Ahead of this year’s London Marathon, I happen to be reading a book all about it. This is pure coincidence as I picked it up off the charity bookshelf a couple of months ago for 50p. It’s been sat waiting to be read ever since but I had to finish off the badly written Chris Waddle autobiography first!
Published after the 25th running of the race, “The London Marathon – the History of the Greatest Race on Earth” was written by John Bryant. A marathoner himself by the time of his death in April 2020, he’d run London twenty-nine times, He was an established writer and journalist who’d worked for The Times, Daily Telegraph ad Daily Mail among other newspapers.
Often the people writing these sorts of books aren’t that involved, simply just writing up what they’ve researched on the subject. Bryant cannot be accused of that. He had run a 2hr21 marathon and coached Zola Budd when she was competing for Great Britain in the 1984 Olympics. It’s very clear he understands what he’s writing about and, also how to write it well. It’s a very engaging book split into twenty-two chapters with each detailing a piece of history or what the marathon experience is about.
I’m only about a third of the way through but so far I’ve read about Chris Brasher and John Disley, the founders. About the first race in 1981 and the dark years which followed in the life of its joint winner, Dick Bardsley. It details the British winners (including Charlie Spedding and Steve Jones) in the following years asking them why we no longer have the same success. It tells of Spirodon Louis, the winner of the first Olympic marathon in 1896 and interestingly that his win may have been assisted. How the marathon distance became established at its current distance rather than its differing distance of 22-25 miles. There’s a chapter about Ron Hill, who I previously wrote about, which confirmed my memory that the first 26.2 years of his streak involved running twice per day and once on Sundays.
Upcoming chapters promise a look whether the women’s time will match the men’s, the rise of African runners, what older runners can achieve, the celebrities and ordinary people taking on the marathon challenge. There’s a look at the logistics of organising as well as the demands on the runner’s body. It features the elite runners, the world record holders of the time Khalid Khannouchi and Paula Radcliffe, as well as discussing the potential for when a sub-2hr marathon might be run. Spoiler – it’s been done.
What is fascinating is how much of this info is now common knowledge. It’s easy to forget how far sports science and our understanding of how to train for, pace and prepare for marathons has come. Reading about the early Olympic marathons, the competitors like Dorando Pietri were breakfasting on beefsteak and coffee; gargling with Chianti, drinking wine and taking drugs such as strychnine ad atropine during the race. There’s even a brief look at shoes, barefoot running and the Tarahumara almost five years before Christopher McDougall wrote all about it in Born to Run.
At 260 pages, John Bryant provides an excellent and informative overview of the London marathon through its first twenty-five years. His well-written account is a pleasure to read, striking an excellent balance between story-telling and factual detail. It’s a book packed with looking at London from many different angles and I know it isn’t going to take me long to finish.
The 2023 London marathon takes place this Sunday, April 23, returning to its traditional Spring slot after three years displaced to October due to the pandemic. While it’s now too late for me to coach you for it, there’s always next year. If you think you might like to be coached, please feel free to contact me. I’m sure I can help you become a fitter, faster runner at any distance whether it’s the marathon, parkrun or any other race.