Some runners have dayjobs as world leaders. Think Nicholas Sarkozy, David Cameron, Alastair Campbell. Think George W. Bush, who – incredibly enough – jogged every day as President. Imagine getting his diary-keepers to schedule that time for any other activity: reading novels, the cinema, origami.
In a similar vein, if the situation presented itself, you by wouldn’t hesitate to admit you were a runner to your grandma, the police, or at a job interview. It might even count in your favour, perhaps because running shows dedication, a work ethic. Yet this is the work ethic gone awry, work where there is none, work for no reward. It’s left-right-left-right-left-right all the way from A back to A. My friend once cut me right down by saying that running was no more than narcissistic ‘me time’.
The biggest event of the running calendar makes a suitably large contribution to this way of seeing runnning as heroism. The marathon is named for the Greek town from which the messenger Pheidippides departed bearing urgent news to Athens, 26 miles away. (In Greek marathon means fennel, which apparently grew there. Who can say that they knew that, eh?). Seeing the modern marathon as continuing this tradition ignores the fact that this messenger died on arrival. Now, most modern marathon runners don’t die: this event is a victory over the death of the first marathoner, a triumph of planned training over physical distance, time, and the limits of our bodies. The triumph of mindlessness over matter?