Today (March 29) in London History – the London Marathon

First up, a heads up for Today in London – head down to the Marc Chagall Exhibit at the Stern Pissarro Gallery at 66 St James’ Street. It’s got less than two weeks to run. And if you want to use your time really efficiently, hitch the gallery visit onto the end of the Friday afternoon Old Palace Quarter Walk. The walk ends two minutes from the gallery. And you’ve got plenty of time because on Fridays the gallery doesn’t close until 6 o’clock.

Ok, Today in London History.

This one was a tough call. Two stand out candidates. One was the Royal Albert Hall. It opened on this day – March 29th, 1871. The other was the London Marathon. The first-ever London Marathon took place on March 29th, 1981.

And behind those two, a strong field of other contenders, not the least of which was Croydon Airport opening on March 29th, 1920. It was London’s airport until Heathrow airport opened in 1946. 

But after much soul-searching, I’ve given the nod to the London Marathon. Not least because it’s got scoops and scoops of great factoids. London Marathon factoids are like a barrelful of jellybeans in a candy store. 

They’re all readily to hand so we won’t gorge on Marathon jellybeans but maybe just a few – just for fun – after firing off these starter’s pistol introductory remarks.

And look, the other thing is, shovelling out factoid jellybeans and leaving it at that – that’s not good enough. That’s just being a cheerleader for the Marathon.

I want us to drill down deeper, get inside it, see things that aren’t readily apparent. Increase your understanding. Give you a couple of “oh, so that’s why” moments, a couple of “I never knew that about the London Marathon” moments. 

All very London Walks, that – what we do is take you to places you wouldn’t have got to off your own bat, show you things you wouldn’t have seen by yourself, tell you things you didn’t know. 

Almost always the best way to do that is to go right back to the beginning and take survey of who and what was there.

You know, have a Genesis moment.

In the beginning…

If I were going to recast the first verse of the bible in London Marathon terms it would read:

In the beginning, Chris Brasher had a bright idea. Chris Brasher saw the New York Marathon and saw that it was good. And London was without a marathon. And Chris Brasher saw that a London Marathon would be good for Chris Brasher.

And Chris Brasher said, ‘Let me speak to Horace Cutler. And Horace Cutler saw the New York Marathon and saw that it was good. And saw that it would be good for Horace Cutler.

And the spirit of Marathon moved in the conjoined minds of Brasher and Cutler. And Horace Cutler said, Let there a London Marathon. And let Chis Brasher be Race Director.”

Ok, we’ve named the names, now who were these gentlemen. Horace Cutler was the Leader of the Greater London Council, the top tier local government administrative body for Greater London.

Chris Brasher will be forever known as the cart horse to Roger Bannister’s thoroughbred. I’m talking about what happened on May 6, 1954 at the Iffley Road track in Oxford. Yeah, you got it. Roger Bannister running the first-ever sub-four-minute mile – breaking the barrier that people said would never be broken, could never be broken, because it was – so they said –  a physical impossibility. Roger Bannister of course had help that day. He had two pace-setters. Chris Brash took the lead for the first half-mile of the race and set the pace that was needed if the record was to be broken. The third runner was Chris Chataway, who had the tough job of moving into the lead and maintaining the pace through the gruelling penultimate lap, providing Roger Bannister for his trademark burst on the last lap. Bannister – at the time he was a 25-year-old medical student at St Mary’s Paddington – broke the tape in 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. As soon as the first part of the score was announced – “three minutes…” the crowd erupted in pandemonium. They knew they’d witnessed one of the greatest sporting events of all time.

If you look at the old black-and-white photographs of the race, our man, Chris Brasher, was the bespectacled chap.

Not nearly as famous as Roger Bannister, but he was certainly a remarkable individual. He was part of the expedition team that made the first-ever successful ascent of Mt. Everest. He introduced Orienteering, the Scandanavian compass sport to this country. He did a coast to coast walk in Scotland. He sailed around Britain. He won an Olympic gold medal in Steeplejack. He celebrated his Olympic victory with a “liquid lunch“ with the British press pack and stood on top of the podium to collect his medal “blind drunk, totally blotto”. 

He owned horses, had a passion for national hunt horse racing. 

He married a Wimbledon champion. Was a successful sports editor. Well, you get the idea. Full life and then some.

Then some indeed, because in addition to his athletic prowess Chris Brasher had a good business head. Come 25 years after the breaking of the four-minute mile barrier, he had various successful business ventures, all having to do with sporting gear and footwear. 

You may have heard of that major seller of specialised running shoes, Reebok. Chris Brasher was its managing director. And what do you know, in the way of these things it came to pass that Reebok won the contract to be the London Marathon’s official suppliers. And by a weird and wild coincidence, another Reebok director, John Disley, was the London Marathon’s course director.

Interviewed at the time, Chris Brasher made no effort to conceal his commercial interest. All the same, those in the know were left with the depressing conviction that idealism, rather than a healthy desire to make money, was his real inspiration. 

Anyway, we’re about 24 miles along on this marathon, so let’s get home. Chris Brasher knew about the New York marathon – he’d run in one – and were London to have its own marathon, well, he could see the possibilities. All the interest it would arouse, acres of free press coverage, thousands of participants…it heaven-sent for anyone in the specialised running shoes game. And as for Horace Cutler, well, he saw immediately that a London Marathon would do for London what the New York Marathon was doing for New York. 

And what do you know, some “feel good” for London – compliments of Horace Cutler and his Tory party – was just what was needed given that a GLC election was imminent. Anyway, Chris and Horace saw what they made and behold it was very good. Good for London, good for Londoners, good for London political careers, good for shoe sales. 

Jelly bean time yet? Not quite. 

It’s London, so, as ever, the picture is more complicated than it appears to be at first blush.

And so here’s a further – London- Walks-dredged-up – I never knew that about the London Marathon item for you.

The March 29th, 1981 Jamboree of Jog wasn’t – by a long chalk – the first London Marathon. There was of course the famous 1908 London Olympics Marathon, in which the apparent winner, the Italian  Dorando Pietri was disqualified for having received assistance before he staggered across the finish line. The loneliness of that long-distance runner, eh.

And it’s a choice tidbit that the 1908 London Olympics marathon was the first time that the distance covered was that oddball one of 26 miles and 385 yards. Which, in 1921, became the standard distance. 

The Marathon takes its inspiration from the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE, in which the heavily outnumbered Athenian army defeated the Persians. Legend has it that a Greek herald was sent running from Marathon to Athens to announce the victory. And the distance he covered was about the same as the distance of the modern marathon. About the same but not quite the same. Apparently, the distance Pheidippides Fi-dip-i-deze –  the Greek herald  – covered was about 24 or 25 miles. 

And, yup, sure enough – this was almost predictable – the reason for that oddball distance was that their Royal Highnesses thought it would be a lark to see part of the race and it would be awfully convenient if it could start at Windsor Castle. And what their Royal Highnesses want…

And that’s why it’s 26 miles and 385 yards – that was the distance from Windsor Castle to the 1908  Olympic stadium in London. 

There’s more. London Marathon stories – they’re a feast. Turns out there was an indoor Marathon in 1909. That was held at the Royal Albert Hall.

It was won by Londoner C.W. Gardiner. He defeated – yup, the Italian again – poor old Dorando Pietri. Apparently, Dorando’s feet were giving him considerable trouble. The culprit – wait for it – new shoes. The Italian had to stop and change his shoes on the second lap of the 24th mile.

Ok, let’s end with some jellybeans.

7,000 people ran in that first Jamboree of Jog, the London 

Marathon. The next year it was 18,000. There have been over a million finishers since that first London Marathon. Nearly half a million applied to run in the 2020 event. A lot more than the 20,000 applicants for the inaugural event.

It’s the largest single annual fundraising event in the world. 

And my favourite, the world champion averages just over 17 seconds for every 100-metre segment of the race. In a 100 metre race against Usain Bolt he’d be at about the 50-metre mark when Usain Bolt crossed the finish line. In fact, most marathoners couldn’t run a 13-second 100-metre dash. But then 100-metre champions couldn’t come anywhere near to getting over 26 miles and 385 yards in two hours, two minutes and 37 seconds, the course record. 

And for a last word, this one will run and run.

Good night from London. See ya tomorrow.

Eighty years before the London Marathon the two greatest and biggest cities in the world were New York and London. 

I mention that because the New York City Marathon was the inspiration for the London Jamboree of Jog – the London Marathon.

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