April 13th, 2008: The Big Day
Despite my dad’s boundless enthusiasm for being observed in his athletic endeavours, I decided not to join him and my mum for the start of the marathon today, feeling that at that point he would be better served by as few distractions as possible. Instead, my plan was to meet my mum near Tower Bridge, not long before the marathon’s halfway point, but the traffic was dreadful on my way down from my house in Norfolk, and by the time I arrived, he’d already moved on. Meeting up at a big city marathon is one of those times where looking back to an age without mobile phones can feel akin to looking back to an age before central heating or flush toilets. “How did people manage?” you wonder. “What did they do if their plans changed, or if one of them got held up? Did they just shout really loud and hope for the best?” I’m thankful that my mum, unlike many people of her age, actually remembers to switch hers on these days, rather than just looking upon it as a digital SOS flare to keep hidden in the bottom of her bag. After I’d parked, we arranged to meet in Covent Garden. When I spotted her, she was weighed down with bags and panting slightly. If she’d told me that there’d been a change of plan and that she’d been roped in to take my dad’s place, I would have probably believed her. “It’s impossible to see anything!” she explained. “I did spot him, though.” Did he look okay? “Not bad. A bit… out of it.”
She admitted she was “a little bit cross” with my dad. He’d decided not to wear the heart monitor, despite his promises to the contrary, but had given her the rucksack containing the books and agreed to ditch the iPod. He’d followed all the dietary rules and they’d arrived at Greenwich on time, despite London’s entire public transport system grinding to a halt, but as they came up the hill towards Greenwich Observatory, my dad had spotted some people in bibs running, shouted “OH NO! THEY’RE STARTING!” and hoofed it away from her up the hill, not giving her time to give him his water bottle, towel or banana. In truth, these people had been running towards the starter’s line, rather than away from it. Panicked, my mum had searched for my dad amongst hundreds and hundreds of competitors, and, by an extreme stroke of luck, finally found him, ten minutes later, standing next to a promotional stand, necking a can of Red Bull.
“OH, HIYA!” he’d said. “I’VE NEVER HEARD OF THIS STUFF BEFORE BUT IT’S GREAT. AND THEY’RE GIVING IT AWAY FREE!”
“How many of those have you had?” she’d asked him.
“THIS IS ONLY MY FOURTH!” he’d said.
“Do you know what’s actually in Red Bull?”
“NO. WHAT’S IN IT?”
“Well, lots of caffeine, for starters.”
I put a despairing hand to my forehead. My dad used to drink gallons of coffee every week, but very rarely does so now. These days I tend to think of his relationship with caffeine as being a bit like the relationship that the character Obelix in the Asterix comic books has with the ubiquitous magic potion that makes everyone who drinks it invincible. Owing to a fall into a cauldron of the potion when he was a little baby, Obelix feels the elixir’s effects on a permanent basis and no longer needs to imbibe. (This, incidentally, is in contrast to Obelix’s salivating relationship with wild boar, which is not a metaphor for my dad’s relationship with anything, apart from wild boar itself.)
I took the bulging rucksack from my mum. “How did he sleep?”
“Oh, very well, apart from the fact that the hotel’s fire alarm went off at three in the morning. When it went off, I immediately woke up and shouted, ‘Oh, no! What have you done?!’ at him. He looked a bit shocked. I felt ever so guilty about it afterwards. I mean, it wasn’t as if I really thought he’d set the place on fire, it was just one of those split second, instinctive reactions.”
There can’t be many major sporting events that are more infuriating to be a biased spectator at than the London Marathon. If you’re lucky enough to squeeze through the crowds and find a clear view and get your timing right, you get one look at your runner, lasting around thirty to forty seconds, then you must hotfoot it to the nearest public transport and race the crowds to get to the next part of the course, hoping that you won’t be too late. Earlier, my dad had answered my mum’s call to his mobile phone, offering a couple of progress updates, but now, when my mum rang him, he didn’t pick up. My mum and I had originally intended to attempt to watch my dad pass the nineteen mile mark, somewhere around Millwall, then try our best to get back to central London in time to see him coming down the home straight. But what if he had already passed that point on the map by the time we got there, and as a result of us going there, we missed him finish altogether? It also struck me that if a person was going to come away with an abiding memory of not seeing one of their closest relatives participate in the major athletic event of their life, that memory would smack less of defeat if it was not, in any way, associated with Millwall. A safer bet, we decided, was to head to Embankment Tube Station: the 24 mile-mark, and, according to the 2008 Marathon Guide, a reliably good spot for spectating.
Spotting a gap emerge in the crowd, the two of us secured a place next to the barrier, affording a good view not only of the runners but of the stunning brutalist architecture of the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the opposite bank of the Thames. Immediately, a man’s voice exploded in my ear.
“Well done Karen! That’s brilliant! Keep going! You can do it!”
I turned around to see the voice belonged to a tall man of Latin-ish appearance in his early twenties with a white t-shirt, a bandanna and a moist brow. I was impressed: I’d only just entered the crucible of marathon activity, and immediately I was getting a close-up view of the passion that watching a loved one run a marathon could inspire. There was Karen, a small, tanned lady in her late forties, her legs bowed, coming down the final stretch, and here was her son, so proud of her that he was moved to actually perspire on her behalf.
As I turned and surreptitiously took a glance at him him, it became obvious that there was a human interest story here: an errant father, a bout of depression, an heroic climb back from a cancer scare. Was that a tear I saw at the corner of his eye? So carried away was he by Karen’s achievement, he could not help but let his enthusiasm carry over to the next runner.
“Well done Liz!” he shouted to Liz, a small, bell-shaped woman with a limp and a stripey t-shirt. “That’s brilliant! Keep going! You can do it!”
I now began to see how the narrative expanded. The hardest year for Karen and Bandanna Man had been 2001. It was the year when he’d finished school, failing all but one of his GCSEs. With John gone off for good with that tart Michelle from across the road and Karen depressed from her social work, that was when she’d virtually given up, spending weeks barely moving from the couch, leaving Bandanna Man to look after her and his younger sister, Nicola, virtually unassisted. And then when it seemed things couldn’t get any worse, Nicola had fallen in with that druggy crowd, and the doctor had found the lump at the back of Karen’s knee. For a while there, it had been doubtful if Karen would pull through, let alone run again with her local club, The New Cross Striders. And then she’d met Liz: her nurse, her beacon of hope, and latterly, perhaps most crucially of all, her personal physiotherapist. And now look at the two of them: running in the UK’s biggest long distance running event, together, very much in love, and they were going to do it, they were going to do it, they really were….
After Liz came Kevin, who wore spectacles, had sweated his combover into five impressively neat prongs across his forehead, and – if all the telltale signs were not deceiving us – owned a high end mountain bike repair shop somewhere on the Staffordshire-Worcestershire border.
“Well done Kevin!” Bandanna Man shouted to Kevin. “That’s brilliant! Keep going! You can do it!”
Kevin was swiftly followed by Ian. Ian was chunkier than Kevin, probably 35, but often dismissed as older due to his habit of rolling up his jacket sleeves and his needless use of marketing jargon at casual social gatherings. By this point, Ian wasn’t running as such, but, by way of a purposeful kind of waddle, was managing to keep more or less the same pace as Karen, Liz and Kevin. This was all the more remarkable when you considered the fact that, around his midriff, he was wearing a giant plastic tomato.
“Well done Kevin!” shouted Bandanna Man. “That’s brilliant! Keep going! You can do it!”
Several more runners came past, and Bandanna Man greeted each of them with near-identical cries of enthusiasm. For a moment, I revised my opinion, deciding that he was actually the coach of a running team – a very big, diverse, running team, who ran in formation. It was only after he’d personally addressed more than thirty competitors that the truth dawned on me: he, too, had run in the marathon, and now, still running on pure adrenaline, he’d decided to come and support his contemporaries.
How had I not seen it? He knew the runners’ first names because their first names were written across the front of their shirts. The fact that he was alone made his gesture all the more touching, and made me ashamed for having lower expectations of the human race. Of all the things a person might be compelled to do in the immediate aftermath of running twenty six miles – take a hot bath, collapse into the embrace of a loved one, find somewhere to slowly and happily die – he’d made the decision to head back out into the field and show solidarity for his fellow man.
A few minutes later, he moved away, and I heard the man who’d been standing behind him turn to his wife, nod knowingly in the direction of his retreating form, remark: “They say it’s like being on drugs, when you finish. You’d think they’d just want to rest, but they’ve got to keep moving. You can’t shut them up sometimes. They just want to talk to everyone and anyone.”
If I’d taken the time to dwell on this statement in relation to my dad and the morning’s Red Bull episode, I would have been confronted with a whole new set of worries, but for the time being my attention was focussed solely on what might transpire before the end of his marathon run. Where on earth was he? Every so often, I’d see a flash of orange in the distance and mistake it for his cape, but after almost an hour, he’d still not materialised. A spavined Spiderman had been by, but no Johnny Catbiscuit. Had the Abominable Snotman intercepted him somewhere around Canary Wharf, and his magic dental flosser failed him in his attempts to defend himself? Many of the competitors who passed Embankment were walking now. Surely, I calculated, that meant that only reason that my dad was behind them was that he had stopped altogether. Again, my mum called his mobile phone. Again, no answer.
“When you say he looked ‘a bit out of it’ when you saw him, how exactly do you mean?” I asked my mum.
Ten minutes later, Bandanna Man rejoined the crowd nearby us, and resumed his jovial bellowing. The runners now looked even more tired: broken people running on unnaturally shaped legs. But more than their wonky joints, what seemed to unite them, make them part of their own club, was the fact that each and every one of them looked utterly beatific. For sure, there were moments in my day-to-day life when I felt a facsimile of that kind of happiness. I could receive a complimentary letter from a reader, or take a nifty short cut around a traffic jam in my car, or throw a crumpled up sweet wrapper backwards across a room into a waste paper basket and convince myself it was a personal victory, but the achievement was always somewhat subjective. It was different to this kind of sporting achievement, where triumph wasn’t up for debate: if you’d completed a marathon, you would just know you’d succeeded. I remembered a minor version of that feeling, back when I was a teenager, as I fleetingly, intermittently triumphed at golf, badminton, snooker and table tennis. But my dad – if, indeed, he was still out there – would be experiencing it right now for the first time on a much grander scale. It would be impossible not to feel better about yourself after doing this.
I’d like to say that, when we finally spotted him, this is the area where my thoughts resided, but in all honesty I’d moved on by that point. A woman had just run past in a giant, furry suit with its own gigantic breasts, nearly-as-gigantic stomach and glittering bikini bottoms. It looked incredibly hot and restrictive. Okay, she was about twenty years younger than my dad, but that thing had some serious weight to it, and I couldn’t quite stop myself from sending a telepathic message to my dad along the lines of: “Come on! Where are you? Get your act together! Surely you can run faster than her!”.
And then, as if I truly had summoned him, there he was. The eye mask had come off by now, but the orange cape was still intact. Perhaps most impressively of all, there was no sign of the comedy knee and elbow action of times gone by. That said, there was something unusual about his run. It had a kind of slow motion quality to it, and involved heavy deployment of his cape. It was almost as if he believed he was… flying.
“Mick!” my mum shouted, pointing her camera at him as he drew level with us, but he couldn’t hear her. Now Bandanna Man, who’d returned, began his shout once again, encouraging each of the gaggle of runners within earshot, and a few others joined in. Much of the attention seemed to be focussed on my dad, perhaps because he had the most outlandish costume currently in view, but perhaps also because he was the only competitor who looked as if he might, at any point within the next thirty seconds, launch flamboyantly into the sky above Charing Cross. Somehow, for me to shout “Mick!” as well didn’t seem right. I’d only ever addressed my dad by his first name during a brief fad in my second year of junior school, when my friends and I decided to use our parents’ Christian names to annoy them, and now seemed a weird time to revive the trend. Yet “Dad” didn’t seem appropriate either. It wasn’t that I was embarrassed by announcing to the crowds around me that the man in the tight superhero suit was my dad; it was just that the term seemed slightly puny, to have no real relevance to what was happening.
Besides, this wasn’t about catching his attention: wherever he was, it was obviously a place whose supersonic walls normal human sounds did not fully penetrate. In the end, as he passed us, I found myself going with the masses and using the only name that seemed right. The one written on his back.
“Well done Johnny!” I shouted. “That’s brilliant!” I considered adding the “You can do it!” bit, then thought better of it. Judging by the angle of his cape, the far-off, unwavering look in his eyes and his track record as a man of action amongst the everyday citizenry, I would merely have been stating the obvious.