Today, the thirty-second London marathon will be run by over 30,000 people from across the globe, making it one of the biggest annual running events in the world. To date, it has raised over £450 million for charity and has seen numerous world records set for course completion times but also holds the Guinness World Record as the largest annual fund-raising event in the world, with the 2009 participants alone raising over £47.2 million for charity.
Tod Papageorge, L’eggs Mini Marathon, 1997
The story of the London marathon starts rather humbly in a pub in Richmond Park, The Dysart Arms, home of the Raneleigh Harriers running club, among whose members just so happened to be former Olympic champion and journalist Chris Brasher, Welsh athlete John Disley, and former 10,000m world record holder David Bedford. The story goes that several members of the club had recently competed in the 1978 New York marathon, and had been amazed at how different it was from UK marathons, were a handful of spectators turned out to watch a small number of athletes “trudge around country lanes.”
Andrew Savulich, Marathon runners crossing the 59th Street bridge, 1980
After hearing their club mates talk about the NY marathon with such passion, Brasher and Disley decided to train and enter the following year. Upon completing the 1979 New York marathon, Brasher “admitted he’d been unsure about running a marathon, the most punishing event of the Olympic athletics program,” but “he saw the New York race as a great opportunity to experience the drama and get a true understanding of the determination needed to compete for over two hours.” They too had been hooked by the “city mass marathon” bug, and attributed it to the world famous sights, cheering spectators, and the camaraderie of the runners.
The next step was to convince the Greater London Council and the Metropolitan Police that this was a good idea. After proposing a 26-mile route around the river Thames, and receiving backing from the GLC (so long as they never asked for bailouts from tax payers), Brasher traveled back to America to talk money and organizational strategies with the booming running communities involved in the Boston and New York events.
The New York Times Mid-Week Pictorial, February 5, 1925
After returning to the UK and preparing the budget, it was soon clear that the first London Marathon would need serious funds to get it off the ground, far more than they could hope to recoup from entry fees. They needed £75,000, and they simply did not have that kind of money. In a stroke of luck, Gillette decided to discontinue their sponsorship of the cricket cup, and were advised that “two young Olympic medalists were putting on a marathon and needed help.” A deal was made for £75,000 a year, for three years and the rest, as they say, is history.
Martin Munkacsi, [Man running in track and field event, Altona, Germany], August 1930
It’s wonderful to think that a group of blokes in a pub in England had been so influenced by their experiences in the New York marathon that they decided to make their own, and that their marathon went on to become one of the biggest annual running events in the world. Brasher opened his influential article for The Observer with the line “To believe this story you must believe that the human race can be one joyous family, working together, laughing together, achieving the impossible,” and it’s clear that an awful lot of folks did believe and continue to believe to this day.
There is something quite beautiful about 35,000 people from across the globe, running together, sharing their pain and their joy as they complete one of the hardest tasks they will ever attempt, the ultimate endurance test. In that moment, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from, because you’re running in the “world’s most human race.”