Endurance events: Going beyond the burn

Britons are going crazy for endurance events that used to be the preserve of athletes and iron men and women. So why are we pushing ourselves harder, further and faster?

We have all received one of those begging emails in our inbox. "Three months ago the walk to the bus stop tired me out. I was so unfit!! Now I'm running a marathon for [insert worthy charity here]. All 26.2 miles! Please sponsor me." I sent one myself a few years back, simultaneously confounded that I had agreed to do something so apparently insurmountable, and excited about the sense of achievement I would feel on crossing the finish line.

Was I special? Decidedly not. The participation in serious endurance events such as marathons and triathlons has soared over the past five years – there are around 850 races a year compared with 350 five years ago – leading to a fitness phenomenon where these days every man is an amateur athlete, if not quite an Olympic medallist.

The popularity of the UK's highest profile endurance event, the London Marathon, bears this out. Every year, 120,000 applicants compete for a ballot place in the race. The 2011 event was the most oversubscribed ever. Of 35,000 places, around 15,000 go to charities, so those 120,000 runners were competing for 20,000 places, and the lot of them signed up in a record three days.

There are so many marathons, half marathons and races of shorter distances around the UK each year, and no umbrella organisation, that it isn't possible to estimate how many people are taking part. The London and Edinburgh marathons both have major profiles, but last year Brighton held its first marathon, for 12,000 runners, and this year Liverpool hosted its first in 20 years. Experts say there is room for more. Triathlon is booming too. Membership of the British Triathlon Association has increased 119 per cent in six years, and in 2010 there were 132,000 triathlon race starts.

"That is a phenomenal number of people tackling an event of any distance," says Zara Hyde Peters, the chief executive of British Triathlon. "At Hyde Park this year, where you ride the Olympic course which is quite something, it was 60 per cent novices."

"Had you asked someone on the street 10 years ago what a triathlon was, they would have probably guessed it as some sort of multi-sport. But they wouldn't have known exactly what it was, let alone thought about doing one." In case you don't know, it's a run, swim and cycle event with a variety of distances for different abilities.

Hyde Peters was a novice herself three years ago when she landed the job at British Triathlon and decided she needed to "sample her own product". "I'm 48 and I'm quite proud to say that I can swim a mile in front crawl."

Fitness expert Gareth Cole, who is head of education at The Third Space gyms, says that training for endurance events is the most effective way to maintain motivation for a fitness regime. This is why he persuades clients into signing up for a five or 10k run or a longer event as often as possible. "I use events to keep people on the fitness wagon. Training for an event is completely different than training for aesthetics, where there is no end goal. If you just want to look better, you'll never be satisfied with the results.

"If you sign up to an event, it is so much easier to find motivation because there's a beginning, a middle and an end, and on race day there is an enormous feeling of achievement. It is also a way of underlining the year, because you can say, 'I ran a marathon or did a triathlon in that year.'" First-timers realise that they love the flush of a bit of competition and sign up to further and more challenging events to beat their own times or race against friends.

The stories of virgin endurance athletes bear this out. Pete Carr began running in October 2009 and has since lost 6st. He ran a half marathon in March and a full marathon a few weeks ago. "After the half marathon I felt like I hadn't reached my limit," he says. "My new interest in running made me wonder how far I could really push myself. I was curious to see if I could run a full marathon, to see what my body could do."

Michael Spencer-Chan, who says he was "no kind of athlete" before signing up for a triathlon, completed two sprint distances, in August and September. Beginners were asked to put their hands up at the starting line, and more than 50 per cent turned out to be novices. He admits he didn't train much between the two and really struggled on the second swim. Nevertheless, he completed the race and is planning on undertaking the longest triathlon distance at next year's London Triathlon.

Another novice, Pete Tutton, completed the 2011 London Marathon to fulfill a long held ambition, despite a series of injuries. He says it was a one off, but is tempted to see how fast he could run with proper training. Journalist Julia Buckley has turned her running hobby into a career, and since completing her first long distance event four years ago, she takes part in about ten races a year, writes about the sport and doles out tips to 10,000 Twitter followers.

When you tire of marathons and triathlons, what's next? An Ironman is basically an ultra-triathlon, demanding a swim of 2.4 miles, a cycle of 112m and a run of 26.2m. Last month, the Ironman world title went to British woman Chrissie Wellington for the fourth time. It's an arduous challenge, but Ironman UK's commercial director, Patrick Alexander, says that interest is booming. About 10,000 competitors take part in an Ironman in Britain each year, and two new events were set up in 2010. This includes beginners. "A lot of people who have never even done a 5k sign up," says Alexander, "because it is seen as the ultimate mass participation event for normal people. It is such a big challenge that it turns your life around."

According to Gareth Cole, the life-changing benefits of endurance events reach further than you might expect. He says there is a great social aspect to the training and participation. "You're pretty exposed when training. You're in your swim gear and you let the barriers down, and then away you go!" He is very proud that of his own clients there are now three triathlon-loving couples.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

    £12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

    Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

    £32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

    Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Day In a Page

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss