It really is amazing how quickly the London Marathon became one of the major highlights of the British sporting and social calendar. From being an idea hatched by ex-Olympians Chris Brasher and John Disley and first run in 1981, the race is now one of the world’s top five international marathons.
It has been estimated that the incredible sum of around £450 million has been raised for charities by runners competing in the London Marathon and the sight of bizarrely dressed men and women, together with stilt walkers and television celebrities, running, walking or hobbling through the city’s streets has become a compelling attraction on the BBC for millions of people and for hundreds of thousands more lining the route itself.
For many people, the London Marathon, usually held in April, is just as much about raising money as it is about completing the 26 mile course and each year’s event brings with it heart-warming stories of sacrifice and devotion. However, it must be remembered that it is also a serious athletic event, and it is this apparent disparity which has made the race so enthralling. After all, when Khalid Khannouchi won in 2002 in a time of 2 hours 5 minutes and 38 seconds, it was a World Record for the men’s marathon. Similarly, the women’s World Record has been broken three times by runners in the London Marathon – by three of the greatest women distance runners of all time; Grete Waitz, Ingrid Kristiansen and, in 2003, Paula Radcliffe. Recently, Kenyan athletes seem to have gained a stranglehold over the men’s race, completely dominating it, with the 2009 victory by Olympic champion Sammy Wanjiru being the sixth consecutive race being won by a runner from the African country.
And yet many of the half a million or so people who line the streets of the city in order to encourage and cheer the runners will chiefly remember the immense efforts of ‘non athletic’ athletes who finish the race because of their total determination and the incredible support they receive from the spectators. More than 30,000 people enter the race each year and, almost unbelievably, since the very first race in 1981, there are 21 people, known as ‘The Ever Presents’, who have completed every single run.
All of the runners, whether highly trained professionals, serious club athletes of part of the 80% who are running for charity, speak of the incredible atmosphere that has become unique to the London Marathon – a bond that is shared between runners and spectators that has made the event a celebratory sporting festival.
The London Marathon course itself, of which only the final section will be used for the 2012 Olympic race, is a fairly flat – therefore fast – circuit going through many of London’s most famous areas. Beginning at Blackheath, it passes through Woolwich, past the Cutty Sark at Greenwich, through Docklands, across Tower Bridge, by Canary Wharf, St Paul’s Cathedral, The Embankment, Birdcage Walk and finishes in the Mall opposite St James’ Palace.
The number of people, from both Britain and overseas, who want to participate in this world class marathon is far in excess of the 30,000 runners. The ballot for entries for the race usually is closed more than six months in advance. After the closure, however, it might often still be possible to gain entry by contacting one of the many charities helped by the marathon so that you can run as their representative and help raise money.
Watching the London Marathon is a cathartic experience for many people; it always reminds us of the potential that individuals have and the endless capacity for goodness in so many. More than half a million people lend their emotional, spiritual and often financial support to the runners each year; packing the roads of the city of London and becoming a truly integral part of the occasion. There is a wonderful and almost unique feeling of camaraderie between runners and spectators.
The whole city is a special place to be at marathon time. For more information, visit the official website at www.virginlondonmarathon.com.