The first time… a marathon

Not everyone is blessed with a perfect body, one that is fit for purpose, svelte and streamlined.  A perfect physique such as this is rare.  I have so much to be grateful for.  Perfect, that is, for the aspiring distance runner.   Admire the evidence: the figure of an anaemic tuning fork, a man with his heart in the right place and a brain largely immune from long distance suffering.  Even the pair of trainee radar dishes on either side of his head made minimal impact on wind resistance.

So, from an early age, the launch into outstanding mediocrity began.  Timed runs around the playing field at primary school were followed by the secondary school cross country team and then on to university for track events, cross country and road relays.  That perfect body was shaping up nicely. 

But while successes followed at a largely unnoticed level, there was a higher goal: the marathon.  All my running had been at distances below ten miles, but there was something heroic, perhaps macho, and maybe unattainable about the marathon, all 26 miles and 385 yards of it.  That would be an achievement.

The college team was strong but, in marathon terms, frighteningly young and completely inexperienced.  In those days, 1972, nobody under 21 was allowed to tackle the distance and I was only 21.  However, the team contained one Oxford Blue and an athlete who would go on to hold the world record for 40 miles so we were not entirely without hope of performing well as a team, even if none of us was likely to be highly placed at an individual level.   So the decision was taken: we would enter a team in the Polytechnic Harriers Marathon.

That race had history.  The course was first used in the 1908 marathon at the London Olympics. Yes, the race in which long-term leader, Dorando Pietri, in the last stages of exhaustion, staggered up to the finish and was helped over the line by concerned marshalls only for their actions to disqualify him.  That scene has been endlessly replayed on grainy black and white film.  This was to be our challenge.

Months of training took us up to the evening of Friday 30 June for final preparations.  Huddled around a kitchen table in Headington, we pulled back the newspaper and began to demolish a feast of chip butties.  Nothing was left behind.  We were as ready as could be.

The following afternoon’s sun shone down on Windsor Castle as hoary and hairy runners, plus our callow team, assembled beside those ancient walls, destination Chiswick.  The starting gun fired and the race was underway.  But even the best laid plans …

All was well for the first seven miles at which point a motor bike came up behind us, bearing a frantic marshall shouting to us that everyone had gone off course.  Panic ensued.  The only option was to go back until the true course was regained.  Several of the fancied athletes dropped out, their chances of a pb (personal best) out of the question.  By the time the rest of us were back on course, it was estimated that two miles had been added to the distance, two miles that were to prove fatal.

Naïve and full of beans, I carried on regardless, gradually passing those slower runners who had been behind me, moving steadily through the field, confidence soaring.  But as the sun beat down and the distance increased, slowly, oh so slowly, the wheels began to come off.  Twenty miles gone and I started to lose places.  Twenty two, twenty three and at last I had given my all.  At the 24 mile post I stopped, supposedly for a rest, but resting against a shop window I gradually slipped down, ending up in a miserable embryonic mound on the pavement, head bowed.  My race was over.  Oh, those two miles.

I felt a hand touch my arm.

“Come along, dear, up you get.”

An elderly lady bent over me, compassion writ large on a kindly face.  Helping me to my feet, she ushered me gently into her waiting car, a plush vehicle with leather seats.  There I subsided.  What ignominy – helped into a car by an elderly lady.  I was driven on to the finish where team mates waited – they had all, from memory, finished in front of me.  Up at the cafeteria, the prizes were announced but when it came to the team award where we felt we were in with a chance, a sombre voice told the bad news:

“Due to the unfortunate misdirection of runners, the organisers have decided to suspend the team award until further enquiries have been made.”

Suitably crushed, we returned to the car for the ride home.  We were, to say the least, subdued.  Jane drove, Jim was sick in the front, Joe was sick in the back and I lacked their discrimination.  What a way to end.

Except it was not the end.  Many weeks later, sitting on long trestle tables in the hall for dinner, we dutifully rose to our feet as the great and the good entered in procession.  Taking their places on the top table, the gavel banged as usual ready for the recitation of the totally incomprehensible Latin grace.

“Gentlemen, we have today received this magnificent trophy which has been won by our running team at the Polytechnic Harriers Marathon; we congratulate them.”

I had not even noticed the trophy. It was the grandest and the shiniest I had ever set eyes upon – and we had won it!  The meal passed in a haze of memories.

That marathon was just the start.  In the period up to 1999, I ran a further 40 marathons with several top ten placings and even a single victory – yes, just one, but any time I began to suffer, I recalled those words of encouragement,

“Come along, dear, up you get.”

Bob Forster

December 2021 – January 2022