diamond geezer

 Sunday, April 13, 2003

The London Snickers

One week after the Boat Race, this morning London was once again the setting for another classic sporting fixture. The London Marathon brought more than thirty thousand runners out onto the streets of London, ready to prove themselves against the trials of the 26-mile course. The marathon route snakes its way along the river from Greenwich to Buckingham Palace, passing through most of East London at least twice along the way. I popped down to Canary Wharf to watch the race go by, finding a good vantage point just below Westferry Circus. Here the race doubles back on itself at the start and finish of the Docklands loop, so I was able to catch the runners at Mile 17 on one side of the road and Mile 20 on the other.

Today's race took place in crystal-perfect conditions, with clear skies, light winds and spring temperatures. I arrived at Canary Wharf after 10 o'clock, just before the race arrived. The Great British spectating public were already out in force, doing what they do best on such occasions - eating and taking photos. There was a commotion in the distance as the first competitors approached. "Ah, it's only the wheelchairs," said the lady behind me in the sponsor's shirt. A brass band started up in a nearby square - the spectacle was about to begin.

The three-wheeled athletes sped by, followed a few minutes later by the approach of the leading women. Or, in this case, woman. Paula Radcliffe emerged at the top of the slope, flanked by two pacemakers, nearly three minutes ahead of any other runner. I've written before how I have a personal interest in Paula's progress, so I was pleased that she was already on course to smash her existing world record in some style. Many of the crowd had come especially to see the Sports Personality of the Year come nodding by, a far cry from her anonymous training runs I used to watch on miserable wet winter mornings about six years ago. Fifteen minutes later Paula reappeared back on the other side of the road, heading back towards Central London, fame and glory.

An official marshal in an orange vest was in place to initiate the spontaneous applause every time a wheelchair athlete sailed past. I was flanked by two particularly keen clappers, who applauded everyone and shouted encouragement with the fervour of a school PE teacher. Two ladies from Kelloggs approached us from behind, offering members of the crowd samples of some new cereal-based snack. Like sirens, they lured the unwary away from their position at the crash barrier, only for them to find that their viewing space had been hijacked when they returned. A few female runners dribbled past our position, until at last we thought we saw the first man go by... but no, on closer inspection everyone agreed it was probably just another woman.

Just after 11 o'clock the leading pack of male runners finally appeared. A slow trickle of runners followed behind, building to a stream after 25 minutes, a torrent after 45 minutes and a flood after an hour. The more knowledgeable spectators in the crowd were able to pick out each club runner by the colour of his vest, almost the athletic version of train-spotting. As the numbers passing by increased, so the crowd's enthusiasm to cheer everyone decreased, saving their applause only for those who passed a certain fancy-dress threshold. A number of fairies ran past, along with a snail, a couple of wombles, the odd rhino, a fair few Batmen and at least six Elvii. Many runners had dyed their hair to make themselves more noticeable, but many had failed to realise that red hair really doesn't stand out in a sea of red faces. Anyone with an afro or a comedy mohican was more easily spotted. A even better bet was to emblazon your name or nickname across your chest so that spectators could cheer you on with personal encouragement. "C'mon Billy!" "C'mon Dicko!" "C'mon Flora?"

Many of the crowd had come to support a relative, friend or colleague, press-ganged to attend in much the same way that a school concert gains its audience. The more technologically-literate amongst the crowd utilised the twisting course, mobile phones and public transport to rendezvous across London, cheering their loved ones on at various points along the route. Others stayed in one place, set up camp and waited. The family immediately to my left had come down from Norfolk for the day to support Dad. Mum kept a look-out for someone 'in a white vest' so that Gran could be ready to film his appearance on the camcorder. Meanwhile Son and Daughter sat patiently, ready with some water and a banana for when Dad finally arrived. The family plan worked like clockwork, culminating in a magic thirty seconds those children will never forget. A number of mothers were less fortunate. They lay in wait for their offspring to pass by, only to discover that their own voices weren't quite loud enough to carry far enough across the track. One mother looked visibly disheartened as 'James' limped by without once noticing his concerned supporter gesticulating wildly in the crowd.

As the race wore on a wide variety of different running styles were in evidence, most of which could best be categorised under 'pain'. A fierce-looking St John's Ambulance woman was on standby with a dollop of muscle grease and a rubber glove, but few seemed eager to take her up on her kind offer. Watching the later runners felt more like watching a charity parade than a competitive race. It was sad to be reminded that there are so many good causes out there in need of publicity and fund-raising, but heartening to see how much support each charity was getting. I kept a special eye open for the celebrity runner for Everyman - action against male cancer, but I'm afraid I didn't manage to come away with a photo of Dermot looking tired and sweaty. Thankfully Hazel Irvine and the BBC obliged later.

As I headed for home, the sky was still full of helicopters and lost helium balloons. I had spent longer watching the London Marathon than Paula Radcliffe had taken to run it. I left the fun runners still streaming through Docklands, and into their own personal record books. It's an inspiring day out - long may it continue.


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