The London Marathon – The World’s Most Human Race

I know I have taken a while to write this (more then I wanted to – I’ve been really busy with work, very little time to write… but I missed you!) and I know you are expecting that you would read about the modern Kyoto.

But in all honesty, two Sundays ago, on 23 April 2017, a rather beautiful event has taken place in London and because after all I am the Running Blogger, I cannot let it go unnoticed… The London Marathon – glorious expression of humanity, resilience, mental power and strength!  And I thought I should tell you this story, which is very close to my heart…

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The story of the Marathon

In mythology from the 5th century BC, it’s being said that following the victory of the Greeks in the battle between Persians and Greeks at Marathon, a soldier called Pheidippides has ran from the battle field in Marathon to Athens (an approximately 26 miles run), to deliver the good news to the Athenians. Unfortunately, after delivering the good news, the brave soldier who ran in scorching heat, died – not before he exclaimed ‘Nenikikamen‘ (‘Rejoice we conquer!‘) And many claim this is how the Marathon was born.

But the story is in fact a bit more complicated. Antiquity historians tell us different versions of it. It is true that in 490 BC there has been a battle between Persians and Greeks at Marathon.

First to tell us about it was Herodotus (484 – 425 BC) in ‘The Histories’ (Book VI, chapter 106). He talks about Pheidippides being sent by general Miltiades (an Athenian general) to Sparta, to ask for their support in confronting the Persian army at Marathon. The story is that Pheidippides who was a professional runner, ran for over 140 miles in two days … ‘And first, before they left the city, the generals sent off to Sparta a herald, one Pheidippides, who was by birth an Athenian, and by profession and practice a trained runner.‘ (Herodotus, The Persian Wars, VI, 106.)

Although Pheidipides was successful in his mission to obtain Spartan support, the Spartan soldiers have never made it to the battle because the Persians and the Greeks have started the fight before they could join in. The Spartans seemed to have had the rule to fight only on nights with full moon – so they could not make it in time to be of help to the Greeks.

Nonetheless, it is being said that the Greeks, although far less numerous than the Persians, fought a bold battle and their tactics of offensive attack brought them victory. However, the Persians remained focused on conquering Athens, so they withdrew from the Marathon battle, but continued to march towards Athens, hoping to reach there before the Greeks had the chance to realign their army to defend it. It is said the Greeks caught wind of the Persians’ intentions and they all run the 26 miles to Athens to defend it. And this is where Herodotus story is ending, without any mention of Pheidippides running the race from Marathon to Athens.

Only few centuries later, Plutarch (46 – 120 AD), in his tom ‘Moralia’ makes the claim that the generals from the battle field sent a runner to Athens to warn them regarding the Persians – but he named him Eucles and mentions that Heraclides Ponticus (387 – 312 BC), an antiquity philosopher and one of the first who held close to today’s beliefs regarding astronomy, called the Marathon runner, Thersippus.

In any event, Plutarch says the runner, after covering the 26 mile run, could only say ‘We are victorious’ and then he collapsed. Of course, we do not know if Pheidippides was the hero, but the Marathon myth has merged the stories of Herodotus and Plutarch in one. This was the conclusion of a Dutch ancient historian, Jona Lendering, who seems to have put the two events together: Pheidippides run to Sparta to ask for help and the Greeks run towards Athens, to prevent the Persian invasion after the defeat of the Persians at Marathon.

It seems the marathon myth came to life, as we know it today, in 1896 when the first modern Olympic Games started in Greece. The Olympic Games have been a revival of the games held in the Greek Olympia, between the 8th century BC and the 4th century AD. The modern games started after the foundation of the International Olympic Committee in Paris in 1894. They were the creation of Pierre de Coubertin (1863 – 1937), a French aristocrat preoccupied with physical education and wellbeing.

His philosophy on physical exercise started with his fascination of the English rugby game, but he also romanticised ancient Greece. So he looked into the idea of gymnasium, a combination of physical and intellectual development for Athenians in the ancient Greece. Coubertin was inspired in his work by the Head of Rugby School in England, Thomas Arnold (1795 – 1842) and Dr. William Penny Brookes (1809 – 1895) who in the 1850s promoted the idea that athleticism was the best way to prevent illness. In 1850, Brookes founded a local athletic competition in Wenlock which he called as ‘Meetings of the Olympian class’. Later on in the 1860’s, Brookes (together with the Liverpool Athletic Club) created the National Olympian Association which promoted local athletic competitions across Britain. Brookes received little support from the British government, but succeeded to create a strong liaison with the Greek establishment including the Zappas brothers who invested money, trying to revive the Olympic Games, as an international competition. Although Brookes didn’t succeed to bring his dream to life, he organised a British National Olympic games in London, at Crystal Palace in 1866.

But the internationalisation of the modern Olympic games were the merit of Coubertin. Coubertin was surely influenced by the ideas of Brookes with whom he corresponded in the 1890s; and Brookes supported his efforts through his connections in the Greek establishment. But sadly, later on, Coubertin only sparsely mentioned Brookes when he wrote the history of how he brought the modern games to life. In any event, in 1889 Coubertin seems to have become very attached to the idea of an athletic international competition as Olympic games and put all his efforts into it. His advocacy for the Games was founded on his earlier philosophy regarding athletic competition and the idea of trying, fighting for something you want, before winning: ‘The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.

He expanded this to more universal concepts: he thought the athletic spirit was to bring nations closer together, promoting peace and understanding and preventing war. This was during a time when Europe was in many ways, strife with war.

With support from wide international athletic groups and the Greek establishment in particular, the modern Olympic Games were inaugurated in 1896. During the plans for the 1st edition, the organisers sought to promote an event that was particularly linked to ancient Greece history. A French historian and philologist of the time, Michel Jules Alfred Breal (1832 – 1915), good friend of Coubertin, had the idea for one of the Olympic games events to be the marathon race, as a tribute to the Greek soldier Pheidippides who ran the 26 miles to announce the Greek victory over the Persian army at Marathon. It seems the idea sparked from artistic tributes brought to the story of Pheidippides in the early 19th century, when a statue of Phedippides dying whilst he announced the Greek victory was sculpted by Cortot and placed in the Tuileries Palace in 1834. The same myth was also mentioned in a poem of Robert Browning in 1879, ‘Pheidippides’. And this is how the marathon was born.

The London Marathon

The story of the London marathon is almost as beautiful as the one of the marathon itself.  London has had other long distance running events, one of the most known being ‘The Poly’ (the Polytechnic Marathon which was inaugurated in 1909). But none of these measured the success that the London Marathon was to become.

John Disley (1928 – 2016) and Chris Brasher (1928 – 2003), both co-founders  of the London Marathon, were said to have been in The Dysart Arms pub, next to the Richmond Park in London, when the eureka moment of the London Marathon happened.  They were both Olympic long distance runners who won Olympic medals (Brasher won a gold medal in the Melbourne Olympics in 1956 and Disley won a bronze medal in the Helsinki 1952 Olympics) and were both members of a running enthusiasts group Ranelagh Harriers who, after training together on Wednesday nights, would socialise and share few pints of bitter.

The inspiration for the London Marathon was drawn from the famous New York Marathon which at the time was the buzz and the centre of attention, which was founded by Fred Lebow in 1970. Both Disley and Brasher have previously attended the New York Marathon in 1979 with another sport enthusiast, Steve Rowland, who owed a running shoe shop in Teddington (close to Richmond) that also had the interest of Disley and Brasher. Apparently all three heard the stories from other Ranelagh Harriers members who attended the 1978 edition and were infatuated with what they have experienced in New York. The large crowds and the interest for such an event were unknown in Britain at the time.

Chris Brasher wrote an article about his New York Marathon experience of 1979 in The Observer, called ‘The World’s Most Human Race’.  The following year, both Brasher and Disley visited America again to find out more information about the organisation and the finances of big city marathons. Brasher succeeded to sign a contract with Gillette (who at the time quit the sponsorship of the Gillette cricket cup) to finance the first three marathon editions and established the charitable status of the event by devising the big six main aims of the race, seeking to achieve the success and the popularity of the New York marathon: ‘to improve the overall standard and status of British marathon running by providing a fast course and strong international competition, to show mankind that, on occasions, they can be united, to raise money for sporting and recreational facilities in London, to help boost London’s tourism, to prove that ‘Britain is best’ when it comes to organising major events, to have fun, and provide some happiness and sense of achievement in a troubled world‘.

This was the birth of the London Marathon, with its first edition on 29 March 1981. This proved to be a huge success with the runners and thousands of live or TV spectators who watched the race on BBC.

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The London marathon has grown since into a spectacle of life and endurance that emulates the strength of the Greek mythical hero. After 1981, year after year, the London marathon has only grown bigger and more significant. The number of runners has increased from approximately 7000 in 1981 to over 40,000 runners in the 2017 race. Up to today, over 1 million runners have completed the race and the yearly events are being televised in over 200 countries.

In 1983, the marathon also welcomed the first wheelchair marathon race, which is believed to have greatly contributed to reducing the stigma attached to disabled athletes.

London-Marathon-2017-winner-David-Weir-909684 daily express
David Weir – finish of the London Marathon 2017 (won the London Marathon seven times) photo credit: media

In 2013, the London Marathon became official part of the Athletic Marathon World Cup for males and females.

But the greatest achievement of the London Marathon has been its status as one of the biggest charity events in the world. In the beginning, the charity status was only additional, as the runners did their own fundraising. However this has changed greatly over the years: since 1984, the London Marathon has instated an official charity or two each year, which are granted race entries to help with their fundraising. Over the years, beside the athletic side of it, charities and fundraising became the focus of the event and more places for the race have been offered to a wide range of charities – concerned from child health, old people care and metal health to wild life and nature conservation.

Since 1993, the organisers have introduced a Golden Bond scheme to ensure charities can purchase guaranteed entries, which in turn then raise huge amounts of money through the fundraising undertaken by their runners. Up to today, this scheme has grown to a network of almost 800 British charities with over 15,000 places.

Many other hundreds of charities are part of the Silver Bond scheme, which get one guaranteed place every five years. The scale of the fundraising in the London Marathon has broken all records – in 2007 the London Marathon charity fundraising achieved a Guinness world record as the largest amount raised in a single annual event (which was £46.5 million), with the record being broken again and again every single year since (£59 million in 2016). Between 1981 and 2017, the total amount raised for charity has been around the mark of £850 million and it is expected that after the 2018 edition, under the watch of Virgin Money as main sponsor since 2010, it will hit the one billion pounds mark, all for charity. Yes, one billion pounds – the world’s greatest human race, indeed!

Sir Richard Branson
Sir Richard Branson – the butterfly Godfather of the London marathon since 2010 ❤ photo credit: @Virgin_Sport

And this is what signposts the London Marathon as one of the greatest achievements in the sporting spirit – it is based on an ideology of internationalism, altruism and resilience, conducted with good humour, care and passion. Currently, three quarters of the London Marathon runners, do it for the purpose of raising money for charities and more than a third of the race places are held and allocated by the charities themselves.

During the marathon, the London image on your TV screens is the huge mass of runners, all flamboyant and ready to strive for greatness – reaching the finishing line and giving something back to their society and the world, proving their strong sense of community and communion, giving back to the grassroots and bringing unity in all areas of society and life.

Through its own charity (The London marathon charitable Trust which raised tens of millions of pounds), the London Marathon has made a great impact on small, local sports communities by building facilities and saving playing field from becoming building developments.

This is why I think we need more London Marathons… And in truth, the marathon mantra, has expanded in the UK and throughout the world…  In the UK, there are at least 80 major marathons which draw thousands of runners and in 2016 the UK running population has reached a mark of around 12 million. And given the health benefits of running, this is a major success for our modern way of living!

What a spectacle London becomes once a year! All the drama of dancers, music, even choirs, colourful costumes, with many runners reaching deep within to unleash the last drop of energy to run the greatest race on Earth in rhythm of samba, percussion and drums! Strikingly beautiful parade of great spirit and athleticism! From bumble bees, to butterflies, spider men and crusaders, fairy godmothers and wicked wizards… and washing machines (yes, in this year’s edition one of the runners carried a tumble drier on his back to raise as much money as possible for his charity!)…  All striving to reach the finish line with the great backdrop of British history and London Iconic sites (the marathon runs through important London landmarks i.e. Greenwich, the Tower Bridge, Canary Wharf, Embankment to Parliament Square and Buckingham Palace!)

No competitor could wish for more! But the fact is that wherever you are in the world, you don’t need the London Marathon to find the sporting spirit to bring people together and help your community. The small community sporting events and gathering together are awesome ways to enhance your life and the life of the people around you… In the end, this is what matters the most and this is how we can try to find balance and happiness for all of us:  living fulfilled, integrated lives, with respect for each other’s beliefs and faiths, with people we care about around us.

You know, on a personal level, every year I try to organise a charity event or I donate my time for charity purposes – it only makes sense. Whether I raise money or I can teach people new skills or I can help someone, it is my genuine way to show that I care about the people around me. We should not live our lives in waste, but we should use every opportunity to become better and better the world around us.

I hope you get inspired and this year you’ll find your way to contribute to doing good somewhere or to someone… Spread your love, hard work and knowledge and the rest will just come by itself… Have faith! ❤

Yours Lovingly,

The Running Blogger xx





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