London’s marathon runners step up to the mark

London Marathon runners gearing up for Sunday’s race have been scribbling words of support and sympathy for the people of Boston on a message wall at an exhibition for the event at the Excel centre.

“Let’s do this for Boston,” wrote a runner called Jack. “Will be running with extra determination,” says Natalie in her message. “Thoughts with Boston – we remember those lost,” reads another.

It would be an overstatement to suggest that last Monday’s terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon, which killed three spectators and injured more than 170, has damped the mood of participants for the capital’s most uplifting annual spectacle: a sea of humanity coursing through the city, many dressed in costumes, most raising millions of pounds for charity.

There was a buzz of expectancy around the exhibition this week. Runners picked up goody bags, took pictures, had massages, shook hands with Paralympic champion David Weir, bought T-shirts and scoured stalls of running equipment to fine-tune their tactics for the 26.2-mile course.

Pat Seabrook, 73-year-old grandmother from Somerset who smoked 20 cigarettes a day before the running bug gripped her, has clocked up 400 marathons.

She has no concerns about her safety on Sunday. “I was more concerned about getting through Westminster today on the Underground,” says Ms Seabrook as she discusses her tried and tested race preparations.

“Steak and kidney pudding – and no water during the race,” she suggests. “You put water in one end, it comes out the other.”

Still, there was a wariness among some. “Everyone’s a little bit on edge because of Boston,” says youth minister Jon Bishop from Watford, cradling nine-month-old son Noah and preparing for his first London Marathon.

Organisers, backed by the police, the mayor and ministers, have offered reassurances to the 36,000 runners. A security review was immediately launched and the Home Office announced it would deploy more police.

The event was never in doubt. London’s marathon has been a springtime fixture since the inaugural race in 1981.

Its instigator, the late Chris Brasher, set boosting London tourism as one of his founding goals. As such, the marathon is cheap to stage, brings economic benefit to the capital and projects London and its landmarks around the world for free.

The 2010 race generated £110m of economic activity, according to research by Sheffield Hallam University. Runners and their entourages spent £13m on accommodation, and competitors spent £18m preparing for the race, an average of £452.

“It is a big financial event on a quiet Sunday,” says Chris Gratton of Sheffield Hallam.

Cities all over the UK have taken advantage of the nation’s lust for running. There are estimated to be 500 races, from 5km to ultra-marathons of 100 miles.

There is no indication that their growth is slowing, according to Mr Gratton’s colleague Richard Coleman. “Running is just chucking on a pair of shoes and off you go,” he says.

“It is a huge celebration of the human spirit. Even with what’s gone on in Boston, people will say there is no way they are going to let terrorism defeat us.”

Most runners appear phlegmatic about the task of securing an event as sprawling as the marathon, which organisers expect to draw a crowd of 650,000.

“It’s probably impossible [to guarantee people’s safety],” says retired financial services executive David Sage from Southampton.

But, given the security review, “it’s probably more safe than before Boston happened”, he adds.

That may be of only small comfort to runners like Mr Bishop, more concerned for the safety of his family than his own.

Race director Hugh Brasher, son of the founder, says it is impossible to predict what effect the Boston attacks will have on spectators. “Everything we are hearing is London is saying ‘we will come out and support it,’ ” he says.

Getting ready for her first marathon is Jody Pope, a film distributor from Twickenham. But she hopes none of her friends and family come along to cheer her on. “I’d be worried,” she says. “I would feel a responsibility if people came.” Boston, she adds, would be “very much on my mind” as she pounds the streets of London.

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