OPINION - London Marathon 2024: I knew training for the marathon would change me, but not like this


It struck me when I took my girlfriend on a trip to Kingston. Sound romantic? You may be imagining a plush hotel in Kingston, Jamaica. Imagine a Travelodge in Kingston upon Thames instead.

So there we were, and it was my fault. As I sat on the bed, eating a brioche in the 6am dark of a very rainy Sunday (my girlfriend had wisely gone straight back to sleep after the hideously early alarm), I thought about out what was to blame.

The marathon. The London Marathon, to be precise, the one happening this Sunday. I started training hard six months ago and it was my spiralling obsession and her inexplicably kind support that brought us to Kingston that morning in March — for a 20-mile warm-up race. Fun! No, really. I was buzzing.

But mid-pastry this thought occurred: yes, I knew the London Marathon training would change me. But not like this. Travelodges in Kingston? Trips to Stratford’s dreary Olympic Park on a cold Saturday just before Christmas? A 5.30am DLR on the way to the outskirts of Watford? As a catalogue of trips, it doesn’t exactly scream “sparks joy” does it? Unfortunately (for my girlfriend), for me it does.

If I could distil this obsession with times, races and heart rates into a single word, that word would be: help

I tried to work out how that had happened. I realised that running had moved the goalposts for my definition of fun.

Fun to me used to mean work drinks on a Thursday evening, frittering away what little spending money I had on increasingly baroque orders of drinks.

Now I love nothing more than spending a Thursday night reading Runner’s World cover to cover. I leap into legs-only ice-baths with abandon. I daydream about runs and running constantly — and love it. If I could distil this feeling into a single word, that word would be: help. But who am I kidding? Far from avoiding this slippery slope, I’ve flung myself down it with glee. I’ve even employed the services of a coach (and wonderful it is).

Or take the sports watch I use. Some (wise) souls would hate the finger-wagging nature of these cupcake-sized wearables. “You’re stressed,” it whines, “your body battery’s low,” it wheedles (body battery? What does this thing take me for, a human electric toothbrush?).

As for me though, I am no wise soul: I love it. Its endless stream of often extraneous data is like a balm for my running-obsessed mind. Cadence, heart rate, stride length? Hit me! I did at least give the damn thing a human name (Clive) to try to make its diktats more palatable. When Clive says jump, I say how high. At least when the robots take over, I’ll be in my element. That’s what you call future-proofing.

I suppose the watch, though, is part of the bigger picture of how my own idea of happiness is changing. I must, like many others, love the regimentation. The set number of runs in a week, the steady but sure increase in my speed and fitness. The simplicity of a life largely dedicated to a single goal. The clear sense that in my thirties I am, as I was not always in my teenage years and twenties, treating my body well.

Then again, I was looking forward to those results of marathon training. If I did not predict them, I hoped they would occur. It was the other stuff — becoming a Runner’s World subscriber, being excited about a huge plate of plain white rice (think of the carb replenishment!), learning to love the joys of skimpy shorts and garish vests (so light, so freeing, so fetching) — that has taken me by surprise.

Now, with the London Marathon both terrifyingly and excitingly close, some possible futures are flickering into view. One is the freedom path: get the time I hope for and leave all this business behind, having got through 10 pairs of shoes, ungodly amounts of pasta, and every last drop of the goodwill of friends and family forced to endure running chat. Or there’s the hardcore, hipster path: the running bug bites and next thing I know I’m a confirmed tarmac-botherer doing 70-mile week training blocks, running marathons you’ve probably never even heard of.

But I’ve learnt one thing for sure. If your partner is devoted enough to agree to stay in a Travelodge in Kingston with you, next time, take them to Kingston in Jamaica instead. I’m willing to bet they deserve it.

I am running to support the work of surplus food redistribution charity The Felix Project. If you would like to donate to my fundraiser, please click here.

Robbie Smith is the Evening Standard’s comment and literary editor