Every year, bigcrowds come out onto the streets for the London Marathon. They come to cheer for the elite runners and the wheelchair riders, but most of all they come to cheer for the club athletes and the ordinary folk running for charity. Usually they get a decent view. The course really is 26 and a bit miles long so there's plenty of room to spread out, unlike the Olympic marathon course which followed a much shorter loop. Nevertheless some sections are rammed. The Embankment for one, as the runners enter the mid-twenties, and where everyone who lives to the north and west of London pours out of the tube. Here too several charities have clustered, each signalled by a flapping banner or an arc of balloons tied to the temporary barrier, and each with their own chorus of vocal support. There is applause, and sweat, and sunshine, and even a brass band under Waterloo Bridge playing the BBC's London Marathon theme. But this is three hours from the start, when anyone running through is doing well. What of seven?
Seven hours from the start, the same spot on the Embankment is much quieter. Not quiet, because a stream of straggly runners is still panting through, but considerably less busy than earlier. Anyone of decent fitness finished some time ago, and a few of these are now standing around with their proud families, an imitation-gold rectangle hanging from their neck. Those still on the course have around two miles to go, and pain is etched in their faces. Whatever fine thoughts they had when starting out this morning, now all they strive to do is finish. Nobody is running any more. They gave that up some time ago, and now they walk. The turtle, the chicken, Superman, the pantomime horse... and everyone who decided to come in ordinary running costume too. By my calculations they could have walked the whole thing at 3½mph and still be on this pace, but they tired themselves out earlier by jogging so their legs no longer comply. Mile twenty-four is an unforgiving mistress, so near and yet oh so very far.
But there is hope. Amongst the spectators still watching from the sidelines are that special British breed, the enthusiastic cheerers-on. These resilient folk may have been here since morning but that hasn't dimmed their vigour, as they whoop and cheer and applaud each passing athlete. In particular they encourage anyone who's thought to write their name on their running vest, because that means the cheers can be directed, and because they might receive a signal of thanks in return. "Come on Eva!" "Keep it up Kenty!" "Go Margie!" "Keep going Fishpig!" A few respond, generally with a smile, occasionally a weak wave of the hand. But most are locked in a steely bubble, focused on the road ahead, and plod on without acknowledgement. Still the cheerleaders continue their whooping, and their whooping truly helps because there's not much of a crowd left to lift the soul any more. A pile of leftover plastic beaters lies by the roadside, alongside numerous empty bottles of water, as the Westminster council cleaning trucks make their way up from behind. There are still another two hours before the Embankment reopens to traffic, but until then the last stragglers have the road to themselves, if their legs will let them.