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Marathon Jealousy

Added: 15 July 2013

Marathon Jealousy

One of my favorite days of the year is London Marathon Day. At this point I should probably confess that I have never done the marathon nor do I think I will ever be able to do it. My excuses are that I don’t have the dedication, the knees or the mental resilience to commit to the training. But perversely this is exactly the reason why I love marathon day so much.

What I love is the human experience that unfolds in front of the spectator. What sports fans like to see is passion and desire and very rarely is it possible to attend a sporting event where the competitors empty every ounce of their soul at your feet. This is exactly what happens during the London Marathon.

People from all walks of life, with varying running abilities and contrasting body shapes unite for the same torturous event. There is no gamesmanship, half-baked attempts or cruising through with the bare minimum. The honesty is there for all to see.

I love to watch the spectacle of it all. Every year I park up in Docklands, unpack a crate of water, a few pieces of fruit and a few treats and watch the world go by.

My station is usually around the 16mile mark. Why I like it here is that this is where most people start to struggle. The other reason is that I can hop foot it across the bridge and see everyone come back round again at mile 17.

I’ve been doing for this little routine for years and what I see each year is pretty much the same pattern.

The first 20 minutes or so is pretty dull. There isn’t much going on except parents shouting at bored children. Then all of a sudden everyone perks up as the Timer Truck speeds out of an underpass. This truck heralds the arrival of the Kenyans. I say Kenyans but I guess I should say Eastern Africans. The reason why it’s always the East Africans is largely based on genetics.

There are all kinds of stats floating around about genetics and anthropology in sport. As an example, pretty much every great sports person from the last 50 odd years has had their genealogy tracked back to a particular part of Western Africa. We’re talking about the really good ones, Pele, Mohamed Ali, Usain Bolt, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Carl Lewis, they all have ancestry in the same region. I can’t tell you why but the gene pool in this region seems to predispose people to being fast, strong and powerful.

West Africa however produces very few distance runners. This specialty is dominated by East Africa. If you want endurance and the ability to run long distances in record times, you need to check your family tree to see if great granny spent any wild holidays in Kenya. If not chances are genetics aren’t on your side.

These guys are running at 20kmph for 2 solid hours which is fast enough to generate their own wind. What amazes me is the differences in technique that each runner has. Some athletes have very short arm levers, others have knees which roll in and come so close to touching they should really trip and fall. They all wear minimalist shoes and I’d bet 50p that every one of them has the flattest feet you’ve ever seen.

If these idiosyncrasies had been present in British athletes its fairly likely they would have been coached out of them and who’s to say they would still be as quick.

A brilliant example is Priscah Jeptoo who has the most unconventional, un-text-book running style you could wish to see. Her knees roll all over the place and she barely moves her arms yet she comfortably won this years ladies event and has an Olympic silver medal.

Once the Elite have sailed through there is usually a pause until the next wave of really good British runners arrive. They look comfortable but they aren’t as effortless as the elite runners. Most have very conventional and textbook efficient technique but their feet are planted on the floor for that bit longer, their cadence is a bit slower and they definitely don’t generate a tail wind.

These guys then filter into the club runners as the density of people starts to increase. Here I start to notice the different body shapes. Only subtle differences but these runners are not quite as lean or athletic. Most are still under 6foot with shorter stride patterns and they still look pretty symmetrical. If you look closer signs of strain are creeping in but there is that look of determination as if they are chasing a PB.

Towards the back of this group you start to notice people wearing Kinesiotape and other forms of brightly coloured straps around their knees and thighs. These are the first signs that things are changing. This group of runners have a lot less symmetry to their style. They look to be working a lot harder. Some only move one arm. Others hop vertically rather than forwards. Some are a lot taller with slow rangy strides. They just don’t seem as rhythmical or as smooth as the people 10mins in front of them.

Behind them the looks are getting more pained and then from nowhere I notice the first walker. Ironically this year I recognised him! He happened to be a colleague of my wife. Interestingly this year was his 10th marathon and he usually does pretty well. However at this point he seems rather confused and is mumbling under his breath, you might even say he was a bit delirious. He is a very pale red headed chap with a bright red face, walking as if dragged by a current next to the railing. “Too hot” and, “Yes yes,” he says as I hand him some water saying “Drink this and keep following that guy in front”.

He is just the beginning. As the crowds thicken so do the proportion of people walking. And mumbling. People are starting to look skywards. And the K-tape is growing thicker. Some people are covered in it. Others have combined it with knee supports. We’re starting to see the people who are not natural runners but are having a bloody good go.

The body shapes of people in this group are also different. The general body mass is greater. By this I mean people seem to be more bulky than the runners 30mins in front. They have more muscle mass, greater height and just generally seem to be more bulky.

And then there it is, the first “RRhhiinnnooooooo” as we encounter our first participant dressed in a rhino outfit. He is followed by camels, soldiers carrying ginormous rucksacks and folks in fancy dress. These fool harder characters are dotted amongst the die-hard runners who may not win the race but will continue at their own speed for the whole 26miles. This isn’t their first marathon and it won’t be their last. They take lots of small well-controlled steps. They run for enjoyment and speed isn’t the priority. Most of them manage a smile and a salute when their name gets cheered.  

Behind them comes more costume runners and the really burnt out folks who are cursing the day and all that comes with it. There are also the people who have blown up with injuries and are limping but MUST cross the finish line.

Then we’re into the walkers. Big strong powerful arm movements, often deep in conversation. What they find to discuss for 6hours I have no idea but they are in perpetual motion.

At this point I decide to head off to base camp point 2. This is around the mile 17 marker and what a difference a mile makes. That is if you’re not Kenyan or even a club runner. This year I didn’t make it in time to see them but I doubt they looked any different. Their order may have changed a bit but their form, technique and cadence would be the same. They are usually a bit more spread out and in smaller groups but they are still operating in a different league to everyone else.

However behind these guys the transition is remarkable. It would seem a hand grenade has gone off somewhere and people have been taken down. The general pace has slowed. The furrowed brows have now migrated to the quicker runners. Their stride length is still good but the arms have changed. The arm cycles are shorter and more circular, in fact they remind me of a T-Rex as they spin rather than drive the legs forward.

The charity runners, first timers and fun runners are the hardest hit. Many have stopped, some even have their hands on their knees bent over looking at the floor. Maybe they were caught in the adrenaline of the day and went out too quick. Maybe they crashed for physiological, training and dietary reasons. Or maybe 17miles is a bloody long way and the body is just realising.

A lot of the K-tape wearers are now limping in fact the more the tape, the more likely they seem to be walking. Maybe reduced training due to injury is affecting race day performance.

On the positive side, some of the runners who had previously been walking are now running again. However the technique is interesting with lots of head rolling, looking skyward and hips falling side to side. Tongues are also out. This is true effort and amazingly inspirational as they empty their heart and soul onto the course with thousands of people watching.  These people give me marathon jealousy.

My wife’s colleague is one of them. He seems to have found some direction, focus and a purpose as he’s running at a decent pace again. Well done.

The camels and rhinos are still battling on. Some have separated, some are walking but all are cheered. Somehow the soldier carrying a giant bag on his back is still running although he’s now at a 120deg angle and how his nose isn’t on the floor I have no idea.

Some of the run-walkers are still walking and look rather subdued and a bit crest fallen. I assume these are the injured or burnt out who have got a long few miles ahead of them. Some break into a 10m jog assumedly to test the injury or the leg strength but soon stop again. Some people are using the barriers to lean on as they drink, stretch, moan or prey.

And then my personal favourite. A guy who has jumped the railings to sit on a wall and have a fag! I’m tempted to have a word and offer him an apple and a bottle of water but I decide not to bother.

The aggressive walkers are still pumping their arms and powering on. You know they’ll be at the finish in the same state as they started. I respect you. Walking is horrible.

It's amazing the difference a mile makes. Fuelled by the determination and the desperation to achieve, people continue despite the hand grenades, land mines and nuclear missiles going off inside them. People with that never say die human spirit who simply must not give up. Heroes.

I love marathon day. It shows the best of people. It inspires me and fills me with jealously. The pain, the suffering, the experience, the adulation, the achievement. Every single person is a Rock and Roll star for the day in their own private concert.

The differences in technique, conditioning and the majesty of the elite runners. The dedication of the charity runners. It's amazing stuff.And I for sure will be back next year.

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