There was a time when back-breaking physical labour was the everyday lot of most human beings, when pain and exhaustion were the price everybody paid for being alive. No longer. Physically, at least, life is easy for most people in the developed world.
There was a time when people sought to punctuate the drudgery of existence with a pilgrimage: earning merit by means of a relatively arduous journey. Sometimes they made it harder by walking all the way on bare feet, or performing the last section on their knees. These days few people attempt such things.
So we invented the city marathon and that takes care of both these shortcomings of 21st-century life. The London Marathon is among the greatest in the world, and it offers a chance to acquire merit by embracing pain and suffering. It’s a time to savour the perfect physical exhaustion that was once everybody’s daily lot – and is now a privilege.
It was 13 years ago when I watched the runners set off from Marathon. They then ran to Athens, for it was the Olympic Games of 2004. This was the place that became a race –and it’s also become the right word for any project that requires serious time and energy.
The magic word “marathon” makes the challenge both special and irresistible. It’s a distant, terrible, intimidating goal sanctified by history and mythology – and yet it’s within reach of all who seek it with seriousness: the horizontal Everest of suburbia whose peak stands for ever 26 miles and 385 yards away. Men in their early 30s are the most vulnerable to its allure: raging against the dying of the light in high-tech plimsolls.
But this gluttony for suffering needs justification. You can’t admit you’re doing it for yourself. So you adopt a cause and you run for a charity–and in a mad way that makes everything all right. The London Marathon is a day when we bask in virtue, our own and everybody else’s. It’s not all sweetness and light, of course. A tiny charity that does stupendous good with zero overheads will find it much harder to get a place than a big charity that spends fortunes on fundraising.
The great efforts of the thousands take place in the context of a genuine world-class race for the highly paid elite – and that gives the whole thing credibility. Everybody’s run takes place in the shadow of serious sport. The massed runners will set off in hopeless pursuit of Kenenisa Bekele of Kenya, who has run only three minutes, three seconds shy of the impossible two-hour barrier. That gives meaning to the rest who will finish hour after hour behind the winner.
I have two special cheers to make. One for the ever-gallant British runner Jo Pavey, with a personal best ten minutes behind the elite African women. And, of course, the rhinos. There will be 14 runners clad in rhino costumes, which weigh from 8kg to 10kg. Vinny O’Neill, ex-SAS, will be hoping to break his own, 2012 rhino record of four hours, 17 minutes and 27 seconds.
They’ll all be running for Save the Rhino. As a patron of that excellent organisation, I wish the entire herd luck as they pound their way towards the distant Mall. Let’s wish fair weather and sweet rest afterwards for them all.
The London Marathon will be broadcast on BBC1 on Sunday 23 April from 8.30am