Athletics / Marathon: The agony and the mystery

FINALLY, after all that preparation, the big day. The intensive exercise programme, the daily 17-mile runs across north London, the blisters, the boils, the blood, sweat and tears, the piles of worn-out trainers, the strange, pungent aroma of feet and cabbage, the muscles, the rippling, throbbing muscles, the look of anguish and pain as I battle through the 'wall', and finally, the triumph, after 26 gruelling miles and 385 heartbreaking yards, as I cross the line on Westminster Bridge, dressed as General de Gaulle.

Yes, the London Marathon is back again, and as you wake this morning, wiping the sleep from your eye, I shall be rampaging past thousands of Radio 1 DJs and recent escapees from Broadmoor to a glorious and utterly unexpected victory.

Or possibly not. In fact, all of the preceding is what we journalists call 'a pack of lies'. I shall of course be fast asleep throughout the entire event, almost certainly still fully clothed and very possibly on the floor, surrounded by empty bottles, old socks and a bowl of melted lemon sorbet.

Were it not for the outrageously early kick-off, though, I'd be watching avidly. For all its hellish connotations, there's something about the Marathon that stirs even the most dedicated sofa slug. The sight of all those single- minded souls, their registration numbers flapping in the wind, remains an inspiring one, and can bring tears (of laughter) to the eyes. Who are they? Why are they doing it? Which of them will Bob Wilson pick out and run with for 30 seconds? As you watch them, dressed as carrots or in sad Groucho Marx outfits, certain thoughts flow unbidden into your mind:

'Thank heaven I'm sitting here at home with a nice cup of tea.'

A gut reaction based on the premise that someone has to do marathon running, just as long as it's not you. In fact, no-one has to do marathon running at all, but don't tell them that.

'Are they all mad?'

Yes they are, but that's only half the story. These are the sort of people who, in normal life, turn down your applications for bank loans, or tow away your car when you leave it on a yellow line for 45 seconds. In earlier incarnations they burned witches, and annexed the Sudetenland. That they have developed a taste for running marathons is, for some observers, final proof that a just and merciful God truly exists.

'Why do they do it?'

For many reasons. Some marathon runners believe that what they do is actually good for them - hence their appearance of appalling ill-health. Others believe that long-distance running is innately virtuous - a sort of short- cut to heaven, via the intensive care ward. Yet others are sado-masochists who have tired of plugging themselves into the mains for their kicks. It has also been suggested that marathon runners run marathons because they haven't got the imagination to do anything else, but this is a cruel and unwarranted slur, an outrageous calumny without the slightest justification.

'Look at that cretin on the right, just next to Keith Chegwin. Does he really believe people will pay more attention to him because he is dressed as a spacehopper?'

Yes he does. The poor lad was almost certainly neglected as a child - and if he wasn't, he damn well should have been.

'Now that really takes the biscuit. Look at that bloke dressed as the Grim Reaper. Is that bad taste, or what?'

Actually, I think you'll find that is the Grim Reaper. It's apparently one of his favourite sporting events. Any more tea in the pot?