For almost 40 years it has become a familiar sight on the streets of the nation’s capital: a joyous and sweaty caravan of elite and everyday runners, Super Men and Wonder Women, cheered on by 750,000 people. But while Sunday’s 2020 London Marathon will be strange and socially distanced, and global not local, organisers believe the spirit of the race will rage brighter than ever.
At 7.15am on Sunday the world’s best athletes will be chasing world records and Olympic qualifying times on a special closed course in St James’s Park. But 45,000 runners from 109 countries will run the race “virtually” by themselves on a course of their choice, using a special app to track their route and time, rather than on the normal 26.2-mile route from Greenwich to the Mall.
It is not a usual London Marathon. But these are not normal times. And by staging the race in the teeth of a global pandemic the race director, Hugh Brasher, hopes it will offer a beacon of light for a troubled world – and raise millions for charities who are struggling to survive. “This event really is about society coming together,” he says, “and in circumstances that we believe are entirely fitting for where we are in our fight against Covid-19.”
When the marathon was initially postponed from April, Brasher and his team rustled up 12 scenarios to stage it this autumn. Initially the ambition was to use Bluetooth technology to stage a socially distanced marathon for 45,000 people in London – before UK coronavirus cases surged again. Within a few weeks organisers had to scramble to build an app for the virtual race and find a biosecure hotel big enough to allow the elite athletes to complete their final preparations without leaving the grounds.
During the summer Kenenisa Bekele, arguably the greatest distance runner in history, asked organisers whether he could train in the British Embassy in Addis Ababa because of the heightened tensions in Ethiopia. Then on Friday he pulled out of his clash with the Kenyan Kipchoge, which had been billed as the “race of the century”, with a calf injury. Another Ethiopian, Degitu Azimeraw, withdrew from the women’s field after testing positive for Covid-19.
The fact the race is being staged at all, says Brasher, is a minor miracle. At one point things got so difficult he began to adjust his running route to pass the grave of his father, Chris, who co-founded the event in 1981. “I had quiet little chats with him on my runs,” he says. “He didn’t answer, obviously. But I was telling him just how crazy the situation is. It’s been mind-boggling.”
And yet, out of all the chaos and uncertainty, organisers believed they have put on an event that preserves the spirit of the event – with lots of extra touches they hope will make a difference. All entrants received their race numbers in a gold-tinged envelope containing a good-luck card signed by the Kenyan world record holder Eliud Kipchoge, for instance, while the app will not only allow friends to follow and donate to their chosen charity but also carry encouraging messages from the former world champion Paula Radcliffe to inspire them.
The elite field, meanwhile, have been finalising their preparations at a secret hotel where masks are compulsory except at mealtimes and in their rooms. They also have to wear a device that emits a red light and a sharp beep if they get too close to each other. “Conversations over dinner are interesting because you’re not quietly chatting, you’re projecting,” says one insider.
That attention to detail will carry on during race day, with every athlete having their own dedicated changing area and a toilet. And as they run around the 19.6 laps of St James’s Park before finishing on the Mall, they will see cutouts of past winners and people wearing fancy dress to remind them of the history of the race – while the big screens in the park will show videos of the virtual runners across the globe.
Providing rain stays away on Sunday morning there is optimism that a world record could be set in the men’s race, with Kipchoge, in particular, said to be in amazing shape. Meanwhile Brasher is optimistic for another significant milestone. In 1981 fewer than 300 of the 6,255 finishers were women – but for this year’s race he expects more women to finish than men for the first time.
“Of course this is a very different event than normal,” says Brasher. “But the ethos of the London Marathon hasn’t changed. As always it is about the 45,000 everyday runners being inspired by the gods of the sport. We want to do things together but separately, and that’s what the virtual event allows us to do. It is a race for the world at the moment.”