Marathon brings together hardy and foolhardy

Mike Rowbottom

"Excuse me," the lady asked. "Would you be interested in running the New York Marathon?" Thinking about it - rapidly - I decided that if the words "interested in" could be replaced with "appalled at the very idea of" then the answer was "Yes".

"Excuse me," the lady asked. "Would you be interested in running the New York Marathon?" Thinking about it - rapidly - I decided that if the words "interested in" could be replaced with "appalled at the very idea of" then the answer was "Yes".

"To be honest, no," I replied. And felt less of a man for doing so...

It's that time of the year again. As around 30,000 souls ready themselves for tomorrow's annual reproach to the sedentary, the Flora London Marathon, a familiar question re-emerges to trouble those who only stand (or sit) and watch: Could you do it? After watching one of the early London races on television, I remember encountering two of my friends out running in the streets. "We're doing London next year," one of them shouted before disappearing up the road in impressive style.

Neither did, as I recall. But oh, how they wanted to on that bright and sunny afternoon...

To walk around the London Marathon Exhibition site in Docklands earlier this week was to surround oneself with those who had made that same resolve and actually gone through with it. They had trained, they had suffered, and now they had registered their entry and obtained their official kit bag - a bag of honour.

Perhaps the lady in the New York Marathon stall mistook the trainers I was wearing as a statement of intent. In the interests of clarity, I should really have worn a badge saying "No, I am not running the London Marathon this year".

As it was, I faked my way round the shops and sideshows, nibbling energy-bar samples, imbibing test beakers of isotonic drink and falling into conversation at one point with a man who promised that his photographic team would get a picture of me mid-race and send the result on a sale-or-return basis. He sounded so enthusiastic about the process I didn't have the heart to tell him I would be watching the whole affair on a live television feed inside the Institute for Contemporary Arts.

Perhaps the finest feature of the annual exhibition is that it offers those who are about to submit themselves to trial by ordeal the opportunity of an 11th-hour diversion.

Some of the longest queues formed around a machine that resembled a body scanner, but was in fact a giant clamp that massaged volunteers with jets of water so powerful that their heads juddered in sympathy. What was effectively a giant condom ensured that no hint of moisture transferred itself to the recipients of all this aquatic attention. They emerged shaken, but not stirred. And presumably not tempted by a price tag of £25,000.

It was all good fun. But behind the general jocularity there was an almost tangible sense of readiness for the fray.

How had these bagmen and bagwomen gotten themselves into all this in the first place? Every person provided a different answer.

"It's one of those things you want to do once in your life," said Tracy Williams, from Colchester, who will run her first marathon tomorrow. "I watched last year's race on television and just decided to enter. It was a moment of madness." Martin Crosby, from Morpeth, in Northumberland, was also contemplating a first experience of 26.2 miles. He too had been prompted to apply after watching the event on television, although his pleasure in gaining entry at the fifth time of asking was tempered by an injury that had prevented him running for the previous three weeks.

Jane Seas, a 34-year-old from Northampton, was another first-timer who had prepared for the race with the help of her partner, Peter Moore, a veteran of four marathons. "I want to do this for the sense of personal achievement," she said. "Age creeping up is another reason." At 50, Les Thurston, from Bishop's Stortford, is preparing for his 11th London Marathon, and his 28th in all. His moment of marathon truth came after watching the inaugural London race of 1981. "I was getting too old and unfit to carry on playing Sunday football and I wanted something else to do," he said. "I suppose I was caught up in the running boom of the early 80s and I've just stayed there."

Derek Maher, of Chingford, has stuck as well after following his son into the local running club. "Drink from the first station," he advised. "Once you realise you are thirsty it's too late." For Helen Cook, a mother-of-three from Woodbridge in Suffolk, tomorrow's race will be her second after a five-year gap. "I ran a half marathon before my first race," she said, "and as I finished I thought to myself: 'There's no way I will ever do a marathon'." Now that is a sentiment I can identify with.

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