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30 April 2015

The not-so-lonely long distance runner: how one marathon man brought camaraderie to London

The extraordinary support is one of the main reasons why people aspire to run the London Marathon. Where else will you have strangers scream your name as though you were famous?

By Xan Rice

In 1959, Alan Sillitoe published “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner”, the story of Smith, a boy from a poor Nottinghamshire family who takes up running as a form of physical and mental release. Then, as today, running meant solitude – which for many people, Smith included, is one of its greatest attractions. “It’s a treat, being a long-distance runner,” he says. “Out in the world by yourself with not a soul to make you bad-tempered or tell you what to do…”

Chris Brasher was an athlete of the same era – a pacemaker for Roger Bannister’s sub-four-minute mile in 1954 who won Olympic gold in the 3,000-metre steeplechase in 1956. He knew all about training alone and competing in relatively small fields. Races such as the marathon were for dedicated runners only.

Two decades later, Brasher ran the fledgling New York City Marathon and had a revelation. “To believe this story you must believe that the human race can be one joyous family,” he wrote afterwards in the Observer. “Last Sunday, in one of the most violent, trouble-stricken cities of the world, 11,532 men, women and children from 40 countries of the world, assisted by 2.5 million black, white and yellow people… laughed, cheered and suffered during the greatest folk festival the world has seen.”

Convinced that a similar race could succeed in the UK, Brasher and another former athlete, John Disley, launched the first London Marathon in 1981. About 20,000 people applied for the 7,000-odd places – a rate of oversubscription that has held ever since.

For this year’s event, on Sunday 26 April, 51,696 people were selected from a record 172,888 applicants. (More than 38,000 started the race.) Some runners earned spots based on their times and others through charities for which they collectively raised over £50m. The rest – young, old, swift or slow – came through a ballot. I was one of them.

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A few things have changed over the years. One in 20 finishers at the first London Marathon was a woman. Today it is more than one in three. As the field has grown, the logistics have become more complicated, from ferrying runners’ bags from start to finish to accommodating more than 750,000 spectators.

The extraordinary support is one of the main reasons why people aspire to run the London Marathon – at times, you can’t help but smile while jogging. Where else will you have strangers scream your name as though you were famous? (The inspiration works both ways: roughly 45 per cent of the runners every year are first-timers, many of whom would have watched previous races.) And where but in a big marathon can you compete with the world’s best? During the race, I saw some of the top runners glide past in the opposite direction as the route backtracked.

“That’s what my father talked about in 1981 and it’s still true today,” Hugh Brasher, son of the late Chris Brasher and now the race’s director, told me a few days before the event. “You’ll never play on Centre Court at Wimbledon at the same time as Federer or Nadal, or at Wembley alongside Rooney. But at the marathon, you are all there together.”

He added that to run 26.2 miles is “pretty mad”. This is true. For all the cheering and jelly babies, if you are hurting – or, worse, “hitting the wall”, as your lead-legged correspondent was – you still feel the loneliness of a long-distance runner. Especially when a man in a gorilla suit passes you, balancing a large inflatable banana on his back, and disappears from view.

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