View From the Sofa: The combination of pain and eccentricity made for perfect Friday night viewing

Athletics World Championships BBC, UTMB ultratrail.tv

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The Independent Online

After work drinks? Pah. Screw sociability, last Friday night was all about watching people start massive, blister-inducing journeys on foot.

Blame it on an old cartoon that my father used to have on his desk – one that said “I like work, I could sit and watch it all day” – but images of people who are setting off on lengthy and gruelling races just fascinate me.

So on Friday evening, I was in my element. Around seven o’clock in the evening UK time a race which has been dubbed the unofficial trail running world championships, with the suitably monumental name of the Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc, began in Chamonix with the cream of the world’s ultramarathon talent – and a healthy quotient of wildman beards – among the 2,500 runners tackling the 101-mile course around Europe’s highest mountain.

Then around five hours later, in Beijing, the longest and possibly silliest competition of the athletics World Championships began: the 50km walk.

Race-walking is a highly dodgy discipline. Not only do the participants waddle like they desperately need the toilet, there are strict rules, one of which states at least one foot must be on the ground at all times. It is extremely tough – yet they still complete a distance longer than a marathon faster than the majority of us could do 26.2 miles running.

And, it appears, some actually do break into a run. Paula Radcliffe, commentating for the BBC, said it is a good job that walkers cannot be disqualified on the basis of video evidence, otherwise there would be nobody left in the race. British walker Tom Bosworth appeared to tacitly agree when he tweeted a clip of those on-air comments.

And as the walkers set off in a deserted Bird’s Nest Stadium at 7am local time, the commentators alluded to the fact that the next three and a half hours may be akin to watching the newly-applied matt emulsion on the kitchen wall gradually lose its sheen.

“There they go, you’ve got time to wash the dishes, watch the director’s cut of Gone With the Wind and do a few more chores before we’ll see them in this stadium again,” the commentator said as the field took off, relatively speaking.

The comments may have been harsh, especially if the relatives of Matej Toth – the eventual champion – had logged on to watch him finally claim a world crown, only to be told to bugger off and watch a 76-year-old film to pass the time before he’d done 10 laps of nondescript Beijing roads.

Still, Toth’s race was nothing compared to the UTMB, which got off to a spine-tingling start in the French Alps. The commentators, Dylan Bowman and Topher Gaylord, were no strangers to long distances themselves and as we watched the runners – 900 of whom would not complete the race – gleefully set off to a stirring Vangelis song, their words weighed heavily.

“Some of these runners won’t be back until Sunday morning,” Bowman said. “They will learn things they didn’t know and have some tough times on the course. But what an amazing race they will have.”

Indeed. Well worth passing up a night in the pub to watch.

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