At the London Marathon last year, Emma Caldicott and Lucy cheered exhausted participants run across them on the course.
Inspired by the occasion, Emma let the idea of competing race through her mind despite her own acknowledgment that ‘she could not run’.
On the same day, Mo Farah, a man born to run, stopped at the half-way point as he treated the event as preparation for the 2014 race. Despite being advised to stick to the track, Farah, just like Caldicott, could not resist the temptation of competing at the London Marathon.
A year later, united as beginners, Caldicott and Mo were two of the 36,000 at the starting line. Experts struggled to predict how Farah – the reigning Olympic 5,000m and 10,000m champion – would fare at the 42,194m distance.
He finished eighth as Wilson Kipsang and Edna Kiplagat set new course records.
“For an athlete who is the all-time sixth fastest at 1500m, to finish his first marathon in under two hours 10 minutes is astonishing,” Alan Watkinson, the PE teacher who introduced Farah to running while he was at school in West London, told Al Jazeera.
“With what he has achieved over the last few years, there are some who will consider this a failure but it is far from it.”
Although Caldicott’s run did not generate any coverage, her success at the event was just as emphatic as Farah’s.
“A year ago, I could only run for a few minutes on a treadmill,” the 25-year old said after finishing the marathon in five hours and 11 minutes. “I can’t put into words how amazing it was.”
There are many stories of triumph like hers. But some are not content with just finishing the race. They seek improvement. With the effort and sacrifice runners of all levels make, it is their timing – and not mere participation – that is more important.
“I am happy I got through it but a bit disappointed I was 10 minutes behind the four hours 30 minutes goal,” said 31-year old Wesleigh Pancho. “I did at least 50 hours of training. I had the onset of hallucinations and complete body shutdown after my first 16-mile run due to poor hydration. But I am already planning how I can go faster next time.”
Having run the London marathon seven times – and with a remarkable personable best of 2:33.50 – Alex Gibbins has spent his running career getting the marathon distance perfect. He reckons that a lot of ultra-marathon runners like the challenge of increasing the distance as opposed to improving their times.
With triathlons, ultra marathons, ice marathons and desert marathons in vogue, more and more normal beings are eyeing superhuman feats. But is there a danger some runners are pushing themselves too far?
“Ultra-marathons can be very damaging but some people thrive on them,” added Watkinson. “The most important thing is to get a medical check-up, prepare as thoroughly as possible and to maintain credible aims.”
And when outrunning other humans loses its allure, there is also the temptation to battle a horse. The 22-mile man-vs-horse marathon has been taking place annually in Wales since 1980 after a pub landlord overheard a discussion of whether a horse is faster than man.
For Caldicott, though, racing against humans is probably enough but the buzz of achieving something she thought was impossible a year ago means she will not be intimidated by another challenge.
“It is funny what your body can be resilient to – you hear these stories of people running six marathons in seven days. I don’t know how people do that.”
And for those who think they should have gone faster, longer, harder, Watkinson offers words of advice.
“The twin imposters line from Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’ is often quoted in reference to sport: ‘If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same’. I’d say take great satisfaction in your efforts or prepare as thoroughly as you can for another shot at it next year.”
There will be many already planning a strategy. A strategy to defeat their ultimate rival: themselves.