The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner: Why do Londoners love gruelling marathons and ultras?

The start of a new year brings with it much more than discarded Christmas trees and another soul-destroying series of Celebrity Big Brother.

The opening weeks of 2015 offer people a fresh chance to get in shape and achieve the fitness goals that remained frustratingly out of reach as last year ebbed away.

Staying true to those workout targets this time around is never an easy task and, for some, the prospect of running a marathon or half-marathon can prove to be the perfect motivation.

Now running one marathon is, of course, a highly commendable achievement – ask any competitor how physically and emotionally draining the 26.2-mile exertion is and they will immediately confirm that.

But for many who run the distance, conquering just one marathon is not fulfilling enough.

The modern obsession with these long-distance events is becoming increasingly mainstream.

Take the example of Rob Young, the 32-year-old who has been using Richmond Park as the picturesque setting for his sensational world record attempt – 367 marathons in 365 days.

And while few have quite the penchant that Rob has for the gruelling activity, marathon popularity shows little sign of waning.

But what exactly is it that drives people to repeatedly force themselves through the physical and psychological struggle involved with long-distance running?

The Wimbledon Windmilers Running Club boasts almost 700 members, and president Graham Ball estimates that the club’s members complete a combined total of more than 100 marathons a year.

“Running can definitely become much more than a hobby,” he said.

“We have a group of runners who feel that marathons aren’t far enough, so they are doing ultras!”

For the uneducated who prefer to stick to reasonable fitness goals, an ultra is a race run any distance over the marathon standard of 26.2 miles.

In most cases this can vary between 30-50 miles, although some, incomprehensibly, can be significantly longer still.

When asked why people become so passionate about running marathons – to the point where they make the unfathomable decision to go even further – Graham has a very simple response.

“It’s about the achievement of doing it.”

In this sense then completing a marathon is a sure-fire way to earn a big tick on the bucket list. Simple enough.

To such a notion, Graham added a very pertinent footnote: “It’s not necessarily much fun at the time, particularly towards the end!”

For Angela O’Brien, a headteacher from Derby who ran the blue-riband London event in 2012 and 2013, the marathon fixation comes from a very personal desire to succeed, over herself more than anyone else.

“When they bring the charts out with all the results after the event, I spend the whole week analysing every statistic,” she explained.

“I am never satisfied, I always have to do better. There are times when I almost don’t want to do it again, but then I know that just have to.”

“I am never satisfied, I always have to do better.”

Despite such a single-minded outlook, Angela admits, when recalling her races, that the communal experience offered by a marathon is just as meaningful an incentive.

“I definitely remember the pain, but the overriding feeling is being part of something special, something very big,” she added.

“If you asked me to run a marathon by myself tomorrow that would not interest me – I wanted to run the London Marathon because of the atmosphere.”

This idea of completing long-distance events for the unique experience is unsurprisingly common, especially given the ever-growing throngs of supporters who flank the courses of races up and down the country, creating a stunning spectacle.

Journalism student Adam Jones certainly agrees.

“Running the London Marathon was one of the best experiences of my life, in terms of the effort you put in and then the appreciation for it that you get out,” he said.

“The feeling I had in the last 500m is one of the best I have ever experienced.”

Of cours, despite the personal triumph and collective enjoyment that marathons and similar events provide it’s impossible to ignore the intimidating prelude – training.

According to Graham at least three to four months of solid preparation are needed if one is to comfortably complete a marathon, and being able to ‘comfortably run 20 miles’ is an important training milestone.

Whichever way you look at it that’s not a simple task and it requires a large amount of time – another possible obstacle.

As well as the physical demands of training, psychological commitment is an absolute must.

Isaac Leigh, a Student Union officer at the University of Warwick and regular long-distance runner, attests to the need for mental resilience as much as bodily fitness.

“Long distance running involves significant perseverance, discipline and the desire to improve, because you’re often just competing against yourself,” he said.

Angela puts it a slightly different way.

“It’s very much about your mind-set, not about whether you are a ‘runner’.”

Finding a consistent training routine can help to assuage both physical and mental issues, and getting into such a fixed pattern is another reason why the preparatory stages, as much as the marathon or half-marathon itself, can prove so addictive.

As a prospective marathon runner myself – I am currently training for my first London Marathon in April – it’s easy to see why so many people are not completely satisfied after just one or two events.

Perhaps the obsession is best summed up by the words of a friend on his elation after completing his first half-marathon in 2011.

“When I crossed the finish line I remember feeling absolutely euphoric despite the pain. It turned out I’d caught the bug!”

That bug is clearly not an easy one to shake.

Featured picture courtesy of Steve Braund, with thanks

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