Friday, April 26, 2013

Keep on running!

Shortly after completing the New York Marathon in 1979, Chris Brasher wrote an article for The Observer newspaper. He said 'To believe this story you must believe that the human race be one joyous family, working together, laughing together, achieving the impossible. Last Sunday, in one of the most trouble-stricken cities in the world, 11,532 men and women from 40 countries in the world, assisted by over a million black, white and yellow people, laughed, cheered and suffered during the greatest folk festival the world has seen.'
                                    Chris pace making for Roger Bannister's sub 4 minute mile


Nothing that happened in Boston will dull that spirit one iota. So whatever those two bombers did, for whatever reason, they picked on the wrong people. This year’s London Marathon, six days after the Boston atrocity, saw a step up in security (40% more police) but not one runner pulled out.     

 More than 800,000 people lined the course to cheer the runners on for the biggest one day fund raiser that the world has ever seen (over 900 million dollars over the years). The 37 000 London runners ran with black ribbons in tribute, there was a 30 second silence at the start with more than a few tears. Runners and spectators remained defiant.

Some years ago, I was lying on a hospital bed with a neurosurgeon tapping my reflexes and scraping my feet. He was telling jokes and I was feeling nothing- literally. A spinal fracture had caused my brain to fall out with my legs.  He said something along the lines of 'getting you back on your feet might prove difficult'. I said “Can I run a marathon?” He joked "Could you run one before?"

 Two years later, I stood on the starting line of the London Marathon, with 36,000 others, each with a story to tell.  Mine was ...ok ... bad spinal injury, couldn’t walk for a while, had to retrain to do that but discovered a talent for writing books that I never knew I had. Always a silver lining!! I went from weeks of lying down, to swimming, tipping wheel chair into a pool, then walking with two crutches, then one, then a stick  then unaided ... all the way to running 26 miles 385 yards. Well maybe running is a bit of a stretch.... kind of limpy jogging, like an elephant with gout.

 There is something beautiful and pure about marathon running. It’s not running against anybody else, it’s you against the distance, the fatigue, the pain and that wee voice in your head that says over and over again ... why are you doing this?

 When I ran the Marathon it was sponsored by Flora margarine so we all ran with 'Flora' on our vests. The crowd shouted “come on Flora” about 12,000 times. It did encourage us to pick up the pace a bit just to get away from the racquet. I wonder what the runners have to endure now that it is sponsored by Virgin! 


All the charity runners - even huge big hairy blokes- cross the line and cry. Some bend over to ease their breathing, some stretch, some whoop, some look at their watch to check their time (or their pulse to see if they have really survived), others get carted away by stretcher but they all wipe away a tear.


There are things that happen in a marathon that would occur under no other circumstances. The mere act of running quicker to catch up with a Viking longboat while being chased by some Mr Men is one I distinctly remember. The army run as a team. I don’t know what the technical term is but they move with a peculiar gait that is not a march and not a jog, it's a in between. They have full pack on, pounding the concrete. You can hear them coming up behind you for miles, moving in perfect synchrony. Somewhere behind them was a 
herd of rhinos.

 The Army team, the Viking longboat and the rhinos run as a group so they line up right at the back of the massed start. This makes sense as they would cause a pile up if any keen charity runners went off too quickly and ran smack into the back of them. So the mass runners go forward, safe in the knowledge that they will hear the  chomp, chomp, chomp- the crowd starts to cheer - everybody gets a wee bit patriotic and a steward will stand and part the runners like Canute. If you don't gently move to the side, you will be trampled.
Being a charity runner I didn’t give a hoot who overtook me. My friend, a GP, stopped at a cafe for a cappuccino ... twice!  She came up with some medical excuse about calcium depletion, caffeine and fluids (double shot latte in other words).  My other friend always wanted to break the three hour mark. He managed a 3.02 in a Paris Marathon, hitting the wall at 24 miles and was very upset.  He turned up at London in peak condition and collided with a banana on the final turn. He was furious this time, going through the barrier at 3.01. That was about twenty years ago and he still goes into a mood if you mention it... which I do, frequently.

Basically, the marvellous thing about marathon running is that you are all in it together and the spirit of friendship and fellowship amongst the runners is an experience that you probably take to your deathbed.
In keeping with that spirit, the Virgin London Marathon has pledged to donate £2 for every runner that finished the event to The One Fund Boston.  And I am sure that many other ‘pledgers’ will dig a little deeper into their pockets.  

Running at its core is a very honest thing to do, one foot in front of the other. The marathon is the culmination of weeks/months of training. Because the London Marathon is early in the year, the training for Scots and other northern Europeans has to be through a cold hard winter. The charity runners, who will have full time jobs, will be up at 5am in sub zero temps, running through the dark night air. It always made me feel like a ghost.

I wrote the following at the time of my first marathon. These are my memories of milling around the start in Greenwich Park, scared. Very scared.
There was a strawberry in the corner rubbing Vaseline on its nipples, absorbed in its task, greasy fingers dipped in and out the pot, the hands moving from the chest to the inner thighs. He had been at it for ages.

A mobile phone rang, the strawberry extended a green stalk, passing the phone to the elephant standing next to it. The elephant flapped his ears in gratitude; it was a trunk call one would suppose.

Silence fell as Cher emerged from the toilets, six foot four, dressed in a leather vest with a black g-string and tinfoil-posing pouch. He was wearing three-inch stilettos, a constipated smile and far too much make up. He teetered up to the end of the queue and took his place between two nuns.
A chicken got stuck in the portaloo the transvestite had vacated; unable to manage the narrow door for itself. He had to be pulled out tail first. He fluffed his feathers to regain some dignity, plumping himself up against the wasps that were now homing in on us, attracted by the smell of banana skins, ralgex and Lucozade.
Then it was time. We stood still, in reverential silence, alone with our thoughts of the pain that had passed and the pain to come.
Without exception, we put up a silent prayer as one single shot split the air.

I jogged round my first marathon and I remember seeing the green sign, 26 miles. Tired  to the core, legs on automatic pilot, knowing that I could not stop because if I did I might never start again, then the final corner into the Mall.... then angels pick you up at that point ... I was humming swing low sweet chariot..., the crowd were going mad ... for me and the other 36,000 no doubt. But I did it...
And after watching that today...
I'm getting the itch to do it again...

Watching the Marathon GB 26.04.13

PS  If you are ever in a crowded train carriage and someone is talking loudly on their mobile phone  and being very annoying, just pick up your own phone and say the first line about the strawberry very loudly. Put your phone down. Look out the window. Say nothing. You will notice that all will have gone very quiet.


  1. Wonderful writing, Caro. I have an alternative challenge for you. Join me next March (in summer) in warm, sunny South Africa, where you will see the sun for more than 8 hours a day, and ride the Cape Argus bike race - 109 kms. You can sit the whole time, watch some of the most beautiful scenery in the world around Cape Town, eat and drink fine wine and food afterwards, and then make it a business trip by being part of the Knysna Literary Festival!

  2. The sun for a whole eight hours......I'm tempted you know!

  3. I'm trying to memorize the strawberry-vaseline-nipples-greasy fingers thing, Caro, but I keep getting hung up wondering what the elephant must have been thinking while all that was going on...

    And with Stan's comment, now I'm trying to imagine all that happening on a bicycle.

  4. I didn't see any elephants on bikes, but there were all sorts of other creatures. This photo gallery shows some ( I particularly like the bikers with picnic baskets on the front of their bikes, who stop at beautiful viewpoints, lay out a white table cloth on the grass, and have a leisurely picnic during the race. Pubs on the rooute also do a fine business.

  5. Wonderful description Caro, you make me want to run a marathon which would be both dangerous and embarrassing since I haven't even attempted a half marathon yet. Still, I'm sure it would only serve to increase the amusement of the crowd, I'd certainly achieve the colour of the strawberry even without the costume.

    And Stan, there is no such thing as that much sun surely. Eight hours of rain I can easily believe but sun!? That is the stuff of fable here in the west of Scotland.

  6. Caro understated the hours of sun. 14 more likely at that time of the year. Sorry!