The chase for first place on The Mall will not be the only race in the Flora London Marathon today. Behind Khalid Khannouchi, Gert Thys and the vanguard of the foreign legion fighting to cross the finish line as first of the 30,000 footsoldiers, the natives will be absorbed in a battle of their own. At stake are two places in the British team for the Olympic Games.
The winner of the race within the race will be automatically selected for Sydney if he completes the course inside 2hr 14min. The runner-up can expect to be picked, too, providing he also achieves the stipulated qualifying time, and that no other Briton runs significantly quicker in Hamburg or Rotterdam today or in Boston tomorrow. With Jon Brown injured, and in any case already pre-selected for the Olympic marathon, Paul Evans temporarily out of action and Richard Nerurkar one month into retirement, the race for the British team places promises to be an open one. It could be an historic one, too.
Not since the London Olympics of 1908 have brothers competed in the same event at a Games for Britain (there were, in fact, three sets that year: William and Denis Murray in the 100m, twins Christopher and Noel Chavasse in the 400m and Cornelius and Patrick Leahy in the high jump). But Mark and Ian Hudspith line up at Blackheath today with realistic hopes of making it beyond The Mall to Sydney and the Olympic marathon in September. They were, after all, the first British finishers behind the fourth-placed Brown in last year's race. Mark was 22nd in 2.15:11 and Ian, in his first marathon, was 23rd in 2.15:47.
"Yeah, we both think we can make the team," Ian said, relaxing, coffee-in-hand, in the living room of the Tyneside home the brothers share with their parents, Pat and Eddie. "We're both optimistic. You don't want to be over-confident. But we're confident we can be up there."
The form book, too, suggests that the Hudspith boys will be up with the best of the Brits. Mark - the elder by a year, at 30 - won the 14.2-mile Morpeth-to-Newcastle road race on New Year's Day and is the most consistently high-placed home runner in recent London marathons. Among the domestic field, he was second in 1999, second in 1998, third in 1996, second in 1995 (with his fastest ever time, 2.11:58) and fourth in 1994. He also happens to be the only British man since Charlie Spedding finished third in the 1984 Olympics to win a medal in a major championship marathon. He took the bronze in the 1994 Commonwealth Games race in Victoria, British Colombia.
Ian, who was troubled by injury in the build-up to his debut marathon last year, was runner-up to Glynn Tromans in the national cross-country championships in February and last month finished third behind Kenyans Sammy Bitok and Stephen Ariga in the Hastings Half Marathon, finishing two and a half minutes clear of his British rivals in 63min 19sec. Like his elder brother, he is confident of beating the clock and achieving the sub-2:14 qualifying time.
"If we don't do it," Mark said, "I don't think we'll be among the top three Britons." Ian concurred. "Of those in contention, including Mark and I, I think at least three will break 2:14," he said. The other contenders are mainly unknown quantities at the marathon - Tromans will be tackling the event seriously for the first time, while Keith Cullen and Mark Steinle, the fastest Britons at 10,000m and the half-marathon last year, are debutants at the 26.2 mile distance.
It is possible, of course, that the Hudspiths could be fighting for one Olympic place between them when they turn past Buckingham Palace into the finish straight. Not that such a prospect had crossed their minds as they trained in tandem. "It could be interesting, because of what's on the line," Mark said, apparently pondering the possibility for the first time. "One could be going to the Olympics and one could not." "If that happened," Ian interjected, "the one who wasn't going could just blame Jimmy."
Jimmy is Jim Alder, who went to the Olympics as a marathon man himself (though he failed to finish in the debilitating heat of Mexico City in 1968) and who has nurtured the Hudspiths since their early teenage running days with Morpeth Harriers. The Commonwealth marathon champion in 1966, the inspirational Alder has been a long-time training partner of the Hudspiths' father. Eddie Hudspith, though a shorter distance specialist, was a 2:32 marathon runner himself in his younger days. He will be on the sidelines in London with his wife today, cheering sons who can't quite see themselves as rivals.
"We help each other more than anything," Mark said. Ian nodded in agreement. "If Mark wasn't here I don't know who I would train with," he said.
That training has to fit around two careers. Mark is an accountant. Ian is a maths teacher at St Cuthbert's School in Newcastle. Both are former pupils of St Cuthbert's, whose list of alumni also includes the names Gordon Sumner, Neil Tennant and Declan Donnelly - of Sting, Pet Shop Boys and Ant 'n' Dec fame.
"Actually," Ian said, "our school was voted the trendiest in Britain a few years ago because all three of them were in the top 20 at the time." There could well be another two St Cuthbert's old boys in the top 20 today - in the top 20 of the 30,000-long London Marathon chart, that is.