I’ll tell you why I never see my friends. Any given weekend, a third of them are competing in a small town Fun Run or municipal marathon. This weekend was the Manchester Marathon, a mere warm up for the tortures of the Women’s 10 and 5k this weekend in Sefton Park, the Port Sunlight 10k on May 13, or that three peak challenge where they have to scale Snowdon, Glenn Close and Ben Affleck in a weekend, with that little afro-haired kid from Diversity stuck in their rucksack.
Honestly, it’s exhausting reading my Facebook wall.
It’s all a far cry from when I used to run. Back then, charities weren’t invented (well, that’s not strictly true. Grace Darling was pan-handling outside Primark for a new set of oars) Imagine: all that energy wasted. My hobble around the cobbles of Manchester must have been the carbon footprint equivalent of leaving all the lights on in your house and sodding off on Easyjet for a weekend with the lads.
I’ve done the math. These days, at any one time, the population of Inverness is either in training, or competing in a charity fun run (that explains why it’s impossible to get served in Wetherspoons there). Why no-one’s seized the initiative and suggested sticking teeny dynamos on runners’ heels and forcing them to feed into the national grid on the finish line is beyond me.
Embark on a marathon these days and the first question you’re asked is ‘who for?’. Because that’s what running’s become: a meta sport. You do it for someone else – just as football’s really only about giving to Murdoch, and darts single-handedly keeps the Tetley brewery in business, the sport is a secondary activity. The endorphin rush doesn’t come at the finish line, it comes when you smash your Just Giving target. We all witnessed the moment when Paula Radcliffe, bobbing amiably down the streets of Beijing, suddenly realised she hadn’t ticked the ‘I’m a UK Taxpayer’ button on her donations page and all hope drained from her. Tragic.
This year, not to be outdone at the London Olympics, she’s planning on wheeling the golden coffin of Jimmy Saville around the streets with her. It is, after all, the official coffin.
Tragic, too, is the tale of the charity runner who collapsed and died after the London Marathon. But it did highlight, for me, another side to the running industry. Interviewed on the news, a sickly PR woman from Just Giving was blathering on about how ‘Just Giving are waiving all their fees…we think it’s the right thing to do…Just Giving is really proud to help…’.
Hold on love. It’s not about you. Someone’s just died. Perhaps you’d like to talk about her, about the effort and pain and endurance she’d invested in the event, and the heartaches she’s left behind? In thirty seconds, the perky PR person, sat at her desk, surrounded by Just Giving logos, managed to cram in five plugs and a mention for the Samaritans. And didn’t mention Claire Squires’ name once.
She also managed to drive a coach and horses through my understanding of ‘Just Giving’ – they’ve decided to waive their fees? So, ordinarily, they should really be called ‘Just Giving (and a little taking)’?
Slobs, clebs and John Bishop: sweaty, starey eyed and sprinting to a town near you. Perma-dieting DJ’s blubbering to camera halfway up Kilimanjaro. Cross-dressing comedians back-stroking through shit on the Thames.
Most powerfully of all, a charity run is about love: the marathon as a 26 mile expression of how deeply someone is missed, and how much it hurts, physically, that they’ve gone. And our charities (God knows, their endurance feat in the present climate goes above and beyond even Chris Moyles up a mountain) are enjoying the spoils, and I’ll keep on giving, safe in the knowledge that I don’t have to give my Asics a dust down.
But when I was a lad, we did stuff like this for the win. Or, in my case, at the annual school’s cross country event, for no more reward than a quick sip on the headmaster’s Um Bongo every fourth lap. It was about getting out, having fun, enjoying the moment. Giving to charity meant sending John Noakes your milk bottle tops. Not signing up to British Military Fitness courses and invading Sefton Park.
Now, there’s an ever increasing portion of 30 and 40 somethings who think it’s their duty to run from Birmingham to London to support their local Blue Cross branch. And the bar is getting higher. This year, a testosterone-fueled import from the US – Tough Mudder – reaches our shores. They laugh at marathons. Eat them for breakfast (or possibly a Topic. More nuts).
This beast of an event involves participants running bare chested through enemy fire, wearing wraparound sunglasses beaming episodes of My Family directly into their brain, while writing Haikus, and grazing their naked forearms on nettles while not being allowed to look for a doc leaf.
It’s a curious phenomenon – we’re desperate to rid Church Street of ‘charity muggers’ but give us the opportunity to romp down it in nylon Santa suits for more or less the same charities, and we’re salivating like a fading reality TV star offered a career leg up on a Sport Relief triathlon.
So, charity runners, I salute you, and I support you. And, for personal reasons, I especially support those who run for local hospices. But here’s the thing, as the local elections loom it’s worth stepping off the treadmill for a second and asking ourselves: why should these essential services – the cornerstones of a dignified and humane society – be reliant on the girls from HR getting all hot and bothered in a George trackie in Birkenhead Park? We’re a G8 country, aren’t we? We can bail out the banks, can’t we?
Why should we care, while billions is squandered on lowering the tax rate for the super-rich, and the Treasury turns a blind eye to the one in ten on £10 million-plus a year paying less than the basic 20% tax rate. How many hospices – and bunions, come to that – could that save? St John’s at Clatterbridge, for example, makes £3 million a year go a very long way indeed. No wonder the Tories are desperate to push us towards Big Society altruism.
No, my Facebook friends aren’t running for charity. As Government gets meaner, running shows that our hearts are still pumping. Proves we can still feel.
Here’s an idea: imagine the results we’d get if all two million of the UK’s charity runners went off route and, as one, ran towards Downing Street?
Now there’s a good use for all that energy.