Tuesday, 4 November 2014

What's this? It's the first draft of the introduction of my second book. No release date yet

“She’s done 40 marathons in 40 days you say? Some of them took seven hours, none of them were even sub 4? Not really marathons then are they? Besides, my mate Stobbo has run a marathon every day since Easter with a 40kg rucksack on his back. All sub 4.”

I smile politely.

“But that’s nothing. My mate Langton can pull a marathon out of the bag any time he wants. Any given day he can go out and run a sub 3, and he doesn’t even train in between.”

I nod, and make my excuses, the voice of Crogger getting ever fainter as he tells my disappearing back about his mate Scullin, who came 14th in the Marathon des Sables last year, after running 10 marathons in 10 days the week-and-a-half leading up to the event.

This encounter did not really happen, but it could easily be a real event, as the marathon has definitely moved on from when I first learnt about it as a child in the 80s. The day I watched London Marathon on TV for the first time, and in my confused child’s brain somehow believed that the singer Meatloaf had won. Or has it?

Legend has it that the first marathon was run by a Greek chap named Pheidippides, who ran around 25 miles to proclaim victory in war to the people of Sparta, after which he collapsed and died. If anyone had been thinking of shooting the messenger they were too late. However, rumour has it that this legend is not true, and in fact our mate Pheidippides actually ran a double Spartathlon. A what now? Well, every year in Greece there is a 153 mile footrace called Spartathlon, where runners have 36 hours to get from Athens to Sparta via a course with over 70 aid stations along the way, each of which has a strict cut-off time. The overall time limit is a reflection of what is believed to be the time Pheidippides took to run from Athens to Sparta a few hundred years BC to gather armies to help in the war. Apparently he then did the reverse leg only to find that the war was already won, but luckily modern participants don’t have to run back to Athens ….. doesn’t mean a few haven’t over the years, mind.

The modern race came about after three British runners from the RAF were intrigued by the story of Pheidippides and set out one day in 1982 to prove it was true, by completing the run themselves in a similar length of time. It seems only men named John considered that it might be possible, for John Foden, John Scholtens and John McCarthy were that band of merry men. They had a support crew along the way, which Pheidippides did not, but they still had to put one foot in front of the other enough times to carry them from Athens to Sparta. All three managed it in between 34-39 hours, thus proving to the world that this tale of the plucky Greek ultra runner may just have been true, and now Spartathlon is a huge organised race each year, which attracts some of the craziest athletes from around the world.

Nick Papageorge was a fresh-faced 18 year old running enthusiast when he crewed for the band of Johns back in ’82, and he is understandably proud to have been a part of such an event.

“Over the 2 days I ran with John McCarthy and John Foden, as well as Nigel whose surname I can’t remember, who stopped on the Friday night after Ancient Corinth.”

Not a John, you see?

“I remember stopping with McCarthy for a little rest in the middle of the night when we heard gunfire and thought it might be hunters after us, so having to leg it through some fields.”

I doubt Pheidippides would have heard much in the way of gunfire, but his run may well have been blighted by many other threats of the slings and arrows variety; literal, not metaphorical…. although quite possibly metaphorical too come to think of it. Anyway sorry for interrupting, Nick. Please continue.

“With Foden I recall stories he had uncovered about the Pheidippides run, as well as him drinking water from a well using his hat. Everyone got concerned when he was clearly lost; it wasn’t exactly a well organised run with checkpoints, like it is today.”

Indeed the modern race is pretty well supported, but to me that doesn’t make it an insignificant challenge. Running 153 miles in the heat is a seriously impressive feat, no matter how well supported you are.

“The organisation of the checkpoints, the fantastic Greek friendliness throughout and the in-built security of the runners is brilliant,” enthuses Nick, who ran the race himself in 2013 and described it as an amazing and emotional experience, even though he didn’t reach Sparta, “Added to that, I think that the ancient history involving Pheidippides and his feat, the modern history of the RAF expedition with my own humble involvement, and just the sheer magnitude with heat, terrain and cut-offs make this a great race. Anyone who has stood at the foot of the Acropolis at 7am on the Friday of the start has to feel the thoughts of Pheidippides 2,500 years ago setting off to run to Sparta with a serious message. Anyone who has ever completed or even simply witnessed the run through the blistering heat, and in particular seen the final 800metre run up towards King Leonidas’ foot, marking the end of the race, can confirm that it is a fantastic experience.”

Stirring stuff indeed. However, in modern times some would say that this race is not all about Pheidippides, but is about a man named Yiannis Kouros. Apart from Spartathlon, he is probably best known for holding the seemingly untouchable world record of around 189 miles run in 24 hours, which he did back in 1997. Nobody has really looked like breaking it since. No-one has looked like matching his best Spartathlon runs either. Kouros has run the 4 fastest Spartathlon times in history, and the closest rival of his 4th fastest finishing time is some bloke called Scott Jurek (if you don’t know of his exploits, a quick Google search will reveal all.)

It was said that Pheidippides’ legendary run took around 36 hours. Yiannis managed it in 20 hours, 25 minutes precisely on his best run, which works out at an average of exactly 8 minute miling for 153 miles. Keeping that up over a marathon is considered a not too shabby effort for a recreational runner nowadays, let alone nearly six of them back to back in the heat.

So who is more impressive? Pheidippides or Kouros? If this question was asked on a modern running forum and it instigated a heated discussion between Crogger and Pheidippides’ descendent Constadinos, what might they say?

“Kouros all the way, mate,” Crogger may begin, “He was nearly 16 hours quicker. Can’t argue with that, can you?”

“Impressive, I’ll give you that,” Constadinos may reply, “But how many more aid stations did Kouros have? About 70 wasn’t it? Pheidippides had to find all his own water and food, and he still managed it in a day and a half.”

“Ah yes,” says Crogger, “But what kind of cut-offs did Pheidippides have? Oh yeah, that’s right. None.”

“You wanna talk about time pressure? Let’s talk about time pressure. Kouros had some friendly Greeks with signs not even bothering to tell him what the cut-off times were as he was so far ahead of them. Pheidippides had the weight of an entire army’s battles on his shoulders. He had to go and get reinforcements so all his family, friends and fellow countrymen weren’t slaughtered by the invading armies. You still gonna tell me he had no cut-offs?”

The debate would probably rage on for many an hour. Occasionally somebody may chip in with a quip about trekking poles or Hoka running shoes (the two most common pieces of quip fodder on ultra running forums it would seem), but Crogger would keep fighting his corner, Constadinos would keep coming back and ultimately they would come no closer to agreeing on an answer to the original question.

What’s perhaps more pertinent to ask for this book is why am I writing a book about marathons and not Spartathlons? Why are Spartathlons not run in every major city in the world, or at least between them? Well, I guess there are many logistical reasons, but the fact remains that the marathon is still an incredibly popular pursuit for runners worldwide. As you will read, the way marathons are viewed, the way they are run and what constitutes a decent effort over the distance have changed immeasurably over the years one way or another, but since 1921 the distance of a marathon has been 26.2 miles. It was originally around 25, as this was originally thought to be the distance of Pheidippides’ run, but then in the 1908 London Olympics the course was lengthened so that the Royals could view the finish from their Royal Box at White City Stadium after a lap of the running track. This distance became standardised, and is what we call a marathon today.

For me the marathon is still an incredible challenge, in that to run the perfect race you are literally running as fast as you can over 26.2 miles without much variation in your pace at all. It’s such an incredibly fine line, and over such a distance there are so many things that can go wrong. There is a real art to running a great marathon race, and it’s something I’m yet to be able to say I’ve done myself (I will never be a national record holder, but I still wouldn’t say I’ve yet run a marathon in which I paced it perfectly and it couldn’t have gone any better.) People run a lot further than marathon distance, there are a select few who run a marathon every day before breakfast, but there’s still something about this distance that holds an almost mystical quality for so many runners.

There are some who train for many months, or perhaps even years, to run a single marathon and then never again. There are some who like the first one so much that they eventually run 10 of them in 10 days for fun, and all at a pace that would be blistering for the majority of recreational runners. In this book the stories of a number of significant marathons are told, from national record holders, prolific marathoners and those who ran a marathon that will always be memorable for a certain reason. Some of the people in this book have run a marathon in under 2 hours, 10 minutes. Many have run one faster than anyone else from their country ever has. How did they do it? What do they remember from those races? Some of these athletes are well known, some are until now more obscure, but no matter how fast or slow they perceive their best efforts to be they all have one thing in common. They have all completed at least one 26.2 mile run that compelled me to get in touch with them in order to write this book.


Other books are available, including one by me, from here..... http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/Everything-Will-Work-Out-in-the-Long-Run-signed-personalised-copy-Dave-Urwin-/251699955001?pt=Non_Fiction&hash=item3a9a7c8539 . It's the story of my life, but is more wholesome than the One Direction song of the same name. I didn't drive all night to keep anyone warm, for that would release an unnecessary amount of car fumes into the atmosphere. That's not to say I didn't dump toxic waste anywhere, but it was all into my own body as a response to a world that frightened and confused me when I was a child, and this persisted into my late teens/early adulthood. This nearly made me lose my health and sanity for good, but then I discovered the endorphin high and have barely looked back since. The posh word for it is ecotherapy, for me it's linked with being close to creation, but whichever viewpoint you take it can't be denied that being outdoors and putting one foot in front of the other is nature's anti-depressant. That's what the story is about.

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