I’ll never run a marathon but watching other people do so is one of my favourite things – here’s why.
80,000 runners took part in the 2021 London Marathon, either virtually or in-person, attempting the iconic 26.2 mile race to raise money for charities of their choice. I was not one of them. But, nevertheless, I’d been looking forward to marathon day ever since I moved to London earlier this year.
The London marathon was put on hold for nearly two years due to the coronavirus pandemic, so it was a particularly special day as the city came together to support the competing runners. Personally, I’m closer to the couch than the 5k when it comes to running and I’d opt for a sweaty cardio session in the gym over a long run any day (not to mention my dodgy knee that throbs after attempting even a few miles).
But I come from a family of runners, so watching races is something I’ve done all my life and I have come to realise that it’s one of the most life-affirming, uplifting experiences there is, something that was confirmed to me tenfold while watching this year’s London marathon.
A chance to talk to strangers
In a big city like London, everyone is used to keeping their heads down, finding even momentary eye contact with a stranger on the Tube an uncomfortable experience. During races like the marathon, the opposite becomes true for a day. You cheer and clap for people you’ll never meet again, looking out for those who might be struggling in order to give them a personal shoutout.
Two young girls – neither of them older than six – who were stood next to me with their parents spent the best part of an hour during the 2021 marathon searching for names on tops, coming up with personalised chants for each of them, which brought smiles to every runner and spectator’s face. That’s the other great thing about watching races – not only do you engage with the runners, but the people around you too, striking up conversations about the family member or friend they’re waiting for or the city they have travelled from to watch the race.
Witnessing real, sincere effort
In a world where self-deprecation has become the norm and putting in effort has become somewhat uncool, taking part in the marathon can be seen as the antithesis of this. Running 26.2 miles is something no one can do without putting in work and seeing so many do so – often for no other reason than to prove to themselves that they can – is so heartwarming.
People often find themselves emotional when watching the marathon. It makes sense, really – witnessing firsthand so many strangers’ struggle and success in such a short space of time is almost an entirely unique experience.
It’s a hopeful experience too, which is why so many people commit to running a marathon after watching one. This was all my non-runner friend could talk about during the race and whether he eventually manages to do so or not, there is something special about other people’s achievements rubbing off on you in a positive way – as opposed to them encouraging envy or bitterness – that can fill you with hope long after race day.
Exploring a new (or familiar) city
The London marathon spans some of the city’s most iconic locations, including the Greenwich Maritime Museum, Tower Bridge and, of course, Buckingham Palace and The Mall. As someone who recently moved to London, travelling around the city to see runners at different points of the race was an incredible way for me to see some of the sights.
An opportunity to be charitable
The London Marathon holds the world record for the largest annual single day fundraising event, according to the London Marathon Charitable Trust. Watching the race and supporting runners is therefore also an incredible way to give back to charity. Over £1 billion has been raised for charity since the first London marathon took place in 1981, with the money going to thousands of different charities, which are often close to runners’ hearts.
Astonishment at the human body
“I can’t believe this many people have run a marathon,” is what I continuously said to my friend as we were leaving the event. Running 26.2 miles is an incredible feat that takes so much mental and physical strength. Realising that it is something 80,000 people are capable of gives you a lot of faith in human nature and in yourself, too.
I watched each runner pass me by yesterday with the kind of astonishment that is usually reserved only for David Attenborough’s documentaries about incredible phenomenons of nature. And it’s pretty nice to feel that kind of awe about humans, if only for one day.
Images: Alice Porter