2. My first marathon: London 2001

Why would I ever want to run a marathon ?


I had never really been a runner. At school, I had been a very poor athlete, always second-last on treks around the playing fields, although I did do cross-country for a season or two as a way of escaping the frozen rugby pitch. Strangely I was always happier running seven miles than four, but I never knew why. I just ran as slowly as I could, for as long as I could.

Tennis was my sport until the age of 12, and then I took up golf, playing at representative level right through my school and university years. For a short period as an undergraduate I found myself rowing in the College 2nd VIII, and I would reluctantly run down to the river with the rest of the crew. Once or twice I even went for a weekend run afterwards.As a postgraduate, I spent long periods doing fieldwork abroad, several times finding myself running hot desert roads in the South African Karoo, and again along dusty tracks on summer evenings in Northern Spain.

Soon after, I moved to Switzerland, and enjoyed some very occasional but happy runs along the banks of the River Aare in Bern, a tough four mile hilly run, with some walking involved up the stiff slope up to the Rosengarten above the Bear Pit. But running was still more of an aberration than a regular habit.

Into my thirties, and back in England, one autumn I decided I needed to get fit for winter ski-ing trips, and set myself to run around the sports field opposite my house on a frosty morning. In some ways it was a return to the adventures of my youth. But it was a very short-lived attempt at getting fit, since on the second outing I bruised my heel, and could hardly walk before heading for the snow, let alone train for it.

After the family arrived in 1994, there was even less time or inclination to go running. Any rare and precious spare moments simply had to be spent on the golf course. But life circumstances changed quickly, and suddenly even that was out of the question. I became very unfit, and very grumpy.

Suddenly, one gloriously sunny day in June 1997 saw me stuck in front of a computer screen on a training course for eight hours at a stretch, and I just had to get outdoors. I drove home and pulled on an old pair of trainers, headed back across that sports field and up Ottershaw’s Ether Hill beyond. Those fourteen minutes in the forest were a desperately breathless affair, probably the slowest mile and a quarter I have ever run. But they marked the realisation that I could run for survival and for pleasure, if that was what you could call it.

By the end of July, I was running three miles, up to three times a week. My strategy then was simply to run as slowly as I could, for as long as I could. Not much had changed after all, since my hopeless cross-country days at school – or had it ?

After such unpromising beginnings, my running did progress, ever so slowly. I had watched the first ever London Marathon on TV as a student in 1981. Chris Brasher had set it up after his visit to the New York race. I had read his report in the Sunday papers on his return, where he described a living stream of humanity and inspiration.

We all knew Chris Brasher – famous as a journalist and also as one of the pacemakers for Roger Bannister during his four minute mile in 1954. At one time I had lived close to the historic track in Oxford where that landmark was achieved, and I always was a keen follower of athletics. I dreamed, but never really imagined, that I might one day run a marathon.

Over the next three years, gradually I found myself able to run further. 8 miles could be achieved, without too many problems. The idea began to plant itself in my brain, to run a marathon to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support, and to fulfill a life’s ambition at the same time. I secured a place in the 2001 London Marathon, and began training.

Nine miles through a dark, rainy Christmas Eve saw me well on my way. It took me three failed attempts before I finally broke the ten mile barrier. Running the same loop along the Thames towpath from Chertsey to Staines, I just kept falling apart at the same place. Eventually, now worryingly late on into February, I hit on the idea of reversing my route. It worked – since I was fresh at the usual point of exhaustion, and at the collapsing distance I was in a place where I was usually fresh. It was kidology of the highest order, but it worked. That March, I ran my first ever race. The Banbury 15 miles, through snow and hills of the Oxfordshire Cotswolds. And I wasn’t (quite) last.

Two months later and I was ready, if apprehensive, as I came to the start line in Greenwich. My strategy for the day was simply to run as slowly as I could, for as long as I could. Nothing had really changed after all, even now. But I did complete that race, that wonderful event which had always been one of my favourite sporting spectacles, in 4:18:56. I would gladly have paid all of the money I raised for charity myself, just for the experience of completing the race. It was simply one of the proudest achievements of my life. I knew I would never want to, or need to, run another marathon again….

One hot evening in Greece later that summer, I ran with someone who told me about New York. “You’ve got to run a US marathon,” he said. I thought about it, long and hard. Too long. New York was full, when eventually I tried to register the following Spring. Somewhere I had read something about Chicago, and I had the thought that maybe it might be worth a try. I entered in May, booked a few days leave, and cashed in those air miles. I ran through a long hot summer in England, and up steep Cretan hills through tiring dawns and searing late afternoons.

Just a month before, I was told I was required in Houston on business that same marathon weekend, and then onto Mexico. It was almost a disaster, but American Airlines were sympathetic, and somehow I rigged the flights.

So, with a five-hundred mile summer behind us, and the excitement of another race ahead, let’s pick up the story in late 2002, as emerging British hopefuls roadsofstone and Paula Radcliffe are each preparing for their first assault on a major American marathon.

Chicago !

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143. Shame about the Boat Race … Oxford vs Cambridge, 1829-2007
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