Running isn’t just for fun

A long-distance runner on how events like the London Marathon are being sanitised and slowed down.

Alan Buckingham

Topics Politics

It might seem that British distance running has much to celebrate on 17 April; it’s the twenty-fifth London Marathon, and the world’s top female distance runner – Paula Radcliffe – will be running the course in an attempt to break her world’s best time. The popularity of distance running cannot be in doubt either. More than 98,000 people entered the ballot to secure one of the 25,000 places in this year’s Flora London Marathon, and many running clubs have seen their membership swell over the past few years.

Yet in real terms there has been a precipitous decline in the standards of British elite and club runners since the 1980s. One cause of the decline is that distance running – an activity which involves endurance, struggle and pain – rests at odds with the current popular discourse of the attenuated self: the vulnerable individual who needs to be protected by an overbearing state. The second cause is that running is being choked by charity raising and the anti-competitive ethos that goes with it.

The fall in running standards

Radcliffe’s astonishing ability conceals the lack of depth to British distance running. As David Bedford, the race director of the London Marathon, has said: ‘It has been clear for some time, with the exception of Paula Radcliffe, that marathon running in this country is at an all-time low.’ (1) Despite an estimated £2.2billion of government and lottery spending on sport each year (2), both at elite level and club level distance running is getting slower. In 2003 not only was the fastest British male marathon runner eight minutes slower than in 1985 – a chasm in competitive running terms – he was also slower than Paula Radcliffe (3).

The picture is mirrored at the club level. During the 1980s the qualifying time to obtain guaranteed entry to the London Marathon for a senior male was 2 hours 40 minutes; today it is 3 hours. Put another way, if the old qualifying time still remained, this year a mere 186 British male runners would have made the standard (4). As a serious club runner I find this decline palpable and, at times, embarrassing. All too often in races it is those classified as veteran runners (those over 40 years old who grew up running in the 1970s and 80s) who train hardest, run hardest and win races, not those with youth on their side. It is true than in an average race one will see many young runners, but fast and committed runners who are young are thin on the ground.

Although the government recognises there is a problem in British distance running, its analysis completely misses the target. Official strategy to improve athletic performance and to ‘develop a sport and activity culture’ rather predictably concentrates on greater inclusiveness, reducing inequalities and reducing barriers to participation (5). But vastly oversubscribed marathons and half-marathons up and down the country give the lie to this suggestion. The problem is not participation; it is that the ethos of achievement is being lost.

Run, but don’t harm yourself

Running fast is tough, and the risks and pain that go with it must be confronted, not avoided. This is the general thrust of running literature from the 1950s through to the 1980s, written by running and training giants such as Gordon Pirie and Ron Hill. It is this sort of mental toughness that enabled Roger Bannister to crack the ‘impossible’ four-minute mile. In describing his account of that famous race, he said: ‘My body had long since exhausted all its energy, but it went on running just the same. The physical overdraft came only from greater willpower…. I leapt at the tape like a man taking his last spring to save himself from the chasm that threatens to engulf him.’ (6)

Today, the picture could hardly be more different. The government moralises about our sedentary lifestyles and writes documents that precisely prescribe the minimum amount of time we should be exercising (7). But at the same time it is busy pursuing a contradictory set of policies that promote a heightened sense of vulnerability through health scares, burgeoning health and safety legislation and non-competitive sports at school (8). The external world is depicted as threatening and dangerous while the individual is characterised as a fragile, potential victim who needs to be protected from all possible risk.

The inevitable message that is conveyed to a potential runner is ‘Exercise, but not too hard or you’ll damage yourself physically or psychologically’. For example, take a look at the website for Britain’s best-selling running magazine Runner’s World. On training it suggests: ‘Build fitness effectively: slow down!…Build mileage effectively: slow down…resist injury, get fitter safely…Make hills less frightening: take walk breaks.’ (9) Little wonder that the best-selling book on running at Amazon UK is entitled Running Made Easy.

Taking it easy and avoiding pain has become the hallmark of modern running. Labels on treadmills attempt to scare runners into jogging gently by warning the user to stop if they feel dizzy or feel pain; races become ‘fun runs’ where completion rather than winning is what matters; the best-selling shoes are now designed to help avoid injury and aid comfort rather than speed, and a large industry of sports clinics have emerged to treat an ever-increasing array of minor injuries.

To do well in any area inevitably involves risks, set backs, injuries and, in running, a great deal of mental and physical pain. Yet we live in a society where these experiences are either to be avoided altogether, treated through therapy or relayed to a lawyer in order to seek compensation. Running is meant to stress the body and mind yet stress is considered to be something to be tackled as a problem. According to academics David Wainwright and Michael Calnan’s analysis of work stress: ‘the proposed “cures” for work stress amount to a lowering of expectations regarding human resilience….’ (10). The same message holds true for running.

The curse of charities

Another key factor behind the decline of running is the growing role of charities. Running for money has had two negative consequences for distance running. First, charity places have crowded out places for aspiring club runners. In the case of the London Marathon, an estimated 75 per cent of all places go to charity runners. Non-charity places are therefore scarce and a vastly oversubscribed ballot scheme operates for many of the remaining places. The way in which places are allocated for events such as the London Marathon sends the message that running for one’s own achievement is of less value than completing the event as a means of raising charity money. For the vast majority of runners then, the incentive is to complete rather than achieve. This makes running slowly acceptable.

The second effect is that charity running turns such ‘events’ (they can hardly be called ‘races’ any longer) into a public show of compassion for the ill, disabled, ‘can’t dos’ and ‘don’t haves’, rather than a race that celebrates personal achievement. Disabled runners garner a disproportionate amount of the clapping and cheering as the crowd display how compassionate they are. Large-scale distance ‘events’ have increasingly become a peacock-like parade of men and women dressing up in ridiculous outfits signifying to others their compassion and their selflessness.

Instead of a show of human excellence, running has increasingly become a public show of ostentatious caring, a self-indulgent and egotistical outpouring of emotion (11). Little wonder then, when Paula Radcliffe failed to complete the Olympic marathon last year the reaction from the media was not to ask why she ‘bottled it’, but it was to invite us to share in her grief; to understand how tough it must have been for her and to appreciate that we may have put too much mental pressure on those weak little shoulders of hers.

Let us hope that when Paula runs those tortuous 26.2 miles in London this month she has the words of Roger Bannister ringing in her head and not the words of those who wish to propagate the myth that we are emotional and physical invalids.

Alan Buckingham is a senior lecturer in sociology at Bath Spa University College.

(1) Athletics: Marathon cash to spur Britons on, Daily Telegraph, 4 December 2003

(2) Game Plan: a strategy for delivering Government’s sport and physical activity objectives, Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, 2002

(3) UK Top Performers, 1980-2004: Men (Outdoor), GBR Athletics

(4) Mar UK Ranking List for 2004 as at 20th Feb 2005, British Milers Club

(5) Game Plan: a strategy for delivering Government’s sport and physical activity objectives, Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, 2002

(6) Bannister, R.G. (1955). The First Four Minutes. London: Putnam. p. 192.

(7) Game Plan: a strategy for delivering Government’s sport and physical activity objectives, Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, 2002

(8) Nowhere in the government’s discussion of developing a ‘sports and activity culture’ in Game Plan does it discuss the positive benefits of competitive vs. non-competitive sports and, in fact, non-competitive games are advocated as a way of overcoming low motivation to exercise.

(9) , Runner’s World

(10) Wainwright, D. and Calnan, M. (2002), Work Stress. Buckingham: OUP.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today