paris on Sunday opposing gay marriage.

With its pretty pink placards and its Godgiven certainty, la Manif has managed to get hundreds of thousands of protesters on to the streets of France but could pull only hundreds to Trafalgar Square. And the London organisers were so scared about participants going off-message (they’re “pro-family”, not “antigay”) that they banned them from bringing their own posters. “Just so you know, we have instructed our team of stewards to pull away any banner or visual . . . that is not in line with the guidelines,” they warned anyone thinking of attending.

We could be heroes

Before they decided to stick with the title of Alan Sillitoe’s original short story, the makers of Tony Richardson’s 1962 film The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner had planned on calling it Rebel with a Cause, a reference to the iconic James Dean film of a few years earlier. Having obtained his borstal governor’s support for his running, and permission to leave the borstal to pursue it, Sillitoe’s antihero, Colin Smith, throws his big race by deliberately stopping just short of the finishing line and allowing the much slower, secondplaced runner to finish ahead of him.

Along with the comic-strip hero Alf Tupper, the “tough of the track” whose outlandish running exploits graced the pages of the Victor and the Rover for four decades, Smith offered a fictional working-class alternative to the real-life posh-boy running heroes such as Roger Bannister. Tupper, a welder with unfeasibly big biceps (for a middle-distance runner) and a predilection for fish and chips, made his contribution to the turmoil that was sweeping the world in 1968 by inviting three rivals who were flying out to the US from a nearby airport to take part in an invitation mile, where they broke the world record.

My own running ambitions fell somewhere between Tupper and Smith. I shouted Steve Ovett on against Sebastian Coe every time – who didn’t? And when a dark-skinned immigrant from Mogadishu won the Olympic 5,000 and 10,000 metres double gold for Britain in Hackney last year, I knew that sometimes real-life running can be even more amazing than fiction.

Steve Platt was editor of the New Statesman from 1991-96. He has been running ever since

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue