Chris Brasher, The London Marathon and the quest to break two hours

I started writing this post at 2am on the morning of the 2012 London Marathon. As I finished my carb-packed breakfast, I thought it a fitting homage to Chris Brasher, the Marathon’s founder, who called up the current organiser, David Bedford, around about this time in the morning, in 1981, and said something like, ‘we’ve got this little race going on, would you join us?’ Bedford had just returned from an end of evening curry. But, tired and emotional as he no doubt was, he dragged out his running shoes and headed for Greenwich. The rest, as they say, is history.

This will be the third time that I have run the course of the London Marathon in reverse: starting beneath Big Ben at 4am and heading for Greenwich. And while the number of those running this year has ballooned from 2 in 2009 to 6 in 2011 to 14 in 2012, amongst the chatter there will be plenty of time to reflect on the life of Brasher, without whom none of us would be here, and who is the subject of an excellent biography by John Bryant.

Brasher was, to put it mildly, a singular fellow, but this is not the problem that faces the biographer. Consider for a moment that one person links the 4-minute mile, where he paced Roger Bannister, the 1956 Olympics, where he won gold in the 3000m steeple chase, the invention of modern orienteering and the patenting of the Brasher walking boot. There is more than a little of the Forrest Gump in Brasher. He was not so much a witness through his goggled lenses (he was never much of a looker) to some of the momentous occasions in modern athletic history as making it.

Although for most readers of Bryant’s book all road lead to the creation of the London Marathon, the trouble is to know where to start the story. Bryant tackles the chronology and the multi-layered history of Brasher’s life with great lightness. (Here I must declare an interest since I work for the publisher of his book). And Bryant admirably confronts head-on the fact that if Brasher took exception to you, as he was more than likely to, he could be more than direct. There is a story that when news of his death reached the night desk at one national paper the editor couldn’t find anyone to write his obituary who had a good word to say about him. But when did nice blokes make for interesting biographies?

To properly book-end the London Marathon (it is now Monday afternoon) it’s to the Kenyans that we must turn. In Running with the Kenyans Adharanand Finn did what all good journalists do when researching a story, and upped sticks with his family to live and train in Kenya with some of the best distance runners in the world. No slacker – he has recorded 1:18 for the Edinburgh Half Marathon – the regime, the natural talent and the sheer ergonomic beauty of these runners made even the top Europeans, who decamp there to learn their secrets, look like part-timers. As if to prove his point Kenyans took first place in both the men and women’s race yesterday.

Of the 12 of us who set off from Big Ben 2 called it a day at Tower Bridge – one was tapering for the Bob Graham in a couple of weeks – and a handful ended up in a hospital and took an age to find their way out. All of which meant that Alex and I crossed the start line together, for the third time, at 8am and made our way for a fry up and a pint in the local pub. As we watched the final runners arrive for the start – Wombles, Peppa Pigs etc – we glanced up at the TV to see the elite setting off. Already the Kenyans were putting clear water between themselves and the rest.

If you want to know what it is like, really like, to run like this and, more importantly, what it will take to break the 2-hour record I offer you two possibilities. Either, the next time you go to the gym turn the running machine up to its maximum pace – 18 kph in my case – and see how long you can last. I managed 27 seconds. And even that would not have got me 2:04:44, Wilson Kipsang’s time yesterday. Or, you could pour a cup of tea and read Finn’s truly excellent book. Raising a pint of Sagres to the screen, I knew exactly what the rest of Sunday held for me.

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About Robin Harvie

I have been running marathons for ten years. But when I couldn't around faster than 3 hours 12 minutes, I decided to see how far I could run before I keeled over. Turns out pretty far. In September 2009 I took on the Spartathlon - 152 miles from Athens to Sparta. Non stop. Why We Run is about that journey and about why we run at all.
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2 Responses to Chris Brasher, The London Marathon and the quest to break two hours

  1. Fantastic post – and I am reeling at that running machine stat. Jeebus!

  2. Happy Runner says:

    I like the idea of running the London Marathon in reverse. 🙂 I always enjoy watching the London Marathon and hopefully one day I make the ballot or I will need to join the reverse runners.

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