Category Archives: Marathon

The first London Olympic Marathon


What everyone knows about the marathon at London’s first (1908) Olympics – the extension of the distance from 25 miles to its present distance of 26 miles and 385 yards in order to accommodate a start at Windsor Castle – turns out to be the least interesting thing. There was no Royal conspiracy (even through there may have been some unnecessary planning by the Games’ organising Royalists). Focussing on the distance distracts us from the race itself, which was extraordinary.

As David Davis tells in his new book, Showdown at Shepherds Bush, racers had a very different training regime in those days. The favourite for the marathon, Tom Longboat, a Native American from Canada, drank and smoked heavily. He and his rivals relied on whisky or strychnine to revive them when they tired, or cold baths applied externally (the only strict “no” appears to have been a prohibition on drinking water to cure the runners’ thirst).

The crowd of 100,000 people waiting at the stadium in the White City for the finish of the marathon were read the names of the leading runners: originally, Thomas Jack and Jack Pack Price (both English, neither had ever previously run a marathon), later Charles Hefferon of South Africa, and then for the last two miles Dorando Pietri of Italy.

Pietri’s arrival in the stadium was far from a victory procession; “As I entered the stadium the pain in my legs and in my lungs became impossible to bear,” he wrote in the Italian magazine Sport Illustrato several years later, “It felt like a giant hand was gripping my throat, tighter and tighter. Willpower was irrelevant now. If it hadn’t been so bad I would not have fallen the first time. I got up automatically and launched myself a few more paces forwards. I no longer knew if I was heading towards my goal or away from it. They tell me that I fell another five or six times and that I looked like a man suffering from paralysis, stumbling with tiny steps towards his wheelchair. I don’t remember anything else. My memory stops at the final fall.”

Jack Andrew, the clerk of the course and Dr Michael Bulger of the Irish Amateur Athletic Association eventually lifted Pietri and pushed him over the line:

As Pietri finished, a second runner, Johnny Haynes of the USA, was just two minutes behind. In all probability, were it not for the assistance given to Pietri by Andrew and Bulger, Haynes would have won. The American sports association duly appealed and Pietri was disqualified.

I’d recommend Davis’ book. It’s written in a blood-and-thunder, 400 metres runner’s style. Everything is in the present tense, and the writer is searching – constantly – for arresting detail.  He focuses a bit too much on Johnny Haynes for my liking (Haynes being the least interesting character of the Pietre-Haynes-Longboat troika). But what carries Davis to the line is the history itself, and above all Pietri’s story.

Pietri’s defeat proved his making: one paper dubbed him “the man who won, but lost, and then won”. Awarded a special prize by Queen Alexandra, he was signed up by a promoter and and sent on a tour of London music halls. Newspapers raised public collections for him. Crowds cheered his departure from London. He raced professionally over the next three years, making an extraordinary £200,000 in prize money and twice beating Haynes.

Pietri’s triumph was made possible by his audience’s understanding of his sport. The 1908 marathon was the first ever raced in England. Merely running the event was seen to be an achievement at the very limit of human stamina. It dominated the Olympic Games in the same way that sprinters dominate in a digital age. Articles in the Journal of the American Medical Association took it for granted that marathon running did permanent serious damage to the heart. Pietri had given absolutely everything to finish – and he was loved for it. Those of us who have run and suffered the event should recall his name with pride.

The year I ran the London marathon


A few years ago, I ran the London marathon, for the first and only time. I am, as I’ve explained elsewhere on this blog, a natural middle-distance runner. My tread is heavy and I pronate; I am not suited to longer distances. I went into the race having run two half-marathons, the second in just over 100 minutes. After the half marathon, my knee was too sore for me to run. There were just six weeks to the marathon, and I doubted I would recover in time. I found a physiotherapist, who set to work on my knee, using the same ultrasound devices with which I was familiar from my achilles injuries years before.

To keep my heart and lungs fit while the treatment took effect, the physio suggested that I practise on one of his exercise bikes. This I did, in one hour slots, with the bike at maximum resistance. The look the physio gave me suggested that he found my injury hard to credit, if I could keep myself going at that rate, what really was wrong? After three or four lots of ultrasound, the injury was cured. Yet my knee and my legs remained weak, and I was nervous of trying to get back into running too fast. Even simple training before the marathon, I thought, would end in further injury.

As the race neared, I practised stretches, experimenting even for a time with yoga. I swam daily. For the last six weeks before the race I did not run once.

My partner and a good friend Leo took me to the start. I had my running things, a spare woollen sweater and my mobile phone which I later found ruined in an inch of water which had drained into my bag from an unsealed bottle.

Greenwich Park was full of people warming up by running in every direction of the compass, save the route you might have expected us all to follow, East from the park and out. I found my allocated starting point. All our possessions were loaded onto a lorry to be delivered to the race’s end. Having bagged up my clothes, I collected a device to record the moment at which I actually crossed the starting line. There were many runners in all sorts of fancy-dress costumes. To get from the assembly point to the start took a further ten-minute run.

My strategy was forced on me by the time I had spent injured. I intended to run the first six miles so slowly that I ought not fall apart later. This was easier than I had anticipated. Caught in the middle of a large crowd, my first two miles passed in a wonderfully slow 25 minutes.

The third mile passed in ten minutes. In Woolwich, I found a house where students had erected a barbecue in their front garden, the rich smell of cooking food floating in front of the crowd. I ran away from the distraction, completing the fourth miles in eight minutes, probably my fastest mile of the whole race.

I passed three Elvises, two red houses for Shelter. Other red houses sped past me. For most of the race I attempted to keep my pace steady at around 10 minutes per mile. To stop my body hurting, I drank water at every stop. Kindly spectators handed out fresh oranges, a short burst of energy, which faded quickly. Processed sugar proved to be the most efficient anaesthetic. I was grateful to the young boy handing out boiled mints. They endured, melting slowly on my tongue.

I had been placed in a group of fellow marathon rookies. Until about the 20-mile point, I seemed to be overtaking the runners immediately in front of me. This did not mean I was fast, the crowds were too thick to push through, and whenever I pushed on I just found myself stuck behind a further slow group ahead.

From four miles in, I passed runners even worse prepared than me. Some were stopping and starting, pushing themselves forwards in 100 metre bursts. I overtook others who had given up altogether on running, and just walked on grimly.

I enjoyed the pavements, which were full of well-meaning onlookers, adults, children of all ages. I despised the roads, they were my enemy. I remember a stretch of cobble-stones, on which my feet could not even land flat. My feet turned to blisters, my knees ached with pain. I loathed Steve Ovett, I swore down vengeance on Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams. I cursed Phidippides. For much of the race I was wondering how practical it would be to just stop, and exit the race with dignity. I looked hopefully on portable toilets, pubs, but none offered an anonymous exit.

I finished the race in the slow time of 4 hours, 24 minutes. Three months before I had been hoping to run the distance around an hour faster. My brain was always harking back to the runner I had been but was no more. It remains the only marathon I have run, I have never since wanted to run a second.

Surviving the London marathon


Just in case anyone reading this blog has an entry for the London Marathon on the weekend, and hasn’t been overwhelmed yet by the volume of free advice that can be obtained in magazines, on other blogs, and all over the web (in almost all cases by people who’ve run considerably further than I’ve ever managed), I thought I’d offer my own tips:

  1. If you really haven’t trained, it’s not too late to pull out. Sorry, this is probably the last thing you want to be told, but there’s a reason Phidippides died running 26 miles. It’s long and it’s brutal, and if you haven’t trained enough it will hurt
  2. Carbo-load; I know there’s a lot of hype about it and it sounds incredible, but it works
  3. If you end up using sugar as an analgaesic, go for artificial sugar (it takes longer to dissolve)
  4. Motivate yourself incrementally: almost everyone who runs their first marathon, irrespective of their fitness level (well, with the possible exception of Jade Goody), “should” find it possible to complete a marathon, even if theircardiovascular fitness is atrocious, by reducing their intensity to a pace they can sustain. If you are nervous about the distance, time your first mile, and then fix in your head the thought “I just ran a mile in ten minutes. It didn’t hurt. I can run the next mile in the same time.”)
  5. Motivate yourself negatively: by which I mean, focus on finishing. “I’ve done a quarter of the distance – it was ok, I’ve only got three quarters to go.” Particularly in the second half of the race, and especially at around 18 miles in or so, you should be able to motivate yourself by counting down the miles to go. “It’s only 8 more miles; I know what 8 feels like.”
  6. Don’t think that just because someone looks like a joker, they’ll run like a joker. If you’re relying on someone in a costume to pull you round the course – don’t be surprised if they’re a multi-marathon runner, with a planned negative split, who after running 10 miles at 10-minute a mile pace, will suddenly drop down to 7-minute pace or less.  Some runners dress like idiots because they are idiots. Many more dress like that because they’re brilliant runners and they don’t care.
  7. Enjoy it. And if you enjoy it a lot (and you haven’t completely knackered yourseld), run again. 

Exiting with dignity



I will always associate Vienna 2012 with the solidarity shown by those running in aid of Iranian workers. For the press, a different story was at stake, the staggered half marathon race between Haile Gebrselassie and Paula Radcliffe, billed as the Emperor versus the Queen, which the Ethiopian runner won easily (too easily: he made up an eight minute deficit by15k).

Gebrselassie is by universal acclaim a fantastic athlete: a double Olympic gold winner over 10k, the winner of 4 world indoor and 4 world outdoor championships over a range of distances from 1500 metres up to 10k. He is also kind, courteous and genuinely modest. He was on Radio 5 a few months ago. None of the main presenters have even a passing knowledge of distance running, yet he charmed the entire studio. He remains an outstanding athlete; his time at Vienna was 60 minutes for a half marathon. He will not be competing at London 2012, simply because he has the misfortune to be competing against a brilliant generation of younger Ethiopian runners. In 2012, nineteen Ethiopian men have surpassed Gebrselassie’s best recent marathon time of 2 hours 8 minutes. (By comparison, the fastest UK finisher at the 2011 London marathon, Lee Merrien, came in at 2 hours 14).

Paula Radcliffe has run the three fastest three women’s marathon times in history. Her closest competitor Liliya Shobukhova has a best time of 2hr 18min 20; thirty-eight seconds slower than Radcliffe’s third-fastest time of 2hr 17min 42sec; and three minutes behind Radcliffe’s best ever time of 2hr 15min 25sec. She, Radcliffe Gebrselassie, will be at London. However, she seems to be 10 years past her peak. It is a long time since Radcliffe won a really top race, and few people seem to give her any real chance of winning at London. Her defeat at Vienna, where she had to be comforted by Gebrselassie is being taken as further evidence of her decline.

Radcliffe doesn’t seem to be a very popular athlete in Britain. You have to look right in the corners of the press coverage to see what the press think of her: a perfectionist, driven (too much so?), over-influence by her husband, who is also her coach. It is almost as if people have not forgiven her for her defeats at Athens, etc.

Both Radcliffe and Gebrselassie would be capable of competing as veterans should they so choose. Twenty years ago, most athletes -irrespective of their sport – seemed to peak at 26 or so and then decline rapidly thereafter (certainly neither McEnroe nor Borg got far past that milestone), and if better nutrition and sports science have pushed that milestone a couple of years back (just think of the longevity of Roger Federer) the frustrating reality remains that even marathon runners, with all their slow-twitch muscles, which are supposed to go more slowly than fast-twitch muscles of a sprinter, decline as they age.

 This injured ex-runner, 12 months Radcliffe’s senior, wishes them both well.


Marathon records: men’s and women’s


“At one of my first OCS sessions, at Moscow in 1980, the IOC, in its elderly all-male splendor, considered the matter of whether the marathon event for women should be added to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic program. There was considerable discussion and a basic reluctance to proceed. Once or two members offered the view that it should not added because it would be too difficult for the ‘weaker’ sex … [but, in the end,] the event was added in time for the Games in Los Angeles.”

(D. Pound, Inside the Olympics (Montreal: Wiley, 2006 edn), p. 135)

Here, by way of context, is how the world record for the marathon has progressed since 1980s, for male and female runners.

2:09:01  Gerard Nijboer       April 26, 1980
2:08:18  Robert De Castella December 6, 1981
2:08:05  Steve Jones          October 21, 1984
2:07:12  Carlos Lopes         April 20, 1985
2:06:50  Belayneh Dinsamo April 17, 1988
2:06:05  Ronaldo da Costa  September 20, 1998
2:05:42  Khalid Khannouchi October 24, 1999
2:05:38  Khalid Khannouchi April 14, 2002
2:04:55  Paul Tergat            September 28, 2003
2:04:26  Haile Gebrselassie September 30, 2007
2:03:59  Haile Gebrselassie September 28, 2008
2:03:38  Patrick Makau        September 25, 2011


2:31:23     Joan Benoit           February 3, 1980
2:30:57.1  Patti Catalano        September 6, 1980
2:25:41.3  Grete Waitz            October 26, 1980
2:30:27     Joyce Smith          November 16, 1980
2:29:57     Joyce Smith          March 29, 1981
2:29:01.6  Charlotte Teske      January 16, 1982
2:26:12     Joan Benoit           September 12, 1982
2:25:28.7  Grete Waitz            April 17, 1983
2:22:43     Joan Benoit           April 18, 1983
2:24:26     Ingrid Kristiansen   May 13, 1984
2:21:06     Ingrid Kristiansen   April 21, 1985
2:20:47     Tegla Loroupe        April 19, 1998
2:20:43     Tegla Loroupe        September 26, 1999
2:19:46     Naoko Takahashi    September 30, 2001
2:18:47     Catherine Ndereba  October 7, 2001
2:17:18     Paula Radcliffe      October 13, 2002
2:15:25     Paula Radcliffe      April 13, 2003

UK running: in long-term decline?


An interesting letter in today’s Evening Standard by John Bicourt of the Association of British Athletics Clubs, predicts that Britain will have a poor Olympics Games on the athletics track. Funds are made available for a large bureaucracy of coaches, Bicourt writes, and top athletes have access to warm-weather training and other comforts, but their performance is indifferent compared to the athletes of 30 years ago.

For all the vast sums of public money being spent on the Olympics (£11 billion, at the last count, according to the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee), and for all the talk of this being a bumper Olympics in terms of British golds, it is very clear that the strategy for British success is to spread into sports in which relatively few athletes compete, and golds are “easier” to come by. Increased spending on coaches etc doesn’t seem to correlate to success in mass participation sports.

A few events spring to mind: no male or female Briton has run the fastest 800-metre time in a season since Peter Elliott ran 1.42 (just half a second outside Joaquim Cruz’s then world record) back in 1990.

Between 1945 and January 1984 there were 25 successive world record holders at the men’s marathon, and 8 of them were British. Since then there have been 10 world record holders, none British. There were indeed more 2 hour 15 runners in Britain in 1985 than there were in 2011.

Britain won two golds and seven medals at the 2011 World Championships, but only a dozen athletes even made it to the final of their event.

As a schoolboy athlete in the 1980s, I was presented with the AAA Track and Field Standards, which are a measure of comparative performance. To be a top (grade 1) 800 metre, you had to run 1 minute 57 at age 16. This seemed an incredibly fast time: no-one I knew at that age had run that fast, neither had anyone at any neighbouring school. It was faster than the county record. To be a grade 1 performer in the shot put by contrast you had to throw 13.35 metres, or to be a top javelin thrower you had to be able to throw 50.55 metres. These were daunting but not impossible performances: a number of athletes at my (admittedly sporty) school clustered around these levels. Complaining that life seemed to be stacked against runners, it was explained to me that the standards mark comparative performance: tens of thousands of British schoolboys ran, therefore the general standard was high, and exceptional performance was more unusual. The pool of shot putters or javelin throwers was considerably smaller, hence it was easier to excel.

That explanation worked for a different period – one bookended by Ovett and Elliott’s success – in which British middle-distance runners excelled at the top levels, drawing young runners (including myself) into the sport.

It was also a period where the majority of top runners seemed to come from definite working-class backgrounds (Cram, Ovett, but especially Elliott, above, who became an international athlete while working as a joiner); Coe was very dramatically the exception. Athletics seemed to be a way in which people drawn from the majority could make a career for themselves on television. That doesn’t seem to be true any more in 2012.

Solidarity at the Vienna Marathon


Solidarity greetings to Sarah MacDonald, Ben Lewis, and their other comrades, who will be running the Vienna Marathon on Sunday for Workers Fund Iran. As Sarah writes:

“… it is both possible and urgently necessary for the working class to organise solidarity, not charity. The popularity and universality of sport can greatly assist this process. For example, the BBC’s Sport relief recently saw people in this country raise over £50 million. What a shame that these funds will be frittered away, filtered through the corrupt, bureaucratic and undemocratic apparatuses of bourgeois charity. Surely, our goal as the workers’ movement must be to raise this kind of money and beyond – strengthening the cause of working class self-organisation and combativity across the globe. The funds we raise right now will, of course, be much smaller. But they are symbolically important, and point towards what our movement could achieve.”

I know relatively little about Workers Fund Iran, but what I know about the politics of sport convinces me that she, and they, are right.

(Donations to WFI via the link, above).