Marathons: running away from The Race

Judging by the flailing, portly people taking part in Brighton’s Marathon, running is no longer about the thrill of competition.

The recent ‘Marathon By the Sea’ held in Brighton on the UK’s south-east coast was certainly a success from the point of view of participation: 8,000 people took part. But while such mass involvement seems like a good thing, there are also some serious downsides to our changing attitude to running.

The number of people in the UK putting themselves through what is a significant test of stamina has been growing steadily in recent years. According to Sport England, between 2008 and 2009 ‘participation in athletics (including running and jogging) increased by more than 215,000 to 1.827 million’. In the last year alone, Britain staged 55 marathons with around a total of 80,000 participants. Little wonder that it seems that every other person I know is either ‘running a 10k’ or preparing to run a marathon.

The current popularity of distance-running is in stark contrast to my own experience of running while at school during the 1980s. The obligatory cross-country ‘race’ around the school playing fields during the winter was an activity that was dreaded and despised, particularly by the girls. In fact, cross country seemed to us to have been invented as a form of torture. We, the unwilling participants, saw the whole exercise as unpleasant and pointless. While the 1980s might have been a golden era for British running, with Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram all breaking world records, their feats did not inspire the majority of secondary school children.

It seems strange to see some of the very same individuals who were once openly hostile to cross country now enthusiastically running round the park in preparation for an endurance event as extreme as the marathon. What is it about these extreme endurance events that is attracting so many people?

Part of the explanation is that the entry point to running is very low. If you can put one foot in front of the other for any length of time then you can run. There are no equipment costs, apart from a half-decent pair of running shoes, and there is little need to pay for coaching as the skill level is minimal.

Some of my more mean-spirited sporting colleagues point out that running is the only option open to you if you lack the skills necessary for any other sport. Looking at the field in the Brighton marathon it was clear that 30 years ago hardly any of the participants would ever have dreamed of calling themselves runners. The majority had very poor technique and many looked as though they were heading for injury before they completed the 26 miles. Pre-1980, no one would have called themselves a serious runner if they were over 13 stone in weight. Now, style or body type is no barrier to entering the running craze. This may fit well with todays ‘everyone can participate’ culture, but it leads to a very curious spectacle.

A Guardian writer attempted to explain running’s popularity in pragmatic terms: ‘Due to cost and time pressures, the figures indicate that people are abandoning the gym and organised team sport in favour of more flexible and informal pursuits such as running and cycling.’ This may be true, but the appeal of running as opposed to other sports amounts to more than it simply being cost effective. Running also allows for a continual sense of self improvement: there is always a time to beat, another marathon to train for. Or, instead of trying to better your times, you can simply increase the number of marathons you run, an option taken to the extreme by the once portly and now sporty comedian Eddie Izzard with his 43 marathons in 51 days.

What this means for the distance runner today is that the focus on beating your own time has taken the place of beating other people. For the modern runner, the removal of the explicitly competitive aspect of running - that is, The Race - allows for a more self-centred and non-comparative approach. Running as an individual pursuit is ‘continuous’. It involves continually improving your time and fitness as well as increasing the number of events that you do.

Training for a competitive race is a very different experience from training for a run. Training to compete means closure and a considerably higher level of intensity. I was watching the Brighton marathon with my father, who won the UK schoolboys’ 880 yards (roughly 800 metres) in 1961. He maintains that athletes in the 1960s and 1970s trained far faster and far harder than anyone today. His observations seem to tally with the decline of elite running.

There is a paradox here. At a time when more and more people are taking part in distance-running, Britain is producing fewer and fewer elite distance-runners. In 1984, there were 75 sub-2hr 20min British marathon runners. In 2009, there are just five. ‘The fastest’, reported the Telegraph, ‘is Andi Jones with two hours 15 minutes 20 seconds, good enough for 321st place in the world rankings, behind 169 Kenyans’.  This is not a relative decline, it is an absolute decline replicated in all the events from 800 metres upwards.

Several attempts have been made to explain this dramatic fall-off in British distance running, such as runners not training hard enough or not participating in cross-country events. I think technical factors such as this do play a part, but they do not explain the decline of distance-running as a whole. Others have noted the increasing role of charities in these events (see Running isn’t just for fun, by Alan Buckingham). A more likely candidate for explaining the decline is the rapid change in what it means to be a runner. Today, putting on your running shoes does not mean emulating the greats and aspiring to beat all-comers; it means beating your own time and becoming just that little bit fitter.

Dan Travis is director of the Brighton Salon, and writes against the instrumentalisation of sporting participation in the UK. Read his blog here.

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