Marathons are about solidarity, pain and reclaiming our body – and they’re truly pointless to boot

I’m not agin’ marathon-running, but I do slightly wonder what it’s all about.

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Granted, the only circumstances under which I’d run a marathon would be if I had to deliver news of a great victory by the Greeks over the Persians and there was no other transport available but nevertheless I’m not against other people running them. My old mate Nick did the London Marathon some years ago to celebrate getting his breath back following decades of heavy smoking. I asked him what it was like, but he said that after 15 very odd miles, things became a bit of a blur. Certainly, walking through Parliament Square the other Sunday and encountering the closing stages of the great race, I was struck by how blurred the runners were: canalised between steel barricades and overseen by thousands of cheering, screeching loved ones, they paced, staggered and limped towards the finishing line, their features pulpy with exhaustion.

No, I’m not agin’ marathon-running, although I do slightly wonder what it’s all about. A sense of sheer physical achievement, some say, and I can see that: the vast majority of us spend most of our lives in oddly cramped conditions, our bodies hemmed in and constrained by technologies that, though designed to free us from the sordid business of exertion, have locked us up in a sort of padded cell, one in which everything is soft and yielding and renders self-propulsion quite unnecessary.

Technologies become invisible to us once we have integrated them seamlessly into our lives – their automation becomes an aspect of our automaticity, so that while we know something is definitely missing (the wind in our hair, the sweat on our brow), we can’t quite recall what it is. Getting up at the crack of dawn to run around suburban streets isn’t simply training for running round suburban streets with a multitude. It’s a way of recapturing the fierce rapture of our physical being. Because even pain can be a benison: our sedentary, cosseted lifestyle makes us all puling and delicate little flowers, unaccustomed to fluctuations in ambient temperature, chafed even by the warm leatherette of our couches as we angle our potato heads towards gleaming screens. What a relief it is to experience at last the abrasiveness of sole on tarmac, the true ache of well-used muscles and the lancing pain of a busted hamstring or pulled muscle.

There is also the solidarity of marathon-running: you’re all in it together. For weeks and months beforehand, everyone has been jerking about in isolation and now all these revivified bodies are brought blinking into the daylight. Such embarrassment as there is soon dispels in the febrile atmosphere – besides, it’s impossible to feel squeamish about your fat arse/thighs/belly when the runner next to you is dressed as the Honey Monster. It is this charming elision between competitive sport and the carnivalesque that so typifies the big city marathons – an atmosphere caught delightfully by Chris Morris in his film Four Lions, in which police marksmen end up shooting a number of gaily caparisoned runners as they attempt to neutralise a suicide bomber at the London Marathon who is disguised as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.

All right, that was facetious – and possibly uncalled for. Morris’s satire was released in 2010 and only three years later real jihadists were killing people at the Boston Marathon. It can be posited that the 9/11 attacks, besides being mass murder, were a spectacular assault on the west’s supreme value of effortless mobility. What does this imply when it comes to the Boston Marathon outrage? Surely, that the Tsarnaev brothers, in some twisted little corner of their f***ed-up minds, wished to trounce another of our cherished values, namely our glorification of purposeless effort. At any rate, having negotiated the packed tunnels of Westminster Tube station in order to re-emerge on the far side of the people stream, I was treated to this spectacle: scores of finishers being assisted by relatives and friends to hobble up Whitehall. Blind, halt and lame with fatigue, the marathon runners staggered past the Cenotaph and the other memorials to the glorious dead.

It was difficult, observing this, not to reflect on the changing character of our existential enemies. Once, it was the Nazis who threatened to enslave us and destroy every vestige of our culture. Now, it’s the jihadists, who want to bore us to death in airport security queues and destroy every vestige of our fun runs.

Not that the runners looked like they’d had much fun. I suspect that, as with my mate Nick, it had all become a bit of a blur for the poor souls. For the rest of that afternoon, I saw them sitting outside chain coffee stores slurping down fruit juices, stunned by the enormity of what they had done – and possibly by its futility. Because although the battle had been joined (the blue-and-white pennants of Cancer Research UK, the London Marathon’s “official charity”, fluttered everywhere), the crab had not been kicked to death by 100,000 running shoes.

Yet that may not have been the only reason these doughty pacers looked so down in the mouth: it was a cold day for April and at the finishing line the marathon’s official sponsors had thoughtfully laid on a huge supply of silvery-red space blankets blazoned with their own logo. I mean to say, it’s one thing to bust a gut running 26 miles – but to end up a walking advertisement for Virgin Money seems like adding injury to injury.

Next week: On Location

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 06 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Struggle