So, this weekend my wonderful husband and my not-so-little brother will be lining up with around 40 thousand other lycra-clad individuals who think running 26.2 miles in 20-degree heat is a good way to spend a Sunday. Yes, that’s right, they’re running the London Marathon!!
From a personal point of view, I find running to be a particularly unenjoyable spectator sport. As someone who’s been navigating half marathon routes, carrying kit bags and shouting words of encouragement from the side lines since childhood, I think it’s fair to say that not only do I have more experience than most in this particular area, but standing outside in the pouring rain/freezing cold/blistering heat (delete as applicable) waiting for my dad/husband/brother (again, delete as applicable) to cross the finish line should surely have earnt me my own medal by now?!
One of my defining memories as a child is watching my dad run our local half marathon. I can still remember the vague waft of Deep Heat in the air, the rustle of bin bags as runners kept warm on the start line (you don’t see this as much these days, but back in the early nineties punching a couple of holes in a bin bag and using it as a poncho was its own form of activewear!), the running-based chit chat, the little practice jogs, the stretching (sooo much stretching!). Back then, I really did think that running 13.1 miles must be one of the hardest things in the world (I still do in all fairness) and participating in it meant that my dad was pretty much a professional athlete.
Before long, Dad’s running career had picked up pace (see what I did there?!) and I soon found myself travelling countywide to watch him take part in all manner of running-based competitions. My mum – possibly the only person more experienced at this form of spectatorship than myself – quickly retired from her role as ‘chief kit bag holder’ and by the time I’d reached my teens I’d inadvertently taken up the reigns. I could often be found on a Sunday morning wandering aimlessly around a race route carrying a half-eaten banana and shouting things at runners like “you’re nearly there” when they weren’t or “you’re doing really well” when they were clearly dying on their feet.
At the time, I silently vowed that I’d never marry a runner and I didn’t, not initially. My husband was the least competitive person I knew. He wasn’t unfit, but running wasn’t his cup of tea, not back then. And yet, here I find myself, prepping for another race, another London Marathon, asking about split times and nipple plasters, studying the course, running (not literally) out to buy more bananas.
Yes, I’ll admit the benefits of running are bountiful, both physically and mentally (for proof of this, please read my husband’s brilliant guest post), but whether those benefits extend to spectators is still up for debate. I’ve spent a significant proportion of my life waiting to see a family member or a friend run past me during a race. I’ve squinted at seas of bobbing heads and felt the dizziness of staring at constant movement. I’ve felt my neck stiffen and my feet tingle. On those cold, cold days, I’ve lost all feeling in my fingers and I’m sure on more than one occasion I’ve returned home with a snottier nose than I left with.
Then there’s the effort-to-reward ratio of spectatorship. Unless your loved one is Mo Farah, chances are you’re going to have to wait a while before you get a glimpse of your runner in action. You fretfully keep half an eye on the clock (“he should’ve been through this part by now…”) and half an eye on the road (“wasn’t she just behind that man dressed as a gorilla at mile five?”), until eventually – miraculously – you spot them! A quick wave, a shout and that’s it, they’ve gone. For those few seconds you marvel at your loved one’s determination and then you stamp the pins and needles from your feet and move on to the next potential viewing spot. In what other sport would you, as a spectator, be required to put in so much effort for only a fleeting moment of excitement? Football fans get to see their team play for a full ninety minutes without having to move an inch themselves. Running spectators probably get a full ten seconds if they’re lucky.
It doesn’t stop us putting in the effort though, does it? And perhaps that’s the crux of it: no-one’s ever had to beg me to support them during a race. Apart from the early days when I was too young to protest, my dad has never forced me along to a half-marathon, my husband has never coerced me into carrying his kit bag. I whinge about it, but in all honesty it’s the effort, the emotion, the courage, the camaraderie both on and off the course – these are the things that have me coming back time and again. It’s people at their most determined and it truly is inspirational.
I’m not going to pretend I haven’t dabbled in the sport myself once or twice (you don’t grow up in a running household without at least thinking about pulling on your trainers) but wheezing my way round a 5K is pretty much my limit. Perhaps one day I’ll tackle something lengthier, but until then I’ll stand on the side lines with a roll of nipple tape and my half-eaten banana, in awe of the people who actually have the guts to do it.