London marathon lifts spirits after events in Boston

Victims of bomb attack remembered but race ultimately a defiant celebration for runners and large crowds


Its build-up may have been overshadowed by the tragic events in Boston but this year’s London marathon will be remembered as the sort of joyous celebration of the human spirit that these events are always meant to be. Before the start, close to 40,000 participants paid sombre tribute to the victims of last week’s bombing but for the rest of the day they filled the city’s sunny streets with a river of festive colour cheered on by larger than normal crowds with locals, it seems, deciding to show their solidarity too.

Early last week it had been decided that more than 600 extra police would be deployed in an effort to beef up security at the event and provide reassurance to competitors but there was little actual tension in the wake of subsequent events in the US.

Historically, the respective relations to the Royal Navy of Greenwich and Boston might have been expected to set them apart ever so slightly but at 9.58am yesterday a whistle was sounded and the pre-race bustle amongst the tens of thousands who had gathered in the pretty London suburb came to a sudden halt. For 30 seconds runners, supporters and organisers stood in silent contemplation or prayer.

“I was just in floods of tears during those 30 seconds and a lot of the people around me were very obviously very moved,” said Olwyn Dunne, who, having run the great American race three years ago, travelled from Dublin to compete here yesterday.

“I hadn’t really been thinking about Boston up until then but it came back to me through the race. I know it sounds corny but late on I was thinking of that boy (Martin Richard) and the picture of his father who has lost so much. I was struggling at that stage but I just kept thinking of Boston, of all that the people there had been through and telling myself that I could go on for another mile.”

The media guide that acts as something of a bible to reporters covering this event suggests that there were just 56 competitors from the Republic of Ireland in yesterday’s race but the size of the crowd with Dunne in a pub on The Strand, a few hundred metres from the finish line, suggested that the figure might just be understated with the greater ease of entry available to British residents perhaps helping to explain the anomaly.

Joanne Nolan, in any case, was one of a couple of dozen running for Temple Street hospital and she too had been struck by the poignant atmosphere at what was her first outing over the distance. “The crowds, the atmosphere, everything was great really but I did get very emotional. At 4:09 (the point in the Boston race when the first bomb went off) I really welled up.”

Another of their group, Richie Mac Liam, was surprised by low-key policing but said that the marshalling of the event was “just unbelievable”. In fact, uniformed officers were very much in evidence on the other side of the barriers although their duties rarely seemed to extend much beyond routine crowd control and taking the odd photograph for members of the public.

Then there were the spectators. “It was nine or 10 deep in places,” recalled Mac Liam. “The best was probably the guy down in SE7 with speakers stacked up on his second or third floor balcony welcoming and encouraging us all.”

The reason most people react so positively is not so hard to fathom. The list of participants’ occupations is just one indication of the way in which events like this bring people together. Their numbers may not be the most reliable but the organisers’ list of participants’ occupations still made for nice reading. Clergy were running with company directors yesterday; labourers with lecturers, politicians with postal workers and stockbrokers with students.

Between the lot of them, they’ll raise about €60 million for causes like cancer charities, development agencies and youth reach programmes. Many of those fundraise, like former international footballer Kevin Kilbane who ran yesterday for the Down’s Syndrome Association, have deeply personal tales to tell.

Thousands like him – fathers, mothers, sisters and sons – were greeted at the finish line yesterday by their kids and other loved ones and the area around the Mall was packed for most of the afternoon with proud families and supporters celebrating their achievement then starting to make their way peacefully home.

The elite races, as it happens, were won by Tsegaye Kebede and Priscah Jeptoo, an Ethiopian and a Kenyan respectively. In theory, theirs were the starring roles but to dwell exclusively on their accomplishments would be to miss the point that the big city marathons are every bit as much about the cast of thousands.

Details of the success or otherwise of the many novelty record attempts – fastest marathon by a brass band, zombie, internal organ, herd of rhino, the list goes on – were slow to come in last night but almost everyone left with either an epic tale of personal triumph or one of sporting despair that, will end up providing the motivation for the 26-mile outing.

Dunne punched the air as she informed The Irish Times that she had set a new household best; beating the previous record, held by husband Joe, by three seconds: Sometimes, it seems, those narrow margins are the sweetest. More seriously, she felt however, yesterday’s race had, in the wake of Boston, been a collective success of significant proportions.

“It’s been a message to the world,” she said, “that marathons are still safe, great things to do.”