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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 April, 2005, 10:37 GMT 11:37 UK
Running battle
By Brendan O'Neill

Nearly 50,000 people will step across the starting line in the London Marathon this Sunday. But has it changed from a competitive event to a simple fun-run? And if so, is that such a bad thing?

It's that time of year again, when London comes to a standstill as thousands of budding athletes run the 26-mile Marathon from Greenwich Park to St James's Park.

The 25th Flora London Marathon takes place on Sunday. Close to 50,000 runners - some running for fun, others for charity, and some, like Paula Radcliffe, hoping to beat world records - will take to the streets in Britain's most famous race.

The Marathon has become a quaint British institution, as well known for bizarrely-dressed runners being chased by breathless TV reporters as for being a competitive race to the finish line.

As the Marathon website says: "One of the dominant images of the race is that of thousands clad in fancy dress, tramping the cobbles in support of charitable causes dressed as rhinos, football team mascots, giant trees and the like...."

But has it become too much of a fun run, sprinting away from its origins as a race for professional and aspiring long-distance runners?

Paula unlikely to don costume

Alan Buckingham, a senior lecturer in sociology at Bath Spa University College and a long-distance runner, says some professional runners are concerned about the direction the Marathon is taking.

The first London Marathon took place on 29 March 1981. More than 20,000 applied to join the race, 7,747 were accepted and 6,255 crossed the finishing line. Last year there were a whopping 80,500 applicants, 46,500 of whom were accepted and 32,563 of whom finished the race.

Lloyd Scott
Lloyd Scott walked the marathon in 2002. It took him five days

This year a record 98,500 applied to join the race, and around 46,000 of them will run on Sunday.

Buckingham says that opening the Marathon up to more and more applicants has coincided with a decline in running standards.

"The mark of the success of marathons has increasingly become the amount of money raised and the number of participants rather than the performance of the participants - and I think that is a shame", he says.

He points out that as the Marathon has become better known and more packed with runners and wannabe-runners, the finishing times have declined.

"In 2003 the fastest British male marathon runner was eight minutes slower than in 1985 - and that's a chasm in running terms."

In the 1980s, he says, the qualifying time to obtain guaranteed entry to the London Marathon for a senior male was 2 hours and 40 minutes - today it is 3 hours.

Yet surely the varied nature of the modern Marathon is not to blame for such slippage? After all, the organisers cater for both professionals and funsters, staggering the start times so that serious runners get a clean take-off and are not impeded by the spacemen or bunny rabbits.

No pain, no gain?

Buckingham says the problem is not over-participation as such, but rather that the "ethos of achievement", of running to win, is increasingly being undermined.

"Taking it easy and avoiding pain has become the hallmark of modern running", he argues.

"Labels on treadmills attempt to scare runners into jogging gently by warning the user to stop if they feel dizzy or feel pain; races become 'fun runs' where completion rather than winning is what matters; the best-selling shoes are now designed to help avoid injury and aid comfort rather than speed."

It felt like a festival celebrating health, giving and silliness. What's not to like about that?
Helen Wright, marathon finisher

Buckingham thinks the transformation of the Marathon from a tough race into a fun day out is symptomatic of a society that doesn't much care for the "competitive spirit". The varied competitors are also evident of a shift from the hardcore no-pain-no-gain ethos of the 1980s to a society that's into fitness but not into killing themselves to be in shape.

And that's why some enthusiastic amateurs enjoy the eclectic experience that is the London Marathon. Helen Wright from London last ran the Marathon two years ago, with a final time of 4 hours and 36 minutes.

She says: "I loved running with men in tutus, tarts, spacemen and hippos, and particularly the man who appeared to be nude - though he couldn't have been, could he?

"That side of the race really made me laugh and made it all worth it. It felt like a festival celebrating health, giving and silliness. What's not to like about that?"

Wright thinks it can only be a good thing to encourage more people to run in the Marathon. "As an unexceptional runner, I found it fantastic fun to run in a race which included the best runners in the world.

"I wasn't successful in the lottery to get into the Marathon this year, but I didn't really mind, as it is good for as many people as possible to have the experience of running it."

Try running and laughing

Professional runner Craig Davey will run his first London Marathon this Sunday, and is aiming for a finish time of 2 hours and 37 minutes (having achieved 2 hours 43 minutes in the Berlin Marathon last year).

He says the runners in funny costumes "add flavour - and I'm fortunate that I will not be impeded by them, because I get to start at the front of the field."

Fancy dress at the 1999 race
Lions, runners and Wombles. Oh my

Yet he says others feel differently. "I know many runners do feel impeded by fancy-dress entrants making a bid to be seen on TV. There are significant health and safety issues around this practice."

Teacher and running enthusiast Kirk Leech ran the London Marathon in 2003 and the Paris Marathon in 2004. He says the London Marathon is really two races in one.

"There are different races taking place. At the top it's a competitive race, but for the vast number of people taking part it's a test of endurance. For most people it's about getting around and telling everyone you have done it."

Alan Buckingham says that's fine, so long as we remember that long-distance running has traditionally been about "risks and pain" rather than fun and games. He quotes Roger Bannister, the man who broke the four-minute mile in 1954.

"My body had long since exhausted all its energy, but it went on running just the same," Bannister said. "I leapt at the tape like a man taking his last spring to save himself from the chasm that threatens to engulf him."

You can't really do that in a tutu.

Or can you? Is a marathon a serious event or a chance to have fun, raise some money, and acquire some blisters? Add your comments to this story using the form below:

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