In 2015 running is a spectacle and it’s a big business. The Great North Run and the London Marathon are sporting mega-events: televised and commodified, they’re about much more than running. They’re about cities, landmarks, tourism, charity, personal achievements, narratives and mythology. Ultimately they are about ways of constructing those things for us and about controlling the meaning of them.
The London Marathon constructs achievement in a particular way: completing the distance of the run, attaining the sponsorship required if you are taking a charity place, and then performing all of this in a specific place in the service both of an officially sanctioned view of London and of a corporate sponsor. Looked at through my cynical eyes, runners in the London Marathon are extras in the service of this year’s sponsor (currently Virgin Money) and of the Mayor of London because the most significant and persistent symbols we see in the televised coverage of the race are the sponsor’s logo and the landscape of the city: the runners are just a device that drives the story, and that provide a frame for the more important messages of our sponsors.
Now, I acknowledge that the runners enjoy their day and gain a lot of personal benefit from their experience; I wouldn’t want to detract from anyone’s achievements, I just wonder if this all couldn’t happen another way. You see, it all used to be very different, back when Birmingham invented the big city marathon.
On May 31st 1980 Athletics Weekly claimed that:
“In years to come, when marathon fields several thousand strong will be commonplace in Britain, it will be seen that the event which triggered off the mass long-distance running movement in this country was the inaugural People’s Marathon”
And where did the People’s Marathon take place? Birmingham of course, where it ran from 1980–1985, pre-dating the Great North Run and the London Marathon.
The People’s Marathon was something of a détournement, a political intervention in the otherwise elitist world of long distance running: founder John Walker wanted to open up the world of marathon running to the masses, those who were not athletes but who were interested in working towards a challenging goal – hence the name, the People’s Marathon. It’s ironic then that the establishment responded by recuperating mass participation running, taking back control of the marathon agenda and turning it into an advert for polyunsaturated margarines, private medical care, and Internet banking. For the essence of John’s idea exists in all the major events, including our own Birmingham Half Marathon (sorry, the Bupa Birmingham Great Run), but it has been pulled back into the spectacle. The challenge that the People’s Marathon set is still there and the open call for participation is too, what is missing is character, what’s missing is the political intent which is lost in the tightly regulated world of the run as a mega-event.
Modern running events rely on an artificial scarcity for their existence. I’ve often seen friends disappointed that they have missed out on a place for the (Virgin Money) London Marathon or the (Bupa) Great North Run as if their personal narrative of running is invalid unless it is mediated through one of these televised events, and that saddens me. I understand the desire to enjoy running in an atmosphere and the need to have a tangible target to work towards but I wonder if we can’t achieve those things in a new way.
At the end of the day there is nothing to stop us from running when we want to run, but we have allowed ourselves to be tricked into believing that we need authorities to grant us permission to do so. There are signs that this is beginning to change.
In 2014 the Sheffield Half Marathon was officially cancelled moments before its planned start time because the organisers had failed to provide water to the water stations. The people of Sheffield, already assembled in their lycra, ran the race anyway. They realised that the roads were public realm, they realised that you can always find 13 miles to run, and you didn’t need an authority to tell you to do that.
Then we have the race-crasher, the bandit: the runner who doesn’t register but turns up and uses their right of access to the public road during a sanctioned race.
With our modern technology, GPS watches and phones, we could run a distance course whenever we want because our devices help us to plan and measure a route. I have a half-marathon route home from work that I run several times a year. Sure it’s not a race but if all I want to do is hit a personal milestone, why tie myself to Bupa’s calendar and wait until October for the official Birmingham Half? Groups like Parkrun are adding levels of organisation to this by staging runs around the world on a regular basis and pooling the results to create a sort of glocalised mega-event. My personal favourite intervention into this space is the Run Free Race which asks people from around the world to spoof a mass participation running race by flooding their social networks with images from imaginary races that they are holding on their own terms.
I think there is a new psychogeography of running emerging. I call it the unrun: running on your own terms, running to construct your own meanings, pushing back and putting John Walker’s idea of people back into running.
Eric Langford ran the 1980 People’s Marathon and was interviewed recently by the BBC. “There was nothing to compare it with,” he said, “we went on the M42 before it was opened. We were making our amusement as we went along I think.” That’s what Birmingham gave the world: running for exploration, running to reclaim space. There is footage of the People’s Marathon online and it seems playful and free. Its route isn’t bogged down with landmarks and touristic symbolism, it’s a jog around the city from Chelmsley Wood that uses a half-built motorway out of curiosity and pragmatism. So what happened to the People’s Marathon? “Everyone wanted a piece of the action.” (Eric Langford again) “London came along. And it was on the telly…” And so the spectacle triumphed once more. But that was then. We could be at a tipping point now. Let’s not wait for ‘them’ to give us back our marathon, let’s just get out there and run when and where we want. Did you know that if you ran the 11 Route then that is pretty much a marathon? You do now.
Jog on Birmingham.
An extract from 101 Things Birmingham Gave The World— you can buy the book to read more. Picture of Batman jogging in the London Marathon CC Chris Ballard. These are Jon's words. First published on Paradise Circus, April 2015.