Running to get away from themselves

What awaits after the Iron-Man? Tungsten-Man?


I occasionally jog. Actually it’s more of a 10 -minute-mile shuffle to maintain the delusion that a “comfortable” waistline hasn’t in reality gone all horribly Hindenburg. And I hate doing it. Not “aw-do-I have-to” distaste: this is hate, the real Greek-Turk deal. But still, occasionally, guilt wins out and the sweats emerge to earn their soaky corn.

It’s certainly not pretty. Once an anxious driver slowed down and asked if everything was okay, a Samaritan act that produced some gasping invective and a realisation that such self-abuse isn’t really a spectator sport. So, I still do it, but more privately. And there is an undoubted endorphin kick in rising a sweat, a post-scourge high that contrasts with any regrets there might be at the end of sweaty workouts which are actually fun.

But there isn’t a high invented which would make me want to run 26 miles and 385 yards. Not even the promise of Beyonce at the finish-line, with an eight-ball in one hand, and her hotel room-key in the other, would encourage such an idea.

And the reason is simple: unless you’re being pursued by something that wants to eat you, it’s stupid to run that far. Pheidippides stroked out. That was the first clue; one that for millennia, human-beings with better things to do than try and gallop themselves into the dirt were happy to take on board.

And until comparatively recently, the marathon remained the preserve of a fanatical elite, convinced of their own righteous apartness.

“We are different,” Emil Zatopek, the Czech champion, once pompously proclaimed. “If you want to win something, run 100 metres. If you want to experience something, run a marathon.”

Self-regard bin
It’s the sort of cod-Californian balls that in the not-so-distant past could be thrown into the self-regard bin by the vast majority. But not anymore. This Sunday, nearly 40,000 will face the starter in the 33rd London marathon. They will be in various states of readiness and attire. And there will be a multitude of reasons for enduring what they will endure, from the worthy to the bizarre. But show me someone who says they are running it because they enjoy running it and I will show you a loon – or a liar.

But what about obesity, diabetes, world health, and the flabby consequences of having too much and doing too little?

All valid issues: except running the marathon isn’t about health. Running six miles is healthy. Running 26 is an exercise in endurance, with all the physical and psychological demands inherent in pushing body and mind to the limits. Eleven people have died in the London Marathon. This isn’t about health.

It’s not even about competition. The African elite at the front, pounding down streets richer than their countries, are chasing prizemoney. But who remembers who wins these races? Is the iconic picture one of the winner bursting the finishing-tape? No, it’s of the thousands at the start, shuffling into their stride, the mass image of this modern mania for endurance.

On Friday the latest in the World Triathlon Series is run in San Diego, an event which thinks long-distance running is for wimps and instead encourages condom-clad competitors to emerge from the sea and jump on a bike in a Darwinian nightmare of liniment and lycra.

But ordinary Joes and Josephines indulge in this stuff too, coating a narrative of “challenging” oneself, and pursuing a “dream,” and taking that ubiquitous “journey” with a veneer of quasi-mystical introspection.

But they’re probably just bored.

Or maybe they have a compulsive need to find something more meaningful in the masochistic punishment of their own bodies than the mere burning of calories – effort in return for enlightenment.

Maybe it’s a consequence of secularism; or dissatisfaction with a consumer society that allows the luxury of such time to contemplate one’s navel so intently. Maybe it’s a compulsion to fill in with movement that very time which otherwise might have to be spent alone.

But the result this weekend will be a mass ritual of self-flagellation, an afternoon Ashura of tendonitis, heel-spurs, shin-splints, puke, diarrhoea and the sort of fatigue that used be the preserve of the front-line foxhole.

There’s an obvious masochistic element to this, more than a touch of vanity, maybe even some desperation. And all of it shakily backed-up by a sort of literary psychobabble which suggests voluntarily running yourself beyond sense is somehow a purer athletic form.

Where’s it going to end? The Triathlon is already becoming old hat. Now it’s Iron-Man: a full marathon at the end of 112 miles on a bike, and a two-and-a-half-mile swim. That’s psychotic. How can that possibly benefit anyone’s health?

Even so there’s probably some nutty hard-body scuttling around Hawaii right now wondering if paddling a canoe up a mountain might not be a challenging new potential fourth leg: Titanium-Man, maybe. Tungsten? Maybe some Carbon-steel to place around those so dangerously lacking in self-awareness.

WC Fields, a man whose knowledge of exercise was confined to morning DTs, famously declared it was time to take the bull by the tail and face the situation: this endurance mania is not about what people are running towards: it’s what they’re running from.