|Regular folk are hot on heels of the pros when it comes to pushing limits|
On Sunday 21st April 2013, Emma Caldicott and best friend Lucy watched and cheered exhausted runners around the London Marathon course.
Inspired by the occasion, Emma let the idea of competing race through her mind – despite the fact that, in her own words, ‘she couldn’t run.’
On the same day, a man born to run, Mo Farah bowed out at the half-way point – as part of his preparation for the 2014 race. Despite being advised to stick to track events, Farah, like Emma, could not resist the temptations of the London Marathon.
A year later, united as beginners, Emma and Mo were among 36,000 people competing in the 34th London Marathon.
Experts struggled to predict how Farah - the Olympic reigning champion at 5,000 and 10,000m - would deal with a 42,194m race around the streets of London.
On Sunday, it was the Kenyans who dominated with marathon world record holder Wilson Kipsang and Edna Kiplagat setting new course records under a cloudless sky. Crowd favourite Farah came home in eight position with a time of 2.08.2.
“For an athlete who is sixth fastest all time at 1500m to complete his first marathon in under 2 hours 10 minutes is quite astonishing," Alan Watkinson, the PE teacher who introduced Mo Farah to running while he was at school in West London, told me.
"With what he has achieved over the last few years there are some that will consider this a failure but it is far from it.”
Although Emma’s run did not generate the same level of coverage as Farah’s, her success was just as emphatic.
“A year ago I could only run for a few minutes on a treadmill," 25-year old Emma told Al Jazeera.
"But there were some people at work applying for the ballot and they told me to apply as nobody gets on… Well apparently people do get on.”
Running on time?
Crossing the finishing line over three hours after Mo, Emma finished the 26 mile marathon in 5 hours 11 minutes.
“I can’t put into words how amazing it was. I would recommend anyone to do it if they want a challenge – as long as you do the training,” says Emma, who has raised close to $2000 for the mental health awareness charity Mind.
There are many stories of triumph like Emma’s. But for others, crossing the finishing line does not always guarantee jubilation. Racing the clock is no longer the preserve of Mo and his fellow pros.
“I am happy I got through it but a bit disappointed I was 10 minutes behind the 4 hours 30 minutes goal,” says 31-year old Wesleigh Pancho, a keen tennis player and runner who has competed in half marathons. “I am already planning how I’ll go faster next time."
While the London Marathon is an occasion to celebrate human endurance, it can end in tragedy.
This year 42-year-old Robert Berry died after crossing the finishing line. His death - the 12th fatality in the race’s history – comes two years after Claire Squires died just a mile from the finishing line.
The risks (albeit small) are doing little to discourage runners from pushing themselves to the limit. In fact, the marathon is just a kick-off point for many.
“I’ve read ‘Born to Run’ three times and my goal will be to run an Ultra Marathon at some point. It is in our DNA to run long distances. There is a 62 mile run from London to Brighton I want to do next year,” says Wesleigh.
Having run the London marathon seven times and with a remarkable personable best of 2:33.50, Alex Gibbins has spent his running career getting the marathon distance perfect.
“I think a lot of ultra-marathon runners like the challenge of distance as opposed to the challenge of trying to run faster – in my view it’s a lot harder to run a 2.30 marathon than just jog round a 50/60/70 mile run,” says 37-year old Alex, who has represented England twice at Masters International Cross Country.
With triathlons, ultra marathons, ice marathons, desert marathons in vogue, more and more normal beings are embarking on superhuman feats. Is there a danger some runners are pushing themselves too far?
“Ultra-marathons can be very damaging but some people thrive on them. The most important thing is to get a medical check-up, prepare as thoroughly as possible and to maintain a realistic intensity within your capabilities,” says Watkinson, Farah’s former mentor and close friend.
And when outrunning other humans loses its allure, there’s always the temptation to battle a horse.
The man versus horse marathon sees runners race against riders on horseback over 22 miles. It takes place annually in Wales and has been running since 1980 after a pub landlord overheard a discussion of whether a man or horse is faster across country.
“I did run the famous Man v Horse race in 2012 – I’d read about it over the years and always wanted to give it a go just for fun – it’s a very unique event,” Alex tells me.
For Emma, one marathon against humans is probably enough, but the buzz of achieving something she thought impossible a year ago, means she will not be intimidated to try another challenge.
“It is funny what your body can be resilient to – you hear these stories of people running six marathons in seven days. I don’t know how people do that.”
And for those who think they should have gone faster, longer, harder, Alan offers these words of advice. (Words Farah has probably heard once or twice before...)
“The twin imposters line from Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’ is often quoted in reference to sport. ‘If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same.’”
“I would say either take great satisfaction in your efforts or prepare as thoroughly as you can for another shot at it next year.”
There will be many already planning a strategy. To defeat their ultimate rival, themselves.
To donate to Robert Berry’s Just Giving page for the National Osteoporosis Society click here:http://www.justgiving.