It was 1979, Margaret Thatcher was settling into Downing Street, and Chris Brasher was sharing a wildly improbable dream: to launch a mass-participation marathon on the streets of London. “To believe this story,” he wrote, “you must believe that the human race can be one joyous family, working together, laughing together, achieving the impossible…”
That story became a reality two years later. Nearly 900,000 people have completed the London Marathon since, raising more than £500m for charity; millions have lined the streets to cheer them on; and tens of millions of others have shared the joy in other big city marathons around the world.
It’s an easy story to forget, if you’re a non-runner, and your vision of marathon-running involves skeletal obsessives flogging themselves joylessly to the brink of collapse in pursuit of an arbitrary, solipsistic goal. Where’s the family joy in that?
It’s easy to forget if you’re a runner, too, and your brain has been steeped in running industry marketing. We fret too easily and too much about personal bests and hi-tech kit, state-of-the-art training regimes, specialist nutrition and the rest of it. Pre-race conversations rarely stray beyond injury worries, race tactics and target times.
Yet the actual experience of a big city marathon has little to do with such issues. Brasher, in the same 1979 article, described his experience of that year’s trailblazing New York marathon: “Last Sunday, 11,532 men and women from 40 countries in the world, assisted by over a million people, laughed, cheered and suffered during the greatest folk festival the world has seen.”
Little has changed, except that the numbers have snowballed, and such festivals can now be found in most major cities. Runners of all standards regularly travel vast distances and rub shoulders with fellow enthusiasts from around the world to tackle a challenge that 50 years ago was considered beyond the capability of all but an elite few. Only the tiniest handful achieve anything of sporting note. Nearly all take home memories of shared humanity that can enrich their lives for ever.
I remember travelling to the start of my first marathon, in London, stomach churning with apprehension, fretting about what pace I should aim for and whether or not I was wearing the right shoes – and realising, minutes from the off, that I’d missed the point. This wasn’t a race. It was a party.
There were more than 30,000 of us, shuffling through the first miles at little more than a walk, chatting, joking, laughing at the runners in fancy dress – and wondering at the sheer diversity of it. There were people of every colour, age, accent and body shape; every possible charity was being supported. Best of all, every inch of the way was lined with spectators, cheering as though we were proper athletes.
The party continued, as it always does, for mile after mile, from some of London’s poorest boroughs to its richest. And the farther I went, the more ashamed I felt of the joyless thoughts with which I had anticipated the event. That’s not to say that there wasn’t pain. No one runs 26.2 miles without pain. But it’s hard to feel too miserable when you’re wondering why the man in front of you is dressed as a giant tomato and a complete stranger has just cheered you on, personally, addressing you by the charity name on your T-shirt.
You would have to be dead from the feet up to swim in such an ocean of goodwill and not feel a thrill of pride in your species. And the memory of that thrill brings a lump to my throat when I ask myself today: what kind of person bombs a marathon? As I write this, no clues have been reported as to who is to blame for the Boston bloodbath. We know nothing of the atrocity’s motive, or whether it was particularly directed at the city, its marathon or something else. I feel confident, however, of one thing. Whoever did it is no fan of Brasher’s story of the human race as one joyous family. I’d go further: it’s a story they detest.
A home straight full of exhausted marathon runners has no significance politically. It does not represent a regime, or even a nation – because major marathons like Boston are joyously multinational. And although it is a soft target, it is no softer than 1,000 crowded streets in 100 big cities every day.
But when you bomb a marathon, at the finishing line, you can guarantee certain marathon-specific things. There will be people from many nations, of both genders and from many generations and cultures, mixing happily and sharing in one another’s struggles and triumphs. A substantial proportion will be experiencing a thrill of achievement that may be unique in their lives. There will be people who have pushed themselves far beyond what they thought were their limits because they did not want to let down their friends or their charities. There will, in short, be many, many people on a high.
You can be certain, too, that there will be spectators – partners, parents, friends, children – whose love for the participants makes them rejoice equally. And I don’t suppose there are many big city marathons whose finishes don’t feature, at some point, awe-struck eight-year-olds who love to watch their parents run.
Such considerations may or may not have featured in the Boston bomber’s thinking. I rather hope they didn’t. But the mere fact that all those elements were present reminds us, poignantly, of the contrast between the terrorist’s nihilism and the life-affirming instincts of the normal human being. “You love life, we love death,” bragged one of those responsible for the 2004 Madrid bombings. He flattered himself. What he meant was: “We hate life.” But it’s harder to say that, because it makes you sound like a twisted loser.
Monday’s bereaved and injured will rebuild their lives as best they can, taking encouragement from the goodwill of their fellow members of the human family. The soul or souls who devised the carnage have nothing to look forward to but more of the life that they hate.
Terrorism is about emptiness, of heart and imagination. Big city marathon-running is about embracing humanity. It’s about enhancing life: your own and other people’s; discovering how much you have to give; giving strength to those you cheer on; raising money for charities you believe in; and resolving to come back and do better next time. And here’s the thing: there are millions of us, and until the bombers kill every last one of us we will keep on running and cheering and urging one another on: in the streets of London on Sunday, in New York in November, in Boston this time next year.
The Boston culprits may now be feeling a glow of satisfaction at a good day’s killing, but the cruel truth will soon dawn. Those who hate life have nothing, and always will. And those who love life have all that is worth having.
Richard Askwith is the author of 'Feet in the Clouds: A Tale of Fell-Running and Obsession'