London Marathon: Why Do We Run?

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, I attended the London Marathon to try and understand what makes us want to run such punishing distances.
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In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, I attended the London Marathon to try and understand what makes us want to run such punishing distances.



It’s 10:00am and London is silent. Tens of thousands of bodies stand still in Greenwich Park, almost chest-to-chest in density. They are a sea of humanity, but for 30 seconds there is no sound save the wind through the trees beside them. Black ribbons are pinned to vests and heads are bowed. The thoughts of almost everyone are elsewhere, in a city more than 3,000 miles away, across an ocean, where six days before fire and death were brought to a race just like this one.

And then a klaxon sounds and the mass begins to move quickly away.


The marathon is a test. A trial of endurance and willpower over exactly 26.2 miles. The Greek soldier Pheidippides was the first to run the distance, so the fable goes; sent to Athens from the battlefields of Marathon to announce the defeat of the Persian Empire. He ran, and ran, and ran, round the rocky marble foothills of Mount Penteli, through the fennel fields of Attica, until he reached the centre of the Ancient Greek world. Here, he found the city’s chief magistrates anxiously awaiting news from the front. But the run had taken its toll and with his last breath he said “Joy to you, we’ve won” before collapsing and dying.

More than 2,000 years later, death is not typically associated with the marathon. There are dangers, of course. Eleven runners have died in the London version alone since it began in 1981. Claire Squires was the last in 2012; the fit and healthy 30-year-old suffered a heart attack one mile from the end of the course after taking Jack 3-D, a performance-enhancing supplement. Cardiac arrests are common, while deaths from brain haemorrhages, dehydration and even hyponatraemia, caused by taking on too much water, have also been recorded.

But nothing like what happened in Boston, the home of US long distance running and the most prestigious marathon in the world. This was different, a horror not seen before. Homemade bombs, strapped with nails, placed at the feet of spectators. Three people killed and 170 wounded, many with life-changing injuries. Runners fleeing away from the finish line. Doctors forced to make 14 amputations. Fourteen men, women and children facing the rest of their lives with something missing.

Amid all this chaos, one picture stood out. Jeff Bauman slumped in a wheelchair, shocked and ashen- faced, his legs torn open and frayed beyond recognition. The 27-year-old athlete had come to cheer on his girlfriend, but left Boston a double amputee. His life was only saved by the courage of Carlos Arredondo, a bereaved father handing out Star Spangled Banners in honour of his son Alexander, killed by a sniper in Iraq in 2004. He is visible in the photo too, a thick bodied man wearing a cowboy hat, his fingers pinching shut a severed artery hanging free of Jeff’s partly severed leg.

"I kept talking to him”, Carlos said afterwards.

“I kept saying: 'Stay with me, stay with me'”.


The run had taken its toll and with his last breath he said “Joy to you, we’ve won” before collapsing and dying.

Jean has sat at the exact same spot on the London Marathon route for the last ten years. You can find her less than a mile from the finish line on the penultimate straight, perched in her fold-up chair, probably eating shortbread. The grandmother from Staffordshire travels to the capital on a coach in the early hours of the morning to claim her place before the crowds arrive. “It’s cheaper that way”, she says ruefully. “Pensions don’t stretch that far anymore, do they?”

This year was the same. But things are different. They are more police, for starters. Hundreds of extra officers are on the street to reassure runners and spectators after the events in Boston. The 33th London Marathon is being run less than a week after the attack and there are fears that it will keep people away from the event.

Did she reconsider coming this year?

She shakes her head. “Oh no, definitely not. It didn’t even go through my mind. It was terrible, really terrible, but you have to keep going. You have to show them that it won’t stop you.

“Terror or no terror, I’ll be here, drinking my tea, eating my biscuits. You can’t get rid of me that easily.”

She laughs, with the freedom that old people do.

“My main problem this year is the bloody weather”, she says, taking her wind breaker off for the third time.

“It won’t decide whether it’s hot or cold.”


The Royal Observatory at Greenwich has one of the finest views in all of London. On a bright spring morning, the entire city is visible from the hill. The Gherkin and the shard stand on the left, while the Isle of Dogs and its family of skyscrapers are on the right. In front of them is the Thames, snaking its way through the landscape, its water shimmering in the early light.

It has become a tradition for many runners to meet here before the race to get their photos taken in front of the view. They are here today, dressed in a multitude of colours, putting the finishing touches to their kit. Excited friends and family mill nearby, ready to see them off. Steve and his wife Annabelle are here too. They moved to Greenwich this year and want to experience the marathon themselves for the first time. Steve, a balding man of 50, doesn’t think today’s race will be affected by the Boston bombs.

“We will carry on regardless”, he says. “That’s the attitude in this country. It always has been. Two fingers up to the rest of you. We will keep going.”

This view is reflected by almost everyone on the hill. Most don’t want to talk about Boston. Putting it in to words brings it too close. Alan, who has travelled up from Honiton to watch his sister race, admits that it has been in his thoughts all week, but that as soon as he arrived it disappeared.

“All the people, laughing and smiling, you just get on with it.”

Soon enough, it’s time to go. Time to run. Goodbyes are said. Good lucks exchanged. And then they walk off to the start, nervous, but ready. As they go, homemade messages scrawled on the back of their race jerseys become visible. Many are aimed at loved ones, or explain why they are running. One man’s is particularly poignant. Ten words inked in marker pen that tell an entire story. “In memory of Ray, who collapsed at mile 17 2011.”

A woman is left behind, dressed head-to-toe in orange and talking excitedly on her phone. She notices the group leaving and chases after them.

There is a message on her back too. It reads: “For Boston xxx”.


“We will carry on regardless”, he says. “That’s the attitude in this country. It always has been. Two fingers up to the rest of you. We will keep going.”

Man has always run. For four and a half million years, our race and its ancestors have felt the freedom of placing one foot after another, and another. Early humans survived by their ability to run for longer than their prey. Hunters chased down animals until they were too exhausted to flee. Our ability to last, to endure, eventually brought death to them and dinner to us.

But modern man runs for something different. For Joy. For escape. For charity. To burn calories, not to consume them.  More than 37,000 were scheduled to run in London this year and each had their own reason. Martin, a Londoner of Slovakian descent, loves the feeling it gives him.

“It clears your mind and everything in it”, he says in a thick European accent. “There is nothing else like it. Even just to watch it, it makes me feel relaxed.”

But isn’t he concerned about today after the events of Monday?

“I’m not afraid. I’m sorry for those people, but we can’t be afraid.”

Not many watching are. Beneath Embankment Bridge, the crowd are loud and happy. Each wave of runners brings with them a surge in volume. It sounds more like a party than a race. Some spectators are drinking, but most are fuelled on excitement. A brass band plays nearby as children run around people’s ankles.

This is the 25-mile mark, the final stretch. The crowd is four-deep and people are perched on every available surface. Even the bridge above is filled to capacity. On it, one teenager stands out. He is wearing a green t-shirt and has an American flag wrapped around his neck. His top has one word blazoned across it, seemingly everywhere today: Boston.


Four hours later and people are still out there, against the fence, voices coarse and almost lost. Runners struggle past, their limbs heavy and sluggish, feet dragged forward by stubbornness alone. A woman in her 40s is fighting her own battle, against ‘the wall’, against fatigue, against defeat. She is walking slowly, but then stops completely. Her name is visible on her vest: Vicky. She bends over, puts her hands on her knees and pulls air deeply into her lungs.

What happens next perfectly encapsulates the beauty of the marathon.

The crowd immediately sees that she is struggling and knows what to do.

A tall man, with his son sitting on his shoulders, calls out her name.

“Go on Vicky,” he shouts. “Keep going. You can do it. You are so close now.”

Vicky looks up and grimaces. She doesn’t seem convinced.

But another man joins in. “Go on”, he cries.

And then another. “Keep it up Vicky. You are doing so well.”

Soon enough, there are 30 people calling out her name, begging and pleading for her to go on.

She can’t ignore it any longer. She stands up, wiping away the sweat from her nose. Her legs look unsteady, but she begins to move them. The crowd gets louder still, sensing victory.

“That’s it. Come on Vicky. That’s it. You can do it.”

She breaks into a run, driving her knees forward with a smile creeping across her face. The crowd lets off an almighty cheer. It has lifted her, pushed her on. She is winning her battle, for now at least.

As Vicky disappears into the distance a group of young women, all dressed in red Action for Children shirts, begin to chant. They are loud and infectious and shake silver poms poms at those passing by.

“Pain is temporary,” they sing.

“But pride is forever”.