Monday, 23 April 2012

Why 26.2 Miles Takes Six Hours in an Armchair

1996: The 7th and final London Marathon for No.43030, the (nearly) Clapped-Out Runner!

THE LONDON MARATHON: The world’s greatest mass participation road run. You can race it seriously, jog round it for fun, watch it from the roadside, or follow it live on TV.

For the past 16 stagings, your Clapped-Out Runner has done the latter, happy to allow the old knees a rare Sunday morning off on the sofa.

My seventh and last run in ‘The London’ was in the heat of 1996 when I managed a steady four hours wearing the heavy blue-and-white kit of Colchester United FC. At the time I was editor of their matchday magazine and was representing the club in the marathon’s ‘Football Challenge’ section. It was a scorcher of a day and remains the only occasion in all my 886 races to date I’ve needed a lie-down immediately after crossing the finish-line. Luckily there was a small, shady patch of grass close by, despite the enormous crowds on the Mall.

Since 1996, I’ve come to my senses and stuck to shorter races and have become an armchair connoisseur of the marathon, glued to the BBC TV coverage once a year. It’s become a spring ritual. Every April I struggle to make head or tail of Brendan Foster’s Geordie banter, and wince at those awkward live interviews that take place with ‘ordinary’ runners at the roadside.

There was nearly six hours of coverage on BBC1 this year and, as I saw most of it, I think I can claim a new PB. However, our Sky-Plus ‘live pause’ and ‘fast forward’ buttons did get a hammering, which means I didn’t need the full six hours to reach the finish, and just nipped inside the three-hour barrier! 

So here then, in ascending order, are my TOP TEN ARMCHAIR HIGHLIGHTS & LOWLIGHTS of the 2012 Virgin London Marathon:

10. The good old Beeb has thankfully retained the same theme music for at least 25 of the event’s 32 years (it’s called ‘The Trap’ if you want to buy it on I-Tunes). But they get a black mark for no longer kicking off with that dramatic ‘heartbeat’ sound effect, just before the opening chords of The Trap come crashing in. Instead of the heartbeat we got Sue Barker chattering away in her funny little jacket as she wandered aimlessly across a deserted Mall.

9. Craggy James Cracknell made light-hearted jests on camera about Steve Redgrave lighting the Olympic torch in July. The identity of the final torchbearer is supposed to be a closely-guarded secret, so did Cracknell (who ran 2:59) drop a clanger and let the cat out of the bag?  Or was he merely just speculating that Redgrave might get the job?  We must wait and see. At least the authorities won’t give it to someone based on their looks and class background, as was the case in the London Olympics of 1948. On that occasion the people’s choice – a little bespectacled runner called Sydney Wooderson – was passed over for being too weedy and ordinary-looking. The job instead went to the more glamorous figure of Cambridge student John Mark. Disgraceful.

8. Prince Harry reduced interviewer Sue Barker to a fit of quivering giggles as he mockingly announced that his brother and sister-in-law would be running next year’s race. Normally when ‘challenged’ in this way, the victim is forced to go out and run the wretched thing, merely to prove he/she is not a wimp. In this case, however, we can be fairly sure Mr and Mrs Cambridge will be able to steer clear without losing face.

7. The main race was started by Dorothy Tyler, Olympic high jump medallist in 1936 and 1948, who did what we authors always do, and unashamedly plugged her new book as soon as a microphone came near. Feisty old Dorothy wasn’t going to stand for any nonsense and proudly revealed how she once confronted the legendary Dick Fosbury and told him his invention, the Fosbury Flop, wasn’t up to much in her view.  Dorothy competed in an era where high jumpers were banned from leaping head-first over the bar, proving the obsession for ‘health and safety’ in sport is not just a recent phenomenon.

6. When BBC reporter Phil Jones spotted a small, white-haired runner trundling towards him, you could sense him thinking: “Ah, here comes an eccentric with a good tale to tell.”  Turns out the bloke was an ordinary club runner, not quite as old as he looked (he was a mere 64) and when asked who he was raising money for, replied frankly: “Nobody.”  Through  gritted-teeth, Jones sent him on his way. Jones fared little better soon afterwards, selecting a burly bloke in fancy dress who suddenly blurted out: “You smell nice . . .”

5. Despite the race coinciding (nearly) with St George’s Day, there was little for the top English runners to celebrate. Lee Merrion (from Guernsey actually), was our leading performer in a PB of 2:13.41 but ended his race with a disappointed face on. He ran out of steam and fell short by 101 seconds of the standard the GB Olympic selectors are demanding.  Claire Hallissey was the only elite Brit with real cause to celebrate, achieving a sub-2:28 that will surely clinch a place on the GB team. Here in East Anglia, we were rooting for Ipswich JAFFA’s Helen Davies (nee Decker), whose 2:34 was a superb effort, but not fast enough for the Olympic inclusion she dreamed about.  

4. James Argent, star of the world’s oddest TV series (The Only Way Is Essex) struggled home in just over six hours, which meant he could fire off some abuse in the general direction of footballer Joey Barton, self-appointed king of the tweeters. Apparently the formerly 18-stone Argent prepared for this race by having new veneers on his teeth and having his eyebrows shaped. This ‘training programme’ had led to Barton’s jibe on Twitter: “Leave it u stonehenge teeth. Cheeky man giving it bigguns, leave it large undies. Right fatty now ur fair game. Can't believe ur giving it with them teeth like a burnt down fence."   Not sure what lot actually means, but of course QPR footballers have never been known for their erudition.   

3. Despite going goggle-eyed staring at all the faces, I failed once again to spot a single clubmate from Tiptree Road Runners. Mind you, seven TRRs out of 35,970 starters is not a promising ratio, I'd grant you.  I do know that our Vicky Knight achieved a rare thing – a ‘negative split’ – by running the second half of the race quicker than the first. Her proud hubby Anthony was left trailing in her wake and told me ruefully today: "I spent most of the second half desperately trying to fend off a bloke dressed as a bloody poppy. Couldn't get shot of him. And I hate it when people chat to you on the run. There's me trying to focus on not passing out and the bloke to my left wants my life story!"

2. Former glamour model Nell McAndrew sashayed across the finish line in floods of tears in an astonishing 2:54, nearly half-an-hour quicker than the lifetime best of your Clapped-Out Runner!  Often the sight of a celebrity crying in front of the cameras is the signal to switch channels, but this time it was a sincere reaction to having achieved her ambition to beat the three-hour barrier. The London Marathon is packed with ‘C’ list celebrities doing their thing for publicity and charity, but Nell is no part-time runner – she’s a natural athlete. Her consistency in recent times (e.g. 1:21 at the Bath half-marathon this year) means she’s now almost as famous for her running as for her semi-naked appearances on TV and in lad mags.    

1. But the best sound-bite of all came from BBC commentator Steve Cram. His carefully considered expert advice for aspiring marathon runners was short, simple and concise: “Just stick a couple of jelly beans down your shorts!”

(* Check out ROB HADGRAFT’s published books on running on the Clapped-Out Runner’s website:

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