The other week I ran the London Marathon. It was pretty hard work. If I’m honest, my rather casual training regime (all three months of it) was probably not sufficient, and my decision to ignore any refuelling strategy (on the grounds that those sickly energy gels you’re supposed to take tasted foul) was not a sensible one, given that when the energy from my breakfast ran out sometime round mile 19, I had another seven miles to go with nothing in the tank. And I started out too fast and wasted a lot of energy weaving and trying to find my pace in the early stages.
But I completed it, this catalogue of errors notwithstanding, and it was a remarkable experience. The sun was hot, the atmosphere was incredibly exhilarating, and bounding across Tower Bridge with the crowd roaring in my ears I couldn’t stop myself laughing out loud with the sheer thrill of it.
Anyone who’s ever done the London Marathon says it’s the crowd that makes it, and that was my experience too. In fact, I wonder whether I’d have made it as far as I did if I hadn’t had the right faces in the right places, whether they were my family and friends, my work colleagues, my temporary fan clubs at the lovely Asthma UK cheer points around the course (you can sponsor me, you know – there’s still time…) or even the countless strangers who read my name off the front of my running vest and heckled me as I limped by. Steeldrum bands, samba bands, old men singing karaoke from their balconies, jazz trios, school swing bands and bagpipers all play you round the course, while middle-aged ladies pass out trays of deliciously sharp orange pieces and kids rattle big bowls of jelly babies over the barriers. I’ve been in London eleven years now, but from the runner’s eye view, the city has a very different aspect.
And there are the other runners, of course. When you start to flag you’re never short of a reassuring, weary smile from the guy or girl next to you. If there’s one thing above all else that I took away from the day, it was the overwhelming ordinariness of most of these people. Sure, the front portion of the racers are remarkable athletes, superhuman in many ways, but the majority of the souls I saw making their way to the start line at nine o’clock on that Sunday morning were pasty, occasionally paunchy, with crap tattoos and ratty or receding hair, their bodies shored up with tape and joint supports. Yet 35,864 of them crossed the finish line, extraordinary just for an afternoon. And it was rather grand to be one of them.